Devotions

Who is My Enemy?

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” –Sun Tzu, The Art of War

While it is always good to ask ourselves the question, “Who is my neighbor?,” now is the time to ask ourselves, “Who is my enemy?”

With all that is going on in the world today, I can’t help but think this quote is timely. In this country, we are a dynamic group of people with disparate viewpoints. Our weakness can be wanting to fight for those beliefs so strongly for our own particular group, that we forget who the true enemy is. For the world right now, that would be terrorists groups like ISIS. I am chilled to the bone to think they are sitting back and just waiting for an opportunity to take advantage of our current discord. In a 2004 article in Military.com (here), Oliver North made an appeal to our country to put aside the political infighting and focus on being united to fight terrorism. I repeat that same plea.

Every group wants its rights and privileges secured. When they become threatened, we scramble to prevent loss. This in and of itself is not bad if orchestrated in a peaceful manner. What is dangerous is to view the opposing group as completely evil simply because they don’t agree with us. This is what happened in the American Civil War. Our country split over a moral issue, and most everyone took a side. Each side felt they had the moral backing of religious principles to uphold their viewpoint, so much so that it became framed in apocalyptic terms in many psyches.

There is concern that we could be repeating the history of the rise of Nazism, but if that is a huge fear, we could be projecting it on current events and misinterpreting intentions. I am willing to pause briefly enough and assume a “let’s wait and see attitude,” keeping close tabs on events as they unfold. My concern is that things are so polarized with the new shift in power, that we miss who the real enemy is now. If we do, we are staged to repeat the history of our own civil war, and not that of the Holocaust in Germany. If we were plunged into a civil war, where in the world would the safety that we are seeking be? It is not logical to press the cause for safety, yet create a climate of war against each other.

Jesus said, “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall.” (Luke 11:17). If we fail to identify our common enemy, they will gain the upper hand. Is that what we want?

For God’s Church, I make the same plea. While we have a real-world physical enemy, we need to recognize humanity’s true enemy in the spiritual realm. We also must recognize the state of our own hearts.

“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” –1 Peter 5:8-9

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” –Jeremiah 17:9-10

The world is inundated with lies. Why?

  • And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” –Revelation 12:9
  • Jesus tells us that the devil “was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)
  • What is the devil’s goal? To lead people away from the only way God provided for salvation: “Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them.  I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

This is an attempt to cut through a lot of so-called wisdom these days, and see how it stacks up against God’s word. Jesus prayed: “Sanctify them in truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17)

Lie #1: God is not real, or “God is dead” (taken out of context and misapplied as it is today).

Truth: “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.” (Isaiah 40:28)

“The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Psalm 53:1)

Lie #2: Satan is not real.

Truth: The bible records the devil’s first lie, “You will not certainly die.” (Genesis 3:1-4)

God tells us Satan is real: “One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.” (Job 1:6)

Jesus knew he was real: “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ (Matthew 4:1-11)

Lie #3: There is nothing after this life, no Heaven or Hell.

Truth: When we die, we must stand before our Creator: “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many . . .” (Hebrews 9:27-28)

About the resurrection, Jesus said: “Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!” (Mark 12:18-27)

Jesus related a parable about the poor man and the rich man showing their conscious state after they die: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.  At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.”

“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire . . ..” (Luke 16: 19-31)

Lie #4: God is “mean” because he has consequences for disobeying him.

Truth: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

He is our Heavenly Father. He does all things out of love, and just like most parents who want the best for their children, he makes rules, not to deprive us, but to protect us from harm: “Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.” (Deuteronomy 8:5)

If government had no consequences to breaking the law, it would not be respected: “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.” (Romans 13:3-4)

If consequences did not hurt, we wouldn’t be deterred from repeating the same mistakes over and over: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:7-8)

Lie #5: Look at all the evil in the world. God, if he exists, doesn’t care.

Truth: God cares deeply and knows each of us intimately: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:6-7)

He proved his love by sending Jesus to die on the cross for our sins: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:16-18)

Lie #6: Salvation is hard. You have to be “good enough” to get to heaven.

