Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Blessing — goes both ways

In Hebrew, bless means to kneel down, adore, and is often used of our response to God. In Greek, this word is to give blessing, make happy, even speak well of, and often refers what God does for us. These verses contain both ideas.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:2–5)
Because of what God does, I bow before Him in adoration. He blesses me; I bless Him. If all that He does in blessing me speaks of how I should respond to Him, then there are some interesting implications.

For instance, God forgives all my iniquities. My sins are real and an affront to Him and to His holiness. What about reversing this? What about those “evil” things that happen to me, things that I know are under the sovereign control of Almighty God. Do I think God has sinned? Do I need to “forgive” Him?

Even though God has not sinned against me, I can be upset and angry at circumstances in my life. Because God is in charge, isn’t a complaining attitude very much the same as being angry at Him? If He blesses me with forgiveness, the least I can do is bless Him with acceptance, even thanksgiving. To bless God means to speak well of Him, even when life seems unfair.

Tied to this is the next line; He heals all my diseases. God has no sin or sickness for which I could bless with healing. However, do I ever think that He has made mistakes, is careless or forgetful — as if He has no consideration and some sort of dementia? My attitude toward life and the events of life is a direct reflection of my view of God. Do I bless Him when life seems skewed, remembering that He is totally whole and well and without flaw?

These verses talk about redemption from the pit. God redeemed me from a life of sin. This is the core of why I ought to always bless Him. There is no counterpart in Him where this can be a two-way blessing. He is the sinless Savior. I am the undeserving sinner. But I can bless Him with steadfast love. I can satisfy Him with good thoughts, good words, good deeds. He has done so much for me.

In blessing God, I remember all His blessings on my life. But even in the act of blessing Him, He turns it to become a blessing for me! Offering Him praise and adoration results in a renewal of my own spirit. When I am thankful for all that He does, my energy returns. He makes me feel young again.

Do I realize how heavy is the weight of thankless griping? I know guilt adds lines to my face, but do I realize that a constant resistance to His will takes its toll also? When I am upset with people, am I not seeking the will of God but my own? When I am upset with life’s events, big and small, am I not angry at God for not letting me have my own way?

Further, some of the biggest tests of life are little things like my response to being misunderstood, or interrupted, or ignored. The hand of God offers blessing. Those blessings can be hidden in trials, even those trials. He does say to rejoice when negatives happen (James 1) for He has purpose in them for my good. Can I bless God in trials, even the small ones that I generally think are annoyances in my life?

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God, I asked this morning for light that I would need today. Right now, the sun is shining and all is peaceful and calm. Do You have some small tests in mind for me? Will You be looking for a blessing even if the events of this day are unpleasant from my perspective?  Or will this day continue as it started making it easy to praise Your name?

Forgive me for sometimes being a fair-weather follower that blesses You only when I like what You are doing. Your blessings are not like that. You bless me no matter what I say and do. You take care of me even though I do not deserve even the least of Your blessings. May I speak well of You and adore You no matter what happens today or any day.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! (Psalm 103:1)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Predators that spoil the vines

Fatigue is my catchword excuse for it, but it really is not fatigue. It is that sense of tiredness that comes with clutter. This isn’t the clutter of unwashed dishes and stuff that needs to be put where it belongs, although that can create a similar feeling. Instead, it is the clutter of small sins that are indulged but not confessed. Like unrelated knickknacks, they become scattered in the soul and eventually become heavy. I feel like my life needs a load lifted, but sleep will not do it.
Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom. (Song of Solomon 2:15)
Christians have used this verse about little foxes to describe things like passing on one tidbit of gossip, blurting out one unkind word, allowing just a little selfish indulgence, fudging the truth when it didn’t seem to matter much. After a few hours or a few days of this, the little foxes have spoiled the vineyards and no spiritual fruit is produced.

Sometimes I feel like I want to sleep all day because of fatigue, but need to discern whether or not this problem is actually those little foxes. Like any predator, they need to be identified, trapped and put out of my life.

How do they get past my defenses and hatred of sin in the first place? For the most part, at the time each doesn’t seem to be a big deal, but Jesus didn’t die for small reasons. In Him, there are no shades of sin. They either exist or do not. He allows that sense of heaviness and clutter to exist. Guilt, like pain, signals that something is wrong and needs attention. This is the real name for that cluttered feeling.

The good news is that He who convicts of sin also provides the cure for it. He died to pay its penalty. He lives to give us victory. In Him there is both forgiveness and cleansing. He can and often does de-clutter my life. He also gives the necessary discipline to prevent getting caught up in sin, giving me the safe guards to keep out the foxes. This discipline, like any other, requires effort on my part, first in thinking rightly about who I am and what I have in Jesus Christ. 

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:6–11)
Spurgeon asks Christians why we mess with it; hasn’t it cost enough already? Why would a burned child play with fire, or someone who had already been caught in the jaws of lion step again into its den? Have we not experienced Satan’s bite without playing around in his realm?

Sin is a big disappointment. At first, it seems either harmless or a promise of satisfaction, but this is never true. If it did, we would go back and wear its chains again, but no genuine Christian wants to do that. We have Christ’s mind and His hatred of sin.

Not only that, sin is never cheap. If it doesn’t land me in serious trouble in a real and physical way, it puts my soul in distress and makes me feel tired of life. I could say big sins do the former, and little sins do the latter, but in God’s evaluation of sin, there is no difference. Foxes are foxes, no matter how they are measured.

For those without Christ and those who know Him, the initial step to freedom from guilt and sin is the same. 1 John 1:9 says: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

For Christians, that cleansed and clutter-free life also depends on learning to consider myself dead to sin and alive to God. A dead person responds to no stimulus, no temptation. Being dead to sin puts those little foxes outside the fence. Being alive to God also robs the foxes of their allure.

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Lord, sometimes You overlook my little foxes until I wind up with an entire “leash” or “skulk” of them (words for a group of foxes). These are vivid and appropriate words to also describe the sin with which the Bible associates little foxes. I don’t want to be led astray on a leash of sin regardless of its size, nor do I want to skulk around trying to pretend that all is okay and that I’ve never done anything wrong. I want the vineyard of my life to blossom and produce the fruits of righteousness and praise. As I spend time in prayer this morning, reveal each fox that I might confess it — and that You might put it out of my life.

(Photo credit)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

I need the wrath of God

Several people that I know promote peace, which is good, but theirs is a form of peace that will compromise what the Bible says in the name of unity, rather than stand firm on God’s Word and offend someone. This position distorts what Scripture says about God, even to putting an odd spin on the parts that do not agree with their concept of Him.

For instance, they have decided that wrath does not belong to God, that this a purely human and sinful trait. For them, God is never angry, nor should we be angry. Instead, He is meek, mild and passive, and we need to be like that too.

There is some truth in that. Our anger often has selfish and sinful motivations. We could do with a lot more meekness at times. However, some things should raise our hackles, and it is possible to be angry without sinning.

Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. (Ephesians 4:26–27)
As I understand Scripture, the wrath of God is without sin. He is holy, pure, and so far above us in character and nature that we cannot imagine or understand His purity. At the same time, He hates sin. What kind of a god would He be if He didn’t?
Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. (Psalm 45:6)
How could there be goodness in God if He was not angry at sin? Spurgeon even asks how could there be goodness in a person who was never angry at sin, who didn’t love truth and hate every false way? We are not to express this passion in sinful ways. Nevertheless, holy people should hate sin.

Those who think God is without wrath point to Jesus Christ as their image of God (which He is) but forget how Jesus hated sin when He was tempted. He hated it in others even though He showed this anger more often in tears of pity and sorrow than in words of rebuke.

However, consider the emotions behind these words: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees . . . ” which were repeated several times before a long list of condemnations that included, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).

Jesus hated wickedness so much that He bled to wound it to the core. He died that it might die, was buried that He might bury it and rose again that He might forever trample it beneath his feet.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is opposed to wickedness in every shape and form. When Jesus found it in the temple, He made a scourge of small cords and overturned it out of the temple. This was not the action of a pacifist.

He will not tolerate wickedness in my heart either. I have known His sorrow over sin, even His anger. I understand His abhorrence and wrath. As much as He loves me, so much also is His hatred of sin and His anger against all forms of wickedness.

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Lord, You are angry with the evil that tries to control and destroy Your people. It gave You such grief and emotion that You came to earth and laid down You life to conquer it. May those who try to write that out of Your character realize that by doing that and trying to imitate that, they are leaving themselves without the emotion needed to work with You in our battle against sin. Help me hate sin in myself as much as You hate it. May that anger against sin produce in me a passion that is willing to do whatever it takes to banish all sin from my heart.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Glimpses of heaven in the dark corners of life

Physicist Stephen Hawking now says that heaven is an invention of those who are afraid of the dark. How can he possibly know that heaven is not real? I’m always amazed by the conclusions made by people who have not been there. I would rather to take the word of those who know for certain what they are talking about.

Jesus Christ came from the presence of God and returned there. He has lots to say about heaven, even more to say about the alternative. Because of who He is, I choose to believe Him. However, His eyewitness account also has support from others who have not been to heaven yet, but have experienced a taste of it on earth.

The most amazing accounts of life with faith in God (and belief in heaven) are not from people who know earthly delights and call it “heaven on earth.” Rather, they are from those who have experienced a taste of glory in the middle of terrible strife. Life for them has been rotten and full of sorrows, but in the midst of it, the assurance of the glory of God gives them hope.

Jeremiah was one of these people. He was not a popular prophet in his day. When he told the leaders of the land what God was going to do because of their idolatry and disobedience, they dropped him into a miry cistern. Knowing all that happens is either directed or permitted by the hand of God who is sovereign, he attributes his sorrows to Him.

I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; he has broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked. He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; he turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a target for his arrow. He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. He has filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD.” (Lamentations 3:1–18)
Jeremiah could not get much lower. However, he starts thinking about the past. At first his thoughts go to times in his life that are just like what he is experiencing and I can relate to that. When I am experiencing trials, I tend to think that life has always been one big trial. But Jeremiah does not stop there. He keeps on remembering and pulls out of his mind some of the positive things that he has also known.
Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. (Lamentations 3:19–26)
Those who trust in Jesus Christ are not immune from “the dark” nor do we invent things to make it go away. Jeremiah experienced sieges of darkness that were real and awful, yet he was not giving in or giving up to despair. He let the darkness swirl around him, but in the end remembered not to judge the character of God by the trauma of life.

In reading his story, I see the power of God to give His people hope no matter what is going on. While others may go into denial, try to escape, or even invent something that does not exist to help them cope, God does the most amazing things for those of us who trust Him. He gives us encouragement and hope in the midst of our worst situations. Our hope is not that it will soon be over, or that we will escape, but the reality that He is with us and is our portion. He loves us and is merciful toward us. After all, we are not getting what our sins deserve. The trials may be unpleasant, but we have His promise that He is using them for our good (Romans 8:28), shaping us into the image of His Son.

We don’t have to invent heaven because we know it is a real place. We don’t have to fear the dark because we have been delivered into light. We have not yet seen heaven, but we have seen the goodness of God in the land of the living during our darkest hours in this place. This is a mere taste of the light and the glory that is to come.

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Lord, as I read about and speak with those who do not know you, my heart actually aches for them. You have offered so much, yet so many people are not interested in Your offer, only in their own interpretation of things they cannot see. I feel some of Jeremiah’s angst, but for others, not myself. Hear my prayers for those in the dark. Bring them out of that darkness and into the light of knowing Jesus Christ, who is light, even the Light of the world. Help them understand that heaven is the hope of those who have not so much feared the dark as we have learned to fear and love You, the One who controls our destiny.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Established in history, not in myth

Occasionally someone comes along with the idea that the Bible is only a religious document without historical veracity. They say that the Old Testament is largely myth and the New Testament is about the “idea” of Christ, not about a real person or real events.

For me, this is interesting, but totally without value. If Christ is not real, and if He did not die for my sin, I’ve no assurance of forgiveness. If Christ did not actually rise from the dead, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, my faith is useless and my experience meaningless.

Instead, I’m firmly convinced of the reality of Jesus. I believe His Word, and have also experienced what He said would happen. He said that the Holy Spirit would convict the world of sin. This happened to me. He also said that if we confess our sin and receive Him as Lord and Savior, we will experience a relationship with God, removal of guilt, victory over sin, and the assurance of eternal life. All that happened to me. Those who talk about the Bible as myth do not share stories of a real relationship with a real God. How could they if He is just an idea?

Today, I am reading about another promise related to my Christian experience. This one concerns the Holy Spirit. When Jesus talked to the disciples, He said that out of the heart of believers would flow living water and then John explains . . . 

Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:39)
At that time, the disciples did not know the Holy Spirit’s presence or power. Only after Jesus ascended to heaven would the Holy Spirit come. He told them later to be on the lookout . . . 
And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:49)
This power was the power of the Spirit, unknown to them prior but as soon as Jesus was glorified, the Holy Spirit came into the world and is available to all who believe. This would be a real experience, not a mere notion. In fact, the Word of God is clear that the Spirit lives in everyone who knows Jesus as their Lord and Savior. 
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:9–11)
This incredible reality was also part of Jesus’ prayer before the crucifixion. He prayed, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Jesus made it clear that eternal life is about knowing God. Christianity is about a personal relationship made possible by the power of God and the Spirit of God who lives in all who believe.

In the very beginning, after Jesus died and rose and went to heaven, the disciples had to wait until the day of Pentecost until the Lord was glorified — an historical event. Then, as soon as that happened, the Spirit was given in that room where the believers gathered. Their experience was an historical event also.

