Saturday, July 29, 2006

Are my prayers pleasing to God?

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will (Romans 8:26-27).

Have you ever prayed to God for something, and then wondered, "Should I be praying for this?" Have you sometimes worried that you don’t pray for the right things, that your prayers are too selfish? Paul tells us that "We do not know what we ought to pray for." So today we will consider what it is that we should pray for, and what we should not pray for.

When you ask a Christian why he prays, he’ll tell you "because Jesus commands us to." In Matthew chapter seven, Jesus said, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened." In this way, Jesus tells us that we should pray, and pray with confidence, because our prayers to Jesus are heard and acted upon.

But non-Christians pray as well. For example, Moslems pray to Allah and some in the Orient pray to their deceased ancestors. None of these people pray because of Jesus’ invitation. What motivates them to pray is their need for something that they cannot get for themselves. A plentiful harvest, recovery from terminal illness, rescue from severe weather—these are things no man can achieve by himself. When faced with matters of life and death, people of every type turn to prayer for relief.

The prayers of non-Christians are not heard by God, because one may only approach God through His Son. Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Every human being is born spiritually blind, unable to see God as He truly is—perfect, holy, and loving. There are people everywhere who hope that there is an invisible God who loves and who cares, but unless that invisible God reveals Himself, He can never be found. Thankfully, God has revealed Himself to us—He has revealed Himself through His Son Jesus the Anointed One. Jesus entered our world as a man, but He was at the same time God. Jesus knew His Father perfectly, and He told His disciples all about the invisible God who wants us to bring our needs to Him in prayer.

But Jesus did even more than reveal God to us. Jesus suffered on the cross of Calvary for every evil deed of every human being ever born. Jesus suffered the divine punishment for our evil because He loves us. And because our evilness has been punished in the cross of Christ, we are free of God’s anger. When we pray to God, we do so in Jesus’ name because He has removed God’s anger at us and has instead shown us God’s great love—a love that answers prayer.

But even though we are forgiven by Jesus, the desire to be self-centered, petty, and willful remains within us. And although our prayers are heard by God, sometimes our sinful human nature makes our prayers sound more like the prayers of those who don’t know Christ. For example: we love our luxuries. It is tempting to pray for the money to buy a new sports car, or a fancy house, or the newest video game system. We are also tempted to pray for success in competition—we might want to pray that our team will win the game, or that we can beat out everyone else for the promotion at work. Some of us might consider praying to become popular at work or at school; perhaps we want to ask God to make us more attractive or help us get the newest designer fashions. Others of us might feel that our opinions are too often ignored, so we’d like God to give us more influence or authority over others. And, when we’ve been hurt by someone, it is always tempting to ask God to take vengeance on our behalf.

These kinds of prayers are not pleasing to God. When we pray for luxuries, God may not give us what we want because He knows that we will become so wrapped up in detailing that new car, decorating that fancy house, or playing with the video game that we won’t make time for prayer or Bible study or worship.

When we pray for success in competition, we are actually praying for two things: we want to win, and we want everyone else to lose. Since Jesus told us "love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 19:19), we should never seek to advance at another person’s expense. Jesus would rather have us pray, "may the best man win."

When we ask God for popularity, we must be careful. It is natural for everyone to desire love and respect, but God demands first place in our lives. Many people who become popular soon forget about God and other people, and end up stuck on themselves. It would be better for us to pray, "Lord, let me see Your love through the people in my life."

When we tell our Lord that we want more authority or responsibility, we ought to do so in humility. We are all flawed sinners, and God knows our limitations in a way that we are blind to. God has given each of us roles to play in life—husband or wife, parent or child, teacher or student, boss or employee. Every one of us already has many areas of responsibility and authority. To ask for more than God gives us in His wisdom is to ask to be put in a situation where we can make a real mess of things. Far better for us to pray, "Father, use me for Your work as You see fit."

Finally, the issue of revenge. When we are hurt, it is natural to want to lash out, get even. But we must remember that our sins nailed Jesus to the cross. And instead of lashing out at those who were killing Him, Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). How terrible for us if Jesus had turned away from us in anger over our sins, instead of graciously forgiving every one of them. When we are oppressed by an enemy, our prayer ought to be, "Lord Jesus, forgive me for my anger and forgive my enemy for his sins. Send Your Holy Spirit to open his heart and lead him to true repentance."

Jesus fills our lives with love—love that calls us to leave our sins behind, love that forgives our every wrong, love that gives us renewed life and hope, love that nurtures and strengthens us, love that protects us from evil. When our prayers are in tune with Jesus’ gifts of love, our prayers are pleasing to God.

Jesus’ love calls sinners to hear the Gospel. It is appropriate for us to pray for courage to speak the Gospel to the people that we see every day. It is also appropriate for us to pray to God to send pastors and missionaries out among the people of the world who are spiritually dying. And it is appropriate that we ask the Holy Spirit to move us to be generous with our time and our money in support of the work of the church; in this way we are like Aaron, holding up the hands of Moses the prophet when he became weary (Exodus 17:10-13).

Jesus’ love forgives sinners. It is only through forgiveness that we are reconnected to God and to each other, in spite of our failings. So it is necessary that we regularly pray God to forgive us for being sinners. We should also pray that God would forgive the sins of those who have sinned against us. And we must not forget to ask God to help us to forgive as we have been forgiven, because Jesus told us, "if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matthew 6:14-15).

Jesus’ love grants life and a new hope for living. Our prayers can certainly ask God for food and drink, clothing and shelter, employment and rest, health and peace. But we do not ask these things merely so that we may stay alive; we ask for them so that we can live to serve God and take care of our fellow man. It is important to remember that God provides for us out of His wisdom, not ours. In Second Corinthians chapter 12 Paul writes, "To keep me from becoming conceited…there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

Jesus’ love builds us up in the faith and brings us maturity. It is good to pray for God to strengthen both our faith and the faith of other Christians. It is good to pray for wisdom and God’s leadership in our lives, so that the things we think, say and do will show God’s care and love to everyone around us. And it is good to publicly thank God for all His blessings when we pray together.

Finally, Jesus’ love protects us from the lure of evil. We should always be asking Jesus to protect us from the attacks of the devil, the temptations of the world, and our own weak human nature. We should also ask God to shield our fellow Christians from evil, so that we may all arrive safely in heaven when we die.

