Sunday, July 31, 2011

Climbing higher . . .

Someone once said to me that it must be easier to be a Christian as I get older. My first impulse was to give him a swat on the side of the head, proving that I still have some growing to do!

There is no coasting in the Christian life and there also is no retirement. God sets before me a goal. I am to press on toward that goal. If I stop, I am in a state of disobedience.

This morning I was wondering about fatigue and feeling listless. The word retirement may have come to mind. “Tired” definitely did. Spurgeon’s devotional didn’t address my lethargy, but Oswald Chambers (My Utmost for His Highest) hit the bull’s eye. He used this verse to tell me what I already knew:

And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:4)
God’s Word says the same thing in other places. The goal is perfection, fully like Jesus Christ. I know I am not there yet.
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. (Colossians 1:28)
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:23)
Chambers says that I can be all right in general but careless, even unkept or slovenly in some areas. He says this isn’t so much about sin as it is about “the remnants of the carnal life” adding that such slovenliness is an insult to the Holy Spirit. I don’t agree about this not being sin, but do agree that a lax attitude is an insult to God.

Nothing should be done in a careless way, whether it is eating and drinking, or how I worship God. My relationship to Him must be right, but also the external expression of that relationship. For instance, I’ve noticed how easy it is for God’s people to bring to the church items that they have replaced at home. Old sofas or outdated decor is offered to God. Is this one example of a slovenly and carnal expression of worship? Doesn’t He deserve the best that we have?

What about my attitude when I woke up this morning? I wanted to stay in bed, felt grumpy, and had little joy in my heart or any desire to get up and prepare for church. If I stay this way and go anyway, is this not another example of a carnal way of worship?

Chambers says, and I agree, that God will let nothing escape. Every detail of my life is under His scrutiny. If I do not learn how to be like Jesus in one area, He will bring me back to the same point over and over again until I learn the lesson. He has a goal for me and will not stop until the finished product rolls off the assembly line.

Those carnal areas show up in old age. If I like personal comfort, that will come out when my bones ache in the morning. If I am lazy, that will show up at the end of the day when I turn on the television instead of finishing a chore He has given me. If I like to compete and win over others, it will show up every time someone cuts me off in traffic even though I am driving the speed limit.

Growing older does not put God’s people at the top of a playground slide. It is more like standing at the bottom of a multistory skyscraper and being handed a ladder. He sees many levels that I have yet to conquer. His desire for my perfection is not only picky, but relentless.

I love the days that God turns my heart toward the wonder of my redemption and salvation. Yesterday’s reminder of my eternal security was a deep blessing. I know that I stand complete in Christ and am accepted in the Beloved because of Him. Yet the Holy Spirit whispers again to me that I am still a work in progress and that I must let endurance work in me. I must watch out for that attitude that is content with mediocrity or that says “Oh, that will have to do for now.”

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God, forgive and cleanse the laxness from my heart. Your goal never changes. You tell me to be “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord my labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58) and “to not grow weary of doing good, for in due season I will reap, if I do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). You also say that “they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). I need all of this plus the fullness of Your Spirit to keep pressing on toward the goal.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Amazing Security

This week in our neighborhood a child was molested. He got off a bus, was followed by a man who also got off the bus and then nabbed and took him to a nearby field. A truck driver heard the child’s cries. Without hesitation, he ran to help, chased the man several blocks and pinned him to the ground. A witness called the police and the molester was arrested.

We live in an area where the crime rate is low. No doubt this event has shaken the sense of security for many. For me and for many others, especially women and mothers, security is an important issue. I’m truly thankful that God promises to care for me and keep me from anything He does not want me to experience.

He even offers more security than His care for this life. For those who believe in Him, God also promises eternal security. That means that I am His child now, and also His child forever. My devotional reading today reminds me of this.

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. (John 6:37)
God does not toss anyone away who comes to Him, not in the beginning of their Christian life, not in the middle, not at the end. Yet even with this amazing promise, some might wonder, “What if. . . .”

But what if I simply lose interest and turn away? What if the world becomes more appealing than living for God? It does happen. Does that mean God will let me go?

No, even if I drifted away, God is not going to boot me out of His family. He says, “Return, you backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings” (Jeremiah 3:22, NKJV). His love continually calls me and like the prodigal, when I come back I am welcomed with open arms and restoration.

But what if temptations after temptations lure me? What if their power is too great for me? If I slide into sin, will God give up on me? Not at all. First, He has provided for that possibility. He says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Yet what if I sin? What if I don’t take that way of escape? What if I sin big time? His Word answers that concern: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).

If I fall into sin, even serious sin as David did, I have the promises of God that give me a way out through His forgiveness. 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.” Because I know this is true, I can say along with David, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7).

Spurgeon writes, “Once in Christ, in Christ forever, nothing from his love can sever.” He knew what I also know. Eternal life is just that: eternal. It means nothing can sever me from my life in Christ and my relationship with God through faith in Him. Jesus said, 

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27–29)
I know this is true. I also know that I cannot jump out of His hand, for as a child once said, I am one of His fingers.
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What a precious truth, O God. When You drew me to Christ, it wasn’t just for a short time, but forever. You gave me the Holy Spirit who removes that spirit of fear, bondage and insecurity and replaces it with the spirit of adoption. I can call you Abba, Father, my eternal Father. Thank You for the wonder and the security that You will never cast me out of Your forever family.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Nevertheless

Today’s devotional reading is a continuation from the same passage as yesterday. It is about the amazing and merciful grace of God. It also demonstrates the importance of every Word that God speaks. 
I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. (Psalm 73:22–24)
The psalmist admits his sinfulness. He is ignorant of the ways of God and sometimes foolish and animal-like in his behavior. Nevertheless, God holds his hand, guides him and will take him into eternal glory. This sinner knows he is with God because God is with him.

Spurgeon’s words are wonderful. As I read them, I felt my own heart breathing yes and sighing at the wonder of God’s love. No matter what I do, I can also say, “Nevertheless, I am continually with Him.” Again I paraphrase Spurgeon for I cannot say it better . . .

“Nevertheless” regardless of all that has been confessed, it was still true and certain — David was saved and accepted. The blessing of being continually in God’s presence was still his. He was fully conscious of his own lost estate and of the deceitfulness and vileness of his nature, yet by a glorious outburst of faith, he sings, “Nevertheless I am continually with You.”

This encourages me to confess and acknowledge the same truth. “Nevertheless, since I belong to Christ I am continually with God!” By this I mean that I am continually on His mind, he is always thinking of me for my good. I know this because His Word says so. How amazing!

I am also continually before his eye. His eyes never close in sleep but perpetually watch over my welfare. He guards me like a hen her chicks and a shepherd his flock — no matter what I do.

