Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Making choices based on your feelings

There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death (Proverbs 14:12).

There is a song lyric that goes: It can't be wrong when it feels so right. There is a saying that advises: if it feels good, do it. Many people make important decisions based on how they feel. They use their emotions as a way to evaluate whether doing something is good or bad.

Now, emotions can be wonderful things. It is a gift from God to be able to enjoy a baby’s smile, or a rush of warmth from holding someone’s hand. It is because of our Lord’s generosity that we can enjoy the brilliant colors of sunrise on a clear day, or know satisfaction in a job well done. The Bible tells us that God Himself knows delight when we put our hope in His unfailing love.

But because of sin, emotions cannot be trusted. People who pledge themselves to marriage can be tempted to abandon their vows when their fickle emotions draw them to another person. Christians can be tempted to abandon their church when Sunday morning services don’t lift them up emotionally like they used to.

Emotions can betray us because, like everything else, they are tainted by sin. When your emotions tell you to do something, it is important to stop and look at the facts objectively before you act. Remember, emotions are very unstable—what feels right today might not feel right tomorrow. Your emotions can be changed by taking medication or having a few drinks. Important decisions must be based on more than just feelings.

Jesus loves you—that’s a fact. Jesus died for you on a cross in Palestine two thousand years ago, so that you could be spared God’s anger at your sins—that’s a fact. The Bible tells us where and when Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead, so that you could be assured of the fact that He wants you as His child. Even when you’re depressed, the fact of Jesus’ concern for you is unchanged. That is something solid to base your decisions on.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Is anything too hard for the Lord?

Then the LORD said, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son."

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?"

Then the LORD said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, `Will I really have a child, now that I am old?' Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son." (Genesis 18:10-14)

Isn’t it great to be an American? Our country is the greatest in the world. We have the strongest economy, the highest standard of living, the best scientists and doctors. We’ve gone to the Moon. We invented the Internet. Our ancestors took a wild and beautiful land and made it everything it is today in only a few brief centuries. They built this nation by hard work and rugged individualism. This country wasn’t built on handouts, it was built with determination, by men and women who believed they could do anything. It was the strong who made America great.

And so it is today. Our heroes are men and women who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, made their own fortunes. People like Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, and Oprah Winfrey got where they are by their own abilities, their own hard work. Our motto in America is “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” We’re told that it’s okay for men to cry, but most men know better than that. And women aren’t really successful unless they can balance a career with motherhood, and look great doing it. In America, you can’t rely on anyone else if you want to make it to the top.

But this all-American attitude does more harm than good. Basketball is a prime example. Every member of a basketball team is supposed to work with everyone else to win the game. Yet over and over again, especially in collegiate and pro teams, we see a few individuals who always end up with the ball, even when someone else has a clear shot, because they’re the “star” of the team. Teamwork is sacrificed so that the team’s hero can have the spotlight.

The American emphasis on individual success makes it hard for competitive people to work together for a common purpose, but people who aren’t competitive are hurt too. We Americans are a prideful people, and it hurts our pride when we have to accept help from others. “Charity” is a dirty word. Accepting help because you need it means that you’re a failure, because good Americans can solve their problems without help. There are countless people in this world that won’t accept help, even though they truly need it, because their pride won’t let them.

What we have to admit to ourselves is that we don’t have all the answers, we can’t fix every problem on our own. God made mankind perfect, with incredible powers of intellect and will. When God looked down on the construction of the Tower of Babel, He said to Himself: If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them (Genesis 11:6). But as incredible as mankind is, the human race is marred by the imperfection of sin, and sin constantly frustrates our plans. The designers of the Titanic bragged that their design was unsinkable—sin prevented them from considering every possible problem their ship could face. Jesus’ countrymen knew their Scriptures better than any people have ever known their sacred teachings, yet most of them could not see that Jesus was the promised Messiah, because sin clouded their judgment. Sin tells us that we don’t need God to solve our problems, we are perfectly capable of living our lives on our own.

