May 31, 2012

My resource is not what I know . . .

This week I accomplished my most challenging downsizing task; I put my Bible college notes in the recycle bin. These were from a bachelor degree program in theology and Christian education that I graduated from in 1992 as a grandmother. 

It was difficult. At first, it was the memories. Those years were the best and worst of my life. College was a delight; my personal life was full of horrendous challenges. The first folder reminded me of how much I had accomplished, even under duress and great trial. Besides the memories, didn’t think I could part with an entire file drawer full of good information.

However, I had to ask myself a few questions. Will I ever use this again or even read it? Was there information that I could teach to others? 

The first day was a bust; I decided to keep it all. But the next day practicality took over. I’ve not looked at most of those notes, papers, and handouts for twenty years. We will not have space to keep them. What will my children do with them when I am gone?

My other questions were: How has God used this in my life? Have I applied all this knowledge, or did I learn it only so I could pass the exams and get the degree? The answers to these questions remain in my mind. 

God teaches me using personal interaction with Him, His Word, and the issues of life. I gain information by reading and studying, but its usefulness is not about how much I have put into my head, but about whether or not I am relying on Christ. My source of strength and fruitfulness is not in a filing cabinet, but in Him.
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
The Holy Spirit reminds me also of my tendency to glory in my education. This comes from a childhood desire to prove myself, which has nothing to do with spirituality and far more to do with human pride.
Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:23–24)
God isn’t interested in how much I know. He cares only that I trust and obey Him. This makes pleasing God a matter of daily faith. Besides, it puts all of us on a level playing field. Everyone from children to the aged can obey God. He does not care if I am educated or not, physically strong or not, rich or not. Those things bear no weight with Him. He wants me to do His will and He will give me whatever I need to do it — as long as I abide in Jesus Christ. 

Abiding is not learned in a textbook or a classroom. It is not about the circumstances of life, or about being rich or poor. It is learned as I already said, by personal interaction with God, spending time every day in His Word and obeying what He tells me to do. All that I genuinely know comes from the lessons of life and from the Holy Spirit who is my teacher.
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:12–13)
Today’s devotional reading repeats that apart from Him we can do nothing. Yet as long as I am abiding in Him, nothing is impossible. Instead of cramming information in, my one purpose should be always living in total union with Christ. Keeping a pile of paper will not do that. Instead, I must guard against everything that would break that union and use every means to keep it strong.
God and life teaches that we find His strength flowing into us for every possible situation, as long as we are abiding. This includes those times He seems gone, yet as we draw on Him, there is “no temptation we cannot master; no lack we cannot patiently bear; no difficulty with which we cannot cope; no work which we cannot perform; no confession or testimony which we cannot make.” 

Lord, those years in Bible school taught me much, yet most of what I learned was not in the classrooms. Under the pressures of extreme trial, You showed me how to abide in You. I had to; for if not, I would self-destruct, not able to make it through each day. But You, in great faithfulness, were always right beside me. You remain so, ready to give me all that I need — with or without a filing cabinet full of notes. Forgive me for thinking that I needed them when all I need is You.

May 30, 2012

Let my light shine

As I sort through a filing cabinet filled with notes and papers from a lifetime of “information gathering” and Bible study, I’m finding many interesting items. One was a list of character traits from a severe self-examination — where I’d written the word PRIDE across almost all of them. 
At that time, I’m sure I confessed my pride, as I have done many times since then. However, I’m becoming more aware that false modesty is self-centered also. It is not the opposite of pride. Pride focuses on me with “look at me” but false modesty does the same using a self-pitying, attention seeking “I’m not much” attitude. 

Instead of these extremes, God calls for a different approach…
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:3)
The Lord exhorts me to be sober-minded and to think clearly. I can examine myself but with an honest and objective attitude, assessing the gifts God has given me without an exaggerated opinion. Should I start underestimating what I can do for God, I’m displaying a false modesty rather than humility. This false modesty is that “I’m no good,” timid, unassertive, spineless attitude that is easily dominated or intimidated. It is repulsive, while humility is not. 

