Tuesday, August 22, 2017

What good can come from anything?

One of the most misused verses in the Bible remains my favorite verse. God revealed it to me in the early days after He saved me. I can remember my delight, mostly because I was misusing it also. It says:

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

The misuse happens because wishful thinking assumes it means all things will turn out okay in the end, and when trouble comes I don’t need to worry because God has a purpose and eventually that problem will be seen as a blessing. Of course, I was thinking mostly of my own comfort to define the ‘good’ that would come. I did not realize that in the mind of God, good can mean far more than my comfort.

Finally, a Bible teacher alerted me to examine the context of this verse before interpreting it. This is important. When people take a verse, or even what other people say, out of the framework in which it is written or said, it can be taken to mean things not intended.

For example, once I told a funny story and made a joking remark about “people think I am crazy.” A friend equally joking said, “That’s because you are crazy.” I blurted out, “Oh, I love you too.” In context, this was playful banter. However, if taken out of context, all three of these comments could be misunderstood.

Romans 8:28 is misunderstood for the same reason. People use it to comfort others who have experienced a deep loss, or terrible trials. Someone taps their shoulder and says, “It will turn out for good” without thinking that a suffering person needs more than a pat on the back or a pat answer.

The key to this verse is the context. Notice that verse 28 begins with a conjunction which connects it to the verses that come before it. They say:

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26–27)

This is comfort in that those who are suffering are blessed to know that when their stress is great and they cannot pray, the Holy Spirit is praying for them, even praying in the will of God. Therefore, God is at work to make this work for good — along with all other things in their lives.

This still does not answer the issue of good. That is in the verse immediately after verse 28. It says:

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:29)

The best good thing that God can do for me is to transform me into the likeness of Jesus Christ. As a new Christian, I was thrilled to know Jesus and had no idea this was His purpose for me. Once He revealed this, I became more excited! To be like Jesus? How amazing and wonderful is that! Of course, I didn’t realize what it would take to produce that transformation.

Some of it happens with confessing sin. 1 John 1:9 says: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  However, the process requires more than being cleansed. My sinful ways also need to be replaced. Christ lives in me, and His righteousness is ready to appear, but that requires my cooperation. Over the years, I’ve realized the damage sin has caused in my volition; it made me into an “I don’t want to” kind of person. This is where Romans 8:28 comes in!

God uses the circumstances and events of life, both pleasant and traumatic, to shape me into a ready and willing person, ready to say YES and willing to do His will rather than insist or even desire my own way. This is why I say this verse is misused as a comfort.
ll things means all things. God uses the good that happens, the bad, even the mistakes I make to form in me a yielded heart, but also bring out in me the life of His Son. Many of those shaping events are no fun at all, nor can I say they are good in any other sense than God used them to bring from me a Christlike response.

Jesus, I love this verse because it is true, practical, and gives me direction for how to respond to everything that happens. I still fall short, but You have not given up; You continue to use all things for this amazing purpose. The last of them, the final all thing, will be death. Then I will see You face-to-face — and finally be just like You.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Identifying with those who are lost

Sometimes people will talk with such intensity that I wish they would take a breath so I could insert a comment or response — or maybe I am like that myself? Sometimes I wonder if the Apostle Paul was like that. He certainly was the master of long sentences. This is not the longest, but it does have nearly 140 words in English, about 100 in Greek.

“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:1–7)

Paul wrote this to a preacher in Crete whose pastoral role came up against many challenges. Paul’s short letter is filled with instruction about how to do this job and what this pastor needed to tell the Christian people under his care.

Most scholars feel that the problems in any of those early churches can be discerned through reading Paul’s specific instructions to them. That being the criteria, then these Christians in Crete had quite a few issues, particularly in their relationship with those in authority and with each other. However, instead of accusing these people of their sinful behavior, Paul told Titus to remind them that all believers came from a life of sin, and to tell them again and again what Christ had done for them.

This reminds me of a recent conversation with someone who was using strong and judgmental language about the sins of others, in this case non-Christians who were doing vile things. As we talked, I began to feel uncomfortable about the attitude that was emerging. The words and expressions indicated, “I am better than that” and “I would never do that.”

