Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The importance of forgiveness

The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone." (Genesis 2:18)

Forgiveness is essential for every relationship that you have. Without forgiveness, relationships seize up and stall. Without forgiveness, love gets buried under guilt and resentment. Without forgiveness, you live life alone.

Forgiveness is a lubricant. Think of your family in terms of an engine. Each family member is a piston, working side by side to propel the family forward. But as we work side by side, there is friction. Lubrication is needed—without oil, the engine block will overheat. If the problem of friction is ignored, the motor will eventually seize up and become ruined.

Forgiveness is the lubrication that keeps relationships from overheating. Forgiveness enables us to put up with being rubbed the wrong way and avoid a relationship-ending meltdown. Forgiveness allows ill-considered words to slip away without causing lasting injury; forgiveness helps everyone to keep their cool in times of stress.

Forgiveness is also a bonding agent. Forgiveness pulls people closer together. Back when our cat was still a kitten, she was sitting on me while I was watching television. She reached up to tag at my glasses. I firmly told her no, swatted her, and dumped her on the floor. Immediately, she jumped back up into my lap and looked at me with big eyes that seemed to say, “I’m sorry.” If she had run off and hid, I probably would have stayed angry for awhile; if she had gone and attacked a piece of furniture in anger, another swat would have been the result. But because she came right back for love and acceptance, my anger instantly evaporated.

Forgiveness is the bonding agent that keeps people in relationships. Forgiveness teaches us how to trust when all our selfish instincts say otherwise. Forgiveness brings us closer together because it requires talking heart to heart, when we would rather stick to superficial topics for conversation.

Without forgiveness, ongoing relationships are impossible—with God or with each other. To be alone in life is awful; to be alone forever after you die is unimaginably frightening. Praise God that Jesus has made such isolation avoidable through His wonderful gift of forgiveness.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Be kind to everyone (2 Timothy 2:24).

Absalom had it all. He was the most handsome man in the country. His father was a respected warrior and king. Being a prince of the royal family, Absalom had considerable money and influence. But it wasn’t enough. Absalom was jealous of his father King David; he wanted the throne of Israel for himself.

Absalom gathered 50 men to be his personal retinue. Every day, he would greet people coming to the palace and tell them that the king was too busy to see them, a sad state of affairs that would change if Absalom became the king. With lies and flattery, Absalom drew many Israelites to his side, enough so that he was able to stage a coup and take the throne for himself. King David had to flee for his life, and Absalom showed his hatred for his father by sleeping with David’s mistresses in a tent set up on the palace roof for all to see. Civil war followed, resulting in 20,000 casualties. Absalom’s life was ended when one of David’s men caught him momentarily unprotected and stabbed him repeatedly. Absalom’s jealousy resulted in governmental corruption, multiple rapes, thousands of deaths, and his own murder as he sought to escape the battlefield.

Our world needs more kindness and less envy. Children and teens bug their parents for designer clothes so they can be like the fashionable kids. Given a choice, most would rather be part of a clique than be looking in from the outside. In many neighborhoods, homeowners try to outdo each other, whether it be the beauty of their landscaping or the magnificence of their Christmas decorations. Upper management encourages employees to compete against each other for promotions and financial incentives. In professional team sports, everyone is a member of the squad, but some get more play time than others and star players make a much bigger salary. TV actors often threaten to quit if they don’t get the same billing or salary as a costar.

Where is the kindness? How many people take time to visit those confined to nursing homes or incarcerated in prison? How many people volunteer for charity work? How many people, when they see someone looking sad or lonely, will approach that stranger and strike up a conversation? How many people are willing to risk getting involved in another person’s life?

Our God is powerful and wise. He is holy and magnificent. But God’s most wonderful quality is His kindness. God is the king of the universe, yet He still reaches out to us, to miserable sinners who aren’t deserving of His notice. Heaven is the most wonderful place of all, yet the Son of God chose to leave it behind so He could be born in a shed used to feed and water animals. Holy angels eagerly waited to do His will, but Jesus surrounded Himself with sinful men and women who frequently had no idea what He was trying to teach them. Christ came to be our Savior, the most thankless job anyone has ever undertaken; He suffered and died for every sinner, yet most of humanity couldn’t care less about the awful sacrifice He made for them. Being a sinner is awful; sin makes our lives miserable with angry words, broken promises, unexpected disasters, and encroaching death. Because God curses sin, we live every day fearing His anger instead of rejoicing in His love. But Christ bore God’s curse for the sins we have committed. He could have stayed comfortably in heaven, but instead He showed us kindness by joining us in our pain so that He could repair the damage caused by sin.

That is what kindness is all about—a willingness to join others in their times of pain in order to help them deal with the hurt and get through it. Kindness is not afraid of discomfort or getting dirty; kindness wants to help other people, no matter what the cost. A kind man stops to help a stranded motorist, even if it is risky to approach a stranger. A kind woman is willing to visit a friend in the hospital, even if she is deathly afraid of germs. A kind person is willing to talk about anything, even uncomfortable topics like death, if it will help ease the mind of a troubled friend.

A kind person is not jealous of others. Jealousy keeps people at arm’s length from each other, because they are resentful of the good things in other people’s lives. Jealousy gets a thrill from seeing another person go through hard times and holds you back from offering to help. Jealousy is the opposite of kindness.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus illustrates what it means to be kind. In His story, criminals assaulted a Jewish traveler, robbed him, and left him half-dead along the side of the road. Two churchmen walked by, one after the other, but neither of them could be bothered to get involved. It was a Samaritan, a man whose people disliked Jews for many reasons, who stopped and got his hands dirty by treating the injured man. The Samaritan inconvenienced himself further by taking the time to move the victim to an inn and spending money for a room while the man recovered. Through this parable, Jesus illustrates what it means to be kind.

