Orthodoxy Drift: How Semantics, Euphemisms, & Coined Phrases Influence the Church–Part III

I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions.” [Gen 26:4–5 NIV]

‘”Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did.”‘ [Jhn 8:39 NIV]

This week, I’m picking up where we left off in the last post and forging ahead to the word “works” and how the semantics behind this word has caused a wide rift between Catholic and Protestant faith traditions and also seems to be shifting to what it was never meant to define, and, therefore, twisting God’s truth. As for myself, the tension between Paul and James had left me feeling very confused at one time, because my whole heart was to please the Lord, but it felt like if I “worked,” or served the Lord in any way, I would displease Him, and if I did nothing, that would displease Him, too. I was caught in a double bind. Perhaps it was only peculiar to my emotional makeup, but I think that in considering the constant push and pull engendered by this word in theological debate that it affects more folks than I imagine. I also truly believe that my struggle in this area will not be for naught, for as my good friend always says, “God wastes nothing!”

Maybe the best way to approach this is to define what the word “works” means, then discuss what it does not mean. First of all, the Hebrew word for “work” in the Old Testament is “maʿăśê” and means an action (either good or bad); an act, deed, or labor. In the New Testament, the Greek word is “ergon” and similarly means a deed, doing, labor, or work. In the Old Testament, the main idea behind the word is one’s actions, whether God’s or man’s. In the New Testament, again, it alludes to actions, as in the above cited scripture in John 8:39. The Mounce Interlinear phrases that scripture like this: “They answered him, saying, “Our father is Abraham!” Jesus said to them, “If you were really Abraham’s children, you would be doing the deeds [ergon] of Abraham.” So, the sense is always doing something, our actions. Both testaments agree. There are so many scriptures that show this that I won’t cite them all here. A good resource is the Blue Letter Bible, which lets you search a word or phrase and then look up the words in the original languages.

There is a similar Hebrew word, āśâ, that means simply “do,” that has also been tranlated “to work.” For example, Isaiah 64:5 says, “You meet him who joyfully works [āśâ] righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.” Which is confusing, because the very next scripture is translated in some bibles as, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” The word for “righteous deeds” here is ṣᵊḏāqâ, which normally means “righteousness and justice” in a moral sense. For example, Deuteronomy 9:5 uses the same Hebrew word here:

Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. [ESV]

This is such an interesting verse because the Lord is warning the Israelites that they should not feel conceited or proud, as if their own natural morality has earned them their favored position with God. Rather, the Lord acts because the other nations are so wicked that He has deemed judgement necessary, and because He is fulfilling His promise to Abraham and his descendants. We know, from the verses that follow, that most of the Israelites were a “stiff-necked” people, stubborn: “Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD. [Deu 9:7 ESV] Moses goes on to list their faithless acts that show their lack of moral righteousness [ṣᵊḏāqâ].

So, I humbly suggest that the word ṣᵊḏāqâ should not be translated “righteous deeds,” in Isaiah 64:6, but, “righteousness,” or moral soundness, for the simple reason that the very preceding verse says that God meets those who joyfully work [āśâ] righteousness [ṣeḏeq, which is from the same root word listed above]. We can see from this that God welcomes righteous actions and justice–what he doesn’t condone is Israel’s unfaithful acts and disobedience under His rule. So, through our more modern lens, we see the words “righteous deeds” in verse 6 and associate it with Paul’s denunciation of works throughout his New Testament letters, that they are “filthy rags.” I suggest a fuller understanding is that the prophet spoke of the Israelite’s very moral fiber, their righteousness before God, or lack thereof as evidenced by their behavior, which better aligns with Deuteronomy 9:5.

The next logical questions would be, “Well, what was Paul’s definition of works?” I suggest that in his letters his emphasis is on “works of the law,” i.e. observance of the entire Mosaic Law, and often, specifically, circumcision. This seems to be a big contention back in his day, with some of the Jewish converts requiring and teaching that circumcision was still needed for Gentile believers. Paul vehemently denounces this, stating, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” [Gal 2:21 ESV] He is saying these Jewish converts are trying to add to initial belief in Christ, that in order to be righteous before God, to be saved, one had to also observe the custom of circumcision and the Law of Moses. This contradicts the Council of Jerusalem, where Peter there stated, “and He made no distinction between us and them [the Gentile believers], having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” [Act 15:9–11 ESV]

From this whole heresy by these Jews, Paul begins to reason out why rules and regulations do not save a person, but only our faith in Christ. He often drops from “works of the law” to the shortened “works,” which I think is confusing for young Christians. He must not mean righteous deeds done after we place our faith in Jesus, because he encourages those! He even EXPECTS that! For example, Paul’s famous line in Ephesians 2:8-9 is:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works [ergon], so that no one may boast.”

But we see in the very next verse that good works, good deeds, are part of God’s plan for us:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works [ergon], which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. [Eph 2:10 ESV]

In the context of these verses, Paul is talking about the Mosaic Law, the “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (verse 15). Those works. Any works (external rules and regulations that supersede love and justice) set up by a religion that expects strict adherence or you will not be saved. Paul and the other Apostles argued that God welcomed the Gentiles, baptizing them in the Holy Spirit with the visible sign of speaking in tongues to confirm His acceptance. He did this once they put their faith in God’s Savior, not because they observed Jewish rules and regulations, or, for that matter, had done anything but repent and believe: “The time has come,” [Jesus] said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” [Mark 1:15 NIV] Once they were born again through the Holy Spirit’s power, they would do by their new nature the good things of God’s law, those things that called for a righteousness and justice in morality. They would grow in grace: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” [Eph 4:15 ESV].

From all this we can see that in Paul’s mind, he defines “works” as rules and regulations that supposedly give us a favored relationship with God. Just as the Jewish people contradicted the spirit of God’s good law, we can do the same today. Like the Lord told Israel through the prophet Zephaniah, we can develop the same heart attitude: “Her prophets are unprincipled; they are treacherous people. Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law.” [Zep 3:4 NIV] For example, Jesus told the Jews, “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” [Luk 11:42 ESV] They practiced the rules, but had no moral fiber, no innate righteousness, no justice in their hearts. They stuck up their noses at “sinners” without thinking to help them to repent or show them kindness. They wanted to follow the rules. There was to be no work on a religious day, and they got angry with Jesus for healing sick folks on the Sabbath, viewing it not as mercy, but as a work. They accused Jesus of having a demon because He spoke truth that contradicted the Jews views and customs, yet He was God’s beloved Son.

Likewise, we can proudly tithe, go to church every Sunday, or sing in the choir, and we are satisfied because people see us do all these good things. Then we go home and arrange clandestine rendezvous with our lover, without thinking of love for our spouse. Then we go to work and steal from our employer. Then we go to the bar and get wasted, picking a fight with the quiet guy in the corner minding his own business. Then someone offends us, and we vow never to forgive them. Then we buy a big screen TV after refusing a meal to the homeless man on the corner. And we feel righteous? Like so many of the Israelites wandering in the desert, we behave abhorrently. We live faithless lives. For the love of God, where is the love of God? We twist what is good, namely, God’s grace, into an excuse to work our own selfish deeds: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Gal 5:13–14 ESV]

So, we can see Paul is not saying that mere righteous actions after salvation contradict faith. If you are ever made to feel guilty for trying to express your love for God in doing good, tell the enemy, the father of lies, to talk to the hand. Just like Jesus “worked” on the Sabbath, we too can do good in the Sabbath rest of God. For instance, our scriptures cited under the heading show God said that BECAUSE of Abraham’s obedience and the keeping of His commands he would be blessed and shown God’s favor (the commands God gave him that came before the Mosaic Law, not the rules of some other menfolk who happened to set up religious shop). Abraham first believed the Lord–he took Him at His word. Then a beautiful obedience flowed from that heartfelt faith. Paul never indicates that any of Abraham’s actions were somehow a work. Rather, he emphasizes that God’s promise of favor came to him before the covenant of circumcision and the Law, therefore we don’t receive the Lord’s favor by performing rituals or following any rules. We receive favor by faith in and obedience to Christ. Paul argues that an outward rule does not touch the heart, that it can never engender true faith and therefore is quite powerless to change one’s life. But faith in Jesus IS life-changing, because He is THE Life-Changer! He is constantly working His grace in us to conform us into His own likeness. A rule cannot give life. It is itself a dead thing, and only produces after its own kind. Christ begets Christians (little reflections of Himself). Paul never advocates that because Abraham did nothing, that we should do nothing! Abraham would never have been a hero of faith or have been called God’s friend had he not acted out his faith.

Since I’m venturing into what “works” is not, what Paul does not have in mind, let’s discuss morality. May I state clearly that holiness is not a work–it is an expectation of conduct. Paul said, “[I] declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. [Act 26:20 ESV] So many in the church today think that works include living a holy life, or conversely, excuse their lack of morality, their purposeful sin, by crying out, “Grace, grace!” Now, please don’t hear me wrong. The following is a warning to do you good, not condemn you if you repent. God is always trying to do you good! Now, the Lord himself states:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does [poieō: to work, perform] the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works [miracles] in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers [ergazomai, a form of ergon] of lawlessness.’ [Mat 7:21–23 ESV]

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do [poieō] what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.” [Luk 6:46–49 NIV]

So we see that moral and godly conduct is not a work. It is expected. It is fruit from the holy seed of rebirth and regeneration. Of course, this is the caveat. Morality without Christ is useless, for just like Paul reasons that if the Mosaic Law could make a person righteous, then Jesus did not need to come to earth, suffer, die, and be resurrected for our salvation. Like I stated in my last post, God has an order in salvation. The seemingly good things we try to do before salvation are works, because, for the most part, we are trying to please man or ourselves. The good things we do after salvation are fruit, because we are trying to please God.