After breathing a prayer for help, the Lord prompted a response. In case I worried about saying the wrong thing, Paul’s exhortation to Titus confirms that I was correct. I told this person that many of the people being criticized likely already know that they should not be doing what they do. They don’t need fingers pointed at them so much as they need someone to give them the solution to their problem. They need Jesus, and they need us to tell them about Him. They also need to know that we too have struggled with sin and that God’s salvation is not based on any good things we have done. Everyone is saved by mercy and grace. Everyone is saved by being made a new person by the power of the Holy Spirit and the wonderful grace of God.

A third person in the conversation obviously agreed and fell silent, but the one filled with condemnation didn’t stop the tirade against certain sinners. From that, and from these verses, I’ve concluded that I was ‘preaching’ to myself, and that my admonition was for my own tendency to judge sin without sharing the solution for sin.

As Paul wrote, at one time I was also foolish, disobedient, led astray, and filled with various problems and a great lack of love for others. Sometimes these things still creep in and pull me down. But, like Paul wrote, when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved me. It was not because of anything I did or did not do, but salvation is about His mercy, totally undeserved on my part. He washed away my sin and changed my heart through the power of the Holy Spirit. Because of His rich grace, I am justified in the sight of God and been given the gift of eternal life. I cannot correct others for their behavior unless I’m willing to be corrected for mine!

Jesus, what a wonder You are! You save sinners — and all of us fall into that category. You cover and forgive our sin and grant to us eternal life — all because of grace and mercy. How dare I call down others who are no different than myself. All of us need You. All of us stand before You as guilty, yet all can be declared righteous and set free from otherwise certain condemnation. You did not come here to condemn but to save. You have given me the ministry of reconciliation — most certainly that means that I must identify with sinners or I have no right to tell them how to escape God’s wrath. You want me to be like You, full of mercy and grace, and leave the pronouncements of guilt to the Holy Spirit who is equipped and qualified to make an effective conviction. My potshots anger people and puts them on the defensive. I need to stand where I belong, alongside those who need You as much as I need you.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

How to know what God is doing

A friend invited us to a fund-raiser. It was held on a ranch and involved a youth program that uses horses. She told me these were godly people and they were helping young people gain skills, as well as learn about Jesus Christ and what He has done for them.

While I trust her judgment, it was a blessing to find out for myself the truth of her assessment. Yesterday’s event was God-honoring, and how do I know that? It’s the same way that I know the voice of the Lord. Obviously, these people care for their sheep . . .

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” (John 10:1–6)

Not everyone has natural discernment. Otherwise telephone solicitations and cults coming to our doors would cease because no one would be interested. Without success, they would simply go away. However, as Jesus said, His sheep hear His voice. He calls us by name and we follow Him, knowing His voice. He gives us that recognition and while our enemies sometimes distract us away from Him, this is not permanent. We discern who are the liars that have no real care for us.

The people in this ministry we observed love both the children and their animals. The horses were well-fed, healthy, and sensitively responsive to their riders. Some of the young people were new at being up that high on the back of a horse, but each horse adjusted itself to the level of expertise of the person riding it. This was obvious because I once had a horse that did the same thing. What a great analogy to explain to these young people how Jesus cares for them. He gently meets them where they are and considers their needs as they learn and progress in their understanding of Him.

Jesus also made it clear that there are charlatans that will try and rob people of God’s best. However, His intention for them is abundant life:

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” (John 10:10–13)

It's easy to support people who care about the same things Jesus cares about and who sacrifice their lives that the next generation will know the Lord and thrive under His watchful and tender love. But there are thieves, and I need to exercise God-given discernment, not only when they try to ruin my life but when they use fund-raising tactics to line their own pockets rather than be a blessing to a needy world.

Jesus, thank You for the opportunity to learn about this ministry and encourage what they are doing. You are in it, and You are blessing them in astonishing ways. Thank You also for the discernment You give so that I can discern Your voice among the many voices that vie for my attention and my wallet. Help me to continually listen for You and the direction that You faithfully give.