October 31, 2011

Hearts and Hands and Gloves

Christians can sin in several ways. The first is by doing the wrong thing with the wrong attitude. An example is David. He wanted another man’s wife and as king, just took her. When she got pregnant, David had the other man killed. This was lust plus adultery plus murder. When confronted, David took the only recourse possible. This is part of what he said to God . . . 
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Psalm 51:10–12)
Praise God that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Another way Christians can sin is doing the wrong thing with what seems like the right attitude. This is far more subtle than David’s blatant sin. When it happens, we usually mean well. The error is in making an assumption that personal feelings of compassion, or personal desires for results, are signs of a go-ahead from God.

Christians may have nice personalities even apart from God in their life, but our human nature can fool us. Being nice is never a substitute for seeking the will of God. For instance, the Bible says  we are to speak the truth in love. Love does not sidestep truth, nor can truth be spoken without being motivated by the love of God. Yet “nice” will keep us from speaking truth if we think the truth will hurt. We assume that love is about “nice” rather than someone’s eternal well-being.

Human nature, apart from God, is selfish and sinful. Jesus died that we might have victory over this sinful nature which the New Testament calls “the flesh.” He says it is contrary to the Spirit and while that old nature may understand what God wants, it will also make decisions without Him by not seeking Him in every circumstance. Such presumption could include things like going to the aid of someone who is in trouble without realizing that their trouble was God’s chastening. Another example might be efforts to witness to someone without seeking God’s leading. The goal and desire seem right, but the timing is off because flesh took the lead instead of the Spirit. Subtle sin like this makes us unfruitful — and sometime unpopular.

A more obvious variation happens by doing the right thing with an obviously wrong attitude. Consider the little boy who was told to sit down in the back seat of the car. He obeyed and sat, but he told his father that he was “standing up on the inside.”

I might perform all sorts of Christian ministry but out of duty, fear, guilt, or even in resentment at being asked. What I do it not the issue, but my attitude toward what I am doing or toward others involved is not right. God’s Word repeatedly says to obey from the heart. He accepts actions motivated by the Spirit of God who lives within me. If they are motivated by my sinful flesh, they are not acceptable, no matter how “right” they might appear biblically or theologically. He is not interested in my excuses or rationalizations either. If I say, “But I did what You asked” without having that “from the heart” part in place, then I really didn’t do what He asked. 

Lord, Your Word makes distinctions between thoughts and motivations of the heart, between flesh and Spirit. I’m becoming increasingly aware of the many times I mess up because my heart is not right. Instead of being filled with the Spirit, I am filled with a sense of what I want. My “I wants” might not be overtly sinful (like murder), but they stem from a sinful and flawed “old self” that You say is a dead thing. Not only that, Your thoughts are higher than my thoughts. It is only when I am totally yielded to You and filled with Your Spirit that I can even begin to understand the way You think or be able to do Your will.

One more thing You have shown me is that when I am filled with Your Spirit, I’m not thinking about myself at all, even to the point that when I speak to edify others, I cannot remember what I said. They tell me they are blessed, and I am joyful but often somewhat surprised. Walking in the Spirit is about trust, about focusing on You, not on what my flesh desires or surmises. As a glove on Your hand, this is the way it should be. You are glorified and I am only a glove. I know that this cannot happen apart from You or unless I am abiding in You. Into your hands I entrust my life today, again, always.

October 30, 2011

Nature? Nurture? Choices?

Psychologists and the wise of this world debate whether nature or nurture has the most influence on the outcome of a person’s life. Christians know that both have influence, but would put ‘choices’ above either one. Why else do children in the same family differ, even to extremes? Each grew up with similar genetic makeup and environment, yet one may become a drunk and the other a doctor.

However, when it comes to spiritual matters, a fourth option enters the equation. Nature is dismissed. The Bible is clear, by nature, no one in interested in God or in serving and praising Him. Romans 3:10–12 says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Because we have a sin nature, we turn from God and are not able to choose anything but our own way, including how we wish to think about Him.

Nurture, or the environment in which we grew up, can vary but I’ve known godly parents whose children serve the Lord and godly parents whose children are like the above verses. We can do our very best, yet must remember God was a perfect Father to Adam and Eve and they still fell into sin.

When I think of that third option, choices, verses come to mind like “Choose this day whom you will serve” yet almost all that speak of my choices are in the Old Testament. The New Testament offers dozens more that put choice strictly into the hands of God. Because by nature I would not choose Him, and because by nurture my options are iffy at best, God turned my destiny around by choosing me. 

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26–29)
Of all the references to God’s choice that changed my destiny, I am drawn to this one. It does nothing for my ego and everything for my joy. No reason here to pat myself on the back, but plenty of reason to praise God.

Spurgeon’s devotional today is about praise. He writes of its value to our spiritual lives, yet when I read this verse, I noticed one word, “will.”

I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and exult in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High. (Psalm 9:1–2)
This word, used four times, shows that praise is a choice. However, It does not flow from my old nature for that dead and wretched thing does not understand or seek God. If does not come from my nurture either, for praise to God was a rare commodity in our home while growing up. Even if I could choose based on an example set by my parents, my nature would not allow it. For praise to happen, to be a choice on my part, God had to change me. That process began when He put me in Christ Jesus. Because of that . . . 
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Regardless of what is happening in my life, and even regardless on my emotional state on any given day, the fact of being a new creation does not go away. Because of what God has done in me, I have the capacity to praise Him. I can praise Him for the good things, and the not so good. I can praise Him when I feel like it, but even when under the pressure of negative feelings. This and other choices are possible because He put me in Christ and Christ in me. I have a new nature. He also nurtures my heart with truth from His Word, renewing my mind, changing how I think and choose. Because of Jesus, I can choose to obey and to praise God. 

Father, You are worthy of all praise. Imperfect as it is, I offer it to You. Yet even in praising You, I also marvel — for when I praise You, You give back to me. As I lift You up, You lift my burdens. You increase my faith and stir up hope in me. I am recharged to serve You. Not only that, when I praise You, others are blessed. The humble hear and are glad. Weak hearts are strengthened and those who struggle are encouraged. We praise you together and you bless us because of it. Your Word even says that You inhabit the praises of Your people! Praise draws us nearer to You and in Your presence there is great joy.

I’m thankful for Jesus. Because of Him, I can magnify You and because of Him, all praise becomes songs of deliverance for me and for Your people. Praise Your holy name!

October 29, 2011

Precious sight

Last night we celebrated my husband’s birthday. While there was lots of laughter, we came home feeling a bit empty. Not everyone in our family claims to know Jesus Christ so spiritual fellowship was a missing ingredient.

When praying for them, I ask the Lord to reveal Himself. If anyone who does not know Jesus could just “see” Him, I’m certain that they would be drawn to Him and love Him as I do. Yet seeing Jesus is not about eyesight, but a work of God. This morning, my devotions remind me of this, and the opposite inability to see.