At this point, you may be wondering how anyone can pray as he ought. We all pray less often than we should, and we all ask for the wrong things sometimes. But Paul offers us reassurance: He says, "the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express." When we were baptized, the Holy Spirit entered us and gave us faith in Jesus. But the Spirit also prays for us continually. The Holy Spirit knows what our real needs are, and He continually cries out our needs to God on our behalf, praying the perfect prayer that is impossible for us. So long as we are one with Jesus by faith, the Holy Spirit dwells in us, looking out for our needs.

Pray. Pray often. Pray for many things. Pray for the church, pray for forgiveness, pray for God’s caring hand in your life, pray for His leadership, pray for His protection. Pray for yourself and for everyone you know. And pray with confidence, because the Holy Spirit prays with you.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Protecting people from themselves

Do not withhold your mercy from me, O LORD; may your love and your truth always protect me (Psalm 40:11).

In July of 2001, a dead whale became a tourist attraction at Cape Jarvis, Australia. Boats ferried people out to the carcass where great white sharks were busily feeding. Some tourists went so far as to stand on the whale’s dead body and even pet the heads of the sharks! A local official was outraged at this behavior and immediately sought legislation to, in his words: "protect people that were too stupid to protect themselves."

I am often amazed at the rules and warning labels that are necessary to keep people from doing things stupidly dangerous. A woman successfully sued a restaurant for selling coffee that burned her because she spilled it in her lap. It has taken the passage of laws to force motorcycle riders to wear helmets and passengers in cars to wear seatbelts. Any number of electrical appliances carry warnings not to use them in the bath tub or shower. How can it be that people act so carelessly that they constantly need to be told what not to do?

We make foolish choices that put us in danger because of sin. Each of us has sin thriving within us, and sin puts blinders on our judgment. Sin urges us to make quick decisions instead of thinking things out carefully or getting another person’s opinion. Sin focuses our attention so narrowly on what we want that we develop tunnel vision, hindering our ability to see any risks or consider other, better options.

People have always been blind-sided by their inner sin. That’s why God gave us the Ten Commandments. God wrote those laws to "protect people that were too stupid to protect themselves." Think about it: does quality of life result from committing murder or stealing or cheating on your spouse (Exodus 20:13-15)? How much peace and inner joy do you get from insulting people in authority, or telling lies about others, or constantly pining for things that you don’t have (Exodus 20:12, 16-17)? Can a person who is dying face the end of life with calm assurance if he has no idea what awaits him beyond the grave, because he rejected having a relationship with the God who forgives sins and raises the dead to eternal life (Exodus 20:3-11)? God’s rules are intended to protect us from the foolish, bad decisions that sin wants us to make; God wants us to listen to Him because only He fully realizes the danger our sins constantly put us in.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Abide with me

But they urged him strongly, "Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over." So he went in to stay with them (Luke 24:29).

On September 4th, 1847, Henry Francis Lyte preached a farewell sermon to his congregation. After serving God's children in other parishes, this man had devoted himself for a quarter of a century to the pastoral care of the people living in Brixham, South Devonshire, England. His congregation consisted mostly of unpolished but warm-hearted men of the sea, and over the years he had gained their love and confidence to a high degree. He visited the fishermen and sailors, both on their ships and in their huts. He provided every outgoing ship with a Bible.

But now the preacher’s health was in question, and so it was time to start saying goodbye. Toward evening of the day when he had preached his farewell sermon, he went down the garden path to view the setting of the sun over Brixham harbor. The pastor later told his family that while this lovely scene of nature was before his eyes, he said a long, fervent prayer, asking God for the ability to write a hymn that might comfort his survivors. Once the sun had finally set he returned to his study, and his children assumed that he had closed the door to get some rest.

But an hour later the door opened, and the pastor came forth with a manuscript, the text of the immortal hymn he had just written, a hymn that has been much loved ever since:

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide. The darkness deepens--Lord, with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, oh abide with me.

The final verse is a concluding prayer:

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes, shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies; heav’ns morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death oh Lord, abide with me.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Good soil

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: "A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop--a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear..."

"Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown" (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

Christians have always wondered why some people accept Jesus while others reject Him. In this Bible passage, Jesus tells us why this is so. But the message that Jesus has for us is much more personal than it appears at first reading. Through this parable Jesus issues each of us a word of caution.

In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus compares the spreading of the Gospel to the planting of a field. We are not told who the sower is, but it is his job to bring the Gospel to people in the world. The sower could represent Jesus Himself, he could represent the pastors and missionaries who are sent out by Jesus, or he could represent anyone who speaks of his faith in Jesus with another person. The seed is the Gospel, the ‘message about the kingdom’ of God. And the four different areas of the field represent the four different kinds of situations the Gospel faces when it enters a person’s life.

Jesus’ first example is the person who hears the Word of God but does not understand it, giving the Devil the opportunity to snatch the seed away. The Devil is a real supernatural being, and he is actively opposed to God. Just as God takes a personal interest in loving each of us, the Devil takes a personal interest in keeping each of us cut off from God’s love. From birth, our human nature finds it impossible to believe in a God who is perfect, holy and loving, because our lives tell us that nothing is perfect, nothing is sacred. Everyone we know loves us imperfectly, if they love us at all—in fact, most people don’t care about us, unless they can use us somehow. All we know from birth is our own imperfection and the imperfection of everyone around us—we quickly learn that no one can be completely trusted, not even ourselves. Born with this attitude, we cannot have any kind of relationship with God, because God expects us to completely trust in His loving care for us. This suits the Devil just fine, because anyone who dies without trust in God will forever join the Devil in hell. It is said that misery loves company, and the Devil wants to share the misery of his hell with as many people as he can lure there.

God, on the other hand, is all about perfect love. God creates every baby, and He creates every baby with the intent that they should all join Him in heaven forever. But because the Devil successfully tainted mankind with imperfection, God had to take extraordinary steps to offer every person the opportunity to escape eternity in hell. God sent His Son Jesus to suffer hell on the cross in mankind’s place, and to make it possible for us to trust in God’s caring love. When we hear Jesus’ message of forgiveness and the promise of a new way of life that leads to heaven, we are given the opportunity to repent of our mistrust and be welcomed into fellowship with God.

That message of forgiveness and a new start is the seed that the Devil desires to snatch away from us. He tries to keep people from even hearing the message by prompting courts to outlaw God’s name in schools and in the Pledge of Allegiance. The Devil makes sure that every act of misconduct by a clergyman is well publicized, in order to cause people to mistrust the church. And the Devil lies in wait with his lies for any opportunity to cast doubt in the hearer’s heart. When a person hears the untainted Gospel, the Devil challenges everything he’s heard. God loves you? Not likely—you are too weak and useless for God to love you. Jesus forgives you? Impossible—some of the things you’ve said and done are unforgivable. God cares for you? If He cared for you, He wouldn’t have let you suffer the way you have. God is in charge of the universe? Look around you at the condition of this wretched world—there’s no one in charge. There’s no one to care for you, to protect you, to save you. It’s all a big lie to get you to put money in the church collection plate.