As the Bible says, this experience marked the arrival of the Holy Spirit. It is not repeated in the lives of believers now because the Spirit is already in this world. As said, He came as soon as Jesus was glorified in His ascension and has been here ever since.

Daily, I need to remember and embrace the Spirit as a fact of my new life in Christ. I need to always maintain an attitude of relying on Him who is my life link to the living God. I can be filled with the Spirit or filled with myself at any given moment, but it is the filling of the Spirit that gives me the ability to live as I ought. It is also evidence of the ascended Christ. This Christ, who came into my life, changes me by the power of His Spirit. I need no other “events” because I already have all that I need to live a godly life of obedience.

A personal relationship with God through the Holy Spirit also describes eternal life and explains to me why my mind is seldom on the past or even thinking about the future. The presence of the Holy Spirit pushes aside human thoughts of time and turns life into a glorious NOW. Just as Jesus said, “This is life eternal, that they might know Thee.”

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Lord, knowing You is life eternal. Wow. I am continually amazed by what You have done and are doing in my life and the lives of Your people. All of these things are real, historical events. We do not exist in a nebulous and mythical idea of ‘the Christ’ but in the reality of changed lives because we have a personal relationship with a very real God. Thank You, thank You, thank You.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Peace on the Learning Curve

Our church is part of a nationwide 24/7 prayer incentive. Members sign up for one hour commitments throughout the day and night for one week. One of my time commitments was yesterday from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

When I got there, another woman was in the designated space. She signed up for 2:00 but was still praying. When she came out of the room, her appearance was changed. She looked younger, full of energy and her face shone. I don’t know what I looked like when my hour was over, but spending time with the Lord makes a difference. Being with Him brings more than contentment and joy to our faces.

For one thing, praying gives release from the cares of this world and the pressures of life. As God’s people have learned, we can . . . 

Cast our burdens on the LORD, and he will sustain us; he will never permit the righteous to be moved. (Psalm 55:22, paraphrased)
God takes our burdens from us, and if not, He sustains us as we carry them. He keeps us unmovable in the sense that things do not bother us the same way they would have had we not taken our concerns to Him. The burdens are not as heaven because we know that He is carrying them too.

Yesterday before my prayer time, a friend told me that she was always calmed down when we were together. I was puzzled, and she explained that it was because I am “so well grounded.” Of course I pointed skyward and said my grounding was from God. She said she knew that.

God is the One who sustains. Knowing He is in control keeps my feet on the ground. Not only that, He produces peace in my heart. Trusting Him is not mere words. I know who He is and what He can do so am less inclined to worry. Because He cares, I can affirm Isaiah’s words . . . 

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock. (Isaiah 26:3–4)
This does not mean that I am never in a flap about something, nor is my life free of problems, trials, and perplexities. It does mean that He invites me to bring those things to Him. I still may have to do the tasks, take care of the issues, and untangle the messes, but not always. Sometime He simply does it for me. If not, He floods my heart with peace and joy so that I can think clearly to do my part and rise above the anxiety that I’d normally feel.

Yet being His child is a learning curve. The curve is gradual or steep, sharp or easy, full of danger or clear sailing, but no matter what jumps in front of me on this curve, God sustains me just as He promises. He keeps me at peace as I keep my mind on Him, trusting Him.

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Lord, today begins with a feeling that this might be a gentle-curve-day. If so, thank You for a rest from the past few days of a steep and uphill path. If not, I know that You are with me. Because You are a solid rock and the source of all things good, I am trusting You for whatever I need. You will sustain and guide me, giving me grace and mercy for every twist and turn, and even on the straighter stretches, of today’s learning curve. 

Clipart from Clipartheaven.com

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Not made to go it alone

Dad had his hand on the back of my first bike helping me learn to ride for the first time. As we went round and round in a large circle, I looked up and there was Dad standing in front of me! I nearly fell off the bike.

I remember my brother riding his larger boy’s bike with much more bravado. He would throw his hands in the air and say, “Look, no hands!” Yet he knew that the bike would not steer itself so those ‘no hands’ trips were short. This isn’t about skill. A bicycle is not made to steer itself. The first bump will throw it off the path and often into the ditch.

Spurgeon reminds me today (as if I need reminding) that I am like a bike. I cannot go down the path of life without Him steering me, not can I expect to keep a steady course should He forsake me. I need Him, not only when I am in trouble, but all the time.

Do not forsake me, O LORD! O my God, be not far from me! Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation! (Psalm 38:21–22)
Just as a ship left by the pilot drifts at once from her course, I also easily drift from the will of God. I am like a lamb that wanders from the safety of the sheep fold, or a plant that cannot survive without sun and rain from above. While many pride themselves in their independence and say, “I can do it myself” I have learned the danger of thinking that way.

Even when things go well, I can get in trouble and the joy of the Holy Spirit can become my goal instead of Jesus. When in sorrow, instead of turning to God, I can complain and be angry at Him. When I repent of a sin in genuine desire for change, my heart can slip into hopelessness when that change takes more time than I’d expected. When I am trusting God, that trust so easily turns to presumption. I can pray with great burdens and my prayers become me telling Almighty God what to do.

Without God, I am weak and yet often do not recognize my weakness. He cares for me, yet I can be so witless and thankless, sometimes not even noticing that He has protected and blessed me. Just when I think I’ve reached a spiritual milestone, I fall into sin and error.

Someone once said to me that it must be easier to be spiritual as I get older. I didn’t snort in almost amused denial, but I felt like it. The passing of time brings a greater sense of my need for God and for help. Nothing is easier. While He blesses my life, He does not add that human self-confidence that everyone craves. Instead, I feel more and more in need of His presence and His help.

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Lord, whether You are behind me holding the bike, or in front of me cheering me on, I need You. I cannot do this myself, none of it. Hands on or off, my life is not created to run by itself. You tell me that I am Your workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to fulfill the plan You have for my life. Do not desert the work of Your hands. Keep on working in me and helping me do the work You have given me.
Let Your favor, Oh Lord my God, be upon me,  and establish the work of my hands upon me; yes, establish the work of my hands! (Psalm 90:17, personalized)
(Clipart source)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Grace in praying

In Andy Stanley’s marvelous book, The Grace of God, he says, “Fortunately for us, the kingdom of God does not operate according to the principles of fairness.”

It isn’t just that some are blessed when we think they should be chastened, or that some who live godly lives undergo many trials. That is puzzling enough, but when Christians think about all the things we have done that contradict God and the new life He has given us, we actually don’t want God to be fair. If He was, then we would get what we deserve. Instead, He punished His sinless Son for our sinful lives. That is grossly unfair, yet without that unfairness, we would perish.

He isn’t fair when it comes to answering prayer either. One person serves God all his life and some prayers go unanswered. Another serves God very little, yet God answers his prayers, even in spectacular ways. It doesn’t seem fair. Even though the Bible says God listens and that our lives and prayers need to conform to His will, this is not a guarantee. No one can pull God’s strings by good behavior or ‘proper’ praying from a ‘proper’ life.