That very day two of them (Jesus’ disciples) were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. (Luke 24:13–16)
These two disciples of Christ were very familiar with His appearance. That they could not recognize Him is startling, to say the least. However, this event shows that “seeing Jesus” is about the power of God, not any human powers of perception. Those who think that Jesus is just a man, or a good teacher, or at best a prophet, cannot think otherwise unless God opens their eyes.

I consider my own experience. I went to Sunday school and daily vacation Bible school as a child. When thirteen or so, I started reading my Bible every day. After 16-17 years, I still could not see Jesus. Oh, I knew He existed but was blind to His identity and power. I had no idea what I was missing.

Some of my family are like that. They are blind to spiritual realities and oblivious to the life and power of the One who died for their sin. They do not even see their need for Him, even though at times they seem to realize their need for forgiveness and the power to live righteously.

Seeing Jesus requires a desire to see, but even then, human desire is not enough. The disciples on the road to Emmaus were certainly open to seeing Him, but “their eyes were kept” and they could not. Apart from the revelatory power of God, Jesus would have remained hidden. This is the same for everyone, no matter how intense our investigation into His life and death.

When Jesus confronted a man named Saul on the road to Damascus, He said to him, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles — to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:15–18)

Saul (who became Paul) saw someone on that road, but didn’t know who it was. Jesus had to identify Himself. He also told this once-blind man that He would use him to open eyes, and turn people from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God.

This inability to see Jesus is partly a human problem, for sin blinds everyone, sometimes even Christians, to spiritual realities. But darkness is also a demonic issue. Paul later wrote, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) and that God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). Satan holds people in darkness for that is his realm. Light belongs to God and to Jesus, who is the Light of the world.

Yesterday I was in a mall and saw a man with a white cane and a seeing eye dog. I marveled at his confidence to move through a complicated space without faltering. The dog kept him from bumping into chairs and tables. Yet even though this dog makes function possible, those of us with sight know how precious it is to be able to see.

Father, I am so thankful for eyesight, but even more, that You have opened my eyes to see Jesus who gives me such peace and joy. At the same time, I am saddened over others who are oblivious to Your glory. I watch them use whatever works for them, along the line of canes and dogs, so they can make it through life, but my deepest desire is that You open their eyes and deliver them from their darkness.

So many in my family, unlike the blind man in the mall who rightly appreciates his “aids” to seeing, seem oblivious to their blindness. They rely on props and temporary things that will not and cannot give them light or sight. Only You can deliver them from darkness — which is my constant prayer. 

(Photo credit)

October 28, 2011

He is Number One

An early call took me out this morning before breakfast, before my hair was dry, before I picked up my Bible. On my way to the destination, I thought about the importance of putting Jesus Christ first, then laughed at that terminology. He IS first, King of kings, Lord of lords, Master of the universe. He saved me and keeps me. The term putting Him first is like personally putting our football team in first place when they are already in first place. My words about their standing have no bearing on reality. My words about Jesus Christ have no bearing on who He is because He IS who He is.

After a delightful diversion from all things Friday morning, I’m back at my desk and reading foundational truth. These words are the reason that I can say Jesus Christ is paramount, number one. My saying that it is so does not make it so, however. What He is and what He has done — the truth about Him makes it so.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6–11)
Salvation is true and real and mine because of what Jesus did. It isn’t about what I did or did not do. He died on the cross for my sins more than 2000 years ago, well before I was a bump in my mother’s belly, well before I realized the truth of it and believed it. He died on the cross, shedding His blood for me while I was still a sinner, reconciling me to God before I confessed and repented of my sin. He reconciled me to God before I acknowledged that I was under His wrath or even realized my lost state.

Salvation is a done deal, not because of me knowing it, or figuring it out, or even because of me believing it. It is finished because Jesus did it. He died for me. He lives for me. Of course He is number One, whether I decide He belongs there or not.

Oh Lord God, You are the light of my life. I am so amazed at what You have done, for me and for every sinner. Salvation is secured, a gift from God that cannot be earned or deserved, only received and appreciated. You are exalted and occupy the highest place, not because I put You there, but that is where You belong. You are number One, for all time and for all people. Be exalted, Oh Lord, my God, be exalted!

October 27, 2011

Sayings to live by

As many facets of life, Christianity has axioms and sayings, like “Christ is the answer” and “Let go and let God.” Some of them are powerful, some cliches, and some make me shake my head because they are pat answers or need a paragraph of explanation.

Paul wrote letters to Timothy and Titus, two younger pastors. In those days, some axioms must have been circulating too because he mentioned several as being “trustworthy.” Unlike today’s short phrases that become posters and the text of greeting cards, most of them were a bit longer and probably not put on plaques to sell in gift shops. Here are the five that I could find, putting the “saying” (as near as I can determine) in italics.

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1 Timothy 1:15)
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. (1 Timothy 3:1) 
Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. (1 Timothy 4:7–10)
Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:10–13) 
He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. (Titus 3:5–8)
If I were to put these trustworthy sayings on my wall, I might shorten them. They would serve as reminders of five important truths.

CHRIST JESUS CAME TO SAVE SINNERS. As Paul, when I think about myself as a sinner, the word ‘foremost’ comes to mind also. This saying has a humbling effect.

LEADERSHIP IS A NOBLE ASPIRATION. Many will not get involved in Christian service because they know and fear that those on the front lines receive the most criticism and face the greater challenges. This saying looks at the other side of the coin and encourages me to step up to any task God asks me to do, even leadership.

GODLINESS FOR LIFE • GODLINESS FOR ETERNITY. Our faith is not pie-in-the-sky but practical. This blog is about living for Jesus in the here and now, finding His direction for godliness in my life. This saying is the overarching principle of why I am on this earth and what I will be like in eternity.

DEAD TO SIN • ALIVE TO CHRIST. Godliness is about dying to self and living for God. It is about endurance and knowing the power of God and His faithfulness in my life now and for eternity. This saying motivates me to be faithful to my calling.

SAVED — NOT BY MY WORKS BUT BY HIS GRACE. This is like the first one. There is nothing I can do to secure forgiveness and eternal life. Jesus did it all. I am an heir to all God promises because God the Son died for me. This saying is vital. By knowing I am no longer condemned, I am free to do good – for God and others — without self-serving ulterior motives.

Lord, Your Word does not give enough information to show me how these “sayings” were expressed in New Testament times, but today Your Holy Spirit blesses me with these trustworthy thoughts. You remind me of what Jesus has done, of who I am, and of how You want me to respond to Your faithfulness. While I would not argue with the Apostle Paul, it seems to me that every saying in the Bible should be called faithful and trustworthy because that describes You, the Author and source of these encouraging words. Thank You.

October 26, 2011

Priorities and to-do lists

While having money is not a sin, loving it and loving all it can buy is not God’s idea. Like everything else that God gives, money is His property, not mine. In fact, I am not an owner but a steward. How can a steward use her Master’s property for herself?

Not only that, throughout the Bible God warns against greed and selfishness. He tells His people that their lives will not prosper if they get their priorities backwards. This means that if I am going to live for Him, I need to consider what He has to say about money and ownership and having stuff.