Jesus came to give us love and freedom from eternal death; all we need do is repent our sins and trust in Him. But it is not in our nature to trust in the goodness of others, so many people listen to Jesus’ words without understanding them. It is at this time of hesitancy that the Devil whispers his lies and convinces his victim that faith in Jesus is foolishness. The person turns away from the promises of God given through Jesus, and the Devil has effectively snatched the Gospel invitation away. Paul wrote, "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18).

There are others, though, who do listen to Jesus’ words and are overjoyed to hear them. When the Devil fails to snatch the Gospel seed away, he then relies on one of his allies—our own corrupted human nature. Our bodies are filled with desires. At a most basic level, our bodies desire to stay alive. Our bodies also desire to avoid pain and discomfort. Our bodies crave food and drink, and they urge us to seek out sex. Our bodies also enjoy being stimulated by nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs.

It is natural for our bodies to desire comfort, but they can become enemies of leading a Christian life. In the days of the Apostles, many Christians were threatened with death unless they denied their faith in Jesus. There were Christians who feared death more than they feared God, and gave up their faith to preserve their lives. But we also face betrayals of the flesh today. God wants us to trust His loving care for us, but there are Christians whose faith falters when they face serious illness. When God doesn’t grant immediate relief, they jump to the conclusion that God, if He really exists, doesn’t care about them. Other people expect God to make their lives wonderful, full of peace and wealth and comfort. When their lives do not improve in worldly ways, when tough times come and bring depression, these people start shopping for another religion to fill their need for a comfortable life. Such people do not want to hear Jesus’ words: "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

If a person receives Jesus’ message of salvation and learns to ignore the sometimes sinful demands of his body, the Devil still has one more ally on his side—the world we live in. Jesus tells us that the world attacks Christian faith with two weapons—worries and money. And oh, how we like to worry! There is too little rain, there is too much rain, spring came too late, the first frost came too early—how can I get a good crop this year? The schools are filled with drugs and no one can keep the kids under control—what will happen to my child? Who will protect us from war and terrorists and crime? Will I ever have any control over my life? How can anyone ever fall in love with me when I look like this? And money makes us worry as well: how will I pay all these bills? How will I ever get anything saved for retirement? Will I ever get out of debt?

Worries choke our faith by an insidious lie. The lie is this: you can’t trust God to take care of things. It’s your problem, so it’s your responsibility. It’s your problem—only you can come up with the solution that works best for you. You don’t want to be stuck with somebody else’s solution, do you? In this way, the worries of the world choke off our faith in God’s loving care, and all too soon we start forgetting to pray for His wisdom, His leadership, His help. Forgotten is Jesus’ invitation, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).

And so Jesus illustrates three situations that inhibit the growth of the Gospel in a person’s life. The Devil, our flesh, and the world are all opposed to letting us find hope in Jesus’ promise of rescue from our sin-corrupted lives, and the torment in hell that they lead to. But this is not just an explanation of why some do not stay in the faith. Jesus says, "He who has ears, let him hear." Jesus challenges each of us to look at our own lives, and see if we are embracing any of these enemies of the faith. Do you view church with cynicism? Are you inclined to listen to a pastor preach while wondering if he really believes all that stuff he’s saying? Do you find yourself looking for a religion that always makes you feel good? If you don’t like what you hear in one church, do you try another, like skipping from channel to channel on the TV until you find something that you are happy with? Or are you a worrier, who just can’t leave things in God’s hands and trust that He does indeed answer prayers? Do you struggle with believing Paul when he says "we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Romans 8:28)?

Jesus warns us that the lies of the Devil, the urges of our human nature, and the pressures of the world can all lead us to abandon the gift of faith that Jesus has given us. And Jesus also tells us how we can be secure in our faith: He says, "But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it." The key is understanding. When a Christian understands Jesus’ offer of salvation, it changes everything inside. The Gospel message acts like a pair of glasses that lets us see things clearly for the first time. Where unbelievers only see chaos in the world, we can see the hand of God keeping things from falling apart. Where others only see human misery and suffering, we can see Jesus at work giving people hope, faith, and endurance. Where non-Christians only see hatred and strife, we see Jesus healing hearts and teaching His children to forgive one another. Where some people see happy coincidences and good luck, we see the loving hand of God visibly at work.

When we understand the Gospel, it becomes a part of us and how we live. The Gospel acts like a governor on our lives, like a governor that controls the speed of a truck. Just as a governor helps a trucker to drive safely, the Gospel within us guides us in making decisions that help us reflect God’s caring love within our lives and into the lives of others. When we show Jesus’ love to others, we become sowers of the Gospel seed; we become fruitful, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Some of us will be more fruitful than others, according to Jesus, but note that everyone who produces a crop is described by Jesus as a man who has become "good soil."

Understanding is the key. Jesus gives us the Good News of the Gospel, and He sends us the Holy Spirit who helps us to understand it, as Paul writes in First Corinthians chapter 2: "We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us." Of course, the more time that we spend in God’s word, the more that our understanding can grow. That is why regular worship and regular Bible study are so important. As your understanding of Jesus’ promises grows, the harder it will be for the Devil, the world, and your flesh to seduce you away from the faith. So take stock of your faith life, and ask Jesus for ever-growing understanding of the wonderful gifts that He has given you.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


What is truth? (John 18:38)

Truth results in conflict. Does that thought startle you? It shouldn’t. Truth has always resulted in conflict; that is why many people today want you to believe that there is no such thing as truth. Without the existence of a universal truth, they reason, there is no reason for conflict.

Leaders in education suggest that what is true for me may not be true for you, but that’s okay—each of us must define for ourselves what is right and true; only in this way can each of us find his or her own personal happiness. However, this kind of individualized morality results in conflicts. These days, people who believe that the war in Iraq is wrong are reviled by others as not being supportive of our troops. People who raise animals for food are publicly castigated by animal rights groups. Gun owners and gun control activists are constantly at each other’s throats. Clearly, the idea that each person is entitled to his own truth has not put an end to conflict among us.