We can see from all of this then that James is not contradicting Paul, he is contradicting those that misunderstand and misquote Paul. James says:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” [Jas 2:14–26 NIV]

James cuts right through the ring bologna, the illogical conclusion that Paul means one needs to never do anything after we come to faith. Our faith is meant to produce a crop, to multiply, to produce fruit, not be buried like the inaction of the wicked and lazy servant (Luke 19:11-27). When James says, rather sarcastically, that even demons believe [pisteuō] there is one God, he is rather sassily saying, in modern English, “You say you have faith and don’t need anything to support it? That you believe in one God, and that’s enough? Well, you do beautifully well, ‘cuz folks, demons believe that, too. I’m just sayin’! How can I tell the difference between you two if I do not see your works (fruit)?” Brothers and sisters, our faith needs to be a living, breathing testimony to the belief that Jesus is the Savior and Good Teacher. If not, it would be like taking a physics class and learning all the theorems but never getting a job and putting your newfound knowledge to good use. If we tell someone in need to go and be warm and well-fed but do nothing to make it happen, how does our wish for them align with the outcome to see them well-fed and clothed? It would be like an artist confident that he or she can paint a beautiful masterpiece, but never picking up a paint brush! Doing good, then, is not work. Belief worth any salt will produce action.

So, James is correcting error, not Paul. We can see how semantics can be used by the enemy to lead people astray, even back then. And the enemy is still doing it today. I think for Martin Luther, his anger at the Church was directed toward the vice he saw rampant, the manipulation of the sheep, the consignment to superstition in so many “doctrines” that were unscriptural and made up by man. The leaders in Rome had fallen into the same trap and were rowing in the same boat as the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. In our present age, the pendulum has seemed to swing to the other ditch (so often the enemy gets us off track by going to extremes), so that faith is so simple you can practice ongoing sin and have it swept under the rug by grace. How does that work for a nine-year-old? Don’t they refrain from what they know is bad because they either fear being disciplined, or because they love their parents and see the good they desire for them? Guess what my next topic will be.

I just want to add that in my life, I have often felt the Lord’s good correction and his love for me behind it. But there have been times that seem like the Lord is harsh. I firmly believe that if the result of what you are thinking or feeling is defeat or complete rejection, that this is the enemy trying to dishearten you. If your thinking or feeling is that you regret your sin and want to turn from it, and you are thankful for the correction, this is the Lord’s loving hand. I feel like the enemy’s tactic is to make a thrashing seem like it is from our Abba. It’s kind of like how a good father will sit down and correct us, maybe even dole out discipline, like grounding, but the evil neighbor comes over, blindfolds us, and gives us a beating. So be aware, brothers and sisters, that the Lord only desires our good: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” [2Co 7:10 NIV] Our God is the Author of life! Just because as a believer we are corrected does not mean that our Father has rejected us. Matter of fact, it shows that we are indeed His children:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined–and everyone undergoes discipline–then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. [Hebrews 12:7–8 NIV] And again, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. [Proverbs 3:11–12 NIV] See? He corrects us because He LOVES and DELIGHTS in us! Please hear me: if the enemy is calling you a failure, a loser, a no good so-and-so, with no hope of remedy, this is spiritual battle. The proper mindset is to confess our sin and know that God is faithful and just to forgive us AND purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9) Once we do that, once we humble ourselves before the Lord, we are submitting to God. THEN we resist the devil and he will FLEE! [James 4:7] Yes. AFTER we repent and submit to God, we can tell the devil to go retire to a warmer climate and, as one dear brother I know suggested, remind him of his final fate. Amen.

Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” [Luke 10:19–20 ESV]

We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but He who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. [1 John 5:18 ESV]

Orthodoxy Drift: How Semantics, Euphemisms, & Coined Phrases Influence the Church–Part II

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. [Heb 11:1 NIV]

So then, those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. [Gal 3:9 NASB20]

As promised, I’d like to continue this post I started a few weeks ago and talk about the words “faith” and “believe.” There has been quite a bit of discussion already from several well-known Christian teachers who, like me, have a desire to address and correct what is called “easy believism” in the Church today. It carries with it the idea that one needs only to believe in Jesus to be saved without anything ever further required, that intellectual agreement with the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that He promises eternal life to everyone who believes on Him is all that is necessary for our salvation.

To me, the whole idea of “easy believism” reacts to Catholicism and takes the idea of grace into the opposite ditch in the road. I get the image from proponents of easy believism that we are “born again,” then left on a spiritual doorstep somewhere in China. I mean, even a gardener knows his seedlings need tending to grow into strong and fruitful plants! I think the crux of the matter has to do with the fact that there are scriptures in different places in the bible that seem to be incongruous with each other or seem to, when isolated, support this more extreme idea of grace, or misinterpretation of it. My understanding of easy believism is that it twists the grace of God into a justification for ongoing sin, which Paul warned against several times, saying that those who practice immorality will not inherit the Kingdom of God. I also think that to understand grace, we must consider that there is an order to things, God’s order, that helps us reconcile what seems to be two conflicting scriptures. A classic double-bind develops in our minds when we are presented with two truths that seem to disagree. For example, Martin Luther, our champion of salvation by grace through faith, struggled with the epistle of James because this leader in the Church at Jerusalem stated that “faith without works is dead.” Luther considered it an “epistle of straw,” or of lesser value than other books of the bible.

I once talked with a Lutheran pastor who said that all you need to do is believe in Jesus, and God expects nothing more. But don’t we expect more of our children as they grow? Wouldn’t we be REALLY concerned if we were still changing diapers on our eight-year-old? [Heb 5:12-13] Don’t we expect and desire obedience? True faith listens to God and obeys: “because Abraham obeyed Me and fulfilled [his] duty to Me, [and kept] My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” [Gen 26:5 NASB20]

Now, this pastor would most likely support his statement based on the following scriptures:

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. [Jhn 5:24 NIV]

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. [Rom 10:9–10 NIV] And a little further on, Paul says, “for “EVERYONE WHO CALLS ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.” [Rom 10:13 NASB20]

There are more verses, of course, but for the sake of space, let’s limit the discussion to these two. In the first given, in the gospel of John, Jesus is defending His healing work on the Sabbath and declares that, “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.” His entire thought process seems to be that his own work, based on what he sees His Father doing, is offending the Jews who think that breaking their religious rule proves that Jesus is a false teacher. So He answers that those who hear His word and believe in God have eternal life, will not be judged, and have crossed over from spiritual death to spiritual life.

So, what is His “word?” The Greek used here is “logos,” which means spoken words, message, or teaching and instruction. Now, obviously, Jesus spoke more words than just those in this passage, so He must have in mind the first necessity in this instance: to believe in Him as the One promised and sent by God to save Israel and the whole world, the Messiah. The idea of “first things first” makes sense in scripture. Nowhere does Jesus say you have to do any work or task to receive eternal life. His only requirement is repentance, to turn from our way of doing things to God’s way, and to turn from our sins and embrace the Lord’s provision for our salvation. The thief on the cross could do nothing more, and Jesus assured him of his home in heaven in that instance. So please don’t say that proves that to be grace all I need to do is believe in Jesus. Because, when you stand before Him after a long life and He asks you what you have done with His gift, and you point to the thief on the cross to justify your lack, He will ask you if you were nailed to a cross and nigh about to die these past forty years!

Now, the Lord presents Himself as the Giver of a gift always. We receive the Kingdom like a child. [Luke 18:17] We don’t break down heaven’s doors. He states elsewhere to the Jews who ask Him what work they must do to do the works of God, “The work of God is this: to believe in the One he has sent.” [Jhn 6:28–29 NIV] Again, first things first. The Greek word “believe” here is pisteuō and can mean to have a mental persuasion or to commit to the charge and power of someone. Bill Mounce defines it: to believe, put one’s faith in, trust, with an implication that actions based on that trust may follow; to entrust.

Like a child who depends on their parents for the necessities of life, we, too, depend on our Heavenly Father to provide for our eternal life. Any child brought up in a loving family simply trusts the parents to feed, clothe, and shelter them, and to love them. In other words, a well-adjusted child does not need to hunt, sew, or be a carpenter and mason. He or she does not need a religious ritual, like climbing steps leading up to some religious historical site on one’s knees to hopefully gain their mom and dad’s favor (or redeem a bad little brother!). In a normal family, love is freely given and assumed. Children know that a pilgrimage to a “holy place” to somehow feel closer to their parents is not needed because the holy place is at home in dad’s lap.