I also need to consider my priorities. What is most important in God’s mind? Do I fritter away my hours doing what pleases me? Doing what has no bearing on His kingdom? Or has He other plans?

For instance, back in 525 BC or thereabouts, He wanted His temple rebuilt. Instead of getting on that, God’s people were building “paneled houses” for themselves. God said to them:

Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider your ways. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the LORD. You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce. And I have called for a drought on the land and the hills, on the grain, the new wine, the oil, on what the ground brings forth, on man and beast, and on all their labors. (Haggai 1:7–11)
This short passage tells me a great deal about God’s priorities. His house was more important than their houses. He was pleased with this place of worship and that He was glorified in that place. Their obedience to rebuild it was more important than their personal homes and personal success. While it was not wrong that they had nice houses, it was sin to leave their place of worship in ruins while they furthered their own desires.

Today, God’s dwelling place is not in a building, but in each of His people. 1 Corinthians 6:19–20 says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

Construction of this temple means giving full attention to spiritual growth and Christian maturity. This comes first, above any other kind of success. God is more concerned that I am a godly person who lives in obedience to Him than I sell books, make beautiful art, or become successful in the eyes of the world in any other endeavor. He also wants me to be pure, keep myself from sin, and not allow spiritual ruin of any kind. When I, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” He promises that, “all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)

Also, Christians collectively are the temple of God. Ephesians 2:21–22 says that in Christ, “the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

This means that the people of God and our collective spiritual health is more important than my personal well-being. I am to live like Jesus lived by putting others first and giving attention to the spiritual health of the Body of Christ. This means I am to, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than (myself), looking not only to (my) own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3–4)

As I read these verses and compare them to my to-do list, I can usually see what needs to happen first, yet there are also verses that tell me to take care of my home and family. For instance, 

Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. (Titus 2:3–5)
Even as these verses are about mentoring others, they are also about my own obedience toward home and family responsibilities. I am to work at home and care for my family, in love and yielded to the will of God. For me, this is primary. I can easily get caught up in all sorts of other things and not bother with the boring, like cleaning bathrooms and weeding the garden.

Every day brings choices. Every day God encourages me to put Him first, talk to Him first, not only first in the morning but before all choices, even before doing those other things that are clearly His will. I need His advice, strength, encouragement and guidance. After all, I am a steward, and stewards are custodians. In all things, the Master has the final say.

Father, people say Your Word is an old book and not relevant these days. They have no idea how much You help Your people with decisions and daily choices. I want my life to have significance, yet realize how much the world’s way of measuring success is flawed and self-centered. Eternal significance is achieved only by doing Your will, from the heart. My actions may be flawed and often seem insignificant, but if done in obedience, then faith tells me that You will give them lasting value.

October 25, 2011

Double-mindedness and Prayer

In a Bible study called “Walk of Repentance” there is a section on prayer. This morning I studied verses about why some prayer goes unanswered. One of them is takes me to a passage in James that exhorts readers to ask for wisdom. That encouragement also comes with a warning . . . 
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5–8)
The last part of this passage describes the times I’ve asked God to direct me, received an answer, then waffled on it. Was this really what God wants? Am I certain this is the right thing? Those doubts flip me back and forth until I lose the sense that God spoke in the first place. This double-mindedness even puts me in danger of not hearing Him again. After all, He’s already told me what He wanted and I didn’t hang on to that. What more can He do?

Faith does not waffle back and forth. Instead, It is sure and ‘knows' what God says. With faith, there is a confidence that He has not only hears prayer, but that He will answer, keeping all promises made in that regard.

Presumption is the human substitute for this assurance. Faith is based on God’s Word and promises, but presumption is based on a strong I-want. While I might have strong desires when faith is present, but faith comes with an odd sense of “this is so impossible that I cannot understand why I believe it.” Presumption never has that mixture of awe. Instead, it is almost a cheeky arrogance, assuming rather than believing.

God teaches me that asking in faith is about denying both doubt (will He?) and presumption (I know He will!). Faith is beyond what I think or want. It is grounded in God’s Word and promises, and might even fly in the face of those I-wants. It also has an assurance that I cannot conjure up, even an element of “I know” that does not make sense.

I’ve also learned that if this assurance is absent, I could be causing that absence. Yet when I recognize faith is missing, I cannot make it happen. The Bible says that faith comes by hearing the Word of God. I can read it, but hearing it isn’t quite like the normal understanding of hearing. I can listen to a sermon or read the Bible, but not ‘hear’ it because God is not speaking to me through it (or I am not listening).

Hearing involves active communication. One of the Greek words used for the “Word” of God is ‘rhema' which means God is speaking to our individual needs of the moment. This is what makes the Bible a living book. God uses it to touch me, to make His care for me a reality. If this is what James is talking about, then my double-mindedness is about waffling even after God has given me a particular and pointed promise. When I do that, I lose any assurance I might have had from that promise and lose His ear when I pray.

The idea of knowing truth without waffling back and forth is very important in prayer and in all of Christian living. Spurgeon uses these verses to describe it . . . 

The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all who know the truth, because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever... (2 John 1–2)
The Bible says that truth from God and known by His people, is an abiding truth; it stays with us forever. That is, once God’s truth enters the Christian’s heart and subdues us to itself, no power can dislodge it. It is not a guest but becomes the master of the house. Truth is the anchor for the way we live.

Spurgeon affirms that this is a Christian necessity. True believers believe in the life-giving power of the gospel. We know the wonder of the Holy Spirit as He opens, applies and seals the Word of God to us. Thousands have chosen to be torn to pieces rather than deny this truth. We have great assurance that this truth will be with us for ever. It is our living support, our dying comfort, our rising song, our eternal glory!

As Spurgeon says, the truth that we are sinners is painfully with us to humble and make us watchful. The truth of our salvation through faith in Jesus Christ abides with us also as our hope and joy. We learn to walk by faith in what God says, rather than by sight that can be contrary and deceptive. As we walk with Jesus, our experiences affirm and guide us, joining us more firmly to the promises of God.

But, and for me this is very important, when those truths are presented and I waffle between what God says and what my eyes see, that sense of truth becomes shaken, like the waves of the sea that are tossed and driven by the wind. Instead of a firm sense that God will do what He has promised, I’m left with doubt that He even hears me (or an arrogant hope that He will do whatever I want Him to do). Answered prayer requires faith, knowing the will of God and grabbing hold of what He says. 

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. (1 John 5:14–15)
Father, I am thinking of some prayers that never seem to be answered because I waffle between Your promises and what I see. I confess my double-mindedness and ask Your forgiveness. Help me to believe what You promise and always to pray in Your will. Grant me that assurance of “knowing” my prayers are on the right track, and the ability to persevere — until that day that Your promises are fulfilled.

October 24, 2011

Daily washed

Yesterday’s Sunday Bible study was about death to our selfish nature. No one argued that this was an easy issue. Every Christian knows that unless we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we have “me, myself and I” to contend with. In our sinfulness, we wanting to run things, even manage our Christian lives. This is impossible.

