November 30, 2010

To Live is Christ — trusting Him to nurture

This is day six for these verses, unusually long to be directed by my devotional guide to the same place. 
As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? (Psalm 42:1–2)
The author of this guide asks if “feast or famine” describes my relationship with God. I think neither, since I’m not one to polarize how I do anything. However, this morning I feel famished.

Bad news last night added to the highs of Sunday and the fatigue of yesterday. Without sleeping well last night, I feel drained and empty. I come to God with statements similar to the psalmist, knowing that these thoughts are not uncommon for God’s people. 

O God, You are my God; early will I seek You; my soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water. (Psalm 63:1)
My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. (Psalm 84:2)

I spread out my hands to You; my soul longs for You like a thirsty land. Selah. Answer me speedily, O Lord; my spirit fails! Do not hide Your face from me, lest I be like those who go down into the pit. (Psalm 143:6–7)
Even in their emptiness, the psalmists know that God is alive. In their day, nations worshiped statues of wood or gold, but no matter how primitive or ornate, a statue is fashioned by the hands of the worshipers. God is our maker, not the other way around. Paul wrote of this to the church at Thessalonica, “. . . how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” (1 Thessalonians 1:9)

Going back to Psalm 42, I see more of my own thoughts. Verse three says, “My tears have been my food day and night, While they continually say to me, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42:3)

No one is mocking my faith, but as I examine my own feelings, these sorts of doubts creep in when bad news happens. They come from a false expectation that God is creating heaven on earth for me, and that nothing will ever go wrong. Putting that into actual words exposes how naive it is. I just taught a class about the will of God and suffering. I know that God not only allows it, but it can be a gift from Him that will help me grow.

Today I’m less concerned about the growth I might need and more concerned about others whose lives are falling apart. I don’t want God to use disasters in the lives of family or friends to produce growth in me. I want Him to be involved in their lives, helping them hunger and thirst for Him. I want Him to answer my prayers for them and see them turn from idols to serve Him.

Learning patience under trial is part of the Christian experience. Learning patience and maintaining hope when others are under trial is a more difficult lesson, at least for me. I want God to be merciful and fix the problems. He can change lives. Why does He not do it?

The positive side is that unlike the psalmist, I don’t have to wonder when I can come before God. Because of Jesus, He is always available. The Old Testament temple veil has been torn in two. The way is open. I can talk to Him anytime and about everything.

Seeing then that I have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, I need to hold fast my confession. For I do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with my weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as I am, yet without sin. I therefore can come boldly to the throne of grace, that I might obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need, my own need and the needs of others. (Hebrews 4:14–16, personalized)

November 29, 2010

To Live is Christ — having my thirst quenched

Yesterday was Grey Cup day in Canada, the final football game between an eastern and western team. We have a small group over, most of whom are not big football fans. This tradition is quasi-potluck with more food than anyone needs, and lots of laughter which we all need.

Making sure the plates and coffee cups were filled and the meal was ready for halftime, I didn’t get much to eat or drink myself. A handful of munchies and a glass of punch perhaps, but by the time everyone left and I was putting dishes in the dishwasher, I was very thirsty. My devotional verses came to mind, 

As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? (Psalm 42:1–2)
Actually, I thought of another verse before that: “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)

The next few minutes were not a surprise, but so much like God. I had been moving like a robot, wanting to have the kitchen clear for morning, but when I began thinking of waiting on the Lord, of being thirsty for Him, songs started coming into my mind. I began smiling and the intense weariness and thirst dropped away. I finished with delight instead of that drop-dead “I never want to do this again for a long time” fatigue.

Before that, the last couple to leave lingered and we talked about how God works and the immensity of His power. One person said that Christians do not dwell enough on the holiness of God, the great gap between who and what He is compared to our smallness, nor the incredible breadth of His creative ability. The conversation was almost too lofty for my small mind, a challenge for a fatigued brain, yet so comforting.

Without noticing, I had become spiritual tired too. Physical fatigue is easier to notice. Isaiah might have been talking about both, but the psalmist was certainly speaking of a deep need for God, not for just rest. For me, that thirst happens when I have been drained after a “high” day of service and worship.

Yesterday was also Sunday and a high day. It started with rich devotions, then I taught a class on the will of God concerning suffering. He blessed me in that class as I watched the “lights come on” in the faces of those who studied and discussed this unpopular topic.

After that, a man who serves God in South America spoke to us about how our concept of God affects the way we serve Him. It was emotional and deep. We sang at the end, our hearts stirred to worship by what we had experienced. After, several people told us that the preacher gave this message just for them (I thought it was just for me) and they were blessed. My hubby was blessed and our pastor expressed how the missionary’s words had touched his heart.

This was truly another super Sunday in our lives, not counting the sporting event and a gathering with friends that would top it off. It is Sunday’s like these that help me understand why many pastors take Monday as their day off. They are exhausted physically, emotionally, and perhaps spiritually.

This kind of fatigue has only one remedy. This thirst for God can be satisfied only by spending time with God, listening to Him and waiting on Him. I’m not sure how I will spend the rest of this day, but right now I am looking forward to being spiritually renewed by a long chat and some closeness with my favorite Person.

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November 28, 2010

To Live is Christ — daily nourished

I was about ten years old when I discovered that drinking too fast can be painful. I’d been outside on a hot day strenuously hill-climbing. I came in parched, grabbed a glass of cold water and gulped it down. My throat seemed to go into convulsions from my neck to my stomach. This was a painful way to learn that sometimes sipping is better.

Since then, I’ve also learned that to stay hydrated I need to drink about six glasses of water a day. Sometimes I realize I’ve not been drinking enough because I’m suddenly very thirsty — so quickly gulp a couple of glasses. However, sipping is better than waiting until I’m parched.

I’ve also noticed that spending time with God is similar. 

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? (Psalm 42:1–2)
This psalm does not say what happened to the psalmist. Why was he so thirsty? Was he in deep trouble? Had he missed spending time with God and become parched? Was he negligent in his daily worship?

The word “daily” occurs nearly sixty times in the Bible. Most of these refer to meeting with God in some type of spiritual discipline. For instance, our souls need nourishment and Scripture is spiritual food. Jesus said that we need to ask God to give us our “daily bread” and Paul said we need to desire the Word of God like a baby desires milk — indicating often. Our spiritual life depends on nourishment from the Lord.

When I spend time in the Bible, sipping and gulping both happen, yet the depth of my thirst or the amount of time that I spend are not as important as frequency. My body does not thrive unless I eat regular meals. My spirit suffers and becomes parched unless I sip or gulp every day.

Sometimes I come to God with the thirst the psalmist describes. I am eager to hear God speak and eager to find spiritual nourishment. However, some days I don’t feel like reading the Bible or praying. I’m either tired or busy or have other reasons, but I do it anyway. I have observed those who feast only when hungry. Their spiritual lives suffer because of it.

I’ve also noticed that reading increases the desire to read. God speaks and I am blessed. My desire to hear from Him grows and encourages me to spend more time with Him.

However, I cannot wait until my desire for God is unbearable. Like rich food or a cold drink to a parched body, so is the Word of God. While reading it only when I feel a desperate need is better than nothing, reading it often is far better. When I do, I soon realize that, like food, I need it all the time.

November 27, 2010

To Live is Christ — who is always available

Billy Graham once said that when you feel lonely in a crowded room that is God crooking His finger at you and saying, “Come here.”