Further, I am continually in his hand. No one can pluck me out, just as Jesus said. He holds me safe and secure in His care, even when I behave in foolish and ignorant ways.

Spurgeon says that I am continually on God’s heart too. I am worn there as a memorial even as the high priest bore the names of the twelve tribes upon his heart for ever. All of Scripture verifies that God will never leave me or forsake me. He says I am the apple of His eye, a jewel in His crown.

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God, You always think of me. Your love continually yearns towards me. You are always making providence work for my good. You have set me as a signet on Your arm. Your love is strong as death; many waters cannot quench it, neither can the floods drown it.

Surprising grace! You see me in Christ, and although in myself I am  abhorred because of sin, You behold me as wearing Christ’s garments, washed in his blood and covered. I stand accepted in Your presence and am continually in Your favor —“continually with You.”

This is comfort when I am tried and afflicted or vexed with any inner tempest. I can drink in the calm of these words and experience the peace that Your grace gives because, “Nevertheless I am continually with thee.”

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Obedience matters

Even as a little boy, our oldest son was a philosopher. He’d come home from school asking questions like, “If I stepped on a bug, and that bug would not ever create other bugs, then some birds would not get fed. . . .” and on he went about the consequences of his actions that would ultimately affect the history of the world.

We chuckled, but perhaps he was wise beyond his years. Our actions do affect our lives and the lives of others. Maybe stepping on a bug isn’t very important, but even foolish thoughts can direct what I do and keep me from obeying God. Do I realize that even what seems a small folly has consequences?

Today’s devotional reading from Morning and Evening by Charles H. Spurgeon uses verses written by King David to remind me that I need to always pay attention to God. Even a little folly like envy can rob vital energy from me, energy better used in obedience.

I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. (Psalm 73:22–24)
Spurgeon’s words are of a different era (1834-1892).  I paraphrase them so I don’t stumble with his expressions instead of letting the Lord speak to me, but appreciate all he says in today’s devotional.

First he reminds me that these verses are a confession from “the man after God’s own heart.” David was devoted to God, yet concerning his inner life he writes, “So foolish was I, and ignorant.

 The word “foolish” translated in the ESV as “brutish” conveys a bit more than what I think of when I hear either word. David says earlier in the psalm that he was “envious at the foolish when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” This shows the folly of his thoughts, which he intensifies by describing himself as brutish and like a beast before God.

This sin that others might not even notice was for him a big deal. He did not make excuses for this envy. It was serious. Neither did he speak lightly of how he had forgotten the dreadful end awaiting those who enjoyed this life without any concern at all for their eternal destiny. His envy could have blinded him to that fact and kept him from being concerned about their souls.

Spurgeon brings this to my own heart. Am I any better? Do I ever think others are better off and wish that I could do what they do? In my envy, do I forget that even the most prosperous are spiritual paupers if they do not have forgiveness and eternal life. Not only that, do I really want to be like them? Have I a desire to enjoy life without crediting my Creator for what I enjoy, like they do?

If David was foolish, then I am also foolish. If it isn’t in envying the prosperity of those who don’t know God, then what about other things, like  doubting God when He has been so faithful to me? Or resenting adversity that He sends so I might experience a greater blessing and a richer understanding? How many times have I misunderstood His intentions thinking all is against me, when He is working all things together for my good? (Romans 8:28-29)

What about the times I’ve chosen sin because of its pleasure, even sin that seemed inconsequential at the time, only to regret it and wish that I had not been so foolish? Instead of looking at the seemingly carefree and wanting to be like them, I am supposed to recognize Christ’s care for me and want to be like Him.

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God, I know in my own heart that at times I must, like David, plead guilty to this indictment of sinful folly. My sins may not be the same as his, and some of them might seem “little” yet any sin is foolishness and all sin has long-range consequences. Sin always affects my relationship with You. It also hampers the spiritual lives of others. Being conscious of my large and small “foolishness” thoughts, words and actions, I must make David’s resolve my own and remember not only that You are with me continually, but that You will also guide me with Your counsel and eventually receive me into glory. Obedience does matter — big time.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

But . . . you promised . . .

Child specialists say that trust develops when we are about two years old. If betrayal happens in those early years, trusting anyone later, including God, becomes more difficult. This is why “But dad, you promised” are such sad words. Parents need to keep their promises.

One important reason is that children form their ideas about God from how they perceive their parents. My mom and dad were loving, kind, and spoiled me. I have no problem believing in the lovingkindness of God, but it was a shock to find out that He would not grant everything I asked for. However, I could trust my parents so trusting God has not been as difficult for me as it is for some.

Those who have abusive parents, or have been abandoned, or betrayed, or unloved have a difficult time believing that God will never leave them, will always take care of them and will always love them. In their minds, the father image mars the Father image.

Today’s verses are about the promises God makes to His people and His reliability in giving us what we need to escape the destructive power of sin.

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3–4)
Spurgeon uses a word picture to explain the best way to experience God’s promises. He says to think of them as like grapes in a winepress that when treaded upon, the juice flows. Meditating on those promises, dwelling on God’s words, is often the prelude to their fulfilment.

This happened to me yesterday. I was reading this same passage. It says that I must add perseverance to my faith — that I can do so because of God’s promises. As I thought about it and the situation I was in that required perseverance, the promise was fulfilled. My burden was lifted as God supplied the patient endurance I needed.

An important part of thinking about these promises is remembering who made them. The Bible is the very words of God. As Spurgeon says, if I were dealing with the promises of an ordinary person, I would consider the ability and character of that person before believing the promises. In the same way, I must consider the God who makes the promises in the Bible. Sometimes I think about the impossibility (or so it seems) of the promise itself, but when I think about the One who made it, I am encouraged. This is God speaking, the One who created all things by His Word. Anyone who can speak a universe into existence will not find anything impossible nor would He make impossible promises.

He also cannot lie. I am convinced that His Word is as true as the fact of His existence. He is unchangeable and His Word does not alter, nor does He say, “Oops, forget that I said that.”

God is wise and knows the best time and place to fulfill His promises. He knows when I need them fulfilled and when I need to grow in faith by trusting Him even if nothing seems to be happening. This is no mere mortal who might fail, but God who never fails.

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Lord, many of Your promises are about my growth in Christlikeness. Some are about physical care or spiritual healing. Some include answers to prayer. Whatever You promise, You are the reason I can depend on that promise. Even if feelings of doubt rise in me, You remain faithful. Your promises are not about my ability to trust or even remember what You say. They are about You and Your total reliability. I will never need to say to You, “But Father, You promised.”