Truth: Salvation is simple and easy: “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. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13)

Salvation is a pure gift. All we need to do is receive it, like a child depending on and trusting in their parent: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17)

Doing good works and being moral do not merit us heaven. If that were true, Christ would not have had to die. When we focus on our good deeds, we give glory to ourselves. God does not want us to draw attention to ourselves in that way. He wants and deserves all the glory because he alone is good, righteous, and holy: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.” (Mark 10:18)

Lie #7: Discipleship is easy.

Truth: Following Jesus is hard and costly: “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 . . . In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. (Luke 14:26-33)

Persecution is a promise: “ In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12)

Lie #8: Hypocrisy seen in others justifies my lack of faith.

Truth: We are all guilty of hypocrisy at one time or another in our lives. This is especially true of our speech: “We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” (James 3:2)

Our speech will reveal what is in our heart: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:45)

Just what is a hypocrite? “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see . . ..” (Matthew 23:1-33)

God is concerned with our motives. It is easy for people to be judgmental because we can’t know someone’s intentions or motives. But God sees the heart. If our sole motive is to look good in other people’s eyes, that is a wrong motive, and we will only do what is right when someone is looking. That is what religion does. God wants our motive to be to act and speak righteously to please him. That’s what faith does. He wants us to fear what God thinks of us, not what people think of us. If pleasing God is our motive, then we will act and speak in right ways whether we are in public or private: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:27-28)

Hypocrisy is also seen in judging others: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Luke 6:41-42)

So, a hypocrite is someone who either judges another without mercy, without recognizing their own faults, or someone who is trying to please people without any regard for God’s heart. It is interesting that Jesus used this strong language toward the religious leaders of the day, not so much ordinary folks: “[Jesus] replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:6-8)

Lie #9: Life starts after birth.

Truth: God knows us and ordains our life before we are born: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:13-16)

Lie #10: I should not offend anyone by speaking the truth.

Truth: It is our duty as Christians to speak God’s truth, found in the bible, even if that means offending someone who has a differing viewpoint, as Jesus did: “Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” (Matthew 15:12)

We speak God’s truth in order to warn and save those who do not fear God: “When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. (Ezekiel 3:18)

Our goal in speaking truth should be love: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” (Ephesians 4:15)

If you have found this message challenging, I have, too. The Lord has shown me my sin, and although it is painful, I know he means all discipline for our good: “And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

I hope reading this helps you as much as it has helped me writing it. God is so good: “do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)

Spiritual Journey: A Riches to Rags Story

 Looking at his disciples, [Jesus] said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
 Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
    when they exclude you and insult you
    and reject your name as evil,
        because of the Son of Man.

“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
    for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

–Luke 6:20-26

I have often seen these first three verses from our featured passage on literature for poverty relief organizations. Ripped out of context and applied literally, this would mean that Jesus is saying that the physically poor, the hungry, and the depressed somehow have more merit in the eyes of God, and that rich, chubby, happy people are doomed. Hmm. Seems to me there must be something more here than meets the eye–the spiritual eye!

The first four verses are easily recognized as a parallel passage to the beatitudes of Matthew, chapter 5. A key to understanding this passage is looking at the similar one. Matthew 5:3 states: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Jesus must be referring to poverty of spirit, not physical poverty. He is talking to people who recognize their spiritual need, their spiritual poverty in the sight of a holy and righteous God, because they will depend on Jesus for salvation. They rely on God’s mercy and grace, his spiritual charity, and not their own righteousness, and so the kingdom of God is theirs (Romans 3:21-24).

In verse 21 above, it is again not literal food Jesus is talking about. Matthew 5:6 speaks of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. How often Jesus spoke of himself as being living bread and living water! (John 6:51; John 4:10) Similarly, it is not those who are unhappy about justifiably sad events, but rather those who mourn over and regret their sin that are comforted. (Luke 18:13)

Verse 22 is the key to the whole passage. When are people especially blessed? When they have physical needs? No. Here, Jesus makes it clear he’s talking about his followers. It’s when we are hated, insulted, and called evil because we bear the name of Jesus. Just like the prophets and Jesus himself, every one of us who commits our life to glorify God will suffer. But even though we suffer here for a little while, Jesus reminds us to rejoice because our reward in heaven is eternal.

