Why are We Surprised?

I was going to let this go, but after seeing a couple of Facebook posts by fellow believers about it, I feel compelled to say something.  It concerns the killing of Christians by Muslims in Africa and the Phillippines over the past few days. There was an undertone of outrage in the posts that these incidents were ignored by American media while much was made of the massacre at a mosque in New Zealand on Friday.

I run the risk of sounding like a self-righteous scold, but here goes. First of all, these are all horrible tragedies carried out by evil individuals who were driven by hate, revenge, misguided religious zeal, or who knows what. The Muslims who were murdered deserved it no more than the Christians who suffered the same fate. If we who call ourselves Christian believe anything else, we need to repent, ask forgiveness, and then go back and read what the Bible says about how to treat your ‘enemies’.

We get indignant when Christian persecution and execution (what else would you call this?) doesn’t make the front page of the New York Times or the lead story on NBC news. We seem jealous that Islam gets all the press while we’re ignored. My question is: why are we surprised the world ignores Christians except to mock and spew hatred about them? We need to point our outrage at the right target and remember some basic things.

Jesus told his disciples explicitly they would be hated by the world. “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20) A little later he told them: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; ‘I have overcome the world’. (John 16:33) Jesus promised to be with his followers always but made it clear their lives would be difficult and full of trouble. Since we’re his disciples we’re going to suffer as well.

Peter said it this way: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12) A few verses later he says, Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (v. 16). So- the disciples were to expect a ‘fiery trial’ to come their way. It was a test. When it came they were to glorify God as they suffered. I suspect it was something more than what we in America call persecution.

I fear greatly for the church in the United States. We’ve grown so comfortable with the right to worship free from persecution we find it difficult to comprehend that most believers in the world literally risk their lives to follow Christ. We more closely resemble the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3 every day. They were self-satisfied and thought they needed nothing, especially Jesus Christ. They had no love for Christ or the gospel. They met on Sundays to congratulate themselves for being so good and then went back to their comfortable lives. Christ said they made him want to vomit. What will he say about us?

We complain and demand that those in authority do something to stop discrimination against Christians. We’ve apparently forgotten that Jesus was persecuted, beaten, and executed by the authorities of his day. The world hasn’t gotten better whatever we tell ourselves. Human nature hasn’t changed. The world is still under the curse of sin and chooses to live under its bondage, thinking they control their own lives. It is the BIG lie, the original one first told to Adam and Eve. We tell it to ourselves so we can live with ourselves. The world prefers slavery under sin disguised as freedom to surrender and submission to the only One who grants real freedom from the slavery of sin.

Our outrage should focus on the evil one who turns us against each other and away from God. We should be angry at the darkness surrounding those outside the grace of God, the ones in danger of eternal punishment. We need to spend less time venting our anger on Facebook and other social media about being marginalized and more time carrying out the one task we were given by Christ- making disciples. We won’t win the world by better press coverage. That’s what the world does- “Look at me!” The world is the enemy of God. We lift up Jesus; He’s the one we want people to see, the One they need to see, not us.

We are called to be different- radically different. Our lives are to be the embodiment of Christ. His terrifying love for the lost, his holiness, his obedience, and his suffering. He was rejected by the ones he came seeking, so why should we be any different? We are told to rejoice in suffering and persecution; it’s a mark that shows we belong to Christ. You don’t get much more radical than that. Love your enemies; pray for those that persecute you. Feed, clothe and care for your enemies. Are we doing that? More importantly, are we boldly telling the world their sin is condemning them to an eternity of hell, but Jesus offers them forgiveness, grace, and eternal life? Do we love them that much? Can we?

Do our lives look like bondservants (slaves) of Christ? Or do we look and act pretty much like everyone else? If it’s the latter, the world won’t hate you, but they won’t listen to you, either. Yes, we should mourn when the innocent suffer and die, especially fellow believers at the hands of those who violently oppose Christianity. But we should never dare to be surprised by the world’s hatred of Christ’s followers and its willingness to show it.