But it’s all an illusion. We are far more helpless than we’d like to admit. If your car broke down, could you fix it without a mechanic? Could you grow your own cotton and make clothing from it yourself? If your child had a ruptured appendix, could you perform life-saving surgery? With no outside help, could you find it in yourself to forgive a person who has hurt you deeply, and hold no lasting grudge?

We absolutely need help, and we need it every day. We need help from our family, our coworkers, our neighbors. We most especially need help from God. Of all the people in your life, who do you most trust to be willing to help you? Who is the most likely to be able to help you? You know, of course, that it must be God. Family and friends can’t always help—sometimes they’re far away or short on time or money. Sometimes family and friends won’t help, because of words spoken in anger. Only God can be counted on every time. Only God has the infinite power to be able to do anything, and the infinite wisdom to always do the right thing at the right time. And so often, God is the last person we turn to when we need help.

It can’t be because God doesn’t have the power to help us. God has done amazing things. Just consider some of His miracles. He made the Earth out of nothing and populated it with all kinds of birds, animals, fish, insects and plants. He covered the entire surface of this huge planet with water in the Great Flood, yet kept one vessel full of survivors safe throughout this catastrophe. He parted the Red Sea before Moses and made the seabed dry for the Israelites to walk on. He stopped the sun from setting for a day so that Joshua’s army could win a battle. He kept Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo unhurt while in the flames of Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. Most significant of all, He caused a virgin to give birth to the god-man, Jesus Christ. There is no limit to God’s power.

Or do we fail to turn to God because we don’t believe He will help us? This is an incredible error. God’s care for us is unquestionable. Jesus said, Are not two sparrows sold for a penny ? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (Matthew 10:29-31). Jesus gave His very life so that every human being could be freed from the guilt of their sins. God took upon Himself the divine punishment we deserved from Him through the life and death of Jesus, so that we would no longer have to fear death and what comes after it. No one has ever loved you, no one will ever love you, more than our Lord.

God has the power and the desire to help us. Consider this passage from Matthew: A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean." Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately he was cured of his leprosy (Matthew 8:2-4). This is our God. A God who has the means and the desire to help us.

We tend to be like Sarah. When she heard God promise that within the year she would give birth, she laughed at the notion. Like us, she had tried to take care of things herself. Back when Abraham and she had first come west at God’s command, she was still beautiful—beautiful enough that on two occasions local kings wanted her for themselves. When the couple had first settled in their new home, God had promised Abraham descendants. God had repeated this promise to Abraham at least four more times since then, but as the years passed, Sarah had gotten impatient. Because she did not conceive, she convinced her husband that God’s promise was for him, not her, and encouraged Abraham to have a child by their servant Hagar. But although a child was conceived, this wasn’t the child promised by God, and Ishmael’s descendants would become enemies of the Israelites. By taking matters into her own hands, Sarah remained childless, and created problems for her family as well. Since she had tried everything she knew how to do and had failed, she scoffed at the idea that after so long a time God could or would make good on His promise. God’s reply to her cynicism? Is anything too hard for the LORD?

This is the question: is anything too hard for the Lord? It’s an important question, because if there is something too hard for Him to do, then we can’t rely on God in our every need, we really do have to look out for ourselves. So let us consider God’s limitations. Are there limits on His ability to make things? God made the sun, moon and stars and set them in motion. He created all living things. When you were conceived, He wove together your DNA and gave you your soul. We must conclude that God can make anything.

Is God limited by time? We are limited by time. When we are young, we’re inexperienced and weak; when we are old, we become forgetful and frail. We can only do so many things at one time, and it takes a while to finish big projects. But God is not limited by time. He created time. God is eternal; Psalm 90 says, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. Jesus identified Himself as being eternal when He said, before Abraham was born, I AM (John 8:58). God created millions of plants during the third day of creation. He caused a shadow to move ten steps the wrong way as the seal to a promise made to King Hezekiah. God has determined when time will end in Final Judgment. We must conclude that God is not limited by time.

