Friday, September 30, 2011

Dead lions and Living dogs

Today’s devotional reading begins by saying that life is a precious thing. In its humblest form, life is always superior to death. The author then adds that this truth is even more important when speaking about spiritual life. 
But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. (Ecclesiastes 9:4)
Spurgeon says that it is better to be the least in the kingdom of heaven than the greatest out of it. I agree. The most lowly saint is far better off than the most esteemed statesman who knows not eternal life. Knowing Jesus Christ is far more precious than a plethora of doctorates, credentials and achievements. Not only is this life but a small blip compared to eternity, the best of what unregenerate people can do in this life has no bearing at all in God’s eternal realm.

As Spurgeon says, the thief on the cross excels Caesar on his throne. Lazarus among the dogs is better than Cicero among the senators. The life of Jesus Christ in us is our badge of nobility and those without it are lifeless to God and dead in trespasses and sins.

For those of us who believe, God also says we must walk in the Spirit, not in the flesh. That means that a gospel sermon preached in the power of Christ, however lean in content and unrefined in style, is better than the finest discourse without the anointing of Holy Spirit power. 

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)
This word corrupting simply means rotten, worthless, dead stuff from the deadness of the old life. It could be coarse and evil speech . . . 
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:4)
It could also be less obvious, like flattery, boasting, and anything that is less than gracious and unsuitable for the occasion. This means that the person who is alive in Christ watches their mouth.

Of course a living dog keeps better watch than a dead lion. This live animal is of more service to his master, just as the poorest spiritual preacher is infinitely more useful to God than the exquisite orator. Some speakers sound fantastic, but their only wisdom is that of words, and their only energy that of sound. The power of God is not in them.

This is true of all our Christian activities also. When my life is empowered by the Holy Spirit, then whatever I do is acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. This is true no matter how I evaluate what I am doing. To me, something God can use might go unnoticed , or I might think that my actions were worthless. However, the working of God in and through His people is not necessarily for His people to be aware of or feel. It is for those who are receiving it. I can be strong when I feel weak. Paul wrote. . . .

But (the Lord) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)
If what I do seems like a grand performance and I am proud of it, likely this action was mere flesh and Christ is not in it. It falls into that dead lion category and is only carrion in the sight of the living God. How important to do all that I do in faith, in His power, under His leading — even if my experience seems more like that of a small and whimpering puppy. Better a living dog than anything from the deadness of the flesh that is a waste of time and energy, without His life, and even grieves His heart.
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Father, walking by faith rather than by sight and by what “seems like power” is so contrary to how the sinful human mind evaluates the actions of life. After years of being in Your kingdom, I sometimes feel like a child who is still learning the most basic principles of Christian living. Thank You for Your great patience and perseverance with me. Thank You also that by this truth, there is no way that I can do anything for You and take any credit for it. I am not allowed to boast in anything but Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior, the most marvelous and alive Lion of Judah.

(Photo credit)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Bible — God’s Word to Humanity

To my left on my study wall is a framed and illuminated page from 1 Peter. It was printed on the first printing press in the world, the Gütenberg press, located in Germany and still being used. There, we also saw one of a few remaining copies of the Gütenberg Bible, the first book ever printed on this press, way back in 1450-1455.

In that same museum were dozens of Bibles that had been faithfully copied from earlier texts. Words and letters were counted to make sure no errors crept in. It took many people years of work to preserve God’s Word. They did so because they knew that the Bible is an amazing book. It has been called “The Book of Books.” Today, it is printed in more than 600 languages, and portions are printed in more than 1,000 tongues and dialects. The Bible has long been the world’s best seller.

I “cut my teeth” on the King James version. Other versions have been translated from ancient copies and paraphrases have been made from those versions. Even with the many variations available, the version used is not nearly so important as what we do with it and how we respond to it.

My mother’s example started me reading the Bible every day. I’ve done this since I was about 13 years old. Now I can say along with the psalmist at least the first part of these verses. . . .

Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. (Psalm 119:97–99)
This book is God’s love letter. In it, He discloses Himself and clearly spells out His plan for our redemption and restored fellowship. He offers us the final authority for all matters of faith, morals, and practice. This inspired book is God’s way of giving us understanding and guidance in our Christian walk as it prepares us for our heavenly destination.

I cannot fully comprehend all of the teaching of Scripture because my sinful mind is finite and flawed, but God makes clear the essential truths for redemption and to live like Christ. This book is alive and shapes my life. For me, it is the same as Paul said to Timothy. . . .

. . . . and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the (person) of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:15–17)
The words do not work all by themselves. The Holy Spirit uses them in a mystical way, making them come alive in my mind and life. Because of this, my sin is exposed so I can confess it and be forgiven.
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
As God deals with my sin, He also uses His Word to help me live as He wants me to live. When I do that, I have His assurance that my prayers will be answered. 
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)
This book has been trashed, ignored, called “irrelevant” and mocked, but it remains on book store shelves, is available to e-readers, and dozens of versions can be read and searched on computers and the Internet. Some households have many copies, some well-read and well-worn.
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:35)
Hard to read? Yes, for those who do not believe it — and I know this. I read it many years without comprehension, yet when the Lord walked into my life, His Book becomes accessible and life-changing.

Paul explains the need for preaching the Word, for hearing it spoken, for reading it. He says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

This is key for those who do not have faith but wish they did. Read the Bible. Try starting with the New Testament Gospel of John and read it five times. Then read Romans a couple of times, then the entire New Testament. Faith comes from hearing, so reading it aloud might even be a good idea.

God is faithful. He preserved His word for thousands of years. He has used it to change thousands, even millions of lives. Some of those set out to prove it wrong and were transformed as they read it. This is a living book. It can bring life, eternal life, because it is the Words of God, spoken to us through faithful men who recorded it for that very purpose.

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God, each day You speak to me through Your Word. I am sometimes convicted of sin, sometimes rebuked and instructed, but You always speak blessing, truth and assurance to my heart. Thank You for this reliable and incredible Book. Thank You for its power to change lives. May You give all of us a great and growing hunger to read it and let it do what it alone can do to transform us and fit us for eternity.

(Image source)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fathers and daughters

Perhaps one of the biggest drawbacks of our busy lives is that parents are too preoccupied to watch their children. I don’t mean watching that they don’t play in traffic or get into the medicine cabinet, although that can be a problem. What I’m thinking is being too busy to watch them play, draw pictures, sniff flowers and be with them as they do the things that children do.

When I read this verse, I thought of my father watching me learn to ride a bicycle. 

The LORD looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man. . . . (Psalm 33:13)
My parents were there when I struggled with homework and learned how to draw. They noticed when I needed a snack or a hug. They often stopped what they were doing to help or just be with me. How delightful to know that God is like that.

Not everyone enjoyed the same parenting that I did, but all can have the same heavenly Father. This verse show His attentiveness, His graciousness toward humanity. Some versions use the word “stoop” to describe how He attends to our needs, even our wants.