 

Iron Sharpens Iron

“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” – Proverbs 27:17

I love working in my shop, but I hate dull tools. They’re dangerous and they don’t work well. So I’ve learned to sharpen tools. At first, I didn’t like sharpening very much because I wasn’t good at it. But the more I read and listened to those who have done it for a long time, and learned through practice, the better I became. Now I can produce a pretty wicked edge most of the time. And I enjoy sharpening because I know my tools will work properly.

So when I read Proverbs and see this verse, I understand the image the writer had in mind. In the same way that iron files are used to sharpen iron blades, we ‘sharpen’ one another to be capable of doing what we’re meant to do. Left to our own devices we grow dull over time because we can’t maintain our “edge”.

Think of the times you’ve been working with a close friend you really admire and trust.  Did you notice how smoothly things get done when you’re on the same wavelength? One may not have the answer but the other one does. The multiplication of minds has an exponential effect on the work. Your friend may think of something that hadn’t occurred to you, or maybe you come up with a brainstorm that he or she would have never considered.

I came across this quote from Oswald Chambers this morning: “Always keep in contact with those books and those people that enlarge your horizon and make it possible for you to stretch yourself mentally.” He understood the importance of our not trying to go it alone. When the only voice we’re hearing is our own, we tend to become “dull”. It’s inevitable. We need exposure to a variety of thoughts and ideas to exercise our mind. Books are good, but living, breathing “books” are just as important. One mind rubbing up against another is like rough pieces of stone being turned into beautiful agates.

That’s why Sunday is my favorite day of the week. I get to be with my people, my spiritual family. We come together to worship and we encourage one another in the process. It hurts a little when we have to go home. We don’t see much of one another during the week because of work, distance, and life in general. I dearly love them all, but there are several that are my sharpening tools. They inspire and challenge me, make me stretch, help me become more than what I’ve been. I only hope I benefit them in the same way.

It’s distressing to hear someone say they don’t need the church, that they can worship God and be okay with him on their own. Even more so are those who ‘put in their time’ on Sunday but never invest any more of themselves than that. The church and our relationship to God were never designed to be that way. They don’t work in any other configuration than how God designed them. This from an admitted introvert who would be happy with a shack and a dog living in the woods. I would experience spiritual atrophy if not death in such an environment (I think even the dog would get tired of it after a while).

We need to listen to God- through His word, as well as prayer and meditation. And he will tell us what we need to know. But we also need each other, even those who may be more of a challenge. It’s the picture Paul gives us of the body of Christ. What one part can’t do another part can. Sometimes one part helps another function even more effectively, and in turn the whole body benefits. As Paul said, “Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

I’m not thinking particularly of accountability here, although that’s part of it. What I have in mind is really enjoying one another. Spending time together in worship, fellowship, and prayer, but also in everyday activities,  sharing ourselves with each other. I love time spent working at my lathe, but I really enjoy working on a project with someone else, learning from each other, tossing out ideas, enjoying the opportunity to be joined in a common purpose. I always seem to learn more than I teach, and the joy of sharing success with someone else is almost indescribable.

If your idea of “church” is an hour on Sunday and then get on with the rest of your life you have no idea what you’re missing. The church is the body, and that body hurts when a member is missing or just barely connected to the rest of it. Ever accidentally rip off a fingernail or toenail? That’s how it feels-or should. We should welcome every opportunity to be together and ache for one another when we’re apart. This world does its best to keep us apart and distracted. Our strength is in our fellowship and encouraging each other. Get to know and love those folks you see on Sunday, and then spend time together more often than that.

 

Light and Momentary Things

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. for this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” – 1 Corinthians 4:16-17

I love sunrises. A sunrise in a clear sky during a northern Michigan winter is not only a blessing, it’s nearly miraculous. Yesterday was an exceptional one. There were wisps of clouds in the sky that seem to catch fire when the sun began to rise. It was spectacular. But by the time I could walk from my office to the bedroom (only a few steps) to open the curtains and share it with my wife, it had already begun to fade, and while still beautiful it was not as stunning as when I first saw it.