The Bible describes humility as a proper estimation of oneself. I am weak and utterly dependent on God for everything, yet because I am made in God’s image and reborn in Jesus Christ, I can do all things through Him who gives me what I need. Yet I’m not to make too much or too little of either my weaknesses or strengths because true humility is never self-focused. As Paul wrote and Jesus demonstrated, humility simply considers others better than myself and then does whatever God asks, knowing He gives me whatever I need to do it.

Thinking others are “better” is not a false consideration either. I’m not to evaluate the worth or talents of others in a sinful comparison to myself, but care for them, putting their needs ahead of my own. That means others are not necessarily “better” than I am, but their concerns “surpass” my own. They are more important. 

This is how Christ’s humility expressed itself. He did not seek His own good, but the good of others. This humility is the cure for pride, selfish ambition, vain conceit, and a whole host of other vices. It also sets me free to shine as Jesus said.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14–16)
It is easy to read these verses and say, “I’m not good enough” but if I say that I am not sufficient for this, then false modesty keeps me from obedience. On the other hand, if I boast in my abilities, pride also prevents the light of Christ to shine out of my life. 

This reminds me of black holes. They are celestial bodies whose gravity is so strong their light cannot escape. If I think, “Who me? I’m not much” I am pulling back the light of Christ toward myself and hiding it. Just as pride can keep me from shining, so can false modesty.

Oswald Chambers says that “every religious sentiment that is not carried out on its right level carries with it a secret immorality. That is the way human nature is constituted; whenever you allow an emotion and do not carry it out on its legitimate level, it will react on an illegitimate level.” 

In other words, we need to watch out for extremes. In the idea of serving Christ with humility, I’m not to let the light of Christ degenerate into a false modesty that focuses on me, me, me. If my light is going to shine, pride is not the answer either. Instead, I must be willing to be exalted or abased, lifted up or put down, trusting the Lord and caring for others no matter what else is happening. 

Lord, to shine means to focus first on You and then on the needs of others. I cannot obey You any other way. Puffed up boasting will not work, but neither will a self-centered false modesty. You give Your people all we need to serve You in the right way and with the right attitudes. Keep me from the extremes, but more than that, keep my focus where it should be.

May 29, 2012

Deliver us from evil

Rarely does good news make the front page. Today’s newspaper headline says “Man shoots woman then himself.” Yesterday told of highway accidents on a particularly busy stretch of road. Sometimes the feature is war stories, or fires, or crime. We live in a violent and difficult world.
So also did the people in the first century in an area called Galatia. Ancient Galatia was in the highlands of what is now Turkey. It was named for the Gauls who settled and ruled there in the 3rd century BC. When Paul reached this area with the Gospel, most of the new believers started out well, but then heard false teaching that upset their freedom in Christ. They begin thinking that their salvation depended on them being circumcised and doing other “works of the law” instead of relying on Christ alone.

Paul wrote to these people, correcting their error and encouraging them to ignore those who troubled them with “a different gospel” that had resulted in them trying to be perfected by their own fleshy efforts. For Paul, as it is for Christians today, the evils of the world had only one solution; faith in Jesus Christ. He began his letter with this greeting: 
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Galatians 1:3–5)
When I think of this letter to these people, other verses come to mind before these. They were written after Paul tells them about his authority in Christ and about the previous history of this false teaching the Galatians had accepted. He writes,
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:1–3)
But Paul is wiser than I am. Instead of beginning his letter with this strong rebuke (as I might have done), he writes about the grace of God in salvation and sends grace and peace to them as the desire of his heart. He reminds them than Jesus gave Himself for them, dying for their sins. Deliverance from the evil in their world is in accordance with the will of God. 

From those short two verses in Galatians One, I can see the heart of God too, even as I read the newspaper. He desires that my world be delivered also from the evil that overpowers us. He wants His people to experience His grace and peace, for this is His will. Instead of blaming God for the world’s evils (which so many do), God wants people to find peace and experience safety and freedom.
Why does it not happen? Why does the present evil age overwhelm and overpower us? Why are the newspapers and television stories so full of violence and strife? 