God is Spirit, yet He “walked” in Eden with Adam and Eve. When they disobeyed Him, He graciously covered their sin and gave them another chance. He stoops to behold how our sin creates such sorrow and ruin in our lives. He sees the world full of iniquity, but will not judge it without giving us opportunity for redemption and eternal life.

Our Father inclines His ear from the highest glory and puts it to the lip of any sinner whose failing heart longs after reconciliation. He hears and saves all who call out to Him and put their faith in the One who stooped to die for their sin.

How can I not love a Father who numbers the very hairs of my head, marks my path and orders my ways? He cares about my spiritual concerns, but also my temporal needs, even the trivia of my life. He helps me order each day and gives me answers for my problems. There is a great distance between the infinite Creator and my brief existence, but He stoops to watch over and care for me.

Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine. (Psalm 33:18–19)
As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. (Psalm 103:13)
God listens to every sigh, His ear is moved toward my whispered prayers, even those that have not yet escaped my heart. He gave me Jesus who is my life and my righteousness. He sees my sin, but covered in the blood of His Son who died for me. He grants me a faith that will reach His heart, stay His hand or move His arm. 
For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. . . . (2 Chronicles 16:9)
If the busyness of life messed with God’s attentiveness toward His children, we would quickly wither and die. Our physical and spiritual lives depend on our God who sits on high — yet stoops toward us. No matter how well we do, or how poor and needy we are, the Lord thinks about us and watches over us. He is a perfect parent, caring deeply for us in our imperfect and needy lives.
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Father, I am thankful for a loving earthly father who paid attention to his children and modeled for me a favorable image of You. Yet Your attention and care go beyond even the best of fathers. You are never too busy to stop and stoop. You are never too occupied to listen and respond. Your ears are never so filled with competing cries that You cannot hear my weakest whimpers. Today, I am grateful that You look down from heaven and see Your children. I’m also glad that I can tell others who do not know You that Your big heart is inclined toward them and Your arms are open to also welcome them into Your family.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Beyond happy . . .

A person dear to me argues against the Christian faith with, “Lots of people are very happy without that sort of stuff.” Today’s devotional reading answers that, beginning with this verse . . . 
Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD, the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph! Your enemies shall come fawning to you, and you shall tread upon their backs. (Deuteronomy 33:29)
This verse asks who are like those who have been saved by the Lord? While some of us struggle with all sorts of things, we have one thing in common. We all know the joy of the Lord. This goes beyond happiness because it does not depend on circumstances. Even in great trial and sorrow, that amazing joy often bubbles up from inside us, a gift of God that goes far beyond “very happy.”

Besides joy, no one but the people of God can enjoy triumph over sin and death. No one has the total assurance of forgiveness of sin and eternal life as we do. No one else can say that they belong to the Lord Jesus Christ and daily live in His presence unless they have put their faith in Him. There is no comparison between the delights of ordinary life and the delights of living in the kingdom of our King.

Spurgeon says those who think Christians are not as happy as other people, or that Christianity makes people miserable, are strangers to our faith. They have no idea of the joy that comes with our exalted position in Christ. He has seated us with Him in heavenly places. We know Him, walk with Him, spend our days and nights with the Creator of the universe. He is our Savior and Friend.

Jesus Christ made us the children of God. It is ridiculous to think that our Father would give all happiness to His enemies and reserve all sorrow for His own family. God surely does not allow His foes the mirth and joy leaving His children with pain and wretchedness. He sustains us through our lives with His peace and deep joy.

The Bible says we can rejoice in the Lord always. If that were not enough, we also can glory in our inheritance, for we “have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but we have received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15). Whatever belongs to Jesus also belongs to us.

While God does use trials to develop our character, the outcome is just that. We are made better as He uses all things to produce in us the fruits of righteousness. We are “people saved of the Lord” and find great joy in the God of our salvation, even in discomfort. Our joy does not depend on circumstances.

Not only that, we are united to Christ, members of His Body and together blessed with His comfort and assurance. We offer each other incredible support and fellowship that goes beyond being mere friends. We have a firm foundation and stand on a solid rock. Again, our joy and delight in Christ go far beyond merely being happy.

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Jesus, I am so thankful that I belong to You and that You love me with an everlasting love. You give me purpose for this life and solid hope for the next. I’m also thankful that I don’t have to settle for “happy” but instead can have Your deep joy. You offer so much more meaning to life than the transitory stuff of here and now, good and bad. 

However, I have one dire burden and it is this: that those who do not know You are not able to see or desire the glory of being a child of God. This is my prayer again today, that You will open blind eyes and change hard hearts. May Your love draw even the “happy” people into Your kingdom.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Preparation for the end

My husband was twice this week at the bedside of a man who is dying. This is a sad and difficult time, worsened by the fact that this man has not made preparations for the end of his life. Yet as I think about him, I wonder how many of us are truly ready.

Spurgeon writes about the end of life. He uses a passage from the Old Testament that uses trees as symbols, speaking of their death as being like ours.

Wail, O cypress, for the cedar has fallen, for the glorious trees are ruined! Wail, oaks of Bashan, for the thick forest has been felled! (Zechariah 11:2)
Spurgeon says that when a tree falls, this can indicate that a woodsman is there. In metaphor, he says that every tree in the entire forest may tremble thinking that the sharp edge of the axe should find then next. Then he says that human beings are all like trees — marked for the axe.

It is true that the fall of one reminds us that everyone, whether great as the cedar, or humble as a small aspen, will face that appointed hour. The older we get, the approach of that hour seems to be rapidly increasing its speed. However, Spurgeon warns that as we hear of death to not become callous to it.

As I get older, I am more aware of death. It affects my family and friends. We are older, and older is about funerals. Is it possible to get used to them and to death? We live within earshot of the ring road around our city. Most mornings are filled with traffic noises, but most mornings I do not notice them. Could I become like that concerning death and funerals?

Death is the most weighty of all events. Spurgeon says that those who do not prepare for it are more than ordinary fools; they are madmen. I’m not sure I’d say that. Fear of the unknown and fear of eternal judgment can make people do strange things. So can the false idea of “when you are dead, you are dead,” including the thoughts that there is no God, no afterlife, nothing else. To this, Spurgeon says, “When the voice of God is heard among the trees of the garden, let fig tree and sycamore, and elm and cedar, alike hear the sound thereof.”

The Bible indicates that eternity is written in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11) so that we know there is more. In our hearts, we know that death is not the end. As a Christian, I’m totally certain. My evidence is Jesus Christ. He not only said so, but He rose from the dead to show the power of God regarding death. Like Him, we can live after we die. The bigger question is where we will be after that final event.

Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. (John 5:28–29)
Lest anyone immediately claims that they are a “good person” Jesus also said, 
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)
Because of the invitation and the promise of Jesus Christ, I am assured of my eternal future. Nevertheless, God tells me to be ready. Death could come at any moment. Even sitting at my desk, my heart could stop beating. I have no idea when the Woodsman will come. I need to be faithful in obedience and keep my affairs in order. This isn’t merely financial, but that I maintain short accounts with God, keeping my sins confessed and my life in tune with Him. When I leave this place to be with Him, I would like to hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
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Lord, these days our hearts have been continually occupied with thoughts and prayers for loved ones who are not prepared for death. While we also experience the peace and joy that comes from knowing You are our Sovereign and Almighty God, we have this continually sense that no everyone knows that, not everyone is ready to stand before You. We are confident that You are able to bring anyone to the foot of the Cross, but we also know that You give Your servants a role in this. May I not miss my cues. I feel so much like a weak sapling with small and insignificant voice, yet if You want me to echo Your words, I want to be obedient to that so no one misses the opportunity to walk into eternity hand in hand with Jesus Christ.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Growing pains?

Last night I dreamed that for some reason I was being asked to sacrifice my eyes. In the way of dreams, the storyline makes no sense, but this sacrifice would somehow benefit my husband. Our friends who live nearby were pressuring me and telling me what I would lose if I was not willing to do this. In my dream, I was trying to ignore them.

Waking up from a dream like that is often like the bell that keeps ringing after the rope is no longer pulled, or like the aftertaste from drinking something with artificial sweetener. It rattled around inside my head as I got ready for the day. Then I read these verses . . . 

And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:41–42)
The key word in the first line is “forces.” Even at that, I can see myself being willing to go the first mile, but the second? I’m not too good with beggars either. If literally stopped on the street, I shake my head. I look the other way when driving by those who sit on the side of the road with cardboard signs. Most of the time they seem to me as if this is their “day job” and they have a car parked around the corner.

I’m better with those who want to borrow something, but not much. It has taken me years to lend anyone my books, partly because I love the books and partly because I’ve had a few that didn’t come back. However, God is teaching me that He is my supply. If I need anything, He will provide it.

Actually, no one has ever forced me to go one mile. This is a description of something the Roman soldiers were doing in Jesus’ day. They had heavy gear and would grab someone from the crowd to carry it, often for a long distance. Nevertheless, there are other things that people or situations demand. We have guests this weekend. Hospitality means setting aside regular schedules. However, going that distance is not difficult. Jesus isn’t talking about the easy stuff. He uses the word “forces” which means being pressed or compelled into service.

On the other hand, beggars and borrowers abound. I’ve lots of opportunities to be obedient to the lifestyle Jesus describes concerning them. Yet I’m not impressed by those who sponge off others when they could be working for a living. I also know that enabling the dishonest is never a loving act. How can I know who is really in need? It seems that great discernment is required.

Besides that, these verses are sandwiched between a section on making and keeping oaths and one on loving my enemies. No one should ever read this or any other part of the Sermon on the Mount and think these are more “rules” for Christian living. We are not able to live like this apart from the grace of God that changes hearts. Instead of “rules” to be followed, this is the high standard of God that shows me how needy I am. Jesus calls for a radical lifestyle from His followers, but thankfully also offers radical grace to do it.

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Lord, You continually challenge me to trust You in the circumstances of life, both in the expected daily stuff, and the unexpected. I have no idea if someone plans to force me to do anything today or any day, but I’m glad that You used a nonsensical dream to show me that I do not have a very good attitude about going the second mile or giving up what is mine to someone who needs it. I agree with You. I also know that grace abounds for those who are in need of it . . . and here I am — again in need.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Faith vs. Reason

Last week someone told me of a perplexity in her Christian life. She was doing something she thought was right, but her actions were getting her in trouble with others. She asked two godly people for counsel. One of them told her she needed to stop what she was doing. The other said that she was doing the right thing and needed to continue.

It is usually wise to seek godly counsel, but this time she was confused. I told her that when this happens to me, God often is trying to teach me to seek His will alone, and not to rely on others.

While I don’t know the hearts of those who gave this conflicting advice, I do know my own heart. Sometimes the eyes of faith see one clear way, but the eyes of reason cannot make sense of it. This happens to God’s people. Consider Abraham when God tested his faith by sending him up a mountain to sacrifice his son. That made no sense. For one thing, God forbade human sacrifice. However, Abraham trusted Him and did what God told him. Of course, at the last moment God stopped him from killing the boy and explained the test. For that, Abraham is called the Father of faith. I’m not sure what I would have done. Maybe I would give in to reason, which likely is why God has not tested me like this.

Ezra, another leader in the Old Testament, also struggled with faith and reason. He was taking a group of people home. They had been released from their captivity in Babylon. However, the way was filled with robbers and enemies. He sought the Lord on the matter.

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods. For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty. (Ezra 8:21–23)
Reason said that robbers and marauders would harm them and that the king would have given them soldiers for protection. Faith said God could and would protect them. Faith and reason were in conflict.

Mix into that one more conflict. Ezra had told the king that his God would take care of him. Asking the king for soldiers would be hypocrisy, a denial of his proclaimed faith in God. It seems that Ezra’s pride was involved, but true faith is not about pride. How can any sane person be vain about trusting God when it makes no sense at all to trust Him?

I’ve had this happen in small and big concerns in my own life. One time it was about a house that we hoped to rent. Someone else got there first, so reason said getting that house was out of the question. However, faith persisted. I knew that house was ours, and in a few days the call came. The other deal fell through and the house was indeed ours.

Faith is not presumption. Presumption does not see or consider the negatives. It is based on wanting something so bad that no other options are considered. Faith is more about knowing in your heart that God is true — when your head says you are daft. 

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)
These words in this verse, assurance and conviction, both find their source in God. That is, faith’s assurance comes from Him, not merely from our desires. The normal idea of hope is “I hope so. . . .” but in the Bible, hope is not like that. It is more like the inheritance written in a will that has not yet been bestowed, but it is mine. It is like being given the deed to a house that I’ve not yet moved into, or the keys to a car that I’ve not yet driven. Biblical hope is a sure thing, and assurance is that knowledge that it is certain. It is being convinced or convicted that even though I cannot see the money, or the house, or the car, I know it is mine. It is being totally certain of whatever God says He will do, because it is God who said it.

This is what faith is — knowing God and what God wants. Reason may shake that assurance and argue with it, but the heart knows. Abraham knew God and knew that He would keep His promises to give him grandchildren from his son. If he sacrificed the boy, he had no idea how God would do this, but he knew that He would. Ezra also knew that God would take care of them. Reason said the odds were against it, but when pitting God against odds, God wins.

My friend must seek God to find out what He wants her to do. Reason works to trip her up, but once she gets His word on the matter, her confusion will go away. It may be impossible to comprehend how that can be possible while in the middle of the muddle, but once faith takes over, God is able to make sense of nonsense and give reasonableness to anything that at first seems unreasonable.

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Father, I’m so glad that my faith does not depend on my own ability to reason or figure things out. Because of sin, reason is flawed. Pride, I-wants, fear, logic and all sorts of supposing can lead me off in many directions too. Yet Your instructions are almost always simple and straightforward. They may not seem to be sensible, but after many years of experience, You have shown me that once I obey You, I can look back on each test to my faith and see how Your will makes so much more sense than anything else that came to mind. Besides seeing that reasonableness after obedience, sometimes You also give me the privilege of seeing You smile.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Faith and praying out loud

As a writer, I’ve learned that reading my work aloud helps me spot errors more readily. It is the same with prayer. For that reason, I pray aloud, sometimes intensely loud. In doing this, God has helped me see what I believe and what I only think that I believe.