The psalmist knew this. He knew that a clean life was important, yet at times, God simply surprised him.

If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me! (Psalm 66:18–20)
He had expectations about this prerequisite for answered prayer; God does not listen when His people have their minds on sin. (And most of us know that we cherish sin in our hearts far more than we care to admit.) Yet, God answered his prayers anyway. This is ‘unfair’ — and it is also grace.

Grace is getting what we do not deserve because God chooses to grant us a blessing. This is not fair either, but then, who deserves a blessing? All sin and fall short of His glory (Romans 3:23) meaning that no one deserves anything from God. Indeed, if it were not for grace, even the most religious or determinedly pious people would perish.

Grace has been defined several ways. It is God’s unconditional care and kindness. It is God’s riches at Christ’s expense. It is a revelation of truth from God that changes our lives. However we define it, none of us deserve it. 

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)
This gift of grace is about salvation first and foremost, but as the psalmist says, it is also about prayer. When I pray, I tend to ask for a lot of things. I ask God to meet needs in my life and in the lives of others. However, this week, He has alerted me to a better way to pray. The writer of Hebrews says, 
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
Instead of praying for the need, I’m now praying for mercy and grace. God could meet the need too, but the promise here is that when I am needy and needing help, or interceding for others in need of help, I can be confident that He will bless when I ask for mercy and grace. That way, if the need is not met nor the problem removed, I am blessed anyway. Mercy means not getting what I deserve and grace means getting what I don’t deserve. Sounds like a good offer to me!
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Lord, when I ask You to meet my needs, I’m often actually telling You what to do about my problems. How presumptuous! Instead of bringing You my list of needs for You to ‘fix’ — I want to rely on your mercy and grace for all these things. Yet even in wanting to do that, I need mercy and grace to be able to do it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

I cannot save myself

It has to be God who puts in my heart the desire to continually improve. No matter what area of life, I’m never satisfied with the status quo. I could do better in prayer, better as a teacher, better as a friend.

Yet with this desire comes the realization that no matter my effort, God is the only one who can produce permanent change. He does not do this through me “trying harder” — because I am not my own Savior, nor am I the best judge of what my life should look like.

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
God saved me and placed me in His kingdom, giving me new life in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, His goal is that I am transformed into the image of Christ, but along the way He has prepared tasks for me to do, a path of life that He wants me to take. Sometimes I get confused about the path. More often, I am disappointed with the way that I walk. I waver and stumble along, without any sense of progress. Failures and even rebellion happens more often than I intend, yet I feel helpless to overcome this waywardness, and often do not even what I know I should do instead. Sometimes I cry out the last line of this verse, and sadly forget the first part: 
The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. (Psalm 138:8)
Spurgeon rightly points out that the confidence the psalmist expressed was not in himself. He cried to God and knew that God would fulfill His purpose. He did not say that he had all it takes, or that his faith was bulletproof. He had no claim about his own determination to be a better believer.

There is the difference between this psalmist and me. So often I think if I just resolve to trust more, obey more, be more focused, then I will not be moved. It doesn’t work. Whenever I indulge in any confidence not grounded on the saving power of Jesus Christ, my efforts fail leaving me upset, angry at myself, and disappointed. How could I forget that Jesus is the Savior and I am not? But I do — and doing it “my way” is the very nature of sin.

The Psalmist knew better than I in that his confidence was entirely in the Lord’s work. When Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, he expressed the same understanding and confidence,

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)
Yet I look at those verses where God tells me to strive for perfection and to work out my salvation. He says He works in me a willingness to obey Him and gives me power for the same purpose. The enigma is trying to figure out what that looks like in daily life. How do I rely on Him to do it, yet also do what He asks?

The Lord began a good work in me, carries it out in me and finishes it in me. I cannot sew up my robe of righteousness myself as those stitches unravel. Yet I also cannot listen to the lie that I will never be able to stand, conquer sin, or overcome temptation. I know in myself this is not a lie, but thanks be to God, He will take me from this stumbling and bumbling to what He wants me be.

More and more I am realizing that key to victory over every temptation and sinful attitude of my heart (those things I trip over without even noticing them in my path), includes a greater humility and more prayer. When my confidence says, “I can handle this” without adding “through the power of Jesus Christ” then I will not handle it. The prayer has to be more like: “I cannot face, accomplish, resist, even recognize my weaknesses in any area of my life. I need Jesus Christ to enlighten and empower me. Without Him, I am nothing.”

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Father, this utterly groundless attitude that “I can do it” keeps me from doing Your will and throws me in the ditch more often than I realize until it is too late and I’m calling on You to dig me out. Today, all day, even this moment of today, I need You to perfect that which concerns me. Without You, my sin, even my determination not to sin, will take me away from the path that You have prepared and the goal that You have for my life. Do whatever it takes to keep me from relying on myself and kick me off the throne that You put in my heart for only Yourself.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Jesus clarifies my purpose

Today the world is intact. The person who predicted it would end yesterday has nothing to say. Those who know the Word of God are either laughing at his folly or calmly going about their business. However, I’ve been wondering why this doomsday character got so much press. After all, people have been predicting the end of the world for centuries.

This morning I read a few verses that suggest God’s reasons for anything that happens. He promises to use all things for the good of those who love Him. This ‘good’ is that we be more like Jesus Christ. Yet there is more . . . He also wants us to be sanctified, meaning that we are ‘set apart’ for God. 

I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:15–19)
Jesus set Himself apart for the Father, doing only what God wanted. He did this for the sake of His people that those who believe in Him might also know the truth and become wholly dedicated to serving God. This attitude of belonging to God and serving Him alone is part of what it means to be like Jesus. But there is more . . . 
I do not ask for these (disciples) only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:20–23)
Another aspect of becoming like Jesus is that the more each of His followers are like Him, the closer we are to one another and the more the world realizes that God sent Jesus and that God loves them. This is a major reason for God using ‘all things for good’ in our lives. We are to be one, have one mind on spiritual matters and one mind on our purpose — we are here to serve God. As we do, He keeps us informed about our task using His Word: “Sanctify them in the truth; Your Word is truth.”

Those who depart from the Word of God, Christian or not, step outside the unity that Jesus is praying about. They cut themselves off from truth and wander into error. This is what happened with the latest doomsday ‘prophet’ who ignored the Bible. God’s Word says, “No one knows the day or the hour,” but he predicted both, to his humiliation.

Can God use this? I think so. For one thing, those who know the Word of God are affirmed in our knowledge. If we have ever been drawn to these false prophets in the past, this latest gaffe should make all of us think twice about following someone who ignores what the Bible clearly says.