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Becoming an effective Christian


Sometimes I wonder if what I do as a Christian makes any difference. Am I effective? Do the attitudes and actions of my life glorify God? Spurgeon challenges and blesses by pointing me to these verses.
For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5–8)
From this passage, I clearly understand that if I want my life to make a difference, then I must “make every effort” or as the old King James version says, “give diligence” to some spiritual disciplines.

While this passage says it is up to me to add to my faith, I know that spiritual disciplines are merely “places of grace.” That is, God does the addition if I will put myself in position to receive His grace. I will grow in these qualities if I pay attention to what God wants from me, and obey what I already know.

First, I’m to make sure that my faith is the right kind. Faith is not just believing the right teachings (doctrine), but it is depending on Christ, and on Christ alone, for everything. I cannot even trust God without His help, never mind obey God and add these things to my life. Jesus is my Savior; I am not.

I am to make every effort to add virtue and goodness, saying no to sin and yes to God. I am to study the Bible and from it get knowledge. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly . . .” (Colossians 3:16), but also obeying what God teaches me. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22)

Self-control is included in this recipe for effectiveness. If my life is to mean anything for God, than I need to “take heed to thy body: be temperate without. Take heed to thy soul: be temperate within. Get temperance of lip, life, heart, and thought.” Spurgeon’s words may sound old fashion, but he is right. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it springs the issues of life.”

After that comes steadfastness. This is patient, consistent endurance. It is keeping on, no matter what. God asks me to choose to be a godly person in the face of all trials, temptations, hurts, and disappointments. I am not to complain or be depressed by adversity. This is an incredible challenge and I needed to hear it today. Spurgeon says that when this grace is won, then when I am tested, I “shall come forth as gold.”

The next virtue is godliness, which is more than being pious or religious. It is making God’s glory my goal. It is living continually in the sense of His presence, having uninterrupted fellowship with Him. While this is incredibly appealing, it comes with a price. Only those who feel weak and helpless can continually abide in close fellowship with the Lord. Our tendency to do things ourselves quickly spoils this total dependance on Him.

The above passage says at the end to add brotherly affection and love. These are two different words. Brotherly affection is a love for those we care about, particularly my brothers and sisters in Christ. While this has occasional challenges, it is easier to obey than that other word for love.

Love (charity in the KJV) is from “agape” a unique term. It describes a self-sacrificing love that does what is best for others, with or without any feelings of affection. It is the love of God that was proved in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for my sin. It didn’t depend on me, for “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This is how He wants me to love others, with affection certainly, but also whether or not I feel like it. My love is to be like His love, totally unconditional.

The bottom line is that if I have these qualities and they are increasing in me, they will prevent me from being ineffective and unfruitful. Interesting wording. The effectiveness still depends on God. That is, I can be all this and effectiveness is not automatic. However, if these things are absent, then I cannot expect to be effective for they open the way for God to use me.

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Lord, again You give me what I need to hear. I must work on the steadfast part, keeping on no matter what. You ask that I be a godly person even when others throw rocks at me or in front of me. I can bring the hurts to You but not let them be an excuse to stop pressing on. Instead, I’m to let these things test and develop my ability to be patient and to endure.

Monday, July 25, 2011

This life and life with God

Statistically, those who suffer great losses are open to hearing about God — for a little while. When their lives stabilize, their interest in Him usually begins to fade.

In today’s devotional reading, Spurgeon uses the last part of this verse to say that God will bring people into poverty and other difficulties as a way of getting their attention.

I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me. (Hosea 5:15)
In other words, Spurgeon agrees with those statistics; distress can cause people to seek God. However, this devotional author lifted this phrase out of context. The rest of the verse says that God withdraws the sense of His presence because His people are guilty. The resulting distress of that loss causes His people to seek Him.

I don’t think this is how God works with everyone. Instead, it is a description of how He works with His people who have sinned. When believers do not acknowledge their sin and turned from it, God moves away from them (not actually, for He is always with us) so that we feel the loss of His blessing in our lives. Because we know and love the Lord, this sense of lost fellowship with Him is often enough to give us a desire to deal with our sin and seek Him. The same idea is echoed in this verse:

O LORD, in distress they sought you; they poured out a whispered prayer when your discipline was upon them. (Isaiah 26:16)
I don’t think it is biblically correct to say that hard times make other people seek God. Hard times can also make people harden their hearts against Him. Besides that, I noticed this distinction because someone taught me that there are several kinds of faith.

Saving faith is that trust in God that admits sin and seeks His forgiveness. It is a faith that is based on who God is and on a concern for eternal matters and God’s judgment of sin.

However, there is a temporary faith. This is when people seek God’s help because they are in trouble. This temporary faith is just that because when the trouble goes away or the problem is solved, that faith also goes away. This sort of trust concerns only life issues and had nothing to do with eternity so it lasts only as long as the issues last.

Long-term problems in life can lead to saving faith. It did for me. I turned toward God when my marriage fell apart, but in the turning, God showed me that a relationship with Him meant that I had to deal with my sin. It is sin that separates us from God, not just lack of faith. After all, even the demons believe in God (James 2:19). They know more about Him than we do, yet their “faith” is not going to save them or do them any good.

This idea of tribulation awakening an interest in spiritual things can be exploited. At least one cult seeks out people who are lonely, grieving, or who are in other negative situations. These hapless souls are preyed upon, plundered by those who are driven by a point system; the more souls they involve, supposedly the more rewards they will receive. This is not right. God is not like that. He tells His people to care for the poor and needy, not expecting any return and certainly not taking advantage of them for some sort of notch in our belt. He even makes this selfless caring a mark of faith: 

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)
In contrast, the Bible describes a worldly attitude that only does “good” for ulterior motives. That could be good deeds done to make me look good, or to influence others to go along with my agenda, instead of simply touching their lives to show them the love of God.

God wants people to have faith in Him because He is holy and good, and because we need His love and His blessing on our lives. The only thing that stands in the way of that is our sin. He wants everyone to turn from sin and become believers in Him. He “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

He also wants believers who sin to “confess our sins” because “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Sin ruins our fellowship with Him and He will use troubles to restore that fellowship.

Even so, troubles come and troubles go. If someone trusts God only during troubles, that “faith” will vanish along with those troubles. Yet sin is always an issue. It separates us from God even when everything else is going well for us. So if sin gets in the way, we need to repent. We cannot measure our relationship with God by how well life seems to be going for us. He asks, “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4) Troubles or not, sin is always the issue regarding our relationship with Him.

