August 31, 2016

Happy or joyful?

Is it possible to count the number of self-help books written on how to be happy? Is there anyone in the whole world that does not want to be happy? Some people think that being rich will do it, or perfect health, or a big house or car, or having their debts paid, and while those and other acquisitions might do it for a time, none of them will give deep and lasting joy.

What is the difference? Joy as described in Scripture is a full understanding and acceptance of God’s power and wisdom so that nothing and no one is a threat. Joy is a peace that passes understanding, a sense of well-being based on knowing I am totally loved and totally cared for. Yet that said, joy is so complete that I scarcely think about myself at all. It is having no cares or concerns — obviously it is difficult to describe.

Jesus promises me that amazing joy. Yet careful reading of the context shows there is a caveat . . .

"If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:7–11)

Joy is not about what I have or don’t have in this life. It has almost nothing to do with this world. Joy is being in the will of God through an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. Abiding in Christ is something like being in love. And when I am responding to Him as the One who loves me totally and unconditionally, I can ask and receive whatever I wish.

Of course, loving Jesus changes my wishes. I’m not very interested in cars and clothes or any other stuff. I want what He wants. While He meets my needs (like food, clothes and other with material possessions), He gives me the desires of His heart, like justice done in a terribly unjust world, humility, a willingness to serve others. He wants me to be like Him, and I want the same thing so I can bring His joy to the people around me.

Joy is being set free from the cares of this world. As Chambers says, I don’t have to “think out my circumstances” or be concerned about anything. He adds, “Be rightly related to God, find your joy there, and out of you will flow rivers of living water . . . live the life hid with Christ  . . . . (it) is as natural as breathing . . . .”

God has shown me that continual self-examination is a joy-killer. I can always find something in me to regret or be sad about. Focusing on my flaws kills that spontaneous, childlike delight of just being who I am and trusting my Father to make of me what He wants me to be.

“Though I have not seen him, I love him. Though I do not now see him, I believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” (1 Peter 1:8 personalized)

Happy is okay, but I’m going for the joy.

August 30, 2016

Spiritual authority?

Christians are somewhat divided on the issue of our spiritual authority over demons. Some say we can rebuke them, yet many on that side seem to attribute everything evil to demonic forces. That is, all illness, disaster or anything uncomfortable including envy, hatred, anger and a mean spirit are attributed to the demons of envy, anger, illness, and so on. However, God says He creates well-being and calamity (Isaiah 45:7). It seems more prudent to consider His sovereignty before assigning everything to our spiritual enemies.

In contrast, other Christians dismiss spiritual authority entirely. Many are put off by those who look for Satan in everything. They see most problems are caused by human sin, not a demon. Some think trials and problems are ‘simply part of life’ and have no reason or cause for happening.

Since we are creatures of extremes, I understand the swing from ‘Satan is behind all the awful stuff’ to the other end of the spectrum that does not acknowledge his activity at all. A college professor says, “I know there is a balance here; I see it every time I swing by it.”

Jesus talked about balance to the disciples who were exited from a recent mission trip. They said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”

I’ve actually heard people say the same thing, almost word for word. Yet Jesus sees the danger of making this an important doctrine. And He said to them,

“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:18–20)

If I told a non-Christian that I have power over demons, I imagine they would think I am crazy, deluded, or am some sort of spiritual nut case. However, if I tell them how Jesus came to earth and died for my sin, and that my name is written in the book of life, the response could be the same, but it is more likely to create a desire in their hearts for the same blessing.

Being thankful for eternal life isn’t the only alternative to rejoicing over spiritual power. Having any kind of success in Christian living so easily becomes the pride of my life, but focusing on what Jesus has done for me produces humility. God is not interested in my power trips. I do not deserve even the least of His mercies. I cannot earn His smile or make that my motivation for serving Him.

Chambers points out that when I  keep my relationship right with Him, then He pours ‘rivers of living water’ through me (John 7:38). However, in mercy He does not let me in on it. He knows my tendency to pride and self-righteousness and He cannot use that.

Staying in right relationship to Jesus is simple: confess known sin and simply be. In the way I live, people will see Jesus, as long as I’m not consciously making the effort for that to happen. Living transparently lets others see the One who wrote my name in His book. Not only that, it sets me free from being concerned whether I can rebuke demons or not. If it is necessary, it will just happen. If not, I will not notice because my eyes are firmly fixed on the One who delivered me and protects me from their power.

August 29, 2016

Faith is not about making assumptions

God whispered to me, “Pray for her and I will heal her.” I believed Him and prayed, thinking she would overcome her illness. She deteriorated. I wondered about God’s words, yet continued to pray for her, not for healing as much as for comfort. She died last week. My first thought was, “He did it; now she is healed.”

Chambers says our faith must be tested. One of those tests concerns what we actually believe. How do I interpret God’s promises? For my friend, first I thought He would make her physically well in this life. Now I realize that He planned perfect healing for her in His presence. She without illness for eternity, never to struggle and suffer again.

Jesus’ friend Lazarus was sick and died. Jesus wept, but not because Lazarus was dead; He knew that would not last . . .

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:38–40)

Martha and her sister, Mary, experienced a test of their faith. In this case, Jesus told them, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said she believed he would “rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (verse 23-24), but that was not what Jesus meant by His promise. He brought Lazarus back to life on that very day.