That’s the way life works. All the really good things don’t last long enough. The concert by your favorite band, that once in a lifetime vacation to a place you always wanted to visit, Christmas, reunions with dearly loved family and friends. They always end too soon. We try desperately to extend the time, but then it’s gone and we’re left with nothing but pleasant memories.

On the other hand, suffering seems to last forever. When you’re in pain, minutes turn to hours, hours to days, and days to lifetimes. If you find yourself in a difficult or dysfunctional relationship or situation it’s hard to hope that it will ever get better or even change a little bit. Time slows to a near standstill. Life becomes darkness that steals our joy. We find ourselves wondering, “when will this ever end?” We constantly ask why this is happening to us.

The apostle Paul could have thought the same way. He suffered beatings, stoning, near drowning, deprivation, hatred, persecution. He could have easily given in and given up. His take: he considered them ‘light and momentary afflictions’. Paul had a long view of things. His vision extended beyond the horizon of this life. He saw eternity, beyond what our eyes can see. He considered what he suffered as temporary because “we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

It’s hard to think of suffering as ‘light and momentary’ when you’re in the middle of it. You can get so wrapped up in it you can’t see anything else. We can become convinced that no one else has ever experienced anything like this, and no one else could possibly understand what you are going through. Let me try. I am in the midst of the second round of treatment for prostate cancer that I thought was cured twelve years ago. My hope is the treatment will put it back into remission, but I have no expectation that it will go away completely.

Now, I have a choice. I can see myself as a cancer victim and let that dictate the narrative of my life. Or I can choose to take the long view of Paul. Yes, it’s an inconvenience and a little frustrating at times. Yes, I still have a few residual reminders of the first round of treatment. But it’s offset by the huge weight of the blessings I enjoy. God is still granting me days of life, sometimes with spectacular sunrises. I have family and friends I wouldn’t trade for the world.  I’m aware there are people out there who hold me up daily in prayer, and it humbles me and sometimes brings me to tears thinking about it. But God has something even better waiting for me when this life comes to an end.

Suffering helps to focus my vision on God. It takes away the false illusion that I can control things, fix things. My cancer is not a curse. It’s my “thorn in the flesh” that reminds me I can’t control or fix things, but God can, and His power sustains me and transforms me into a vessel for his glory, broken parts and all. So like Paul, I’m content and understand that when I am weak, then I am strong.

In relation to eternity, this life is a nanosecond of time. We suffer in this life, but then Christ told us we would. The long view answers, “It was worth it.” Look beyond the horizon, and remember the One who offers to carry your burden.

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, and I will give you rest, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30

 

 

 

 

No More Excuses

“What shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” – Romans 8:31-32

A Christian should never make excuses for being less than what God desires him or her to be. But we do. I’m guilty of doing it and so is everyone I know. You know what I’m talking about:

  • -“That’s just the way I am.” (Translation: “I have no intention of changing.”)
  • -“God can’t really expect me to be holy”. (Apparently, the verse that says, “Be holy, for I am holy” was just a suggestion)
  • -“The Bible doesn’t specifically condemn _______” (fill in the blank) (Looking for loopholes to justify things we want to do or believe)
  • -“God won’t condemn anyone if he’s really a loving God.” (“All we need to do is just love each other; besides, we’re all going to be saved in the end”)

And so it goes.

I don’t mean to sound harsh. But it breaks my heart when Christians settle for being less than they could and should be. Part of it comes from being human and painfully aware of our sins, problems, limitations, and sorrows that life has dealt us. Many times those are what brought us to Jesus in the first place, looking for answers, forgiveness, and relief. But sometimes God chooses to answer our prayers in ways we don’t expect and may not want.

