Saturday, August 29, 2009

Appropriate entertainment for children

Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17).

Every time a new Harry Potter book came out, there were expressions of concern over what our children are reading. At first, the objections had been about the use of magic in the stories; there was worry that children might be enticed to experiment with witchcraft. Later on in the series, teenage Harry began to act a bit rebelliously, and some people feared that he was encouraging readers to act on their anger. Towards the end of the series, the concern shifted to the death of a beloved character; many feel that children should not be faced with the tragic loss of a loved one in fiction.

Such concerns are nothing new. At one time, The Wizard of Oz was pulled from library shelves because it depicted witches who were good as well as evil. In the 1950s, comic books became subject to censorship because it was believed that the struggles with evil depicted in their pages were responsible for juvenile delinquency. When Maurice Sendak first published Where the Wild Things Are, parents objected that the illustrations were too scary for children.

There was a time when childish make-believe was actively discouraged. It was felt that an over-active imagination in children was a dangerous thing. At best, it distracted them from using time productively; at worst, it encouraged them to be curious and led them into unsavory, risky behaviors. Educators of years past would shake their heads if they visited a modern school. These days, children are encouraged to be imaginative, to write and draw creatively. Why? Because, before something can be built, it must first be dreamed. Leonardo DaVinci had to dream of human flight before the Wright brothers could make it a reality. Jules Verne had to write of trips to the moon before NASA could make his flight of fancy a reality.

Imagination is a gift from God. Without an imagination, how could you believe in a God that cannot be seen or touched? Without an imagination, how could you believe that the bloody death of one man on a cross could free you completely from the burden of your guilt? Without an imagination, how could you face death calmly, trusting that heaven waits just the other side of the grave? God gave us the ability to imagine what cannot be seen, so that we can seek His help in life and escape the grave to live with Him eternally.

But we dare not dismiss the concerns of those who fear unrestrained imagination. Already before the Flood, human imagination was leading mankind into great peril: God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Genesis 6:5). Every human being is corrupted with sin; this means that our imaginations are prone to dreaming up things that anger God and oppose His goals for us. When passenger-filled aircraft were used as weapons of terror on 9/11, many people wondered who could conceive of such a horrid idea? At the end of WWII, Americans were aghast that Germans had dreamed up buildings designed to do nothing more than kill human beings by the score. Some of the men who envisioned the atomic bomb felt great remorse following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Human imagination is capable of producing terrible suffering.

Is God to blame for such things? Of course not; God gave us imaginations so that we could trust in His promises and build a better future; it is our own fault that we misuse the creative talents He has endowed us with. God intended that we design tools, not weapons, that we compose words that uplift the soul, not debase it, that we create pictures celebrating beauty, not perversion. It is the sin within us that twists our God-given imaginations into cesspools of corruption.

Nevertheless, we should not be afraid to be to dream. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, our sins are forgiven; the Holy Spirit has entered our hearts and shows us positive ways to use the creative spark that the Lord has gifted us with. It was from such a spark that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was moved to speak the words "I have a dream". It is because of God-given creativity that we have indoor plumbing, satellite communication, and modern medicines. The Lord made David a musician whose Psalms still lead our hearts in worship, and He has enabled countless musicians to place in our hands the gift of hymnbooks.

Over the years, literature written for children has been criticized for inappropriate content—magic portrayed as good and useful, inappropriate language, glamorized violence, and sexual themes. Examples include the Harry Potter books (for glamorizing magic), Huckleberry Finn (for using offensive language), comic books (for glamorizing violence), and books like Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate (for dealing with sexual lifestyle choices).

When we take up the issue of what is appropriate for children to read and what is not, there are two things to consider. First, is the book in question appropriate for any Christian to read? If a book promotes something that God says is evil, then no one should read it, regardless of age. Books that glamorize evil instead of showing the tragedy that it brings should not be found in the hands of anyone who loves God. On the other hand, literature that shows the dangers of evil can be useful to warn us away from temptation, whatever our age.

Which leads us to the other consideration: when is it appropriate for a youngster to read a cautionary tale? At what point in life should a little one be warned of evil? It is a sad thing to say, but children can be victimized by sinful behavior from the moment they are born. Even very little children are warned to not get into a car with strangers. Before they begin school, children are being taught by other children to fight, lie, swear, steal, and commit vandalism.

Books that serve as cautionary tales are appropriate for children, so long as they treat the subject with sensitivity and do not glamorize it in any way. Children need to be warned about evil because we are all born with it in us, and we all live in danger from it every day. The evening news is filled with accounts of every sort of evil; children are being exposed to the ways of this sinful world during the dinner hour every evening. A good book can help show a child how to struggle effectively with temptation and cope with the sorrows coming from the evil that they experience. As Christians, it is our responsibility to equip our children to face the negative things of life. You must make sure your children know that Jesus died to forgive their sins and rose from the grave to protect them from evil.

I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil (Romans 16:19). With these words, Paul gives us a practical guideline to shape our reading. We should not read anything that holds up evil behavior in a positive light. Depicting such behavior as fun and free of consequences only encourages people to sin. At the same time, we must be free to read what others think. You need to know what the candidates believe in order to choose the best person for political office. You need to know what the school is teaching in order to protect your children from any curriculum that contradicts the Bible. You need to know what non-Christians believe, so that you can be a more effective witness for Christ when speaking to them about the faith. This is one reason why Christians oppose censorship.

Are there books that are evil and should not be read? Of course. Much that is written serves no purpose except to make excuses for evil or to entice us into approving sinful behavior. But when books are banned, who is given the decision-making power? At one time or another, all of the following books have been banned somewhere in America: Tom Sawyer, Gone with the Wind, Lord of the Flies, The Grapes of Wrath, From Here to Eternity, Of Mice and Men, Silas Marner. Yet many Americans treasure these books for the look they provide at society and the human condition.

Depending on who is in charge, censorship can limit the spread of ideas that some feel are dangerous. Before the birth of Christ, the Emperor of China burned almost every writing of Confucius, because Confucian scholars opposed his rule. In the Middle Ages, Galileo’s book on astronomy was banned for suggesting that Earth was not the center of creation. 200 years ago, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man was prohibited because it claimed that all men have equal civil rights. And unbelievers have been burning Bibles from the days of the early Roman persecutions right up to modern times. This is the other reason why Christians oppose censorship; it is not that we approve of smut and falsehood being published, but because we want God’s holy word to be available to everyone without hindrance from those who oppose His teachings.

Of course, everything I’ve said about reading materials applies to other media as well—television, movies, musical lyrics, even the Internet. Any media that communicates with words can be used to speak of God’s plan of salvation that has been brought to completion in Jesus Christ. Any media that communicates with words can be misused to spread lies and unwholesome ideas. Any media that communicates with words can restricted by censorship; when censorship is misapplied, it can get in the way of God’s holy Word, which is the only solution to the problem of evil ideas.