Many of God’s promises could mean at least a couple of things. Another example is this one:

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9–11)

If I am praying for an unsaved person, I could call on God to fulfill this in that person’s life, but does He mean that ‘every tongue confess’ in their life on this planet? I know that all will be resurrected, some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation. All will recognize the Lordship of Jesus Christ, but not all of them will do it willingly. I can pray that a person will bow the knee to Jesus and confess He is Lord because that is a great prayer, but I cannot claim that He will do it this week or even in their lifetime.

One thing I most like about being a Christian is that God continually surprises me. I have no idea what He is going to do next, and I’ve never been able to second-guess Him. His ways are loftier than mine; His thinking is far greater and wiser, above all that I can ask or imagine.

For that reason, I need to be wary of assumptions. Even though I have faith, my faith is in Him and in His choices and decisions, not in events or actions that I want or predict. Tested faith eventually realizes that whatever happens next is up to the Lord.

August 28, 2016

Prayer changes . . .

Watchman Nee, a Chinese Christian martyred for his faith, was asked what it was like to be a Christian. He said it was like having two dogs fighting inside of him. When the other person asked which dog was winning, Nee said, “Whichever one I feed the most.”

Jesus said strange things about ‘eating His flesh’ and ‘drinking His blood’ as metaphors for relying on Him for our very lives. He also said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” (Matthew 4:4)

Oddly enough, the Word of God written (the Bible) has a way of nourishing the Word of God living (Jesus). That is, the saving power of Lord Jesus Christ who lives in the hearts of His people seems to increase in strength as we spend time ‘feeding’ on Him. We do that by reading the Bible and prayer, putting our focus on Him. In that process, our spiritual lives thrive. If these spiritual disciplines are neglected, then that other ‘dog’ begins to take control.

When the disciples observed Jesus in prayer, they realized that His spiritual life was superior to theirs and put the two together. They wanted to know how to pray . . .

“Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ ” (Luke 11:1)

The New Testament way of praying is not the same as how most people pray. We tend to bring God our complaints or our list of ‘I wants.’ In contrast, the examples in the Bible include worship, requests concerning His kingdom, asking for forgiveness of sin, thanksgiving, and declarations of who God is and what He alone can do. Prayer can include lament, even complaining (see the Psalms) but those are given in an expression of faith that God is in charge and cares about those needs also.

I’ve noticed that prayer makes me more aware of His presence and opens my head and heart to His way of thinking. The Bible says that the more I think like Him, the more like Jesus I become. That means prayer does as much or more to change me as it does to answer my requests.

Prayer is a humble activity. By it I am expressing that I know God is greater and more powerful, and that I need Him. The danger of not praying is that when I slack off, it usually means I do not feel needy — but that is a total delusion. Besides, if I am not spending time with God, I miss out on the marvel of seeing Him answer my prayers. I also miss the experience of Him changing my life as I pray.

The disciples were wise to ask Jesus to teach them to pray. At the time, they probably didn’t realize what prayer would do, but history shows that these men learned to pray, then went out into the world sharing what He told them as they prayed. Because of their intimacy with God, the world has never been the same!

August 27, 2016

Eyes on context = eyes on Jesus

Context is important. Consider the words, “Rise up and protest!” and how they would words affect a crowd who did not want a certain law passed, or a group of seniors in wheel chairs who didn’t like the dessert served in their retirement home, or a few teens who hate their math teacher, or a little child trying to tie his shoes.

Context is particularly important when reading the Bible. In the following verses, Jesus is talking to a crowd of people who do not know who He is. He is not talking to His disciples or even to the religious Pharisees . . .

So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. (John 12:34–36)

Chambers applies this warning to Christians. Sorry sir, but Jesus has other words about light and darkness for those who believe in Him. He shone His light in our hearts. We have been translated from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God. His light has changed our lives. We need to walk in the light and believe it, but we already are the “sons of light” and we know who Jesus is.

“For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.” (1 Thessalonians 5:5)

The Apostle Paul testified to King Agrippa — that he had been delivered from his people and the Gentiles . . .  “to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:17–18)

Darkness is not going to overtake Christians. That said, how does the Christian apply these words that Jesus said? For one thing, they describe how to talk to those who have little understanding about Jesus or spiritual matters. They have heard something about God’s law and something about Jesus. They have a bit of light in their life, only a small knowledge, but they need to be encouraged to pursue it.

For example, I met a woman from a religious background that shunned her because she had been divorced. She knew that I was writing a biblical column for the local newspaper and as we talked, I told her I had been divorced also. She was surprised and delighted, almost shedding tears. I’d already observed that she was a gracious lady and thankful for everything. I told her that the Bible (Romans 1) says that creation shows us who God is, and being thankful is an important part of learning more about Him. She was overwhelmed to recognize that her thankfulness is something God wants and that she was on a good path. Her divorce could not keep her from knowing God.

Walking in the light that God gives is like walking a dim path with a flashlight. Each step takes me forward and with it, the light also moves forward. God illuminates the next step in the path, then the next step. If I do not move into the light I have, I won’t get very far. However, the darkness does not remove my understanding of where I am going or that I believe in the Giver of light. He is there with me, in light or darkness, and promises that He will never leave me or forsake me. Psalm 139 says light and darkness are both alike to Him.

Without considering the context, my focus today could have turned to my spiritual condition and raised questions about whether or not I am walking in the light. Such inward thinking without the conviction of the Holy Spirit takes my eyes off Jesus. Instead of moving forward, I stand still in confusion and fear rather than letting Him show me if I’m off the path.

What delight (and light) to consider the context of Jesus’ words. He reveals to me a need some people have, and one way to help them consider the light God has given them. This results in both of us turning our eyes on Jesus and moving toward Him.