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Father, rich or poor, healthy or sick, no matter my external situations, may I have a heart that seeks You. May You put in me an increasing and deepening desire to be close to You and to enjoy Your presence. May Your Spirit prompt me to be quick to see and confess sin, quick to repent and turn from it, quick to run to You. Don’t let me assume that Your goodness means that I am okay when You intended that Your goodness always leads me to keep short accounts with You.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Standing still

God’s people were backed into a corner. It seemed that they would perish. They had no hope and no resources. However, Moses said to them, “Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today. . . .” (Exodus 14:13)

I can imagine how they felt. Some circumstances in my life are beyond my control and seem impossible. For instance, unless God does something, unsaved family members will perish. I have concerns for unresolved issues in the lives of others that are holding them in bondage. Personally, I know that unless God is involved, there will be no eternal benefits from anything that I do.

When I think about these and other difficulties, I could be afraid and want to run away, or stay but fall into despair. Certainly thoughts like, “give up” come into my head. Yet I know that the only thing God wants me to give up is the sin in my life, including reliance on myself and retreating as if He is not listening to my prayers.

Another voice that nags at me says, “Do something” as if I could fix things, or as if waiting on God was some sort of avoidance of responsibility. Presumption also says that if I just move forward anyway, God will jump in and help me.

The other line I hear is that ditty, “Don’t worry, be happy.” While there is biblical truth in not worrying and being joyful, worry is not the same as a burden to pray and happy is not a carefree, nothing matters attitude. Don’t worry, be happy can be like faith, but more often it is complacency.

Spurgeon encourages me today by saying that trusting God means that my faith will not listen to presumption, despair, cowardice, or that itch to take rash action. Faith hears God and if God says, “Stand still,” then faith is as immovable as a rock.

Further, standing still is not a pose of frozen in fear.  It is the posture of trust and of being ready for action. It is cheerfully and patiently expecting God to do something. He might give me further orders to go forward or do something, but He might simply let me watch while He does something.

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Oh Lord, I struggle with being idle in these issues. One positive about it is knowing You want me to talk with You and express my trust as I present these impossible burdens to You, and do so as long as Your command to stand still remains. I know that nothing is impossible for You. Your arm is not shortened that it cannot save. You will finish all that You start. You are building Your church and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it. While You might use me to accomplish Your will, You do not need me. Sometimes standing still means to just keep out of Your way and let You do Your work.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Response to a comment

The following comment was made on my November 15, 2010 post:
Anonymous said . . .
    I enjoyed reading your comments. I do try to see god [sic] and good in all things but stumble when I read today about the massacre in Norway. It is so difficult to see God or good in this scenario. Can we really believe that God's hand is at work here? I do agree that for those relations and friends of the victims who have trust in God, they will know that God is with them in their suffering. Would welcome comments on this.
Thank you. I usually answer all comments with an email, but no email address was left for this one. It is a good question.

For me, it is much easier to give an answer in a blog post than it is to talk to the relatives and friends of those who are hurting. Even the best theological conclusions are tested by the reality of life. That being said, my first thought is that we all die — one way or another, and the Bible indicates that death is our common enemy. Yet death is not the end, only the end of life here. Also, Jesus defeated death and hope in Him defeats the fear of death. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live." (John 11:25)

In this terrible situation, as you suggest, those who believe in Him will find comfort. Departure from this world means those who trust Christ are in a far better place. This was my comfort when family members died. However, we still grieve (not as those who have no hope) and the sense of loss can be very painful.

As for trying to see good in this, the Bible does not tell us that all things are good. It says that God uses all things FOR good in the lives of those who love and trust Him. (Romans 8:28) This "good" is defined in the next verse --- we are transformed into the image of His Son. All things means just that. If we examine Calvary, it would seem God was not there either. How could anyone murder His innocent Son? Yet God planned it before the foundation of the world.

Remember that God is not the author of evil. Rather, evil is the absence of goodness. Sin is also the reason for death and violence. God could stop evil, but instead choose to offer us the remedy for sin: forgiveness and the choice of godliness through faith in Christ. If that offer is refused, then sin will prevail.

Disasters are a huge test of faith. This one is no exception even though it was instigated by a human, you are not the only one who wonders about God being in it. Remember that God promises He will never leave or forsake His people. Sadly, there are many who are not His people. They have determined to do their own thing apart from God and the redemption that is in Jesus Christ. God does not force Himself on those who resist Him. He also knows the souls of all victims. I cannot see how he considers individual human hearts in a mass event like this, nor understand why one is taken and another is spared. That is why He asks His people to walk by faith, trusting Him, rather than by sight and trusting what makes sense to us.

One more thought; our tendency also is to want the perfections of heaven on earth. Realistically, as long as sin is given human allegiance, that cannot happen. Personally, I also tend to think that the main reason most of us want that perfection here and now is because of our desire for personal comfort. It would be a lot easier if God just zapped sin. Then I would not have to take a stand against it, either personal sin or the sin that others do. I would not have to share the Gospel or worry about anything.

My prayers for Norway's people and for those who struggle with faith and the goodness of God in times like these.

Being like . . . ?

We lived in California for a couple years and our children picked up that distinctive “valley” accent, including the soft “you all” and other nuances. A year spent in Chicago with a friend from New York gave our son’s speech a mild Bronx inflection. Couples who have been together a long time often speak the same, even look alike. Relationships have an osmosis quality, sometimes humorous and mostly harmless. However, when it comes to spiritual and moral matters, God tells us to guard ourselves from picking up worldly and sinful attitudes and actions that can seep in and pollute our souls.

Edom, a near neighbor of Judah, had prided themselves in their alliance with their blood relatives in that place. But when enemies attacked God’s people, Edom stood back and did nothing.

On the day that you stood aloof, on the day that strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them. (Obadiah 1:11)
This is similar to what happened when Jesus was crucified. As He was arrested and tried, Peter, the disciple who boasted that he would never forsake Jesus, was asked three times about his relationship with the Lord. Three times he denied it.

Spurgeon compares the indifference of Christians to sin around them with the lack of action of the Edomites. As I read his examples, I think of how these attitudes and actions also betray Jesus Christ in that instead of being like Him, I become “like one of them.”

If I were at a party and someone told a dirty joke which I didn’t find particularly offensive and said nothing at all, then I am “like one of them.” Ephesians 5:4 says, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”

If I am with others who are complaining about the difficulty of their circumstances, and I join in, I am “like one of them.” Philippians 2:14–15 says, “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.”

If I try to sell something to make great gain for myself, I am “like one of them” too, because 2 Peter 2:14 says false teachers “have hearts trained in greed.” Do I want to be like them, or hang anything on my life that is contrary to what God has done in me?  He produces changed lives, as Paul said to the Christians in Corinth,

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–11)
This world is a challenge for Christians. Heaven is our home and Christ is our example. The world grabs and pulls at us, trying to make us “like one of them” and we are to live in it, but not love it or be like it. It may seem like a no-brainer, yet we are often sucked into this or find ourselves in conflict. The bottom line reason for it is that sin still pulls us. Besides, we know that obedience like that of Jesus’ obedience could lead us to His same fate.
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Lord, I know that I can never blame my sin on what others do. Even if I hide in a hole, I would still need to deal with my selfishness and pride. Yet it is true that being around sinning people has a way of testing me. Will I resist and be salt and light? Or will I ignore them, or worse, go along with them? Increase my alert level to these dangers, particularly when I am with those who do not know You. Also give me the courage and whatever else is necessary to obey You. Help me always remember that You want me to be like Christ. This means no trace of sin or self-righteousness and not at all “like one of them.”