Since God is not limited by space or time, can our sins limit Him in what He can do? Consider this passage from Matthew: Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven." At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, "This fellow is blaspheming!" Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, `Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, `Get up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . ." Then he said to the paralytic, "Get up, take your mat and go home." And the man got up and went home (Matthew 9:2-7). Jesus did this miracle both to help the paralytic and to show that He had power over sin. Earth and everything in it was perfect before Adam sinned; after Adam’s sin, decay and death became the ugly partners of life. Jesus not only healed diseases and injuries, He healed the sin that was responsible for their existence. When Jesus died on the cross, the burden of our sins died with Him. When Jesus returned to life, it proved that He is greater than our sinfulness. We have to conclude that God is not limited by our sins.

We have the answer to our question: nothing is too hard for the Lord, not even lifting us up and cleaning us off from our wallowing in sinful behavior. But it is hard for us to trust in God when we can’t see Him or touch Him; it is hard for us to trust Him when He makes us wait for something we think we need right now. We have been let down so many times by family and friends; it is hard to remember that God is perfectly dependable, when no one else in our life is. Well, we can’t see God or touch Him now, but we can hear Him whenever we like. God speaks to us in His Word, preserved for us in the Bible. Whenever we open His book and read it, whenever we listen to His teachers speak His word, we hear the voice of God. And through His Word He assures us of His love, He invites us to give our cares and sorrows to Him. Jesus says Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). For the weak and helpless, there are no sweeter words than these.

So I invite you to have confidence in God’s power and in His love. Whatever makes you feel helpless, whether it be a damaged relationship with family or friends, imperfect health, a shortage of time or money, or the loss of a loved one, turn to God first with your need. Humbly admit that you need help, that you don’t have the power or wisdom to find a way out, and God will answer your prayer. It may not be right away, or quite the way you were expecting, but His wisdom is greater than your wisdom. He knows exactly what you need and exactly the right time to give it to you. Trust in the Lord. Nothing is too hard for Him.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Worst Human Being?

1 Timothy 1:12-16

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that He considered me faithful, appointing me to His service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on Him and receive eternal life.

What is the worst thing that you have ever done? Have you blown off someone you care about because you were preoccupied with your job or hobby? Have you told a lie that got you off the hook, but got someone else into trouble? Have you shoplifted, or stolen something from work? Have you cheated on your spouse? Has your carelessness or bad temper resulted in someone getting hurt? Have you made your mom or dad’s life miserable?

Have you lived your life as if God doesn’t exist, or doesn’t care what you do?

Everyone has a past. Everyone carries around a lead ball of guilt in the pit of their stomach over something that they should not have done, or something that they failed to do. In fact, people carry quite a few loads of guilt, because when we do something wrong, sometimes it is spectacularly big and messy—but more often, what we feel guilty for is doing the same wrong thing over and over again, and we hate ourselves for our repeated weakness.

As you carry your load of guilt year after year, the weight of it seems to increase. Eventually, the numbing pain of regret can suck the joy out of the living of your life. And no matter what you do, no matter how many times you say that you’re sorry, no matter how you try to make up for things or punish yourself, nothing can change what you did—you can’t change the past.

Paul knew exactly how that felt; he called himself the worst of sinners. And Paul was not exaggerating when he admitted this. Paul lists his crimes: I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man. Paul was a blasphemer; he had heard the teachings about Jesus Christ and had decided that they were lies. Christians taught that Jesus was the Son of God, born in human flesh; Paul denied that Jesus was anything more than an ordinary man. Christians taught that Jesus performed miracles by the power of God; Paul suspected that if Jesus had indeed performed any miracles, it must have been with the help of Satan. Christians taught that Jesus suffered and died on the cross to make payment to God for every human sin; Paul believed that Jesus died the kind of horrible death appropriate for a false religious teacher who was seducing gullible believers away from the true religion. Christians taught that Jesus had risen from the dead and gone back up to heaven, where He forgives believers for their sins; Paul was convinced that Jesus was still dead, that His disciples had merely stolen His body from its grave and lied about the resurrection to keep His teachings alive. Paul declared as lies everything Jesus said and did.