This morning’s devotional reading is about a man whose son was afflicted with a demon that not only robbed him of the ability to speak, but also drove the boy to suicide attempts. This man brought his son to the disciples and they were unable to help him. Then Jesus appeared on the scene and began asking questions.

And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” (Mark 9:21–23)
I love what Spurgeon did with this. He said, “Now there was an ‘if’ in the question, but the poor trembling father had put the ‘if’ in the wrong place. Jesus Christ, therefore, without commanding him to retract the ‘if,’ kindly puts it in its legitimate position.”

I immediately think of all the times I’ve put an ‘if’ in my prayers. Sometimes it is, “If You hear me . . .” or “If You care. . . .” But most often if is like this father, “If You can. . . .” Usually I don’t say those words, but I am thinking them in my heart. That is why praying out loud is important for me.

Even my rational mind apart from pure faith, reasons that God is unlimited. He can do anything or He could not be called God. That makes saying “If You can. . . .” out loud a total nonsense. If I heard myself say that, I would shake my head and maybe give myself a smack. What am I saying? Duh.

However, this man also said something that, for me, seems to come out more easily when I say it aloud.

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
For me, mulling the issue in my mind and in silent prayers, makes it easier to skirt the real issues or to rationalize and deny what is going on in my heart. Out loud, it becomes clearer to me: God knows what I am thinking — I might as well say it. There is no pretending when the words come out. I cannot easily lie to myself when I hear myself talk.

This helps identify doubt, but praying out loud has an upside to it as well. For instance, when I say things like, “You are God, You can do anything,” I am reinforcing my own faith. This is a strong biblical principle. We need to speak what we believe. 

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. (Romans 10:9–10)
Verbal confession is vital in salvation. It cements faith, makes it concrete (pun intended) and gives it voice. Obviously, those who say they believe with their mouth, but do not believe in their heart are not saved. On the other hand, if someone thinks they believe, but refuses to say so, they could be holding back so they can change their mind. God wants us to say it, to tell others.

Speaking what I believe works in a similar way in prayer. It affirms and gives strength to what I know is true in my heart. It also battles the Liar, Satan, who whispers words of doubt and deception into my mind. Out-loud words drive away those temptations to unbelief. Singing spiritual songs has the same effect as we give expression to the truth.

Back to prayer. I love to go for long walks and pray, but praying out loud is a bit of a problem. I imagine a well-meaning observer calling for the little men wearing white coats to take me off to the psych ward. So I whisper and move my lips, which is almost as good, but not the same as talking with volume.

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Lord, the lessons of speaking my heart are important. Speaking out loud may not be for everyone, but the larger lesson here is for everyone, and for me today. I need to watch that I put any “ifs” in the right place. Prayer should firmly stand on the confidence that You keep Your promises and that You hear my prayers, aloud or silent. The “if’s” do not belong to who You are or what You can do. They always belong with my failings, fears and doubts. Forgive me for trying to project my own shortcomings on You, as if You are the doubtful side of this equation. How foolish of me. You are Almighty God, God who is unlimited in power, love, grace and mercy. Truly, all things are possible to those who believe. In my weakness and lack of faith, keep on giving me words that turn my focus away from supposing wrong things about You and that put the onus of my unbelief where it belongs.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Light only for the next step

Earlier this week my husband and I made a major decision. I felt that we needed a third opinion and asked our son to give it. At first, he was uncertain what to say, then he began to question my motives for this decision.

Those questions irked me, making me aware once again how people do not like to think about motives. However, he was on the right track. The outcome is that my husband made the decision because he thought it would be best for me and I made it because I thought it would be best for him. But at heart, it was not something either of us wanted for ourselves.

This reminds me of the tale about a woman who sold her hair to buy her husband a gold watch chain, and he sold his watch to buy her a tortoise hair comb. Of course the expression of selfless love is poignant, but I’m thinking that better communication would have made this story, and ours, have a more practical result.

At least in our case, the decision is reversible. We can change it, yet that poses a bigger uncertainty. I’m quite happy that we cancel out, but hubby still wants to do it for my sake, not because I’m wanting it but because he thinks it would be best for me. What do I do with that? This morning’s devotional reading takes me to a prayer . . . 

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. (Psalm 61:1–2)
The “faint” heart is translated in other versions as “overwhelmed” — which describes my emotions about this current situation. I sense God bidding me to come close and talk to Him about it. At the same time, I’d like some direction in plain, black and white words from the Bible. I want to know what to do.

In looking for a solution, another devotional reading catches my eye. This one offers this verse . . . 

You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. (John 13:13)
The author of this reading says that the terms “teacher” and “Lord” both imply that Jesus Christ knows more than I do. Of course that is true. When I call out to Him, I can be certain that He knows what I do not know. Whatever He tells me will be based on a wisdom that my eyes may or may not see. That is, obedience is usually a plain “do this because . . .” but sometimes it is only a “do this” without explanation. I’m to walk by faith, not by sight.

God also knows the future. Whatever is best for me, or for my husband, cannot be decided by what life is like right now or by what we think might happen later. Going to the Lord means that we want our choices based on the wisdom of One who is “higher than” ourselves and higher than our abilities to understand or guess what lies ahead.

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God, I’m so impatient. I’d like to know for sure, have a black and white plan that lays out each step. Yet I also know You do not lead me that way. You give me “the next step” and expect me to walk into that bit of light before You give me direction for the next step after it.

I am thankful that my husband will make sacrifices to care for me. I’m also thankful that You give me the willingness to make sacrifices for him. Now You seem to be asking me to do something a bit different; to yield to what I don’t really want (or think I don’t want) just so he can willingly make the sacrifice to give it to me. Sigh. Only the Rock who is higher than both of us can make sense of this one.

(Photo credit)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Has God changed? Or do we need to Change?

Most of the general population and a large segment of church goers think that God always wants them comfortable and feeling good. Some call this “God wants you rich” theology, but it is subtler than that. It is rooted in a false concept of God’s very nature.

In this thinking, human understanding of God was flawed in the Old Testament. God was not really behind all the bloodshed and conflict between His people and the godless and evil pagans around them. This was a human evil. This ‘theology’ also believes that the full revelation of God is in Jesus Christ (true), but because Jesus was mild and talked about peace, this is how God has always been. They dismiss passages such as this one . . . 

I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. “For thus says the LORD: Just as I have brought all this great disaster upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good that I promise them” (Jeremiah 32:41–42).
In their minds, God cannot be the author of disaster. They say the writer did not have a full understanding of God. Again, since Jesus called for peace, and since Jesus is the express image of God, then God could not desire war or be behind any negative and painful events.