In the ancient world, if anyone tried to enter the presence of a king without being invited, they risked their lives. Many kings did not tolerate such boldness and lopped off their heads. But approaching the King of kings is different. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way:

Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14–16)
God the Son humbled Himself and became a man that He might experience life as we do. He sympathizes with our struggles and is approachable because of it. He invites me to come boldly into His presence anytime I wish. All those who put their faith in Him do not have to fear what He will do or say when bringing concerns and requests. He has compassion for His people and will listen.

The psalmist didn’t know about the sacrifice of Christ. He had the sacrificial system of a slain lamb to atone for his sin. While it was not all it could be, if a sacrifice was brought in faith, God accepted it. The Old Testament believers had God’s promise of a coming Messiah. Because they believed Him, He counted their faith as righteousness.

Before Christ came, God’s people experienced Holy Spirit power at times, but did not enjoy the constant indwelling of the Holy Spirit nor the presence of God in the same way as the saints of today. However, I can still identify with whoever wrote this psalm:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? (Psalm 42:1–2)
Sometimes I thirst for God. Sometimes I wonder when I can meet with Him. Do I need an invitation like those who approached ancient kings? Do I have to wait until I feel a void in my heart or a time of need before I can come boldly to Him?

For much of my Christian life, prayer was like that. I prayed because there were needs to pray about. But somewhere along the way, God opened my understanding to realize that I can meet with Him and talk to Him anytime and about anything. I don’t need an appointment or a set time. I don’t need a list or a sense of urgency. He is with me 24/7 and ready to speak and listen, or just be there. My soul does not need to be cast down or upset or confused because my Lord promised to never leave me or forsake me. Therefore my hope is in Jesus Christ and I will praise Him, my Savior and my God, forever. 

November 26, 2010

To Live is Christ — His Words spoken into my heart

Self-talk is not mere muttering to myself about what is going on, what to do next, or the mistakes being made. It  sometimes comes out as the words of God — speaking back to me what I need to hear.

The two verses from my devotional reading are the psalmist’s initial thoughts. He is feeling a spiritual drought, a sense that God is not near. 

As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? (Psalm 42:1–2)
Yet this psalm has more. The author says, “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” several times. He is in need, yet as he cries to God, he is not entirely negative. He also says,
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)
Where did that come from? Then, toward the end as he asks the question to his soul again, he replies with, “Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.” (Verse 11)

No one knows what this psalm writer was experiencing, but it seemed dire as he tried to unburden himself from some sort of pain or grief. He also rebuked himself for his feelings yet at the same time acknowledges that God is sovereign over the trials that are giving him so much sorrow. As he talks to himself, rebukes himself, and tells himself how he ought to be thinking, some of what he says offers incredible hope. Were these his words, or did God drop them into his mind, recording for future generations hope that we need also?

Who has not been in trouble and felt abandoned by God? Who has not poured out their heart as they felt cast down and in great discomfort? Who has not tried to talk to themselves about how they should be feeling, or at least how they want to feel?

This is why the psalms have a universal appeal. The writers held nothing back. They express great praise, but also great consternation. When overwhelmed by sorrow, the actions of their enemies, or a sense of personal shame over their sin, the psalm writers declare to God the innermost thoughts of all people everywhere who are in the same situation. We know we are not alone when we read these words. We know someone else has been there too.

Yet there is a difference. Sprinkled within the psalms, or declared at the end, each speaks of the grace and power of God. Each writer expresses certainty that God is alive and listening. They know that being in His presence will make troubles not only bearable, but give them inner strength to come out on top. I get a great sense that as they pour out their thoughts, God pours in His and both tumble out together in these marvelous words.

Spiritual drought is good for me. When I feel abandoned, I am pressed to seek Him with all my heart. When I do that, He never leaves me in frustration. As I speak to Him the emotions that I feel, words of hope appear, sprinkled through the darkest laments. From the psalms, His words are uttered back to me in my cries.

For this, I hope in God and praise Him. He is my Savior, the One who whispers truth into my soul and satisfies my deepest longings. 

November 25, 2010

To Live is Christ — thirsty yet satisfied

When I read today’s devotional verses, somewhere in my memories popped up an image of a young deer on a warm day. Its mouth was open and its eyes were glazed in desperate panic. It wanted water badly enough to ignore my presence. 
As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? (Psalm 42:1–2)
Have I ever felt like that? Sometimes when life is tough I’ve felt a desperation for my troubles to go away, but this is not the yearning that the psalmist is talking about. It is more like the deer who will ignore everything else in its quest for water.

Watchman Nee, a Chinese Christian who was martyred years ago, taught that the soul consists of our intellect, emotions, and volition. That is, it is the part of me that thinks, feels, and decides. When I apply that to this verse, then I have a better image of what the psalmist is talking about.

A person who is thirsty for God thinks about Him continually. Because my spiritual life involves an enemy who wants to drag me into sin, the Bible tells me several things about the way I think. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. . . .” Paul also wrote,

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:3–5)
The mind is a battlefield. How I think affects what I say and do. If my mind, as part of my soul, is thirsting for God, I’m less apt to lose a round to sin.

Emotions are closely related to thoughts. That is, whatever I am thinking will affect how I feel. Faith is part of this. Billy Graham once said that Facts, Faith, and Feelings are like cars on a train. If faith in the facts pulls the train, then feelings fall into line, but if we let feelings pull our train, we get derailed.

When I think about God, am thirsty for God, and desire to be with God, my emotions are engaged in a positive way. Instead of despair or apathy or any other negative emotions, I feel hopeful, even excited. There is nothing as joyful as “appearing before” the living God. His presence settles my heart and gives me peace.

Of course choices are a big part of this. I can decide what I want to think about (and feelings will follow). Volition is a matter of the soul. If I’m thirsty for anything, I must decide what to do about it. When my choices are centered on seeking God and being near Him, then thinking about Him and feeling positive and joyful become much easier. My soul is satisfied with that choice.

Thirsting after God does not ignore the mean things of life. In fact, those trials are the way that I have learned how to have such a thirst. Only the Lord can satisfy me when the bottom falls out. Only His refreshing will lift me up when life tosses me flat on my face in the mud.

Now I can imagine myself being a thirsty deer. This can be a feeling of panic and desperation, but it can also be excited delight as I run eagerly for Living Water.

Photo credit

November 24, 2010

To Live is Christ — stirring others

One delightful part of being a Christian is seeing others grow in their faith and in likeness to Jesus Christ. Even more delightful is being part of the process. How can I help Christians become all that they can be?
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23–25, ESV)
This passage uses the words “stir up” to describe something Christians are supposed to do with each other so as to produces love and good deeds. However, the original Greek word has an interesting double meaning.

This word, paroxysmos, is found in only two places in the New Testament. The first is in the passage above where it shows as a positive effort to motivate others. My dictionary says that it means, “encouragement, a causing of something by spurring on, or stirring up.”

The second place this word is used is in Acts 15:39 where it is translated in a negative sense. Paul is not happy when Barnabas wants to take Mark with them on a missionary journey.

Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus. (Acts 15:39)
While this verse uses the same word, my dictionary says that this time it means an “intense argument, sharp contention implying exasperation, i.e., an intense difference of opinion.”

Mmm. I know that the issue was later resolved between these men. I also know that because of this contention, they served God in perhaps greater ways than they would have had they not disagreed. They created two journeys instead of one. Also, Mark, who had once refused to serve, was restored under the care of Barnabas. Later, Paul commended Mark for his help in the gospel.

At first, the contrast in these two interpretations of the same word bothered me. It almost looked like the Bible was saying that Christians can grow and be spiritually productive after arguing with each other. But I don’t think this is a correct understanding.