Recently I ran across a different take on grace. I found it in an article on the website DesiringGod.org which was written by Vaneetha Rendall Risner. The title of the article is When God Does the Miracle We Didn’t Ask For, and can be found here. I don’t know if she originated the terms but I’ll certainly give her credit. She speaks of delivering grace and sustaining grace. She uses Exodus to illustrate the difference. When the Israelites were brought through the Red Sea, that was delivering grace. When God gave them manna for forty years, that was sustaining grace.

We like the delivering grace very much. It solves our problems, takes away our hurts, makes our lives easier. It gives us testimony and makes us rejoice. There are times when we need it very badly. But it can also lead us away from God because once the source of distress has been removed we may return to where we were before. Daily life and the things of the world hold our attention until the next disaster strikes.

Sustaining grace, on the other hand, might make us angry at God, thinking he really doesn’t care about us. He didn’t give us what we asked for, but what we really need. Its purpose is to draw us closer to God. We learn to depend on him because we may still have the disease, the pain, or the unseen wounds, but God gives us the strength to endure them and the understanding of how he loves and tenderly cares for us.

Once again it comes down to one simple question that God asks: “Do you trust me”? God wants us to be fully trusting and dependent on him to supply what we need and find joy in the knowledge he gives us exactly that. No matter what trials and tribulations we undergo or experience, God tells us, “I can handle that. I have exactly what you need to be what I desire for you.”

We can and must be holy because God has the power to make us holy. We can overcome or endure our circumstances because He has the strength to overcome them, or if he chooses not to do so, sustain us through them. God orchestrates our lives in order to glorify himself and draw us closer to him. When we make excuses for not following what God has commanded in scripture, in essence, we are saying he can’t or won’t keep his promises. We are saying we don’t trust God.

Paul tells us in this verse that since God has already given us Jesus Christ, his own Son, to cover our sins and give us redemption, why shouldn’t he also give us everything else we need? We must understand, however, the purpose is not to gratify our desires or necessarily make our lives easier but to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ and glorify God. It’s why Paul could praise God for the ‘thorn in the flesh’ and be content in whatever situation he found himself. Paul intimately knew the source of his strength and sustenance.

We need to stop allowing ourselves to make excuses for lack of faith and rebelliousness. We serve a God who is bigger than our circumstances and a Savior who has taken care of the penalty for our sins once and for all. Let’s not settle or compromise: let’s submit to God and allow him to transform us into the glorious creations he intends us to be.

 

 

Slave Mentality

“Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread  to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  – Exodus 16:3 (ESV)

The more I read the book of Exodus the more I realize how often I need to read it again. It’s much deeper than just the story of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land and the giving of the Mosaic law. Each time I read it I have to ask the question, “How could these people be so rebellious after witnessing what God did”? It’s that question that needs to be explored repeatedly because it’s a question we need to ask ourselves.

Several years ago, there was a Veggie Tales video called Josh and the Big Wall that illustrated this in a humorous way. It has Moses and then Joshua leading the people to the Promised Land, but once the reports of the spies came back one of the characters starts talking about how wonderful their lives were in Egypt, to which another character replies, “But we were SLAVES!“. Although meant to get a laugh from the viewer, that exchange speaks volumes.

The Israelites had a slave mentality. They’d been told that God promised Abraham and Jacob He would give the Israelites a land of their own, a rich and prosperous land. But after 400 years of being ground under the heel of Pharaoh in slavery and hard labor, they wondered whether God had forgotten about them.  When God through Moses finally delivered them they thought their troubles were over. But when problems arose, they were ready to go back to Egypt. The people always seemed to remember having lots of food to eat but conveniently forgot their slavery. They whined and complained when the situation became difficult, and eventually rebelled against entering the land because of their fear of the inhabitants. As a result, the nation was sentenced to wander in the wilderness forty more years until that generation died off.

