LIPS ARE A SNARE

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Over the last 50-some years of life, I’ve hurt a lot of people with my words, written and spoken.  Each time it happens, I ask myself “When will you learn?!!” and vow to do better.  Then it happens again…and again….and again.  Just the other day I used the wrong word with someone I love very dearly and I know it hurt her.  It was totally unintentional but had I took the time to think about my response I could have chosen a better word to use.  In one careless milli-second, I caused pain for somebody I deeply care about with one little word.  Whoever said “Sticks and stones my break my bones but words will never hurt me” was dead wrong.

I want Matthew 12:36 taped to the inside of my eyelids:  “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,” If that doesn’t give me reason to choose every word carefully, nothing will.  I’m already formulating my explanation to God about this one incident and all I can come up with is, “I was in a hurry and didn’t stop and think.”  But, as I sit and contemplate that explanation, I know He’s not gonna buy it.  God’s gonna look at me, shake His head, and, if I’m lucky, ask me to take another stab at it.

God will insist on the truth and the truth is my word only reflected what was in my heart.  The Bible is pretty clear: our “tongue” issue is a heart issue.  The real reason I used the word I did was because I was frustrated and didn’t want the situation I had been presented with messing up my good mood.  It was a situation that we have dealt with for some time and I struggled to find patience to deal with it again.  It was a poor choice of words, but, given my attitude about it, I suspect had I stopped to consider using a different one it would have been similar to what I chose.  Instead of hurrying to respond to make sure my feelings were communicated, I should have prayed through the emotion until I was at a place where my response would have brought comfort rather than pain.

Matthew 15: 18 – “But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.”

During 2011, I used a Bible reading plan that included reading a chapter from Proverbs every day.  Some days I would read two.  There are 31 chapters, so over the course of a year I read each chapter more than 15 times.  It impacted me in a lot of ways, but most significantly it made me very aware of how I have not been as careful with my tongue as I should be and how dangerous that little muscle is.  I have used my words to intentionally cause someone pain, to make myself feel I’m better than someone else, to lie and to gossip.  I say spiteful things to my spouse when I feel hurt by him.  I’ve spent way too many hours apologizing for letting my emotions determine my response to people I work with and people I love.

James 3: 7, 8 – “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind.  But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.”

Last year my father-in-law died suddenly and I took some time off from work.  Before leaving, I filled out leave forms so I wouldn’t have to deal with it when I returned.  My first morning back, our work leader told me she needed some additional forms as soon as I could get them to her.  I don’t remember everything I said, but I know I informed her that whatever forms she needed would not be forthcoming!  I was so mad my voice was shaking.  She responded by telling me that our manager had missed some and they had to be filled out.  I relented a bit and told her I would get to them whenever I could and began working on something else.  She hadn’t taken more than three steps away from my desk before God brought to my mind verses from the book of Proverbs.  Our work leader has a lot of responsibilities and, when it comes to tracking attendance, she doesn’t always get what she needs.  Knowing this, I realized my outburst had only made her job harder.  I was embarrassed and the things I said made me look foolish.  I took a deep breath and went right to her desk.  I said, “I am SO sorry for my behavior.  It was wrong and I hate that I made your morning and your job so much harder than it already is.”  She looked at me and said, “That’s OK.  I’m kind of used to it.”  I told her it was NOT OK and I hoped she could forgive me.  That was not an easy conversation but it changed our relationship.  And it highlighted for me that I do not want to be known as the “fool” who can’t control her tongue.

Ephesians 4:29 – “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

It is a daunting task to “tame the tongue.”  James (Chapter 3) tells us it is not possible.  So we must rely on the Holy Spirit’s power rather than our own.  My go-to reaction is anger, frustration, impatience.  As I look at my tongue problem, I have to be willing to admit my true heart problem.  By nature and nurture, I am not the most loving person.  As I work to turn this area of my life over to Christ, I have to remind myself how Christ loved me when I was not anywhere close to being the kind of person He wants me to be.  He loves me even on those days when I choose to disobey Him.   I have to learn to love people just as God loves me.  I have to demonstrate His love to others by my actions AND my words.  In order to do that, I can’t allow my emotions to determine my response – obedience and God’s truth are more reliable.  I’ll know I’ve made progress when my words consistently communicate love and patience instead of frustration, anger or judgment.

James 3:2 – “If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.”

One day on a break at work, I looked up verses that talk about the tongue and/or our words.  I soon found that many of these verses also include the term “fool” (interesting!).   So I expanded my search to include that term, also.  In the span of about 15 minutes, I found more than 50 verses.  My words about words will never measure up to those God has given us so I’ll direct you to some of the verses I found (there are many more).  I would also recommend, as I often do, to read a chapter from Proverbs every day.  Once you’ve finished, go back and read the book again.  Keep it up for a year and you will have one more tool to use in your battle against the mighty tongue!

Proverbs 11:12 – “ Whoever derides their neighbor has no sense, but the one who has understanding holds their tongue.”

Proverbs 15:2 – “ The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.”

Proverbs 15:4 – “ The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.”

Proverbs 18:21 – “ The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

Proverbs 21:23 – “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.”

Proverbs 10:19 – “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”

Proverbs 10:21 – “The lips of the righteous nourish many, but fools die for lack of judgment.”

Proverbs 12:18 – “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing”

Proverbs 18:2 – “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”

Proverbs 18:7 – “A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul”

Proverbs 17:28 – “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”

THIS IS NOT MY HOME

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In my Bible study I have come to the end of the four Gospels.  Along with Scripture I have been reading The Fourfold Gospel by J.W. McGarvey, recommended with the chronological reading plan I found.  McGarvey combines the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and, as much as possible, puts all the events of Jesus’s life and resurrection in the order they happened.  It’s enlightening to read how Jesus’s teaching progressed and how the apostles’ understanding of His purpose here fluctuates.  Just when I think they understand His kingdom is not an earthly one, they start asking which of them is greater and request they be allowed to sit next to Him in His kingdom.  I am at the point where Judas has betrayed Jesus.  Soon I know His apostles will flee from Him in fear of being punished by the Jewish leaders and the Roman government.  As I learn new things about these events from McGarvey’s commentary, the story of Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion intensifies my emotions about the world’s rejection of God’s Son.

Matthew 26:40: “And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour?”

I moved away from God this past week.  I didn’t read my Bible most days, had some minor health issues that sidelined me and spent too much time in deep thought about too many things.  The days when I did pick up His Word, I was reading about the Jewish leaders building their case against Jesus, Judas carrying out his plan to betray Christ, and followers of Jesus leaving Him.  The reading material and my physical and emotional condition were not a good mix.  I felt hopeless about leading others to Jesus.  It’s a tall order and we generally have more failures than successes.  Of course, the mood of the week insured the failures were foremost in my mind.

I spent little time in prayer.  I talk to God constantly but this week I just didn’t know what to say to Him.  I felt angry at Him for not doing more to prepare others to hear His word and be more receptive to Him; angry that He asks us to do such a difficult thing.  I was angry at my friends and family who haven’t accepted Him; for being blind to the truth and not willing to learn about Jesus.  I understand that I may not be the one to lead them to Him and that increased my anger and frustration.  Because of the life I lived before finding Christ, I have little credibility with them and I wondered how God could possibly ever use me.  I know I have to keep listening to God and what He is trying to do in my life and be open to it, but this week I had little fight in me; I simply refused to call on the power of the Holy Spirit.  I spent the week in a valley and instead of moving closer to God, I kept moving farther away.

As I read about the end of Christ’s time on earth, it became clear that nothing has really changed.  People continue to misinterpret Jesus and His teachings, they crucify Him over and over and over, and few make Him the priority in their life.  I’m surrounded by too many people who dismiss God and all that He’s done in their lives.  They’re not thankful for the blessings they have received from Him, they live believing their answers to life’s problems are better than God’s ways.  They blame God for all the bad stuff yet call on Him for help when tragedies occur.  Much like David’s lament about enemies who prosper, I tired this week of seeing prideful, arrogant, worldly people experience great blessings and comfort in this world.

I fled from my Savior this week.  While I didn’t flee in fear of being punished, I fled from living as He has directed me to live.  I shifted my focus from Him to me.   The apostles fell asleep even though Jesus asked them to stay awake should He need them as He faced the suffering He would soon have to endure.   I failed Christ, too, as I gave in to weariness of living in a world I just don’t fit into.

