January 31, 2014

Idols of the mind

An idol is not necessarily an object or a visible thing. It can be anything that takes the place of God, something that gets more of my love and attention than God does. It may not be an evil thing for I can substitute something good for the Best, the Living God.

As I read today’s devotional, I thought of how my mind takes vacations from the hard work of the courses I am taking. The current course is simply “Ethics” but it is far from simple. Most of the reading requires a dictionary and total concentration. When I get up from my desk, I want to give myself a break. However, I know that meditation on what has been studied enables me to better process it. Not only that, the material IS about God and the Gospel and focusing on anything less than Him, even for a rest, could be dangerous. Whatever I use for a substitute could become a mental idol.

Some of those mental vacations have me thinking about daily chores, or I might be chatting with family and friends. These are not a threat, but at times my mind is preoccupied with thoughts that cross the line into substitutions. How do I know that? Because they contradict this list from Philippians . . .  

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

Since the material in my studies fits this list, then I ought to spend more mental energy on it rather than taking those vacations. If the concepts and ideas are too much, then I can at least praise God for them and let my focus be on what is “worthy of praise.”

That is thought number one, but there is another thought from today’s devotional reading. It is about an “idol” has never made it to my “shelf of idols” but I have heard about it in the lives of others. It is the idol of self-atonement. This is a tendency of the human heart to want to make up for something wrong by doing something right as penance for it.

This is illustrated when someone hurts the feelings of another, then overdoses them with praise to try and make up for it. If we do the same thing toward God when we sin, that penance becomes an idol. That is, our acts of penance become substitutes for the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This is why Christians must always remember our salvation. It is not in anything we do but in what Christ has done for us.

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:8–10)

This is the Gospel. We worship God and what He has done, never trying to do it for ourselves, for that is not acceptable. This idea also ties into my initial convictions today. That is, it shows me another thing “worthy of praise” that can preoccupy my mind and give me rest . . .

More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:11)

The goal is pleasing God, which takes both focus and courage. “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” (2 Corinthians 5:6–9)

It also takes a crucifixion, certainly that of Christ, but also that I remember I was crucified with Him and in Him. Because that is true, then I’m dead to sin and alive to God.

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Corinthians 5:14–15)

How then could I atone for my sins? It is already done. I would be insulting God if I acted as if what He has done wasn’t good enough. No amount of penance can take the place of the Cross.

What I can do is tell others. People need to know that God has made provision for our sin. When we put our faith in His provision, we are set free from sin’s curse, and . . .

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18–20)

Put aside all idols, those used to give comfort and those used in an effort to make me look like a better person. Christ does both and I need to worship and love Him with all my heart and soul — and mind . . .  and tell others about His amazing grace.

January 30, 2014

Idolizing prayer

In my hearing, someone told another person, “If you don’t want your life changed, try to stay off Elsie’s hit list.” He was talking about prayer and that was not the first time I’d heard him say it.

This was not a good thing to hear. In no time, my prayer focus shifted off talking with God. I started to think more about what I was saying and how I was praying and prayer became a performance. This is why Jesus warned His followers about their motives for praying . . .  

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5–6)

Jesus isn’t suggesting that we never pray publicly, but to be careful that prayers are for the ears of God and not the ears of man.

Occasionally I’ve heard people pray with big long explanations of the situation, obviously not for God who knows more than we do, but for the others in the group. I’ve done that myself. I’ve also heard wordy prayers spoken in flowery language, quite unlike the normal conversation of the person praying. Even more subtle is praying with the idea that if we can “get the words right” then God will be more apt to hear and answer.

Besides being so silly in the way of prayer, the attitude of the heart can become even sillier. I can come to God with a to-do list that tells Him how to run things, as if I know! I can also come to God with all sorts of excuses for my bad behavior, or the opposite with all sorts of reasons why I’m good enough that He should hear me. Jesus also covered this in another parable . . .

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14)

Prayer is a conversation between myself and God whom I have trusted with my life and eternal destiny. It is supposed to be an expression of my heart just as He expresses His heart to me. However, if I put my praying on a pedestal as if the words I say are special or the way that I say them is surely going to move Almighty God, then I am not praying at all.

Besides that error, if I pray on the outside and think about something else on the inside, just mouthing the words, then I am a hypocrite too . . .

And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.” (Isaiah 29:13–14)

Here, when God says He will do wonders, He is not talking about things that delight us and that we usually associate with this word. It is more like an unexpected marvel that will reduce this so-called wisdom of mine and put it where it belongs. It is a wonder that I don’t want to ever see.

God wants integrity, honesty, and from-the-heart prayers. When I talk to Him, He already knows what I am thinking. If others are within earshot, I’m not to worry about what they think. In fact, if the sound of my public prayers do not match the sound of my closet prayers, this is my first clue that I’ve made an idol out of my praying and have lost that privileged connection with God.

January 29, 2014

Self-control is not really “self” doing the controlling . . .

In the world, self-control is a “bite your tongue” self-effort. In the Bible, self-control is yielding whatever is of me, even my own strengths, and letting the Spirit of God be in control.

In this study, the focus is how easily we can make an idol out of our own self-discipline, holding it up as the guide for life — instead of God. This “bite my tongue” effort might look and feel like a good thing, but when I am relying on myself for anything, I’ve put me above God instead of doing what the Bible says . . .

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. (Proverbs 3:5–8)

The first thing I notice in these verses is that God connects the commands to promises. He is not like the parent who tells a child to obey “because I say so” but offers reasons for obedience. Here, He says if trust Him, He will guide me; if I fear Him and avoid evil, He will heal me and give me good health.  