Unlike the passage in Matthew, Luke adds four woes to show a reversal of fortune in the spiritual realm. The first woe is to the rich. Does that mean that wealth is bad? No, some notable examples of faith were very well-to-do, including Abraham. Again, this must be taken in the spiritual sense: those who consider themselves wealthy before a holy God because of their own righteousness. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day felt like they were pretty righteous folks, and relied on their own interpretation of their Law for their feeling of spiritual security.

Again, Jesus said, woe to the well fed, or those who didn’t eat up Jesus’ parables or drink in his spiritual words. Woe to those who joke about or make light of their sin, and who want everyone to speak well of them in public, instead of saying what is true and right. Just like the false prophets in the past, they will tickle the ears of their listeners, seek glory for themselves, and lead people away from God. Woe, Jesus says, for the day is coming, if they do not heed his warning, when the tables are turned, and they will be without comfort, they will go hungry, and they will mourn and weep.

There’s a similar reversal of fortune found in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31:

 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Again, there is a tendency to just read this as a parable about the rich not lifting a finger to do anything for the poor.

This cannot be simply a parable about how the poor go to heaven and the rich go to hell. As mentioned previously, Abraham himself was wealthy beyond imagination. Here in this parable he is comforting Lazarus at his side. So if Abraham is in heaven, why and how did he get there? Why is the other rich man in hell? Why is Lazarus in heaven?

Throughout the bible, Abraham is held up as a model of faith, not in himself, but in God. The bible says that when God promised Abraham a son in his old age, that he “believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the night sky. Abraham’s spiritual children are all who, like him, believe God, and are credited righteousness: “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 (Romans 10:9).

We know Lazarus did not go to heaven on his own merit. Poor people are just as needy spiritually as you and me. So here’s the deal. Did you know that the name Lazarus means, “whom God has helped?” Lazarus is just like those in our featured passage who are poor in spirit. He is hungry for God and covered with all sorts of spiritual sores that need healing. Even the dogs have more empathy and spiritual sense than the rich man!

So who is this rich man? In context, Jesus had been talking to his disciples, sharing another parable, and when the Pharisees overheard it, they sneered at Jesus, because they loved not only wealth, but also their way of life, their practices, their culture, their own wisdom, their own selves more than the lives of those around them. Jesus said to them: “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16: 15). They were supposed to be Israel’s religious leaders and teachers, but they held sinners in disdain and refused to help the most spiritually needy right under their upturned noses.

It would be like people today, especially modern-day religious leaders, who get wealthy without giving a crumb of real spiritual food to their flocks. Or individuals and religious leaders who weigh down people with many “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” before helping them understand Jesus’ only required work for entrance into heaven: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29). Or individuals and religious leaders today who like to mix extra-biblical material with orthodox Christian thought, polluting the faith with heretical ideas that do not glorify God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, but rather man. Simply put, the rich man is a pseudo-religious figure who cares nothing for the eternal well-being of the wretched soul lying just outside his doorway.

Am I trying to minimize the role of humanitarianism and the importance of aiding the poor in society? Never! Jesus himself tells us how we should care for and have friendship with the poor and disabled in our communities. He said, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed” (Luke 14:13-14). I’m only pointing out the spiritual overtones of these passages. God does not want us to look at our own works and say, “Well, I have gone to church every Sunday, I have given so much to the poor–hey, I’m a pretty decent and kind person. Thank God I’m not like [insert least favorite political candidate]. I’m sure he will let me in heaven.”

That is the attitude of Luke 18:9-14:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Note the reversal of fortune at the end? We seem to have it all backwards, upside-down, & inside-out! Isaiah 64:6 states it best: “How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” So, no. God doesn’t want us to rely on or boast about what we do. He wants us to say, “I believe in Jesus. I’m sure he will let me in heaven because I know he died for me . . . even though I missed church about half of the Sundays this year and I didn’t give five bucks to that homeless man today because I thought he would buy a bottle of cheap booze with it. Dear Jesus, forgive me. What should I do?”