As you and your children wrestle with what to read, what to watch, and what to listen to, ask yourselves these questions: Is evil promoted, or shown to be the danger that it truly is? Do the ideas presented deliberately distort the truth, or do they provide greater insight into the human condition? Is the main point to titillate, or to give you an example of how to struggle with the temptations and sorrows that result from evil? A Christian can read secular literature, so long as you read it by the light of God’s eternal truth.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dressing up sin in fancy clothes

Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall (Ezekiel 18:30).

After ignoring God’s laws, the children of Israel were condemned to 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. During those long years, they compounded their sin by repeatedly grumbling about how God was treating them. At one point, God punished the people by sending venomous snakes into the camp. When the people cried for mercy, God told Moses to fashion a bronze snake and set it up on a pole; all who looked at it and trusted God for healing would recover from their snakebites.

Eventually the bronze snake was stored away, because it had served its purpose. But hundreds of years later, some people set it up again and started praying to it. King Hezekiah was horrified—his subjects were worshipping a gift from God instead of God Himself. The king immediately had the metal snake destroyed—instead of serving God’s purpose, the bronze serpent had become a distraction.

God’s law clearly forbade the worship of idols. Evidently, the people praying to the metal snake didn’t think of it as an idol, so they didn’t believe they were doing anything wrong. We tend to behave the same way. God calls adultery a sin, but many people just think of it as "a meaningful relationship." God says that greed is evil, but many people are proud of being "power shoppers." God warns against fixating on bodily pleasure, but we respect those who "live life to the fullest."

We like to play the name game. The guy picking up your trash isn’t a garbage man, he’s a sanitation engineer. But changing what you call something doesn’t change what it is. In answer to a critic, Abraham Lincoln once asked, "How many legs does a cow have?" "Four," was the reply. "If you call her tail a leg, how many does she have?" "Five," was the answer. "No," Lincoln said, "just calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg."

We tend to do this with sin. We rename it to make it acceptable. But our word games don’t impress God. A sin remains a sin, no matter what you call it. God wants us to love Him more than the things He gives us. He wants us to recognize sin for what it is, and turn away from it. He won’t excuse bad behavior just because you’ve dressed it up in a fancy name.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A man of integrity

Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren't swayed by men…but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth (Mark 12:14).

It’s been said that the only thing a man truly has is his integrity. When he says something, you know that it’s the truth. When he makes a promise, you can take it to the bank. There are few things in life as important as your good name.

And yet, so often we betray the trust that others have placed in us. You make a promise, fully intending to carry it out. But then the situation changes, or you realize that you overestimated your own abilities. Regardless of the reason, you cannot keep your promise.

It also happens when people ask you for advice. You share what you know, fully believing it to be true. But then you find out that you didn’t have all the facts, or that you were operating with faulty information because someone lied or exaggerated. Regardless of the reason, your advice was flawed, perhaps dangerously so.

So what do you do? Do you say that you misspoke? Do you claim that your words were taken out of context? Do you blame someone else for sabotaging you? Or do you own up to your failings and simply apologize? No matter what course you take, people will now question your integrity, wondering if your words are worth listening to.

As the years go by, it’s easy to get cynical; you start assuming that everyone is a liar, a braggart, or just plain incompetent. It’s hard to take anyone’s words at face value and believe what they say. But there is one person whose word is always good. That person is Jesus Christ. He doesn’t make promises He can’t back up, because He’s the Son of God—nothing can trump His power. And Jesus can be trusted to always speak the truth; as the King of the universe, He doesn’t have to curry favor with anyone, so He has no reason to lie or distort the truth.

Jesus has integrity that you can rely on. When He offers to forgive all your mistakes, no matter how terrible they are, He’s not blowing smoke. When He promises to raise you from the dead, you can take it to the bank.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Passionate religion

Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it" (Luke 9:23-24).

Suicide bombers. Almost daily, the news tells us of Islamic men and women who willingly blow themselves up to kill others. We struggle to understand what motivates these people; what could possibly drive a human being to set aside the instinct for survival and willing dedicate himself to a violent end?

The answer is: religion. In cities around the world, there are Moslem clerics giving fiery sermons aimed at creating suicide bombers. They preach that Allah hates unbelievers and that he will send them to hell when they die. They preach that unbelievers are the enemies of Islam and are out to destroy Allah’s chosen people, either by military force or by enticing them with an impure lifestyle. They preach that Allah will reward every Moslem who gives up his life fighting to protect Allah’s children from unbelievers. Through their sermons, some Moslem clerics are convincing their listeners that heaven is the reward Allah gives to those who die while killing unbelievers. And who are these unbelievers? Hindus. Jews. Christians.

This just boggles our minds. How can anyone get so passionate about their religion as to throw away their lives because of it? After all, religion is just a small part of American life—an hour in church on some Sundays, maybe a prayer before meals or at bedtime. For Americans, church life is casual. Bible study is optional; so is time spent in daily devotions. It doesn’t matter how you dress when you enter church to ask the King of the universe for favors. It doesn’t matter how much money you donate to the support of God’s church—presumably, He’s happy with whatever spare change you have rattling around in your pocket. As to the Ten Commandments? Sure, they’re a good suggestion for how to live life, but come on, aren’t they a little out of date? Certainly there must be times when they don’t apply.

The reason that we can’t understand a Moslem’s life and death devotion to his religion is because we are apathetic; we don’t take our Christian religion as seriously as we should. Living in a country where the government guarantees freedom to worship as we want has lulled us into complacency. Worshiping the Lord openly has often demanded that Christians be willing to sacrifice their lives. The New Testament speaks of many who were put to death by the Jewish religious establishment because of their faith. Emperor Nero of Rome executed Christians in ways that he found ‘entertaining’—dressing some in animal skins and then turning wild dogs loose on them; mounting others on poles and then burning them alive to provide illumination during the evening; and crucifying still others. Some years later, Emperor Diocletion dedicated 8 years to the goal of trying to exterminate every Christian in the empire, killing over 100,000. It was not until the reign of Constantine the Great that Christians were guaranteed freedom from persecution by the rule of law.

Christians also died for their faith during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Following the death of Mohammed, the warriors of Islam mounted a holy war that killed uncountable numbers of Christ’s followers as they took control of the Holy Land, northern Africa, Spain and eastern Europe. The conflict between Moslems and Christians continued through the Crusades, and was still a threat in Martin Luther’s day. In Japan, after years of mission work and international trade, the government became fearful of the people being contaminated by outside influences, and closed its borders to all foreigners. Japan subsequently made it illegal to be a Christian, and thousands of Japanese Christians were executed for refusing to abandon their faith.

Modern times are no different. During the Boxer Rebellion, thousands of Chinese Christians were killed for their faith by their neighbors. The Communist government of Russia systematically taught its citizens that Christianity was old fashioned and opposed progress, then arrested and sentenced to death those who still held to their faith. Christians currently living in and near India are being beaten, arrested, and are losing their lives at the hands of Hindu extremists. Throughout history, all around the world, Christians have been called upon to give their lives out of loyalty to their Savior.