It’s easy to criticize the nation of Israel for their lack of faith and their rebellious attitudes. We think, “I would have never acted like that”.  But if we are brutally honest with ourselves we know better. Because many of us also suffer from a slave mentality. We’ve been ground down by life for so long we lose hope of things ever getting better. When we find our way to Jesus Christ we expect our lives to be worry and pain-free. Since real life doesn’t work that way we begin to complain and grumble when things don’t go the way we want.  If things get bad enough we may give up our faith altogether.

The slave mentality focuses on circumstances. All it sees is the current situation and the lack of hope that anything will ever get better. The Israelites ran into trouble when they took their eyes off God who miraculously delivered them from bondage and focused on the problem at hand. When you’ve spent your whole life wondering about your next meal or whether you will survive the day, it’s tough not to default to the slave mindset when things look bad. Slaves don’t expect anything good because that way they’re never disappointed.

The solution to the slave mindset is to focus on the liberator. As they traveled, God continually showed the Israelites He was able to overcome their circumstances and meet their needs. He gave them food when they were hungry and water when they were thirsty. God kept their clothes and shoes from wearing out during their journey. He promised if they would follow his law when arriving in the land they wouldn’t suffer from disease and the land would be fruitful. God was telling them, “Trust me: I’ll take care of you”. But after years of wondering whether God cared about them or even remembered them, it was difficult to have that trust. They couldn’t trust Him because they didn’t know him.

No matter who you are or where you find yourself, if your circumstances dictate your hope then you have a slave mentality. It’s one of Satan’s tools to take your mind off of God. If so, you need to dig deep into both the Old and New Testaments and get to know God. He wants to care for you and has provided his son Jesus as the means of delivering us from slavery to sin and providing hope. But if you still struggle with losing hope when life gets rough and dark, go back and dig deeper. Start here:

“In this world you will have many tribulations. But take heart: I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33

“And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Jesus Christ.” – Philippians 4:19

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30

Stop thinking like a slave. Come meet the One who will deliver you to freedom, and let’s journey to the Promised Land together.

Weakness is Strength

“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2 Corinthians 12:10 (ESV)

Many of us find encouragement in the writings of the apostle Paul. We like verses like, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) or “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).  We like the idea of being strong and capable, of being chosen to do something special for God.

The truth of the matter is that we are neither strong nor capable when it comes to God’s purposes.  But we labor under the delusion we can somehow control our own lives and circumstances, and the thought of weakness and lack of control is an anathema to our minds. We like to think of ourselves as “spiritual warriors” and “doing great things for the kingdom”. We consider ourselves failures and worthless when we discover we can’t live up to the standard we set for ourselves.

Paul experienced something like that. In chapter 12 of Second Corinthians Paul is telling of a vision he had been given. With it came the temptation for arrogance and boasting because he was chosen to experience it. In verse 7, he says, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh”. The Scripture never tells what it was, but it distressed Paul enough that he prayed three times for it to be taken away.  God’s answer: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v.9). Paul’s response was to boast in his weakness, knowing the strength of God was revealed by it.

Paul’s focus was on holding up Jesus Christ to the world, not making Paul look good. He understood that his weakness allowed God’s glory to shine in his (Paul’s) service. Paul was able to endure what he did because God was glorified no matter what the circumstance may be. He understood he didn’t need to worry about being strong enough; God was, and he sustained Paul through hardship and difficulty as well as periods of joy and spiritual victory.

We all have a “thorn in the flesh”. It distresses us because we feel inadequate for how we think we should serve God. Like Paul, it keeps us from arrogance and puts our view of ourselves in perspective when we honestly acknowledge its presence. But we also need to remember that God will supply what we need to accomplish his purpose. We can rejoice that we are weak because that’s when God supplies us with his strength if we will let him.

A God Who Is Relentless

Have you ever considered what a relentless God we have? I’ve heard him called loving, gracious, and merciful by those who have obeyed him, and bloodthirsty, uncaring, and unjust by those who reject him. We refer to God in many ways, but relentless usually isn’t one of the first terms that come to mind.