Jesus knew that, so He provided for even the daily struggle it causes. In a great act of His eternal love, He died once for all our sin, put us into the family of God and made us new creatures. However, what patience and love are demonstrated each day, even each hour, as He takes our self-centered follies and disobedience to the throne of grace and washes them away. We have been made clean, yet He continues to make us clean. He pointed forward to this eternal grace and mercy as He took aside His disciples to show them how to love one another. 

Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:5)
Jesus loves His people so much that every day He continues to do that which is illustrated in washing soiled feet. He took the role of a servant with this basin and towel. As our servant, He does what is needed, but also feels our sorrows, hears our desires, and forgives our acts of sin and selfishness. He is both our King and our Friend, our Master as He stands to intercede for us and our Servant as He goes among us with a basin and a towel.

Each day I confess my selfish attitudes and actions. So much of what I do is not worthy of my calling. Each day I experience His great patience when I ask to be forgiven and cleansed, hearing Him say, “I will, be thou clean.” He takes away my guilt and purifies my heart, washing me, changing me — a marvel of His incredible goodness.

To know eternal redemption is a great wonder. To know Christ’s daily patience and continual forgiveness of repeated sin and selfishness is perhaps a greater wonder. How many times have I said, “Oh no, I did it again” only to hear Him say that His blood is sufficient for every sin, or even to reply, “I died for that!”

He even says that I died with Him. In the act of redemption, I was crucified to sin, to the world, even to my selfishness. Yet that self-life (not my personality but my selfishness) remains. I am to consider it dead, treating it as a dead thing, but when it rears up to dismay me, I turn to the eternal patience of my Savior who still carries a basin and a towel.

Lord, Your great patience is a motivation for me. While I am grateful that You wash me clean again and again, I would be far better to obey You continually, not giving my selfishness any opportunity to usurp Your place on the throne of my heart. Yet I realize this battle will continue until my feet are on the threshold of eternity. I will need washing and cleansing until that one last time before all sin is gone. Thank You for your incredible grace in forgiving the lump sum of all my sin, and for even more, that daily You forgive and wash my repeated offenses. What a wonder! What a Savior!

October 23, 2011

Where else can we go?

After a busy day exploring new plans and ideas for our lives, my husband and I came home with our minds full and curiosity satisfied. However, a sudden and unexpected emotion fell on me. Our plans will involve good things, but some losses. I realized that my strong emotion was grief.

This stayed with me all night. As I read the following passage of Scripture today, I wonder if God was using this emotion to help me identify with the losses felt by Jesus.

In the following passage, the Lord offers eternal life to those who will believe in Him. He tells them that the intimacy of this belief will include participation in His very life. Most of them don’t get it. They were following Him, but this was too much for them. Because they did not believe, they turned away and were lost.

Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 
Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 
But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:47–65)
Jesus offers life and they grumbled? He offers them intimacy and they thought this was a hard saying? As I read Jesus’ next words, a wave of emotion hit me, like grief. Is this what Jesus felt?
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?”  (John 6:66–67)
He’d offered them eternal life, even His very self. He would be their source of strength, their very sustenance as they walked with Him. And they didn’t get it, or didn’t want it, so they walked. I can hear the sorrow in His voice as He turns to the twelve, knowing that one of them would betray Him. “Do you want to go away as well?”

Is there a worse feeling than being abandoned and left entirely alone? He offered them His eternal presence and they walked away, as if to leave Him abandoned and alone. Of course He was never alone as He Himself had that eternal life and intimacy with His Father that He now offered them. Yet there is such great sorrow in His question.

But then Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68–69)

Peter had reached that place in his spiritual journey where he realized there is nothing else or no one else who can offer and deliver eternal life. He knew that Jesus was no mere teacher or prophet. He knew that he had no other options. He would stay, even though he didn’t fully understand what Jesus was talking about.

Jesus’ must have smiled, not for His own sake (as I would have in that same situation), but for delight that Peter, using “we” and speaking for the others, would accept the offer even though it was a hard saying and he did not really get it. His acceptance was not about knowing everything, but about knowing Jesus. He knew this blessed and Holy man was of God and from God. He trusted Jesus because of who He is, not because he could wrap his mind around all that Jesus said.

Lord, I feel the pathos in Your question. Yet I also feel the delight in Peter’s statement of faith. This describes how I often think when faced with perplexities and questions about You that I do not understand. If I cannot figure out life, I’m faced with the same dilemma; to whom shall I go? Only You have the words of eternal life. No one else can guarantee that. No matter how strange Your words seem, I know who You are and have experienced You as the Bread of Life. Whatever else life brings, I can find all the sustenance that I need — in You, even when I don’t understand.

October 22, 2011

Blindness to unconditional Love

While he may not have intended it, Spurgeon’s morning and evening readings often pack a one-two punch. For this date, he speaks of God’s freely offered love to those who have turned away from God, and of Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit will reveal truth to God’s people when they are ready to hear it. 
I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. (Hosea 14:4)
As the devotional writer says, the key word in this verse is “freely” and the reason God can do this is that all anger against sin and apostasy has been poured out on Christ. Jesus died for the sins of every person. That includes every sin, including the sin of backsliding away from Him. How can He love like this? The Bible says that He loved the world and gave His Son to die for us. Not only that, He continues to love the world because His Son died for our sin and self-centeredness that makes us so incredibly unlovable.

God’s love has no conditions attached, no demands to be better people first. Instead, He says that while we were yet sinners, Jesus died for us (Romans 5:8). We cannot earn His love nor do anything to deserve it. Those who are trying to “stay on the good side of God” have, in a sense, rejected His freely offered love for a position that focuses on their worthiness (which is nonexistent) instead of on His amazing grace.

Some also measure the love of God by their personal comfort and success in life, not realizing that His love isn’t about baubles and short-term trinkets. His love is eternal and about the issues that really matter. He offers us sinners eternal life — freely! He offers His people the power of His Spirit to rise above all that challenges us.

God’s people in the days of Hosea had sinned in turning from Him, yet God called them back and offered healing. In all of their disobedience and unbelief, He still loves them (and us) freely.

Later, Jesus came. He is the love of God personified. His life and death not only demonstrate the love offer made, but He is the offer. What more can God do to demonstrate His love? Romans 8:32 says, “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all thing?”

Why do so many insist on creeds and rules and doing things certain ways lest they anger God? Why do so many think that if they are not following the dogma of their religious system they will be lost? Jesus says it is due to blindness in their heart. He told His disciples . . . 

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:12–15)
This is the rub. The human heart is corrupted by sin to the point that it cannot accept or even understand the totality of God’s offer. Even those who follow Jesus can be oblivious to many spiritual realities because they are not ready to hear them. God knows our hearts. He can show anyone truth — when we are ready to hear it.

On my prayer list are dozens of people who have heard the Gospel and know at least the words of John 3:16. They are either not interested or busy trying to deserve the love of God by their religious activities. I’ve learned that even though I have many things I would like to say to them, they cannot bear, sustain, or receive them, at least not now. To their ears, the freely offered love of God is a foggy puzzle, a jumble of words.