Jesus wants us to be kind. He wants us to love other people so much that we are willing to get involved in their lives instead of keeping a safe distance. When you are kind, you are generous with your time, always willing to offer a helping hand or a sympathetic ear. You offer friendship to all sorts of people, without regard to the color of their skin or the amount of money in their billfolds. After all, Christ died for everyone; Paul says God does not show favoritism (Romans 2:11). Being kind means that you are willing to give others the benefit of the doubt instead of assuming the worst about them. When kindness fills your heart, you are willing to suffer hurt and inconvenience—if that is what it takes to bring comfort to others. That’s what Jesus did on the cross for us; to be kind is to be like Christ.

Ruth shows us what kindness looks like. Ruth was a native of Moab, a country that had strained relations with Israel. But Ruth got to know a family of Israelites personally when famine drove them out of their country into hers. Elimelech brought with him his wife Naomi and their two grown sons. Ruth was quite taken with one of the young men, and soon they were married. The other son found a wife among the Moabites as well.

However, tragedy struck the family over the next ten years; first Elimelech died, then both of his sons. Ruth, her mother-in-law and sister-in-law all ended up being widows without children. Then Naomi got word that the famine back home had ended. Since most of her friends and relatives were back in Israel, she made plans to go home. But when she announced her intentions, Ruth made a startling decision—she wanted to stay with her mother-in-law even if it meant going to live in a foreign country. She said, Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried (Ruth 1:16-17). Ruth’s devotion overcame Naomi’s objections, and the two went to live together in Bethlehem. Ruth went to work in the fields to support the two of them, and eventually got remarried. One of Ruth’s descendants would be Jesus.

Why is Ruth an example of kindness? Because she was willing to get involved in another person’s life, even when it meant hardship for her. Ruth could have returned home to live with her own mother; but she could not bear to abandon Naomi, a childless widow with no close family to help her. So Ruth went to a distant land where she didn’t know anybody, out of loving concern for her mother-in-law. And Ruth was not afraid to get her hands dirty on Naomi’s behalf; she worked in the fields as a common laborer to support them both.

We live in a dark and evil world. Jesus came among us to drive back the darkness with the light of His love. We help drive back the darkness of evil when we dare to show kindness to others.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The true meaning of forgiveness

Forgive as the Lord forgave you (Colossians 3:13).

Offering forgiveness is hard for us. When we are hurt or disappointed, we want to be repaid for the grief and inconvenience that we’ve suffered. It only seems right. But the Bible says, forgive as the Lord forgave you. Through Christ, all our sins are taken away freely and completely. To forgive as the Lord forgives requires that we let others off the hook with no compensation requested or paid.

This is why forgiveness is so very difficult. To our way of thinking, to forgive is to give up your rights. To forgive seems irresponsible—if there is no penalty to be paid, what’s to keep that person from hurting you again? To forgive might make you feel like a doormat, a perpetual victim who won’t stand up for himself.

We don’t understand the value of forgiveness because we are flawed not just in our relationships but also in our thinking. It takes strength to put aside our thirst for vengeance and offer mercy instead. It takes a loving heart to work through angry feelings and reach out to embrace those who have hurt you. It takes wisdom to understand that no one is faultless and entitled to claim the moral high ground in a dispute.

But forgiveness is not the same as leniency. Far too often we say things like “that’s all right” instead of “I forgive you.” The difference between these statements is huge. Saying “that’s all right” gives the impression that nothing all that bad was done. Saying “that’s all right” is telling a lie to salvage your pride, because you don’t want to admit how badly you were hurt. But when you say “I forgive you”, you are holding the other person accountable for her behavior. When you say “I forgive you”, you are admitting that you were hurt, but you are willing to give up all claims for restitution.

This is the way that our Lord forgives us. Jesus does not excuse our sin; He doesn’t trivialize it or let us duck responsibility for it. Jesus also knows there is no way we can possibly make up for all the bad things that we have done. Because He loves us, the Lord of Life suffered death on the cross on our behalf, and He did so without any expectation of being repaid for what it cost Him. Jesus demonstrates what forgiveness is really all about—forgiveness is the ultimate expression of love.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Debt canceled!

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Romans 3:23-24).

To understand Christ is to understand forgiveness. Jesus came into our world to do many things—teach us about God, show us how to love, and defeat Satan on our behalf. But His primary goal was forgiveness—The Son of God suffered and died so that we could receive the wonderful blessing of gracious mercy.

Forgiveness is best understood in economic terms. When forgiveness happens, debt is canceled. Repayment is waived; the penalty for default is rendered null and void. Forgiveness goes against our sense of fairness. We are raised to believe that debts should be paid in full. It seems irresponsible to let a debtor off the hook.

Each of us instinctively looks out for number one. When someone hurts you, you want to receive compensation. Our judicial system is built on the principle that the injured party should get restitution for being victimized. If your spouse cheats on you, you deserve a divorce settlement. If someone commits murder, the victim’s family deserves the satisfaction of seeing the killer pay with his life.

The idea of getting compensation for wrongs committed is part and parcel of our relationships with each other. If a friend betrays your trust, you expect her to work hard at getting back into your good graces. If your boyfriend acts like a jerk, you expect him to make it up to you with an expensive or thoughtful gift. And the worse that you’ve been hurt, the greater the compensation you feel entitled to receive.