Friday, July 22, 2011

Marriage is made in heaven

Marriage is compared to many things, often negative, but not too often do I hear (or see) it compared to the relationship between God and His people. This biblical comparison gives marriage a high calling and sets a lofty standard. The idea begins in the Old Testament.
For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. (Isaiah 54:5)
And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord. (Hosea 2:19–20)
This union between God and His people points forward to an even more intimate union in the New Testament. Here the church is said to be the Bride of Christ, presented to Him by the Father. 
For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:2)
In the commands to husbands, this comparison is made strong and clear:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Ephesians 5:25–27)
God’s purpose in marriage is supposed to be a picture of His own divine relationship with the people He has chosen for Himself. The Old Testament story of Jacob’s affection for Rachael pictures or points forward to how Jesus gave himself for His betrothed, willingly paying the bride-price by laboring for her, even dying for her. His sacrifice for His church is the only way His people could be presented to Him in purity, forgiven and cleansed.

The Bible talks of a marriage supper in heaven when their intimacy will be complete, yet here and now, the church is still referred to as His bride because we are united to Him by His great love for us. We are precious in His sight even as we wait for that full and eternal intimacy with Him.

This picture of marriage is better understood through knowing the marital practice in the time of Jesus. At that time, a couple was betrothed and considered married during their engagement period and before they had consummated their union. So it is with the church as the bride of Christ.

Admittedly, the bride of Christ needs a lot of work. We wander this world often in need of further sanctification and cleansing as those verses in Ephesians say, yet we are still dear to Him, precious in His sight, written on His hands, and united to His heart. Jesus treats His church with all affection, making provision for her needs, even her wants, pays her debts, allows her to assume his name, and to share in all his wealth.

The world may not see this love and care as easily as those who receive it. The reason is that there is a “church” that calls itself so, but filled with people who have never known Jesus or the intimacy that this marriage brings. They may be zealous but have missed this Husband-Bride relationship that is only for those that have been betrothed to Him by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit through saving faith. Thus the true union is muddled with those who claim it but don’t have it.

In this divine marriage, the word divorce is not used. God hates divorce for separation ruins the analogy. Also, the analogy does not include death. The end of physical life severs the ties in an earthly marriage, but it cannot sever the tie in this immortal marriage. Human marriage does not carry over into eternity as Jesus said we would be “like the angels of God” yet there is one exception. That union between Christ and His Church will be celebrated with a feast and enjoyed forever.

Marriage these days has been taken through the muck. What God intended to be full of purity and joy so often is not. But even when a husband and wife more closely mirror the heavenly model, that relationship is still a faint picture of the mystical marriage where Christ left His Father and became one flesh with His bride.

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Jesus, my heart is filled with so much from thinking about these truths. For one thing, I need forgiveness on two levels. In my own marriage, I so often fail to mirror what You intended. I do not behave toward my spouse as the church ideally responds to You. Not only that, as a member of Your Body and part of the people who collectively are Your Bride, I also fail to remember and respond to You as the One who loves and cares for all of Your people.

Yet You do. You never leave us nor forsake us. You are always for us, not against us. You sacrificed Yourself that we might be holy and without blemish. For all that You do, I am amazed, grateful and filled with love, wanting to serve You with my whole heart in this delightful partnership.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Has God changed?

Is the God of the Old Testament different from the God revealed in Jesus Christ? In the Old, He tells His people to destroy their enemies. In the new, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. What am I supposed to think about God as I see this dichotomy?

During the reign of Hezekiah, Sennacherib, king of Assyria attacked the fortified cities in Judah, then set his eyes on Jerusalem. Hezekiah prayed and sent servants to the prophet Isaiah for help. Isaiah told Hezekiah to not be afraid; God would deal with this enemy. He also sent this message to the king:

Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, this is the word that the LORD has spoken concerning him: “She despises you, she scorns you — the virgin daughter of Zion; she wags her head behind you — the daughter of Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 37:21–22)
Knowing that God would take care of their enemy, His people became bold and mocked Sennacherib’s threats. This is the usual response of the human heart when “my dad is stronger than your dad” gives confidence in a conflict.

However, when Jesus came He asked for more than the usual response. In His noted Sermon on the Mount, He said . . . 

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43–48)
The people in the Old Testament knew that they were supposed to love their neighbor but Jesus takes this command farther. He says that we are to love even our enemies, even those who persecute us. Anyone can love those who are lovable, but it takes the grace of God and the perfection found in Jesus Christ to love those who are set against us.

Still, the question remains. If God wants us to love our enemies, why does He destroy those who are His enemies? This is the wrong question. Instead, I need to ask this: Why does God not destroy all sinners? We shake our fist in His face and sin against Him with great defiance, yet He sends sunshine and rain. He even sent Jesus — to die for our sin!

From this sermon, Jesus makes it clear that no one can be “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.” Who is good to the unjust in the same way they are good to good people? Who even wants to be like this? Sin makes us want to retaliate. Our selfish hearts love to mock our enemies, particularly when God puts them down and lifts us up. Loving them is totally foreign to our nature.

Perfection is found only in Jesus Christ. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:22–23).

Unless Jesus lives in my heart, I cannot be perfect, never mind perfect from the inside out as this sermon calls for. I might be able to act out some of the things Jesus calls for in an external manner, but eventually the attitude of my heart will come out.

The Old Testament shows God’s wrath on the sinfulness of human beings, even those God called to be His people. While He did tell them to destroy their enemies, it was the sinfulness that consumed these pagans. A just and holy God has every right to judge sin. That He didn’t destroy the Jews remains to be seen.

When Jesus came, He revealed the grace of God, something the Jews did not expect. They expected Him to deal with their enemies (the Romans), but instead He asked them to deal with their own sin — such as their hatred of their enemies. This knocked them on their heels. They were God’s chosen. How could this man say they were sinners in need of mercy? They didn’t want to hear that message from God so they crucified the Messenger.

