August 31, 2012

A place to practice obedience

Last night I got ticked off at a couple of things my husband did. Remembering that God says not to let the sun go down on my anger (Ephesians 4:26), I offered an apology before going to sleep. This morning, I thought how easily small things can mess up my God-given spiritual well-being. Keeping short accounts with God and with others is really important. Without it, nothing else seems to go the way it should.
God, true to His normal way of speaking to me, offers verses about marriage in today’s devotional reading. As I read the following verses, I thought how modern readers sometimes argue over what the New Testament says about marriage as these verses sound as if Paul thinks everyone should stay single. I’m sure there are times in every marriage when many would agree with that idea…
Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. (1 Corinthians 7:25–28)
Paul concludes this passage with another statement that adds to the idea that marriage is a big hindrance to serving God.
So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. (1 Corinthians 7:38)
However, I’m cautious about lifting anything out of its context. This passage says more than those verses. What is Paul’s real reason for telling his readers that marriage brings troubles and singleness is better? These are more of his thoughts and motivations for what he has written…
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. (1 Corinthians 7:32–34)
Paul is wanting all Christians to live in freedom from the cares of this world and the cares of trying to please a spouse, as opposed to being holy and pleasing the Lord. I don’t think he is saying the two are mutually exclusive, but that marriage adds an extra challenge to those whose hearts are set on putting Jesus Christ first in their lives and priorities.

Paul also says, “I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35). He is not wanting to restrict people to singleness but cautions his readers against the reality that marriage can divide their devotions and put them in either/or situations where they must choose between the clear commands of the Lord and the present demands of married life.

Yet is this really the issue? In my own life, I have found marriage and the demands of being married an arena for godliness rather than a distraction from it. My focus is how to be a good Christian in marriage. I have different challenges than I would as a single person, but also different opportunities to develop a Christlike character. If I were a single person, I would not be concerned about all the husband/wife passages in the Bible, nor how to respond to my spouse in a way that demonstrates the relationship between Christ and His bride.

This is not to say that singleness is without challenges, but the relationship between married couples who love the Lord gives them a challenge to demonstrate obedience to God that might not otherwise be theirs. While working on this intimacy and relationship could be a distraction from service to the world “out there” it still has great value in developing that “good order” and “undivided devotion” that Paul talks about. This can make married people better equipped for any ministry.

Marriage also is an arena where Christians can learn how to be free from anxiety. We learn that, not by abandoning interest in pleasing God but learning how to please God with the added responsibility of caring for our spouse. He teaches me to please Him rather than being worldly and concerned with this life only. He also teaches me to do all that I do for my spouse with godly motivations and in the strength and grace supplied by the Holy Spirit. 

Whether he was married or not, maybe Paul said singleness was better because he could see that learning to rely on God in marriage is not an easy challenge!

Father, thanks for these thoughts from Your Word. You challenge me to respond to my husband as the church should respond to Christ. You also challenge me in many other ways to live for You and what better place to learn and practice that than in my home!

August 30, 2012

To keep from drowning…

An unverified account says that flies will bathe in a stream. However, when they plunge their bodies into the water, they keep their wings high out of the water. After swimming a short while, they fly away. Had they not kept their wings dry, they would not be able to get off the ground.
This story was used to illustrate how to obey the following verses…
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15–17)
Christians live in the world, yet we are “citizens of heaven” and ambassadors here. We are not supposed to let the desires of our own sinful nature give into the appeal of things in the world. This can be obvious sin like physical indulgences or greed, but it can also affect our motivations. For example, Christian service is ideally selfless and for the glory of God. If my heart begins to lift itself in pride about serving others, or I begin thinking I am better than other Christians who are not doing anything for God or their neighbors, then I have fallen to the allure of the world. 

To avoid that, I’m to learn the lesson of the flies and keep my spirit out of the world that the rest of me lives in. While this illustration is not perfect, I can see how it is practical and applies to everyday life. To make that application, I first need to identify the “things in the world” that have potential to draw my love away from God and put themselves on the throne of my heart. Of course, they get there because I agree to let them rule my life.