John 15:16: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit,”

When the apostles learned of Christ’s resurrection, they looked back at the things Jesus had done and the things He had told them and they were able to put the pieces together.  They went from hiding in fear to boldly proclaiming the news to the world.  As I struggle to move forward in my Christian life, looking back at what God has done builds my faith and trust.  I see how He has kept every single promise He has ever made.  Today I will spend time in His Word and in prayer in order to feel His presence and remind myself how good God is and that His plan for me is a good one.  I’ll be reminded that no matter how small my role is in His Kingdom, it is an important one.  Jesus chose those twelve men to be His apostles because He knew they could do the things He needed them to do to fulfill His plan.  I must know that He chose me, too, and I can be confident that He chose me because I have something He can use to build His kingdom, even when I cannot fathom what that is.

James 4:8: “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.”

Living away from God is agonizing.  Spending the last week there reminds me how desperately I want to help others avoid eternity separated from Him.  I will continue to trust that He uses me to plant seeds and I must be about His business.   I cannot let my doubts and frustration tear down my faith in Him.

I know how the Gospel story ends and because of the things Jesus told His apostles during their three years together, they were able to put the pieces together and come to a full understanding of who Jesus really is, what He was here to do, and how they were to carry on with His purpose.  Despite living in a world with no mass communication, twelve followers spread the news of Jesus throughout the civilized world so that all people could receive God’s plan for their salvation.   As hopeless as I feel sometimes, their mission must have seemed infinitely more impossible.  I also know that Jesus warned us of the immensity of the task and that few would believe.  As we work to lead others to Him, we have to remember how far apart His ways are from the world’s ways.  Planting seeds is never a waste of time and it is all we do in the process of leading others to Him.  Even though we may never see what we have accomplished for Him, it is in faith we keep on doing what He calls us to do.

John 15:19: “If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.”

One of my favorite songs is about the fact that this world is not my home:  “All I know is I’m not home yet, this is not where I belong.”  Sometimes the reality of those words has a great impact on me and I long to be where all people love God as He deserves to be loved.  The closer I get to Jesus and realize how much God loves us, the more I struggle to live in a world that rejects Him more and more each day. 

This week won’t be my last struggle, but I pray I’ll handle the next one better!  The down times remind me how great the spiritual warfare is that I’m involved in and the worse thing I can do is flee from the One who can ease my pain.  I’m thankful God has given us what we need to have an abundant life here.  Now I gotta go spend some time with my Father!

John 16:33: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

WHEN “MERRY CHRISTMAS” BECOMES A STUMBLING BLOCK

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I love Christmas.  It’s my favorite holiday.  As I think about what we are celebrating, it never ceases to amaze me:  the Creator of the universe enters our world and takes on human form.  He begins His time on earth as a baby born of a virgin.  Our faith rests on believing Jesus’ virgin birth as a true historical event. As Christians we are to share the fact that God dwelt among us as a man with as many people as possible and Christmas provides a great opportunity to do that.  Jesus as a baby is easier to talk about than Jesus the man.  In the movie Talladega Nights, Bobby Ricky (played by Will Ferrell) proclaims “Baby Jesus is my favorite Jesus” to his dinner guests.  My guess is that’s how most people feel. Baby Jesus is safe.  Baby Jesus is a symbol of peace on earth, goodwill toward man.  Those messages are much more appealing than the things the adult Jesus stands for.   

There is one seasonal phenomenon that has started to rear its ugly head that needs careful thought:  Christians insisting that “Merry Christmas” is the only permissible phrase to be used this time of year.  In our zeal to insure Jesus is kept in the spotlight, we declare that “Happy Holidays” won’t do.   A couple of years ago, there was even an online effort encouraging people to boycott stores that refer to this time of the year only as the holidays.  In defending this stance, we claim we are trying to keep Christ in Christmas.

Matthew 28:19 – “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

As a committed follower of Jesus, we are to be conscious of how our behavior affects others, making sure it reflects Christ.  Every word we utter should be measured to insure we do not turn non-believers away from Him.  No matter the season, we must strive to show others’ His love.  Christmas provides an opportunity for talking to others about Jesus as we celebrate His birth, but focusing on telling everyone “Merry Christmas” with no regard to what they might believe is short-sighted.  It can also be regarded as a form of Phariseeism.  Just as the Pharisees wore their phylacteries on their forehead and long fringes on their robes to show others their religious position, wishing others Merry Christmas is merely an outward sign of our religion.  God isn’t concerned about outward signs.  He cares only for what is in our hearts.

Matthew 23:27: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”

I jumped right on the bandwagon of letting everyone know that December is the celebration of Christ’s birth.  I was determined to put Christ back into Christmas.  I was a real soldier in the fight to re-claim December for Jesus.  I wore my “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” pin and responded to “Happy Holidays” with “Merry Christmas” believing I was standing up for my Savior.  One day I wished someone a Merry Christmas and her response was, “I’m Jewish.”  She smiled and wished me a Merry Christmas, telling me she hoped I enjoyed the holidays.  Her response showed much more love than I had been willing to show others.  While my hope is that all will come to know Christ, the reality is that many are not there yet.  If I am to be used by God to win people over, I have to demonstrate His love, just as this woman had done.  I showed no love for the lost during the time I was celebrating God’s great love for me. 

I Corinthians 8:11-13: “…when you … wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.  Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”

That brief conversation could’ve turned out much worse.  I was fortunate to have encountered a forgiving, tolerant Jewish woman who understood the holiday she celebrates during this time of the year is not that of the majority.  She was gentle in her correction of me.  I realized my insistence that Christmas be the only holiday recognized only demonstrates to others that I care very little for them.  It disregards the fact that many people do not know Jesus as their Savior.  My “Merry Christmas” message wasn’t about winning them to Christ – it was all about me.  It was more apt to be a stumbling block, moving them farther away from considering my faith as I shoved it onto them, showing little, if any respect for where they are spiritually at that moment.  I realized that lady was one of Christ’s lost sheep and I did nothing to draw her closer to Him with those two words.

The real spirit of Christmas is becoming more like our Savior in the spirit of selflessness.  Showing respect for others’ current belief only strengthens the chance they will consider Jesus.  As I shoved Christmas down the throat of every shop clerk and holiday shopper I could, I did not understand how selfish my crusade was.  My priority was MY belief, MY holiday.  I was not thinking about how disrespectful I was being to anyone who was not a follower of Jesus.  This was about as far from selflessness as I could get!  I heard a well-known teacher and preacher tell about his trip to India and he began talking about the need for the man he was visiting to go pray at his mosque.  I expected the Christian to use the opportunity to teach something about Jesus, but instead he agreed to accompany the man to the mosque.  I was quite surprised!  He didn’t object, didn’t use the situation to proclaim how wrong the other was in his beliefs.  He simply showed respect by allowing their meeting to be interrupted by the man’s religious practice.  He went on to tell how the incident helped their friendship grow as the man was more willing to listen due to the respect he had been shown.

Galatians 5:14: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I thought about how I felt during my December “crusades” when someone wished me “Happy Holidays.”  I was offended.  I realized that is probably the reaction a non-believer has when I insist they have a “merry Christmas.”  Right or wrong, the fact is different people are celebrating different things at the very time we celebrate our Lord’s birth and we must recognize that.  Jesus meets us where we are.  He doesn’t require we clean up our act before He will extend His grace to us.  And He is our example of how we are to treat people. 

So what are we to make of businesses that have gone the way of the generic holiday?  Well, they have a business to run and they are trying to provide goods to anyone who might walk into their store.  “Happy holidays” covers everyone.  There are a number of different holiday celebrations during December:  Hanukkah is being celebrated by the Jewish people, Kwanzaa is celebrated by many African Americans, Eid Al Adha by Muslims, Festivus, a tongue-in-cheek holiday idea introduced on the TV show Seinfeld, has even been taken up by atheists!  Consider how a Muslim will appreciate your acknowledgment of Eid Al Adha, or how a Jewish family will cherish your card wishing them a Happy Hanukkah.  Your respect for their religious beliefs will open up many more opportunities for a discussion about Jesus. 