So I ask you: how passionate are you about your relationship with Jesus? In ancient Rome, Christians had to gather in the city sewers in order to worship secretly; how much do you appreciate being able to dress up to honor God when you worship Him? In Communist Russia, people had to find a place to pray where no one could see them and turn them in; how much do you appreciate being able to pray whenever you want? In Tokugawa Japan, the Bible was a forbidden book; how much do you appreciate that copy of the Bible in your home, waiting to be picked up and read? In Baghdad and in scores of other cities overseas, Christians put their lives at risk to gather in a church to worship the Savior; how much do you appreciate the freedom to attend church on Sunday to sing praises to God, in comfort and safety?

We have a tendency to take God and His gifts for granted because they have come to us freely. We were raised to believe that there is no such thing as a free lunch, that the only things of value are the things we sweat for. God’s provision of grace through His Son Jesus is a gift; there is nothing that you or I can ever do to earn what Jesus died to give us. Peter states, Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God (1 Peter 3:18). Our Savior offered up His life 2,000 years ago, but that one act of sacrifice has paid for every sin of every person throughout history. Jesus Christ the Righteous One died for every one of us, the unrighteous, so that we could be brought to God—brought not in fear of being punished, but brought in confidence that He will forgive us and make us His own dear children. Jesus did all this by shedding His blood, divine blood so powerful that it has left nothing for us to do save utter a humble "thank you, Lord Jesus." We are saved exclusively by the gift of Jesus’ life given from the cross.

Since Jesus has done all the work of making us right with God, it is tempting to become a libertine. A libertine does whatever he wants because he doesn’t fear the consequences of his actions. Since Jesus takes away the fear of hell, it is easy to take a laid-back attitude towards religion. "I’m going to heaven anyway, so why sweat struggling against temptation? Why spend every Sunday in church? Why make time for frequent Bible study? Why take time out of my busy schedule each day to pray? Why give 5 or 10 percent of my income to keep ministry programs going? Jesus has done all the heavy lifting; why not sit back and eat, drink and make merry until I’m finally invited into heaven?" With an attitude like this, apathy is sure to grow—apathy towards the church, towards Christian living, even towards God Himself.

How does our Lord feel about spiritual apathy? Consider these words of Jesus to the congregation in Laodicea, written in Revelation chapter 3: 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. You say, `I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

In these verses, Jesus advises the spiritually apathetic to do three things. First, He recommends seeking gold from God that is refined by fire; this is a reference to faith, which only becomes pure by going through the trials of spiritual testing (1 Peter 1:6-7). Jesus wants you to take your faith seriously, to be concerned about its strength so that it will not fail in times of trouble. Second, He says to wear white clothes in order to hide your shame; this is a reference to the robe of righteousness which Jesus gives to all who believe in Him, the gift of His righteousness that covers our sins and allows us to shine like childrfen of God, pure and blameless in His sight (Isaiah 61:10, Philippians 2:14-15). Third, our Lord prescribes salve for your eyes, that you might see; this is a reference to being given the light of knowledge, the knowledge that comes from God, which enables His people to know the truth and sets you free from the blind ignorance of sin (John 8:32).

Faith, Christ’s righteousness, and knowledge—these are what’s needed to shrug off spiritual apathy. It starts with faith—trust that Jesus has truly freed you from your sins because He loves you immensely. When you have such trusting faith, it allows you to grasp Jesus’ gift to you—the gift of His righteousness, given us through His divine blood shed in sacrificial death. With these gifts, you are ready to explore God’s Word and understand the heavenly truths that sin tries to obscure.

How do these gifts oppose apathy? When you truly realize how terrible sin is and how angry it makes the eternal Ruler of the universe, when you realize how utterly polluted your life is with sin, when you realize what a tremendous sacrifice God made in shouldering the burden of your sin that you might be freed of it, when you see the bright eternal future that the Savior has gifted you with by His death and resurrection, it is impossible to sit back and go "ho, hum." You can only take your salvation for granted if you allow the reality of who you are, and what Jesus has done for you, to fade from your thoughts.

How much of high school math do you remember? How much of what you learned in history? Can you still handle a ball or run like you did when you were part of an athletic team? How much do you remember from going through Confirmation? How much of what you memorized then is still with you? The plain truth is this—if you don’t keep your skills honed through regular use, you will eventually lose them. The only way to avoid spiritual apathy is to work at keeping your faith life active. Worship every week, in your home town or wherever you’re visiting. Seize every opportunity to study the Bible alone or as part of a group. Pray continually. Re-memorize the verses you have lost and make a commitment to add new ones. Make support of the church a top priority, whether it be through the words of your mouth, the strength of your hands, or the money God has made you responsible for. A person who jogs every day is not nearly so tempted to sit around and get flabby as is a person who rarely gets any exercise; when you stay active in the faith, it will be easier to resist spiritual inertia.

We may detest religious fanatics who kill in the name of their god, but we can still learn something useful from them. Religion means more to them than life itself; our Lord looks for an equally passionate commitment from us. If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. May the love of Christ fill every corner of your life, and may your love for Him inform your every thought, word and deed.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Being whittled away

Does the clay say to the potter, `What are you making?' (Isaiah 45:9)

There’s an old story about a piece of wood that complained constantly. You see, that piece of wood had been picked up by a man with a sharp little knife. Every day, the man whittled away at the wood, gouging out holes and trimming away rough spots. The piece of wood was very unhappy with this treatment, constantly complaining about the pain, and accusing the man of mistreatment. But despite all the tears and whining, the man contined to use his knife on the wood.

One day, the pain finally stopped. The man laid down his knife; his work was done. Gently, the whittler brought the piece of wood to his lips, placed his fingers over the holes, and began playing the flute that he’d carved. The song was haunting—the piece of wood was astonished that it could produce anything so beautiful. For the first time since the knife had begun its work, the piece of wood was glad of the whittler’s touch.

This story is our story. We are pieces of wood, rough and filled with knots. God is the man who sees the potential for beauty in us. He picks us up and starts shaping us according to His design. He trims away the tough bark of our callous nature. He shaves off our crookedness so that we are smooth and straight. Sometimes we yelp in surprise when He starts cutting out a hole for His finger to produce a new musical tone. We complain that God is mistreating us, never stopping to consider that perhaps, just perhaps, He is shaping us into something better.

King David serves as an example. He suffered much in his life—war, political unrest, and problems in the family. Yet these afflictions turned David into God’s musician. David wrote songs that express great joy and terrible sorrow, songs that rejoice in the beauty of life and echo with despair born of tragedy. But David’s Psalms are always filled with love for God—appreciation for His blessings, and complete trust in His merciful love. The Psalms of David remain popular thousands of years after his death, because God shaped their composer into a man of beautiful, vibrant faith.