This primacy of simple belief is important, because God always directs attention to Himself. He is the embodiment of love and justice. To point to any other person or thing would harm us. He demands His glory for our good! He is the catalyst and initiator of faith so that we don’t detract from the focus and honor due Him. Just as a baby cannot contribute to his formation in his mother’s womb or “help” her give birth, so we are spiritually. The work is God’s. We can’t take credit for any heroic efforts to make our labor and delivery into this world any easier on our dear moms. I’ve also often envisioned the ember of faith and grace (as opposed to works) along the lines of the potter and the clay analogy in scripture. The Word says that we are God’s workmanship, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. [Eph 2:10 ESV] An artist or sculptor will use the right tools and his skill to fashion his work according to the image he envisions. So, too, the Lord wants to fashion us into the image of His son [Rom 8:29]. The sculptor needs no “help” or “input” from his slab of marble. Imagine then, us, some layman in the field of humanity, trying to direct, correct, or help the Master Artist!

So, Jesus’ above words ARE true. He always speaks truth. We can think of it in reverse: that if our new birth needed anything else, any requirement or action outside of trust in God’s ability, then we could and would take credit for, take pride in, our part. It’s like the Lord is saying YOU NEED ME and He demands dependence on Him because in and of ourselves we work foolishness. We cannot help Him. He is always helping us. I envision salvation like a chain reaction, that the Lord initiates the momentum that begins with His word, then the Holy Spirit convicts of sin, the good news is preached, we hear and accept (faith), the Holy Spirit gives us new birth, we continue to be nourished on the milk of God’s Word, and we grow. I once heard it explained that Jesus has saved us, is saving us, and will save us. He is always teaching, correcting, and protecting us. This is His grace at work in us. Whatever we do (work), or however we act, after salvation, is good fruit because it is directed by God.

On the flip side, for an example of man-directed work for God, there is a well-known Christian ministry to the poor and dying in a country where Hinduism is the main religion. The people involved are so enamored with doing and providing physical relief and comfort to the people that they’ve lost their focus on these folk’s eternal welfare and God’s heart. They are taught to not attempt to convert people to Christ, but to make them the best Hindu or whatever faith tradition they happen to embrace. So the ministry workers meticulously clean festering wounds, give baths, provide medicine, and heroically tend to some very base problems. They then subtly boast about their humility in serving such poor people. They feel satisfied that the comforts given provide for a dignified death and look good on their spiritual resume.

But the reality is that these poor people, in man-pleasing politeness and misplaced compassion, are being prepped for hell. It’s like the nominal Church is dressing people up in the finest lace and embroidered silk, but fails to clothe their sin-sick souls with Christ’s robe of righteousness. They leave this world in “dignity” but stand before God naked and ashamed. These ministry “projects” die and go to an eternity without Christ! No wonder Paul said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” [Rom 1:16 ESV] No wonder Isaiah says, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. [Isa 64:6 NIV] We cannot, in our flesh, spiritually care for others. Our goal should always be to guide them to the One who can.

Now, Paul is also in complete agreement with Jesus when he says that it is with our hearts (i.e. our inmost being) that we believe. It is not just mental knowledge, although even that can prompt action. For example, I know that the sun in the summer makes for a hot day. I know this by experience, and also because I can Google just about any fact out there and find out that the surface of the sun is 9,941 degrees Fahrenheit. Because I have mental knowledge of these things, I am careful to use sunscreen if I go swimming, or wear a tank top and shorts to stay cool. This is mental assent in action. I have a fact known and experienced to be true, not only by myself, but others, too, and I have science to back it up. But is this believing, pisteuō? The other related word, faith, in Greek, is pistis, and is defined one way in Strong’s as: “conviction of the truth of anything, belief; in the NT of a conviction or belief respecting man’s relationship to God and divine things, generally with the included idea of trust and holy fervor born of faith and joined with it.” That begs the question, “Is fact the same as truth?”

So many people do not believe the gospel (the gospel truth!). They will argue it is not factual or that it was written by mere men, men who, oddly, gained fame and fortune for their own opinions. Oh. Wait. I’m thinking of another book, The Power of Positive Thinking. Like all of God’s faithful instruments used in writing the bible, I think that author was persecuted, insulted, beaten, crucified, or beheaded for his testimony for Christ. Oh. Wait. I’m all mixed up again. That was the mere men who wrote the bible! In direct contradiction to the bible, the message in the “Positive Thinking” book is to just “believe in yourself.” And that has even been shortened now to just, “Believe.” When believing in ourselves gets old, we seem to need to reinvent ourselves from time to time. When we recommend our sinful selves, it only draws people to our grossly inadequate selves and away from the One perfectly adequate to author a book that does not present man in glowing terms or mince words or placate sinners. The shortened quip popular today, just “Believe,” conveniently relegates any true Object of our belief to oblivion. I mean, congratulations, folks. If it has achieved bumper-sticker status, why, let’s advertise it. And our actions illustrate what we do believe–everything and nothing! It’s as if we first replace God with ourselves, then with an open-ended invitation welcome a host of other more palatable possibilities, which actually, upon reflection, look a lot like ourselves and bend and shift and change to be acceptable to our own whims and society’s mores. We may not bow down to wooden idols in this country, but we certainly do bow down before our mirrors.

There have been many great minds that have argued for and have done fact-finding for the cause of Christ, such as Lee Strobel and Sean McDowell, so I don’t want to go over ground already covered, but only suggest that sadly, even if all the facts were supported by history and science, presented, and proved, there would be many people who would still not believe the gospel. Jesus said, “But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe.” [Jhn 6:36 NIV] And, “But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.'” [Luk 16:31 NKJV] We must remember that Jesus, God in the flesh, walked this earth, taught, performed miracles, and indeed, raised someone named Lazarus from the dead, yet the Jews not only didn’t believe Him–they crucified Him! Does fact, or proof, then, cause faith?

Please don’t hear me saying we should not even try to put our efforts into apologetics. My point is that the gospel message is the power of God for salvation to all who believe, the Holy Spirit gives us words to speak, and the Father draws people to the Son to place saving faith in Him. [Rom 1:16; Matt 12:11-12; John 6:44] Jesus, by the very fact he performed miracles to testify to the truth of His message in order that people would believe shows us that the Lord is always trying to plant and grow faith! We just need to be aware of God’s authorship in salvation. He is the Architect and Prime Mover in all things! And we also need to be aware that sometimes people will be engaged in mental ping-pong because they simply want to win the match or enjoy the exchange, not because they are truly trying to understand.

I digressed a bit. So, is fact the same as truth? A certain Roman prefect must have wondered this, too: Pilate therefore said to Him, “Are You a king then?” Jesus answered, “You say [rightly] that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” [Jhn 18:37–38 NKJV]

Jesus said He was born to bear witness to the truth. He lived up to this, didn’t He? There are 79 search results in the bible for Jesus saying, “Truly I tell you.” He himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. [Jhn 14:6 NKJV] And, “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” [Jhn 8:31–32 NIV] John describes Jesus this way: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. [Jhn 1:14 NIV]

Now, in the natural world it is a fact that the number one Contemporary Christian song as of the date of this post is “Scars in Heaven” by Casting Crowns. It is also a fact that the number one CC song is “Hurricane” by Kanye West. How can both be fact? The former is based on popularity according to iTunes, and the latter on popularity by Billboard.com. So, iTunes ignores all other streaming and supporting evidence and ranks songs and bases popularity on actual purchases and downloads on their own service. Billboard.com uses sales information, radio airplay data, and streaming statistics from many sources to rank their artists. So you see, while both are facts, truth is skewed because of a different data set. A fact or truth is only as good as the data set that is used. If the data set is flawed, the conclusion will also be flawed. We see this in the scientific method used in clinical trials for medication efficacy or in cancer research.

Recently, some studies on the efficacy of ivermectin to prevent death from COVID-19 were found to contain erroneous data by independent reviewers. The result of the faulty studies was to lead people to take the ivermectin and have high hopes in it. However, when the data errors were exposed, its credibility lessened. My point in all this is not to take sides on anything too personal–it is to illustrate that our minds are all filled with different data sets, and for the most part, they are all faulty! The only way to correct the situation is to “independently review” the many conclusions we leap to, to consider that they may be wrong. We need a source of absolute Truth, which is found in Jesus Christ and the Word of God. “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” [Mat 4:4 NIV] He is our Source for the perfect data set.

So, the Lord in His infinite wisdom, first keeps faith simple. We trust Him when He says He is the promised Savior. But then, like any new acquaintance, we learn more about Him, and our love for the Lord grows. We read His Word and at some point we hear Jesus warn us, “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’ [Mat 7:21–23 NLT]

This seems to be in direct contradiction to Paul’s saying that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” However, the word translated “calls on” in the Greek is epikaleō and has the sense “to appeal unto for help or worship.” In plain English, then, Jesus is saying our words add up to a pittance if we do not practice God’s revealed will. What is God’s will? First and foremost, Christ preeminent, it is this: “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” [Jhn 6:40 NIV] I’m sure I have read somewhere that the words “looks to the Son” has a sense of ongoing activity. We don’t just look once and forget. We keep on looking to Christ throughout our entire Christian life. If we don’t, Jesus said we are like branches that break off from a vine. We whither and die without the nourishment from the firmly-planted root we have in Jesus. We grow from the Vine and find our security in Christ. The same God that keeps the entire cosmos in complete order, who pitches earth on a perfect axis, who spoke into existence the sun, moon, and stars, also guides our eternal destiny. This is the same power He uses toward us who believe. Our confidence can rest in Him. He is always working. He is always speaking!