After reading these verses, I’m thinking that the emphasis is more on the production of zeal, of inciting others to great enthusiasm. While the word can be used to describe a negative and exasperating situation, it can also describe a stirring up of positive emotions that accompany a zeal to serve God. Instead of merely duty, being a Christian who loves and serves God and others should be an adventure.

That is what I want others to experience. I want to cheer them on, challenge them to work, push them harder, whatever works to produce in them a deeper love for God. I want to see a renewed and growing desire to serve Him and others. I want them to know that being a Christian is exciting.

From Scripture, I realize that getting heated up over a difference of opinion is not beyond the power of God; He can use that for good. Yet the Bible offers far more positive tactics to encourage others! 

November 23, 2010

To Live is Christ — trusting others to His grace

Yesterday morning before nine, I received news that a first cousin had died. I’d been praying for him several months. He had cancer and had been in severe pain. I prayed about that, but also that God would make Himself real to this man. I’d not known him well, or even seen him for years. Not knowing his spiritual condition put an urgency in my prayers.

Today’s verses are not about salvation. They are about Christians who need to persevere in their faith and in fellowship with one another. We need it. The Bible says that we grieve when someone dies, but not the same way as those “who have no hope.” In our sorrows, our Christian family provides much understanding and comfort.

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23–25)
The last part of this passage uses a term, “the Day” which usually refers to the return of Jesus Christ. However, those who do not live to see the Second Coming will also experience “the Day” when they must face God after they die. I cannot imagine the horror and fear in a heart that has no assurance of where they stand with God.

This passage refers to the confession of a Christian hope. My hope is in the promises of God and His provision for my salvation. Jesus died to take my punishment for sin. He rose from the dead, showing me that He has power over death. He is eternal life, but also lives in my heart and says, “He who has the Son has life.”

I believe that and hold fast to it, not because I have any merit or means to gain favor with God and eternal life, but because He is faithful. Those who believe in His Son will not perish.

Attending church and getting together with other Christians puts me in a good place. There I am encouraged to love others and obey God. The more the world looks like it is ready for Jesus to come again, the closer I want to be to Him. His people help me do that.

I’ve wondered how those without that amazing hope can face the end of their lives. Do they panic? Are they filled with dread? Are some in denial right to the end? Or are most simply oblivious? I don’t want any of that for anyone. For that reason, I prayed that God would make Himself known to my cousin and somehow help him be aware of the grace available to him. I wanted him to be aware of Jesus. I prayed that he could cross the threshold from this life to the next knowing that His Savior was there waiting for him.

My hope also includes the reality of a God who answers prayer. On this earth I have no assurance at all about my cousin except that his sister said he was kind and peaceful for the past few days. Was that because the Holy Spirit assured him of forgiveness and eternal life? I do not know.

However, I hold fast to the confession of my hope for him. This is not because of what I can see, or “hope so,” or can imagine, but because of God. He promises to hear and answer my prayers — and He is a faithful and merciful God.

November 22, 2010

To Live is Christ — includes R and R

Yesterday was a super Sunday. The ladies in the class that I lead/teach fully blessed me with their discussion and insight into our Bible study. After that, the worship service kept my heart praising God. We sang, prayed, listened, and were blessed.

Throughout that hour, the smells from the kitchen held promise. When the service was over, we enjoyed a “chili cook off” in our gymnasium. Nine men from the congregation competed for the best chili recipe. Yum, and only a few spoonfuls left.

After the chili and some dessert, we had a budget meeting. In some churches, finance meetings can become family feud time, but in ours this almost never happens. About twenty minutes later, the motions were made, seconded, discussed and approved. As we took our dishes to the kitchen, I noticed a platter of leftover dessert, mostly chocolate in nature and a first. We never have leftover dessert, and certainly not chocolate.

When my hubby and I got home, the team we were cheering for won the semifinal football game. Later, our city’s hockey team broke a losing skid and won their game. We spent part of the evening thanking God for His blessings. My mind was mostly on our experience with our church family.

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23–25)
I know that every church goes through times of struggle and lack of unity. Christians can have personal opinions, desires and biases that interfere with what God has given us through the Holy Spirit. However, Jesus Christ promised to build His church. Before He was crucified, He asked His Father (and ours) to preserve our unity. God takes care of His people. This makes church a blessed experience.

Humanly, we must persevere in doing the right things. I must consider the needs of my church family and look for ways to encourage them. This is God’s will for us. Sometimes we do not agree, but we are family and we work it out. We’ve learned that infighting divides us and ruins our testimony before those who do not know God. Unity and love make it known that we belong to Jesus.

Yes, eating together promotes development of relationships and simple sharing of our lives. Those sports games also give my hubby and me opportunity to cuddle on the couch without feeling like we should be “doing something” on our lists. Giving the above verses a liberal interpretation, he and I are “assembling ourselves together” and encouraging love too. We are also resting — for the good works we plan to do the next day!

It is that next day now, and the start of a new workweek. Having a super Sunday like yesterday recharges my batteries. Again, worship and good fellowship with other Christians show me the amazing restorative power of God.

November 21, 2010

To Live is Christ — holding fast

Last night we watched part of a documentary attempting to explain the origin of the universe. Scientific discoveries coupled with basics like the speed of light and modern telescopes make the universe appear to be millions of years old and created by physical causes.

For a Christian who believes in the Bible account of creation (either literally six days or that God did it somehow) a discussion like that can make one’s faith a bit wobbly. Is the Bible wrong? If it is, then my faith is wrong? However, God brought this verse to mind:

By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible. (Hebrews 11:3)
That is, what we see now is not a reliable testimony of how God did it. Science now says all things appeared when “something manifest itself out of nothing” and a  “big bang” expanded that “something” into all that now exists.

The Bible says in Genesis that God spoke and created all things.

As we watched, the discussion in the room included a statement that science knows of a force out there that they cannot explain. They can measure the energy but have no idea where it came from or what it is. This force holds all things together.

The Bible says, “God’s Son has all the brightness of God’s own glory and is like him in every way. By his own mighty word, he holds the universe together. . . .” (Hebrews 1:3, CEV)

As I listened to the discussion, one of the more scientific minded people in the room said that human beings are terribly vain to think that we are the cause of climate change. Compared to the forces in the universe and on our planet, our contributions (as bad as they are and as much as we need to smarten up) have very little to do with what is a natural cycle.

That was a refreshing remark. While I know human selfishness, waste, and carelessness pollute and scar, much more is involved in climate change. Creation is also far more complex than our understanding and the sustaining of the universe is still filled with mystery and a power science does not understand.

Today’s verses start with a reminder that in every area of life, science and the human mind is still not able to see what faith can see.

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:23)
My heart knows God’s Word is true because He has proven it to me repeatedly. As for science, someone said that when the scientists reach the top of their hill of discovery, they will find theologians sitting on the other side.

I’m confident that science has not yet discovered everything, but as God says, believers can waver if we get too absorbed by the latest theories. I need to heed His warning and hold fast to my confession — not because I know all the answers, but because I know that God is faithful. 

November 20, 2010

To Live is Christ — in fellowship with others

If I stood in a garage every night that would not make me a car. Why then do so many Christians judge the faith of others by whether or not they go to church? Being in a church for every service does not mean someone is a Christian. The other side is that not being in church isn’t necessarily a reason to say someone is without faith.

I’ve a long list of family and friends who have made professions of faith, but do not attend church. They are missing an important spiritual discipline for their growth and encouragement and I do not recommend staying away. However, one phrase in today’s devotional reading tells me missing church is not necessarily missing out on a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. 

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23–25)
The phrase is “as is the manner of some” which suggests that even in the early church there were attendance dropouts. This passage gives a few clues why this might happen.