When life is hard, don’t get angry with God or give in to despair. Trust Him to do what’s right, and He will make you into something that is beautiful in His hands.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Body armor

Put on the full armor of God (Ephesians 6:11).

As a kid, I was fascinated by knights in shining armor. The museum in town had a full suit on display, and I thought that it was the best exhibit in the building. I suppose it was only natural, then, that my favorite comic book character was Iron Man, whose power came from a high tech suit of armor.

Armor has always been important in keeping soldiers safe. In ancient times, warriors would protect their vital organs by wearing a metal chest plate. During the Middle Ages, wealthy knights paid smiths to cover them head to foot in a customized suit of metal. Eventually, armor was made obsolete by bullets and artillery shells, but in recent decades body armor has made a comeback—new materials that are tough and relatively light weight give our soldiers and police decent protection from gunshot wounds.

We live in a dangerous world. But the greatest danger does not come from bullets, knives or bombs. Every day, there are snipers that take aim at our hearts, using words as their weapon of choice. They try to cheat us by telling lies. They try to make us afraid by making threats. They try to manipulate us with bribes. They try to control us through intimidation. How many times have you been wounded in the heart by someone making fun of you, telling lies behind your back, or playing on your sympathy in order to take advantage of you?

Wounds to the heart are painful and slow to heal; some can leave you permanently scarred, or even make you think about suicide. We need emotional body armor, something that can protect the heart from injury. Thankfully, such protection does exist—Paul describes the armor God offers us in Ephesians chapter six: Put on every piece of God's armor…Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God's righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Knowing what’s true, having a good relationship with God the Father and confidence in His love, trusting in Jesus to forgive your mistakes, and receiving guidance from the Holy Spirit—equipped like this, your heart is well protected from any hurtful attack.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Commit yourselves to the LORD (1 Samuel 7:3).

We live in an age where people are terrified of making commitments. Many would rather lease a car than buy one. Many prefer to live together instead of getting married. Many attend church services but never take the step of officially becoming members.

Why are we afraid of commitment? In part, it’s because we live in a consumerist society, where new products are always coming out and old things lose their value. How many people have vinyl records or 8 track tapes with no way to play them, because the technology of today has left them behind? Why make the commitment to buy a car, when they depreciate so quickly and a newer model might catch your eye next year? Being saddled with a commitment can keep you from sampling things that are new and exciting.

Another reason that we fear commitment is that we don’t trust our judgment. What if I make a commitment, and it turns out that it was a mistake? If that happens, I’ll be stuck with the consequences of my bad decision. Sure we’re in love now; but what if this person turns out to be a jerk? Why get tied down to one partner when you can’t be sure how long love will last? Better to live together than to make a commitment that might result in a painful divorce.

But ultimately we fear commitment because we fear the loss of freedom. Americans prize personal freedom, the privilege to live your life as you see fit. So why join a church, when church membership makes demands on you, limiting your freedom? Why should you have to go through time-consuming instruction in order to join? Why put yourself in a situation where the other members will expect you to contribute some of your time and money to the organization?

It is not in our nature to want to be alone. God created us to have a relationship with Him, and He designed us to need relationships with each other. Mere hours after creating Adam, God said: it is not good for the man to be alone (Genesis 2:18)—and following those words, God created family and, by extension, human society. We come into this life helpless, completely dependent on the love and care of others; while the years of our growing up gradually lesson this dependence, there is never a time when it becomes good for us to be alone. By God’s design, we need relationships.

But because of our fear of commitment, we try to develop relationships that are commitment-free--and the whole idea is ridiculous. How can a relationship exist without commitment? The basis for all relationships is trust. If you can’t trust your car to start, you sell it; if you can’t trust your spouse to stay faithful to you, you get a divorce. Trust is essential for relationships; trust means that you can rely on someone to be there when you need them. Trust arises from a commitment to be there when it counts.

People enter relationships because they want commitment. Would you willingly buy a car that is untrustworthy? Would you willingly live with a person who cheats on you? We want security from our relationships; we want the peace of mind that comes from a commitment you can put your trust in.

The real problem is that we want to have it both ways. We want commitment from others, but freedom for ourselves to walk away. However, if you insist on relationships that allow the freedom to leave whenever you want, sooner or later you will be badly hurt when someone else walks out on you. Without commitment, no relationship can be counted upon to be there when you need it most.

Thankfully, our God is a God of commitments. In 2nd Timothy chapter two we read: If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself. God does not go back on His promises—it is not in His nature to do so. When God makes a commitment, it is an everlasting promise that can always be relied upon.

Jesus is committed to you; the blood of God dripped from His hands because of His desire to hold you forever. Because of your life as a sinner, you were unworthy of God’s favor; you had no relationship with the perfect Father of All. Because of your sins, you had no place in His home, nowhere to go when the grave finally calls except to the prison created for the devil and everyone who dies separated from God’s family. But such an end is not what Jesus wanted for you; our Savior…wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3). So the Son of God made a commitment to you—He left His wonderful home in heaven to come to earth and die, die so that you and I might never face God’s terrifying wrath for all the many ways in which we have angered Him. Jesus did this without hesitation or regret; His only concern was to remove the guilt of sin which prevented us from having a relationship with our heavenly Father. Jesus’ commitment to us resulted in the horrifying spectacle of the cross, and the only time in His existence that the Son of God was separated from the love of His eternal Father. Jesus’ commitment to us cost Him more than we can possibly imagine.

Jesus did all this to establish a lasting relationship with you, a relationship that you can trust in. But in order for this relationship to grow and mature, the Savior calls you to make a commitment to Him in return. Our Lord has given you a tremendous gift, the gift of complete freedom from God’s anger at you for disregarding His laws. What is your response to this gift? Are you inclined to say, "Wow…thanks Jesus, that’s great—see You later"? Or is your heart moved to respond: "Lord, I don’t deserve this—how can I show my appreciation?" The apostle John tells us that we ought to do more than just give lip service—he says: Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:18). If we are truly grateful for what Jesus’ commitment has given us, we ought to make commitments in return.

What kind of commitments should be a part of the Christian life? If you are committed to your heavenly Father, then you would naturally want to spend time with Him regularly. Being able to worship in church is a privilege that you look forward to; the notion of having to miss church would fill you with the regret of a missed opportunity to spend time with a loved one. In Psalm 84 David says, Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.

If you are committed to the relationship God has established with you, you will want to become closer to your Savior. You would seize every opportunity available to study God’s Word as it is explained in Sunday School, Confirmation, and Bible class; no dust could settle on your Bible, because it would be open in your hands every day. Peter urges us, grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18); the Bible is where God shows you the contents of His heart.

And if you are committed to a relationship with the Lord, you will not only make time to listen to Him, you will also set aside time to speak to Him. Every day you would approach Him in prayer, telling Him of your joys and sorrows, presenting Him with your needs and wants, and thanking Him for all the ways in which He takes care of you. To grow a relationship with the Lord is to commit to quality, two-way communication.