James 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only…

Keeping Christ in Christmas is so much more than a phrase we utter or words we use during this time of the year.  We do a great disservice to God when we focus on these outward signs. If someone wishes me “happy holidays,” I can assume they are not a believer and should look for opportunities to share the good news with them.  Jesus made it very clear that we should not be like the Pharisees, bearing only outward signs of our love for God.  God’s desire is that we show compassion, mercy and love for others.  Wishing a non-believer a greeting that is in keeping with where they are spiritually is one way to show your respect and leave open the possibility that next year you’ll be able to wish them a “Merry Christmas!”

As the holiday season gets under way, I pray that I will remember the other celebrations taking place during this time and that I will look for opportunities to share the good news of Christ’s birth with someone ready to hear it.  But I must always remember that an appropriate greeting should be appropriate to the hearer.  I don’t want to slam the door on my ability to reach anybody – Merry Christmas should not be a stumbling block!

TRUE COMFORT FROM GOD

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Life has always been a scary proposition for me.  I was born in 1959 so my early childhood was filled with death and war.  One of my earliest memories was the assassination of John F. Kennedy and I remember snippets of his funeral on TV.   That death was followed by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and I remember watching the news about those, too.  All of this was overshadowed by the daily nightmare of the Vietnam War.  My 21-year-old uncle was drafted, sent to Vietnam in April of 1966, was wounded and died that September.  Not long after that my grandfather, whom I loved dearly, was in a bad truck accident and they didn’t know if he would survive.  My cousin burned his legs with gasoline and I watched as he screamed in pain whenever they tried to move him.  My aunt got cancer and we visited her in the cancer hospital – a very bleak place.  We moved a lot during that time and I was “painfully shy” (words my teachers used to describe me) so adjusting to the different schools was difficult.  On top of all this was the chaos of the 60’s.  The rules everyone had lived by no longer applied and I listened as the adults lamented the end of the world. Life scared me.

As I listened to adults talk about these tragic events, I didn’t hear any mention of the fact that God is ultimately in control of it all and that He has a plan for this world.  Many in my family told me they believed in God, a few talked about Jesus, but I never saw that their beliefs brought them any comfort.  Their words and actions only expressed fear and the response to most problems was anger.  Perhaps I was just never around when they actually talked about the comfort God provided them.  I do remember my mother telling me that she got through life because she trusts God but we didn’t go to church, I never actually saw her reading her Bible and she didn’t teach me anything about God or Jesus, so I wasn’t able to figure out how she felt comforted by Him.  I just knew that over my lifetime I knew about God but that head knowledge had not comforted me.

As a child, I found comfort sitting on my grandpa’s lap, getting hugs and being tucked into bed by my mom and spending time with my grandmother.  These physical expressions of love helped me deal with my fears.  But as I looked to God for comfort, I wasn’t sure how to experience the calm I found through physical expressions from a being I cannot see, someone who cannot hug me or allow me to curl up in His lap.  I had no trouble finding comfort in God in normal day-to-day living, but I had not had a trial that tested my trust in Him. Then it happened.

Psalm 23:4 – “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; ForYou are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.”

As I struggled with overwhelming fear and anxiety once again, I was determined to use the tools God provides instead of going back to the coping skills I used before.  I was not going to let my fears consume me and take away the peace I had found.  The Holy Spirit now dwells within me and I knew I needed to allow His power to work in me this time.  I was determined to deal with this trial His way. My expectation was that I could experience the same comfort I felt from the hugs I got as a child.  I trusted that God would completely fulfill my expectation.  I had to do the things I had learned as I studied His Word.

Psalm 34:17 – “When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.”

I pray consistently throughout each day but as the weight of my struggle overwhelmed me, I had to change my conversations with God.   I needed to stop talking during my prayers and spend more time listening to “hear” what He wanted me to know. One of the first things He bought to my mind was the fact that He is in the midst of answering one of my prayers.  Each time I had taken this particular request to Him I assured Him that I trusted Him to work it out and I would trust Him no matter what that might look like.  My daughter and I often talk about how our anticipation of an event never prepares us for how it actually feels.  I slowly understood that fear is going to be there but ultimately I have to fully trust God and truly believe His promises.

2 Timothy 1:7 – “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

I was also reminded to stay out of His way.  My instinct to help too often becomes enabling and it is difficult for me to sit back and watch those I love go through trials.  God reminded me that trials are how He builds our character and refines us and each time I went to Him in prayer, He laid on my heart to trust Him in all of it, including those times when I can help but shouldn’t.  I was also reminded that in order to get eternal results, some temporal things must happen that don’t always look promising!  Most importantly, I must always keep in mind that the ultimate purpose of prayer is to build my relationship with God.  Prayer is companionship with Him.  My attitude about prayer must not be about asking and getting, but being with Him.  As I made this the priority for my prayer life, I found comfort.

Habakkuk 3:17-19 – “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord;”

The other change I had to make in my prayer life was shifting my focus from my struggle to praising God and thanking Him for who He is and all He has given us.  Shifting my thoughts from trouble and worry to thankfulness reminds me of God’s goodness which stops my inclination to blame God for allowing pain in our lives.  I remember that He has a plan for this world and for me and that it is good.  In his book Prayer: Does It Make a Difference Phillip Yancey includes the words of Helmut Thielicke, a German preacher offering words of encouragement to his congregation in the midst of suffering under the Nazi regime:

“One day, perhaps, when we look back from God’s throne on the last day we shall say with amazement and surprise, “If I had ever dreamed that God was only carrying out His design and plan…, that in the midst of my cares and troubles and despair… everything was pressing on toward His last kingly day …I would have been more calm and confident; yes, then I would have been more cheerful and far more tranquil and composed.”

Romans 15:4 – “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” 

I read the Bible just about every day and even when things are going smoothly skipping days leaves me feeling lost and empty.  Often as I face smaller struggles, the last thing I want to do is read my Bible, but I know God wants to “talk” to us through His Word and as soon as I go to Him there, the emptiness is gone.  I generally spend time reading whatever plan I am currently following; isolated quotes never helped me much until I began reading the Bible in chronological order.  Using this type of reading plan, I was able to read what King David was experiencing when he wrote each of his Psalms.  I saw how David went to the Lord in honest prayer to express his emotions and how he recalled God’s attributes and promises to get him through each trial. In the same way, reading God’s promises in context helps me see the problems His people were facing when He revealed the promise.   After following the chronological reading plan three times I have a better understanding of the context of scripture and I can better apply them to different situations.  In addition to reading relevant scripture, I know the Bible is God’s way of talking to us and with the knowledge that every word written comes from Him, I am better able to feel His presence.  It’s almost as good as a hug from God!

Hebrews 10:25 – “Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another,”

Fellowship with other Christians is my greatest struggle, but I have started building relationships and knew I needed others during this time.  Once again my daughter was my main means of support, but I also reached out to my LifeGroup from church, asking them for prayer.  Their e-mail messages assuring me they would be praying for me brought comfort that I was surprised to feel.  There is a big difference when you know the people praying for you really do believe in the power of prayer and that they do genuinely care about you.  With these people I know the phrase “I’ll pray for you” is not just an empty phrase.  They believe in it and they do it.

I experienced God’s comfort by doing the things He tells me to do: praying, reading His word, and seeking support and encouragement from fellow believers.  Though I cannot see Him or receive a physical hug from Him, I experienced real comfort directly from Him.  He IS with us and, if we will reach out to Him, He will comfort us.

Matthew 28:20 – “and lo, I am with you always”

LOVE BEYOND COMPREHENSION

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You know how you can be skipping along through life and one day realize you never fully understood something you thought you had figured out a long time ago?   That happened to me the other night.  I was praying, asking God to help me through a struggle I am experiencing.  As is my habit, my prayer consisted of expressing my trust that He will work it out for good while questioning what I needed to do to correct the situation and asking Him to forgive me for getting in His way.  My prayer brought on more frustration than peace. 

Psalm 46:10 – “Be still, and know that I am God”

Then God’s still, small voice came to me and I felt His presence. It was as if God was physically beside me, cradling me in His arms as He whispered into my ear “My child, you do not yet understand my love for you.”  It literally took my breath away.  I started to respond but immediately understood that this was a time to listen; to be still.  I lay there thinking about what I have experienced and what I have learned over the past four years, and what I know to be true about God.   He brought to my mind how I keep struggling to insure I live up to the love He has for me, even though I know in my mind He requires nothing from me.  I recalled how I constantly try not to disappoint Him and He reminded me that even when I do it doesn’t change His love for me one bit.