These verses remind me that the Holy Spirit guides those who cannot hear (me included) into all truth. I need to speak of the freely offered love of God, but also act in ways that show His love is unconditional and does not have to be earned. However, only the Holy Spirit can drive this reality home by taking what is of Jesus and declaring it to those who need to hear it.

I cannot explain why everyone is not hearing about this freely offered love except that Jesus says some are not ready to hear it. This is love too. Just as we lovingly wait for maturity before we tell our children about many realities of life, God also lovingly waits until we are ready.

Father, it is with bittersweet emotions that I think of these things. I’m glad that You open hearts and that You know when people are ready to know truth. But I ache and deeply desire that Your freely poured out love means something to so many people who are oblivious to it right now. Give me wisdom. Help me know how and when to share this amazing love with others. Yet I also realize only You can open their eyes and ears and hearts to Your incredible grace.

October 21, 2011

Impulses and Distractions

Last night I was kept awake thinking of the many options in my life. I prayed about these, seeking the will of God. I also asked questions about the importance of some of my activities. Does it matter if my house is clean and tidy? Does it matter if I write a novel? Does it matter if I finish projects I’ve lost interest in? To complicate my choices, I am interested in everything and have a mind that is easily distracted, likely adult ADHD. Focus on one thing for any period of time seems almost impossible.

This morning, I’m challenged by Oswald Chambers who writes about living by impulse. He says that Jesus never lived that way nor was He coldly intent on His plans without regard for any interruptions. (I’ve tried that; it doesn’t work.) Instead, Jesus had a calm strength that never got into a panic, no matter what popped up before Him.

For me, this describes the lessons of my years of a Christian. God has been trying to teach me not to heed my impulses nor live according to my temperament. He continually checks my blurting and distraction-motivated actions. His convictions produce self-consciousness and the realization that I have not been praying, or that I am not trusting Him. Far too often, I am motivated by whim or that natural part of me that is interested in everything and not able to easily focus on one thing. Chambers says this is “all right in a child, but it is disastrous in a man or woman” and that such behavior must be “trained into intuition by discipline.”

He is right. Impulse is not the same as that intuitive knowing that this is what God wants me to do and jumping to quickly do it. Intuition is related to faith and obedience. Impulse is more akin to selfish desires to be somebody or prove myself. It could be what Peter did when he saw Jesus walking on water . . . 

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” (Matthew 14:28–30)
Chambers describes Peter getting out of the boat as an easy thing for “impulsive pluck.” Peter wanted to do something big and bold, and humanly speaking, most of us can rise to such a spectacular action. Peter only had to see the wind and waves to realize he was not sufficient for this task!

I understand this impulsive pluck. I’ve jumped into things without a thought whether or not Jesus wanted me to do it. I’ve also heard Him say, “Do this . . .” and did it without question. These actions may externally appear to be the same, but they are not. I know when it is me showing off and when Jesus grants grace to do something beyond my ability.

Chambers points out that most people, even non-Christians, can stand in a crisis. When it happens, adrenalin and human nature rise to the occasion. For me, this is what living on impulse is like. I get a grand idea and can carry it off without talking to God and without any thought of my need for grace. Perhaps He supplies it anyway, but this is not how He wants me to live.

Instead, and I know this is true, I need the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours a day, every day, as His child, walking on water or walking on dry land. He will not ask for the extraordinary unless I am also able to rely on Him in ordinary, unobserved, even ignored activities of obedience. Pride and impulse calls me to do exceptional things for God, but He seldom asks exceptional actions. He just asks me to be exceptional in ordinary things, to be holy in ordinary life around ordinary people. This is not something I can learn in five minutes, nor check off my daily to-do list.

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Lord, these are not new thoughts. You make it clear to me that being a godly person is a 24/7 calling, with or without an audience, and with or without clear directions. I have my to-do lists and You have taught me to do them as Your child, but also to consider interruptions as opportunities to be godly. The bigger challenge for me is ignoring the impulses to go out where You have not called me and instead live by the Spirit all the time. I cannot do this. I cannot can I chart my own path nor can I escape the way my brain is wired. You are my Savior. I’m depending on You to help me push aside those impulses to follow the distractions that fly through my head and listen only to what You are telling me to do.

October 20, 2011

Starvation produces starvation

Photographs of starving children haunt me. The United Nations Food and Agriculture division says one in twelve people worldwide is malnourished, including 160 million children under the age of five. Other statistics say between six and eleven million children starve to death each year.

The Bible calls God’s people to live out their faith by taking care of widows and orphans. We are charged to feed and clothe the needy, yet sadly, this is not putting a dent in those statistics. Part of the problem is that authorities in needy countries exploit the poor by confiscating any aid sent and use it for themselves. But a bigger problem is that many of God’s people are children themselves, infants in the faith and without the maturity that pays heed to what God asks of us. Instead, we are too busy with our own wants and desires, like spoiled children.

As I read the following passage this morning, I thought of the various ways God provides growing experiences so that I can be mature and not tossed about by false teaching or my own selfishness. 

And (Christ) gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11–16)
First, Christ gives gifted leadership to equip His people. Leadership is important to growth. Without mature examples, help, teaching and guidance, God’s people remain children in their faith. This has implications. How many who profess to be Christians are not attending church, not availing themselves of good instruction, or are not willing to listen to correction or anything that brings them into greater obedience? Without submission to this provision from God, the children starve.

What about those who are in church? Jesus gives leadership to equip them for ministry but in many churches, His people sit every Sunday hearing truth intended to equip them. They have what they need to go out and do something for others and for the glory of God. But they don’t go. They are “too busy” or have other excuses. Without us using our “equipping” to serve others, the children starve.

Another way God’s people grow up in Christ is by speaking the truth in love. I teach a ladies class using discussion methods. I tell the women that if they cannot speak up and say what they know about God in the safety of a class like this, how can they ever speak the truth to those who have never heard it? How can we be faithful witnesses to the power of God if we cannot open our mouths and tell people of  His greatness? Not only that, as this verse says, speaking up makes us grow up. Just saying what we believe produces maturity in us! Without that, we remain babes — sometimes starving babes.

The last part of the passage in Ephesians is about unity. Speaking truth and growing to maturity produces unity. This means that the Body of Christ is working as it should, loving one another and loving others, taking care of needs and obeying God. Unity is vital to the work of ministering to others. Without it, the children perish.

Sometimes the pictures of starving children make me feel so totally helpless that I just weep. What can one person do for millions? God offers opportunities for generosity, and it is important that I obey Him when He does. I need also to mature and keep growing myself, so that I am ready and willing to do as the Lord asks. He can take even five loaves and two fishes to feed a multitude. Whatever I can offer, He can multiply.

However, He also gives me opportunities to equip the saints, the sleeping saints, the immature saints, the children tossed to and fro. Each child of God alone cannot do very much for the woes of this world, but collectively we are a mighty army. When we are joined and held together with each joint working properly, we are a Body of love and no longer children tossed about — or too busy with our toys to think about the needs of others.