Being a Christian calls for alert self-discipline. In fact, this is included in the Bible’s description of fruit that the Holy Spirit produces in the lives of those who yield to and are filled by Him…
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22–24)
Just as the self-control required for dieting is near impossible without outside help, so also is the self-control needed to say no to fleshy desires and pride. I cannot do it in my own strength. Instead, I must rely on the Spirit’s presence and input into my life. He gladly gives it, but on condition. I must recognize and confess all those desires and instances of pride and admit my need. Self-control is gained not by trying harder, but by asking for His help. 

Yesterday, I worked on two major projects. One was the review and critique of entries in a writing contest. The love of the world could creep into that activity very easily. If the writing is good, I could be jealous. If it is not so good, I could fill up with pride, and have a sense of “I’m better than you are” as I make my comments. This is me-centered whereas the love of God would be focused on doing all I can to encourage and build up those who write the entries. This is keeping my wings dry.

My second project was a quilt. Pride can also rear its ugliness into that process. How do I keep away sinful and selfish thoughts? One way that works for me is praying while I’m sewing. Instead of thinking about the patterns unfolding before me, I’m thinking about others and their needs, and about God who cares and asks me to bring those needs to His throne. By doing this, I’m keeping my wings dry.

The idea of wings could be related to the human spirit made alive in Christ. That spirit is the inner part of me that can communicate with God and that feels conviction of sin. It is my link to our holy God and the core of spiritual life. This inner part cannot be touched by “water” or anything else, but it can be ignored.

On the other hand, my soul is the center of my mind or intellect, my emotions, and my will. When I let those rule my life, then I’m starting to dip into that watery world. If these govern instead of the Holy Spirit, I become prone to let my body, with its desires for comfort and pleasure, tell me what is best for me. Pride and all other sin work in this realm.

Key to obeying “do not love the world…” is paying attention to the spirit, noticing when my heart is straying, praying to God, listening to His rebukes, quickly confessing sin, and relying on the Holy Spirit for all things, even for wisdom to mark contest entries and for creative ideas to stitch a quilt.

Lord, life with You covers all the bases. You are here to give whatever I need so I can live the way You want me to live. From baking bread to answering the phone, from cleaning the mudroom to sorting laundry, I can draw near to You and away from the world, even while being very much engaged in the responsibilities of living here. And to keep all this from being “no fun at all” Your Spirit also fills me with joy and peace! You are a wonder and a delight, and for that, I love and worship You.

August 29, 2012

Where I work is not as important as how…

The first time I joined a social networking site, I accepted almost all “friend” requests and tried to read everything that was posted. It didn’t take long to be tired of the trivia about “what I ate for breakfast” and the bold self-promotion of some who had home businesses. I also began getting requests from total strangers and invitations to business networks. Then the ads… asking they be hidden gets rid of them, but all of this took too much time. 

However, I did appreciate the connections to family and a few close friends. So I deleted my old account and created one under a different email address and using a variation of my name. Today, this network is changing their format to a timeline. I’m not sure why, but since I’ve no choice in the matter, I’m considering all the options. 
One option is putting in personal information, such as where I went to school and where I have worked. As I look at these options about work, my flippant thoughts included that I am a “kept woman” that has never needed to work outside the home, and variations of “domestic engineer” and “chief cook and bottle washer.” However, what I really want to put in that line is not my work places, but my working goal. It is expressed by today’s devotional verses…
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (Colossians 3:23–24)
The “whatever” part makes this more about attitude and motivation than actual workplaces. I could scrub bathrooms and cook meals at home, or file reports and balance ledgers at an office and still be “working heartily as for the Lord.” While this isn’t what that network has in mind, it is on my mind. 
One day, while out for a walk and praying through my list of requests and burdens, I complained about the time it takes to pray and how much work I had to do. The Lord spoke to my heart as clearly as if He had shouted. He said, “Prayer is your work.”
I still struggle with that task, but His rebuke changes the way I think about prayer. Instead of an important spiritual discipline, this is God-given work that goes beyond everything else. He is my employer, my Master. I serve Him in prayer. 
Today, I also found the following verse. It will go on my social network page in that place asking for information about my work.
I thank God whom I serve… with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. (2 Timothy 1:3)

Lord, I am thankful, first of all to be able to serve You. No one could be a better boss. I’m also thankful that as long as I do what You ask, my conscience is clear. Guilt hinders, even destroys lives. Having forgiveness and cleansing from sin and guilt is freedom and puts a spring in my step. New life in Christ motivates me to think about others and pray for them. This is work, but it is work that blesses lives and brings eternal rewards. You also bless the workplace environment with others who pray for the same things, and bless me with joy as I do my job!