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Holy God, this prediction affected me only as a curiosity, for which I am thankful. I feel sorrow for any of Your people who have been duped, but know that You can use this to turn their hearts toward You. May they, and all others, become deeply interested in what Your Word actually says because of this. May they not shrug their shoulders and be turned off truth because this silly man led them astray. You will never do that. You want people to know what is true and have that truth change their lives, making them wholly consecrated to You.

I pray for that unity that Jesus prayed for, and for myself. I want truth to always draw me nearer to You and to other believers. Jesus prayed for our absolute oneness with Himself — just as He was one with You. Some of us are far off it, even to be fooled by false prophets. However, I know that You will not leave us alone until we have that unity, just as Jesus asked.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

First in my heart

Some say that what a person thinks about the most is their god, even their object of worship. Jesus said that what comes out of our mouths comes from the heart. That means that what we talk about the most reveals a great deal about our spiritual lives and the focus of our hearts.

When our youngest was about two, I was in the hospital for surgery. In those days, they didn’t send people home as fast as they do now, so a friendship  developed between me and the other person in the room. At one juncture, she told me that I talked far more about the babe in the family than the other two children.

That was a rebuke from the Holy Spirit. He used it to get my mothering into balance. Instead of doting on the little one, I was reminded that all three are important. I cannot make a big deal about one to the exclusion of the others. 

Now, reading this book about eating habits and attitudes toward food, God reminds me that food is not the biggest deal in my life either. Yes, we need to eat, and yes, we need to eat properly, but dwelling on what, when, and how much can put eating into that idolatry category.

As the book says, some people spend most of their waking hours thinking about food, their next meal, menu planning, and so on. I’ve not been that bad, but realize that the enjoyment of food has played an inordinate role in my thoughts. I’ve also realized how many times other things seek to dethrone Jesus — and that food is only one of many preoccupations.

For a few weeks God has been rapping my knuckles regarding food, but He has done this before with other things. My life is filled with family, friendships, learning (I’m an information gatherer), writing, teaching and art in various forms. I can go overboard on any one of these and even blame attention-deficit tendencies for doing so. God says my problems might find some excuses in that, but the reasons that I get obsessive about anything are spiritual reasons. 

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? . . . . But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:25, 33)
The first idol to be knocked off its perch was painting. I used to do a lot of it, often to the point that other responsibilities were neglected, meals were late, and I didn’t pay attention to vital interruptions, including those from the Holy Spirit. God is a jealous God — and for good reason. When I give Him my full attention, everyone around me prospers. When I obsess, everyone suffers, including me.

While not a person to follow the latest fads, I still can start something I enjoy or that challenges me, only to neglect the house, laundry, meals on time and even the ringing phone. Yet these verses are not just about becoming over focused on my interests and hobbies. They include giving too much focus or anxiety to the necessities of life — food, drink and clothing. It seems obvious that if I’m not to become obsessed with them, I’m not to become obsessed with anything.

This book on eating nailed me with my basic food problem: letting it and the enjoyment of it become a greater preoccupation than God, who is my joy and primary source of all things. The Greater Catechism says that I am to love and enjoy Him forever. No mention of food there.

The Bible says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Eating is first for God’s glory, not for my pleasure or even for my nutrition and health. Learning how to make that true is a big challenge. The first part of making it happen is ensuring that I am primarily focused on the kingdom of God and His righteousness. As I do that, whatever I need falls into place. I’m also discovering (as I have repeatedly in the past) that when God is on the throne, everything else bows to Him — not to me.

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Lord, each blessing in life is Your servant. You order all things for my good so that I experience Your loving care. Those “things” occupying my life are gifts from You, but when I focus on the gift instead of You as Giver, then that gift usurps my heart’s throne — which belongs to You.

I’m thankful for Your discipline. One by one, You show me how each part of my life needs to take its rightful place. All the people and activities of life are Yours to bless me, not mine to govern or even worry about, never mind obsess over. Thank You for being patient, but also for victory as You help me keep that number one spot reserved for the only One who deserves to be there.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Using the Bible to pray

This morning I asked God to show me how to pray for those on my “Friday list” and He offered me this verse.
Wondrously show your steadfast love, O Savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand. (Psalm 17:7)
This could be translated as, “Distinguish Yourself as Deliverer for those who hope in You at Your right hand, to rescue them from those who oppose them.”

I glance at my prayer list. Most of these people have few enemies in the sense normally given to that word. They are safe from tyrants and terrorists (but not all are) yet all have a common enemy. Jesus called him the Liar and a destroyer who wants to deceive people and bring them to eternal destruction, if not visible disaster in this life. I’ve known for a long time that my prayers are not to persuade God, but to oppose this evil one who opposes good and all that God wants for us.

Satan’s biggest lies are about the nature and character of God. He suggested to Eve that God did not want the best for her. People still hear that whisper and are duped to think God does not care.

This Liar tells people God does not exist, when often it is their idea of God that is false — and only that imaginary god does not exist. He tells people that God wants them rich, or that He is a doting God who overlooks evil and will not punish anyone. This enemy also says Jesus is not a real person, only a lovely idea, a concept we can follow. He tells us that sin is not so bad or that everyone does it; it is not a big deal.

There is more, but this is enough. I know what direction to take with my prayers today. My enemy will not like it, but he never does. That is why one of his lies is that God does not hear and answer, nor will He show His lovingkindness to those who hide close to Him, to those who pray. That lie will not stop me from seeking His face.

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Lord, I’m so aware of Satan always trying to keep me from talking with You. You have distinguished yourself to me as the Deliverer, the only One who can rescue me from this opponent who is the opposite of all that You are. As I pray today for others, may You show Your steadfast love to them as well, and rescue them from every lie and powerful force that sets itself against Your will for their lives.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

. . . not even a forest fire

This week in our part of the world, wildfires have destroyed most of the town of Slave Lake, burning houses and businesses and leaving many people with only what they could quickly load in a vehicle as they left. No lives were lost.

Our daughter-in-law sent a prayer request for her young brother and his wife. Their home burned to the ground. They saved their dogs, truck, and the clothes they had on them. I sent a message to our grandson saying that when such things happen, I want to gather family close and that I am praying for them. He wrote back:

Thank you for your thoughts and prayers. We are doing ok, it is terrible what has happened. I feel pretty bad for (my uncle and his wife) not to mention the rest of the people of Slave Lake. That sure is a lot of rebuilding to do for a lot of people lost everything but the shirt on their back. Fortunately, human nature compels us to help in any way we can; so many people are making food and cash donations. I'm sure there will be a combined effort to rebuild the town. People have a way of helping each other through disaster and tragedy, and although so much was lost which cannot ever be replaced, it seems everyone still has each other, and that is the most important treasure we have.
This touched me; his observations are true. Tragedy often brings out the best in people, even though looters take advantage of chaos and we are already being warned of scam “assistance” programs. However, so many people are offering whatever they can to help those who have lost their homes and possessions that agencies have asked them to stop for a bit so they can catch up with sorting and delivering donations.  Even in a great trial like this, good is already happening.