Lord, the people of God are Your answer to much of the world’s need. While we cannot “fix” it apart from Your power and Your direction, Your Word gives us clear instruction. It seems that the Body of Christ could do far more than it is. I am part of that Body. Speak and help me listen. Give me direction and help me to grow up and do what You want done.
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October 19, 2011

Christian maturity

Much earlier in my Christian life I’d read several books by well-known Christian authors. In my mind, they were giants of the faith and I was excited when given the opportunity to go to a woman’s conference near Chicago and meet some of them. I learned far more about spirituality that weekend than I expected.

One of those writers arrived on the front steps of the lecture hall the same time I did. I don’t know what I expected, but was surprised at her ordinary appearance. She could easily have been the mother next door, hair uncombed, stirring cookie batter, wearing an apron and talking about petunias.

The plenary speaker told of locking herself in the bathroom the night before and sleeping on the cold tiles in her nightgown until she realized the door opened the other way. Another speaker told of being followed in a store by someone she thought was a shy fan, until the other woman told her she had her skirt on inside-out.

God used that weekend to show me that I should never put the saints of God on a pedestal. The are like me, and I know that I don’t belong up there either. Elevating others in this way demonstrates that I am living according to the flesh, which is my old sin nature and opposed to true spirituality.

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? (1 Corinthians 3:1–4)
In these verses, only two fleshy attitudes are identified. Both are things that small children do, so Paul calls these activities of infants in Christ. The first is jealousy. Every time I see what others have and want it for myself, I am behaving in a childish human way. The Spirit of Christ is not like this. Romans 12:15 says I should, “Rejoice with those who rejoice,” not want whatever they have that makes them happy.

This might be about material things, but it can also be spiritual achievements. I could be jealous of someone’s ministry, a writer’s success at selling books, a teacher’s ability to get a point across. I could want the spiritual gifts others have or the places of honor they have been given. All this is fleshy, infant behavior.

The second fleshy attitude is strife. The people at Corinth were fighting over who had the best leader. I’ve heard similar strife over who listens to the best preacher, or who attends the best or biggest church. Strife can also cover almost every area of life. Babes and little children will fight over anything, from whose dad is the strongest to who has the best toys, to who has the best method for getting cookies out of the cookie jar.

Both jealousy and strife come out of people who are trying to be the best and defend their position. Christianity is not about this. Those who are mature in their faith know where they stand with God. They are content with His care and trust His wisdom in what He has chosen for their lives. They don’t need to enter the pecking order or try to be what they are not. They don’t fight over trivia or anything else that will divide them.

Whether I put others on a pedestal or try to climb up there myself, I am acting like a child, a human yes, but spiritual no. If I am motivated by jealousy or insecurity over who I am, then I don’t know nor am I living by the realities of who I am in Jesus Christ.

Since that experience at the women’s conference, I have met many famous writers and preachers. Seeing them as fellow members of the Body of Christ makes a huge difference in the encounter. Instead of putting them in the awkward position of what to do with idol-expectations, they can talk to me as a spiritual person, recognizing that I am interested in them. When I have no envy and am not using them to feed my ego or prove my own worth by being in their company, not only am I set free from fleshy behavior, but so are they.

Father, this is an important and ongoing lesson. I still run into people who are smarter, or more spiritual, or in some way outstanding, and I am tempted by fleshy responses. I want to prove myself, or brag that I know them, or do some silly thing that is not of Your Spirit but from my immaturity. Thank You for the lessons of the past and for Your present and future care to help me grow up and more consistently have the right attitude.

October 18, 2011

What is that in your hand?

Years ago, I spent hours in front of an easel with paints and brushes. At times, supper was late and my chores undone. Even though I sold these paintings and used the money for missionary support, I felt that God was not pleased with my neglect of other duties. It seemed that I should stop this activity and give full attention to my home and family.

For a long time, I never touched a paintbrush, even gave my supplies to someone else. However, the oddest emotions gripped me every time I was in a store that featured art supplies. I’m still not able to describe it, but it seemed as if deep was calling to deep and I was saying NO to a part of who I am. Was this God? Or my selfish desires?

In today’s devotional from My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers writes of missionary motivation. He refers to this fragment of a verse: “For His name’s sake they went forth” from 3 John 7.

In his comments, he describes how we should show our love for Jesus by being interested in people and their needs just as He is interested in them. He points to Peter’s experience when the Lord asked him, “Do you love me?” After Peter replied that he did, Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” The Lord affirms that loving Him means taking care of others, and as Paul wrote later, this love is about attitude as much as it is about actions. 

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. . . . (1 Corinthians 13:4–8)
Love is also practical and active, focused on relationships. It is also the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit who sheds abroad the love of God in my heart. His love can pour through me to others. I need to build relationships so that can happen, and I remain loyal to His name’s sake when I love others in this way. Chambers says anything else is sentimental jargon.

Here is the rub: the key to devotion to Christ has nothing to do with being detached from external things. Jesus wasn’t, at least in the sense that I gave up painting. He was involved in life, eating and drinking with sinners, walking in the fields with His disciples. He had a mission but He was also a carpenter. While the Bible gives little space to His vocation, it is clear on one important thing: His detachment was not about shunning externals but was on the inside in utter devotion toward God.

Chambers says this, “External detachment is often an indication of a secret vital attachment to the things we keep away from externally.” This statement hits me and explains my emotions in the art supply stores. He goes on to say that the loyalty of those in Christian service is about keeping our souls open to the nature of the Lord Jesus Christ. God sends out ordinary humans with a dominating devotion to Himself. It is not about giving up who we are, but about doing as He says and caring about people.

God has directed and redirected my artistic bent, using it to bring me in contact with people. While I’ve mistakenly resisted paints and brushes, He worked out other ways to use creative endeavor (either mine or mutual interest) to bring me closer to others and often giving opportunity to share His love with them. It has taken me a long time to realize that it wasn’t creative ability that God wanted me to drop, but the selfishness involved. Instead, He wants to use those abilities as a channel for His blessing.

Lord, You have shown me again and again that You can use any interest or occupation as an arena for demonstrating Your love. Even human hobbies and other interests can be wonderful connecting points with people, particularly those who are not yet interested in loving or serving You. Rather than letting my varied interests become an obsession, they are tools in Your hand (much like Moses’ staff became a tool in his hand and Yours). Forgive me for taking so long to see that it is okay to use the tools, not throw them away and think that being empty-handed makes me more useful. At the same time, help me to keep my focus on bringing glory to Your name and using whatever You put in my hands to that end.

October 17, 2011

Fully Employed

One day I went for my usual prayer walk. My to-do list for the day was long and looming over my head. I felt a bit resentful that prayer was going to take some valuable time and expressed this to God along with my need to get my work done. He clearly said to me, “Prayer is your work.”

Since that rebuke, I’ve not grumbled about the time it takes to pray. However, I’d never connected prayer to John 14:12, a verse that has always puzzled me, until this morning while reading it in its context.