How wonderful for us that Jesus doesn’t behave this way. All of us have insulted Him with our lack of proper respect, our disregard of His teachings, our flouting of His laws, and our stinginess with giving time for worship, prayer and Bible study. We deserve God’s angry punishment, not His forgiving love. Thankfully, the Son of God chose to cancel our debt; He did this by paying the price for our sins Himself as He suffered on the cross. Jesus demands nothing in return for His mercy, and this goes against everything we were raised to believe. No wonder that so many have a hard time understanding our Lord the Savior!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Old and New Covenants

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned." The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am trembling with fear."

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel
(Hebrews 18:18-24).

As you know, the Bible is divided into two books. The Old Testament tells us about how God created us, how our race turned its back on Him, and the covenant God established at Mount Sinai by which our sins can be forgiven. The New Testament tells us about God’s Son Jesus and the new covenant that He established on the cross, a covenant that supersedes the one given previously to the ancient Israelites.

A covenant is like a treaty—it establishes terms of peace between warring parties. Violating the terms of peace will cause hostilities to resume. When we were born, we entered life as enemies of God. We cannot see Him, we don’t want to spend time listening to Him, we hate living by His rules. We are sinners from birth, enemies of God because of what we think, what we say, and what we do.

God is almighty; no one can stand against Him. If we insist on opposing Him, all we have to look forward to is hell, a concentration camp much worse than Auschwitz or Abu Ghraib. Thankfully, God is merciful; He offers us terms of peace. The terms of peace are a covenant—if we submit to God and trust in His care, He will forgive our rebellion and care for us as His own dear children. But if we break the terms of the covenant, we go back to a state of war. If we reject God’s laws and refuse to ask Him for mercy, hell is all that we have to look forward to when death finally claims us.

In the Old Testament, the covenant of God was established at Mount Sinai. This was a mountain that you could touch—if you were willing to risk God’s anger. Sinai is where God brushed earth with His power and glory; because of this, the entire mountain was declared holy and anyone who touched it, even an animal, was to be immediately put to death. God appeared to Moses and the leaders of Israel on that mountain; His awesome glory was obscured by clouds so that sinful human beings might survive the encounter. His mighty voice sounded like thunder; the people were so terrified when they heard it that they asked Moses to listen to God as their representative.

During this time at Sinai, God laid out the terms of a covenant, a treaty of peace between heaven and earth. The terms of the treaty demanded many things from the people. Their first obligation was to show God proper respect. They had to worship Him alone; praying to anyone or anything else was strictly forbidden. They had to take time away from work each week so that they could focus on their relationship with Him. They were to speak His name respectfully, never casually. And anyone who became a part of their families had to live under the terms of God’s covenant as well.

The second obligation of the covenant required obedience. God had Moses write down all sorts of rules—rules for marriage, rules for raising children, rules for conducting business, rules for settling disputes between neighbors, even rules for diet and hygiene. Those who wanted the benefits of peace with God were obligated to obey these rules at all times and make sure that everyone they lived and worked with did the same.

The third obligation demanded personal responsibility from the people for their misdeeds. No one is capable of perfect behavior; God knew that and made allowances for it. So He put into place a system by which sins could be forgiven, a system that communicated how serious the problem of sin really is. Instead of demanding the sinner’s death, God allowed those who were sorry to offer the life of an animal in their place. But sinners may not approach the holy God; so the Lord appointed priests to serve as go-betweens. It was the priests who shed the blood of these sacrificial animals, showing that God’s anger at sin had been successfully diverted away from the sinner. If God’s people took responsibility for their mistakes and brought the appropriate sacrifices, God would forgive them.

The fourth obligation of the covenant was to firmly trust in God. The Israelites were forbidden from making treaties with other nations; such agreements were evidence that the children of God no longer trusted their heavenly Father to protect them. They were also warned against trying to see the future by consulting mediums, psychics, or astrologers; if the people trusted God as they should, they would have no worries about what tomorrow might bring.

The obligations of God’s covenant fill half of Exodus, all of Leviticus, half of Numbers and most of Deuteronomy. But in return, God promised His people some very impressive things. First, if the Israelites trusted in His care, God promised to protect them. He would give them military victories against impossible odds. He would provide them with land to work, herds to raise, and homes to live in. He would ensure that they had enough to eat, regardless of climate or weather. With God in charge, their future could be bright indeed.

Second, if the people repented of their wrongdoings and brought sacrifices to the priests, God promised to forgive their sins. And this was not the kind of limited mercy that human beings offer each other; God would not remember how they had failed and treat them coldly from that day forward, nor would He trade forgiveness for some kind of favor. No, when God forgave it was total and complete; He promised to remember their sins no more. With God in charge, the Israelites could be freed from the weight of accumulated guilt.

Third, if the people obeyed God’s laws, He promised to bless them. Their businesses would prosper. There would be peace in their land. Citizens of other nations would regard them with envy and respect. With God in charge, daily life could be enjoyable and fulfilling.

Fourth, if the people gave God the respect He deserved and honored Him as more important than anything else in their lives, God promised to make them His children forever. This meant that when they died, they would be welcomed into God’s heavenly palace. This meant that death would not separate loved ones forever, that a reunion was waiting to happen just the other side of the grave. This meant that suffering and old age were only temporary problems which could be endured because paradise waits for those who belong to the Lord.

These were the terms of the Sinai covenant. God ratified this treaty with blood; He had Moses sacrifice animals, sprinkle some of the blood on an altar and sprinkle the rest of the blood on the people. God and His children were thus united in a pact of blood, the kind of pact that takes place whenever kids cut their fingers and press them together, mixing their blood as a promise of eternal friendship.