First, Christians sometimes waver. They lose sight of the faithfulness of God, perhaps because of unrealistic expectations. They thought God would do whatever they asked and He didn’t. So their faith begins to waver.

Another reason is that their particular church experience was less than “considering one another.” Instead of stirring up love and good works, all they saw was selfish infighting and believers who were disobeying God. This puts off many Christians. Instead of finding a congregation that obeys God and cares for one another, they brand “church” as “full of hypocrites” and stay home.

As this passage says, Christians need encouragement. I need encouragement. Life is not easy apart from the spiritual battles that I fight. The more I walk with Christ, the more my spiritual enemy works to make me feel as if God does not love me, the people of God are all without hearts, and the good that I do has no effect or influence. Why not quit, he suggests.

Yet when I get together with others who fight the same battles and struggle with the same experiences, I not only am encouraged to keep at it, but have opportunity to encourage them. As God produces the fruits of the Spirit in each of us, we are reminded all over again of His love and faithfulness.

I know that all churches are not patterned after biblical models. Some do not even use the Bible any longer. Others are mere social clubs or places where people go to ease their conscience. Many use church as their claim to be right with God, forgetting that salvation is first about faith and a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, the verses are a positive exhortation. If anyone is a believer and not in regular fellowship with other Christians, their growth is stunted and their ideas get warped. We need, I need, the stirring up I get from being around other believers, even if we don’t agree on things.

My hope is in Jesus Christ and the promises of God, but as part of His body, I know it will never function the way God intends if any body parts are missing, me included.

November 19, 2010

To Live is Christ — choosing mercy

Earlier this month I was studying the Old Testament meaning of mercy. This word is only part of what the original Hebrew conveys. A brief description: God’s holy right to punish sin takes second place to His commitment to keep the promises He has made to His people.

This mercy is the only reason that I can go to heaven. God promised a Savior right after Adam and Eve sinned. He set up a sacrificial system so that those who believed His promise could demonstrate their faith. He made many other promises to guide and take care of all who put their trust in Him.

When Jesus came and died on the cross as the fulfillment of that first promise, God offered eternal life to everyone who believes in Jesus, their ultimate sacrificial Lamb. This is mercy. No one deserves the grace of God. We cannot earn so great a salvation. It is only mine because God is committed to keep His promises.

Nevertheless, He also loves us. I know, “For God so loved the world. . . .” but also know that His love is tender-hearted. He actually feels compassion for me.

As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep His covenant and remember to do His commandments. (Psalm 103:13–18, ESV)
I’ve been to seniors care facilities and felt compassion for those living out the last of their days. Some have told me how short life seems. God looked at me even when I was very young and knows that my days were short even then. Adam and Eve, had they obeyed God, would have lived forever. But they didn’t. They died and so has every person born since Eden. Yet God has compassion for the brevity of life.

He also has compassion for my children and my children’s children. It is true that each of them must come to Him for their own forgiveness and eternal life, but because God cares for me, He also cares for my family.

This compassion has a caveat. These verses say two times that this is for those who fear Him, and two times that this is for those who obey Him. My part is awe-filled respect and reverence for God, coupled with obedience. I must fulfill my side of His covenant of grace.

In other words, God isn’t offering a cheap salvation. Forgiveness and eternal life for me cost Him His Son. It costs me something too. My side of this mercy covenant is simple. I must give up my temporal wants and my selfish ways. In trade, I get the life of Christ and a lifetime of learning to serve Him.

I’ve fought that bargain. At times it didn’t seem fair because I could not see any further than right now. But age and experience teaches me. Fair is getting what I deserve. Mercy is a far better deal.

November 18, 2010

To Live is Christ — having a perfect Father

Sometimes I feel like a bratty child before God. Best intentions aside, I fall into stinkin’ thinkin,’ or say mean and unkind words, or do something that I should not have done. The sense of God’s presence at those times is something like realizing my mother just came into the room as I put my hand in the cookie jar.

My parents rarely disciplined me though. My doctor told them I would not live long because of a childhood disease. I’m sure that came to mind whenever I acted up. They were merciful because my days were numbered.

Obviously their fears were never realized. Both lived to see me grow up, marry, have children and grandchildren. As I look back, I may have made them worry on many occasions, but their lack of strong discipline didn’t result in a monster. Instead, because they were so kind and loved me so much, I had respect for them. That respect kept me out of much trouble.

Today I’m missing both of them, but also giving thanks that my parents modeled the love of God toward me. Reading these verses reminds me so much of them.

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will He keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:8–14, ESV)
My parents were like that, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, great to offer compassion. The only thing they could not do was remove my sins from me. The reason is simple; no one can take away the sins of others or even their own sins. No matter the goodness of my parents, they passed on to me the same inclination to sin as they received from their parents. Going up the family tree all the way to Adam, all are sinners.

I know that I was born with a determination to have my own way. No one taught me that. It comes from my sinful nature. I was raised to do good, but deep in my heart I knew that my goodness was not enough. I learned in Sunday school and church that God is holy. His standard is far above mine, and He cannot tolerate sin.

My parents did the best that any parents could do, but again, they could not remove my sin. For that, I needed God and the sacrifice of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Because of the Lord’s mercy, I rejoice in knowing His forgiveness and grace. Because of His mercy, I am also deeply grateful that He gave me such loving parents.

November 17, 2010

To Live is Christ — with a burden to model God’s compassion

Once upon a time, most parents had compassion on their children. Is this a fairy tale? Yesterday’s newspaper had a story about a mother who drowned her two small daughters. Earlier, I read about a man who killed his teenage daughter for dating a boy he didn’t like. On a less tragic note, in a restaurant we noticed a woman and her small boy. Throughout the ordering and the entire meal, she was texting on her phone and he looked so sad.

My mother often said that no matter what happens, parents always love their kids. I’m glad she is in a better place where newspapers do not exist, and where she cannot see what we see. However, she did know about these Bible predictions. . . . 

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them. (2 Timothy 3:1–5, NIV)
Sinful behavior has been happening since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. Maybe contemporary news adds an immediacy, but selfish behavior seems on the increase, not just here but all over the world. Governments make decisions without regarding the people. Armies kill innocents. At home, my daughter says that common “niceness” is disappearing from the workplace. Many employers no longer treat their workers with ordinary good manners.

The love of a father for his children is also hard to find. Consequently, thousands of battered women and abused children have no concept of a compassionate father. It is little wonder that they have trouble believing in a heavenly Father who cares for them, although the Bible says He does:

As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him. (Psalm 103:13, NIV)
I read this verse and think of those women I know whose father abused them. I also know several men who were abandoned, ignored, abused, or mistreated by their fathers. How can a little boy think that God loves him when his earthly Father beats him, refuses to provide his basic needs, or seldom speaks to him, let alone with kindness?

I know that the Bible speaks to all generations. Through the centuries, thousands have been blessed and transformed by the Word of God. However, this verse all by itself is hampered. Too many fathers, who are supposed to model God’s love and compassion to their children, have dropped the ball. They have gone away from God themselves. Instead of being like Him, they are making proud and selfish choices, abusing their family and failing to care and provide for them. Even worse, because of the sin of their fathers (and mothers), little children are turned away from God also.

Lord, may my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren see Your loving compassion in me.

November 16, 2010

To Live is Christ — being heard

Classes and seminars offer “listening skills” and while I’ve not noticed much on this topic lately (replaced by “texting skills”?), it seems a no-brainer. If I am genuinely interested in a person and care about what they have to say, then genuine listening is automatic.

God is a good listener. Today’s verses say a great deal about His listening skills.  