We who hold to God’s unchangeable truth, which He shares in the Bible, are not free from conflict either. But this is to be expected. Jesus was sent to the cross by people who did not like the truths that He spoke. Jesus said that we are all sinners, we all do things that anger God and must be forgiven and abandoned. But no one likes to be told that they are wrong. A man who has decided to build his life around his gay impulses does not want to be told that homosexual activity is sinful. A woman who has an unwanted pregnancy does not want to be told that abortion is not an option, because God views that choice as murder. And an unbeliever does not want to hear a Christian publicly confessing her sins and rejoicing in Jesus’ forgiveness, because it implies that God does not approve of his behavior. Because of our sinfulness, God’s truth is sometimes hard to take--and when we don’t love and trust in Him, His truth can provoke an angry response from us.

Our individualized truths, or God’s truth? No matter which we believe, conflict will be the result. So why embrace God’s truth? Because all man-made truths are at best distortions and at worst outright lies; only God’s truth reflects reality. Only God’s truth reveals the full extent of the evil within each of us and our desperate need for a Savior to rescue us from moral confusion, and the foolish choices that come from living under a delusion.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Beauty or beast?

God does not judge by external appearance (Galatians 2:6).

The Phantom of the Opera, written by Gaston Leroux in 1911, has been made into numerous movies and a famous Broadway musical. It tells the story of a disfigured man who succumbs to madness in pursuit of a lovely young woman. This is not a new idea. The Beauty and the Beast, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame are but a small sampling of stories built on a common theme—evil ugliness verses beautiful goodness. Human culture is fascinated with beauty and repelled by ugliness.

What does the Bible have to say about beauty? According to Scripture, only perfect things are truly beautiful—and since only God and His heaven are perfect, only heaven and its occupants are truly beautiful. This is why humans are repelled by ugliness—because ugliness is the undeniable manifestation of imperfection.

But it is a mistake to confuse physical beauty with inner perfection. All earthly beauty is temporary, as the sin that lives within all of us slowly shows itself through wrinkles and gray hairs, loss of muscle tone, skin blemishes and decaying gums. No one is beautiful when life has ended; the ugliness of death is the ultimate expression of the sin that is destroying each of us from the inside.

It is a sad truth that people who are beautiful often get special treatment. This is unfair, because the imperfection of sin lives within everyone. I have met some extraordinarily beautiful people, but when I got to see the amount of ugliness living inside of them, they stopped looking attractive to me. Conversely, I have met many people who were not gifted with good looks, but had such wonderful personalities that I soon came to disregard their appearance.

Thankfully, God is not shallow like we are. In His eyes, all of us bear the disfiguring marks of sin. Yet we can still be beautiful in His eyes, if we give ourselves to Christ. Our Lord takes away our sins, and dresses us with His beautiful robe of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10). With the imperfection of our sins removed by Jesus, God can view us as beautiful in a way that cannot be appreciated by human sight—beautiful enough to enter heaven and join our beautiful Savior.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Are you a failure as a Christian?

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:15-25a)

What is your favorite sin? What harmful or selfish behavior do you find yourself engaging in over and over again? Is it getting drunk? Is it yelling at your kids just because they are noisy? Is it gossiping with a friend about a neighbor? Do you like to spend your money foolishly? Are you in the habit of ignoring what your parents say? What is your favorite sin?

Maybe this sounds kind of strange to you. How can a Christian have a favorite sin? Christians are supposed to hate sins! But I am talking about ‘pet’ sins—sins that you commit over and over again because they make you feel comfortable in a stressful world, just like keeping a pet dog or cat makes you feel comfortable and relaxed. We all have pet sins, ways that we blow off steam when the pressures of life start getting to us.

Paul had pet sins too. Paul was a sinner just like us, and he sinned regularly, habitually. But Paul hated the fact that he sinned. He said, "I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing." Paul not only sinned, but he found himself committing the same sins over and over again. This distressed Paul greatly; he went on to say, "What a wretched man I am!"

Paul was distressed because sin is a big deal. In the Lord’s Prayer, when we ask God to forgive our sins, we say, "Forgive us our trespasses." To trespass is to cross a line that shouldn’t be crossed. There was a time in this country when you could be shot for trespassing on someone’s property. God is our Maker, and He has set lines for us that we should not cross as we live our lives; Jesus summarized these boundaries when He said, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matthew 22:37-40). If we ignore Jesus and step beyond His lines for acceptable behavior, we are subject to God’s sentence of eternal death, just as a trespasser is subject to being shot for crossing the line.

The problem is that no one can keep God’s Law perfectly, not even Christians. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…and…Love your neighbor as yourself.' Who can do this? Who can spend just one entire day, from sun up to sun down, without entertaining one single ungodly thought? Can you live one entire day where you never look with even momentary desire on a man or woman that you are not married to? Can you live one entire day where you never become angry at another person for any reason? Can you live one entire day where you never tell even the smallest of lies? Can you live one entire day without even once envying what another person has?

We cannot live even a single day without trespassing against God, and neither could Paul. As a matter of fact, there are some trespasses, some sins, which we keep coming back to over and over again, because we enjoy them so very much. And this is especially aggravating to us because we are Christians, and we should know better. But even though we’ve been baptized, even though we go to church and read our Bibles, we still sin. We sin over and over again. We are like addicts, every one of us. We know what God expects of us. We want to show respect to God and love to our neighbors. We want to do the right thing, but then temptation comes. An invitation to a night of drinking after a frustrating day at work. The inviting eyes of another woman after a fight with your wife. The raging desire to say something hurtful in response to being criticized. Blowing the checkbook on a shopping spree at the end of a boring, depressing week. Temptation comes, and all too often our commitment to God and our family is swept away by the overwhelming need for something to make us feel good right now!

And then, all too often, the sin is committed. And as soon as the rush of sinful pleasure begins to die away, our conscience comes surging back, and we are slapped in the face by the guilt of what we’ve done. Gone is the momentary pleasure; all that remains is the hurt look of the person we have harmed, the tears of the person we have betrayed, the self-hatred we feel towards ourselves for being so weak and disgusting. And to make matters worse, this is not a one-time event. No, we do this to ourselves and those who love us over and over again, continually breaking the promise we made in our hearts that we would never do that again. No wonder Paul says, "What a wretched man I am!"

This is the life of the Christian. Constant struggle against our sinful inner desires. Repeated failures to live up to God’s holy standards. The harsh reality that we will never be the kind of holy people that we ought to be, not in this life.