All of this reminds me of the parable of the seed scattered on different soils. Jesus explained:

“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. [Luk 8:11–15 NIV]

There’s so much in these verses! We can see how “believe” in these sayings of Jesus is defined or implied to have a sticktoitiveness, something long-lasting and ongoing throughout and in spite of life’s distractions and challenges. Another gleaning we can get from this parable is that the impetus behind belief is the word of God. All things begin with God, His Word begins with “In the beginning.” John starts his gospel with, “In the beginning was the Word.” The Lord is “the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” [Rev 22:13]

An active belief…one that is engaged over a long period of time–for the long haul–should also be congruent with one’s behavior. For example, when I accepted Christ as my Savior, I just knew I could not go on living the kind of immoral lifestyle that I had. The Holy Spirit convicted me of my sin. I understood that it was my sin that separated me from God–how could I go on living in it? I didn’t just give mental assent and walk away. I acted upon my belief. Now, what about the reverse of faith? Most people know that stealing is wrong and we have laws to enforce it. But many people still steal. They are then violating what they know to be true by doing the contrary. They are acting in bad faith. Can one know stealing is morally wrong in God’s eyes, but still do it and escape His displeasure? So we see, knowledge, even that which is sublime, does not save us. Knowledge of a fact can’t always motivate us to do right. Knowledge needs to find an “amen” in our hearts, a robust love for its Source, an agreement to it in our spirits and appreciation for its purpose, which in God’s heart is to keep us and our neighbor from harm.

So, what about a natural event, like our response to a hurricane warning? Most people believe the hurricane is real and will act in accordance with that belief, either by seeking shelter, shoring up their homes, or leaving the area. Belief will always, at some point in time, spur on or influence our behavior, whether for the good or for the bad. It is obvious with the COVID-19 pandemic that some folks in this country believe our government has a hidden agenda in mask and vaccine mandates and so refuse the recommended remedy. Others trust the government to have their citizen’s best interests in mind and so follow CDC guidelines. We can see even in this that our behavior starts out with what is seeded in the mind, progresses to what facts we decide are true, and results in action in accord with our faith. And I would like to point out that a belief in a fact is different from faith in what God says is true–faith entrusts one’s whole life on the entirety of His teaching. Just like we can’t pick and choose what subjects are required in a college major because we would not graduate with the knowledge and skillset needed, so too we need the totality of God’s teaching to be conformed by Him to the likeness of His Son. And just like any secular education, learning takes time. God only expects us to use what we know or have learned at a certain point in time, as we can see from His parable of the talents. [Matt 25:14-30]

Now, what about a positive belief, such as that mountains are beautiful, breathtaking, and awesome to behold? That is pretty much a universal belief, yet we know other things about mountains that inform our actions, such as that they can be dangerous to climb, that you can get altitude sickness from their tremendous elevation, that avalanches can occur, and the like. If we only believe they are beautiful, and act only with that information but disregard everything else, we could easily get hurt! Likewise, Jesus’ words do not exist in a void. He speaks truth all the time, so we must pay attention to ALL He speaks. Amen!

I hope this post has clarified the nuances of the words belief and faith. Please don’t use it to judge (look down on) another person’s spiritual state. We are better served by looking at our own face in the mirror of God’s Word. Then with the mercy we receive we can humbly and mercifully minister to others. And I don’t want to so much make a distinction in another’s quality of faith, but rather his or her spiritual fruitfulness, for God works and improves that over time, too! Doesn’t the Lord say, “”A BENT REED HE WILL NOT BREAK [OFF,] AND A DIMLY BURNING WICK HE WILL NOT EXTINGUISH, UNTIL HE LEADS JUSTICE TO VICTORY?” [Mat 12:20 NASB20] Good seed + good soil = good fruit! My intent is rather to encourage you to grow in His loving care.

In my next blog post in the series, I’d like to talk about the semantics of the word “works” and the ongoing rift between Catholic and Protestant theology. I have touched on it somewhat in this post, because the words seem so intertwined. I will be writing a lot more on it, and sharing my own personal struggles, so if you sometimes get the feeling that you may be “working” for your salvation, please come back (and hopefully be blessed!).

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. [Psa 119:103–105 ESV]

Worthy Is the Lamb

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” [Rev 5:11–12 NIV]

I am going to interrupt my planned series for an important message on discipleship and its requirement of absolute surrender to the Lord’s will. My hope is to always encourage you, so if you feel challenged, keep reading and be blessed!

You know, Jesus said some really tough things to people when He walked the dusty roads of Judea. For example:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” [Luk 14:26–33 NIV]

Wow. Jesus did not mince words, did He? And apparently, He was not concerned about the large crowd following Him being offended or turning away. Why? Because He always spoke truth and knew that His words were life to us. He said, “For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.” [Jhn 12:49–50 NIV] He also said, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you–they are full of the Spirit and life. [Jhn 6:63 NIV] Want to speak life into someone’s heart? Imitate Jesus! Don’t flatter, don’t speak your own opinion, don’t fear to offend. Simply speak the truth in God’s Word.

Now there are similar passages in the bible that show Jesus’ demand for complete surrender to His will and obedience to His kingship:

“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” [Mat 10:37–39 NIV]

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? [Mar 8:34–37 NIV]

I think fealty or loyalty, the type demanded by a king or military leader, is a good illustration in discussing these verses. Back in medieval times, a knight swore his fealty to the king on his life. The same in our military today. Complete loyalty and obedience to the superior officer is needed in the midst of battle or your own life or the lives of your fellow soldiers could be lost. So my questions are: How much more worthy is our King and Redeemer than a medieval monarch? How much more necessary to obey in battle when we know our fight is all-out war in the spiritual realm? We know how noble it is when a Marine or any military man or woman serves and defends their country and will give their life for that cause. How much more so for Christ? I want to challenge you to pray about these scriptures. If you are hesitant, ask the Lord to help you pray and what to pray, then wait. He will provide His steadfast love!

Let’s look at the contexts of some of these scriptures cited. In Luke, Jesus had just addressed the crowd of Jews and was pointing out that their priorities were out of whack. In the parable, people refused a great royal banquet because of a new field, a new pair of oxen, and a new wife. Now, I can understand a new wife being a loyalty challenge, but a couple of oxen and a plot of land? They just loved their possessions and relationships more than the Giver of the banquet. They were distracted by the newness of these earthly things, and didn’t recognize the honor owed to and greatness of the Inviter.

In Matthew, Jesus warns that He came to bring not peace to the earth, but a sword. One that would divide family members. He was emphasizing love for and loyalty to Him above any other loves in our life, especially including our own self.

In Mark, Jesus had just told His disciples that He would suffer many things and die. And Peter began to rebuke His master! I wonder what he was saying? “You surely won’t die…that doesn’t befit you…how will you rescue Israel?” Maybe. Yet Jesus’ answer was, “Get behind me Satan!” So, if you ever are tempted to think you won’t suffer for Christ, KNOW it is from our enemy. This is in direct contradiction to scripture: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted….” [2Ti 3:12 NIV]. Will be. No might be. The Word speaks of it in other places as our destiny! So, I challenge you, when it comes, will you commit to being faithful to our Lord?

Now, did you ever consider that Peter had heard all these things? Yet, after adamantly telling Jesus he loved Him more than all the others and would follow Him to death, he still denied Christ. Doesn’t the Word say we are to be a living sacrifice to our Lord? I remember a quote from many years ago I heard that stated: “The only problem with a living sacrifice is that it crawls off the altar.” This is so human. And so was Peter. He loved, loved, loved our Lord. But something in his heart crumbled when faced with the reality of Jesus’ arrest and foretold death. Perhaps, when Peter boasted that he would die even if all the others betrayed Jesus, his pride, his confidence in himself, and not God, was the root of the cause. But even in this, the Lord restored Him, gave him power from on high, and used him for many years to shepherd the Church. After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Peter would become a powerful preacher, healer, and teacher, and the Lord procured Peter’s victory in his martyrdom. So do not just resolve in your mind or feel cheerled or inspired to serve our Lord. Like Jesus said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Pray for His power.

Now I want to share the beautiful thing I promised would encourage you. The Lord tells us these things to prepare us, not scare us. And the best way we can be prepared is to have our hearts totally surrendered to Him–to give Him free reign in our life. It is a complete act of trust in the absolute and undeniable goodness of God. We often get cold feet when we think of giving complete control to God. At least I know I do! But remembering who He is and that He is the same One who showed His faithfulness and eternal good working throughout scripture can give us boldness. And this is the truth: He DEMANDS our complete surrender and INSISTS on love for Him above any other person or thing BECAUSE if we trust Him that much, He will give us the strength and the assurance of victory to live out our Christian lives. Paul said, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” [Phl 4:13 NIV] Paul lived a holy life, preached, pastored, suffered, endured prison, and died with the strength given to Him by our Lord. We simply can’t complete the tower or go to war without all the wealth and strength of our Almighty God. With our love and our very lives, let’s count Him worthy. Amen.