Psalm 139: 7-10:  “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.  If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me”

I am not good at relationships.  Too often in my family people handled conflicts with others by putting them out of their lives.  I’ve done the same thing over and over in my life.  Ending a relationship was easier than changing my behavior or an attitude, easier than admitting I’m wrong or putting forth extra effort to show love when I wasn’t feeling it.  We tend to manage our relationship with God the same way we handle our relationships with people and I realized that’s what I was doing.  I was constantly struggling to make sure I held up my end of the relationship but I had no idea how to do that.  I feared I would mess up or quit trying out of frustration.  God is literally a part of me, He dwells in me, and walking away from this relationship is not an option!    

Hosea 14:4 – “…I will love them freely.”

I knew God’s grace is free; it’s not possible to pay my debt so, in my mind, God came up with a plan to save us but that didn’t mean He necessarily had to love us (clear as mud, huh?).  Somehow I separated His grace from His love.  Love in this world is work and we are taught explicitly and implicitly that we must earn it.  It’s hard to change our thinking about that because that’s the only kind of love we have ever experienced.  But we have to get past that and truly accept that His love is different, it really is free.  God is not waiting for me to do certain things to “earn” it.

Funny, but my granddaughter just happened to be spending the night with me the night of my prayer and was asleep in the bed next to me (God’s timing is impeccable!).  As I looked at her I thought about how much I love her and how much my love for her surprises me sometimes – the depth of it, the tenderness of it; there is nothing she does that makes my love for her grow stronger each day, yet it does.  There is nothing she can do that would diminish my love for her; nothing she can do that would make me not want to be around her; I would do anything to protect her.  Even when she does things that I don’t like, my love for her isn’t diminished at all.  God showed me in that moment that while I can compare His love to what I feel for my granddaughter, His is greater.  It finally sunk in and I wept. 

Psalm 103:11 “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;”

 I walked an aisle and accepted Jesus’s gift of salvation when I was about 11 years old.  But I gave in to worldly pressures and lived my life apart from God for the next 10 or 11 years.  I returned to Him after my daughter was born but again yielded to the temptations of the world after about 6 years.  I lived the following 24 years much like Solomon, running after every desire I had:  money, men, material possessions, worldly “wisdom.”  Granted, I did not have near the resources Solomon did to satisfy his desires, but I acquired what I could with the little I had by any (legal!) means I could manage.  In 2009 the burden of my sinful life became too much to bear and I begged God to take over.  Over the past four years I’ve come to know Him.  As I looked back at the 39 years since I first accepted what Jesus did for me on that cross, I saw all that He had done for me even as I lived in total disobedience.  It was God who had taken care of me.  He had never allowed anything in my life that I couldn’t handle.  He had, in fact, kept every promise He makes to us in His Word.  The night of my prayer I saw how He has cared for me, how patient He has been.  I have done so many things that no doubt grieve Him mightily and in spite of it all, He took me back.  

Isaiah 41:13: “For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you.”

As I lay there that night I realized I am the prodigal Jesus talks about in His parable in the 15th chapter of Luke:

Luke 15:17-24 – “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.  “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.  For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”

It is nothing short of amazing that God welcomed me back with open arms.  He doesn’t hold anything back.  He doesn’t treat those of us who go astray any differently from those who have been obedient to Him. Now, get this:  each time one of His wayward children come back, there is great rejoicing in heaven.  He rejoiced when I came back! 

Luke 15:10 – “…I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

That night I finally gave control of my heart to God.  Knowing the truth about God’s love fills me with a desperate desire to please Him in everything I do.  It’s no longer a struggle of my will.  As I deal with the situation I prayed about that night, I have a new peace and love towards the people involved.  Since that night, I see others through God’s eyes – the ones that watched as I did things that broke His heart.  Through it all, He watched with unwavering love for me, knowing I would return.  I must pass His love on and I now have the power and the understanding to do it.  I can do no less. 

Jeremiah 31:3 – “The Lord has appeared of old to me, saying: “Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you.”

Worry about NOTHING?!

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One of the greatest struggles I had in building my relationship with God over the last four years is overcoming worry.  When I accepted Christ’s sacrifice for me and decided to follow His direction for my life, I was overwhelmed with worry, fear, depression and anxiety.  I desperately needed the peace He promises.  But I struggled to find this rest as my family and I went through some tremendous trials.  During my Bible study one day I came across this verse:

Philippians 4:6 – “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God”

It was hard for me to fathom how God could expect me to live in this world and not worry about anything.  The only way I thought that could happen would be to stop caring about people.  That wasn’t going to happen and it certainly wasn’t consistent with the person God is and the kind of person He wants me to be.  Surely God understands if we worry about our loved ones, people who have not accepted His gift of salvation, world events that we have no control over.  But these words come from Paul, who suffered greatly.  He faced death numerous times, endured torture time and time again, had many friends who suffered and died, and was pursued endlessly by powerful people who opposed his message.  Yet Paul exhorts us through his words to the Philippians that we are to be anxious about NOTHING.  Paul didn’t provide us with a list of things we are allowed to worry about.  He says we are to be anxious about NOTHING.  Nothing.  Nada.  Zilch.  NO THING.  NOTHING. 

There is only one way to worry about nothing:  absolute trust in God.  When I am faced with a struggle, I come up with a solution that I want to see.  It’s generally a quick solution because the sooner the issue goes away, the sooner I can quit worrying.  I know how I want things to turn out and I go to God asking Him for those results.  Then I become anxious when I see even a slight possibility that things might turn out differently than I have planned or when nothing seems to be changing.  As I provide God with solutions, the absurdity of what I’m doing hits me and I have to switch gears.  I begin to focus on turning the situation over to God, but still I often worry whether or not I will be able to handle the outcome He might choose. 

Each time I’m faced with a new struggle, I face the challenge of totally trusting God.  I have to remember that He will work it out in a way that accounts for many things I cannot possibly consider.  He can account for every possible consequence for every individual and for eternity.  My limited view of life leaves me wanting answers that don’t include any kind of suffering or pain.  I don’t consider answers that will benefit someone I am harboring hard feelings for.  When I trust God’s answers, I can know He is able to take all of this into account and bring about good.  My view is too limited to even begin to accomplish this.

Romans 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.

 I love reading the Old Testament.  I get really frustrated with the Israelites as I read of their constant lack of trust in God during their time in the wilderness.  They worried about what they would eat and drink and expressed their displeasure with Moses for taking them out of Egypt where they had plenty, conveniently forgetting how they had suffered there.  They were fearful of the approaching Egyptian army and they feared the inhabitants of the land God promised them.  I question how they could ever worry about anything after the miracles they had witnessed – the parting of the Red Sea, God leading them by fire at night and the cloud by day, water pouring out of rocks and manna falling from the sky.  I sometimes think that if God would perform one of these miracles today, it would be easier to trust Him.  But if it didn’t work for the Israelites, I have to understand it wouldn’t work for me, either!  As I read these stories, I also have to remember that I have the advantage of reading about these things centuries after they happened.  I am no different from the Israelites when I face the trials He allows in my life.  I have to trust what He is going to do and I have to keep in mind that it might not look like I want it to look.  That’s the tough part. 

There are several things about God that I keep in mind.  God is outside of time.  He is able to work in my life as if He is reading about it centuries later.  He is omniscient so He knows what the consequences will be of everything that He allows in my life.  He orchestrates all of it so it works for good for all those who love Him who are involved even in the smallest way, not just the people and things I am aware of. 

Even when the solution God provides is difficult, I can rest assured God is still taking care of me.  As the Israelites’ wandered in the wilderness for 40 years as punishment for their lack of trust, God provided everything they needed.  As long as I remind myself that what He is doing takes into consideration everyone who loves Him and that He is preparing all for eternity, I am able to free myself from the anxiety I experience when I cannot see or understand the reasons for the difficult things He allows into my life. 

God’s timing is vastly different from mine.  More often than not, God’s plans require a lot of patience.  My most earnest prayer is that my loved ones will accept Christ.  As I watch things in the world unravel, I am convinced that this world has just about tested God’s patience to the limit and He will soon bring it to a close.  This leaves me with a sense of urgency for those who haven’t accepted His gift of salvation. There are days when I plead with Him to let me see some progress and there have been times when He shows me how someone has become more open to Jesus or they ask a question that indicates they are thinking about something we have discussed.  But, again, He didn’t provide a list of exceptions that I’m allowed to worry about, not even others’ salvation, nor did He say He would relieve my worry through visible evidence.  He will relieve my worry through faith and trust in Him and I must be patient.