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Father, Your hatred of sin has never changed. Your love of sinners has not changed either; otherwise You would have destroyed the daughters of Jerusalem for their attitude toward their enemies, the New Testament Jews for their attitude toward the Romans, and me as well – for my bad attitudes and multiplied sins. Instead, throughout history You have offered grace. Grace protected Your people in those days of old when they so often deserved wrath, and grace was revealed fully in Jesus Christ who took Your wrath on my sin and died for it. You are perfect and have not changed. You still hate sin and simply ask me to do the same.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

God’s remedy for health

A doctor wrote a book called “None of these Diseases” using an Old Testament verse and his knowledge of medicine. In it he affirmed the relationship between a happy, calm spirit and a healthy body. He said that many, if not all of our physical problems are caused by undue stress.

I’ve also heard that if someone is ill, a relaxed and happy attitude leads to healing much faster than worry. This tells me that for my own well-being, I need to relax and rest in God. If I trust Him implicitly, regardless of the circumstances, it will be easier on my body. 

They who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31)
Preacher and author D. L. Moody said there are three kinds of faith a Christian can have: a struggling faith, a clinging faith, or a resting faith. In the above prescription Isaiah uses “wait” instead of “rest” but it means the same thing. Renewed strength is about being at rest as I trust the Lord. It goes beyond that feeling of well-being when life is uncomplicated, even beyond the good feeling of a spiritual high. Waiting on the Lord and resting in Him is an attitude of the heart where I am relaxed and comfortable all the time because I know God loves me and is in control of all aspects of life. He cares for me no matter what, so I do not need to be stressed.

My mother had a saying while I was growing up that usually referred to the weather: “We must need this or we wouldn’t be getting it.” God has used that saying in combination with His Word to help me see that whatever comes my way has a purpose. Because He loves me, I need this and God will use it for my good. I don’t need to fret or be anxious about anything. 

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, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:28–29)
God wants me to be like Jesus and while Jesus sweat drops of blood before going to the cross, I cannot imagine Him pacing the floor over other circumstances in His life, or wringing His hands when people resisted Him or rejected His life-giving message. Jesus was not a worrier. 
. . . . Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21–23)
The secret to resting in the care of God is knowing that God is just and will do what is right. If I doubt that, I will struggle. If I think He will give me more than I can handle, I might cling to Him in desperation. But knowing who He is and that He wants godliness for me makes it much easier to rest in Him. It also is good for my health. Even though age takes its toll, my doctor tells me that I’m her “most boring patient.”
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God, I’m so thankful that You are who You are — and that You have revealed Yourself to me and given me faith to trust You, to even rest in Your care. So often my only anxiety is that others will also know You and be able to live at rest in this blessed and wonderful truth.
    Once my hands were always trying,
    Trying hard to do my best;
    Now my heart is sweetly trusting,
    And my soul is all at rest.
    —A. B. Simpson

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

God’s eye-openers

Sunrise — July 19, 2011
There is no greater experience than to see and recognize the glory of God. Yet as a sinful and fallen creature, this is another mystery. How can a high and holy God manifest His glory to anyone? We are so full of ourselves and have such a high opinion of our own abilities. We think and say, “Who needs God?” and because of that arrogance, our eyes become blind to the wonder of who He is.

Yet even those taken up with themselves can see the glory of God in what He has made. Consider the flowers of the field, the grandeur of the Rockies, the color and light of a sunset, the glisten of a trillion snowflakes, the stars in the night sky, and the amazing glory of a newborn child!

Yet God reveals His glory in other ways. Noah saw it and feared, building an ark as God told him. Moses saw it too. He said, “O Lord GOD, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours?” (Deuteronomy 3:24)

There is more to God’s glory than the creation around us. Men like Job, and the Old Testament kings and prophets saw and declared His glory. Then, when Jesus Christ came on the scene, God’s glory was revealed in a man. The Apostle John said of Jesus, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

How does He reveal this glory? Not everyone saw it. In fact, instead of worshiping God because of His glory revealed in Jesus Christ, they crucified Him. What kept so many people from seeing it? Why do so many miss seeing it today?

Spurgeon says that to see God, “self” must get out of the way. He points out that if God is exalted, it is often through us being brought into a place where He can get our attention. We need to become conscious of our weakness and feel helpless. There is something about trials that lifts the scales off our eyes and opens our hearts to receive what God longs to show us.

If God’s glory is seen in deliverance from trials, then those whose lives are smooth and trouble-free will see little of Him. Those have no situations where they feel empty and therefore will not experience being filled with the revelation of God.

If my life consisted of navigating little streams and shallow creeks rather than “doing business in great waters,” I would never see His “wonders in the deep.” It is in the storms of grief, loss, poverty, trials, temptations and reproach that I learn the power of God because those experiences make me very aware of my own smallness.

God even says “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4).

It seems an audacious command, yet I know my own wayward heart. During those “good” days, hours can go by where I never think of God or His glory. But let those days be filled with perplexity and challenges, and He is on my mind. It is in thinking of who He is and what He can do that my heart is settled. The glory of God gives me peace and hope. It should also make me thankful for those good days.

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Lord, Spurgeon says to thank You if I have been led by a rough road also. Not that my life is always rough, but he is right; the rough spots have given me experience of Your greatness and lovingkindness. I see Your glory in my troubles, and gain an understanding of You that I would never have gained by any other means. When I am suffering, those “trials have been the cleft of the rock” in which You hid my life, and like Moses, You let me behold Your glory as You pass by that hiding place. I’m thankful that You have not allowed me to stay in the darkness and ignorance that total prosperity can produce. Instead, You give just the right amount of affliction to humble my heart and open my eyes. Thank You for glimpses of the glory of who You are and what You can do.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Striving for control?

In the beginning, God told male and female, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

One of the ways that we try to take dominion is by understanding everything. If we can figure it out, then we have command over it. If not, then it somehow seems to master us, or at least eludes our dominion.

I see this played out in matters of faith. The Bible says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith asks us to trust a God whom we cannot fully figure out and trust in the promises He makes that have not yet come to fruition. If we could figure out God and see for certain all He says, it would not be faith. Our desire to “see” or reason it out or make sense of its mystery would give us a sense of dominion over God.

Paul tried that. Before he met Jesus Christ, he attempted to control what he could not understand. Those who believed in Jesus didn’t make sense to him. As he was on this way, Christ met him on the road and put him on his knees. In broken humility, Paul said,

“Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” (Acts 9:5–6)
By a miracle no one can fully explain, Saul of Tarsus was turned in one second from a strong-willed, intense Pharisee who persecuted Christians into a humble, devoted slave of the Lord Jesus. It is this amazing ability of God that most eludes us. How does He do it? How can we make this happen?

When Christ came into my life, a friend said, “It takes a second to be saved — and many spend the rest of their lives trying to figure out what happened.” I agree.

An arrogant and self-sufficient man once told me that he could become a Christian anytime he wanted to, that it was totally up to him. Like most, he thinks he controls his own destiny. While in one sense our choices have bearing, to his notion that he could make himself a Christian, I said, “No, you cannot. If God does not do it, it will not happen.”