However, when I step back and look at the full picture of the advent of Christ, I see quite a few negatives. First, Jesus came because we are sinful and resist the will of God. We don’t even understand it, never mind agree with it. Jesus came to deal with sin. It affects not only our actions but even our power to think properly. This is why He calls for a renewed mind.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
Without renewed minds, no one can discern the will of God. We have our own idea what is good (usually associated with comfort) and acceptable (to whom?) and perfect (by whose standards?) To make this renewal possible, He went beyond offering information or logical explanations. Instead, He offers new life through faith and repentance, and that includes a new mind. In speaking to Christians about this, Paul wrote . . . 
“For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:16)
Our first need is the life of Christ and a renewed way of thinking, but supplying this for us required a great act of violence, an act that God planned from “before the foundation of the world.” 
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know — this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22–23)
Yes, men did the deed, but it was God who made the plan. He knew they would kill His Son, yet He sent the Son for that very thing. Without His death, without His shedding of blood, there is no remission for sin, no regeneration for sinners, no possibility of peace on earth.

I’m puzzled that anyone can say God is not behind the disasters of the Old Testament without also denying that He was behind the greatest act of violence in the New Testament. We may have an abhorrence of violence ourselves, yet the Word of God says we are, at the root, sinful and selfish creatures. In our flesh, we do whatever we do for our own ends. We do it so we can be powerful and in control. Or we do it so we can protect ourselves from someone having power over us.

Maybe we need to better understand the motivations of God. Does He cause disaster to be in control? Does He advocate peace so He doesn’t have to suffer the pain of our disobedience? If that is why God does things, then we have made God in our image.

Instead, God’s motives go far beyond ours. He asks that we glorify Him (it would be blasphemy to ask for anything less) and He asks that we strive for peace and good will, but His reasons for doing anything good (or negative) are not selfish like ours.

For (our fathers) 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. 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. (Hebrews 12:10–11)
Even when the negatives in life are at the hands of others, God still is in it and uses it for our good. James tells us to rejoice in our trials for God uses them to produce patience. Peter said, 
After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10)
Blessed in our North American comfort, some decide that God’s priority for His people is comfort. In this thinking, they miss out on His amazing power of God to use pain.

I’ve imagined what this world would be like if God took away all pain and suffering, all conflict and trouble. We would be awful people, without discipline and fully filled with the importance of our own ease and comfort. Our sin would go unchecked and instead of creating peace on earth, we would be in ruins.

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God, You have not changed. You are the same today, yesterday and forever. While I also tend to shrink from pain, may I always be aware that You ordain all that happens to me. You have purpose for it, even for the bad things. I know I’m supposed to be a person of peace, but I also know that You hate sin, and if You wanted, You could ask me to braid a whip and drive moneychangers (and false theologians) out of Your temple.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

God and Gideon

It’s a shame that some Christians seldom read the Old Testament. It is rich in the history of God’s interactions with people. It is also rich in representing the Christian life in types, allegories and examples.

For instance, God called a man named Gideon to deal with an evil and ungodly people called the Midianites. While some think this is not what God is like now, remember that God hates sin, always. He is holy and has every right to punish human rebellion, always. That He does not do it today is a greater wonder than the wrath He shows in those Old Testament battles.

In the case of Gideon, he felt unable and unsure of the call of God to do anything. However, God gave very specific directions. This man first had to reduce his army. He started out with 32,000 and God let him keep 300 of those to fight an army that “lay along the valley like locusts in abundance, and their camels were without number, as the sand that is on the seashore in abundance.”

He also was given a battle plan that would not ever be written into any strategy books. His men must surround the enemy at night using jars and torches.

So Gideon and the hundred men who were with him came to the outskirts of the camp at the beginning of the middle watch, when they had just set the watch. And they blew the trumpets and smashed the jars that were in their hands. Then the three companies blew the trumpets and broke the jars. They held in their left hands the torches, and in their right hands the trumpets to blow. And they cried out, “A sword for the LORD and for Gideon!” (Judges 7:19–20)
These lights all around and the shouts and noises confused the enemy. They “cried out and fled” with Gideon in pursuit. He eventually defeated them.

Spurgeon sees beyond this narrative account. He uses it to show how the soldiers of Jesus Christ wage battle against our spiritual enemy and the powers of darkness. First, he recounts how Gideon’s army covered torches in earthen pitchers and at an appointed signal, broke the pitcher and let light shine. They sounded trumpets and cried, “The sword of the Lord, and of Gideon!”

Then he says this is what Christians must do. First we let our light shine by breaking the earthen vessel of our fleshy nature lest it hides the light God has put in us. Then we must, “In the same way, let (our) light shine before others, so that they may see (our) good works and give glory to (our) Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)

Our good works must include noise — the sound of the gospel. Along with good deeds, we also proclaim Christ. Spurgeon says, “Blow our trumpet right against their ears if need be.”

However, the bottom line is remembering that our cry is like the cry of Gideon. “The sword of the Lord, and of Gideon!” God works in the defeat of evil and the salvation of His people. I cannot save anyone by myself, but I am not to be idle. God wants to use me in the process. As Spurgeon says, if I only cry, “The sword of the Lord!” I could be guilty of idle presumption. If I shout, “The sword of Gideon!” alone, I will declare my sinful reliance on my own self.

God intends that both blend in practical harmony, much as Christ who was both fully God and fully man worked in harmony to bring light into the world and defeat sin. While my nature is not exactly like His, He does call me to be an earthen vessel in whom He has placed a great treasure (2 Corinthians 4:7). I can do nothing in myself, but “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).

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Lord, I’ve loved the story of Gideon because it shows me that You can do great things in those who will let You take charge. Even when it seems there are no resources left and the instructions make little sense, You win battles. Like Gideon’s army was impossibly small, I feel impossibly useless, yet Your strength is perfected in weakness. Over and over You prove to me that when I rely on You and live as You direct, You bring light into dark places and evil must flee. Thank You for encouraging me with the story of a man whose only claim to fame is that You picked him to be Your sword. 

(Clipart credit)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Freedom or slavery?


Yesterday’s sermon at our church was titled, “Modern Slavery.” Today’s devotional reading is from another place in the New Testament, also about being a slave. 
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)
Our pastor did a great job of showing us from the Bible that even Christians can be enslaved by anything that controls us. He listed a few things like drugs and alcohol, food, lust, television, fear, gambling, the desire to be popular, and could have added many more. I thought of a few, like gossip, overt desire for anything (even comfort) and perfectionism.

Yesterday we were shown the results of an interesting survey done in England where people were asked what they could not live without. Clean drinking water topped the list, but Facebook was number four! Chocolate and coffee, also on the list, suggested that people didn’t take the question too seriously, but if they did, human priorities are terrible out of whack. Many people are enslaved to the frills of modern life.

The bottom line of the sermon was a quote: “The only way to be genuinely free is to fully surrender my life to the Son of God.” I agree. Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).

Surrender to Christ and faith in Him results in freedom. The devotional reading for today outlines some of these freedoms, such as freedom to enjoy and grow by reading and understanding the Bible, freedom to live under the kindness and care of God and freedom to claim and receive the prolific and life-giving promises of God.