Yesterday, my husband was talking about the mess and problems in the world. He said, “All of it is caused by sin.” Every sorrow and difficulty, all troubles and all the bad stuff is rooted in human sin and selfishness. The protests of, “But I’m not an evil person” are answered by God who says that sin begins in the heart with the seeming innocence of simply wanting to do our own thing. As the first part of Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way...”

When we do our own thing instead of obeying God, we sin. Sin shows itself in varying degrees, from a mild-mannered “I will be a good person and save myself” to a wild and determined rebellion that harms others, drives beyond all limits on the highway, and takes whatever it wants. For this, Isaiah adds that “...the Lord has laid on him (Jesus) the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6).

Paul echoes that amazing response of God to our sin; the Lord Jesus Christ… “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age.” 

As I look around me, I’m again tempted to shout, “Oh foolish world! Who has deceived you? How can you possible think that you can save yourselves? It is the mere effort to do everything your own way and without Jesus Christ that makes you a sinner! You are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Then I must remember that this speaks to me too. If I try to bully or convince anyone by argument, I am also doing things my own way, making me just as guilty of sin as those pull triggers, drive too fast, start fires, or rob banks. We need Jesus to save us. He gave Himself to deliver us from this present evil age. To Him belongs the glory, not any for ourselves or our attempts to do it without Him.

There is peace in my heart when I place my sins in the hands of Jesus. He forgives. He cleanses. I cannot convince or coerce others to do this, but I can extend grace and peace from You, God my Father, and give glory to Jesus Christ for saving me. Oh God, grant me whatever I need to share this amazing grace with others who have been deceived into thinking they can fix this present evil world without You.

May 28, 2012

Self-denial eventually benefits those who deny themselves

A man named Simon was in Jerusalem, no doubt for the Passover. He was in the crowd watching another man carrying a cross on the way to be crucified, not an uncommon sight in this city under the rule of Rome. Since then, the idea of “cross-bearing” has been associated with punishment, endurance, and even death.
As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. (Matthew 27:32)
Most of the time, bearing a cross gets a bad rap. Christians talk of some difficult task or person in their lives that is painful to endure, but they must accept it as part of what God wants for their lives. It is their “cross” and they assume they must heroically bear it for Jesus, using these verses to justify the sacrifice they are making.
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:23–26)
And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:38)
John Piper, in his book Desiring God, invites readers to think about this in a different way. Instead of thinking self-denial as a strong indifference to what we want for ourselves and not caring whether we are destroyed, he sees this as a strong desire for something better. Being willing to bear a cross is more about a deep longing for true life, a better life, something greater than what we already have.  First Peter 3:10 says this desire for a “good life and better days” should motivate us to speak rightly and move away from evil. The same desire ought also move us to “deny ourselves all the lesser pleasures and comforts of life” so we might have something better. 

That is, if self-denial is a hatred of self, then Piper says we would be “indifferent to the value of God’s gift of life” and “would dishonor it.” He suggests that our longing for life should be measured by the amount of comfort we are willing to give up to get it. The gift of eternal life in God’s presence is glorified if we are willing to ‘hate our lives in this world’ in order to get it that better life.  
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:25)
This is how self-denial is God-centered, yet is still about what is best for me. It means that I give up the short-term benefits in favor of the long-term benefits. It is similar to what I do when saving money for a big item instead of spending it on immediate temptations, or when I eat less to lose weight. I do these things because I care about myself, not because I hate myself. I see a greater value in self-denial than in self-indulgence. 

This is what Jesus did when He went to the cross. He accepted the horror of it because of the greater glory that was coming beyond it, and bids me to think the same way...
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2)
Jesus denied self, but knew a greater glory was coming. For that glory, He endured the cross.

Simon didn’t have a choice when it came to carrying the literal cross of Jesus Christ. He was conscripted without any promise of a reward. On the other hand, God says that when I choose to deny short-term gain, or personal glory, or even what I assume is a safer way to live, then God will reward me. Do I want the very best? Or am I content with lesser rewards?

Lord, daily You offer options. Do I take up whatever will reward me now, or can I fix my eyes on the rewards that will come after I deny myself to follow You? I also know that self-denial is not always about enduring pain or difficult people and circumstances. Instead, it is about walking so close to You that I can take on whatever You ask me without thinking that I might be missing something else if I refuse.