Today’s reading in My Utmost for His Highest says that God does not keep anyone immune from trouble, not even His people. In fact, the Bible says that Christians are “more than conquerors in all these things.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35, 37–39)
These verses are not talking about imaginary or even spiritual trials. These troubles are real, whether famine, sword, persecution or fires, and they leave people in shock and destitute. However, because God is faithful, we can overcome. We rebuild or regain losses, yet biblical overcoming is more than that. It does not happen by our ingenuity, courage or the help of our friends. Our victory is the fact that no trial of any kind can destroy our relationship to God in Jesus Christ. It is secure no matter what.

I know that a terrible physical loss does not look like love to those who experience it, even to those who observe it. However, those who belong to Jesus know that no matter the losses here on earth, that is all that they are . . . here on earth. We have a greater treasure stored up for us in heaven, one that cannot be lost or taken from us.

Lest that seems too “pie in the sky” for anyone, we also have something else. Even in the midst of great loss, sorrow, trials and any other difficulties, God’s people also have His presence and His promise to never leave us or forsake us. We know that He is sufficient, no matter what happens to us.

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God, I’ve had losses, yet nothing like our relatives and others who look at the burned out shells of what used to be their safe places. I know what has been destroyed can be rebuilt, but also know that even the most optimistic feel kicked in the stomach by what is happening to them and their community. Even though Your people know that houses and even life in this world is temporary, it is still heart-wrenching. May we be sensitive to the needs of others, yet reminded that one day all of what is here will be left behind, and even burned in that last fire. As my grandson says, we are glad to have each other.

I am also glad that I know You and Your promises. No matter what losses are suffered in this life, You never abandon us or leave us without the greatest resource of all — Yourself. As I pray for the people of Slave Lake and as people rally to help these who are suffering, may each one be aware of Your loving care. You can raise up good from these ashes. You have not stopped loving this world. May those who know You be aware of and even able to share Your persistent and constant love with those who are in shock and great sorrow.


(Photo credit)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Eating without sinning

Almost every evening and immediately after a good supper, I feel extremely hungry. My stomach is full, so I know this is not legitimate hunger. However, at times it feels like starvation.

About one week out of a month, it gets the best of me. Since I’m too old for hormonal cycles, I’ve been investigating. No answer has helped except the ideas given in a book called Love to Eat, Hate to Eat by Elyse Fitzpatrick. She suggests that some people crave the satisfaction that comes from eating so much so that it becomes a snare. It is also a sin because I claim God as my resource for joy and satisfaction, not food. To deny that and replace Him with food is idolatry.

This revelation helps. I’m confessing my cravings for what they are and have been able to resist, now that I see the sin side of them. However, this has not made them go away. The following verses describe some of my thoughts in this battle as God works to change the way that I think about food.

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. (Hebrews 12:3–10)
Jesus hung on a cross when He could have come down and saved Himself. He resisted that temptation because His death was the Father’s plan. He said, “Not my will, but thine be done.” I’ve not resisted food cravings to that point, nor will that ever happen. I am encouraged by the commitment of my Savior.

I’m also encouraged that this discipline from God is also a mark of being a Christian. For those who never experience His chastening or His command to be self-controlled, there is no assurance that they are His children. God disciplines me because He loves me. This is for my good. It may be about health and good habits, but it is more about being able to say no to sin and yes to whatever He asks. If He says “Eat” then I eat. If He says “Don’t eat” then I won’t eat. This is mostly about obedience, not food.

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. (Hebrews 12:11–13)
Yea, I can relate to the painful rather than pleasant part, but also to the peaceful fruit of righteousness part. I have been to several “lots of food” events and ate only what I knew was right for me. This put great joy in my heart and gave me more confidence in other areas of obedience. I never realized how much sin destroys both until this war with food cravings. I’m also realizing that being concerned about losing weight or being healthy is not as important as being determined to please God. If I need those other benefits, He will bless me with them. For now, the focus is obedience.
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Father, I am thankful to be Your child, even Your child who needs discipline. Each area of my life belongs to You. I am delighted that You care about every part of who I am and what I do. Eating is such an ordinary activity, but even in that there is temptation or the threat of obedience. You say, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31) and I say, “Amen!”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Marked as His?

Sometimes it takes a while, yet if I spend enough time with people, I can usually discern whether or not they have a saving faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself gave clues to look for. The plainest one is about love.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34–35)
This is about loving other Christians. It also is not an emotional sentiment. Christian love is action and wanting the eternal and present well-being of other believers. It is enjoying one another’s presence. There is a comradery that goes beyond any other common interest and a fellowship that is unknown to anyone outside of faith in Christ. We connect — because Jesus lives in us.

Another indicator is the attitudes in a person’s life. Jesus said, “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33).

This fruit is described in Galatians 5 as the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22–23).

The last phrase means that spiritual fruit is not produced by duty or keeping rules. The fruit of the Spirit grows in the life of a Christian simply because we belong to Him and He does it. When I see those traits, I know where they come from, again remembering that Christian love, joy, peace and so on are not like the qualities described using the same words by those who do not believe. His fruit is unique and cannot be imitated. 

A third mark of a true Christian is obedience. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36, italics for emphasis).

I see two important truths in this verse. One is that eternal life is a present possession of those who believe in Jesus. The other is that Jesus links faith with obedience and unbelief with disobedience. This is further emphasized by John later on in the Bible. 

Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (1 John 2:4–6)
Jesus lives in His people. We have the ability and power to walk as He walked because of His abiding presence. We can disobey, and sadly often do, but obedience is a characteristic that grows in us by His saving power. We are like a living tree — we cannot help but grow and to become more like Jesus because He is our source of life. He is who we are.
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Lord, sometimes I meet a person and their personality is strongly good. I hope that they believe, but in time am disappointed because there is no love for Your people, no spiritual fruit and no desire to obey You. Other times I meet someone that, at first, seems just like everyone else, but then I begin to see qualities that belong only to You and to Your people. What delight to realize we share Your Spirit and are both walking with You.

I know that the rest of the world is confused. Some people go to church, give money, talk God and act religious, yet they are without love, spiritual fruit and obedience. Others are Your children but are in what we call a backslidden state. They act like everyone else, except that Your love shines through now and then, and so does the fruit. No wonder that at the end of this age, You will have to separate the sheep from the goats. Even the most discerning among us could not do it with certainty.

My prayer today is that Your people, me included, would act like it. Help me be more loving and increasingly fruitful. May I obey You in all things. Whatever else people think of me, I want to be marked as a genuine Christian.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Laughter is God’s idea

There is a myth that manages to get into the hearts of people and convince them that if they follow Jesus Christ, they cannot possibly have any fun. They are convinced that life as they know it will change drastically from pleasure to stern duty and no laughing.