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14:12–14)
Oswald Chambers says that “prayer does not fit us for greater work; prayer is the greater work.” I once thought that prayer would prepare me for the day, give me strength and wisdom to do the Lord’s work, and keep me focused on Him. However, after God rebuked me, I’ve learned to agree with Chambers. Prayer is the greater ministry. It is the most important work, perhaps the only work that He asks of me that is truly effective.

As Chambers says, prayer is God working the miracle of Redemption in me that produces the miracle of Redemption in others by His power. This isn’t about me agonizing and wrestling in prayer though. It is based on “the agony of Redemption” and on what Jesus has done. It has taken me a long time to realize that wise words and “proper” praying are not what God answers. He wants prayer from the redeemed which means my fleshy ideas of prayer are not important. Instead, He hears and responds to childlike helplessness and the realization that this is not about me.

Prayer is also the battle of Christian living. I fight sin and indifference. I wrestle with false teaching and the devil’s lies, but none of these are nearly as challenging as taking the needs of the world to the throne of grace in the name of Jesus. Prayer, as Jesus defines it, is hard work.

I can easily pray in my own name and with my list of I-wants. I can easily tell God what I think He should be doing (such impertinence), but praying in the name of Christ because He asks me to do it requires the Spirit of God and the power of God. I cannot do this on my own and I don’t even want to.

Of course, the flesh likes the answers even if it recoils at the work. I love it when God answers prayer in ways that I can see. This thrill tends to become a motivation, but what about praying without ever seeing the answers? This adds to the difficulty of the work. A small comparison is the tedium of a factory assembly line where the workers do their small part and never see the finished product. The only way to avoid this is remembering that I am talking to the Creator of the Universe and that He promised to listen and respond. I cannot see into His realm unless He opens that to me. Instead, He asks that I walk by faith, not sight, and that I work hard in prayer.

Answered prayer can also be a glory for me. I love to stand and tell others that God answered my prayers, as if the “my” side had something to do with the answer. But Jesus said that the glory is not for me, but for the Father to be glorified in the Son. This makes prayer a totally unselfish task, one that is difficult to sustain without wanting something in it for me.

Clearly, prayer is my work. Is there a reward involved? When a servant does his duty, can he expect anything, even a “well done” when finished? Do I fall into thinking that answers are my reward rather than simply the privilege of being in the throne room with the King of kings?

Chambers surprises me with the last lines of his reading for today. He says, “You labor at prayer and results happen all the time from God’s standpoint. What an astonishment it will be to find, when the veil is lifted, the souls that have been reaped by you, simply because you had been in the habit of taking your orders from Jesus Christ.”

Jesus, I am ashamed that I often feel neglected when the answers to my prayers do not come as quickly as I’d hoped or in the same manner as I expected. I know that talking to You is an incredible privilege. It is also my God-given task. You are the Lord, so I do not choose my work hours or the places where I am to be working. Nor can I dictate the rewards or the results of my labor.

Not only that, You are in charge and You have given Your commands. I am to ask in Your name, seek Your glory, and trust that praying is a great work because You say it is — whether or not I can see what comes of it. Forgive me for the slack times, the times that I either am late or do not show up at all. I know that in spite of my failures, You will never kick me off the job. Instead, You keep calling me to work, to pray without ceasing. 

(Photo credit)

October 16, 2011

My Best Friend

Last Sunday we spent most of the afternoon in fellowship with a Christian couple we’d not seen for a year or two. Last night we stayed up late visiting with another couple we see more frequently. How rich these occasions occupy our memories. God blesses His people with wonderful friendships.

This unity and enjoyment are largely because of the Holy Spirit whom we share. He makes possible a deeper common interest than hobbies, family life or work. Because of Him we have agreement on eternal matters. We even laugh at the same foibles because these are our common quirks and struggle with the same sins for these also are common to our human experience.

Yet even with the transparency and intimacy of such good friendships, I know that no one and nothing can take the place of my relationship with Jesus. If that should happen, I would find myself with a barrenness that no human help or counsel could fill. As Spurgeon says in today’s reading, anything becomes an idol when it keeps us away from God, and He does not want me to fall into idolatry.

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light. (Psalm 36:9)
Jesus is the fountain. Sometimes He manifests Himself through His people and that open fellowship is sweet. Yet even this is not sufficient for our thirst if we abandon communion with Him and try relying solely on His people.

Is there a balance to strive for, a formula that can keep me from replacing Jesus with others? Not that I know of. This is a matter of the heart. If I pay attention to my own motivations, then I know when I’ve begun to crave human fellowship over time with Him, and when I need to withdraw and drink from the Living water that He offers.

Why would this straying happen anyway? For me, it happens because I have that human desire to walk by sight instead of faith, to see God “with skin on” for this satisfies my human senses, at least for a little while. However, walking by faith is much more difficult and depends on a deeper knowledge of God than my soul can forge. He calls me to a spiritual union, a spiritual intimacy that is found only in helplessness, humility, contriteness of heart and a deep sense of barrenness and need. For the most part, those are not “feel good” conditions.

Yet Jesus is the fountain of life, not a tap for the merely thirsty, but life itself for those who would otherwise be overwhelmed by death. I can enjoy that shared life to some degree with my friends, but it actually can be drawn only from Jesus.

The verse from Psalm 36 also speaks of His light and this is a parallel principle. My friends enlighten me at times, but for them and for me, Jesus is the Light, our source of truth. If I seek illumination from others, they may or may not have it. What they have can be clouded, misunderstood, or simply for them and not for me. Only Jesus can speak “rhema” — that special word from Him that is directly to my need.

God, I am so thankful for good friends and wonderful times of fellowship with them. You bless us in our relationships as no one else can. I am also so thankful that You are my best friend and I can have deeply intimate fellowship with You that goes beyond friendship. You give light into all the dark places and perplexities of life that no one else can; You fully understand my heart and my needs. Even more, You are my source of life itself, the very fountain that quenches every thirst and satisfies all my needs. Praise Your name!

October 15, 2011

Jesus is not finished revealing God

An artist uses the effects of atmosphere to layer the mountains and hills. That is, their order and distance are defined by the value of the colors used in the painting. Pale blues and violets depict those features that are the farthest away and brighter colors with more contrast are used for the closest hills. By this, viewers know the depth of the vista portrayed before them.

Old Testament prophecies speak of future events, but usually do not give the order in which those events will happen. The prophets may not have even realized those several events were separated by layers of time. Often a suffering Savior and a conquering king were predicted in the same verses. Readers could easily assume that both descriptions were of one appearance, not two events, like looking at two mountains painted the same color. This understanding caused confusion when Jesus came the first time. The Jews thought He came to conquer their enemies and free them from Roman rule. Instead, He came to seek and to save sinners, suffering and dying for us.