“He alone is your God, the only one who is worthy of your praise, the one who has done these mighty miracles that you have seen with your own eyes. [Deu 10:21 NLT]

He Alone is Worthy–Alvin Slaughter

Who’d be found worthy
In the heavens or the earth
To pay the debt of sin for everyone
Who could win the victory
Over death, hell and the grave
The Lion of the tribe of Judah
Jesus Christ the Son

He alone is worthy
To worship and adore
The Lamb of God victorious
Our risen Lord
He purchased our redemption
Our righteousness is He
Exalt the name of Jesus
He is worthy

He purchased our redemption
Our righteousness is He
Exalt the name of Jesus
He is worthy

Exalt the name of Jesus
He is worthy
He is worthy
He is worthy
He is worthy
Worthy worthy

Spiritual Amnesia

Give praise to the LORD, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice. Look to the LORD and his strength; seek his face always. Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced….” [Psalm 105:1–5 NIV]

I’ve been observing in myself a tendency to forget how the Lord has helped me throughout my Christian walk when life’s disappointments, spiritual battles, temptations, or difficulties come. It’s like I’m using a macro lens on the current unpleasant or stressful situation and my spiritual sight becomes like the periphery–all out of focus. It is much more healthy to use the “panorama setting” in these times, to remember God’s faithfulness and goodness that never wavers.

It seems to be human nature to avert our eyes off of Jesus and get sucked into the commotion going on immediately around us. Peter got out of the boat and walked several steps on water toward his Lord. This is amazing in itself–he had to suppress the fear that Jesus was possibly a ghost, that he himself was mortal, and that the weather was fierce! It is interesting it says that when Peter “saw the wind,” he became afraid and began to sink. But you can’t “see” wind! He saw its effects, heard it whipping around, felt it stinging his skin, witnessed the big waves it was creating. His focus shifted from Jesus to ultimately himself, his own ability to overcome the waves. So Jesus gently rebuked him: “You of little faith…why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:22-34)

We all tend to let our circumstances wrench our eyes off of our Lord in three main scenarios: when we don’t feel like our prayers are answered, when Satan seeds our minds with doubts about God’s goodness, and when heartache comes from loss of health. I want to look at this a little more in-depth and hopefully encourage you to greater constancy of faith as you grow and mature in the Lord.

It is perplexing when it seems like the Lord is not answering our prayers. After all, scripture says that “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us–whatever we ask–we know that we have what we asked of him.” [1Jo 5:14–15 NIV]

I’ll point out a few things about this scripture here. The Apostle John, in the previous verse, is reassuring his hearers that they can “know that you have eternal life.” He then goes on to the next verses above. It is my humble opinion that John is reasoning from his previous thought: that those who are born again and walk in the light can know they have eternal life because it is God’s will that everyone be saved, that we know He hears us, and so we have eternal life because we have asked Him.

Perhaps these saints were struggling with false teaching and John was correcting the error that those who are obeying our Lord could somehow not be sure of their eternal destiny. Now, John is very forthright in saying that if we hate people or practice ongoing purposeful sin that we are not walking in the light. He is just as forthright in saying that those who love others and obey Jesus are living in God’s light and can be sure of their eternal destiny with our Lord. Our enemy seems to tempt the first group into false security, and true believers into insecurity. The way to fight him if we are walking in truth is to trust the Lord’s promises and His character. The Word says, “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations. The Lord is trustworthy in all he promises and faithful in all he does.” [Psalm 145:13 NIV]

Just a note: please do not hear this as condemnation if you have moral failings you are trying to overcome with the Lord’s help, and in your heart you truly regret your sin. The Lord knows our hearts and is merciful to the contrite. The Apostle Paul was “confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. [Philippians 1:6 NIV] The warning from John is to those who premeditate sin and use grace for an excuse to sin. And, God forbid, lead another “little one” into sin. [Luke 17:1-2]

Another area that perplexes me is unanswered prayers for healing. How many of us lose heart when our health fails and the Lord seems to be silent? I have been struggling with a disability for almost 25 years, have asked for prayer from others, and prayed continually since I was diagnosed. I have not been healed. I heard another testimony from a lady at church who has gone through a similar journey, how she had prayed and tried to “do better” and “serve more,” thinking it was something she was lacking. I know other people who suffer great physical disabilities, and again, the Lord seems silent.

Jesus said, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” [Matthew 7:7–8 NLT] He goes on to say that even human parents know how to give good gifts to their children, so how much more will our holy heavenly Father give us perfectly fitting gifts. Those of us with children know that gifts are given based on the temperament of the child, their level of responsibility, their ability to practice what they know to be good and true. I get the picture in my mind of the four-year-old who wants the candy or toy in the grocery checkout line. Don’t we often say no? Because we know it’s not needed, or not good for us. Sometimes, we withhold even what seems “good.” For example, if a teenager who struggles with drugs wants a car, the parent would withhold the privilege of driving until the addiction is overcome. How much more will the Lord withhold healing if our eternal well-being would be jeopardized? Please know our Abba always, always does what is loving and best for us! This is important, because the enemy wants to make us question and doubt God’s goodness.

If you struggle with illness, the best battle tactic is to remember God’s goodness. His Word tells us this repeatedly, and it is absolute truth. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. [Mark 10:18 NLT] God cannot lie. When we are tempted to doubt because of our current experience, the root cause is lack of trust in the Lord’s complete goodness and faithfulness. In my experience, it starts with being tempted to think there is something wrong with me, that I’m not good enough, that my faith is substandard. But the focus is all on me, not our Lord! If we remember His faithfulness is true and how He helped all the saints throughout history, if we remember other times He has been faithful to us, if we testify about God’s goodness to ourselves and others, our focus gets shifted back to its proper place, fixed on Jesus. Please settle in your heart and mind that, as a dear friend always says, “God is good all the time, and all the time good.”

I’d like to challenge and encourage you on two fronts. First, be assured the Lord has heard your prayers. The reasons He may not answer (i.e. doing what we ask) are many and sometimes not known until we are home with Jesus. Again, remember, God’s will is good at all times. He has forever proved His good intentions toward us through the suffering of His Son. If He deems healing would eternally harm us or that we are not ready or that it is His “tool” to conform us to the image of Jesus, like the Master Sculptor’s riffler and rasp, then may we say and agree in our spirits, “yet not my will, but yours be done.” [Luke 22:42 NIV] Paul, a man of great faith, was not delivered from his thorn in the flesh, but was told, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” [2 Corinthians 12:9] I love Paul’s reaction. He did not throw in the towel and even get mad or sad. Rather, he said he would boast, gladly, about his weakness since the power of Christ would then dwell in him.

Secondly, have we ever considered that the Lord can do great things through us when we become weak? I’m reminded of an otherwise unremarkable fellow and his answer to the Lord’s call: “But Lord,” Gideon replied, “how can I rescue Israel? My clan is the weakest in the whole tribe of Manasseh, and I am the least in my entire family!” [Judges 6:15 NLT] Note how ill-equipped Gideon seems to be. The Lord even trimmed his army from 22,000 down to 300 men! Little is better. It allows God to glorify Himself. It is a theme in this account and throughout the bible that our smallness magnifies the Lord’s greatness.

Sometimes we wonder why the Lord humbles us, and the account of the man born blind gives us insight: “Rabbi,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,” Jesus answered. “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him. [John 9:2–3 NLT] See? Our disability (or any perceived lack), with eyes of faith, becomes God’s stage where His power and goodness and holiness and compassion and love get the entire spotlight. How glorious of God to not let us put ourselves on any pedestal! How good it is to point to the One and Only source of goodness and life!

So, in our own day, I think of Joni Eareckson Tada, who despite quadriplegia, is a gifted artist and spokesperson for the disabled, inspiring thousands. This is her attitude: “I have been blessed with so much good health and a remarkable husband and opportunity to travel, that I want to pass the blessings on to the many millions of people with disabilities — more than 1 billion in the world.” I think of Nick Vujicic, the Australian-born evangelist who hasn’t let being born without arms and legs stop him from using his best gifts of communication and humor to reach and teach millions for Christ. He says, “If God can use a man without arms and legs to be His hands and feet, then He will certainly use any willing heart.” Note: this blog is not just intended for those who have a disability. It is for everyone who struggles with any kind of challenge, like poverty, or societal oppression, or depression, or addiction, or traumatic experiences–you name it. The Lord does not want us to live as perpetual victims. He desires us to overcome, despite. We are inspired by people like Joni and Nick because they don’t let their limitations limit God. They embrace His Word as truth: “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” [Mark 10:27 NLT]”

Satan, on the other hand, whispers things like, “You’ll never amount to anything because you are weak.” Or “Why is God allowing this to happen if He is good?” Dear child of God, stand against such lies! Submit to what our Lord is working out, and then witness the beautiful fruit he produces out of what seems to be barren ground. Remember, He turns ashes into something splendid. He brings life to the dead. He gives us His only Son to make our eternity blessed. He turns the tragedy of the cross into victory over death, sin, and hell. He says, “When the poor and needy search for water and there is none, and their tongues are parched from thirst, then I, the LORD, will answer them. I, the God of Israel, will never abandon them. I will open up rivers for them on the high plateaus. I will give them fountains of water in the valleys. I will fill the desert with pools of water. Rivers fed by springs will flow across the parched ground.” [Isaiah 41:17–18 NLT]

When I look at my own illness, I can see how it makes me aware of my frailty and how much I need to rely on Jesus to accomplish anything of eternal value. I can also see how it keeps me humble, how I have learned to battle spiritually, how I have learned in times that I “felt” the Lord had left me that He was in reality closer than ever. I have been taught the truth of “I will never leave you; I will never forsake you.” [Hebrews 13:5] I have experienced the reality of “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” [John 6:37 NIV]

How do you view your disability or barrier? Can you somehow see it as spiritually valuable, even though at times extremely frustrating and unpleasant? I can see how the Lord has used mine to develop compassion toward others who struggle, to use my experience to encourage others whose faith is being tested. To be a voice for those who, although full of faith and praying their hearts out, have not been granted healing. It is very likely that the Lord Jesus is calling you to victory in Him. Healing is not always evidence of our faith.