But this is only half the story. Being a Christian is not only about our failures to keep God’s Law, it is also about Christ’s love for us, a love that saves us from our repeated failings. When Paul asked, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" he answered his own question by saying, "Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord!" God’s loving rescue is extended to us through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus added mortal flesh to His perfect immortal spirit and lived among us 2,000 years ago. Jesus taught about God’s love for mankind, and His desire for us to live perfectly so that we could know perfect love and perfect happiness. But since Jesus knew that we could never live perfect lives, He lived a perfect life in our place. Since we can never please God with our lives, Jesus pleased God for us with His life.

But Jesus did not stop there. Every human being has trespassed against God and invited God’s sentence of death. Jesus did not want anyone to be condemned to eternal death in Hell, so He offered His perfect, godly life in place of ours. Because of our sins, we should have died as criminals, but because of His love for us, the completely innocent Christ died condemned as a criminal instead. And to show His approval on this ultimate act of love, God the Father raised Jesus from death back to life. The Father raised Jesus to show His love for His perfect Son, and also to show us that death no longer need be feared by those who put their hope in Jesus.

Peter wrote, "Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God" (1 Peter 3:18). Christ died for sins, once for all. Think about that. Every sin has been atoned for. No matter how many times your mouth, your eyes or your hands have gotten you into trouble, every sin has been paid for. And there is no limit on how often you can come to Jesus for forgiveness. When Peter asked Jesus, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times" (Matthew 18:21-22). The point Jesus made was that Peter should be generous with forgiveness, because God is generous with forgiveness.

When I was quite a bit younger, there was a phrase teachers used with children who had low self-esteem. Christian educators would tell them, "God don’t make junk." And it’s absolutely true. God made each of you readers individually; David describes God’s role in his birth this way: "you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14). But God’s perfect creation is marred by sin, sin that we inherit from our parents and pass on to our children. Adam was made in the image of God, but after Adam sinned, his sons were not born in the image of God--Genesis 5:3 tells us "When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth." Adam corrupted his life with sin and passed that corruption on to all his descendants. Because of this inherited Original Sin, every person born is in need of rescue by Jesus Christ. But even when Jesus leads us to put our hope and trust in Him, the Original Sin hangs on, constantly at war with the good that Jesus wants us to do. Every Christian was made by God to do good works, but every Christian struggles through life fighting against his natural desire to sin, to trespass God’s loving boundaries for us.

Living life resisting temptations can seem like a hopeless battle. Indeed, Paul says, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). But it is a mistake to think of resisting sin as a battle that we must win. The battle to live free from sin is the battle that Jesus came to fight, and it is the battle that He has already won! When Jesus died on the cross, He canceled our reservations in hell. When Jesus rose alive into heaven, He began to prepare a place for us to join Him, where sin can never tempt us or hurt us again. Joining Jesus has nothing to do with our failures in life. Joining Jesus in Heaven rests on one thing only; Jesus said, "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son" (John 3:17-18).

You are frustrated by your repeated sinning, just as Paul was frustrated by his repeated sinning. But Paul knew that so long as he put his faith in Jesus’ promise of rescue from sin, his sins could not keep him from his Savior’s side. This is true for you as well. No matter how much you mess up at being a Christian, Jesus loves you, Jesus is willing to forgive you, and Jesus promises eternal release from the burden of sin to all those who trust in Him until the end. Ask Jesus for forgiveness and thank Him for the miracle of His undeserved mercy, which He is willing to show you anew every day.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Seize the moment

Now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2).

Some years ago, a worker in Brighton, England was eating in a restaurant. He felt an urge to speak with his waiter about the condition of the man's soul, but kept putting it off. After he finished eating, the man went outside and decided to wait for his server to finish his shift; he had finally made up his mind that he would speak to the man about Jesus. After he had waited for awhile, the owner approached him and asked, "are you waiting for someone?" "Yes," replied the worker, "I want to speak to the man who waited on me." The owner replied, "You will never speak to that man again. After waiting on you, he shot himself."

Dear reader, there are opportunities to speak of Jesus to others that are open to us today but will be gone tomorrow. Dwight Moody was once preaching in Chicago to a great crowd of people. At one point in his message, he thundered "I give you one day to repent of your sins." That very night the great Chicago fire broke out, and some of those same people who heard Moody’s sermon were burned to death. For years after, Moody said with regret, "I have asked God to forgive me for giving these people one day to repent. I should have said, ‘Now! Now is the accepted time!’"

Now is the accepted time…now is the day of salvation. One of you reading today may not be with us when my next devotion is posted. Do you know that Jesus is the Son of God? Do you believe that He lived a perfect life to free you from the curse that comes from failing to obey God’s Law? Do you take comfort in knowing that when Jesus died upon the cross, He took the guilt of your sins to the grave with Him? Do you trust that Jesus rose from that grave alive to never die again, alive so that He can forgive you for your sins and lift you from your grave to join Him in heaven?

And to you who say yes, I do believe—who in your life might die unexpectedly tonight and does not share your faith in Jesus? Certainly you want that person to be waiting to greet you in heaven. Have you taken a few minutes to tell him or her about Jesus? Today might be your last chance. You don’t need to be a great preacher like Dwight Moody; if you believe in Jesus as your Savior from sin, death, and the devil, you are qualified to bring the Good News of Christ to another person, just as was that man in the Brighton restaurant. Don’t make his mistake—don’t wait to reach out to a soul that is dying until it is too late.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Church and traditions

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men (Mark 7:8).

Take a look at part of an essay on tradition written by Ernst Kasemann: "What…Christians must never…do [is to] take their stand on what is conventional, so as to abandon the future for the sake of the past. Every one of us is called every day to an exodus, as Abraham had to migrate from his father’s house into an unknown country. Anyone who will not join in the march loses touch with God’s people, even if he dwells in temples…What is true for the individual is no less true for the church as a whole. It, too, is constantly being called to break camp, and it has to leave behind what was once its gain; otherwise it is ruled not by the Spirit but by its own tradition. A continual exodus is the reverse side of Christian freedom. To be free, one must be able to give up what is old, and so answer God’s will today and tomorrow."

Traditions can be wonderful things; they keep us rooted in who we are as families, as a society, as members of Christ’s church. But traditions can also make us slaves to the past. Traditions established by God are good—life-long marriage between one man and one woman, for example, has served as the basis of human society since the beginning of time. But traditions invented by mankind are inherently flawed to some degree by the sin that distorts all human thinking.