Those days at Sinai, waiting as God ratified His covenant, were long and frightening. But God deliberately made it that way—He wanted to communicate how seriously the people should take this treaty, and be terrified of walking away from God’s terms of peace. But even though God made His expectations crystal clear, even though He was incredibly generous in what He offered, and even though He put the fear of God into the people with a demonstration of His might, the covenant was not nearly as successful as it should have been. Book after book of the Old Testament show us how casually people treated God’s covenant—bending some rules, breaking others, rewriting still more, and in many cases ignoring the terms of peace altogether.

A new covenant was needed. The blood of animals could not do the job demanded by the old covenant; such blood had no power when people turned away from God. A better blood was needed, a blood that would be powerful and effective whether people believed in God or not. That kind of blood would accomplish something incredible; that kind of blood would be a guarantee of God’s love and mercy regardless of how people felt about it. Such blood would have to be very special—it would have to be divine.

Of course, God does not have blood—He is spiritual, not physical. So God sent His Son to be born of a woman, Son of God and Son of Man united in one. His arteries pulsed with blood that was human in every respect; lose enough of it and He would die. But that blood had value that no earthly blood has ever held before or since. The blood of Jesus was and is the blood of God, unmatched in worth, unlimited in what it can accomplish. Jesus was born on earth so that He could die bleeding on the cross, sacrificing His blood in place of ours, diverting God’s anger at our sins to the dying Son of God. Jesus’ blood is the final sacrifice for all human sin, accomplishing salvation in one fell swoop for all people, whether they believe it or not.

In Christ we have been united with God by a pact of blood. Jesus is our high priest, the cross was His altar, and His life the sacrifice. On the cross, Jesus’ blood reconnected sinful mankind with holy God. This is why He offers us His blood in the wine of Holy Communion; through it, He sprinkles us with the blood that ratified the new covenant between God and us.

The terms of this new covenant are somewhat different than the terms of the old. God still wants us to respect Him, obey Him, seek mercy from Him and trust Him, but these are no longer conditions for winning His favor. Under the new covenant, there is only one requirement we are obliged to keep—we must trust in Jesus as God’s Son and our Savior. That’s it. That’s the full extent of what we must do to be saved. Jesus said it clearly in John chapter six: The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent. Do this, and you will receive all the benefits of God’s wonderful love.

God’s new terms of peace are the result of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. His blood is God’s blood; it has the value and the power to ratify God’s new covenant forever, regardless of whether we believe in it or not. The offer of God’s mercy and acceptance is based solely on Christ, meaning that it is valid for all people at all times, because Christ died for all and rose to live forever.

The book of Hebrews says that this new covenant is a better one than what was given at Sinai amid thunder and lightning. This new covenant is based less on fear and more on love. It only requires trust in God’s promises. It invites obedience instead of demanding it. It is not sealed with earthly blood like that soaking the ground after Abel was murdered; that kind of blood speaks of sins committed. No, God’s treaty of peace is ratified with the blood of God’s Son; His blood speaks of sins mercifully forgiven. In every way imaginable, the covenant of the New Testament is superior to the covenant of the Old.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Faith is a lifestyle

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind (Luke 10:27).

We try to compartmentalize our lives. What happens at work stays at work. What happens at home stays in the home. We don’t want to take the stress of a tough day home to our families. We know that the boss doesn’t want domestic problems interfering with our job performance. So we try to leave separate lives—one at the office, and another at home.

But it doesn’t end there. Guys set up ‘man caves’ in the basement or garage, a space reserved for leisure time with their buddies. Kids can act one way at school, another way when at home, and be completely different when running with a street gang. Executives go on business trips operating under the motto ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’

Sadly, we also tend to compartmentalize our faith. Religion becomes something that you do in church—and that’s where it stays. Prayer, reading the Bible, thinking about what’s right and wrong in the eyes of God—these things are for Sunday morning. Rarely do they come up during the week—or even on Sunday afternoon.

Do children stop loving their parents when they go to school? Are you allowed to break the law after the sun goes down? Does a healthy diet do any good if you only follow it one day a week? Of course not! Relationships are 24/7. The law is always in effect. Medical treatment does little good if it’s only taken sporadically.

So it is with your faith life. You cannot compartmentalize the King of all creation! You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind. There is no time or place where He turns a blind eye to rudeness, fighting, theft or falsehood. Every moment of every day, you are in need of His strength, His wisdom, His love and forgiveness.

Faith is not a part of your life—faith is a lifestyle that shapes everything about you. Your faith in Jesus affects how you think about yourself, how you treat others, and the decisions that you make. Faith should express itself in every aspect of your day; if it doesn’t, Jesus is ready to forgive you and increase the faith that makes you God’s child.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Characteristics of faith

Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24)

Faith is a yes or no proposition, yet faith can grow or shrink over time.

Either you have faith or you don’t. That seems pretty clear. Life has many absolutes. Either you’re alive or you’re dead. Either you’re pregnant or you’re not. Electrical current is either on or off. There are courses of study that are graded as pass or fail.

Either you believe in Christ as your Savior or you don’t. There’s no middle ground. Jesus said, God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life…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 3:16, 18).

Faith in Christ is all-important. If you reject Him, you reject the forgiveness that He died on the cross to win for you. If you reject Him, you reject access to heaven because Jesus says I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). Without faith in Jesus, life is pointless and death is the ultimate tragedy. With faith in Christ, life has meaning—you know that you have value as a child of God, and you have purpose in sharing His love with others. With faith in Christ, death is still a sad time of parting, but the grief of separation is eased by the hope of a future reunion in God’s eternal kingdom.