Added to those specific promises, God also rewards obedience in another powerful way. When I turn from my own understanding, I begin to see more of the power of God, a power I would not realize by insisting on doing my own thing.
Yet this ability to let God be the Lord of my life is literally impossible without His help. The Bible is clear that self-control is a faculty of the Holy Spirit . . .

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

This shows that I really don’t have the ability to control self. My sinful human nature resists that and wants to go its own way. Instead, I need the power of the Holy Spirit to have the power of the Holy Spirit! God is gracious and works that out by giving me what I need . . .

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. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Peter 1:3–7)

The Bible is filled with examples of those who learned how to exercise self-control. Jesus is at the top of the list. He continually moved under the direction of God, saying “Not my will but thine be done.”

Self-control is vital. It is required in every other virtue, from patience to purity. It is particularly needed in the frustrations of life. Proverbs 16:32 says “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” indicating that self-control could be a major cure-all for today’s messy world.

Again, this is not the self-control that self can do. Eventually “gritting the teeth” will burst the bounds of human restraint and vent. Instead, biblical self-control is a yielded life that puts God in control every moment of every day.

In my desire for absolute surrender to God in all areas of my life, God is right with me to make this possible. This week, He showed me an example of self-control in one of His people that goes beyond anything I’ve ever thought or imagined. While I cannot share or describe a confidentiality, I can say that God changed something in my heart. Seeing Him at work in someone else in such a powerful way motivates me. Because of God’s grace, I’m filled with a deepening desire to never idolize any of my so-called strengths, but to lean entirely on God.

January 28, 2014

Just do my duty?

The first time someone told me that if you don’t feel like praying, don’t, I was dismayed. I figured that it was my duty to pray whether I felt like it or not. At that time, I didn’t understand how Christians can make an idol out of duty.

Today’s devotional tells of a retired soldier who was disciplined in all that he did and admired because of it. One day the author of the devotion approached him and gently asked if he might be governed more by a sense of duty than by dependence on God. The soldier saw it at once and agreed. He prayed that God would hold him together and direct his life, rather than duty.

This is not to be interpreted as “do whatever I feel like doing” but as “do what I do from the heart.” God does not want me in bondage to obligation and “rules.” Instead, He wants me to love Him, realizing the purpose of those rules. For one thing, He uses them to help me recognize sin and guide me in His ways.

I’ve been studying the relationship of law to gospel. Contrary to how many think, Jesus did not come to abolish the laws of God, but to fulfill them. He pointed out that love for God and others are the two greatest commandments, and that if we love Him, we will keep His “rules.” (John 14:15)

Of course, believing the Gospel and receiving Christ gives us Holy Spirit power. In Him, we can obey God from the heart. However, some of us easily slip into Christian life as a duty rather than a matter of the heart. I see the opposite of that this morning in the psalms . . .

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:1–2)

When asked something about Christian life, one Christian replied, “I hate rules,” but the writer of this psalm didn’t feel that way. He delighted in God’s laws and thought about them all the time. The writer of Psalm 119 takes 176 verses to say the same thing . . .  

Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways! (Psalm 119:1–3)  . . . You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently. Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments. (119: 4–6) . . . I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word. (119:15–16) . . . Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (119:105) Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors. (119:24)

This psalmist learned that the Law of God kept him from sin. Through the rules, God guided him. When he followed their directions, he was blessed and kept from shame.

God’s laws are both wise and eternal. The same psalmist says, “Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens." (119:89) In an ascending litany of praise, he cries, “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. I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.” (119:97–100) “Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them.” (119:129)

What a difference between doing something out of love and doing something out of duty. The dutiful person might get the job done, but also might resent having to do it, or take pride in what has been accomplished. This is not the way of the psalmist nor the way of the Lord . . .

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God. (Ecclesiastes 2:24)

Instead of obeying God out of a sense of duty, God commands both obedience and joy in doing it. If the joy is not there, then I need to seek God’s face for a “heart adjustment” rather than go ahead without it.

January 27, 2014

The thirst for praise . . .

The title of today’s reading convicts me even without reading the verses or the devotional. While I know the satisfaction of doing what Jesus asks, and that seeking the praise of people can be an idol, I still like it when someone says something good about who I am or what I do. Beware of virtues becoming a god from which I seek affirmation instead of drawing on the true God.

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1–4)

It is easy enough to go into obedience without expecting praise from people. What I struggle with is what often happens afterwards — when others praise me instead of God.

Not that I’ve never done this myself. I remember remarking to one friend that she is “extremely talented.” She responded in a godly way and surprised me with saying, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17, NIV)

Praise is a snare. For one thing, it can make me think I am doing/saying the right things when I am not. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was about blessings that would come on God’s people for humility and for being faithful in trying circumstances. Then He said, “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26)

I don’t know exactly how praise affected those false prophets, but it wasn’t what God wanted and it didn’t stop them from their disobedience. That is also true for me. Whenever I do sinful and selfish things and am encouraged by flattery, obeying God becomes more difficult. I cannot blame those who praise me, but be aware of the results. I also need to think before I praise someone else lest I give them a reason for idolizing praise. Proverbs 29:5 puts it this way: “A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet.”

God’s ways are not our ways. We think praise is an encouragement, but what does it encourage? The goal of Christian living is to become more reliant of God and less and less reliant on self, no matter how good self might appear. Praising God does far more toward that end than praise for me. In fact, I might need correction far more than praise . . .

Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue. (Proverbs 28:23)

Few friends know the power of being straightforward with rebuke. Most will praise to encourage, thinking that is the best thing to do. For me, praising God is far better. This directs me to Him and to His faithfulness. It encourages trust in Him. Flattery hinders that. Praise can even increase my thirst for the wrong god.

Now that God has shown me this, the great challenge is living by it.