I’ve been reading in the Old Testament lately, and it presents a picture of just how relentless God can be. Over and over again he calls his people to be faithful, and usually they are anything but that. In spite of it, God seeks to bring them back. Let me give some examples.

  • Moses. God has a plan for Moses that’s eighty years in the making. He’s born in a time and place where his chances of survival aren’t good. Pharoah orders infanticide of all Israelite male newborns. Moses’ mother risks her life to preserve her son’s. In a rich irony, Moses is plucked from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter and ends up being raised in Pharaoh’s court. Moses decides to deliver Israel on his own timetable and ends up an exile running from a charge of murder and despised by his own people.  Forty years later, God comes looking for him to lead Israel to the Promised Land. God didn’t forget about Moses; he just allowed enough time to pass for Moses to become the leader God wanted.
  • The Israelites. God demonstrates tremendous love and patience with them. After witnessing God’s power as slaves during the plagues in Egypt it only took them reaching the Red Sea with Pharaoh and his army in hot pursuit to start complaining. The rest of the Old Testament is the story of Israel’s ongoing rebelliousness and the consequences of their disobedience. And yet, God never gave up on them because he had a plan that was bigger than they were. His love was that of a father and mother for a wayward child.
  • Jonah. He was told to go to Assyria and preach repentance to the people. Jonah disagreed with the idea and headed the other way, ending up in the belly of a big fish. God rescued Jonah after he had three days to reconsider his calling. He went to Nineveh, delivered the message, and the people repented. And Jonah got mad. But Jonah was not the only one God was relentlessly pursuing. He even cared about those who were ‘enemies’ of Israel and had a long-range plan in the works.
  • Hosea, one of my favorites. God tells him to marry a prostitute by the name of Gomer. She bears three children: a son named Jezreel, a daughter named Lo-ruhamah (‘no compassion’), and another son named Lo-ammi (‘not my people’). Gomer eventually returns to her former life. God tells Hosea to go after Gomer and buy her back. Hosea does and tells her that she is to be faithful to him as he will be to her. It is an object lesson to the kingdom of Israel. God is about to send them into captivity in Assyria because of their spiritual unfaithfulness. He speaks of them as an unfaithful wife and himself as the husband. Chapter 2 of Hosea tells of her unfaithfulness and paints a metaphorical picture of what God is about to do to her. But beginning in verse 14, the text takes on a tenderness when speaking of God’s forgiveness. It says, “Therefore I am going to persuade her, lead her back to the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” In verses 19 and 20, God continues: “I will take you to be my wife in righteousness, justice, love, and compassion; I will take you to be my wife in faithfulness, and you will know the Lord.” A relentless God doesn’t give up the pursuit of those He loves.

Woven through the Psalms and the prophets is a thread of God’s ultimate plan, fashioned before the beginning of time. It is the promise of a Messiah that will rule over Israel and the nations forever. The leaders of Israel failed to recognize him when he arrived because he wasn’t what they expected. Despite three years’ of  Jesus teaching, healing and performing miracles they had him put to death by crucifixion, thinking they had done away with him. They had no idea it was exactly what God had planned. God had provided the way to defeat sin that we couldn’t do on our own.

The Prodigal Son is my favorite parable. It tells of an insolent younger son who demands his inheritance and then proceeds to waste it all on partying and indulging his every desire. Soon the money is gone and he finds himself feeding pigs. Luke tells us, “When he came to himself”. He had hit rock bottom and realized going home was his only option. Ashamed, embarrassed, but no longer arrogant, he starts for home. The Father had been watching for him since he left. When he sees his son, dirty, wretched, and ragged, coming up the road he RUNS to him, embraces him, takes him home, and then the REAL party starts. That is the picture of a relentless God.