Let’s look at just one church tradition by way of example. Have you had the experience of belonging to a church at a time when new hymnbooks were introduced? It was undoubtedly a traumatic experience for many members. People liked their old familiar hymns, and many felt that the new songs were not appropriate for use in worship. But you know what? Every hymn you have ever sung was contemporary church music at one time. There are many standbys that we love to sing today which were once brand new and regarded with suspicion by some people at that time. A collection of hymns that you find uncomfortably modern today may become the tradition of a future generation. There is nothing designed by man that cannot be improved upon. Your church songbook was not written by God; it does not have the untouchable status of the divinely inspired Bible. No matter how well intentioned, no man-made custom is perfect, and to enshrine such customs as unchangeable traditions is to invite trouble. God tells us that the only rules that should have final say in our lives are His rules, because only God’s ways are perfect.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Jesus--bringing division?

"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn `a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'

"Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

"He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man's reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward" (Matthew 10:34-42).

When Isaiah wrote about the coming Messiah, he described Him this way: "He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). The prophet Micah predicted, "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah…out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old…He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD…And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace" (Micah 5:2-5). And Zechariah wrote, "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey…He will proclaim peace to the nations" (Zechariah 9:9-10).

Jesus’ disciples knew all these passages by heart. They fully expected God’s Messiah to bring peace to mankind, and as they came to believe that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, they also came to expect Him to bring peace to the people. What a shock, then, to hear Jesus say, Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn `a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'

Perhaps this statement of Jesus is shocking to you as well. And yet, history has proven Jesus true. The 2,000 years since Jesus lived among us have been filled with religious strife, conflict between Christians and non-Christians. These conflicts have been so painful that John Lennon even wrote a song called "Imagine", in which he suggested that a world without religion would be a world that could know peace.

If Jesus is the Prince of Peace, how can it be that so much conflict comes to the world because of Him? The answer to this question lies in the fact that the Bible speaks of two different kinds of peace, only one of which Jesus brings.

The peace that Jesus brings is peace between man and God. When Satan rebelled against God and was thrown out of heaven, Satan determined to at least steal Earth away from God and make it his kingdom. To do this, Satan needed to enlist mankind as his army of occupation—an army of darkness. So Satan tempted Adam and Eve into disobeying God, and as a result every human being ever born of man and woman has inherited the natural desire to rebel against God’s loving leadership. God wants us to love Him and each other, to the point of denying our own desires if they get in the way of showing love; Satan wants us to love ourselves and our own comfort before all other considerations. Because of Adam and Eve’s first sin, we all are born with the desire to love ourselves more than anyone else, including God.

And so it is that from birth, all people are by nature soldiers in Satan’s army of occupation here on Earth. This means that every person is born an enemy of God, in a state of war with Him. But God has created each and every one of us personally, and He loves us as individuals. God does not want us to be at war with Him. But as long as we value Satan’s priorities—selfishness that serves no one’s needs but one’s own—we cannot enjoy the perfect life of peace that God created us for. So God sent His Son Jesus to give us peace. He did this by explaining how selfishness destroys love and makes it impossible to live with others in peace. There can be no peace between two individuals when they are selfishly competing with each other over earthly pleasures.

But Jesus did more than show us how peace can be found. Jesus suffered and died in our place to pay for our war crimes. When we follow Satan’s lead, we commit wartime atrocities against others—we commit sins, against God and against the people He has created. No war is over until reparations have been paid. But out of love for us, Jesus suffered for our atrocities. Because of Jesus, we can walk free from the war court of God and experience peace. This is the peace that Jesus gives—an end to being an enemy of God, an end to fearing God’s punishment for our war crimes. This peace even ends our fear of death, because we know that Jesus guarantees us unending peace in heaven with Him, when we are soldiers who now serve in the army of light.

Because of Jesus’ offer of peace, every human being is faced with a decision: to accept Jesus as leader and be taken by Him into His army of light, or to reject Jesus and remain in Satan’s army of darkness. Without Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and peace, there was only one army to belong to—the army of darkness. But when Jesus extends His hand to lead us out of darkness, we enter a world where there are now two armies—two armies that are at war with each other. This is the sword that Jesus brings. When Jesus offers us peace with God, there is a price attached—peace with God means a declaration of war against Satan and his followers.

Jesus did not come to bring peace between the people of the world. Jesus did bring peace between people, but it is a peace that each of us shares with fellow Christians only. The peace that we have with each other is an extension of the peace that we have with God. When Jesus brings us into His army of light, we are soldiers together because we follow the same leader and we share the same priorities with our leader. Because we follow Jesus, we value self-sacrificing love and we realize how destructive selfishness is. Because we share Jesus’ priorities, we are united in common cause and there can be peace between us. Of course, even though we are forgiven soldiers of Christ, we remain sinners inside until the day we die, and we constantly are slipping back into periods of selfishness. Whenever we slip and fall, we hurt ourselves and we hurt each other. But Jesus always stands near, ready to pick us up, to forgive us, and to help us forgive our fellow Christians who have hurt us when they slipped and fell. The peace of God makes peace between Christians possible.

But there can be no peace between Christians and non-Christians. Paul says, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?" (2 Corinthians 6:14-15). Now, Satan would like us to believe that there can be some middle ground between light and darkness. Satan’s philosophers tell us that the world is full of shades of gray. They suggest that it is dangerous to take extreme positions on issues of morality—far better to take the middle of the road, we’re told. After all, no one wants to be labeled a religious fanatic.

God has no patience for people who try and straddle the fence. In Revelation 3:15-16, God said these words to a church full of fence-sitters: "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth." When we have become part of His army, God expects us to be fully committed to His leadership—even when being a Christian puts one at odds with non-Christians. Jesus warned His disciples that the life of a Christian would result in broken relationships—‘For I have come to turn `a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'

Such conflict is tragic, but inevitable. In every one of our extended families, there are some who don’t believe in Jesus or see their need for Him in their lives—these relatives are members of the army of darkness, whether they realize it or not. And because their values are not God’s values, there are times when they cannot understand us. Conflict waits to strike. Perhaps a non-Christian father wants his Christian son to go golfing on Sunday morning; will the son choose to please his father, or to please God by attending worship instead? Who is most important in the son’s life? Or suppose a non-Christian woman asks her Christian sister to drive her to an abortion clinic and stay with her through the painful hours to come; will the Christian woman please her pregnant sister, or will she risk angering her by instead speaking God’s truth about the divine gift of life within her? Or suppose a Christian woman is approached by her non-Christian boyfriend about living together; will she agree in order to please him, or will she risk losing him by honoring God’s Sixth Commandment?