August 28, 2012

How to let His peace rule my heart

Today’s admonition is simply, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” which is something like telling someone in trouble, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Without any instruction on how to “let” this happen, this verse fragment can sound like a pat answer from someone giving the brush-off to the person with troubles.
For this exhortation to work, the troubled person must have Jesus Christ in their heart in the first place. He does not rule anything that is not given to Him, nor can His peace take charge. However, just because He is present does not mean believers are automatically at peace all the time. Christians are just as capable of worry, fretting and anxiety as anyone else.

But we have this amazing resource. The peace of Christ is that incredible sense that God is in control, so that no matter what is happening, we do not need to be upset or anxious about it. If that is not happening, the passage where this verse comes from gives some tips on how to experience that peace that only Jesus can give.
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12–17)
From this verse, I get these instructions. 1) Behave myself as a Christian ought to. Like His peace, doing so requires Christ in my heart, but also yielding to Him. I cannot run my own life. Whenever I try it and get in trouble (inevitable), I need to confess what I have done and ask Him to forgive me and fill me again with His Spirit. This is the only way to be kind, humble, meek, patient and so on.

2) Note also some of these qualities are passive or responses to others, but the passage also says to love others. That is an active verb. It requires that I do something and almost always involves a sacrifice. In other words, instead of being upset about my situation or feeling sorry for myself, love gets off that and thinks about the needs and situations of others. Love also does what it can to come to their aid.

3) Perhaps the biggest part of letting the peace of Jesus rule is being thankful. Thankfulness says that I know God is supplying all that I need. This certainty comes from a rich experience in the Word of God. From the Bible, I can hear Him speak. He makes promises and gives instruction. Without the Word, I would not know all the reasons I have for being thankful or know that He is working all things together for my good. As Romans 8:28-29 says, that good is the fact He uses all things to shape me into the image of His Son, even the troubles in life. When I know that and am thankful for it, peace rushes in like a river and rules my heart. It even fills me with a song!

4) Note also the “togetherness” in this passage. Fellowship with others is important to peace as Christians remind one another of the goodness of God. If I stay alone in my sorrows, they grow into giants. Others in the body of Christ help me look at life from God’s perspective and this produces peace. 

5) But there is one more important phrase in this passage. It says that whatever I do, I do it in the name of the Lord Jesus. That means that love, thankfulness, fellowship, and all else is for His glory, not mine. I cannot go through this list and perform its instructions for myself only. His peace, while I enjoy it, is not the goal of living as I should. The goal is not an easy life for Elsie but the glory of God. 

Father, when Your Spirit rules my life, I enjoy the peace and joy that You produce in my heart, but I know this is not merely to make me happy and worry-free. You do it so that I may honor You and lift up Your name. Grant this day that I speak and act in Your name, giving You glory. May I be thankful for all that You do and all that I experience, even for the troubles that might come my way, for in them, You are still at work for my good and Your glory.

August 27, 2012

Everlasting life cannot be destroyed

Today’s topic is the enduring power of the Word of God, so I went online to check out “attempts to destroy the Bible.” The results had me laughing and crying. The average answers were often far from historical truth. Most showed ignorance of the Bible and its history. 
Some talked of ripping up their copy, or putting a Bible in a bonfire, as if that “destroyed” the Word of God. Others said the Bible has destroyed those who believe it, making the question flawed. A few wrote about historical efforts to get rid of the book. Others mentioned philosophical ideas that mock it and attempt to destroy its teaching, but most didn’t seem to have any grasp of what it actually teaches. Obviously, many who tried to affirm that the Word of God could be destroyed had never read the Bible for themselves. 

Peter and John had firsthand experience with Jesus Christ. John wrote this about His identity…
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1–5, 14)
This man understood, as do all who put their faith in Christ, that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. In my imagination, I try to picture God speaking and the word that comes out of His mouth (even though He is Spirit and does not have a mouth) is a Living creature, God the Son. This sounds like science fiction, but this is what the Bible declares, and because I believe in a God who can do whatever He decides to do, I’ve no problem with this. 