God’s Word is a Christian’s comfort in distress, cheer in sorrow, and anchor when life is stormy. We are also free to come to the throne of grace whenever we want to talk to God or have a need. This access to God includes the freedom to spread before Him all our desires, difficulties, wants and burdens.

We are set free from guilt as His forgiveness is freely given as we confess our sins. We are free from want for He promises to supply all our needs. We are free from fear for His perfect love drives it out. We are free from all condemnation and future judgment and are presently being set free from the power of sin.

Slavery to other things, from cell phones and texting to substance abuse and bitter resentment ties up our time, talents, emotions and potential. Offering ourselves as servants/slaves to Jesus Christ opens our lives to the perfect will of God and sets us free from all that cripples us and holds us from accomplishing great and everlasting things. Jesus promises to set us free — and He does!

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Lord, if any activity is sin, like gossip and bitterness, compulsion to do it is easy to recognize as slavery and that bondage is easy to shun. But other activities, like eating and hobbies, have a fine line between normal enjoyment and being enslaved. My motivations can switch too, making a good thing into a sinful thing. You’ve shown me that I can ‘do housework to avoid reading my Bible’ and ‘read my Bible to avoid doing housework’ so I need Your Spirit to keep me alert and aware of not only the taskmaster that bids me into slavery, but my own motivations that make me willingly go along with such slavery. Far better to ignore all those ‘voices’ and listen only to You. You call me to faith, obedience and righteousness — and in heeding that call, You set me free to be all that I can be.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Temptations

My temptations are not the same now as they were many years ago before Christ came into my life. Back then, temptation was more about overt sin, those carnal “I-wants” that most people would say were sin. These days, they are far more subtle. 
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:14–15)
Temptation is an appeal made to human desires. If I want pleasure, or comfort, or more, or the best, I can be tempted to say and do many things that I ought not do. However, as Christ works in my life, my desires have become fewer and less about the world. I am less interested in “bigger, better, more” yet temptations have increased. They just come at a different angle.

These days, the evil one tries to pull me away from what God has given me through faith. Satan wants me to doubt that God loves and wants the best for me. He wants me to think that my life as a follower of Jesus Christ is pitiful and difficult. He wants me to think the blessings of God are coincidences or things that I have earned. He wants me discontent and without any fruit of the Spirit that blesses me and those around me. He wants me to quit, not care, not pray. The list is long and every day, he seems to come up with a new one.

Today I read that Satan’s focus is not so much to get me to do wrong as to keep me from being useful to God. He tries to shift my point of view so that I focus on things that do not matter. Without the voice of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, I’m not sure I would even recognize this as temptation, other than it seems to be relentless. The more I want to serve God, the more I find ideas and excuses flying into my mind that suggest I should stop doing so. This is war, yet God does not leave me without resources. 

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 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 4:14–16)
Jesus Himself was tempted. Right after His baptism, He was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness” for this very thing. It was important that His calling to bear the sin of the world not be sidetracked, so right up front, He was tested and stood the test. He refused to bow to Satan’s offers, keeping His focus on His divine commission.

I relate to this testing. God has work for me to do, less demanding for sure, yet each day I am tempted to toss in the towel. Prayer is hard work. Reading the Word of God and doing what it says is hard work. Loving as He loves most often requires sacrifice. Serving others can be thankless. Instead of doing what God wants, I could write a bumper sticker that says, “I would rather be. . . .” and fill in the blank with a host of non-sinful activities that have little to do with obedience and advancing the kingdom of God.

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Lord God, You know that daily life happens to everyone. Many daily needs must be taken care of, like cooking, cleaning and pulling weeds. But when Satan tempts me to think this is all that I need to do, or that You do not care if I waste my time doing them, I need to remember what Jesus did with His daily life. I need to pay attention. Being responsible for the daily stuff is one thing; it is part of Your calling on my life, but Satan can also use it to draw me away from living more like Jesus lived. He tries to substitute “okay stuff” for total obedience — and I need Your grace to choose and live in total surrender and obedience to Your will.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Powerlessness has purpose

Even though none of my family members are mute or overcome by evil spirits, I identify with the father in this story from the ministry of Jesus.
(A man in the crowd said), “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.”
    And (Jesus) answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”
    And they brought the boy to Him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.
    And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?”
    And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
    And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.”
    Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
    And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”
    And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. (Mark 9:17–27)
I know the desperation of a parent concerned for both the physical and spiritual well-being of my children. I know the frustration of trying to help them and being unable. I also know that the answer is first and always to bring them to Jesus, but even then, I also know faith and unbelief can live together.

There is only one solution to this. As Spurgeon says, when our hearts are breaking we should remember the great Physician’s words, “Bring them unto me.” No Christian parent or grandparent must stop praying until we stop breathing. Nothing is hopeless as long as Jesus is alive. Nothing is too hard for Him.

So I pray, but why then does He wait? Spurgeon says that the Lord sometimes allows His people to be “driven into a corner” that we might discover in our experience how necessary Jesus is to us. We know it by faith in our hearts, but we need to see the reality in our lives.

There is nothing like unsaved and ungodly family members to show us our own powerlessness against the depravity of the human heart. Concerns for unsaved loved ones cause us to flee to our sovereign and powerful God, not only for answers to their need, but for strength and grace ourselves. Because of what it produces, this powerlessness is actually a great blessing. I know enough of my own heart that without the Spirit of God working in me, I would quickly drift from total reliance on the Lord to lackadaisical unconcern for anyone or anything else but my own peace and comfort.

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Jesus, I know that You can save the most distant and indifferent heart. You can bring back to Yourself the most rebellious child.  You can also remove my sorrow because You delight to comfort Your people. As You use my powerlessness to teach me, may I know Your peace and grace while learning the lessons I need to learn.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I am NOT God

A few years ago, a well-known actress twirled about on a beach chanting the exciting discovery, “I am God” — not even a small “g” — as she decided that in essence she is the creator of all things.

This actress and others who have come to her same conclusion, would have a field day with a phrase from these verses in the New Testament. Unfortunate for them, the phrase does not stand alone. It must be read in its context.  

May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. 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 1:2–4)
The phrase is: “you may become partakers of the divine nature.” This looks something like “I am God” but then the other phrases in this passage clarify that being a partaker of the divine nature is not the same thing as becoming God.

Peter writes that grace and peace are multiplied to his readers “in the knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ our Lord.” The word used here for “knowledge” means “full discernment.” It isn’t about awareness of their existence, but a much deeper knowing, even a personal relationship with God and Jesus Christ. He also says “our Lord” which implies a shared submission. If everyone is God, how can you submit to all of them?

Next, Peter says that God’s divine power grants to His people everything they need for life and godliness. Even those who think they are God have no rational basis to assume they created their own life. No one can plan their own conception and birth.

As for making godliness of their own doing, they must change the meaning of the word. This is not about being godlike (even if they get that definition correct), but is about being holy. Holiness is “other than” — totally pure and utterly far above all other things. To have this bestowed by God results in a contrite and humble heart. To boast that “I am godly” immediately makes it not so. Godliness never includes pride.