The world says, “Seeing is believing.” Is it? Look how fast the Israelites turned to a golden calf after seeing, on full display, the power of our Lord, enjoying the freedom gifted to them, witnessing the pillar of fire come between them and Egypt’s vast army. I can picture them taking their sandals off to spill out the dust and sand collected from the bottom of the split-open Red Sea. The miraculous was all around them–it touched them. Yet, within 3 short months of their deliverance, and a mere forty days after receiving the Lord’s commandments, again having front-row seats to God’s fear-inspiring power descending on the mountain, they FORGOT. The disciples argued about neglecting to bring bread with them AFTER Jesus fed thousands with only a few small loaves and they picked up numerous bushels of leftovers with their own hands. Jesus was standing in front of Peter when he started to DROWN! I am not picking on them. We do it, too. We can be fickle, forgetful, and downright faithless. Like all of God’s truth, He turns the world’s wisdom on its head. Believing is seeing.

So, my dear brother or sister, if you haven’t gotten your miracle, if you’ve named it and claimed it without seeing God answer your demands (imagine that), if you think you’re a faith failure, but you are still believing in God’s goodness and loving Him, take heart–this is truly great faith! Many times, faith is simply deciding to continue the journey even though we don’t see the destiny and the way is hard. Jesus said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” [John 20:29 NIV] And, I might add, keep believing.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” [1Co 1:26–31 NIV] Amen!

Let Love Lead

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” –1 John 4:7

Many years ago, I heard a sermon given by a wise pastor who said that when you are deciding whether or not to do something, and you feel pushed and anxious about it, that this is not from the Lord. His prompts are more like a draft horse pulling a plow. His powerful love leads us. After all, the Bible says that, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” (Romans 8:14) The Greek word for led used here is agō, which means to lead out or guide.

In the context, Paul is talking about our battle against our flesh. When we are led by our flesh, we pursue our own pleasure over and above what God’s Spirit desires. But in another place, he says that if we “by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the flesh,” we will overcome. We will allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into ever increasing holiness.  But it can be applied to everyday decisions, too, like job choice, what charities we give to and how much, our choice of close friends–things like that. And that was this pastor’s point: to not be badgered into, guilted into, or in any way, shape, or form coerced by man. So I’d like to talk a bit about motives today. They are SO important and what the Lord looks for when we do anything.

Not too long ago, I saw a quote from a church sign that said, “Forgive your enemies. It messes with their minds.” Now, I think our first reaction to this would be to smile, maybe even laugh…worse yet, to follow that line of thought because it would make our flesh quite satisfied to lay our enemy in the dust. However, Satan is subtle. If he can get us to pick up this kind of spirit of payback, the Lord will not honor our “forgiving.” We are to be imitators of God, not the world. The Lord forgives us because He loves us and wants to restore our relationship with Him. He does NOT want to “mess with our minds.” We are to forgive our enemies with the same motive in mind–to mend the relationship, to somehow draw them to Christ. That is why the directive is: “repay no one evil for evil;” rather, “overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17;21)

There seems to be three major motives that cause us to act when serving God: duty, fear, or love. For example, we may go to church every Sunday, tithe, or live a moral life out of a sense of duty, a sense it is expected and has been practiced for as long as one can remember. These same things can also be prompted by fear–that God will not love us if we don’t give ten percent, that God will not forgive confessed and repentant moral failings, that we’ll go to hell if we don’t (fill in the blank here). Then there is love. God is love, and in all things, the Lord is after our hearts to do, say, think, and live motivated by love:

When Jesus was asked by one of the teachers of the Law what the greatest commandment was, he replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

See? Love “pulls” the plow (in my analogy). The Word often refers to Christ’s teaching as a foundation, and that Christ is the chief Cornerstone. He holds up the entire structure being built by God. And Jesus lived love perfectly. Notice Jesus said that the foremost desire of God is to love Him? In what other religion throughout the history of the world does a deity desire love from its followers? Servile worship, fulfillment of rituals, a laundry list of rules in minutiae, a sense of always needing to placate its anger–these are the norm for the world. And sometimes it creeps even into Christian denominations. But the only true God says first and foremost, “Love me.” This is at the top of His list. It is true it is a command, yet our Lord commands and demands it for our good, because He is the source of all things good. If we love Him first, preeminently, all love and goodness will flow from Him, to us, and then to others. If we love Him first, we will in our hearts be seeking His desires and favor, and will not be caught in the snare of pleasing ourselves or others before pleasing Him. And all of the Lord’s commands, wisdom, and counsel should bring us joy, because His motive is always to love, protect, and bless us.

Now, the reason we all love is because God has loved us first. He modeled it to the world in Jesus, and displayed it on the cross in full public view so that we would not misunderstand or be tempted by the enemy when life gets tough that, somehow, God does not love us or always do what is right. The enemy is a liar, the father of lies, and speaks falsehood fluently. Satan’s first temptation of Adam and Eve painted God as someone who would withhold good from His creation. He maligned God Almighty, our perfect Heavenly Father. He has continued this tactic to this day. But the Word says that God’s love is so expansive, that it is as high as the heavens. I once tried to put that in some sort of mathematical illustration, but I think I failed. The best I could come up with is that the known universe is so big that you could travel around the world trillions of times to exponential powers to match its breadth, creating numbers I could not relate to! The LORD himself tells us He loves us this much. So, because God is our Source, our Model, and our Savior, because we are born again by the power of the Holy Spirit, we love, too. His Word says:

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” –1 John 4:7-12

Even the second command in God’s list of priorities is love for one another in the body of Christ and for our unbelieving neighbors. The bible says that this proves our love for God. The Lord wants us to be kind, tenderhearted, and freely forgiving toward others, because it is His heart that we imitate Him, that we be conformed to the image of Jesus. If we do not love others, we cannot love God, because God showed us so clearly that He loves others, even His enemies. This is not a Kool-Aid, New Age, or hip sixties free love kind of thing. It is a strong and deep love rooted in seeking the best interest of the other. God’s love is hard. It is hard because it is different. The world is always trying to remake God’s love, to dress it up, prop it up, and talk it up to suit people, not God. Who is the Creator, and who is the created? Should the child tell his parent what he can and can not do, what is good and what is not?

The 1960s saw a lot of self-seeking lifestyles, and the New Age movement tells us that we need to “accept” each other, meaning if a lifestyle does not agree with God’s Word, we should keep silent and not “judge.” The problem is that such worldly reasoning does not submit to Divine authority. It thinks all our ideas are made up in our own minds and by our own standards. No, God’s love is not negotiable. When He tells us “no,” that is love, too. We are not “judging” our children when they do something wrong, are we? We are teaching them and protecting them from harm. And our love, which is like some base metal, is not superior to God’s love, which is like a precious metal. How can we set down guidelines for our own children, but reject any standard of right and wrong from our own Heavenly Father?

This second command is so important that the Lord tells us not to worship Him at the altar before seeking reconciliation with someone we have sinned against and offended! Jesus said, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24) In modern English, we could say, “Do not give your offering when the plate is passed if you know you’ve sinned against someone. Your Heavenly Father will be most pleased if you go and reconcile with that person first. No amount of tithes and offerings can compare to or make up for the evil that results when you do not seek the good of your neighbor or brother. When you have reconciled, come back to my Father’s house and He will accept your gift and will take delight in you.” So much of God’s paradigm is a complete one-eighty in importance and order from the worldly take on life! And our flesh gravitates to those false ways of doing things because it is just easier. Isn’t it easier to write a check to your local church than to humble yourself, admit your sin, and ask for forgiveness?

The apostle Paul’s eloquent praise of love in the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians tells us that, without love, no spiritual gift, no vast sum of knowledge, no great sacrifice benefits us. He point blank states it amounts to zilch. He says such things, even seemingly godly things like supernatural gifts, giving all your worldly goods to the poor, even moving a mountain or two, done for show, selfish-gain, or any fleshly motive, leaves us noisy, of little esteem, and unprofitable. And it impresses God not one iota.

Can you see how easy it is to want to impress people? Because it pleases our self. The world clamors after fame, recognition, and respect from people for one’s own sense of self-worth and importance. God’s children should be about the desire to bring Him fame (glory), recognition, and honor. Paul was a good example of this. He is known now as a great man of faith. But back then he suffered disrespect, slander, accusations of poor leadership ability, reproach…you name it. But he overcame because his motive was always to please God, not man. The bible says we are but dust. Why do we then try to impress one another?