The Philippians verse also tells us that we are to be thankful.  Giving thanks allows us to focus on God’s goodness.  It reminds us that He has cared for us in the past and will continue to do so.  Thanking and praising God as we petition Him for help in getting through trials changes our attitude and should help us realize that He truly cares for us.

1 Peter 5:7 “Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”

My husband has head knowledge of Jesus but is not a committed follower.  We were talking about money and I reminded him that it could all be taken away in the blink of an eye despite his methodical, careful management.  I told him that if God wants me to live in a box, I’ll live in a box.  He said “But I don’t want to live in a box.”  In a misguided attempt to help him understand something about God’s nature, I tried to assure him if that were God’s plan, it would happen no matter what we do and we can rest in knowing that God would take care of our needs while teaching and refining us.  It wasn’t a well-timed conversation – like trying to teach someone geometry before they’ve mastered basic math – but it reminded me how thankful I am that I can trust God’s plans for me, no matter what they look like.  I wish my husband could find this peace.  

Luke 12:22-25 – “Then He said to His disciples, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on. Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds? And which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?”

Even my Christian friends often approach a struggle with their own plan in mind.  I try to find ways to remind them that God might have something different in mind for them.  Perhaps they will not be healed of a health issue, perhaps they will not get that job they desperately want, or maybe a family matter won’t be resolved in the way we believe would be best.  But they can still trust that no matter what happens God will use it for good.  God wants us to bring the desires of our hearts to Him and we are to be persistent and bold with our requests.  But we have to remember God is part of all answers, even when we don’t like them or understand them.  Too often we celebrate His presence when the answers look like we want them to look but chalk up His more difficult responses as unanswered prayer.    

Mark 14:32- 36: “ Then they came to a place which was named Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” And He took Peter, James, and John with Him, and He began to be troubled and deeply distressed. Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch.”He went a little farther, and fell on the ground, and prayed that if it were possible, the hour might pass from Him.  And He said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.”

Does this mean we will never have a minute of worry?  No, I don’t expect that.  After all, we still live in a broken world and we still care about other people.  Even Jesus, God in the flesh, experienced great anxiety on the night of His arrest.  On that night Jesus was deeply distressed and exceedingly sorrowful.  He turned to God in fervent prayer, asking God three times to take the cup from Him.  But Jesus yielded to God’s will.  Unlike us, Jesus knew what God’s plan would demand and how difficult it would be yet He still trusted in what God was doing, knowing what that plan meant for every person who ever lived. This should be our example during our struggles. 

I want to be as confident in God’s plans as Jesus was at Gethsemane; to live as if I can see through to eternity and rest assured that God’s plans are always the best for everyone involved.  I know I can approach God with my requests time and time again but when I convince myself that is the only acceptable answer, I invite worry and anxiety into my life.  I must always turn it over to God in the end and let Him work it out His way.  I must learn to lean on Him and trust that He will get me through those answers He provides that are painful or that I don’t understand.

The payoff is huge:  Philippians 4:7 – “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

MY SANTA CLAUS gOD

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Before I committed my life to Christ I believed in a god I refer to as the Santa Claus god.  I called Him that because I believed God exists solely to give us everything we need to insure our lives are comfortable.  I believed that the only thing God wants from us is to love Him and to love others.  My Santa Claus god is pervasive in our culture.  Prosperity preachers assure us God wants us to have everything our heart desires.  When things don’t work out like we expect them to, many conclude God is dead or “sitting this one out.”  False teachers have reduced God’s Truth to His loving, caring attributes, throwing out all references to His wrath and judgment.  We have decided that we will determine what’s right and wrong so we don’t have to control our desires and we twist Scripture to support those decisions, asserting that God needs to change to conform to our culture.  C.S.  Lewis refers to it as “God in the dock” in his essay of the same name:

“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge.  For the modern man the roles are reversed.  .… Man is on the Bench and God in the dock.”

Our world has decided we will define who God is.  We have decided that in many areas, He is just wrong.  We dismiss the idea of God’s judgment so sin becomes a non-issue.  Lewis writes in his essay that his greatest barrier in leading others to the Christian faith was “the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin.”  My own life attests to the price we pay when we determine what sin is instead of understanding God’s view of it.  I chose to believe that God loved me unconditionally so as long as I loved Him, I could do whatever I wanted to do.  Obedience was not something I felt I owed Him.  On those rare occasions when I read the Bible, I either ignored the parts I didn’t like, explained them away, dismissed them as old-fashioned, or interpreted them in a way that fit my life choices.

Adrian Rogers once said laws without punishment are nothing more than advice; without judgment, God’s laws become advice but God is not in the business of simply giving advice.  The world has decided His laws are outdated and those who choose to follow them are old-fashioned, narrow-minded and naïve.  I was happy to accept that line of thought because it meant I didn’t have to change anything I was doing.  As long as I defined God in my narrow way (loving and forgiving), there was no need for me to let go of any of the bad habits and behaviors that controlled my life.  We all know how hard it is to fight natural desires and urges.  My Santa Claus god allowed me to give in to them and the culture’s approval provided further validation.  As a result my unchecked desires for material possessions, worldly success, and intimacy determined how I was going to behave.

I was never afraid of the consequences of my behavior because I believed a loving God would rescue me from them.  Because I ignored the fact that God does run out of patience with us, that He does anger (albeit slowly) and will judge us, there was nothing in my belief system that made me accountable to Him. I never really tied the struggles I was having to my behavior; I blamed something or someone else.

I Kings 19:11, 12: “…but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.”

On December 10, 2009, when I committed my life to God, it was initially a cry out to my Santa Claus god.  My “Christmas list” included my need for Him to fix everything that was wrong in my life, to show me how to cope with life, and to give me peace.  I threw in joy but didn’t see how that would be possible, given my history with depression.  But as I kneeled by the side of my bed, crying out to Him, I heard that still, small voice we are told Elijah heard.  It was real enough for this stubborn, hard-headed, skeptical woman to take note.  As I think back on it, it wasn’t demanding, it wasn’t threatening.  It was a gentle urging, a settled thought that assured me I could trust God, no matter what I would discover about Him in the months to follow.  I knew I had to decide to believe everything I was about to learn, whether I liked it or not and I made a commitment to that.   My Santa Claus god disappeared from my life on that day.

Isaiah 30:18 “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.”

As I learned about the complete character of God, I always kept at the front of my mind the fact that I know God to be loving, good, fair and just.  Even when I don’t understand why He does certain things, I must always go back to this truth about Him and view everything through that lens.  Serving God based only on the fact that He loves me didn’t provide me with anything to hold on to when things went wrong or when something happened that seemed to contradict the fact that He is good.  I was left questioning Him and I was afraid of Him.

Matthew 7:13-14 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

I’m very careful about what I tell unbelievers and new Christians.  The first thing I want them to know is how much God loves them and that He wants the best for them.  I want them to know that He offers them forgiveness that requires they do nothing but believe in His Son.  I went to God because I needed His love and forgiveness.  But I couldn’t stay at that point.  I had to grow in my understanding of God in order for my faith to grow.   As I studied Jesus’ life, I realized that following Him isn’t always going to be easy.  I had to accept that and I can’t lead a new Christian to Christ with a lie that His path results in a cushy, comfortable life, that all it requires is to love God and others.  The first time they experience struggles and disappointments, they will want to know where God went.  New believers must know that Jesus died on the cross to save us from judgment of our sin.  Introducing my Santa Claus god just won’t cut it!

Isaiah 55:8-9 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

I see my Santa Claus god in the attitude our country has about God.  We believe somehow America is a privileged country and we expect everything to be done to insure our affluent, excessive lifestyle is left intact.  We call on God when disasters strike but insist on keeping Him at bay when it comes to our principles and values, clinging to the false conclusion that He will protect us no matter what.  He does anger, He does judge and He will whether we choose to believe it or not. We don’t understand the history of God’s judgment on nations and how He has used pagan, evil nations to judge His people.  We don’t want to accept that God might be capable of doing such things.  It is helpful to read the comments written by J.W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton in their book The Fourfold Gospel, “we must be cautious how we derive arguments of our own from the analogy between God’s attributes and the corresponding characteristics of man.  …The fallacy in the argument consists in assuming that the feeling in question must work the same results in every particular in God that it does in man.”