This faith should not be taken for granted. Faith can fluctuate over the passage of years. The Spirit of God plants faith in our hearts like a seed. That seed will grow if properly tended, or wither and die if left neglected. Faith grows in response to the word of God; faith is nourished by participating in worship and Bible study. Faith starves when church life is ignored and the Bible remains closed on a shelf; starve it enough and faith will eventually fall over dead. But even those with strong faith experience times of doubt and uncertainty; this is why we need the Holy Spirit’s strengthening presence in our hearts. The Spirit is our gardener from above, who is committed to keeping our faith strong and healthy. He planted it, and He wants to see it bear fruit in God’s eternal garden.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Baal worship today?

"Am I only a God nearby," declares the LORD, "and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?" declares the LORD. "Do not I fill heaven and earth?" declares the LORD. "I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, `I had a dream! I had a dream!' How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds? They think the dreams they tell one another will make my people forget my name, just as their fathers forgot my name through Baal worship. Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?" declares the LORD. "Is not my word like fire," declares the LORD, "and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:23-29)

A whole generation of Israelites grew up in the desert. They lived in tents and Moses was their leader. Their diet was sweet bread in the morning and desert quail in the evening. They wore the same clothes every day. They worshipped at the Tent of Meeting, where priests told them that their sins were forgiven. They followed a pillar of smoke by which God led them through the wilderness.

Then they arrived in Canaan, fields and mountains which are known today as Israel. Canaan was filled with farmers and ranchers; it also had many cities and towns. The people of this land had different beliefs than the Israelites—instead of one God, they worshipped a group of gods. Their favorites were Baal and Astoreth. Baal was the Thunderer, the god of rain; his wife Astoreth was the goddess of fertility. Baal was the peoples’ champion, fighting against the god of death. He did this by sending rain to end the dry season; Canaanites believed that Baal made the harvest possible. Astoreth was his helper; she was responsible for calving season and for blessing families with children.

The Canaanites were devoted to their religion; shrines dotted the countryside. On the top of many hills you could find an altar to Baal and an Asherah pole dedicated to his wife. These were places of prayer and worship. But the temples found in the cities offered a service the country shrines did not—they had temple prostitutes who served on staff. You see, the Canaanites felt that the best way to honor the gods of fertility was to offer them the gift of sex. And there was one other way that the people honored Baal and his wife; they practiced human sacrifice. To show their gratitude for being blessed with offspring, the people would return some of their children to the gods by burning them alive.

God hated these worship practices. The people of Baal took sex out of the marriage bed and offered it to prostitutes. They took the lives of children that God had given them and ended those lives prematurely. Their religion was based on a lie—that there are many gods and many ways to please them. And so God ordered the Israelites to be ruthless in exterminating worship of Baal and Astoreth—they were to destroy the altars, cut down the Asherah poles, and put to death those who practiced this vile religion.

But the Israelites were ambivalent about God’s stern command. Some Canaanites were rich; others had beautiful daughters and handsome sons. And so accommodations were made, intermarriages took place, business partnerships were created, and in time the worshippers of God started offering their prayers to Baal. This struggle for the hearts of God’s people went on for hundreds of years.

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God speaks of the danger posed by Baal worship: my people forget my name. It all comes down to a hard but important truth spoken by Jesus: No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other (Matthew 6:24). It is impossible to love both Baal and God. Nor is God willing to share our hearts with another; through Isaiah God says, I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols (Isaiah 42:8). In the Ten Commandments, God lays it on the line: You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:4-6). To people who want to have it both ways, Jesus says this: He who is not with me is against me (Matthew 12:30).

You might be thinking, “Okay, so Baal worship was bad—but what does that have to do with me? No one has worshipped Baal for thousands of years.” This is true—Baal worship is dead. But it has been replaced by other false religions that are just as dangerous, ways of thinking that can make you forget the name of the Lord your God. Let’s consider just a few.

The biggest false religions in the world today are Hinduism and Islam. Hinduism is a religion that sees gods everywhere. It claims that the religions of the world are just different expressions of the same eternal truth; as a result, Hindus believe there are many ways to heaven. Islam is just the opposite—Islam believes that there is only one God, and that no one has understood Him better than the prophet Mohammed—not even Jesus, who was a wise man but not the Son of God.

Echoes of Baal worship can be heard in Hinduism—the notion that there are many gods and many ways to please them. This dangerous teaching is opposed by Jesus who said, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). We feel the influence of Hinduism all around us—the notion that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that what is true for you might not necessarily be true for me. As a result of such thinking, many people treat religion like a buffet line, picking and choosing what they want to believe from many different faiths, coming away with nothing but a mixed-up mess on their plates.

Echoes of Baal worship are also heard in the teachings of Islam. Allah welcomes the sacrifice of lives in his service; dying while killing unbelievers guarantees a place in paradise. Islam is so committed to the truth that there is only one God that it is unwilling to accept Jesus as God’s Son; yet this rejection is damning because Scripture says, God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life…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 3:16, 18). God offers heaven as a gift freely given to all who trust in His Son; it is not a place that must be earned by rigid adherence to rules of conduct. And while God hates sin, He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Islam ignores God’s offer of mercy through His Son, and actively persecutes those who would share the Good News.

But spiritual thoughts typical of Baal worship are found in more places than just organized religion. False religious teaching is offered by psychics and by the science textbooks found in our classrooms. Psychics claim to be able to see the future through casting horoscopes or speaking with the dead; science claims to know how the universe came to be by making educated guesses about the past.