Commitment to a relationship with God includes commitment to everyone else who is a member of His family. Speaking of the fellowship of Christians, Paul shares these words in Ephesians chapter two: you are…fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. To be a Christian is to make a commitment to the church.

What does commitment to the Church include? It requires involvement—involvement in the work of the Church, involvement in the lives of its members. It involves seeking out a brother or sister in the faith who has stopped coming to church and find out what’s going on in their lives. It involves praying for members who are in need, whether or not you personally like them. It involves supporting the work of the church with your willingness to serve as an Elder or Trustee, a Sunday School teacher or a banner maker, someone who contributes to bake sales or serves at funerals. Commitment to the Church involves digging into your pocket and giving back to God from the money He has blessed you with, so that the Good News of salvation may be proclaimed without the distractions of budgetary problems. Commitment to God’s people means doing what it takes to join a congregation, so the members know that you have pledged to be there for them, just as in Christ, they have pledged themselves to be there for you.

Commitment to a relationship with Christ also affects our lives outside of church. As people committed to long-term relationships, we ought not fear marriage but embrace it as superior in every way to commitment-free cohabitation. As people committed to a relationship with the Lord, we will not permit our children to avoid church, but lovingly insist on frequent time with God in worship, learning and prayer, regardless of any misguided protests on their part. Because the Christian embraces commitment, we conduct ourselves as law-abiding citizens; we respect authority because we want to live in a society where we can trust in and depend on one another even if we are strangers, and it takes government to make this possible. Of course, we can only trust in one another when we are confident we are not being lied to, so relationships hinge on our commitment to always to tell the truth.

This all sounds scary to the part of us that fears commitment. How do we overcome our fear that making a commitment will trap us with something old and boring, while we miss out on what’s new and exciting? Remember that God’s wisdom says, there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Before television, people got their news and entertainment from wandering story tellers; before cars, people traveled by horse; before atomic bombs, people killed each other with swords. In spite of every new thing that comes along, we still use them to do the same old things. The problem with new things is that, by definition, they cannot give lasting satisfaction, because they lose their ‘newness’ almost immediately. True security comes from those things that can be depended upon to not change. So it is a great source of comfort to hear God say, I the LORD do not change (Malachi 3:6).

What about the fear of getting trapped in a commitment because of making a bad decision? First of all, it is critically important that you pray for the Lord for guidance before making any decision, and to proceed slowly with those of greatest importance—first try to discern what God’s will is for you. But even if you make a bad decision—as we all do—remember two things. First, Jesus died to forgive you for making that mistake. Second, although the Lord does not always bail us out from the consequences of our actions, He does promise to support us and give us what we need to make it through life. Paul gave witness of this truth with these words: I can do everything through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:13).

And what about our fear of losing our freedom by making a commitment? The fact of the matter is, you have never been free—from conception, sin ruled your heart, making you the devil’s plaything. When Jesus set you free from Satan’s domination, you passed from one master to another—from a tyrant who loves to inflict torment to a loving Master who rewards loyalty with eternal life. In 1 Corinthians chapter six Paul writes, You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. Freedom is an illusion—the true question is the one posed by Joshua: if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD (Joshua 24:15).

A relationship with the Son of God does require commitment—but it is a relationship that you can always rely upon.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Being noticed

I have loved you with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3).

People will do almost anything for attention. Some try to impress with their looks. Others try to impress with their education or athletic ability. Some beg for attention by telling jokes. Others beg for attention by giving compliments and gifts. Some will do almost anything to win your approval. Others will force you to notice them by being rude or disruptive.

It used to be said that ‘no one likes a showoff’, but that isn’t true any more. These days everyone wants to noticed. There is no shortage of people waiting to sing karaoke or ride a mechanical bull. Social networking websites are filled with personal information and videoclips of ordinary people looking for attention. Folks on reality TV frequently embarrass themselves by what they say or how they act.

Brothers and sisters compete with each other for a parent’s attention. Teenagers compete among themselves to be the most popular. Employees compete to win the notice of upper management. Wherever people gather, there is competition for attention. This also applies to people who are shy; although they may be unsure of themselves, they ache inwardly from not being noticed.

Human beings need love to be emotionally healthy. If no one is paying attention to us, we feel as if we’re not loved. Because we hunger for affection, we say and do all kinds of things to get noticed. But sometimes we confuse attention for love.

If someone loves you, you’ll get their attention. But you can also get attention from someone who hates you, or sees you only as an interesting freak. There are men and women who stay in abusive relationships because they have confused attention with love. There are kids who act up in school because they are tired of being ignored. There are athletes, musicians, and actors who feel loved because the paparazzi follow them everywhere. They all get attention, but that attention has nothing to do with being loved.

Jesus said, the very hairs of your head are all numbered (Matthew 10:30). You don’t have to force people to notice you; you don’t have to stay in an abusive relationship in order to get attention. Jesus died to make you His; you are precious to Him. He watches over you every day. Jesus loves you, and He always has time for you.

Monday, August 10, 2009


God created man in his own image (Genesis 1:27).

Have you ever heard the word ‘chimera’? It is the name of a monster from Greek mythology. The chimera was a fire-breathing creature that was part lion, part goat, and part snake. It was a composite of several different animals that did not belong together.

In recent years, ‘chimera’ has taken on another meaning. In 2003, Chinese scientists fused human cells with rabbit eggs. These embryos were allowed to grow for several days before being destroyed in order to harvest their stem cells. In 2004, researches at the Mayo Clinic created pigs with human blood. The organisms that result from this kind of genetic manipulation are called ‘chimeras’. The interest in chimeras has so become so widespread that in 2007 England passed a law officially permitting their development.

Scientists want chimeras for the purpose of research. New drugs are first tested on animals that are similar to humans; by using an animal with enhanced human characteristics, scientists hope to get better test results for new kinds of medical treatment. Chimeras are also being considered as biological factories for organ transplants.

But this raises a moral question—if chimeras have human DNA, do they have rights? Could they develop self-awareness? How much human DNA does it take to make a creature human? Is it right to breed some form of human being for the purpose of organ harvesting or medical experimentation?

These are important questions. For centuries, blacks were enslaved because whites viewed them as animals, not people. Adolf Hitler tried to breed a ‘master race’ of superior human beings, while getting rid of those people he judged to be inferior, like Jews and gypsies. If we are judged on the basis of genetic purity, what will happen to those who are deemed substandard?

All the way back in the Old Testament, God warned against genetic engineering. Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed (Leviticus 19:19). Human beings are more than just a string of organic molecules; we are not an accident of evolution. God designed our bodies and blesses each of us with a thinking, feeling consciousness that lives forever. Chimeras are man’s feeble attempt to improve on God’s work; producing them insults our Creator, and threatens to undermine the ethical treatment of our fellow human beings.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Lord's Prayer--Seventh Petition

But deliver us from evil.