Isaiah 60:12 “For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste.”

As Christians, we know that the world is going to come to an end because man continues to turn from God.  It surprises me when Christians fret over world events.  Allistair Begg said it best (loose translation): “It’s not about politics or nations, it’s about His kingdom.”   We have to come to terms with the fact that America no longer follows God’s direction and there’s a price to be paid for that.  As believers, we know how this will end and we know we will overcome it all.  We have hope, not in our country, but in our God.

2 Chronicles 7:14 “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

I love reading the Old Testament and the stories that come to my mind as I watch world events are those about Rome, Babylonia, Greece, Assyria and Egypt.  These governments controlled the world at the height of their power and nobody thought they could ever fall.  But they did.  God’s purposes aren’t going to be fulfilled by any government or nation.  Even the nation He set apart to demonstrate His love to the world failed Him! His plans will survive the downfall of any nation, including America.

In our personal lives and as a nation, we must focus on spreading the Gospel to avoid God’s wrath.  We must also understand that, as the world draws to a close, there are going to be more things that don’t look like we want them to look.  We can’t cling to a “Santa Claus” god.  That belief system will only leave us angry at God because we don’t fully understand Him.  He has warned us about how He deals with rejection and provided us with plenty of history to know that He judges and why He must do so.  We have no need to question His ways if we know His entire character.  My Santa Claus god provided me with no basis for any hope or understanding.  I had to dig deeper to find His full character:

“No life can be founded upon Christ’s teaching unless it be founded also upon faith and trust in His personality.  For this we must dig deep, for as St. Gregory says, “God is not to be found on the surface.”  J.W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton “The Fourfold Gospel”

Simply loving God and believing that was all He required of me was not only self-serving but, more importantly, it totally negated my need for Jesus.  As long as I didn’t believe in God’s judgment, I had no debt to pay and Jesus’ death on the cross was pointless.  The fact that God’s character includes wrath and judgment doesn’t mean He loves me less – it allows me to see how great His love is.  He’s provided His word to inform and guide me and knowing that He does judge allows me to see His patience, grace and mercy.

Colossians 2:14 “By canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross”

Pride IS an emotion

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I learned in a college Social Work class that many people are unable to properly identify their emotions.  Most generally categorize feelings as sad, happy or mad.  Becoming familiar with the other emotions we experience such as frustration, confusion, and concern helps us see the varying degrees of feelings we experience.  Because many emotions are very similar to others, our behavior often doesn’t accurately communicate what we are actually feeling.  For example, when we’re scared we might react in anger:  My young child hides under the clothes rack at the mall and doesn’t come out when I call to him.  After several minutes, he crawls out and I scold him.  My behavior indicates that I am angry with him but I want him to know I was also scared and worried that someone might have taken him.  Or I might have been frustrated because he does this all the time and I have repeatedly instructed him not to do it.

Ephesians 4:26: “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,”

Emotions are confusing both to the person feeling them and to those we interact with.  We can’t always trust that we’ve interpreted our feelings correctly, but it’s important to know which one we’re experiencing and to understand how we behave in response to each of them.  God reminds us that we are to be in control of our feelings so we avoid the sin that can easily happen during times of heightened emotion.  But it’s difficult to control them unless we know what we are actually dealing with.  I can’t manage my frustration over a procedure at work if I attribute my actual behavior to being angry with a co-worker.

There’s one emotion that we rarely identify correctly or acknowledge:  pride.  One reason it can be tricky is because most of us don’t tend to think of it as an emotion.  I had to look it up to make sure it’s actually considered an emotion, as opposed to a mindset or an attitude.  Psychologists have determined there are two kinds of pride, one negative and one positive.  I would argue that since pride is an emotion, we will experience it in varying degrees, like anger.  Thus, its intensity and how we let it affect our behavior determines whether it is good or bad.  So, like other emotions, we must manage it just as we manage other feelings that can create problems if left unchecked.  If anger isn’t managed, we often end up hurting ourselves and others.  Pride is the same way:  I can have pride in an accomplishment, a belief, my appearance or a lifestyle I have chosen, but when that pride escalates I will make decisions or say things that hurt me and others.

Psalm 10:4:  “In his pride the wicked man does not seek him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God.”

At some point, I realized that pride was the main reason I didn’t commit my life to Christ.  I loved Jesus but I didn’t want “those Christians” to think I was admitting I was wrong.  One of the decisions I made because of this excessive pride was the decision not to attend church.  I didn’t want people to discover how I was living because I didn’t want to change – I didn’t want to admit my lifestyle was wrong and that their lifestyle would be better for me and my family.  I didn’t want to sit and listen to a preacher say things I disagreed with.  Another prideful thought I had that’s surprising is that I didn’t want anyone else to think they knew God better than I did!  Even after my commitment to Jesus, I struggled to attend church because I didn’t want anyone telling tell me I was wrong about something I had learned.  Once I was able to tie these thoughts to pride, I understood the root of my problem and could deal with it.  I literally told myself (I think I actually said it out loud) to accept the fact that there are people out there who know more than I know, who have a closer relationship with God than I do and that it’s time I started learning from them instead of resenting them for it.  I saw how God wanted to use them to help me and I wanted to obey His desire for me to be an active part of His church.

1 John 2:16:  “For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.”

Pride is such a subtle feeling – it doesn’t overwhelm us like anger or sadness yet it can swallow our entire lives because of our unawareness of it. Pride prevents us from doing things we should do and motivates us to do things we wouldn’t do if we would properly identify it.  It just kind of sits back there, conjuring up wrong thinking and providing us with excuses for our bad behavior, disguising itself as a legitimate weapon against others’ perceived efforts to belittle us. We tend to think of it as mostly a positive emotion, so we’re not monitoring it like we do obviously negative emotions. It’s difficult to know when we cross the line with pride.  Since identifying it and working on it in one area of my life, it’s getting easier to see when it’s wreaking havoc in other areas of my life.

Proverbs 11:2: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.”

I hold a Master’s Degree in Human Resources.  I am proud of earning my degree and for some things I accomplished in the organizations I worked for. But the fact is I worked in the field less than 10 years. As I write this I can feel pride welling up and I really want to give you a bunch of details so you don’t think I’m a failure. I want to tell you about things that happened that were beyond my control so you go away with a positive impression of me. But if I’m keeping my feelings of pride at an acceptable level, I have to tell you about the poor choices I made and the fact that I haven’t followed God’s plan for my life. When I’m in a situation at work where I’m feeling insecure about my abilities or intelligence, I will try to find a way to let others know about my education.  I don’t share this information so they can know a little about me; I share this information because I know it’s something I’ve accomplished that they haven’t, hoping they conclude I might be a little smarter than they are, even when I know that’s not true! I work with some really smart people who have five times more experience than I have, and while I struggle with numerous aspects of our job, most of my co-workers are really good at it.  My pride has led me to make some comments I wish I hadn’t made.  I’ve been caught in lies trying to make sure others don’t view me as inferior to them.  While trying to appear more intelligent by saying things I think MIGHT be true, I just look silly because others know I’m wrong.

Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves”

I have made a lot of progress in this area, but still have some work to do!  I understand that I can’t use the fact that I have a degree to make myself feel superior to others.  I can’t use it to communicate something about myself that isn’t true.  I have that degree only because God worked in my life to enable me to get it. I must look at my accomplishments as resources He has given me to help others.

James 4:6: “But He gives us more grace.  That is why Scripture says:  “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.””

In areas where I have conquered pride, I find living humbly is a very stress-free, relaxing way to live.  When I allow pride to puff me up, my life quickly becomes a muddled mess! Dealing with pride can be exhausting as I try to keep track of the lies I have told or come to terms with the pain I have caused.  When pride controls me, every situation brings the possibility that I might not come off looking as good as I want to look.  I am learning to find my value in Christ, not what other people think of me or where I think I stand in the world. I am who God made me to be and I have to realize that it often isn’t going to look like what the world says it should look like.  No matter what I’ve accomplished, what I look like, how smart I am, what I have, or what I can do, the world will never be satisfied with it and I will never be fulfilled by any of it. As I think about people I have known, it is the humble ones that I feel great affinity for.  One of Jesus’ most enduring qualities is His humility and His greatest moments were when it was in full display!  Don’t let anyone tell you that being humble is a bad thing.  Moses’ humility was noteworthy enough that God appointed a scribe to add it to His Word and look at all he accomplished!