We need to seek our self-worth and praise from God alone. Only then will we be truly confident and content. Love seeks to please the object of its desire. Praying for the Lord to help us love Him more is, in my opinion, one of the best prayers you can pray. It is the solution to all besetting sin and a foundation that will withstand any temptation or tempest. And it is the Holy Spirit who pours out God’s love in our hearts. (Romans 5:5) Jesus said, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)

If we apply this lifegiving principle to all we do and pray, we will bear so much fruit. I sense such pleasure from our Lord when I ask Him to help me love in difficult situations and even in the day to day stuff we experience. For example, is our giving done because we feel guilted into it, or has the Lord led us to love the church body, both local and worldwide? Are we moved by compassion to help the homeless man, or a down-and-out family member, or folks who do not have access to human service organizations? Or would we rather give only because it is tax deductible? Do we have a set amount in mind, or do we listen to the Lord’s prompting? Would we give more than ten percent if the Lord would direct us? Would we be obedient enough to give less than ten percent if the Lord would direct us to pay back a a bad debt first? Is it loving to file bankruptcy on our creditors because our church is asking for more money?

Another way to apply love is when we judge another. Is our heart to restore and correct, or condemn? So many times a person’s story affects the severity of the rebuke. For example, I had a friend, a believer, who committed adultery many times over. I didn’t know how to pray, I couldn’t understand. But I counseled them against such things, and prayed for the Lord to help them walk in the Spirit. I found out later that they had a mental illness and physical reason for the behavior. The behavior is still wrong, yes, but the correction is meted out with more mercy because their mind was not right.

There is a beautiful example of how God views a person’s motives, what is in their heart, in Mark 14:3-9:

“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

The disciples wanted to reprimand this woman for “wasting” the expensive perfume she poured on Jesus. Can you imagine giving something worth so much to Jesus only to be judged as wasteful and foolish by others? Perhaps they were offended because she didn’t ask them what to do with the perfume? But Jesus said what she did was BEAUTIFUL, and He was so touched by her act of love that He promised her example would be repeated wherever the gospel was preached in perpetual memory of her. He saw the great love in her heart for Him. Some of the other disciples, preoccupied with procuring a more “righteous” purpose for the perfume, missed the preciousness of her act. So in most everything, when we have a holy love for Jesus in mind, it brings His heart joy.

The most obvious application of being led by love is our choices in life. We are called to be holy, and “love does no harm to a neighbor.” (Romans 13:10) God’s moral requirements are meant to protect us and others. We are told not to have sex outside of marriage because it represents a close intimacy that is a lifelong commitment. Sex outside of marriage requires no commitment, no promise of faithfulness, an easy out for our fickleness. We are commanded not to commit adultery because it wrecks our dignity, hurts our spouse and children, and can even lead to jealous fits of anger–things that will scar our life for years and years to come because of some momentary imagined “fix” or fleeting pleasure. We are commanded not to get drunk, because it leads to debauchery when our inhibitions are lowered. Addictions ruin entire families when a job is lost because of it or funds to care for one’s own children are spent on the desired drug. We become unloving when we let our flesh rule our bodies and lives. Our flesh produces rotten fruit. When we walk in the Spirit, we bear His fruit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. Good fruit that will last throughout eternity.

On a final note, I’d like to add something. The Lord wants an emotional kind of love from us, the feeling of tender affection. But He looks for proof of it in our actions. He always has. In Ezekiel 33:30-32, The Lord says of His people, “Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.’ My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.” Do we lack preaching in our age, in this country, or has everything become entertainment, too? Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commands.” (John 14:15)

In the Apostle John’s first letter he writes:

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:16-18)

I have heard of congregations angrily splitting over politics, ministry approaches, building projects–even carpet colors! Really? Does our opinion matter so much that we stubbornly resist one another to the point of what looks like a broken up teenage romance? Remember little old Clara Peller who is famous for her line in the 1980’s Wendy’s commercial? She’s holding a competitor’s burger, stares at the lack of bun coverage, and with an unimpressed quip asks, “Where’s the beef?” I wish she were still around to ask the Church, especially here in the United States and in more affluent countries, “Where’s the love?”

Oh, how we need to clothe ourselves in love! Love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8) Love always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:7-8) God never fails. (Isaiah 55:10-11) “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.” (2 John 1:6) He who walks in love follows Christ. If we suffer illness, poverty, death of a dear one, ridicule, scorn, false accusations, imprisonment, even death–the Holy Spirit will fill us with His love so that we will not ultimately fail. He will lead us to His heavenly victory. “Do everything in love!” (1 Corinthians 16:14)

I write this to challenge and encourage. God’s spiritual children mature over time, just like physical children. Do not let the enemy steal your hope. Hope always in the Lord. He is our ever present help and merciful redeemer. He is patient and kind. He offers His good gifts freely. We need only ask.

Jesus said, “…On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18) Amen.

Are You Looking for a Purpose in Life?

Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” –Numbers 13:30

 

Have you ever been around someone who just exudes confidence and faith? They have a real gift of encouragement, if people are willing to listen. Not so with our dear Israelites. In this account of biblical history, twelve leaders, one from each tribe, are sent to spy out the land of Canaan and report back on what they see & hear. Out of the twelve, only Caleb & Joshua tell the community that the land is everything God promised, and that with God’s favor they will be able to possess the land the Lord will give them.

Have you ever been influenced by a group of people that is fearful? The other ten men in our little spy group were afraid of the people in Canaan, and emphasized to the other Israelites their physical size, saying, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13:33) Yet Joshua and Caleb tell the people, “Do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them.” (Numbers 14:9)

These ten men that spread the fearful report have the Israelite assembly so riled up and feeling defeated that they want to stone Joshua & Caleb, the men that are trying to encourage them to trust in their God! They grumbled against Aaron and Moses, whining: “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt? And they said to each other, ‘We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.'”

When we look at our circumstances and assume negative outcomes based on supposed facts stripped of faith, we would most likely come to a similar conclusion as the Israelites: if only I didn’t have to face this problem. I was better off before God’s intervention in my life. Let’s elect a different leader who will guarantee my safety and happiness.

Sound familiar? I know I have days where I struggle with the wrong outlook, and then the Lord reminds me I am forgetting about trusting him to do good for me. The only leader who can guarantee my safety and happiness is Christ. He is our Rock.

When I read the above account I couldn’t help but think of our current political climate. I’ve been praying recently about the handling of Syrian refugees, whether or not they should be allowed to come to the U.S. or if we should close our borders to them. I have come to the conclusion that while proper security measures should be exercised, actions motivated by fear alone frustrate the will of God. God’ will is to love Him and other people as you would yourself. I know if I were a refugee, faced with homelessness, war, death, hunger–I would want someone to take me in and show me some kindness and mercy, not to fear me because of my ethnic or religious background.

Jesus told his disciples that when it comes to their own hides, they should fear God, not man. It is my duty as a follower of Jesus to love–both my neighbors and my enemies: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 43-45) If you ever wonder what your purpose in life is, it is to love people and God. Like Jesus’ life illustrates, sometimes that means laying down our self-interest to focus on the benefit of another.

The Power in Prayer

“The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” (James 5:16-18)

“For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer . . . ” (1 Peter 3:12)

 

Last weekend when my hubby and I went to church, the pastor asked the congregation after the service if anyone wanted prayer for a family member who needed salvation. At that particular moment, I didn’t raise my hand, because to my delight, I was recalling how many of my family members and Randy’s family members have almost all given their lives to Christ over the years.

 

The years that have passed were filled with heartfelt prayer for them, and it was a wonderful thing to see God at work in their lives during that time and even now. It is not only evidence that the Lord hears us, but also a faith-affirming and substantive witness of nothing less than the divine working among the mundane day-in and day-out things of life.

 

I am learning to make life one long prayer, little snippets of praise and thanks and S.O.S’s sent up to the throne of grace throughout the day, not just during my quiet time with the Lord. It’s easy to forget to lean on Jesus when we’re more accustomed to going it alone and flying by the seat of our pants. Yet, like any good habit we start, it takes time for it to feel natural. I would like to make my prayer life as natural as taking a breath, because prayer in our spirits is like breath in our lungs. Prayer is air. It’s reliance on God that animates our spiritual life. It helps us grow in righteousness, trust the Lord’s goodness, and endure until the end.

 

A believer without a prayer life usually shows immaturity, a lack of faith, and short-lived enthusiasm for the Christian life. The solution? Pray, not only for them, but model it, too. Help them learn to talk to God themselves. There is something about interacting with the Most High God of heaven and earth, whether it is a casual chit-chat or a heartfelt plea for help, that makes me feel not only loved, but also valued dearly.

 

Late last year I decided to “adopt” a persecuted Christian in Darfur, Sudan. She had been in prison in this Muslim country for many months on trumped-up charges with the death penalty hanging over her head. I wrote to her, sending her scripture quotations that could be translated into her language. I then made it a point to bring her to the throne of grace every day. I prayed for about two months. One night, I was sitting at my computer and heard in the background a newscast about a Sudanese woman who had just been released from prison. I missed the name, so I looked it up on the Internet. It was her! Praise God Almighty! All the prayers that went up to the Lord from her family, her husband, her children, Christian workers, and all the other saints that prayed . . .He hears the prayers of his children!

 

I would like to encourage you to pray for someone regularly, perhaps a missionary, a Christian in a persecuted country, a family member, a friend, and as a special challenge, the guy that cut you off in traffic. Or someone else you’re mad at. Seriously. I guarantee that if you ask with love as the motive, you will see the Lord work in amazing ways, and neither you nor the person(s) you are praying for will ever be the same.

 

Hide and Seek

“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”  He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” –Genesis 3:8-10

 

Do you hide from your Heavenly Father when you know you’ve done something wrong? How about when you are thinking about or feeling angry enough to do something wrong? Maybe you mask hiding from God with excuses, like, “I’m too busy to read the bible and pray,” or, “I just need to take a break.” Don’t feel too bad. I hide, and the first human couple hid, too. But I have learned over the years to trust God’s love for me much more. I’m learning to pray when I am first tempted, not after (when I have usually failed).