A man entered the lecture hall carrying a large roll of white paper. He unrolled the paper and hung the huge sheet on the wall. Taking a marker from his pocket, he put one black dot in the center of the paper; he then turned to a student in the front row and asked what she saw. "A black spot", she replied. The lecturer asked other students what they saw; each one gave the same reply—they all saw a black spot. Finally, the man shouted: "Isn’t there anyone here who can see the big white sheet?"

We can become so narrowly focused on the little black spots in our lives that we lose sight of the big white sheet of God’s goodness that surrounds us. We tend to forget that in spite of all the evil mankind is responsible for, there is still much good in this world. There is good food, fresh air, comfortable clothing; there are stoves and refrigerators, washers and dryers, cars and tractors. The world is blessed with babies, children and teenagers; husbands, wives and parents. Best of all, there is our Father in heaven who gives us life and health, His Son Jesus who repairs our broken relationships and fills our lives with love, and the Holy Spirit who gives us comfort and strength. There is the promise of God’s forgiveness, the offer of His wisdom, and the invitation to eternal rest in heaven. God surrounds us with goodness.

However, we are also surrounded with evil. There are fires and droughts, storms and floods, earthquakes and famines. There are fights and lies, broken hearts and broken homes. There are wars and murders and suicides. There are incurable diseases. There are false religions, false preachers, false hopes. There is pride, selfishness, disobedience and unbelief. There is self-righteousness, love of sin, rejection of Christ. The world is full of evil, and unless God rescues us, we will suffer under the curse of evil both here in life and eternally in hell. And so we need to pray, deliver us from evil.

The root cause of all evil is sin. When God had finished His creation He looked at everything that He had made, and it was very good (Genesis chapter one). There was no taint of evil. Sin and evil did not become a part of human existence until the devil tricked our first parents into disobeying God. Sin has its origin with the devil. However, we contribute to the evil in the world whenever we choose to follow the devil’s enticements instead of God’s commands.

We do not have to submit to the Devil’s control—not since Jesus came and crushed the head of the Great Serpent by dying on the cross for our sins. The devil does not have any power over those adopted by God as His children. Jesus assures us: My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand (John 10:27-28). Jesus has assumed the responsibility of being our shepherd, and as our shepherd He protects us from the hellish predator. The only danger the Old Serpent can threaten us with is the danger of the lure; just as a fisherman uses a lure to entice fish to bite, so Satan tries to hook us by dangling sparkly temptations before our eyes. Satan knows that he cannot forcibly take us away from God, so he tries to get us to abandon God on our own.

Because God provides everything that we need through Jesus, there is no reason for us to sin—there is nothing the devil can offer us that we need from him. Yet we still listen to him, still want what he offers, still sin, and the result is evil. Instead of raising their children to fear and love God, parents allow them to do what they want, with the result that their children grow up disobedient and selfish—and then the parents act surprised. Instead of investing his marriage with his time and energy, a man becomes so involved with making money that his wife ends up leaving him for the arms of someone else—and then the husband acts surprised. Instead of being content with what they have, people spend every free moment shopping, with the result that they end up unable to pay their bills and have to file for bankruptcy—and then they act surprised. Sin always leads to a bad end, and yet in spite of this obvious truth, people continue to flirt with the devil and leave behind God and the path of happiness. This is what we sinners do; this is why Jesus taught us to pray, deliver us from evil.

Sometimes we wonder why God seems slow in answering this prayer. We don’t understand why He allows a time of suffering to drag on and on. Sometimes it almost seems as if unbelievers are better off than we are; Jeremiah asked God: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease? (Jeremiah 12:1) We have to understand that the suffering we Christians undergo is not the same kind of suffering that afflicts unbelievers. Psalm 103 tells us: he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. When Jesus suffered on the cross, He was subjected to all of God’s punishment for our sins--this means that the hardships in our lives are not because God is punishing us.

Unbelievers are punished because they reject Christ as their Savior. We Christians, however, are disciplined by God to keep us from falling into sin and the evil that it brings. A Christian and a non-Christian might face the same problem or have the same illness, yet there is a vast difference, because the unbeliever is being punished under God’s wrath, while the believer is being disciplined under God’s love.

A farmer had an apple tree and a peach tree. As the peach tree grew it became more and more of a nuisance; when the farmer walked through the garden gate the branches would knock off his hat and catch at his sweater. One morning, as the farmer went to work in his garden, one of the branches struck him right in the eye. Stomping off to the garage, the farmer grabbed his shears and whacked the peach tree down to size. As he finished, the farmer noticed the apple tree; since he already had the shears, he decided to prune the tree. He ended up cutting more branches off the apple tree than he had off the peach tree, yet there was a considerable difference: one was cut down in anger, the other was carefully trimmed in love.

So it is that unbelievers suffer under God’s anger, while Christians are disciplined with His love. The person who suffers most is not necessarily the worst sinner. Job and Paul are just two examples of godly men who endured many afflictions. When hard times come, it is not so much about what we have done as what God seeks to do through us once we have been properly prepared.

Our Lord’s foremost concern is to save us for everlasting life with Him in His kingdom. If it takes trials and struggles to bring about this blessed result, then the Lord in His love will use them. Hebrews chapter 12 tells us: Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Uninterrupted prosperity and health are dangerous to the soul. When a pastor visited a member in the hospital, the sick man told him: "I did something today that I haven’t done in years—I prayed." This man had been in church Sunday after Sunday, and had said his table prayers before and after each meal; but it was not until God made this man look up at Him while lying on his back in a hospital bed that true heart-felt prayer came about. And even though God had not yet relieved him from his suffering, he felt good in telling his pastor "I prayed."

Sometimes God sends trials to reveal Himself to us more fully. Near Jerusalem lived two sisters and their brother—Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Jesus loved them all and was frequently a guest in their home. But even though Jesus loved them, Lazarus became ill. As soon as his sisters realized the seriousness of his condition, they sent for Jesus. The disciples may have been puzzled that the Teacher didn’t rush to the home of His friends—in fact, by the time that Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days. Why did God permit the sickness to take Lazarus? Why did Jesus allow the grief that comes with seeing a loved one die? In this case, we are permitted to glimpse the reason. When Martha met Jesus, the following words were exchanged: Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" "Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world" (John 11:25-26). Mary and Martha trusted in Jesus, but imagine how much stronger that faith became when Jesus spoke the words Lazarus, come out! and their brother was restored to them alive once more (John 11:43). On that day, these three people, along with the entire town, were rewarded with a new appreciation for the power of the Savior. Sometimes our Lord permits hardships to linger, so that when deliverance finally comes, we appreciate His love and care all the more.