I don’t know where you find yourself in life. Maybe you think you’re doing pretty good. Maybe you’re in the middle of some problems. Or maybe your life is such a mess that you think there’s no way God could care about you. The secret is that we’re all the prodigal son, dirty and ragged, living in a pig pen and starving to death. And when we finally ‘come to ourselves’ and humbly turn to God, he welcomes us home with a heavenly party. You may not realize it but he’s relentlessly pursuing you. He loves you and wants you to come home. But if you come he won’t leave you dirty and starving. He’ll clothe you with his Son and feed you from His word until you overflow with His spirit and love.

Romans 5

I really first discovered Romans 5 about the time I graduated from high school. The nineteenth year of my life was arguably the worst one because it was a transition from a relatively sheltered existence to rubbing up against a world I was not prepared to face. In the midst of exposure to a lot of antagonistic voices that ridiculed my faith, I found this chapter and in particular these verses:

“And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope.” – Romans 5:3,4

It would take several more years for me to understand the full weight of those verses, but when I first read them it was like a lifeline thrown to a drowning man. What a revelation: right after Paul tells of the outcome of God’s magnificent grace- we are declared righteous through our faith and are at peace with Him because of Jesus Christ- he goes on to say that for the Christian even hard times work to our advantage by producing positive characteristics in us. He ends by saying the hope produced will not disappoint because the Holy Spirit given to us pours God’s love into our hearts.

But Paul is just getting warmed up in showing how awesome God is. In the next verse, he makes an astounding statement.

“For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly… But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (6,8)

If you need a little help with your awe, ponder that thought for a while. God didn’t send his Son to suffer as a sacrifice for the strong, the talented, the attractive, and the outwardly spiritual. God acted at the right time on behalf of the helpless, the sinner, the dysfunctional messed up ones that had given up any hope of ever being rescued from our ‘mess’. We couldn’t pull ourselves out and like quicksand, it was sucking us into hopeless oblivion. We had no road to God and were unable to find it on our own anyway.

Even more amazing is that God didn’t demand we clean up our act before he acted because he knew we couldn’t. Human logic could possibly accept the idea of dying for someone who deserved it. We’d think about sacrificing ourselves for one we loved or at least admired. But none of us deserve anything from God’s hand because we’re wretched beggars in ragged, filthy clothing. Even so, God still loved us and extravagantly paid the cost to take us out of the gutter and adopt us as his children.

“For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” -Romans 5:10

It’s sad and pathetic how we stand before God and complain when he doesn’t act the way we think he should, as if he owes us something or is subject to our opinions. We cry that he is unfair, unfeeling, unjust when we experience difficulties or see injustice. We are arrogant, thinking we have wisdom and the world should act according to our definition of fairness.

Until we recognize our poverty and worthlessness, God’s grace and wisdom is nothing but foolishness and we are nothing but little tin gods. When we realize we are helpless sinners and throw ourselves on God’s mercy He gives us peace and joy no matter what our circumstances might be.  Now THAT’S awesome!

Singing

“Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,  singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” – Colossians 3:16

Some of us may not give much thought to singing as part of our worship. We may have a favorite hymn or two, and we enjoy listening to the singing even if we don’t think we have the voice to contribute to it. But have we considered the purpose of singing?

I’ve been privileged to be a song leader for fifty years, with congregations from just a few to more than a thousand. Like everyone else, I have hymns and songs that speak to me more than others. But I’ve come to understand what I do is more than just starting on the right pitch and keeping everyone at the same tempo (more or less). I am engaged in a ministry just as important as the one presenting the sermon.

We tend to focus on the music, particularly the harmonizing. Small groups sometimes envy larger ones because of the quality of the vocal harmony. It’s natural to be moved by the power and beauty of acapella singing. But if that’s our focus, we’ve missed the purpose of why we sing.

Paul tells us in the above verse why we sing as the Lord’s church. Let us consider:

  • We are teachers and encouragers. When you sing a hymn, you are teaching those who hear it and encouraging your brothers and sisters to strengthen their faith. We may not think of ourselves as teachers, and we may be intimidated to think of sharing our faith with anyone else. But that’s exactly what we’re doing when we sing.
  • We are expressing our thanks to God. Our worship is our expression of gratitude to God for the multitude of blessings he pours out on us each day. It is reflected in all aspects of our worship, but especially in our singing. We sing with joy in thanks to God. It is as much a gift as putting our contribution in the collection plate.