But certainly God has heard me; He has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, who has not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me! (Psalm 66:19–20)
The very first word speaks volumes. I didn’t include the verse before this passage. It gives the reason for the “but.” Yet whatever it is or whatever I have done God will hear my prayer anyway. Oh, the Bible talks about some exclusions, such as prayers prayed in selfishness or those from the lips of people who will not give up their sin. However, God still hears. He just doesn’t give me what I ask for.
When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:3, NIV)
I know that He hears even those wrongly motivated prayers because His Spirit sets to work on my heart. When I pray that way, He soon begins to convict me of my sinful attitudes and works repentance in my heart. If He wasn’t listening when I prayed, that would not happen.

Another listening skill is that He attends to or takes notice of what I say. So often my hubby asks me to do something, or tells me he will be early for dinner, and if I do not write it down, I forget. God is not like that. He pays close attention. My prayer requests never slip through the cracks because He is not absent-minded. He always gives me His full attention.

He never turns away either. I’ve sometimes turned my back when someone is speaking. I might hear them, but in their mind, I have shut them out. God does not turn Himself away, nor does He turn my prayers away. He never hits the “off” button or the volume switch. He wants to hear me. That is incredible.

The last line might be the most important. I’ve had people talk to me when I didn’t want to give them my time or my ears. Sales people at the door. Telemarketers. Whiners. Those who seem to never stop talking. Yet God never turns them away because He is merciful. I don’t deserve to be listened to because of my sin. Though Jesus covers that sin, at times I sound like those people who I want to shut off. God could shut me down or tell me to come back when my attitude improves, but in mercy, He never does. He simply listens, exercising mercy and great patience.

All of God’s listening skills are based on the reality of His love. He cares for me, for everyone. He is not only interested but deeply invested in our lives. What I have to say matters to Him. Even if no one else has time or desire to hear me out, God will, and for that, I bless His name!

November 15, 2010

To Live is Christ — seeing God’s hand in all things

Having a Christian world view affects daily behavior. For instance, because I believe that God is sovereign and involved in the affairs of my life, I’m less inclined to worry and more inclined to pray. Yesterday I experienced protests from those who do not think that way.

These people segregate God’s activity. For them, He does some things if we ask Him, but everything else is just “life.” They say we have little control over the things of life, but God isn’t involved either. This means that when problems arise, they are supposed to use their own brains and rational thinking to sort out the issues of “life” and are free to do that. One of them said sometimes we have a right to complain, and we should.

Some of this comes from a view that God created all things, but He wound the world up like a clock and does not interfere with the unwinding. There may also be mixed in a failure to understand the extent of sin, and that even our ability to think rationally and solve problems is affected by our selfishness and resistance to God.

A third problem with this view is that it counters what the Bible says concerning God’s work in this world and His commands about how we are to live. His sovereignty is described in many places. The verse that comes to mind is from the Old Testament. God says, “I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord, do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)

While I cannot claim to understand, I know that God doesn’t stand back and watch calamity or good things happen to me either. He has purposes in the stuff of my life. His Word says, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28) The next verse says that His purpose is to transform me into the image of His Son. For this, He uses all things, and all means all. The issues of life are all in His hands to do with as He pleases.

When I am faced with decisions, small or big, He tells me this: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and depart from evil.” (Proverbs 3:5–7)

My understanding is insufficient and often polluted with selfishness. I cannot assume that simply because I am a believer in Jesus Christ that I can now ignore this command and trust myself without consulting God. Romans 12:2 says that I need my mind renewed. With dismay I’ve noticed that the more He shines His light in the way I think, the more I see how much my thinking needs changing. I dare not lean on my own understanding. If I do, I will miss God’s direction and not be able to avoid evil.

As for the grumbling, the Bible is clear how much God hates it. In the Old Testament when the Israelites complained about their lot in life, some died because of their grumbling. At least once in their history, God sent “sinners worse than they" to chasten them. Their prophet Habakkuk was dismayed, but when God explained what He was doing, this godly man asked only that, “in wrath remember mercy.”

Christians complain. I do too, far more often than I want to admit. We have no right. How can we grumble when God has mercifully saved us and put the penalty we deserve on His Son? We have so much to be thankful for. The New Testament says to me, 

Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain. (Philippians 2:14–16)
Nothing in the Bible gives anyone justification for complaining, even if we have a legitimate beef. If we don’t like what other Christians do, He says to hush, for they are accountable to Him and He can make them stand. He also gives much instruction on how to deal with problems. If I cannot “fix it” His way, then I am to be quiet and not complain.

My personal experience is that God uses negative experiences to test me and teach me how to be like Jesus. This is part of the “all things” in Romans 8:28-29. James 1:2-4 even says that I’m to consider it a joyful thing to experience trials because they produce patience, a quality that comes from Him.

The Bible also teaches that griping is really a complaint against what God has done. In my heart, I know that is true. When I complain, I am telling Him that He is wrong, or does not know what is best. I am ignoring the possibility that He has done this for a reason — and maybe that reason is to teach me something about my own sinful spirit.

Today’s verses encourage me. I’ve felt burdened about this. I’ve had to bite my lip so as not to complain about those who think it is okay to complain. I’ve prayed and wondered if this even matters to God. Yet the psalmist says God is listening . . . 

But certainly God has heard me; He has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, who has not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me! (Psalm 66:19–20)
For this, I am so grateful. He, who knows all hearts and is sovereign over all, is at work in my heart. Yet He is also at work in the hearts of those whose ideas concern me. One day, all of us who believe in Jesus will be like Him. I’ve no reason to worry — or complain.

November 14, 2010

To Live is Christ — before His throne

When I was a teen, meeting a celebrity was a big thrill. I have pictures of myself with a famous singer. We loved to look for stars at every parade and big event. However, I got over it, partly because I realized stars are people just like everyone else. They have good days and bad, and they are super stars only in their field of expertise.

We know a famous preacher who regularly misplaces his car keys. I’ve met many well-known authors whose quirks and foibles are just like mine. One locked herself in a public washroom. Another spent an afternoon shopping before she realized her skirt was on inside-out. One considered a super saint became crabby at a lunch in her honor. Ordinary folks, all of them. And having an audience with the queen or talking to a head of state would not be a big deal either. While I respect those who have positions of responsibility, I’m not in anyone’s fan club.

I’m saying this because there is One in whose presence I sometimes tremble. I’m also totally astounded that He wants me to talk to Him every day, even continually, all day. This is the Lord of hosts, the Creator of the Universe, God Almighty, my King and my Savior. Me? He wants to talk? He listens to me?

But certainly God has heard me; He has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, who has not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me! (Psalm 66:19–20)
In the ancient world, at least one kingdom had a rule that if you approached the king without his express invitation, he would put you to death. Yet God invites His people to approach Him. This is utterly incredible.

The New Testament says that it is through the shed blood of Jesus Christ that I have access to God. He earned for me the privilege. It is not my doing nor could it be, for I have no worth apart from Christ. I certainly have nothing that would allow me to come before the throne of a holy God, never mind talk with Him. Yet He invites me, just as the writer of Hebrews affirms, and even more . . . 

Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
Sometimes I try to imagine this happening in a visual and literal sense. God is seated on His throne. Light brighter than the sun. Colors beyond the rainbow’s spectrum. Gold’s sheen pales compared to His glory. No diamond is as bright. He is holy, pure, powerful. I am lowly and in need. I know that He can do anything. Nothing is too difficult.

Then He leans toward me and says, “Tell me about it.”

And at that — I become undone.