And sometimes God permits troubles to nip at us so that we are bumped from our comfort zone and look at our lives as Christians from a new perspective. A man in Missouri had terrible asthma; he eventually moved to Arizona for relief. While in Missouri, he had done little more for the Lord than simply to attend church; but in Arizona, he helped start a new mission congregation and served many years as Sunday School Superintendent. Jesus said, I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful (John 15:1-3). If you have felt oppressed by some lingering problem, perhaps God is trying to get you to think "outside the box"; maybe He is nudging you to serve Him in a way that you haven’t previously considered.

As odd as it may sound, some suffering is good for the soul. In Romans chapter five Paul tells us, We can rejoice…when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us--they help us learn to endure. And endurance develops strength of character in us, and character strengthens our confident expectation of salvation. And this expectation will not disappoint us. In 2nd Corinthians 4:17-18 he says, our present troubles are quite small and won't last very long. Yet they produce for us an immeasurably great glory that will last forever! So we don't look at the troubles we can see right now; rather, we look forward to what we have not yet seen. For the troubles we see will soon be over, but the joys to come will last forever. Every trial in the life of a Christian is for our good, unless we refuse to see God’s love in it and instead grow bitter and thus turn to the devil. Deliver us from evil is a prayer that God will fulfill His promise in Romans 8:28 that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.

Deliver us from evil is prayer that God would keep us safe—safe from hunger, homelessness, sickness or anything else that would threaten to destroy us. Even more importantly, it is a prayer that God would save our souls. The greatest evil of all is to be cut off from God, to end life without faith in Jesus and with our sins unforgiven, to suffer in loveless isolation the agony of dying forever in hell. Deliver us from evil is a fitting end to the Lord’s Prayer, because in it we ask God to guide us through life, shield us from Satan and sin, and finally take us from this vale of tears to Himself in heaven.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Loving relationships

Bear with each other, and forgive whatever grievances you may have (Colossians 3:13).

"You always hurt the one you love." It sounds nonsensical, yet it’s very often true. The people we hurt the most deeply tend to be those we feel the closest to.

Every human being is, by nature, selfish. We want our needs to be met, we want things to be done our way. In order to get along with other people, we have to learn the art of compromise. We also learn to keep secrets, especially when in competition with others.

But when we get close to someone, we open up emotionally. We start sharing our wants and needs, our hopes and dreams. As the barriers come down, we relax—and that is when trouble starts. The people we are intimate with are allowed to see what we try to hide from everyone else, things about us that are better off kept hidden.

Selfishness doesn’t like compromise. Selfishness demands whatever action is necessary to get what it wants. If you feel close enough to another person to let it all hang out, things can get ugly. If your husband won’t give in to your demands, withhold sex from him. If your wife won’t do what you want, hit her. If your boyfriend doesn’t agree with you, make fun of his looks, brains, or toughness. If your girlfriend doesn’t make enough time for you, cheat on her. Selfishness wants to take advantage of any relationship where the barriers are down and the other person has become vulnerable to you.

Relationships are endangered when we treat each other disrespectfully. You need three skills to keep a partnership strong. First, you need to compromise; Jesus said, love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 19:19). No one can get their own way all the time, and no one wants to feel like a doormat—you have to negotiate so that both partners feel respected. Second, you need to keep private any thoughts and desires that will only hurt the other person if revealed. Most of all, you need to master the art of forgiveness. Sooner or later, every one of us hurts a loved one by letting them down, saying something mean, or being stubborn at the wrong time. When hurts are inflicted, go to Jesus in prayer. If you caused the hurt, ask the Lord to forgive you and to help you take responsibility for your mistake. If you are the victim, ask Jesus to forgive your partner and help you let go of the hurt. Love cannot survive without respect, self-control, and forgiveness.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


It is God's will…that you should avoid sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

About half of all marriages end in divorce. Divorce is painful—it tears apart two lives that were being woven together into one. It causes economic hardship and tears down self-esteem. It undermines your trust that other people will keep their promises. Perhaps worst of all, divorce inflicts terrible trauma on the children of the household.

In an effort to avoid the problems caused by divorce, more and more people are choosing to live together instead of getting married. They look at co-habitation as a test drive for marriage, to see if the relationship has legs for the long haul. Of course, avoiding divorce isn’t the only reason people move in together. Some just want a sexual relationship with no strings attached—a ‘friend with benefits.’

The sexual act was created by God as emotional glue to bind a man and woman together as life partners. Sexual activity achieves that purpose whether you intend it to or not. Why do you think so many people blurt out the words "I love you" when in the throes of passion? When sexually active couples break up, the pain of separation is just as deep as if they were going through a divorce. Not only that, but there are legal ramifications as well—many who have lived together end up in court to settle disputes over money, property, and child custody.

God intended sex to be a glue that binds a man and a woman together for life. Jesus says, they will become one flesh (Matthew 19:5). That being the case, we break God’s rules when we share the gift of sex with more than one person. Sex is a wonderful, precious thing—it gives us joy, it strengthens our commitment to another person, and God uses it to bestow the miracle of new life. We cheapen this wonderful gift when we tell crude sexual jokes, gaze at pornography, or use sex just to make ourselves feel good. We weaken its power to unite people in love when we have casual sex, cheat on a spouse, or get remarried after a divorce. It’s no wonder that God permits sexually transmitted diseases to exist—they discourage us from treating God’s gift of sex casually.

Sex is one of the best things that God gives to husbands and wives. Treat it with respect, for the sake of the God who gave it.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Lord's Prayer--Sixth Petition

Lead us not into temptation.

We don’t like to be tested. I’ve never met a student who enjoys final exams. I don’t know anyone who looks forward to taking a driver’s test. We don’t like taking tests because they are scary—there’s a chance that we might fail. In addition, many tests are hard—it often takes a lot of effort to score well on an exam.

But the hardest tests do not involve studying a textbook and writing out answers to questions. The hardest tests are those that we face as we go about living life. Over and over again, we are faced with decisions—decisions about what is right and what is wrong, decisions that force us to weigh potential rewards with possible consequences. And if you make the wrong choice, your blunder can haunt you for years--maybe even for the rest of your life.

Lead us not into temptation; these words can also be translated: "do not put us to the test." Temptation and test mean essentially the same thing—a situation in which we might either succeed or fail. In a way, almost everything in life is a temptation, a test. On Sunday morning you are faced with a test—you have the choice of going to church or staying in bed, the choice of living for God or living for yourself. The hour spent in church is a test; you have the choice to respect the Lord with your full attention, or to let your mind wander as you plan your noon meal or the afternoon’s activities. Food is a test—you can use it to nourish your body so that you can serve the Lord, or you can damage your health by eating poorly and thus limit your bodies’ ability to do works of service. Your job is a test; you can work to earn money to support your family and fund the ministry of the church, or you can work in order to clutter up your life with merchandise that only gives short-term pleasure. Your eyes test you; you can use them to read God’s Word, or you can use them to search the Internet for pornography. Your mouth tests you—you can use it to say hurtful things to others, or you can speak of Christ to those who drift through life lost because they do not know Him. Every day is a string of tests, of temptations.