Baal worship involved doing things to influence future events—please the gods, and they will reward your devotion with children and a good harvest. Psychics offer a look into the future so that you can maximize the good and hopefully avoid the bad. But God forbids such behavior—He says, Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). The reason God forbids trying to get a peek into the future is because it shows that we do not trust Him to take care of us. Jesus said, don’t be concerned about what to eat and what to drink. Don’t worry about such things. These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers all over the world, but your Father already knows your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need (Luke 12:29-31). And yet in spite of these words, countless newspapers and magazines tempt their readers to check a daily horoscope instead of asking God to guide them through the coming day.

Even though prayer is banned from school, religion is still taught in the classroom—it is taught whenever the topic of evolution comes up. Make no mistake—evolution is taken on faith alone, with no way to prove that it is true. That makes it religion, not science. And it is dangerous because it offers a false god in place of the true God. Evolution is the belief in the laws of nature as the creator of all that is. Like Baalism, evolution suggests that a different god is in control of the universe. But Paul writes in Romans chapter three, Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Evolution suggests that there is no god, and without God there are no standards for right or wrong conduct, nor is there any risk of eternal punishment in hell. But evolution is a poor god, because it offers no hope for life after death, no comfort of eternal rest in paradise.

But the reach of Baalism doesn’t stop there. We hear its call from Hollywood celebrities, from New York City journalists, and from Washington politicians. These people try to shape our opinions through television programs and theatrical movies, through newspaper stories and radio talk shows, through press releases and public speeches. We are told that if it feels good, do it. We are told that there is nothing wrong with doing whatever we want, so long as nobody gets hurt. We are told to keep our mouths shut if we don't agree with what someone else is doing.

Baalism made sex an act of worship, and our society certainly holds sex in high regard. You can’t watch TV for an hour without seeing ads for products that are supposed to enhance sex or relieve some sexual problem. Celebrities and politicians are constantly getting caught in scandals, which become lead stories in the news. But sex isn’t the only pleasure making the headlines; people also find themselves trapped by alcohol, drugs and gambling. Celebrities go to rehab centers, often for multiple visits. The news media hunts for scandal like a pig noses through garbage, looking for something smelly and rotten. Politicians duck and dodge hard questions about their behavior and hire expensive lawyers to salvage their reputations and careers. But God warns us away from sinful pleasures, and commands us to take responsibility and repent when we have done wrong. John writes, If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-9). The danger of excessive pleasure is that it becomes more important to us than the God who gives us good things to enjoy. We must hold each other accountable for our actions; we dare not turn a blind eye to the sins of those around us, because they need our help to resist temptation just as much as we need theirs. We are told in Hebrews chapter three, encourage one another daily…so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness.

The name of Baal may be mostly forgotten, but the kind of behavior associated with his worship is alive and well. And the danger today is the same as when God spoke through Jeremiah: their fathers forgot my name through Baal worship. We must not forget God’s name. There is only one Creator of heaven and earth. The only way to approach Him is through Jesus Christ, His Son. Jesus died to forgive our sins; apart from Him, there is no way to find God’s approval. We must trust in His love for us and not worry about the future; we must not allow love of pleasure to eclipse our love for the Savior. If we have this kind of relationship with the Lord, then Baal is truly dead and forgotten.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The benefits of faith

I trust in your unfailing love (Psalm 13:5).

We’ve all experienced betrayal. We shared something personal, only to have that secret become a topic of gossip. We’ve all been let down. We depended on someone who lost track of time, didn’t bring the right stuff, or simply forgot that they had made a promise to us. And we’ve all been lied to. We were taken advantage of, then discarded as no longer necessary.

Because we’ve been repeatedly hurt these ways, it’s hard to muster up trust in anyone—even God. Which is manifestly unfair, because God has never betrayed us, never broken a promise, never told a lie. God is faithful. God can be trusted. Unlike us, He is perfect; the sinful nature that makes us unfaithful is completely foreign to Him.

To have faith is to be confident in God’s love, power, and wisdom. Faith trusts God to deal with us in love, even though we make Him angry with our bad behavior. Faith has confidence in God’s almighty power, power that can overcome the biggest of problems. Faith finds security in God’s wisdom, trusting that when we are lost in confusion, God knows what is for the best.

To have faith is to reject worry over the uncontrollable. You don’t run the stock market. You can’t stop world leaders from declaring war. You have no power over earthquakes or tornadoes. Your friends and family will make bad decisions that are beyond your control. Worrying about such things is pointless; your time is better spent in praying to the Lord and trusting Him to take care of things.

To have faith is to give up the illusion of self-reliance. How many times have you sworn you were going to give up smoking, lose weight, or start exercising? How many New Year’s resolutions have you broken? How many times have you kicked yourself for disappointing the people who love you and depend on you? We are weak and corrupt. Left to our own devices, we only make a mess of things. We need God because He’s the only one who can forgive us and rescue us from the consequences of our bad decisions. Faith teaches us to rely on Him rather than ourselves. Faith in God brings peace.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Acting on faith

I live by faith in the Son of God (Galatians 2:20).

“Come on! I wanna show you something great!” The boy dashes off into the woods, his friend chasing after him. The youngsters duck low-hanging branches as they charge through the trees. Then, an obstacle—a huge trunk lies across the ground ahead, hiding the path beyond. The first boy yells “jump for it” and hurtles over the fallen tree. His friend puts on an extra burst of speed and blindly follows suit.