Numbers 12:3: “(Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)

 I want to live humbly.  To do that, I must remember at all times what God has done for me and where I would be without His gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.

Romans 12:3 “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”

DISCERNMENT – EXAMINE SCRIPTURE

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About 30 years ago I started a Bible study that I ordered through the mail.  At the time I wasn’t sure about the beliefs of this particular group and assumed they could be trusted to teach me Biblically sound doctrine  Each lesson included a pamphlet with the actual lesson, an outline I was to fill in, and verses from the Bible I was to read. One week something about the lesson didn’t ring true to me.  I had never studied the Bible so it wasn’t that I read it and knew it wasn’t Biblical.  The more I compared the lesson to what I was reading in the Bible, the more it bothered me.  At some point it said something that very clearly misinterpreted the Scripture it referenced and I knew I was being led down the wrong path.  I threw the lessons away and requested the organization stop sending the lessons.

2 Timothy 4:3-4 “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

Several years ago I committed my life to Jesus and began listening to preachers on the radio and TV.  One morning I heard a message from Joel Osteen.  At the time I was struggling with managing my money, had a large amount of debt and only a seasonal job.  What Joel was saying was so inspiring because, according to him, all I had to do was believe God would provide me with more money and He would.  Joel Osteen was telling me something I really wanted to believe and I was buying it hook, line and sinker.  I was in real danger of going back to the Santa Claus god I had believed in.

When I told my daughter how encouraged I was by what Mr. Osteen said, she warned me about the prosperity preachers that were becoming popular.  I had never heard of them. I listened more closely to his sermons and finally realized that he wanted me to believe in the power of my faith rather than trusting God.  I’m sure if Mr. Osteen knew about my financial situation he would have blamed my insufficient faith but my faith in God was very strong! I was learning how to lean on God more each day instead of trusting in things of this world.  Through my trial I was discovering God’s commands and how doing things His way was bringing much better results than doing them my way.  The things Mr. Osteen claimed all Christians should do often left me feeling confused (a sure sign something is amiss!). One example was a story about his wife asking him to run to the grocery store so she could finish dinner.  By the time he showered, shaved and put on good clothes, he was too late to get the things she needed so “he enjoyed his TV dinner that night.”  His point in the story was that Christians should always appear in public neatly dressed because of the impression we might leave on others. It bothered me on various levels: his wife’s need for his help was secondary to how he was going to look to other people; he didn’t seem to have any regard for the work she had put into their dinner; he could have quickly washed and put on clean clothes and met his standard while helping his wife; he must judge others by their appearance if he puts that much importance on his own.  The story was like a rock in my shoe.  It just kept coming to my mind and troubled me.

Now, I’m sure this incident bothers me a lot more than it bothered Mrs. Osteen and they were most likely in agreement that Mr. Osteen did the right thing.  It just seems to me he’s got his priorities a little mixed up and I can’t determine what negative message we send when we’re out in public not perfectly dressed. In addition to that confusion, I was disturbed by the minimal amount of time he spent talking specifically about Jesus and sin.  I knew God’s message to His children isn’t about how we can all get rich.  At that point in my life I needed to hear about God’s forgiveness and mercy but wasn’t hearing about either of those things from Joel Osteen.

Colossians 2:8 “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”

 One author said that the theology Mr. Osteen presents is like feeding our spiritual life with nothing but candy.  Hearing only the “good” things about God is not a sufficient spiritual diet.  Learning about how Christians have suffered helps me understand its role in my life and prepares me for those times I’m tested or experiencing the consequences of sin, whether my own or from living in a fallen world.  I have learned that God’s plan for my life is better than whatever plans I have ever had, even when His plans don’t include comfort, wealth or perfect health.  Learning about all of God’s attributes allows me to get to really know Him and have a meaningful relationship with Him.  Even with my limited Bible knowledge, I knew God never promised that every believer would be wealthy and healthy, no matter how much we want to be.  I have learned how I can trust God to help me through whatever troubles I experience in life. He allows trials to make me stronger and help me become the person He needs me to be.  I would never have learned any of these things if I had been given everything my heart desires nor would I have learned about them from Mr. Osteen.

Acts 17:11 “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so”

I had also been listening to Joyce Meyer.  At first, her uplifting, encouraging sermons appealed to me.  Even the name of her TV ministry relieved my itching ears: Enjoying Everyday Life.  For a long time, I didn’t detect much error in Joyce’s sermons.   Then I heard Hank Hanegraaff talking on his radio program “The Bible Answer Man” about one of her sermons and learned that in this particular sermon she changed a word in Scripture so that it meant something entirely different. I looked up the verse and saw Mrs. Meyer’s lie.  I learned the importance of checking the Scriptures after listening to any preacher or teacher.

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

In another sermon, Joyce expresses no compassion for the paralytic by the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-47).  In her interpretation, he just lay there suffering for 38 years, doing nothing to help himself.  She questions why, in the span of 38 years, he did not inch his way to the pool so he could roll into it and be healed!  Like Joyce’s analysis of the paralytic, faith preachers would have us believe if we’re suffering in any way our faith simply isn’t strong enough – we’re at fault!  What they’re telling us is we have to have faith in our faith instead of having faith in God. I stopped listening to her because I don’t want to support someone who misleads believers.

 2 John 1:11 – “Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.”

A few years ago, I was made aware of the belief that Jesus and His family were actually very wealthy.  According to proponents they gained their wealth from the magi that visited Jesus shortly after His birth.  Their theory goes that there had to have been a large number of magi who came to see Jesus after learning of His birth all of whom would have brought expensive gifts to present to the family leaving them very wealthy.  They further the argument by pointing to the fact that Jesus and His disciples had a treasurer (Judas), which, according to them, tells us the group needed someone to manage their large pot of money.  Yet another argument used to support this distortion is based on John 1:39.  Proponents conclude that Jesus invited a large group of followers referred to in previous verses in the chapter to His own home, which would have had to be large to accommodate all of them.  A friend once presented me with some of these points but at the time I couldn’t defend what I believed and realized I had, in fact, simply taken others’ word for it, never taking time to research Scripture to insure I could defend the truth.  I did the research, using Biblically-sound teachers, websites and my concordance to find Scripture to support what I had always believed about Jesus’ poverty.   Take a minute and look up John 1:39 and you will read that Jesus invites only two followers, Andrew and another, possibly John, to follow him to “where He is staying” (not His home).  A cross-reference would include Matthew 8:20 where Jesus tells us He had no place to lay His head. Luke 2:24 can also be used to confirm Jesus’ family was not wealthy.  This verse tells us about Mary’s sacrifice of a pair of doves or two young pigeons required after the birth of a child.  The cross-reference verses in my Bible include Leviticus 12:6-8 which tells us a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons can be offered by those who cannot afford a lamb sacrifice. Here are four Bible stories I can use to defend the truth of Jesus’ poverty.

Revelation 22:18-19 “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

False teachers understand that the majority of Christians are not reading their Bibles nor taking the time to compare verses and look up background information, impeding their ability to discern truth from lies.  It’s much easier to let them do all the work.  They do not deserve this level of trust.  We have to start holding them accountable and stop using excuses for not being equipped to call them out on their lies.  Any confusion we might experience when studying the Bible will be dispelled if we ask questions, read the notes contained in most Bibles, and look up related verses.  Contradictions disappear when we consider the context of the verses and gain an understanding of the Bible as a whole.

“Context! Context! Context! That’s the antidote to the compromise and to the confusion and to the contradiction of Christ and the Canon. We as Christians need to read the Bible for all its worth, otherwise we are going to be misled by a cacophony of voices that have a siren call that is leading us not towards biblical truth but rather away from biblical truth.” The Bible Answer Man with Hank Hanegraaff, 6/24/2010

It’s important to pray for guidance as we read Scripture and allow the Spirit to show us things in His time.  When I first started studying the Bible, I wanted to immediately understand everything I was reading.  But I took it at God’s pace and allowed Him to show me things in His time.  At first He revealed simple things but with each read-through, I learn more and God reveals deeper truths.

Regular Bible study, researching Scripture, listening to the Spirit, discussing Scripture with other Christians, and reading Biblically sound Christian authors are tools God has provided to help us discern between solid Biblical doctrine and false teaching.  Use a concordance and make use of all the wonderful internet sites that help you find passages based on topics or keywords.  Be sure to check the accuracy of each resource with trusted Christian friends.