God calls His people to His glory and excellence. He is not in the business of making me all that I can be, but is transforming me into the image of His Son. This cannot happen unless He deals with my sinful desires. One of those is to “be like God” as suggested to Eve in Eden. She was already made in His image, but that was not enough. This desire led her to temptation and sin. Since God is sinless, her and Adam’s disobedience ruined the image. It is being in this image of God that faith in Christ restores.

That means the essence of Deity is never mine, as Satan suggested to Eve. However, as the first humans were initially created in the image of God, by the renewal of the Holy Spirit I am also recreated in the image of the Most High. It is in this sense that Christians are partakers of the divine nature.

For instance, “God is love” and by the filling of the Holy Spirit, we become able to love like He does. “He that loves is born of God.

God is truth. Those who believe in Him become true and lovers of whatever is true. He is good, and He makes us good by His Spirit and grace. Apart from Him, “There is no one who is good.

He also makes us members of the body of Christ and puts the life of Christ in us. In that way, Christians become partakers of the divine nature in a higher sense than merely by how we think and act. Because of His power, the same life that makes Jesus alive also is our life. 

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — (Ephesians 2:4–5)
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Our union with Christ is the only reason for any godliness or Godlikeness that we possess. It is this life that ought to make us stand out in our sinful and dark world. All that we say and do should flow from the One who lives in our hearts and gives us life. To say that any goodness I have is my own is arrogance. To say that I am God is sheer blasphemy.
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Lord, as Your Word says, godliness is a mystery. Yet this mystery has been revealed by Your Spirit. You say it is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” So many times I’ve patted myself on the back instead of giving You the glory for all that You have done in me. Forgive me. As for those who think they are good, or that their “goodness” is their own, or who think they have become deity, have mercy. Forgive them, give them light and draw them from this deception into truth.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Choosing peace

Our youngest son attended a school in junior high where each student was recognized by one character trait. When a neighboring family of four children heard about it, they decided to present me with a poster depicting the trait that they most noticed in me. It was serenity.

Sometimes I feel a bit guilty that I don’t get in a flap over most things. When I do, people know about it, but it isn’t a frequent occurrence. I’ve wondered at times if being calm in crisis is odd, but when I read today’s devotional verse, a sense of gratitude and praise filled my heart.

He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steady; he will not be afraid. . . . (Psalm 112:7–8)
I’m not consistent with this because I sometimes wonder if God is not involved in terrible events, but I cannot think that for long. The Bible gives way too much evidence for His sovereignty, as do the many experiences of my life. Events may not make sense, but I am strongly certain that God is here, working things for the good of His people. I know that my Redeemer lives. I know that God is good and He keeps His promises. These truths are anchors for my emotions.

The disciples learned the same thing, but like me, they learned the way of serenity was listening to and choosing to believe the Word of God. When Jesus noted their anxieties, He said to them, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” (John 14:1)

This means worry and anxiety are choices, just as faith and trust are choices. Those who believe in Jesus can choose to stew over life, or we can “let” go of that and believe in the One who is sovereign over all things. When we do, He puts peace in our hearts.

In another situation, Jesus talked to the disciples as the plot against Him began to unfold. They heard Him talk about leaving them. They were upset and worried. If I had been in their shoes, I likely would have been the same. However, Jesus told them again . . . 

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27)
Again, He says that His followers can choose a troubled heart or choose to not let it be troubled. It isn’t simply a matter of turning off our emotions or fears, or pushing them aside. Instead, it is remembering who He is and His power. It is knowing that God is in charge and then deciding to trust Him instead of giving way to fear.

Not only that, His peace is not like the peace the world gives. Worldly peace depends on peaceful situations, but the peace Jesus gives is wholly independent of what is happening. That is what makes it seem odd. By reason and logic, no one should feel at peace when life falls apart, but I often do because His peace does not depend on everything being in place.

Spurgeon says that Christians should never fear bad news, giving the same reasons that God gives me. Others can get in a flap, but I have an amazing God who has proved His faithfulness over and over. I might get distracted, even have the same alarm as others, at first. But when He urges me to think of Him and I do it, fear is replaced by His peace.

God knows that fear is a dangerous thing. While it might be healthy to fear lions and wild dogs, fear can lead a person into the sin of self-reliance quicker than anything else. It can make me resist or reject God, complain against His providence, and take matters into my own hands in an attempt to escape the problem.

Instead, I need to trust God as He tells me, and to “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord” as He says.  He has taken me there and done that enough times to prove to me that in Christ, I can meet trouble with calm composure.

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Lord, I’ve read about saints of old who sang praises while being burned at a stake or attacked by lions in an arena of persecution. The peace and courage You give magnifies Your name and shows the world that You are the Most High God. My traumas have not gone to that extreme, but no matter what they are, I want to glorify You. Thank You for Your peace that passes understanding, and for often giving it when I least expect it. I am always amazed (even puzzled) when serenity is in my heart instead of fear or worry. Nevertheless, may those who notice it also recognize that this comes from You. 

(Photo credit)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Responding to conviction

The police said that this outcome was unheard of; a child abductor returning a boy to his home, safe and unharmed, but it happened this week. Speculation abounds concerning why. This morning’s news says this person has now been arrested so he may give his reasons. However, I suspect he brought the child home because he could not bear the pressure in his own heart.

The family of this little boy attends a Christian church. No doubt they were praying. Besides that, hundreds of people have been praying for them and their child, even for the person who went into their home and took him from his bed. And God answers prayer.

When an unsaved person is the subject in a bombardment of prayer, God’s answer can be to deeply convict them of sin. This is done by the Holy Spirit. While some people might shake off a mild version, deep conviction usually produces drastic results. A few may even commit suicide. Some will try to make amends for what they have done. The desired result is that the person falls on their knees before God, confessing their sin, repenting and crying out to God for forgiveness.

David was one of the latter. While God called him a “man after my own heart” this did not mean he was perfect. However, when he sinned, he hated it, which is like God. Here is what David says about forgiveness and the effects of deep conviction.

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah (Psalm 32:1–5)
I don’t know if the man who took that little boy felt the heaviness of God’s hand on him, but I would not be surprised. Why else would make a convicted child molester turn from his plans and instead do what thousands of praying people were asking God for? What would make such a person change their mind?

I know the power of conviction. It can be an almost oppressive sense of being wrong, of doing wrong. Because I also know the blessedness of forgiveness and having my sin covered, I know what to do with conviction. It requires confession and abandoning the sin, going a different direction. Because I am in Christ, I know that God forgives me.

God has shown me His power to redeem and turn me around. Because of that, conviction is one of His guides for my life. When I err, I usually know what I did and what I need to do about it, but sometimes the conviction is there and I am not sure. For this I can also go to God and ask Him to clarify. Is this some sort of false guilt (one of Satan’s tricks) or is it real? And if it is real, what did I do?