November 13, 2010

To Live is Christ — don’t send Him spam

My email spam filter is set on maximum. That means anything that looks remotely like advertising or pornography or any other unsolicited mail is stopped before it gets to me. I don’t even need to read it so I can make that decision because the filter does it for me.

Last week’s Bible study (the one I write and teach) was about prayer. We focused on praying in the will of God because the Bible stresses this as very important. When I pray in His will, He promises to hear and answer me.

However, there is a negative side to this too. If I pray selfishly or outside the will of God, I cannot expect Him to pay attention or answer. It is almost as if He has a “prayer filter” that reads what I am praying and lets through to Him only the prayers that are appropriate.

Today’s devotional verses speak about how to get past God’s prayer filter and be heard.

If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear. But certainly God has heard me; He has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, who has not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me! (Psalm 66:18–20)
Before these verses, the psalmist is praising God, yet he knows that clinging to known sin ruins communication with Him. I know that too. Unless my heart is clear and all know sin is confessed, my prayers don’t get past the ceiling. In fact, I usually will not pray in the first place. Sin always mucks up my spiritual life.

God doesn’t like it either. A parallel might be a young driver asking her parent for the car keys. However, the last time she took the car, she got a speeding ticket and hasn’t yet paid that fine. She should not be surprised if mom or dad holds back on the keys. She has to clear things first.

God wants me to keep short accounts. Confessing my sin results in forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:9), but there is another reason for confession — I cannot pray properly with known sin in my life. There is little or no discernment concerning His will, my prayers are selfish, and I’m filled with “me first” requests.

I know these verses are not about sinless perfection. “Regarding iniquity” means that I am aware of my sin but not doing anything about it — it’s fine with me that it stays where it is. With that attitude, I am putting a warning flag on my prayers. They will not get through God’s prayer filter.

There is much more God has to say about these verses, but this gives my soul enough to mull over for today.

November 12, 2010

To Live is Christ — speaking my heart

This week, the television news talked to teens about their text messaging habits. Most of them said they sent 200-300 texts a day. I’ve seen two of them sitting in the same room and texting rather than talking. I suppose that ensures no eavesdropping, but it does seem odd.

The past couple of days, I’ve also noticed phone service companies highlighting the value of verbal conversation. Do they feel guilty that customers no longer talk to each other? Or is this happening because texting is less of a money maker than phone calls?

One thing is certain; communication has changed. The Lord’s Prayer in 10th century English looked like this. I cannot read it and some letters are unknown to me.

g fæder, þu þe on heofonum eardast, geweordad wuldres dreame. Sy þinum weorcum halgad noma ni þ þa bearnum;  þu eart nergend wera. Cyme þin rice wide, ond þin rædfæst willa aræred under rodores hrofe, eac þon on rumre foldan. Syle us to dæge domfæstne blæd, hlaf userne, helpend wera,  þone singalan, sodfæst meotod. Ne læt usic costunga cnyssan to swide, ac þu us freodom gief, folca waldend, from yfla gewham, a to widan feore. (The Exeter Book, ed. Krapp and Dobbie 1936)
In 1602, the Geneva Bible reproduced these same verses in the language of their day. (The 1611 King James Version was similar.) 
Our Father which art in heauen, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdome come. Thy will be done euen in earth, as it is in heauen. Giue vs this day our daily bread. And forgiue vs our debts, as we also forgiue our debters. And lead vs not into tentation, but deliuer vs from euill: for thine is the kingdome, and the power, and the glory for euer. Amen. (1607 printing, ed. Sheppard (1989))
Today I’m using the New King James Bible. As near as I can find, it was translated in the late 1970s. The devotional reading for today looks like this:
In God is my salvation and my glory; the rock of my strength, and my refuge, is in God. Trust in Him at all times, you people; pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us. Selah (Psalm 62:7–8, NKJV)
One of the most recent Bible versions is called The Message. It is written in modern language, well, as modern as 2002. These same verses look like this:
My help and glory are in God —granite-strength and safe-harbor-God— So trust him absolutely, people; lay your lives on the line for him. God is a safe place to be. (Psalm 62:7–8, The Message)
This translator attempted to get the gist of the verses, but also to say it in words that ordinary readers would appreciate and understand. As startling and as fresh as it might sound, he missed a phrase that I consider important. The original verses include, “Pour out your heart before Him.”

The whole idea of finding God as a hiding place and a refuge for my soul includes being silent before Him and waiting on Him without taking matters into my own hands (see yesterday’s post). It also includes the confidence and freedom to be able to tell God exactly how I feel. If I could not do that, then the sense of Him being a safe place would not be mine. I cannot trust Him if I cannot say all that is in my heart.

The psalms are filled with examples of pouring out one’s heart. This is not only an okay way to pray, but necessary. Of course I also need to listen, but speaking my mind is a huge part of my relationship with God. Speaking this way may be therapeutic. It is also helps me sort out my thoughts. However, pouring out my inner thoughts is a demonstration of trust. Holding back would clearly be a lack of faith.

Besides, God asks me to do it. These verses and many others tell me so. He doesn’t care if I speak in 10th century English, or Greek, or Dutch, or whether I can merely groan and mutter. He says to pour out my heart.

I’m concerned that this phrase was left out, but am glad that other versions leave it in. This affirms to me that God not only wants me to talk to Him, but to dump my load, or pour out my heart –- no matter how I express myself. 


November 11, 2010

No Greater Love

Greater love has no one than this, 
than to lay down one's life for his friends. 
John 15:13

To Live is Christ — my Refuge

The idea of a refuge puts mental pictures in my head. I see a rabbit trembling inside a small hole after escaping from a predator. I see a child hiding in a closet from a bully sibling. I see a soldier deep inside a bunker, and a bruised and beaten woman in a shelter, and a family in a high place during a flood. The Bible says God is my rock, my salvation, my defense, and my refuge.
My soul, wait silently for God alone, for my expectation is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation; He is my defense; I shall not be moved. In God is my salvation and my glory; the rock of my strength, and my refuge, is in God. (Psalm 62:5–7, ESV)
Most of my hiding happens after the fact. Something has happened and I run to the Lord, looking for His protection and comfort. I might feel like that rabbit who narrowly missed being another animal’s lunch, trembling because of a close call.

A few times, God has been my refuge right in the thick of things, before I run for cover. While I cannot make public one of those battles, I can say that at times He seems to appear before me. He becomes so real that my fears give way to awe.

These verses are important because they not only describe how God takes care of His children, but they give the one thing that I need to do when the pressures of life become intolerable. To experience God as my refuge, I must wait silently and not be moved.

Silence is one thing; lack of movement is different. The Hebrew word means slipping, falling, tottering, but the implication for me is that I cannot try to fix things or fight things by myself. That is, if God is going to save me, I need to let Him, not moving until He gives direction.

A story tells of a man who fell off the edge of a cliff. He managed to grab hold of a tree root on the way down. He began to yell, “Help. Help. Is there somebody up there? Please help me. Is there somebody up there?”

Finally a voice answered. “This is God. I can help you.” The man breathed a sigh of relief. Then the voice said, “I can help, but first you have to let go of that tree root.”

The man hesitated, then said, “Help, is there somebody else up there?”

Relying on God during the tough times means letting go of my own ‘control’ in a situation. Even in those troublesome spots when I feel like I have very little going for me, I don’t want to let go of the tree root. After years of experience, I’m still learning that my resources might seem okay, but His are far better. Besides delaying His deliverance, my own ideas usually get me in deeper trouble. Opening my mouth will do it, but moving in my own strength with my own ideas will do it too.