Would you have made the jump, not knowing what was on the other side of the log? Or would you have slowed down and stepped over the log cautiously? Would you trust your friend enough to follow his lead and take that leap of faith?

That’s what faith is—acting on trust. It’s easy to say that you have faith, but putting it into practice is another matter entirely. A wife might claim that she trusts her husband, but when he’s in bed and his cell phone is sitting there staring at her, is she tempted to find out who he’s been contacting? A manager might say that he trusts his employees, but will he avoid checking in while away on vacation?

It’s hard to put faith into practice. To have blind faith in someone seems dangerously foolish. Jesus understands this. He wants us to trust Him, but He does not ask for blind faith. During the years that He walked among us here on earth, Jesus performed miracles to prove His identity as the Son of God. He said, believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves (John 14:11). Jesus had the story of His life written down so that people of every generation could share in the faith of His disciples; John finished his Gospel account by saying Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. On top of this, Jesus gives us the sacraments of baptism and communion. Through water, bread and wine, we are allowed to experience the power of God’s love in a tangible way.

The boy chasing through the woods jumped over the log because he trusted that his friend would not lead him into danger. That’s the kind of practical faith that Jesus wants from you. Follow Him with confidence, and He will lead you to someplace wonderful.

Saturday, August 06, 2011


Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible…

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them
(Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-16).

Do you believe that man walked on the moon? Do you believe that William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet? Do you believe that germs can make you sick? Do you believe that Ronald and Nancy Reagan really loved each other?

How do you know that these things are true? Some claim that man never set foot on the moon, that the whole thing was faked in a secret television studio. Some believe that Shakespeare took the credit for another person’s work. Have you ever seen a germ? And even if you have looked through a microscope, how do you know that the little wiggling thing you saw can actually make someone sick? And as to the Reagans, how can you be certain what was really in their hearts?

We believe in things that we cannot see. I believe that the Great Wall of China exists, even though I’ve never gone to see it. I believe that John Hancock was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence, even though I was not in Philadelphia that hot July day in 1776. I believe that ultraviolet rays make my skin tan, even though I cannot see the radiation. And I believe that my wife loves me, even though I cannot read her thoughts.

These are all examples of faith—believing in something that you cannot see. Hebrews says, faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Faith is what makes us different from animals. Animals live for today in a world they can experience with their five senses. But human beings are not so limited. We think about things that cannot be experienced with the senses. We make plans for a future that we hope will come to be.

Paul says in 2nd Corinthians chapter five, We live by faith, not by sight. As Christians, there are several things we believe in and hope for, things that cannot be seen or proven. Nevertheless we are sure of them, and we take these beliefs into consideration as we make decisions about things and lay out plans for the future.

First of all, we believe in God. We believe that the universe is not the result of accidental evolution, but that it was hand-crafted by a Master Architect. Scripture says, every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything (Hebrews 3:4). We believe that God is loving and that we can depend on Him; James tells us that Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows (James 1:17). And we believe that He is righteous, rewarding good and punishing evil; Psalm 145 says The LORD watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy.

We also believe in Satan. Ages ago, the devil tried to overthrow God’s rule. But God is far stronger than Satan, and so the evil one was defeated. Knowing that he cannot win a direct battle with God, Satan switched tactics—since God loves humanity, the devil has made us his primary target. He tries to destroy us as a way to cause God pain; while God loves us, Satan views us as nothing but pawns to be used for his own evil purposes. Satan does everything in his power to separate us from God. He tries to convince some people that God is far away, that He doesn’t get personally involved in our lives, or that He doesn’t exist at all. Satan leads the fearful to believe that God is too angry at them to ever forgive their mistakes. He convinces others that they can do whatever they want, because a loving God would never punish anyone. And the devil encourages many to believe that they are such good people that God must reward their outstanding behavior. Satan tells all these lies in order to get us to abandon God, show Him disrespect, or take Him for granted.

Neither God nor Satan can be seen, yet they are the two most powerful forces in the universe, and they both have a significant impact on whether our days are filled with peace and hope or stress and fear.

Something else we believe in, but cannot see, is heaven. Although God is everywhere, heaven is His home, the place from which He rules. Paul was given a glimpse of heaven, but all he could say of the experience was that he heard things that cannot be put into words, things that man is not permitted to tell (2 Corinthians 12:4). In his vision of heaven, John heard joyful singing. On one occasion, Jesus described it as paradise; another time He compared it to a festive dinner party. But access to heaven is restricted; only those made clean by Jesus are admitted. Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, those who worship false gods and everyone who loves and practices falsehood (Revelation 22:14-55).

Just as much as we believe in heaven, we also believe in the prison called hell. Hell was created by God as the place where Satan and his followers will be incarcerated forever. Isaiah describes it as a place of being always tormented by fire, yet never dying from the pain; a place of constantly decaying health that never ends with the release of death. Jesus says that hell is a place of darkness, filled with sounds of weeping and cries of frustration. This is God’s final punishment for all who do not believe in Jesus Christ.

Neither heaven nor hell can be seen, yet the wise person is concerned about which place awaits his soul and he lives his life accordingly.

Angels are all around us, yet we cannot see them as they go about their work. God sends them to help and protect us; Psalm 91 says He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. Sometimes angels take on human form to interact with us; Hebrews chapter 13 says Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Angels make God’s will known to us, nudging us in the right direction when we are so wrapped up in ourselves that God is pushed into the background.