I am convinced that this is a lie from our spiritual enemy. I know God is not a kill-joy, yet after our fantastic anniversary celebration, it has popped into my head a few times that having as much fun as we did with family and friends has to be a sin. Eating good food, enjoying people and laughing over mostly silly remarks is just not a godly way to behave. I woke up this morning wondering if all that enjoyment was really from God, and then read this exhortation from Paul to a young pastor:

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17–19)
Paul tells Timothy to challenge rich people. In our country, I’d say almost everyone that I know is rich comparatively. We live in a prosperous part of the world so I can safely say that these verses contain something God wants me to know.

He says I’m not to be haughty, high-minded or proud. By His grace (we did pray), pride didn’t even enter my head this weekend. The closest might have been when I felt delight at the spiritual fruit I was seeing in others. I did say I was proud of our kids, but it wasn’t my doing that they were kind and good. This was a gift from God and a feast for my heart.

The verses say that I’m not to set my hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God. We are so aware of His blessing. Both my husband and I have experienced extended times of uncertainty about bills getting paid, even of having food on the table. We know that God is our supply. We openly thanked Him for all He has done for us. Without God, we know exactly what emptiness is and that any ability to do well comes from Him.

These words also say that God richly provides us with everything to enjoy. He cares about pleasure. He wants us to enjoy life. Of course that does not say He wants us to enjoy sin, but fun does not have to be sinful. Doing good, generosity, sharing our lives and resources with others is fun. Being thankful for everything also makes joy bubble up in our hearts.

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Lord, we stayed up late and laughed much. We talked and listened, and felt Your presence. I feel sad for those who think that being a Christian cannot be fun. You are the joy-Giver and our source of joy. 
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Justified, a reason to party

Last night our children invited our friends to celebrate our wedding anniversary with us. The house was full of people, laughter and good food. It was a great night, but too short. People had to go home and we stayed much later than sane people should stay up. I don’t normally go for a ‘short’ devotional time, but this morning, God gives me something to think about that is simple and straightforward. 
Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man (Jesus) forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38–39)
The word translated “freed” in the ESV is literally “justified” which is not as easily understood. Some explain it by saying that God treats those who believe in Jesus Christ “just as if I’d” never sinned. Spurgeon explains it well and restate it in my words.

Justification is the result of faith and was given to me the moment Christ came into my life, the same moment I accepted Him — and He is all that I need to save me from sin. I was and am fully justified, no less than all those who now wear white robes and are with God in heaven. The thief on the cross was fully justified the moment that he turned in faith to Jesus. Paul was fully justified the moment Jesus encountered him on the road to Damascus. 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
God accepted me the moment Christ took me into His kingdom by faith. I am pardoned fully, all past, present and future sin is put under the blood of Christ. I stand accepted in His sight as though I had never been guilty.
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Lord, last night we joyfully celebrated a milestone in our marriage. What a delightful time You gave us. Yet as I read this and think about being justified, this becomes an even greater joy to my heart. Because of Your grace, the joy and freedom of eternity are already mine. It started the day Jesus came into my heart. For those of us who believe, this justification is a current reason to celebrate. It is also our future hope and expectation that when we step from this life through the door to heaven, the party will go into full swing and never stop.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

His last will and testament has been read

Before my mother-in-law died, she made her son and daughter joint owners of everything she had. Because of her forethought, her estate was settled in less than a month without much legal help.

For some reason, my father didn’t like the idea of joint ownership so his estate was in his name only, or listed as “tenants in common” with our mother. He left half of some of it to her, and the remainder to his children, two of whom were executors. Because of his decisions, the courts took more than two years to figure out that everything was on the up and up. A lawyer wound up with a big chunk.

I doubt this is why God chose joint ownership over tenants in common, but these two examples provide interesting comparisons concerning my inheritance from God. 

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:16–17)
In these verses, the term “fellow heirs” could also be translated as “joint heirs.”  Tenants-in-common mean that each owns half — joint ownership means that each own all. That is, all of whatever belongs to Christ belongs to all of His children.

While not completely parallel, the Bible’s use of these legal terms helps me understand more of what Christ’s death means. Yes, He died for my sin so that I do not have to bear its penalty, but He also died that I might inherit a legacy. 

Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. (Hebrews 9:15–17, italics for emphasis)
I’m not good with legal talk, but I understand from this that I could not receive this inheritance from God unless God died. This death of God the Son happened that I might be “justified by his grace (and) become an heir according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7).

While the Bible speaks of this inheritance mainly as eternal life, those verses from Romans 8 says we are joint heirs meaning ALL that is Christ’s is ours — His eternal life and His glory, but also His suffering. I like the idea of inheriting what belongs to Jesus, but am not too excited about this part of my inheritance. However, this isn’t about being crucified, even though that could happen. It is more about the things Jesus suffered because He was holy and a rebuke to the lives of those around Him. People were convicted of their own unholy lives. He plainly told them that their religious activities were tainted. In fact, from the most devout to the worst sinners, Jesus says all of us fall short. We cannot earn or deserve anything from God. Everyone needs His forgiveness and new life or we will perish.

Tell people that and see what happens. Oh, some will take it eagerly, but many will give anything from a blank stare to physical abuse. Jesus suffered this entire range of response. People followed Him for the wrong reasons, laughed at and mocked Him, and questioned all He did. His disciples pledged their allegiance, but eventually abandoned Him. He suffered everything any human can suffer, but never retaliated or stood up for Himself. Being the Son of God was not all roses, nor is being a child of God. As a joint heir with Jesus, I have His life and will share in His glory, but I will suffer some of the things He suffered, including being misunderstood, laughed at, and ignored.

Therein lies the grace of God. Rarely do His children suffer ALL that Jesus suffered. If we are joint heirs, it seems we should, but He does not give us that burden. He gives all of those benefits described as our eternal inheritance, but for most, the suffering side of it is shared in smaller ways.

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Lord, just as I cannot imagine the fullness of Your glory, I also cannot imagine the fullness of Your suffering. My share is minuscule compared to what You endured for my sake. I’m so glad that You share with me that ability to keep my eyes on the outcome. I can “look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of my faith” because, “for the joy that was set before You, You endured the cross, despised the shame. . . .” Now Your are “seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2, personalized). Because You fully share all You have with me, I am also able to think about the joy and glory that are coming. That ability is also my inheritance, but the best of Your legacy to me is simply You and all that You are.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Darkness before dawn . . .

For the past couple of weeks, my spiritual life has been filled with bad news, battles and other negatives. In all of it, God seemed to whisper that I must obey Him and press on.

One encouragement came unexpectedly. About a week ago, I went to a local store that sells letters. I wanted to put a word on the wall above my desk as a reminder. The clerk at the counter told me they didn’t stock the whole alphabet in all available styles for obvious reasons so I had to order them. After settling on the design from their online catalog, he asked which letters I wanted. I said, “P, R, A, Y.”

He said, “As unto the Lord?”

I replied, “Yes, I need all the reminders and encouragement I can get to keep at it.”