My soul must learn to wait silently. This means no decisions unless He speaks, no words unless He gives them, and no bright ideas unless they are from His Spirit. When my soul can stay still, my body can too. It is in that place that I experience God as my refuge and my hiding place.

Photo credit

November 10, 2010

To Live is Christ — being silent

Ecclesiastes 3 says there is a time to keep silent and a time to speak. Knowing which is which can be challenging.

I usually speak when I should be quiet and say nothing when I should say something. Over the years, silence has been more difficult, particularly when someone does something against me. Then I use my mouth as a weapon of self-defense.

The Bible has much to say about that. One verse comes to mind, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19–20).

Although I’ve read that verse dozens of times and know it from memory, learning the truth of it has come more from experience than obedience. I’ve found out the hard way that God seldom works through my anger and even less through my angry outbursts.

Not all anger is sinful (Ephesians 4.26 says, “Be angry and do not sin . . . ”), yet the two often go together. Even at that, keeping silent while angry is bad for a person’s health. I must talk to God, and sometimes talk to the offending person. Apart from those options, I’m never supposed to go to bed angry.

Being silent about sin isn’t good either. David wrote about what the effect that silence about his sin had on him. He also described how speaking to God about his sin changed everything. 

When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer . . .  I acknowledged my sin to You . . .  I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin . . . You are my hiding place; You shall preserve me from trouble; You shall surround me with songs of deliverance. (Psalm 32:3–7)
Today’s devotional verses are about those changes too. They speak of hiding in God as my refuge and being delivered by Him. Here, instead of speaking up, the psalmist urges me to wait silently for God. This is a time for silence.
My soul, wait silently for God alone, for my expectation is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation; He is my defense; I shall not be moved. In God is my salvation and my glory; the rock of my strength, and my refuge, is in God. (Psalm 62:5–7)
I cannot “wait silently for God alone” with sin in my heart. However, I have a huge problem being silent when I am angry. Having an expectation that He will act can only happen if I have genuinely forsaken all my ideas about taking matters into my own hands. If I am trying to solve my problems, or am thinking how I can defend myself, or plotting ways to get even with someone who has wronged me, there is no silent expectation. This is impossible because I have stopped trusting Him and am trusting myself. When that happens, I talk too much.

This week, I’ve had several occasions when I wanted to speak up, or answer back, or put down someone for sinning against me. At least once, God organized circumstances to prevent me from saying anything. At that, I’ve felt both humbled and protected. God was saving me from myself, protecting me from my foolishness, and helping me to obey this call to wait silently.

He is my defense. He says in Romans 12:19, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

I don’t know what He will do to repay what was done to me, but I know that He is my hiding place. He can, and does, and will take care of me. Knowing this makes waiting silently a much easier choice.

November 9, 2010

To Live is Christ — sometimes hiding

There are days, even weeks, when I feel helpless, put down, and abandoned. Like my sister used to say, I want to go out in the garden and eat worms.

Most of the past week has been like that. I wanted a place to hide or someone to rescue me. A few said, “What has gone wrong?” as if I’d experienced some great disaster, but that was not so. I could say fatigue or too much bad news (there was much of it).  However, those things have happened before and not made me feel so desolate.

My interpretation of this spiritual slump is that I’m being tested. This is a God-allowed thing, perhaps to see what I will do with it. Today’s verses tell me what I already know. This can be my only response to those times when it seems as if the whole world has stopped praying.

My soul, wait silently for God alone, for my expectation is from Him. He only is my rock and my salvation; He is my defense; I shall not be moved. In God is my salvation and my glory; the rock of my strength, and my refuge, is in God. (Psalm 62:5–7)
Early this morning I was outside walking and praying. I found myself saying something like David did in these verses. I do not understand what is going on in the spiritual realm or in the physical world that is at the root of this dark place. However, I know that I am unable to fight this or make it go away. It is God who saves me, even from mysterious soul depression.

So, my soul submits to God. If this is from Him and it is His will for me, then I accept it. He is the only solid resource that I have. He is the One who saves. He is the One who defends and protects me. While the way I feel can send me reeling, I will not be moved from believing what I just wrote. God is my Savior and any glory that I have comes from Him.

He also gives strength when I need it. Last week, without that strength I could never have written the material for my Bible study lesson, nor could I have taught it. He stepped in and pulled me up so I could do what needed to be done. Yet when that need was taken care of, the sense of darkness and helplessness came back. No matter. I am still determined that He is my refuge. I will hide in Him until He sees fit to bring me out to a better place.

I’ve read of those who experience such a trial as this. For some, it goes on for days, months, even years. Is this what God wants? I don’t know, but I do know that I can wait (hopefully silently and without complaint) looking to Him. He will accomplish His purposes for me. He is my rock and my strong tower, my hiding place.

November 8, 2010

To Live is Christ — never lowering His standards

Yesterday’s post has been on my mind ever since writing it. How does God balance His exacting standard for righteousness with our insistent failure to be righteous? He does it by a higher law (for want of a better word). He made promises, first to Adam and Eve, then to Israel, and now to the church. He is determined to keep His promises, even to those who fail to meet His standards. His commitment to this greater than giving us what our sin deserves. In other words, His mercy is greater than His wrath.

Some versions translate this commitment as mercy, or loving kindness, or loyalty. It is loyalty to His own covenant. It also reveals both the nature of God and the person that He expects me to be.

Don’t ever forget kindness and truth. Wear them like a necklace. Write them on your heart as if on a tablet. Then you will be respected and will please both God and people. (Proverbs 3:3–4, NCV)
These verses also talk about truth. Like His incredible mercy and loyalty to His promise without lowering His standard for righteousness, God has the same loyalty to truth. He never lowers that standard either.

David knew this. When he sinned, he confessed the sin to God and said, “Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight — that You may be found just when You speak, and blameless when You judge.” (Psalm 51:4)

Paul quotes this verse in the New Testament with an addition: “For what if some did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faithfulness of God without effect? Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar. As it is written: That You may be justified in Your words, and may overcome when You are judged.’” (Romans 3:3–4)

We are liars. Besides all our fibs and whoppers, we lie about our sinfulness before God. David knew better. He knew that God is true when He says everyone sins and falls short of His glory. If we say otherwise, we lie and the truth is not in us. If we agree with Him, then we acknowledge that His Word is just. It is this truth that He does not want me to abandon, ever. “Don’t ever forget kindness and truth. Wear them like a necklace. Write them on your heart as if on a tablet. . . .”

I hear people say, “Well, that might be true for you, but it isn’t for me.” God’s truth is not subjective. He says it. He is God. His truth is objective, apart from human opinion. I may not understand all of it, but when I disagree with what He says, I give evidence that I am anti-truth and have abandoned it and Him.

Before he ordered the crucifixion, Pilate said, “What is truth?” He didn’t realize that he was looking at it. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth. . . .” Jesus is God personified, but He is also truth personified.

Mulling over the idea of never forgetting the covenant commitment and never forgetting truth makes me realize the importance Christ. Without Him in my life, I’ve no idea what these verses are asking of me. Though my concept of mercy and truth is minimal, because of Him, I know that there is a life and a kind of living that is beyond me. I need Jesus in my heart. In His grace and power, I am challenged to live out the wonder of never lowing God’s standard of righteousness, yet remaining merciful to those who do. I am challenged to firmly hold to truth, yet be loving and kind to those who foolishly think that lying has more power than truth.

This is the last day for reading these verses, but they have lifted my thoughts, blessed my heart and further convinced me that God is awesome. I daily stand in need of His grace and mercy.