Just as we believe in angels, we also believe in demons. Satan was an angel, and when he took on the role of devil, the angels who followed him became demons. Demons are at work in the world all around us, causing sickness, provoking acts of rage and violence, luring people into sexual encounters outside of marriage. Fallen angels tempt us to overeat and overspend while ignoring the needs of the poor and weak. Demons find the same joy in tormenting us as a sadistic child does in pulling the wings from a fly and watching it limp around in pain.

Neither angels nor demons can be seen, but we still experience their presence in our daily lives, gently pushing or rudely shoving.

Lastly, we believe in God’s promises. God promised to forgive all the ways in which we anger Him. That promise is fulfilled in Jesus. God sent His Son to die for our sins, suffering the punishment we deserve for dancing to Satan’s tune. Jesus experienced all the horrors of hell while on the cross, so that when we die heaven can be our place of rest. Jesus made this terrible sacrifice out of love for us, and He offers us the benefits of His death for free. We do not need to repay Him—indeed, such a thing would be impossible. Jesus makes this clear when He says, what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:26) No, rescue from punishment in hell is a gift freely given, having only one stipulation: that we love and trust in Jesus as God’s Son and our Savior. The Gospel of John says, God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life…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 3:16, 18).

God promises salvation to those who trust in Jesus, but He also promises judgment on those who do not submit to Christ. Jesus said, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). Peter said, Salvation is found in no one else (Acts 4:12). John wrote, No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also (1 John 2:23).

God and Satan are invisible. Heaven and hell cannot be seen. Angels and demons go about their business undercover. But Jesus came to live in our world. Crowds listened to His words. Peter, James and John saw His glory. Thomas touched the crucifixion scars in his hands. Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead. The New Testament is written by people who were witnesses to these incredible events.

We may feel a little jealous that they saw what we cannot. But Jesus praises faith like ours: blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (John 20:29). Peter reassures us, Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:8-9).

Faith is about living your life as if unseen things are real. Faith leads you to make decisions that are based on hope alone. Everyone lives by faith to some extent—faith that the sun will come up tomorrow, faith that washing a cut will prevent infection, faith that when someone makes a promise they will keep it. But this kind of faith is limited—it offers no release from guilt, it offers no hope for life after death. To live life as it should be experienced, we need faith in Christ—faith that our lives are valuable and have a purpose, faith that old hurts can be forgiven and enemies can become friends, faith that good is stronger than evil. You cannot see such things; you can only hope that they are true. But Jesus is a miracle-worker, and faith is one of His greatest miracles. He gives you faith in what lies unseen, so that you might have life, and have it to the full.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Who is God?

I am God, and there is none like me (Isaiah 46:9).

Who is God?

God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three distinct persons united in one almighty Deity. The triune nature of God marks Him as distinct from every false god of human invention; the fact that God is both three and one at the same time defies logic and has no comparison anywhere in the universe. God is unlike anything in His wide and diverse creation.

Our world is full of religions and philosophies, yet they all express a common teaching—achieving happiness is your responsibility. You can be healed if your faith is strong enough. You can achieve greatness if you work at wholeheartedly. You can have anything you want if you visualize it properly. You can earn God’s approval if you are sufficiently dedicated.

The Triune God speaks a very different message. God the Father says that we are sinners, and that no amount of human effort can achieve the perfection that He demands. God the Son tells us that He is the way, the truth, and the life—no one comes to the Father except through the forgiveness that He alone offers. God the Holy Spirit teaches that the LORD expects nothing from us to earn His favor; He offers His boundless love and mercy freely to those who trust in Jesus as the only Savior of mankind.

This message of salvation freely given provokes all sorts of different reactions. Some don’t value charity—they feel that if something is free, it isn’t worth having. Others experience a stinging blow to their pride—how can God say that they aren’t good enough to deserve His blessings? And there are those who reject the loss of freedom that comes with following the way of Christ to the exclusion of everything else.

Thankfully, there are people who rejoice in what the Triune God offers—forgiveness full and free, clarity in a confusing world, and confidence that God makes all things work to the good for those who love Him. This is the wonderful Deity that is your God and mine.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

God the Spirit

Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Romans 8:14).

Who is God?

We worship the Holy Spirit, the Counselor who comes down to us from heaven. He dwells in our hearts; He gives us the ability to believe in things that cannot be seen or touched. He helps us to understand the teachings of God, which are written down for us in the Bible.

The Spirit of God gives us confidence. Each of us has experienced betrayal at the hands of people that we trusted. Everyone has been let down and disappointed by loved ones. Thankfully, God never goes back on His word; the LORD always keeps His promises. The Holy Spirit helps us to rely on God, even though we are reluctant to open our hearts in trust.

The Spirit of God gives us comfort. We make all sorts of mistakes, and some are beyond our power to fix. When we feel helpless or filled with self-loathing, the Holy Spirit touches us with peace. He reminds us that Christ died to forgive everything that we’ve done wrong. He assures us that God has solutions for any problem, no matter how hopeless things might seem.

The Spirit of God offers us wisdom and guidance. There are times when we are confused. Am I hearing the truth, or being taken advantage of? In a sea of conflicting opinions, who is right and who is wrong? When it is time to make a decision, which way forward should I choose? These are times when the Holy Spirit wants us to pray and ask for help. These are times when He urges us to stop and give time to God, looking to His Good Book for clarity and wisdom.

The Spirit of God urges us to mend our ways. He confronts us with our sins so we won’t make the same mistakes over and over again. He stops us from trying to duck responsibility by shifting the blame to others. The Holy Spirit reveals uncomfortable truths so that we might fall to our knees and receive the incredible blessing of forgiveness. This wonderful Counselor is your God and mine.

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