In each of these examples, we see the issue raised by Jesus: "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me." The point that Jesus makes is plain: when we are put in a situation where we must choose between pleasing a person, who was created by God, or pleasing God, who is the Creator, Jesus expects us to make the decision that is pleasing to God. When such a decision is made among the company of Christians there is no real problem, because our fellow Christians understand that God’s will must always be done. But when such a decision impacts a non-Christian, there will be hurt, a feeling of betrayal. The non-Christian, who is a soldier in Satan’s army, will regard us as a traitor, a turncoat. And you know that an army cannot abide traitors. When we are aligned with Jesus and follow His leadership in our lives, the non-Christians around us will naturally oppose us. They may beg us not to change, to drift away from our old, sinful habits that were so much fun. They may threaten to exclude us from their lives, if we insist on living our Christian priorities. They may even deliberately try to hurt us, through abusive words or abusive acts. It is not because they don’t love us, it is because they hate our Leader and where He is leading us.

Is there nothing we can do? Are we doomed to conflict in life because of our relationship of peace with God? Well, it is true that conflict with non-Christians will be a life-long problem. But there is always something that we can do. Jesus said, "He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me." If we want peace with that parent, that brother, or that cousin who marches in the army of darkness, we must go to them and share the light of Christ’s Gospel with them. Darkness has nothing in common with light—the only way that peace will come about between a Christian and a non-Christian is for we who are Christians to share the truth about Jesus and His saving work and how that work has impacted our lives. When we share God’s word, the Holy Spirit uses our witness to soften the unbeliever’s heart, making it receptive to Jesus. It may take more than one talk; it may take a lifetime of witnessing and reading from the scriptures to that unbelieving person, and even then he or she might still refuse to believe. But Jesus has made things crystal clear—we cannot have it both ways. We cannot be yoked together with unbelievers; if we want peace in our families, it can only come about when everyone shares in the peace that comes from Jesus forgiving our sins and bringing us back to God. Jesus has given you this peace; may He give you ample opportunity to share it with your loved ones.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Love letters and photo albums

The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14).

A young woman purchased a new book, but after reading a few pages she laid it aside as not being particularly interesting. But some time later she became acquainted with the book’s author. A tender friendship sprang up, which eventually ripened into love and marriage. After that, the book no longer seemed dull. Every sentence warmed her heart. Love had become the book’s interpreter.

Many people find the Bible to be uninteresting or even offensive to their sensibilities. Why is that? It is because they do not know the book’s Author. But how things change when the Spirit of God enlightens the human heart with the love of heaven! When the Holy Spirit leads a person to know and love the God who reveals Himself to us in the Bible, the books of the Old and New Testament become much more interesting.

When we treasure our relationship with the Lord, we want to find out more about Him, just as a new groom is fascinated by photo albums of his bride’s life before they met. The Bible is the photo album of God’s life before we knew Him, a history of loving involvement in the lives of our ancestors. It reveals all the qualities that we love in Him—His ability to take care of us, His commitment to His promises, His fairness and His willingness to forgive even the most horrendous of mistakes. This history leads us to love Him even more. When we love the Author, we view time with His Bible as a way to come to know Him better and deepen our relationship of love with Him.

When we treasure our relationship with Christ we want to find out what pleases Him, just as a new bride spends time getting to know her husband’s likes and dislikes so that she can make him as happy as he has made her. The Bible is all of God’s love letters to us collected together in a handy bundle, letters which tell us about His love for us as well as those things we do that hurt Him, anger Him, and make Him sad. When we love the Author, we view time with His book as an opportunity to learn how to better please Him who has given us so much joy.

The Bible is God’s photo album and His collection of love letters to us. Is it any wonder that so many people keep His book on their nightstand?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Living in the Light

The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes (Psalm 19:8).

An artist must go out into the world to see colors as God has made them. Artificial lighting is no substitute for natural sunlight. If an artist spends all his time in a studio lit only by incandescent or fluorescent lights, he will eventually lose the ability to mix true reds, greens, and blues. His resultant paintings will have a tint that is a bit off and will look wrong if exposed to the true light of the sun. An artist must go out into open spaces and see true colors as God has made them.

In a similar way, you and I can become morally colorblind. Everything in our world has been tainted by sin; the only untainted light that we can use to make moral decisions is the light of God’s pure truth. When we live our lives with limited exposure to God’s light, it is like trying to match clothes in the pre-dawn darkness using artificial illumination. What looks good together under an electric bulb often looks bad when true colors are revealed in the pure light of the sun.

Human philosophers, teachers, and thinkers tell us what they believe good behavior is, but their sense of color is off when they do not do their work in God’s true light. For example: lately, Political Correctness has come to dominate American moral thinking—anything is acceptable except intolerance. And what does intolerance involve? Among other things, you are intolerant if you tell someone that what they believe is right is in actuality wrong.

The problem with this teaching is that although it claims to be based on loving respect for others, in practice it results in lovelessness. If you truly love and care for another person and see that they are following a life path that will end in misery for them, is it loving to keep your mouth shut? Of course not—love demands that we do all we can to help them see clearly the consequences of their actions, so that they might turn their lives around before it is too late.

This is the love of Christ Himself—a love that led Him to come into our sin-darkened world to show us, by heaven’s light, the hell our bad decisions lead to. It is not loving to hold your tongue and let a loved one walk blindly into eternal death—but without the true light of God, many people cannot see how their concept of love, viewed through Political Correctness, is off-hue. This is just one example of why we need to be in the presence of God’s light much more than we are in the habit of being.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Being a Christian? Frustrating!

O LORD, you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long. But if I say, "I will not mention him or speak any more in his name," his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. I hear many whispering, "Terror on every side! Report him! Let's report him!" All my friends are waiting for me to slip, saying, "Perhaps he will be deceived; then we will prevail over him and take our revenge on him."

But the LORD is with me like a mighty warrior; so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. They will fail and be thoroughly disgraced; their dishonor will never be forgotten. O LORD Almighty, you who examine the righteous and probe the heart and mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you I have committed my cause.

Sing to the LORD! Give praise to the LORD! He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked (Jeremiah 20:7-13).

It can be frustrating to be a Christian. It can be frustrating to try and live a God-pleasing life when so many of your neighbors and co-workers, even your relatives, simply live life however they like. It can be frustrating to try and talk about Jesus and be shut down with a remark like, "It’s fine if you want to believe all that stuff, but don’t bother me with it." It can be frustrating to attend a worship service and see so many empty pews.