Saying “I am a Christian” does not work. The Bible is clear that this transfer out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God is not of our own doing. 

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12–13)
(The Father) has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son. (Colossians 1:13)
False teachers such as cult members and Christian imitators say that matters of faith are logical and make sense. In the mind of anyone who has been granted salvation, this is partly true, but even believers know that faith is largely a mystery. We cannot control what only God can do.

On the other hand, some people say that if all the above is true, then God will save them and they do not have to do anything. However, we also need to realize that the “default” for humanity is rejection of Christ and going our own way. The Bible is clear on this. No one is righteous and no one seeks God. By default, we are lost in our sin. 

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. (Romans 3:10–12)
In an Eden-given desire to take command, sin makes us think this includes God and matters that only He knows and understands. The world’s quest for knowledge and control is rampant and quite amazing, yet we still have not figured out how to conquer our own wickedness. Instead of going to this mysterious God and asking Him for help, our default position is to stay where we are, and as some say, “take our chances.”

Yet God leaves nothing to chance. He sent Jesus, the Light of the world, and invites us to choose that direction. We cannot do it without Him, nor can we understand how He does it, but He has made it possible by His Spirit that we can be drawn out of our darkness. This happens mysteriously as He somehow makes us willing to seek the truth and turn in the direction of light.

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works (including this work of turning to the light) have been carried out in God. (John 3:19–21)
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Father, I’ve been thinking about those who insist their teaching must make sense. However, some of the gospel is beyond us. I continue to pray for those who stumble over this element of mystery that is out of their comprehension zone. Grant them light and a desire to know You.

I can relate to them. I’ve spent many hours trying to figure out things that were too deep for me. Now I see that some of my effort was to give me a sense of being in control, but faith is not about control. It is about trusting You, the only One who can control everything. Thank You for revealing truth to me and for giving me a desire to seek truth in Jesus Christ. I am so undeserving. I am so blessed.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Being saved from . . .

When Jesus came into my life, I was in great need. From my perspective, my salvation was about being rescued from that mess and given help and hope for the future. However, in a very short time, God showed me that salvation is about sin. He will help us with our troubles, but first He wants to deal with that which separates us from Him.

Speaking of unbelievers, Paul wrote: “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (Ephesians 4:18–19).

At first, I didn’t see or understand myself as a person who had a hard heart and was sinful in every way. Then God opened my eyes to realize that all humanity is separated from God, not by poverty, pain, or the mistreatment of others, but by sin. Until that issue is brought to Him in confession and repentance, no one can call themselves a Christian or expect His help with the other hard issues of life.

This morning’s devotional passage reminds me of how to identify genuine believers. Paul saw the “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” in the Christians at  Thessalonica. He thanked God every day for them and then gave his reasons . . . 

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. (1 Thessalonians 1:4–8)
Paul knew that God had chosen them because they responded to the gospel with conviction of sin. They confessed and repented and their lives were changed as God forgave them and gave them new life. They understood the ministry of Paul and others, willingly living as they did even though it brought them much affliction.

I think of people who go to a church, are sincere, yet believe Christianity is about being mild mannered, nice to others and sticking up for the underdog. For them, sin isn’t an issue and the message of the gospel is met with puzzled scorn or downright anger, not with conviction and repentance. Yet these folks, some very good people, make up a large body of the so-called “Christian” church. Entire denominations are filled with people who consider themselves Christian because of their good deeds and their refusal to call anyone a sinner. I tremble that they could stand before Jesus and say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” only to hear Him reply, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:22–23)

In contrast, Paul says that the gospel touched the people of Thessalonica “in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” Key to this is that these people heard it, but the words were not delivered as mere words. God was at work. His Spirit was speaking too, and because of that, they heard more than words. They experienced conviction and then a new life.

Those who have been convicted of sin and turn to Christ for forgiveness are familiar with that power. Paul recognized it in these and other believers. I’ve experienced it in my own life, and seen it at work in others. True salvation results in dramatic changes. It isn’t just that nice people become nicer, but that everyone who hears and responds to the gospel becomes like the apostles (sold out for God) and like Jesus Christ. Yes, they do good things, yet their faith in Him as Savior and Lord becomes the identifier.

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Lord, I know that You love everyone, even the religious people who “have a zeal but not according to knowledge.” You must be sad for those who ignore Your gospel to “establish their own way of righteousness.” They want to be identified as Christians and do good in the world, yet they have rejected the salvation that will save them for their own sin and bring them into intimacy with You. How sad.

I am thankful that you forgave my sin and I’m delivered from its penalty. May I never forget that I still need You to save me from sin’s power. Don’t let it rule my life, nor let me look down on others who do not know You. Help me live as an example of a true believer, with joy even in affliction, and with great compassion for those who do not yet know You.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Daily strength, daily received

Events in our community verify that life can change in an instant. A child was killed by a stray bullet while asleep in his home. A man fell from a balcony and was gravely injured. An apartment burned leaving people homeless. A seemingly healthy husband and father discovered he is terminally ill. A business suddenly closes leaving several people without work.

For me, this speaks of how dependent I am on the Lord. My life is physically comfortable, but what would it be if our home burned? I feel safe, but how would I feel if our neighborhood had drive-by shootings? I’m healthy, but what would happen to my plans should my doctor tell me I had only weeks to live? My husband has a good job, yet what if he became unemployed?

My husband is the first person to say “Don’t ‘what if’” yet I’m not sure these are totally negative and pessimistic questions. Sometimes such thinking forces me into reestablishing my priorities, or at least being more thankful for our blessings. Certainly it makes me aware of how much I need to rely on God to take care of things.

Spurgeon brings this to a daily experience, reminding me that my spiritual life is also totally dependent on the grace of God. For that reason, and for the unexpected events of each day, I need to spend time with Him each day, feeding on His Word. Yesterday’s manna will not suffice. 

Morning by morning they gathered (manna), each as much as he could eat; but when the sun grew hot, it melted. (Exodus 16:21)
Spurgeon says to work hard to maintain that sense of entire dependence on the Lord’s goodness. I’m never to attempt living on the old manna, just as I’m not to look for help from the secular world. All that I need is supplied by Jesus Christ. Yesterday’s blessings are not intended to meet today’s needs. For that, I need a fresh word from Him each day.

Manna does not last long because my spirit can quickly falter. I also quickly forget what God spoke to me about in the past. Besides, God may put me on a mountain top today, but tomorrow take me into a valley. I might see His face yesterday, but He hides it from me today. The past can build a foundation, but each day has its own demands.