November 7, 2010

To Live is Christ — amazed at His goal

The Bible frequently pairs certain words. Grace and peace are commonly put together in the New Testament. After looking at today’s reading in several versions, the pairing in these verses intrigues me. 
Let not mercy and truth forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart, and so find favor and high esteem In the sight of God and man. (Proverbs 3:3–4)
Still puzzled at the meaning of mercy in the Hebrew language, I found several articles online that explain the importance of this word. It actually has been mistranslated, not deliberately but because it is very difficult to explain in English.

This word has great theological importance. It is hesed and stands for the attitude which both parties to a covenant ought to maintain toward each other. In the Old Testament Scripture, the covenant is between God and Israel. On God’s part, hesed is demonstrated in His dealings with His people. They were continually wayward yet God was determined to never let go of them. Therefore, He treated them with loving-kindness, mercy, and goodness, although they deserved none of that.

This is why many translators use “mercy” or “forgiveness” when trying to put hesed into English. However, it has a grander meaning. It includes His need to exercise mercy, yet that is just one method God uses in His determined faithfulness to keep His part of the covenant.

Many Greek translators of the Old Testament translated hesed with the Greek word eleos. This word means mercy or pity. They wanted to convey how God’s passion for righteousness is so strong that He could not be more insistent in his demand for it, yet at the same time, His persistent love for His people is more insistent. That is, God's people throughout the centuries were stubbornly wayward, but if a remnant were to be preserved, God has had to show mercy more than anything else.

While the Hebrew hesed can be translated by loving-kindness and mercy, no one can think that God is content with anything less than righteousness. Hesed is not about pity or sentimental kindness. In fact, the Bible makes no suggestion of mercy apart from repentance where this word is used. God’s demand for righteousness is insistent and always at maximum intensity. Yet the hesed of God means that his mercy is greater even than that. This is the marvelous wonder — His love is unfailing and solves the problem of His demands for utter righteousness. (See more)

Again, when used of the Lord, this word 'hesed' is always in connection with the covenant that God established with His people. It was God's gift and a grace for Israel, a covenant that God committed to respect it. It is rooted in a love that gives, a love more powerful than all betrayals, a grace that is stronger than all our sin.

Proverbs 3:3 pairs mercy and truth. The Hebrew word used for truth means more than meets the eye too. In short, it describes someone who is dependable and loyal, true to a standard, conforms to a reality, sure and certain, so sure as not to be false. This is about integrity. As does the word hesed, this word describes God.

However, the verses say that I am not to let mercy and truth forsake me. Remember, this is about both parties in a covenant. Hesed and truth are to be a part of who I am also, as if written on my heart. All of what is said about this concerning God keeping His covenant with His people is to be my attitude toward the covenant I have with God, and toward other people. These lofty and amazing characteristics of devotion ought to motivate my life and all that I do.

As I reread this, I’m feeling overwhelmed. Two words that say so much, that ask so much. Yet I know that if they were not true of God, they could never be true of me. Without Him, I can do nothing. And if I should think that I’m all that I can be, I better wake up — because I’ve lost sight of the target.

November 6, 2010

To Live is Christ — sharing His mercy

Facebook gets heat for its default settings. Those who don’t know how to change them can be giving others personal information that they would rather not be shared.

Today, I shared with someone my limited knowledge of how to set up and manage a particular type of blog. This online service also has default settings that need to at least be considered and sometimes tweaked.

Default settings usually work, but when it comes to being a Christian, my devotional reading for today suggests that my default settings need to be changed.

Let not mercy and truth forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart, and so find favor and high esteem in the sight of God and man. (Proverbs 3:3–4)
Mercy and truth, or as yesterday’s post uncovered, love and faithfulness are what God wants as my natural first response, my default settings. However, the adjustments required are not as simple as checking a box or selecting an option.

The settings that I was born with are purely self-centered. I respond to people with me-first, apathy, revenge, and a host of other selfish ways to think. When someone does something I don’t like, my human response is certainly not mercy and love.

However, Jesus Christ came into my life and added some alternate behaviors. I cannot do them myself, but with His help, it is possible for an old grouch like me to be merciful and to love others. Most times this requires asking Him, but sometimes being merciful shows up spontaneously.

I remember the first time that happened. I was in a movie theater buying popcorn before the film started. A little boy was there with his mother. He was horsing around and managed to spill his popcorn all over the floor. His immediate look of dismay showed me that he regretted his behavior. It was obvious that mom didn’t have the extra cash to buy him another order of an already over-priced treat. Without thinking, I gave him my popcorn.

But showing mercy is much more difficult when the person who needs it has done something mean or heartless to me. If someone cuts me off in traffic, will I give him a break at the next intersection? If someone slapped my face, would I turn the other cheek?

Mercy is holding back whatever someone deserves. This is what God does for me. I deserve eternal punishment for my sins — far worse in His eyes than rude driving or hitting another person. I have disobeyed and even ignored Almighty God, hurt others, and been greedy and thought only about myself.

Yet He is merciful. He could have sealed my destiny based on my behavior, but instead He has changed my destiny based on the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus died on a cross to pay for my sins and to appease the wrath of God. Because of what He has done, His Father shows mercy to me.

Not by works of righteousness which I have done, but according to His mercy He saved me, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on me abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace I should become an heir according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:5–7, personalized)
Being merciful and offering love to others is the least that I can do.

November 5, 2010

To Live is Christ — not picky but obedient

For those of us who are sticklers about using the right word in the right place, Bible translations can be frustrating. I want to know exactly what a verse says, but if the language experts cannot agree, where does that leave me?

Today’s devotional verses say several things, depending on which version I read. For instance, the New King James says:

Let not mercy and truth forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart, and so find favor and high esteem in the sight of God and man. (Proverbs 3:3–4)
In the English standard versions, it is “steadfast love and faithfulness” I’m supposed to hang on to, and “favor and good success” will be my reward.

The New International version says “love and faithfulness” will bring me “favor and a good name.

In my understanding, mercy is not the same thing as love, or even  steadfast love. Mercy is not getting what I deserve. Love is the reason for God’s mercy. However, my Hebrew dictionaries give a much wider range of meaning for the ancient word translated these two ways. It is sometimes mercy, sometimes love, and this word is even translated as “reproach” and “wicked thing” in a couple of places.

Now I feel like I’m reading modern culture’s crazy English where “hot” and “cool” can mean the same thing, and “bad” can mean good, depending on the context. Finding out the exact meaning of this word is beyond me.

I also realize that I can get into word meanings without letting God’s Word get into me. He is trying to tell me something. The exact translation is not as important as paying attention.

God wants me to be a loving, merciful person who also loves the truth and is faithful to it. When I live like that, I will please Him and earn the respect of others. Does it matter that the words differ in varying translations? Or is it more important that I obey whatever version I’m reading?

Sometimes people criticize Scripture for this sort of confusion. I understand their perplexities. Some of us do want exactness and to be sure of what we believe (or reject). Yet the Bible isn’t about one or even a dozen foggy words. Taken in its entirety, its message is clear. God asks His people to live in obedience to Him. Because He has shown me mercy and steadfast love, I am to pass that along to others. Because He is true and there is no lie or falsehood in Him, I am supposed to live the same way.

By obeying Him, I reflect the God in whose image I have been made. I am also demonstrating Jesus Christ into whose image I am being transformed. This pleases God, and up to a point, it will also give me a good name. (Christians are persecuted for obedience.) Any of those translations work because they agree with the nature of God and the rest of Scripture.

All three of them also convict me. Only the Holy Spirit, using the Word of God, can do that. For those reasons, choosing the NKJV, NIV, or ESV is clearly not my biggest challenge.