Allistair Begg often says “The main things are the plain things.”  There are certainly ideas in the Bible that can be debated, but the main doctrinal points are very clear and non-debatable.  These include original sin; Jesus’s virgin birth, His sinlessness, deity, and humanity; the Trinity; our need for God’s grace; the necessity of faith; Christ’s atoning death, His bodily resurrection and ascension; Christ’s intercessory work for us; and His second coming, final judgment, and reign. (From The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith (Part One), Christian Research Institute, Article ID: JAE100-1, By: Norman L. Geisler.)

Discernment takes time, but it is time well spent. We must spend sufficient time in His Word to be able to discern the truth from the lies.  It is no longer an option.

1 Timothy 6:3-5 “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.”

WITHOUT JESUS WE DON’T HAVE GOD

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There’s some site I’ve seen posted a lot recently on Facebook with celebrities proclaiming their faith.  The quotes include comments about reading their Bible and falling on their knees in prayer every day.  Some comment on how they couldn’t get through life without their faith and/or God.  While I do not pretend to know anything about their spiritual lives, I am not convinced they are Christians, if that’s something I’m supposed to take away from the quotes.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m really happy to see that some top celebrities are reading God’s Word.  I would be happier if they would mention Jesus in there somewhere.   

John 14:6-“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Many of my friends and family will readily tell me they believe in God.  But the conversation comes to an abrupt halt when I ask them to tell me what they believe about Jesus.  I would venture to guess that most people believe in God and feel He helps them in their lives in some way but they see no need for Jesus.  

I have believed in God all my life. From as far back as I can remember I have felt connected to Him.  I have always known He loves me and I never doubted that He exists.  Jesus was kind of a side item.  I knew in my head that He “died for me,” but didn’t really understand how that affected me.  It was only when I truly understood who Jesus is that God began to have a real impact in my life.  My spiritual life went from a bunch of beliefs, most of which I made up, to the reality of God.  He went from being a distant spiritual being to a living presence.  My impression of God shifted from a demanding Father to a loving one.  In their commentary “The Fourfold Gospel” J. W. McGarvey and Phillip Y. Pendleton write:  “Nature shows God above us; the Law shows God against us; but the Gospel shows God with us, and for us.”     

As I studied the Bible I could see the big picture of the world; how events in the Old Testament all led up to Christ and how the world as we know it will end with His return.  I no longer fear the world because it is no longer a random bunch of happenings.  While we are subject to man’s depravities in the short-term, God has ultimate control and will take it back in the end.  I find great comfort in that.  I also find comfort in knowing He has a reason for every single human being, including me.  God had a plan for me even before I was born.  Life is no longer about me; it is now about serving God and leading others to Jesus.  The hopelessness is gone and I have new resources to help me manage the sadness I have always felt.

 God provided the law to the Israelites as a way for them to live to set themselves apart from other people, to show their love for Him through obedience, and to acknowledge their need for His forgiveness of their sins.  There were rituals, sacrifices and laws that they strived to obey. These were external symbols God used to illustrate His authority, His direction on how we are to live, and the requirement to pay a price for sin.  They foreshadowed Jesus.  Once He died and was resurrected, the need for these things went away.  Because of Jesus, I don’t have to DO anything for God’s forgiveness.  It’s hard to fathom that God offers this kind of rescue to us.  All I have to do is know that Jesus is who He said He is (God).  Until I fully grasped what God did in the person of Jesus I depended on successfully obeying a bunch of rules to insure I received God’s forgiveness and blessings.  And that’s why I viewed life as so hopeless. 

Each time I failed God I sank deeper and deeper in an abyss.  At some point, I gave up trying and convinced myself that God really didn’t care how I lived. In my belief system, God didn’t require anything of me; I call Him my Santa Claus god because I decided to believe He existed only to give me the things I needed and the things I wanted.  But deep down I knew I was wrong and I was engaged in a never-ending mental wrestling match.  A summary of my thoughts might go something like this:

If I’m good for a while, then I mess up, will God give me a second chance?  I hope He loves me enough to give me a third, fourth and fifth chance.  There has to be a line to cross where God says “enough is enough” and He’s done with us. How does God determine when we cross that line? Is He comparing me to Mother Theresa, the Pope, my grandma, maybe Oprah?   For every bad thing I do, must I do something good to even up my score or can I assume it only takes one really good thing to make up for lots of kind-of-bad things?  What if I forget something bad I did and don’t make up for it?  If I find a number of people who don’t view what I did as bad can I cross it off my list?  What if I die right after a bad deed and don’t get a chance to do the good thing I intended to do to make up for it?  Does the intent to do good count or do I actually have to do it?  Is God keeping a tally sheet of my sins?  Even my thoughts are bad – there’s not enough time in the day to do a good thing for every bad thought I have!

It was mentally and emotionally exhausting and as the failures piled up the harder it was to see a way out!  I was fighting a losing battle.  Then God led me to an understanding of what He did in the person of Jesus.  I learned that my perception of God and Jesus as being separate was wrong; God is three persons yet one.  This is a difficult concept to grasp, but I accepted it by faith.  I don’t have to understand it I just have to know it’s true.  I learned that there’s nothing I can do to earn God’s forgiveness; Jesus did all that needed to be done.  I learned what grace is and I learned what God’s mercy is: God gives me what I don’t deserve (forgiveness) and He refrains from giving me what I do deserve (punishment).  It’s so simple, yet so complicated.  But this new understanding freed me from constantly looking back and drowning in my past.  It gave me a way to show God I love Him simply by putting forth a sincere effort to do what He asks. 

I’m not suggesting that once I figured out what God did in the person of Jesus all my problems disappeared.  But it was the beginning of a life that allowed me to move forward, assured I was forgiven for all my poor choices; it enabled me to wake up each morning knowing I have a clean slate in God’s eyes.  Life is still difficult.  In some ways it’s even harder.  But with Jesus there’s hope.  It’s not a constant fight to live up to an unattainable standard.  Now that I know Jesus, the Spirit dwells in me, the other person that God is while still being God.  That’s what I didn’t understand before.  And that is where I found hope where I saw none before.  I’m not alone in this.

John 14:17 – “…even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. You know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.”

It’s frustrating when non-believers relegate my experience as merely a belief or adopting a religion. The God that created this universe dwells in me.  When I fully understood that, it overwhelmed me. I cried and I repeated the idea over and over in my head, trying to wrap my brain around it.  It still amazes me.  I’ve tried to come up with a way to explain the experience.  In the commentary The Fourfold Gospel (McGarvey and Pendelton) there is a comment regarding Luke 1:15 that says “the stimulation of the Spirit is elsewhere thus contrasted with alcoholic stimulants.”  I’ve considered explaining the experience by comparing it to drinking alcohol, but thought it a bit irreverent.  Seeing it in print by accomplished Christian authors assured me it’s OK to use the analogy.  If I were to tell someone who has never drank alcohol the way they will feel and the things they might do if they consume several drinks, they might not believe me.  But once they start drinking, they will find it to be a real experience.  The Spirit indwelling me is the same way.  It wasn’t a response to something I read nor was it a mere decision to accept a particular doctrine.  It is as real as the experience I have when I drink alcohol.  When I began leaning on His power instead of going it alone, I was able to rid my life of so many harmful habits and behaviors. That’s the difference Jesus has made. 

John 16:7  – “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.

Jesus’ disciples begged Him to stay but He assured them His leaving was for their good.  Jesus died so we can have a personal relationship with God and that relationship can exist because the Spirit dwells in us.  There can be no closer relationship.  And the only way to receive the Spirit is through the re-birth we experience when we accept what Jesus did for us on the cross.  Only as a believer of Jesus are we counted as one of God’s children. 

Simply put, without Jesus, you don’t have God.  It grieves me when people claim a faith that includes God but they don’t see a need for Jesus.  They will not spend eternity with God, and they will miss blessings God wants to give them in this life.  God has given us the responsibility of helping others understand who Jesus is.  It’s hard to do in the culture that exists today.  Not only is it a narrow gate to God, He tells us few will find it. 

Matthew 7:14 – “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”

“Imperfect knowledge of Him troubles, but perfect knowledge and love cast out fear.” (I John 4:18 partial paraphrase in The Fourfold Gospel, McGarvey and Pendleton)