I have most recently learned to pray as soon as I get angry. It doesn’t have to be a formal prayer on your knees with hands folded–just a quick mental S.O.S. to God. I don’t know about you, but it seems that most of our troubles begin when we get angry. We lash out at people, disagreements flame into yelling matches, we hurt people we love. In society, our fuses are eerily short. A man gets cut off in traffic and in his anger, forces the offender off the road, or worse yet, fires a gun and kills him. The Dylann Roof’s of the world shoot dead some of the most loving people on the planet. Nations are easily offended by another country’s culture or aggressive attack and return the volley, fueled by longstanding hatred. And hatred is just anger concentrated and focused, like a laser.

In the bible, Cain is our first example of the bitter fruit of anger. “The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering,  but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.  Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:4-6)   I appreciate the image of the verb “crouching” here, like a wild cat. When we get angry, sin is right outside our door, waiting to maul us like a powerful lion. We are no match for it. We must pray before acting, or anger will overpower us like it did Cain.

One of the consequences for Cain’s murder of his brother was that he would be “hidden from [God’s] presence.” (Genesis 4:14) Sin separates us from intimate relation with God, not because it is his will, but because it is our nature. Adam and Eve disobeyed God, which removed their total trust in that close-knit relationship with their Creator. Notice in our featured verse that the reason Adam hid was that he was afraid.

So too, the level of trepidation we feel about coming to God with our temptations and weaknesses may be one measure of our closeness to him. When you think about it, is it harder to ask for help or forgiveness from an acquaintance, or a close friend? I’m never afraid to ask my husband for help or forgiveness, because I know how tender-hearted he is toward me. Asking a stranger for help or forgiveness, on the other hand, makes me feel not only nervous because I don’t know how they will react, but also awkward because I feel vulnerable. Aren’t those two scenarios similar to how we can approach God?

Thanks to our faith in Jesus, though, we have regained the same trusting relationship with God lost by Adam and Eve before the fall. What does the bible say? “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,  Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)

The word “confidence” in the original Greek is “parresia.” It means “freely, boldly, plainly, with assurance, openness, frankness.” If you have a good relationship with your spouse, this is the same type of comfort level God would like us to have in our relationship with him. Jesus was born in an earthly body and was tempted in every way we are, so he can also empathize with our feeble flesh.

I read a quote once that illustrated the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is like seeing a man in a row-boat that’s filling up with water, and you call for help from shore. Empathy is like jumping in the lake, swimming out to the boat, and helping him bail water. Now that’s what Jesus does when we’re about to sink! Just as he left his glory in heaven to die for us on the cross, he comes to save us every time we call on him in prayer.

We can trust our heavenly Father’s love and mercy because of this empathy. Even though Adam and Eve sinned and caused the fall of mankind, what did God do? He made them clothes to cover their shame. (Genesis 3:21) What a tender, small gesture of God’s kindness and empathy. Perhaps he was looking into the future, when he would clothe each of us with robes made white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:14)

Are Christianity and Karma Mutually Exclusive?

 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  –Luke 6: 37-38

I don’t know about you, but I try my darndest to live by the Golden Rule, to “do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31). My non-spiritual side wants to do to others AS they have done to me, to return like for like. And I admit, I do have a day here and there where I am especially cynical or fearful and am tempted to do to others BEFORE they have done to me!

In the above scripture and the verses surrounding it, Jesus teaches his disciples about the attitude of mercy they should have toward their enemies, or those that persecute them. Taken out of context, it almost sounds like the worldly notion of karma, that you get back what you give out, or the popular “what goes around, comes around.” This is not what our Lord and Savior is saying, for he tells us in verses 35 and 36: “love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

In other words, we are not to return evil with evil. Even in verses 32 to 34, Jesus tells us that it is not good enough to return like for like: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.” It is completely natural to do to others as they do to us, to treat them with the same respect they give us. It is, however, supernatural to do good to others who are treating us badly. It is in this same spirit that Jesus prayed on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Dear brothers and sisters, does this sound like karma to you? Do you hope for retribution for your enemies, or do you hope for their salvation? The bible repeatedly reminds us that the world is in spiritual darkness, and that people who do not believe in Jesus are blind. Why would we be surprised when we are treated badly by them? Weren’t we just as bad before coming to Christ? One problem with karma is that we usually speak of it when we are wanting evil visited on another, not when we want blessings conferred. We even forget that hell is not meant for our own personal enemies, but only for those who reject Christ as their savior. It is the intention of wanting to see harm done, if not by us, then by somebody, maybe even God, that is dead wrong. In the above scripture, Jesus tells us that it is by praying for good and by returning good for evil that we are rewarded, not by some nameless cosmic principle, but by our own dear Father in heaven, the Most High Sovereign Lord of Hosts. Remember, Satan loves to take away God’s glory and power, and to obscure his name and mercy. 

There are logical problems with karma, too. It does not explain suffering for one thing. Why do babies die or young children battle cancer? Have they done something wrong? Would it be just to punish them for something their parents have done? Heavens no. What about Christians who are persecuted for standing up for what is right or bearing testimony to the saving grace of Jesus? Do they deserve it? And finally, what about Jesus himself? Did he deserve to suffer and die on the cross? Double heavens no!

Mercy, on the other hand, oozed out of Jesus’ pores. He sweat drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane in his struggle to bestow undeserved mercy on us all. We need to follow our spiritual leader, our example. Verse 40 says: “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.” Let’s struggle against what is natural, and pray for grace to do the supernatural. Sometimes, when I am still angry with someone, my prayer will go something like this:

“Heavenly Father, darn it all, but I don’t want to pray for this person. I feel vindictive and mean-spirited right now. But regardless, please bless so-and-so with the privilege of knowing you, help me forgive, and do not count this against them, for without you we are all lost, not knowing our right hand from our left.” (Jonah 4:11) Nine times out of ten I will feel an immediate change in my attitude, and if not immediate, fairly soon after. Then I am able to pray properly. It is like a visceral feeling of God’s pleasure, which turns my heart upside down and empties it of all spite so that it can receive his grace and have room for “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.”

 

 

 

Are You a People-Pleaser?

To escape criticism — do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.
~Elbert Hubbard

Some people are natural pessimists. They seem to roll like quicksilver toward a gloomy view of the world. Then there are those that go one step further and criticize the half-empty glass. “It’s awful small.” “The water is too warm.” You’re smiling. You know the type?

Back in my younger days, I worked with elderly people in an assisted living facility as a certified nursing assistant. Edna was one of those ladies who, in a counter-intuitive way, wheedled herself into my heart. She was not only critical of life in general, but was also a hypochondriac. It made me smile to think that if she wasn’t being negative or criticizing something, I would have known without a doubt that she was really sick. Edna had this gravelly, nasally voice that reminded me of a cross between Marge Simpson and a bleating lamb. One evening at work, I was in the dining room helping serve supper. The kitchen staff had just given her a piece of apple pie. As I walked by, I heard Edna say in that nasally, odd sing-song voice, “There are too many apples in this pie.”

Criticism is part and parcel of interacting with other people, even little old ladies. Like our quote above, if you do much more than breathe, you can count on it. Of course, there are both positive and negative criticism. The former seeks to help, the other, to hurt. I happen to be over-sensitive to either one.

For example, my husband and I recently picked up part-time jobs at a cleaning company for a little extra cash. We liked the hours, the work was manageable, and it was always a good feeling to see the fruit of our labor. However, the job did have the drawback of receiving a lot of criticism. Small stuff, too. Things like, “You left a light on.”  “You forgot to empty a waste basket.” The pettiness would astound me. Then, after about six months, I received a very critical report for one of our jobs. The client had quite a long list of complaints, and I was near tears because I was under the impression we were doing a fantastic job. I thought to myself, we work so hard and hardly ever hear anything good. I whined to the Lord about it, expecting his comfort. The answer I got was, how do you think I feel? 

It made me think about all the good Jesus did and does now, yet all the criticism he has received throughout history, even from his own children! The Lord showed me through this experience that I have an inordinate need for praise from people that isn’t healthy. I’m also too defensive when it comes to legitimate criticism. I even gave up a natural talent I have for many years because of the critical feedback I received.

When Jesus walked this earth, most of the religious leaders were critical of him, and many of his own followers turned away. But this did not deter Jesus one bit. He stayed true to his Father, and did not fall into the trap of being a people-pleaser. John 7:18 says, “Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.”

That is what God wants me to do. It’s what he wants all of us to do: to seek his glory and his praise, not man’s. That means we will displease many people in our society when we stand up for what is true and do what is right. Jesus did not dance to the pipe his society played, and he did not cry on cue when they sang sad songs (Luke 7:31-35). He never let them dictate his behavior. He would go out of his way to do the unexpected in order to teach. No doubt he surprised many and turned them to God, which should be our motive, too.

PRAYER: Dear Father, forgive me for being a people-pleaser. Help me pursue something greater than chasing the empty praise of men. Forgive me for trying to use my natural talent for my own glory. Help me to seek your glory in all things, and may your praise satisfy me more than any person’s words. Thank you for your loving correction. Amen.