Nor do I have difficulty with the events that followed. God sent that Word to earth to be a man, to save us from our sin. He lived a sinless life, was crucified and buried, then rose from the dead to live forever, interceding on behalf of those who believe in Him.

With God, all this is possible. The Bible affirms it and also says that those who repent and believe in Jesus are given new life, actually the life of this Living Word. When we believe in Him, His everlasting life becomes our life and everything changes.

There are many who say they follow Jesus, and many religious people seem sincere. I know some of these people, and as nice as they may be, not all that claim they are Christian are genuine. The Bible says, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12) Without the life of Christ, there is no eternal life, no matter how “religious” a person seems. This can explain many horrid things and is the answer to those who think the Word of God destroys people. Apart from the life of Christ, sinful hearts are free to do sinful things, even the hearts of those who claim to be Christians. 

The notion of destroying the Word of God is not as much about the book as it is about its main character and all attempts to destroy Him. Sinners do not want anything that Jesus offers or represents. To them, He marks the end of their “freedom” to do whatever their hearts desire. They would get rid of the Word, Living or Written, and thus get rid of all restraint, or so they suppose. 

However, they do not know what they are up against. The Word is everlasting. Even death cannot stop it, never mind mere bonfires and book banning.
Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:22–25)
Those who believe in Jesus have new life, imperishable and abiding, living in them. It is this Life that produces obedience, sincere love, and purity of heart. It is this life that never withers or falls, but remains forever. It is the resounding voice of God in the human heart. Because of God’s grace, as long as man sins and as long as God lives, His Word will keep on speaking, bidding sinful people to believe in Jesus Christ and live forever.

August 26, 2012

Not like fiction

Only fiction writers can get away with starting a story near the ending and making readers wait for enough background to understand what is happening and why. The rest of us, in conversation, have to fill in the history of our story; otherwise our listeners will interrupt us and ask questions until we do.
Whenever a devotional reading takes me to just one verse, it is rare that the verse stands alone. If it begins with “therefore” I want to know what the “therefore” is there for. Today’s reading from 2 Timothy 2:12 made me back up to find that out more, but also go forward to finish the thought. The verse is “…if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us…” The idea behind this encompasses at least five more verses.
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:8–13)
Paul is writing to Timothy, a young pastor, but the letter has good instruction for all Christians. He tells me to remember Jesus Christ, and His resurrection (it proves His deity) and His lineage (it testifies to His humanity). Paul preached about Him -- not about social issues or human interest stories as is so common for many pastors today. Paul affirms that he suffered persecution for his preaching; he had been chained in prison -- as if telling people about Jesus was a crime.

However, Paul knew that God’s Word could not be bound with chains like he was. The Word has the power to change lives and because of that, he endured all that happened to him. He was more concerned about the eternal destiny of others than he was for his own comfort and freedom. I need his powerful example!

Paul knew that those willing to give their lives to Jesus would live forever. He also knew that endurance of any persecution was the mark of someone who eventually would experience victory over all things. While it was true that denying Jesus meant Jesus would deny us, Paul pointed out that our faith does not make Jesus true – He is true regardless whether we believe or we doubt. He is who He is.

This last few phrases kick relativism in the face. Those who suppose that whatever a person believes makes that “true” for them, cannot say that to Paul. This philosophy should not convince me either. Jesus is faithful, regardless of what I think of Him. Those who think He does not exist cannot make Him go away, and those who believe He does exist did not create Him by their faith. He is objectively true.

Jesus Christ rises above the philosophies of men. He created human beings, and knows us intimately, not just because He is God and omniscient, but because He became one of us and experienced life with its trials and temptations just as we do. He is our Advocate, our Redeemer, our Savior and Friend. He cares about us and walks with us. Many push the thought of Him aside, but their pushing cannot erase His reality.

Lord, on this Sunday morning I woke up with worship music in my heart. You put it there because You are there. I may falter and bounce all over the place in my faithfulness, but that does not change You. You are my rock and my anchor, my solid place, the One in whom I rely on and can trust because You are You, the changeless and eternal God. Praise Your name!