Paul was also a persecutor. It infuriated him that people were converting to the 'false' religion of Christianity. Bad enough that these so-called Christians were going to go to hell; how dare they endanger others with their damnable lies? So Paul took an active hand in trying to shut down Christianity. He traveled from city to city, looking for people who believed that Jesus was the living Son of God; and when he found a group of believers, he had them arrested and taken to Jerusalem to be put on trial for embracing heresy.

And Paul was a violent man. Hear his own words of regret, written late in life: I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death (Acts 22:4). Paul admits that he sought the death sentence for those Christians who would not abandon their faith in Christ. That is how much Paul hated Jesus and His followers—he wanted to erase from the earth every last trace of them.

Was Paul the ‘worst of sinners’? He certainly had good reason to feel that way. Is there anything in your life that can possibly be worse than hating God’s Son, and trying to organize the destruction of every living Christian? No matter what you have done, I think that Paul’s sins have got yours beat.

And yet, in spite of that incredible load of sin, Paul was not crushed with despair. In fact, he was thankful! He said, I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that He considered me faithful, appointing me to His service. Paul had been a hard nut to crack, but crack him is just what the Savior did. Jesus confronted Paul personally in a vision, proving to him that everything taught about Jesus is indeed true—that He is the Son of God, that He is holy and sinless, that His suffering and death did make restitution for all human sins, and that He is alive forever, triumphant over sin, death and Satan. Jesus confronted Paul with the truth, and Paul was a changed man—he admitted his errors, he apologized for his evil ways, and he dedicated the rest of his life to the Savior’s service.

Why would Jesus waste His time with such a sworn enemy? Why didn’t Jesus just strike Paul dead and let him rot in hell? First of all, hatred is not what motivates Jesus. Speaking of Himself, Jesus said the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus came into our world and underwent His suffering on our behalf because He loves us; in Ephesians Paul writes, Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:2). And Jesus did not do this for only a select few; our Lord said: God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

There is another reason why Jesus personally challenged Paul to turn and follow Him. Paul says, I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on Him and receive eternal life. Paul was known far and wide as a hater of Christians; his sudden conversion to the faith would accomplish two things to benefit the church. First of all, it made people sit up and take notice; that an intelligent, passionate man like Paul could completely change his opinion so quickly was a powerful testimony that the teachings of Jesus are truly life changing. Paul’s notorious background and dramatic conversion demonstrated the power of Christ to rehabilitate lives.

Second, Paul’s ministry as a teacher of Jesus served as a wonderful example of God’s mercy. Paul was the most feared man among the Christians of his day—yet Jesus forgave him. Jesus forgave Paul for the blasphemy against God’s Son, his persecution of Jesus’ followers, and even for the innocent deaths he was responsible for. Jesus forgave Paul completely, and gave Paul a new life—a life as a living example of God’s mercy. By the end of his remaining years, Paul had written virtually half of the New Testament—this from the man who had entered adulthood believing that Jesus was a fraud!

So, what about you? What about your burdens of guilt? Is anything in your life worse than what Paul did before Jesus confronted him? It’s unlikely. You may feel like the worst of sinners, but you’re not. But regardless of how guilty you feel, Paul and I still have Good News for you: Jesus stands ready to forgive you for everything. Jesus forgave Paul, the worst of sinners, and gave him a life that honored God to its final breath. If Jesus could forgive the worst of sinners, He can certainly forgive you.