Verse 6 from this psalm says, “Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found.” This tells me that going to God is a good idea, but also hints to quickly do it. If ignored, conviction can deepen, but that sense of guilt can also be pushed to the back burner. Instead of the forgiveness and freedom that come with confession, it becomes a dull ache in the heart, like a lump that should not be there. This lump of unconfessed sin has damaging effects on the whole person. Health can fail. Energy wanes and lifelessness takes over. The weight of it produces relationship problems and even confusion. As David learned, it is far better to talk to God about sin than let it drain my vitality.

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Lord, I don’t know about that child abductor’s motivations, but I do know that he needs You. Everyone does. We all sin, perhaps not as he did, but the degree of sin is not the issue. With You, sin is sin. We all do it and we all need forgiveness and cleansing. I pray that for him and for others caught in the web of sin, but also under the power of conviction. Show them the way of confession and the power of Your forgiveness. Release them by Your mercy and grace.

I also thank you for teaching me the blessing of forgiveness and justification. This happens to all who call upon You, regardless of what they have done. Your goodness astounds me each day. I am so thankful that You have lifted the weight of sin from me, putting it on Christ who was able to take and conquer its punishment on my behalf. Because of Him, those who come to You with sin are incredibly blessed with forgiveness and the promise of spending eternity with You.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

He still receives sinners

No matter what you do, somebody is apt to grumble about it. I knew a woman who, when they stayed home grumbled that they never went out, and when they went out, she grumbled that they never stayed home. We all know people who fiddle with the thermostat because it is either too warm or too cold. The tea is too strong or too weak. The toast is too light or too dark. Nothing ever suits them.

Jesus was perfect, the only person who never sinned. He treated everyone with respect and always did and said the right things, but people complained about Him too. 

And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)
For the religious leaders of His day, receiving and eating with sinners was tantamount to defiling yourself with the same sins. Imagine thinking that. If I want to be pure, I could not spend time with people who are impure? Who qualifies? I don’t, and I don’t know anyone who does.

Yet Jesus, the perfect man, receives sinners. Why should He do that? For one thing, He had no fear of defiling Himself. He said that defilement comes from the heart, and His heart was pure. He was safe, but that was not one of His reasons for spending time with sinners. Perhaps the most important motivation was that He had the power to forgive their sin. He loved them so much that He willing gave His life that sinners could be pardoned.

Other people might receive sinners. Those in exalted positions sometimes hold receptions for common people, that they might “receive” them. But this is not the same as what Jesus did. Think of royalty waving to passing beggars or receiving sinners in an “out-of-doors reception place” or a special location where they offer charitable entertainment.

Instead, Jesus opens the gates of His heart, and receives sinners right into Himself. This reception is an intimate personal union in which Jesus makes repentant sinners members of His own body. There is no other reception like this.

Perhaps the most amazing part of it is the humility and lowliness involved. Jesus is far above all others, holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from even the best of humanity, yet He receives all, even the lowest of the low. He is none other than the eternal God; angels bow before Him and worlds were created by Him, yet He receives sinners.

Humanity raises its fist against God, and if not quite that brash, sinners silently and sinfully still go our own way. Sinners reject His plan of salvation or just ignore Him. Yet He still took upon Himself the form of a servant and bore our sins. That He is willing to receive the vilest of the vile, or even the most self-righteous goody-two-shoes is marvelous and beyond comprehension.

However, He does not hold a reception party, pat sinners on the head and wish them a better life. His offer is new life. The sinners that He receives do not have to remain that way. He will take them from whatever state they are in, transform their lives, and wear them as jewels in His crown — but only if they are willing to be received and changed. 

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)
It is a great wonder that Jesus receives sinners, but for this greater wonder of new life and adoption into the family of God to take place, sinners must also receive Him.
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Jesus, many years ago I did not know how to describe You or Your invitation to me. I just knew that my life was a mess and that I needed help. In that helplessness, You walked in, revealing who You are and inviting me to come to You. At that point, nothing sounded better and resistance was not an issue. It is the same today. In You, there is acceptance, love, joy, peace and perfection. Because You have received me, I have absolutely nothing to grumble about.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Not always a monster . . .

It is called the “green-eyed monster” because this thing has caused resentment, rivalry, fighting, relationship problems and breakups, even wars between countries. But jealousy has two faces. It is not always the bad guy or a monster at all, but a good thing. Jealousy can produce a fiercely protective desire for others, or a deep desire for what is good and right.

Consider God who says,  ". . . for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God . . ." (Exodus 34:14). God has no sin in His jealousy. It is there for us, not for Himself.

Sometimes the words of Spurgeon’s devotional readings are perfect. He has a way of getting to my heart as a mouthpiece for God, using words that resonate with what I know is true. Today is one of those days.

Your Lord is very jealous of your love . . . Did He choose you? He cannot bear that you should choose another. Did He buy you with his own blood? He cannot endure that you should think that you are your own, or that you belong to this world. He loves you with such a love that He would not stop in heaven without you. He would sooner die than you should perish. He cannot endure that anything should stand between your heart’s love and himself.
My heart melts at this jealous love of God. How can anyone resist a love that is so intense, so eager to give Himself for me? Spurgeon adds more.
He is very jealous of your trust. He will not permit you to trust in an arm of flesh. He cannot bear that you should hew out broken cisterns, when the overflowing fountain is always free to you. When we lean upon Him, He is glad, but when we transfer our dependence to another, when we rely upon our own wisdom, or the wisdom of a friend — worst of all, when we trust in any works of our own, He is displeased, and will chasten us that He may bring us to himself.
God knows that trusting Him is the best thing that can happen to us. He alone can take care of us the right way, and in a way that no other can. When we trust Him, we see amazing answers to prayer, even miracles performed on our behalf. How can I trust anything or anyone else?
He is also very jealous of our company. There should be no one with whom we converse so much as with Jesus. To abide in Him only, this is true love, but to commune with the world, to find sufficient solace in our carnal comforts, to prefer even the society of our fellow Christians to secret intercourse with Him is grievous to our jealous Lord.
Sometimes I am in a crowd and feel a deep sense of being alone. Billy Graham says this is God crooking His finger at me, bidding me to talk to Him. From this I’ve learned that prayer does not have to be in a secret place or a closet. He is beside me all the time, wanting my attention, knowing what He can do for me if I will just give my heart and my ears to Him. 
He is pleased to have us abide in Him, and enjoy constant fellowship with Himself. Many of the trials which He sends us are for the purpose of weaning our hearts from (all else) and fixing them more closely upon Himself. Let this jealousy which would keep us near to Christ be also a comfort to us, for if He loves us so much as to care like this about our love, we may be sure that He will allow nothing to harm us, and will protect us from all our enemies.
The trials of life are just that — His goodness drawing me away from selfishness and worldly things. Imagine what a world without trials would be like. I know I would have nothing to bring me up short, nothing to show me how proud and self-centered I am, nothing to change me or make me humble and able to trust the Lord.
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God, I pray for grace to keep my heart totally yielded and committed to You. Give me that same attitude toward You that desires nothing else but to be taken up with Your love and Your relationship with me. Shut my eyes to all else and keep me focused and dependent on You, remembering that because You are a jealous God, You will do anything to keep me in Your loving care.