If we consider what we sing is a source of instruction and encouragement, we understand the importance of having our hearts and minds fully engaged in the process. The quality of the singing is not as important as the enthusiasm and effort because our focus should be on lifting one another up and giving the best of ourselves to God.

Each of us has a preference for a particular type of song, be it the traditional hymns or the more contemporary praise songs. Both have their place, and both can bring us closer in our relationship with God. The value is not in the melody but the message they express. If our singing is to be a ministry to each other and a praise to God, we need to be mindful of the message we are sharing through our song.

I encourage each of us to think about what we are doing when we sing. Let the words of each song speak to us as we sing them to each other and God. Sing with joy, recognizing the privilege of expressing our praise and thanks to a God who has relentlessly sought us and paid a horrible price to call us His own, a God who tenderly cares for us constantly and has promised to always be with us. Let His awe overwhelm us and then let our voices express it.

Adjusting Our Identity

“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” – 1 Peter 2:11

I woke up this morning wanting to write a blog as I usually do on Monday but came up blank on a subject. My response was to ask God, “Surprise me.” Indeed He did; the result was an article by John Piper entitled Black History in the Making: What ‘White Evangelicals’ Can Learn, and can be seen here.

Participation in mission efforts in Europe, South America, and the Caribbean have impacted my thoughts about the relationship of a Christian to his or her nation and culture. I’ve met fellow Christians in other countries that are every bit as dear to me as my Christian brothers and sisters in the United States. This article resonated with me, because it reflected thoughts I’ve had for a number of years. How do you reconcile heavenly and earthly citizenships? And who are your real fellow citizens?

I appreciate my time at Harding College; it was there I met my wife and got an education. But I always felt a bit uncomfortable with the unspoken connection made between Christian faith, American patriotism, and conservative Republican politics, as if one couldn’t be of the ‘true faith’ without fully embracing all three. It’s particularly difficult to reconcile when considering verses such 1 Peter 2:11.

Piper speaks of two principles which describe a Christian’s identity within his/her own culture: indigenizing and pilgrim. The indigenizing principle ‘makes … faith a place to feel at home’. The pilgrim principle ‘whispers to [the Christian] that he has no abiding city and warns him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with his society for that society never existed, in East or West, ancient time or modern, which could absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system ‘.

This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through…

In the United States we have absorbed the indigenizing principle of faith, but not the pilgrim principle. We came to believe that America is a Christian nation, chosen by God to be a shining beacon to the world. Generic Christianity was as much a civil religion as a personal statement of faith. But as the culture changed and became more openly hostile to Christianity, we’ve been forced to re-evaluate the nature of American Christianity. We need to move toward a pilgrim mindset about who we are.

When we submit ourselves to Christ we surrender our sovereignty to him. Paul speaks rather extensively of our “old man” being put to death (Colossian 3:9,10; Ephesians 2:1-6; Romans 6:1:4). As a new creation, we are ‘in Christ’. We need to understand we are citizens of His kingdom and our primary allegiance is now to Him, but we have not yet reached our home country.  Thus we are sojourners, travelers in a world where we no longer belong. We are still subject to the leaders and laws, just as we would be if we were to visit a foreign country. But we are here on a visitor’s visa, and it reminds us we may “be” here but we don’t “live” here.

So we need to remember a few things. We are pilgrims, on a journey to our true country.  Our obedience is to Jesus Christ first and foremost, and as such we are to live in a way that reflects Him. We can’t get so entangled in this life it distracts us from our journey. We have more in common with believers in Russia, China, and throughout the world than with unbelievers in the United States. And finally, we have a task as we travel. We are to spread the message of Jesus Christ, invite others to join us on the journey, and show them the way home.