Jesus is confronting you about your sins. He knows what you have done, or failed to do. He knows how badly you feel about your mistakes. He knows that you crave release and a new start. Jesus is knocking on the door of your heart. He wants you to open up to Him. He wants you to tell Him that you have done wrong, and you’re sorry, and that you want Him to wrap you in His arms, forgive you, and take the weight of your guilt from you. Jesus says, Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). Jesus is the living Son of God; only He has the power to release you from the past. Jesus is the Son of Man who died to pay for your sins; only He has the authority to tell you, Friend, your sins are forgiven (Luke 5:20).

Jesus is with you; He waits for your tears so that He can dry them. Jesus is with you; He waits for your confession so that He can forgive you. Paul said, The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus; repent of your sins and accept Jesus’ invitation to belong to Him, and these gifts will be yours as well.

Faith's Follow-through

A reading from James chapter 2:

Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Many sports emphasize the importance of the “follow-through.” In basketball, baseball and golf, coaches teach their athletes that good follow-through is necessary for good shooting or stroking. Beginners often don’t see the sense in this—how can the shot be affected by what you do after the ball is already in motion? Well, it is true that once the ball is on its way, your follow-through cannot affect it. But the point is this: the shot or the stroke cannot be executed properly without the type of action that results in the desired follow-through. The follow-through is the inevitable outcome of a good technique.

In the same way, “good works” are the inevitable outcome of a healthy faith in Jesus. James tells us that if your faith is not showing itself in your life through your actions, watch out! Follow-through is evidence of good technique, and good works are evidence of a living faith. Making decisions at work and at home that honor God’s teachings in the Bible are evidence that Jesus is living in your heart. But a life that has no time for church, no time for reading Bible stories to children at bedtime, no time to give God thanks for the gift of food on the table—such a life should be examined carefully. No follow-through can mean that the athlete has gotten out of the habit of regular practice. An athlete can easily lose a competition if he lets his technique become rusty. No athlete wants to miss the winning shot because he neglected his training. No Christian wants to miss their shot at heaven because they have neglected their faith. Please join me in praying:

Lord Jesus, we come before You in need of forgiveness. You have given us the precious gift of faith in You, a faith that promises us eternal happiness with You in paradise. But we often take this faith for granted; we get lazy, and do not make a point of studying Your word, giving You thanks, or asking for Your leadership as we should. Please show us Your mercy, and fill us with renewed joy over the opportunity to do good works in Your honor. In Your holy name we pray, amen.

Perfect Christians?

A reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 3:

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.

In Sunday School, the lesson for the week was about what a wonderful place heaven is. The teacher was well prepared, but several of the children had a hard time paying attention, and often disrupted the class. At the end of the hour, the teacher asked her students to raise their hands if they would like to go and live in heaven. All of the children raised their hands—except one. When the teacher asked him why he didn’t want to go to heaven, the little boy replied: “I do want to go—but not with this bunch!”

A lot of people have the mistaken idea that a Christian is supposed to be perfect. Some don’t think that they could live a Christian lifestyle, so they turn down invitations to come to church. Others resent Christians for claiming to know what God approves and disapproves of, so when they see a Christian mess up, they are quick to point out that a Christian isn’t any holier than they are.

But Christianity isn’t about being perfect. Paul acknowledged that as hard as he worked for Jesus, he was not perfect. Everyone is born imperfect, and remains imperfect until the day they die. Being a Christian about trying to please God with your daily decisions, admitting when you mess up, asking Jesus to forgive you, and then going out and trying again.

Groucho Marx once said, “I certainly wouldn't want to join any organization that would be willing to have me as a member.” Christians realize that the church is made up entirely of sinners—imperfect people who make mistakes every day. What is special about being a Christian is knowing that Jesus will forgive our every mistake—all we have to do is ask Him to have mercy on us. Christians are not perfect, but they are forgiven. Please join me in praying:

Lord Jesus, we are imperfect, and every day we fail to please You. Please forgive us for our mistakes, and give us the desire to follow Your leadership as we go about today’s activities. In Your holy name we pray, amen.

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