I know that God loves me and nothing can separate me from His love, yet I also know that He is the source of all goodness. He could withdraw joy from my heart, light from my eyes, or strength from my life. Jesus told His disciples to pray for their daily bread for good reason. His promise is that “as our days our strength shall be.” That means seeking daily grace, daily understanding, and relying on that mercy that is “new every morning.”

He wisely designed this daily need because He knows that in ourselves we need daily reminding and daily replenishing. We also need to discover that His supply is never exhausted. In my need and utter inability to do anything without Him, He continually supplies all and more because of His inexhaustible love.

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Father, knowing that no matter what happens I can run to You gives my soul nourishment. I’ve no idea what this day will bring, yet You know all my days. By telling me that You are here for me, I have no reason to be apprehensive. I will not enter the day carelessly either, but watchful and depending on You. Whether today is ‘normal’ or goes to the other extreme, You assure me that no matter my experiences, You are in them with me.

Friday, July 15, 2011

God's Fire

Fire burned much of an Alberta town early this summer. This week, an apartment fire made many people homeless and put some in the hospital. These news stories grab my attention, not because I’m fascinated by fire, but because I fear it. I tend to associate it with destruction.

This morning, God reminded me that fire has other connotations. I had asked about my plans and projects, enough for two lifetimes and wanted His priorities. He gave me this verse:

Fire shall be kept burning on the altar continually; it shall not go out. (Leviticus 6:13)
Scripture speaks of literal fire, but also uses it as a symbol. It can represent several things including God’s presence and power, His judgment or purifying work, prayer, or zeal for God. In this Old Testament verse, continual fire was associated with burnt offerings for sin and was God’s reminder to the people that their sin was continual, but so was His provision for it.

I need to remember this too. If I pridefully think that I do not sin, I will move toward a God-dishonoring self-righteousness. If I forget that my sin is covered by the sacrifice of Christ, I will shrivel in despair.

Fire is also God’s way of revealing His presence. When Moses was wandering in the wilderness and had not yet been given orders to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, he had an experience that set the direction of his life and ministry.

And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. (Exodus 3:2)
God has never come to me in fire, but the sense of His presence is important. When I think of His promise to never leave me or forsake me, I have confidence to do whatever He asks. If I mistakenly think He is not with me, I am fearful and uncertain.

Fire can be about judgment too. As a believer in Jesus Christ, I do not fear the fires of hell; I am not going there. However, the things that I do in this life will be evaluated at the Judgment Seat of Christ. I do need to think about that, hence my prayer this morning.

If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:15)
Spending time on frivolity is not only a waste of time but a sure way to suffer loss at that judgment of my works. God wants me to do things that have eternal value. Sometimes I know what they are, but not always. Reading my Bible all day could look good, but is not good if I’m doing it to avoid helping someone in need. Helping someone in need could look good too, but not if I’m doing it to avoid time with God in His Word.

The fire that God wants burning on the altar in my life sounds more like having a zeal for Him. In this, I am to use the gifts He has given me to help others and to bring Him glory.

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. (2 Timothy 1:6)
Zeal is not necessarily about fanatic behavior like chanting “turn or burn” on every street corner. It is more about being eager to let God judge and purge my sin now — so that I am free from every hindrance and can eagerly do the things God says as the Spirit of Christ leads, motivates and empowers me. 
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. (Romans 12:9–13)
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Lord, I hear You. You want me to pay attention to You, do what You say, and do it with all my heart. I don’t get a six-step plan or a clear outline. Instead, You want me to live in a right relationship to You with great zest. I’m to spend time with You each day, even each moment of the day, eagerly paying attention to Your Spirit and enthusiastically doing (and giving up) whatever You ask. For me, life with You is not a road map but a grand and daily adventure.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Building blocks . . . or a pile of rubble?

One concern that burdens my heart is trying to do the Lord’s work my way instead of His. I so easily rely on my own reasoning about what makes sense. I also fall into the rut of what is familiar rather than listening for His direction and willingly move as He leads me.

Our church is in the midst of an evaluation. Godly people came in and used surveys, discussion groups, interviews, etc. to ascertain our strengths and weaknesses. Then they offered a prescription for change and growth. These recommendations are based on biblical principles. However, we need to be careful. What happens in my life can also happen in a church. We can rely on our own reasoning. We can fall into the rut of “we always do it this way” instead of seeking the face of God and being willing to go in new directions. 

If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it. (Exodus 20:25)
When the Lord gave direction for a place of worship, He told His people to use stones that were untouched by human skill or workmanship. This is a prefigure, even a warning against us using our own plans in an effort to build our church. This is not about a building but the Body of Christ and how we function.

Spurgeon says, “Human wisdom delights to trim and arrange the doctrines of the cross into a system more artificial and more congenial with the depraved tastes of fallen nature. However, instead of improving the gospel, carnal wisdom pollutes it until it becomes another gospel and not the truth of God at all.”

Doctrinal truth is not to be messed with, but that is only one way we can rely on our own devices. Churches desire to grow, but some come up with very human ideas of how to make that happen. I’ve heard of one that offered free ice cream to children who came to Sunday school. Any gimmicks or such bribes are hewn stones.

Churches need what is called a “good governance model” these days, yet instead of going to the Bible for it, they look to business and modern management principles. Sometimes secular consultants are hired to create structures that supposedly will benefit the church. These also are hewn stones.

Other ideas abound. Make the church a place of entertainment. Use music and art to delight people. Put new people without faith into positions of leadership. Appeal to felt needs. How easily we can saw those stones, wielding our tools of reasoned appeal. We carve what looks nice and works to suit us. We attract people with what makes them feel good, a form of emotional manipulation. All of this falls short of Jesus’ plan.

His wisdom is that we have His heart and attitude. We are to care about each other and those around us, tell people what He has done for them, and let Him change their hearts. Those whose lives have been touched by the love, mercy and grace of Jesus Christ want to be with others who have had the same experience. Then those unhewn stones tumble together to build a temple for God, the Body of Christ. This temple is not always as neat and pretty as a building with sawn blocks, but God makes it fit together and can create from it a holy thing.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom 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. (Ephesians 2:19–22)
Again, it may not look “pretty” in the eyes of the world, but when God does the work, we become what we need to be to do His work. 
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4–5)
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Lord, I know that I reason too much and have too many of my own ideas. I want neatly cut blocks, not a bunch of lumpy and uncut stones, but Your plan is not like mine. It is simple and I must obey You. All of us must follow Your blueprint, not rewrite it to suit our own desires. I pray today that our church, Your church, will not be the work of our own hands. Even though we must labor, may our efforts be in obedience to the truths You reveal to us. Let us not rely on our own devices or methods. What You give us may seem as rough, unhewn stones, yet only these are fit to build a church that honors and pleases You.