Some of these tests are good—they are sent by God to build us up. Before it is sold, a rope is put through a stress test—this not only insures that the rope is fit for use, it actually makes the rope stronger. The wind can bend a tree back and forth, twisting the roots so that they loosen the soil, thus making it possible for the roots to shoot down even deeper. Successful testing brings the result of increased strength—and so we read in the Old Testament of people whom God tested in order to strengthen them. The Lord tested Abraham when He asked the patriarch to sacrifice his only son. The Lord tested Job with the loss of his goods, children, and health. In the New Testament, Jesus also tested the faith of those who followed Him. When He had finished speaking to a large crowd in the wilderness, He asked Philip "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?" He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do (John 6:5-6). Another test occurred when a Canaanite woman pleaded with Jesus to help her demon-possessed daughter. First, Jesus ignored her; then He told her that He was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel. When the woman persisted, Jesus finally told her "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." But the woman replied, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." At this, the Lord applauded her faith and granted her request (Matthew chapter 15).

The tests sent by God can be very demanding of us—but when we experience such trials, we must remember, "no pain, no gain." An athlete knows that strength and endurance only come about from exhausting, sometimes painful training—and the building up of our souls is no different. When God sends us trials to strengthen us, we should welcome them because it is one of the many ways by which our Lord shows His love and care for us.

But not all tests are sent by God; not all tests are intended for our benefit. When we pray lead us not into temptation, we are praying for the Lord’s protection from those tests designed to make us to fail—the tests designed by the Devil. We dare never try to blame God for our failures; speaking of the temptation to sin, James writes: When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed (James 1:13-14). God tests us to strengthen us, but He never sets us up to commit sin; in the Catechism Luther writes: "God surely tempts no one to sin, but we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world and our flesh may not deceive us or lead us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins."

Destructive temptations come from the Devil, the inherent sinful desires of our human bodies, and the influence of a world that largely ignores Christ and does whatever it wants. In the time of Noah, the Devil used the lust of human nature to convince society that religious faith was unimportant when it comes to matters of the heart; most believers saw no danger in marrying unbelievers, with the result that by the time of the Flood only eight people in the entire world still believed in the one, true God. In the time of Abraham, the Devil used the perversion of human nature to convince the residents of Sodom that homosexuality and rape were acceptable expressions of sexuality, with the result that when Abraham pleaded that God spare the city from destruction, not even ten righteous people could be found living there. In the time of the great prophets, the Devil used the weakness of human nature to convince the children of Israel that it doesn’t matter what god you worship, with the result that when hostile foreign empires attacked, God allowed the nation He had founded to be destroyed.

Temptations come in all shapes and sizes; just as you can find a weed in any kind of soil, so temptations arise in every kind of situation. Each of us is different; each of us has our own weaknesses that set us apart from others. We can look at another person’s situation and wonder why he gave into a temptation that appears easy to resist. Looking at his struggle from a safe distance, it is easy for us to be smug. "I would never do that," we think. But do you remember what Noah did after the Flood was over? This man of God spent 120 years building the Ark and telling everyone who came for a look about the need to repent before God came in judgment; but almost as soon as he was out of the Ark, he got himself good and drunk. Do you remember what Aaron did at the foot of Mt. Sinai? Moses’ brother had stood by his side as God used these men to bring ten plagues against Egypt, had walked through the Red Sea on dry ground, was fed daily by bread that God made from the morning dew, and was named High Priest for God’s people; but when they pressured him, he used the gold jewelry of the people to make an idol for them to worship instead of God. Do you remember what Peter did in the court of the High Priest? Jesus called this disciple "the Rock" because of his deep faith and strong convictions; yet when faced with the possibility of arrest, Peter denied that he even knew who Jesus was. This is why Paul warns us, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! (1 Corinthians 10:12) This is why Jesus taught us to pray, lead us not into temptation.

The problem is that sin always looks so inviting; every temptation offers some kind of pleasure. Sin holds out a promise, but either the promise is a lie, or there is an unseen consequence that ruins the offered pleasure. An example of the false promise is the mirage; in a desert, a thirsty man can see what appears to be water in the distance, but when he gets close he finds that it was only the blue sky reflecting off the hot, dry sand; the promise of a cool drink was only an illusion. An example of unseen consequences is the Judas Tree; it has beautiful yellow blossoms that are irresistible to bees, but the plant is poisonous and the ground beneath it is covered with the bodies of bees betrayed by a beauty that brought only death. Like the desert mirage and the Judas Tree, sin holds out promises that result in hell being littered with the souls of the foolish.

When we pray lead us not into temptation, we are asking God to lead us away from those places in life where Satan has set us up to fail. If alcohol has power over you, then by this prayer you are asking God to help you stay away from liquor stores. If your job causes you to come home sullen or short-tempered, then by this prayer you are asking God to lead you to a different line of work, so that you will not be tempted to take out your frustrations on your loved ones. Jesus is clear that we should give up whatever it takes to avoid being tempted: If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell (Matthew 5:29-30).

Giving in to temptation is like going down a hill. As you descend, you begin to speed up, but you welcome the increased pace because the wind in your face feels great, your speed makes you feel like you’re free, and there’s a thrill from the sense that you’re living a little dangerously. But as you get closer to the bottom, you’re moving so fast that you lose the ability to stop safely—and by the time that you reach the foot of the hill your recklessness is rewarded with blood. Playing around with temptation is like running down a hill—there comes a point where you can no longer stop.

We are not alone when we wrestle with spiritual tests. Our Lord is always looking out for us; in 1st Corinthians chapter ten we receive this wonderful promise: God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. In addition, He gives us strength through the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper--Luther writes: "There are so many hindrances and temptations of the devil and the world that we often grow weary and faint, at times even stumble. The Lord’s Supper is given as a daily food and sustenance, so that our faith may refresh and strengthen itself and not weaken in the struggle, but grow continually stronger."

Of course, we all fail our spiritual tests again and again; we let Satan make fools of us, and we disregard the Lord’s offer of help as unnecessary, sometimes even unwanted. We can be thankful that Jesus understands what we are going through; Hebrews chapter four assures us: we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin. Jesus understands how hard it is for us to hold out against temptation—He does not condone our weakness, but He understands it and loves us in spite of it. In fact, He was so concerned about our susceptibility to sin that He came to earth to live the perfect life His heavenly Father expected from each of us; He also accepted as His own our death sentence, which was God’s punishment for the many times we have failed to resist Satan’s temptations. This means that you can be forgiven—forgiven for flirting with sin instead of fleeing from it, forgiven for repeatedly doing the same foolish things without learning from your past mistakes.

Only Jesus can lead you away from the dark path of temptation and into the bright future of heaven; only His promises are everything that they appear to be. May you always heed the words of Jesus who told His disciples, Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation (Matthew 26:41).

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