He was a Christian. We had a good conversation about God and about prayer. He said helpful things to me including one that rang in my ears all week, “Remember, it always seems darkest before dawn.”

A cliché perhaps, but God used it to encourage me. Then in today’s devotional reading He gives me the same message from His Word. 

Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:4–5)
I can praise God, for several reasons. These verses say that He eventually brings joy after a tough spell, but they also say that God is holy. That means there is no mean streak in Him. The negative stuff that happens in my life are tools in His hands for my good. 
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. . . . (Romans 8:28–29, italics for emphasis)
God’s plan is that I am like Jesus. Knowing that helps me trust Him and be much more cooperative when bad news and battles come my way.

Sometimes though, as suggested in Psalm 30, God is angry. I know that sin in my life is the only possible cause. He is angry that I should let it in, when in Christ He has given me all that I need to overcome it. Yet even with this, His anger does not last very long. He also provided forgiveness and cleansing from sin, so when I confess it to Him, He is faithful to keep those promises. This is also because of the saving work of His Son, Jesus Christ. I am His child, a saint of God because of Jesus.

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Lord, weeping, even confusion and a sense of darkness might hang around for a little while, but You are a God of good news, joy, clarity and light. You want me to walk with You knowing that when the sense of Your goodness and presence is missing, “this too shall pass.” Faith believes what You say, regardless of circumstances that seem to say otherwise. While I do not yet perceive dawn’s first glow, Your joy hovers at the edges of my troubles anyway. It reminds me of the difference between what is now and what is forever. For that and for Jesus, I sing praises to You and give thanks.

Courage

May 12, 2011 (re-posted, Blogger malfunction)

If I could chronicle the times in my life that I was courageous, what would I select? As a small child, I battled a life-threatening illness. I heard people say that I was brave, but I had no idea why they said so. Being oblivious to danger is not courage.

Later, when divorced from an unfaithful and alcoholic man, some might say that took courage. From my perspective, it was an escape. I was not strong enough to work through and overcome these problems. Running away is not courage either.

When I became a Christian, I enthusiastically shared my faith with everyone, whether they wanted to hear it or not. Most of my friends were not interested and most of them vanished. Action without discernment is not very courageous either.

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:7–9)
The biblical definition of courage is more about obedience than bravado or lack of fear. In my flesh, I’m a big coward, but when the Spirit of God is in charge, something happens that is not fully explained in this text. Courage and obedience are close cousins.

For instance, obedience can happen with resignation and a sense of duty. This is not biblical obedience, nor is it courageous. God wants me to know His Word and eagerly do what it says from the heart.

Obedience, like false bravery, can also be blind to danger. When God asks me to do something, He may or may not let me see the pitfalls, but I do not obey blindly. I obey because I know and trust God. When He asks me to obey without revealing the outcome, I can do it because I know He is not going to harm me. This is getting closer to the biblical idea of courage.

I need it all the time. For one thing, I’m a results-oriented person. If I act and nothing comes of it, I want to throw in the towel. But courage is not like that. Courage means obeying God even if the results are not seen. It is based on believing He has reasons, not on what I can see.

Courage is often associated with an emotion, but in the Bible that emotion is different from the confidence/bravery association usually made. It is even different from the “I’m scared but I’ll do it anyway” attitude. For God’s people, He says no fright, no dismay and no self-confidence. I am to put my trust in Him and think about what His Word tells me to do. I must know without a doubt that He is with me, no matter how I feel.

This then is courage: wherever I go and whatever I do in response to the commands of God, no matter how difficult they are or how much opposition I face, Almighty God is walking beside me. I cannot see Him (I walk by faith, not by sight) but I know that presence. It changes things.

One incident comes to mind. A cursing man spoke vile things around children. The crowd was saying someone needed to do something. God said to me, “You do it.” With a calm sense of His presence that often accompanies obedience to Him, I got up and walked toward that man without any idea what I was going to say. I spoke. He was defensive, but he listened, and he shut up.

I still remember the feeling of it. It was not what I’d call brave, nor was I fearful. It was an overwhelming sense that God wanted me to do this and I must do it. My heart was as calm as if I were out picking flowers.

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Lord, You have given me several opportunities to experience this thing You call courage. It is not brash, nor rude. It is not ‘in your face’ toward others. It is like being in a bubble where You are the protective film keeping the outside from me and me from doing anything else but what You ask.

Forgive me, and all of Your people, for thinking that courage is something else, something we have to muster and grit our teeth over, or something that makes us self-confident. Help all of us remember that You are our confidence and when You ask us to do something that normally would make us run for cover, You are always with us and You will give us all we need to do it. Our courage is You.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

He is here, now and always

On the farm where I grew up, we had a few milk cows. When their calves were old enough, they had to be weaned from their mothers. Neither cow nor calf were happy about that process. Both bawled and walked the fence, one on either side. Sometimes their attempts to reunite damaged the fence. However, this process was necessary. Soon the calves fed on their own and the cows went on producing milk for the family.

Sunday I shared with my Bible study class that all my life I felt like God has been weaning me from everything else but Himself. This is not only about sin, but about anything that I depend on apart from Him. The principle behind this weaning is applied here to money:

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5–6)
In this culture, money is a god, defining “god” or idol as whatever is relied upon as a source of happiness and well-being. Many think that money will do it all, yet the Bible warns not to love it and not to make it an object of my affection.

I don’t know who said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and I’d rather be rich,” but I have known both poverty and riches, and have discovered that the presence of God is a more important reality. He produces contentment and His presence is the greatest asset in my life. He helps me in every way so that I need not fear anything because of His promise to be with me.

It isn’t only money. As the verses above say, it is possible to fear what others can do to me. I’ve depended on their approval and acceptance, on the love of family and friends, being understood and useful, and a host of other things. When the tests come and those resources are taken away, I usually bawl like a calf and wander back and forth trying to find a way through this fence that separates me from what I want. Yet God says He is with me. He is enough. At the times of testing I may protest that being weaned is not much fun, yet Jesus is here. He does not let me down. He is with me in all situations, particularly when I obey Him in evangelism and teaching others:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19–20)
This means that if people reject the message (usually by rejecting the messenger), He is with me. Should my teaching fall on deaf ears, He is still with me. By saying these things, He suggests to me that no matter any negative human receptivity, He is enough.
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Lord, the events of these days make me realize that I live in a society that is hostile to truth and to the Gospel. They blame You for their sin, call it by other names, then tell me I am “un-Christian” for not agreeing with them. At times I feel alone and definitely on the other side of a fence. However, You are with me. While I don’t like alienation, this is nothing like what was done to You — You were rejected and abandoned — they even killed You. 
Consider (Jesus) who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (Hebrews 12:3–4)
Even as I experience the rejection and hostility of others, I recognize that this is because I belong to You. Not only that, You use this for my good, to make me more like Jesus. Instead of fighting back, You want me to lean into Your loving presence and rejoice that You will never leave me or forsake me. 

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