Now that we have seen the closest mountain, His first appearing, it is easier to discern the events described for that mountain that is farther away — His second coming which the prophets also announced. Yet even with this perspective on these two events, some of those prophecies still seem to be about both.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. (Malachi 3:2)
Spurgeon points out that the first coming of Jesus Christ had no external “pomp or show of power” yet there were few who stood the test of that appearance. He came to wash our sin away and refine our hearts. Even though Herod and all Jerusalem were stirred at the news of His birth, those who supposedly waited for Him wound up rejecting and crucifying Him. They didn’t want to be washed, refined, or even informed that they needed it.

In that way, His first appearance (like the second will do to a greater degree) separated the sheep from the goats, the repentant from the self-righteous. At that time, the world became divided concerning His identity and right to rule over them. It still is divided about Jesus. This makes me wonder what will it be like when He returns to judge the world. If sinners could not abide His presence the first time, what will happen to them at the second? 

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. (Revelation 19:15)
People talk of Jesus being the full revelation of God, meek and mild and One who would never do those things that the God of the Old Testament did. Yet they forget that God is not finished revealing Himself in Jesus Christ. The first time we saw His grace and mercy that we might be drawn to Him for salvation. While we deserve wrath and judgment, yet by the sacrifice and salvation offered in Christ, God does not deal with us as our sins warrant.

Not so with the second appearance. That meek Lamb of God will come again, this time as the Lion of Judah. The same Jesus who said to the soldiers in the garden of Gethsemane, “I am He” and they fell backward will fully reveal Himself as the “I am” — the Judge of the whole earth. This Jesus is also “the radiance of His glory and the exact image of His person” (Hebrews 1:3)

At His first coming, gentle Jesus would not break a bruised reed, yet at His second, He will break his enemies with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. At the first appearing, His death shook the earth and darkened heaven. At His second, He will summon those who are both alive and dead and call for judgment. The Bible says that for fear some will forsake their sins and “kiss the Son lest he be angry” yet no foe will withstand His wrath, or be able to hide themselves from His judgment.

Yet the wonder is that with all its terror, those who love Jesus are looking forward to this second appearing with joy, and hope. To us, He is a refiner even now, but we do not resist the fire of His Holy Spirit. We know that as He tests and tries us, we will come forth as gold, gold that cannot be destroyed in the fire. We are saved from His wrath because of the blood He shed when He came the first time. His second coming is not a threat because the wrath that we deserve has been placed on Him. We are no longer condemned.

The Bible warns all those who name the name of Jesus to make our calling and election sure. It warns all who are still in their sin to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ. The second coming should cause no fear or dread in our hearts, only eager anticipation.

God, I’m so thankful for Your grace. There is nothing in me that can earn or deserve the mercy You have shown. Without Your goodness, I would never have turned from sin to follow Your Son. Without grace and the gift of faith, I deserve judgment. Forgive me for taking Your love for granted. Forgive also those who mistakenly think that meek and mild is the final revelation. One day the Lion of Judah will fully reveal Your holiness and Your anger against the sin You are teaching me to hate. At the same time, I’m grateful that Your grace has covered me. Because of the blood of the Lamb shed for sin, Your wrath will pass over me and all those who trust in Your appearing — both the first time and for that promised second appearance.

October 14, 2011

Walking in the Light He gives

In making decisions and seeking the will of God, my husband often says, “He doesn’t leave a note on the night table.”

He is right. Even though entire books have been written on how to know the will of God, Christians are often puzzled in trying to find out what God wants from us. Some verses in the Bible clearly say, “This is the will of God. . . . ” then go on to describe some aspect of what He desires, yet many of these are general, not specific. We have questions like: Where do we live? What school should I go to? Which job offer do I accept?

The biggest problem I have with seeking the will of God is my own I-wants and the opinions of others so easily interfere. I cannot hear God because these other voices drown Him out. Yet in all of that, one verse gives me a great deal of instruction. For a long time I’ve read it in a general way, but this morning I see how to use it specifically.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
If I cannot figure out the will of God for specific questions or issues, perhaps it is because I am thinking like the world thinks. That is, I measure the pros and cons by what will make me the most comfortable, give me the most control, use my skills to best advantage, and reward me with the best return. By doing this mental hoop-jumping, my focus makes the choices all about me.

The will of God is not all about me. It is about overcoming sin and loving others. Romans 12 begins by telling me to present my body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is my spiritual worship. After the next verse on mind renewal and its importance in knowing God’s will, it says to watch my attitude toward myself (no pride) and to use the gifts God has given me. Then it says . . . 

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:9–18)
Most of these verses are about dealing with sin, loving others and serving the Lord God with a godly attitude. Clearly God’s will is general in the sense that He wants me to do everything in a Christlike way. That I understand. But the specifics of the to-do list can be confusing. What order? What is least important? Should some things be scratched off? Others added?

As I read Romans 12:2, the Holy Spirit poked me with this thought: What is on your list because of a worldly attitude, because of your need for a renewed mind? Are you trying to make choices because you are thinking like those who do not know me?

This gets my attention. For example, I have taken on ministry projects because the role became vacant and they were not being very well done. I thought I could do the job in a more effective way. My prideful attitude resulted in many hard lessons about serving others before I finally realized that my motivation was not God’s will.

God says His choices are not based on our wisdom and skills. Instead, He looks for those who will obey Him. Knowing His will is not about measuring myself according to what I can do, or what I think I can do, or even what others think I can do. It is about doing what He asks.

This is something like walking a dark path with a flashlight. The only clearly defined steps are the ones right in front of me. As I move into that well-lit part of the path, the flashlight moves to the next step and the next. If I stop and refuse to go farther, then I cannot see farther.

When author and missionary Elizabeth Elliot was asked how she managed her time. She said, “I do the next thing. I almost always know what that is.”

She is right. While the next thing could be difficult, or seem not very important, or even be an interruption or unexpected issue, I always know what needs to be done. My problem is never that, but with wanting to see farther than the flashlight shines. I want to make a life-plan, or at least a week-plan or sometimes just a plan for the day. So I make out my list, but at the same time am so very aware that I do not control what happens next.

The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)
The world’s way is being able to see what is ahead and prepare for it. The Lord’s will is that I walk by faith, not by sight, trusting Him for the next step. The world’s way is order and confidence, making plans with goals and clearly outlined procedures to reach those goals. While God is not the author of confusion, His way is not about an orderly and prioritized to-do list, but to keep my eyes on Jesus and my ears tuned to His voice. I’m to do what He says, regardless whether or not it fits my desires, or any structure or visible procedure.

From this reading today, I’m aware that I need to be cautious about making plans and decisions according to the world’s methods. Christian living is not about “what’s in it for me” or even about what makes sense to me. It is about glorifying God and obeying His commands. Examining my motives is often painful, but it is also a big part of taking that next step that will bring further light to my path.

Lord, right now I know what You want me to do next. You invite me to prayer. After that, I know that I must do three things from my list that have deadlines and have other people depending on their completion. After that, I have lots of ideas, but Your will could be different from any of them. Give me ears to hear You and a heart to walk ahead, always moving in the light that You give me. Thank You for Your guidance and for nudging me in the direction of Your good, acceptable and perfect will.