This kind of frustration is nothing new. During Elijah’s time as prophet, there were only 7,000 people in the nation of Israel who remained faithful to God. In the first few days after Jesus’ Ascension, there were only about 500 people who believed in Him as the risen Savior. And Noah and his family were the only eight people in the entire world that took God seriously in the years before the Great Flood. Certainly, all these followers of God shared the frustration of living a godly life in an ungodly world.

In the verses given above, the prophet Jeremiah bares his soul to God and to us. Jeremiah speaks words of frustration that we can relate to, as followers of God who feel out of place in a world that seems to be careening towards Hell. But Jeremiah also speaks of hope, and his words of hope are important for us to hear as well.

Jeremiah begins his prayer to God with bitterness: O LORD, you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long. Jeremiah is complaining about being God’s representative in the world. He’s complaining because people are making fun of him. Jeremiah was sent by God to warn Jerusalem and the surrounding territory that they had angered God so much that He was going to destroy the city and put an end to the Kingdom of Judea. But God never acts in haste—He sent Jeremiah in advance of His judgment, so that the people would have a chance to repent and turn back to God. However, as the years went by, people stopped taking Jeremiah’s warnings seriously—he came to be regarded like the person who stands on a street corner with a sign that says, "Repent, for the end is near."

This frustrated Jeremiah terribly. He knew that God was absolutely serious—doom and destruction were on their way, yet no one took the message seriously. Jeremiah offered a chance at life, and he was treated as a crackpot. Jeremiah was frustrated that the people were ignoring God’s warnings, and he was also frustrated that God had put him in the position of being ridiculed. Jeremiah went so far as to complain, O LORD, you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. Essentially, Jeremiah was saying, "Lord, you didn’t let me know what I was in for, giving me this job. As a matter of fact, you didn’t really even give me a choice—You gave me Your message and told me to announce it, regardless of the consequences."

Of course, Jeremiah was wrong—God had told him to expect rejection as a messenger of Heaven. In the first chapter of Jeremiah, God had told him, "They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you." Jeremiah knew up front that being God’s representative would be a fight, but he hadn’t reckoned on just how much of a fight it would be.

We can relate to Jeremiah’s frustration. We have been raised in the shadow of the Ten Commandments, and it frustrates us to live with people who think nothing of ignoring worship, using Jesus’ name as a curse word, treating their parents with contempt, aborting their children, cheating on their taxes, or treating sexual union as a recreational activity. It frustrates us to have to choose between political candidates for public office, when one person might stand against abortion yet also support the death sentence. We try to cause the world to run according to God’s will, but people ignore us, out-vote us, or ridicule our beliefs as ‘old fashioned’. It would be tempting to complain that God didn’t let us know what we were in for by becoming Christians, but Jesus said plainly: "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

Jeremiah tried, unsuccessfully, to become a ‘closet Christian.’ Jeremiah thought that if he just kept his mouth shut, just kept his head down and lived his own life according to God’s will, he could be a child of God without the pain and aggravation. But God did not permit Jeremiah to live that way. Jeremiah said, But if I say, "I will not mention him or speak any more in his name," his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.

We cannot be ‘closet Christians’ any more than Jeremiah could, and for the same reason. Jeremiah was a prophet of God by the power of the Holy Spirit acting in him. When God called Jeremiah to service, He said, "Now, I have put my words in your mouth" (Jeremiah 1:9). Jesus said that when we are to speak of our faith, "do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit" (Mark 13:11). Like Jeremiah, we have the Holy Spirit acting in us. We received the Holy Spirit at our baptism, and John described the baptism instituted by Jesus this way: "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (Matthew 3:11).

The Holy Spirit works in us like a fire. The Holy Spirit shows us the fire of God’s anger at our sins, and the promise of eternal suffering in fire if we persist in choosing the temporary pleasures of sin over the unending joys of being a child of God. When we see the need for a change in our lives, the fire of the Holy Spirit throws light into our world of darkness, a light that reveals Jesus Christ to us. By the Spirit’s light, we can see Jesus as He truly is—not just a wise Jewish teacher of 2,000 years ago, but the eternal Son of God, made visible to us by taking on human form. Jesus’ life was devoted to teaching us about God’s desire for all people to live forever in perfect love. Jesus suffered and died a criminal’s death on the cross in order to make that perfect life of love available to us. With all the fire of God’s anger spent on Jesus, we no longer need fear the wrath of the Almighty. For every commandment that we have broken, Jesus has suffered the punishment that we were due.

The light cast by the fire of the Holy Spirit also shows us the truth that Jesus really did return to life after dying for our sins, and continues to live unendingly in heaven at the side of His Father. Jesus lives because He is God, and our imperfections could not end His perfect love for us. Jesus lives so that we can come to Him, asking for forgiveness and for the gift of His perfect love. And when we ask Him for a new start, Jesus burns away the sins that weigh us down with the fire of the Holy Spirit, a refining fire that makes us pure and perfect in God’s sight.

But a fire cannot burn without being noticed. Fire gives off light and it gives off heat. Jeremiah found that he could not keep the fire of the Holy Spirit bottled up inside of him—he said his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot. When you heat a container of water on a stove, pressure builds within it until the lid blows off—this is how Jeremiah felt. There was fire within him—joy in the light of God’s salvation, and a passion to share the joy of that hope with everyone around him. Jeremiah burned with the desire to share the gracious promises of God.

We cannot be ‘closet Christians’ either. The fire of the Holy Spirit fills us with light, and Jesus tells us to let our light shine before men (Matthew 5:16). With the fire of the Spirit within us, we cannot help but shine: we shine when we choose to worship on Sunday morning instead of sleeping in, or getting an early start on the day's work. We shine when we treat our parents with respect. We shine when we openly forgive others. We shine when we say 'no' to sex outside of marriage, when we say 'no' to abortion, when we say 'no' to divorce. We shine when we work hard for an honest wage. And when others ask us why we try to live our lives this way, we shine most of all when we explain that it is not us, but the Holy Spirit living within us, that shows us how desirable it is to live as a Christian.

And it is desirable. Jeremiah comes to the point where he can say with confidence, But the LORD is with me like a mighty warrior; so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail…Sing to the LORD! Give praise to the LORD! He rescues the life of the needy from the hands of the wicked. In spite of all the aggravations of being a representative of God, Jeremiah knew, by the power of the Holy Spirit burning within him, that God would protect him and safely bring him home to the eternal reward that awaits all the faithful—unending joy and peace in Heaven. We too are God’s representatives on the Earth. And the Holy Spirit also gives us the confidence to seek a godly life, because we read in the letter of James 1:12, "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him."

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