Jesus: “The next time you see the homeless man, at least buy him a sandwich and a soda. I would prefer that you do this though, because the kingdom of God is all about relationship with me and other people: The poor and disabled are not just projects. They are potential friends. Eat with him. Listen to his story. Tell him about me. The sandwich will be gone in fifteen minutes. You’ll leave him in sixty minutes. If you and my other children keep doing this and more for him until he believes in me, then he will not only be off the street, but he will also be with me forever in eternity, just like you, and you will have gained a new friend. You will be so moved by the whole experience that you will actually look forward to worshipping me on Sundays and doing more.”

When you think about it, don’t you just want to tell everyone you can about Jesus? Don’t you wish everyone could experience the grace of God and come live in heaven with you? I do. Ahem. Let me say that I have not always had that attitude. God matured me over the years (yes, years!), and has helped me understand him in such a loving way that I want other people to know my God in all his awesomeness. Let’s pray for the heart to want to take as many people with us to heaven as we can, with God’s help. Hey. Even the rich guys dressed in purple and fine linen need our prayers, too.


Take Courage & Don’t Be Afraid

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:25-32)

 


 

Peter walked on water. If it had been me in Peter’s sandals–a fisherman on a wave-tossed sea, trying to bend my mind around the idea that my master teacher is somehow standing on the water and this really is not an apparition–I think I would have stayed in the boat with the other fellas. I’ve heard several sermons on this passage in the bible, all pointing out that Peter’s faith was pretty amazing, even if he began to sink. After all, there are few other accounts throughout history of anyone walking on water. A cursory Google search reveals a young dude named Maurus who was a monk under St. Benedict, and a Photoshopped image of Drew Brees strolling on a New Orleans river. Well, he is a Saint.

Since others have already said quite a bit about it, I’d like to approach this passage from a little different angle, focusing on Peter’s lack of faith. Why I am picking on the poor guy and focusing on his failure will be beneficial, so bear with me. Even Jesus did not praise Peter here, but asked, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

As a matter of fact, the phrase “you of little faith” was one of Jesus’s favorite ways to address his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew. There are five passages in Matthew that use this exact phrase or very close to it, and one in the Gospel of Luke. In each case, the disciples were worried about their lives in some way. In Matthew 8:26 in particular, Jesus added, “why are you so afraid?”

Current world political tensions coupled with our own election drama at home is creating an uneasy feeling about an uncertain future. There is a palpable sense of fear on both fronts. To make matters worse, some media outlets report either absolute falsehood or focus on the absolute worst of the opposing candidate. Still, after you sift fact from fiction, scary things are being said. But Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (Matthew 10:29-31).

Am I saying we shouldn’t feel apprehension? No. That would be inhuman. God knows we get afraid. The phrase “do not be afraid” appears 81 times throughout the bible. It’s not a command. It’s a reassurance! The key is to not let fear overwhelm us to inaction and to not act out of fear. In our passage, Peter became afraid. Why? He was looking at the wind heaving the waves about. He probably thought, “Oh, man, what if I’ve been tricked by a ghost and I’m standing in the middle of the sea? This was a really BAD idea.” The moment he took his eyes off Jesus, Peter began to sink. At this point, Peter is completely helpless. So he cries out, “Lord, save me!”

This reminds me of my own spiritual helplessness when it comes to saving myself. I will never be good enough to go to heaven in my own strength or merit. I have done and said stupid things all my life, even after I became a Christian, because like any child of God I need to learn and grow spiritually. I will continue to make mistakes, too (hopefully not on purpose). That’s why Jesus stressed the importance of forgiveness, both giving and asking for it. It’s called grace. God’s grace is his gift to us received in faith. All we need is a modicum of faith. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).

Well, that’s just ludicrous,  you say. Not even Jesus rearranged Israel’s landscape. You’re right. Jesus used hyperbole here to make a point. If faith the size of a tiny mustard seed can move something as big as Mount Everest, how little we truly need for life’s problems. It’s not the size of my faith that moves the mountain, but the immeasurable goodness of God. To the extent that I trust he will act in my best interest and everyone’s best interest, even if the situation is bad or looks bleak, I will have peace. I need to trust him that he is somehow, beyond my current understanding, working good for me or someone else. That’s part of spiritual dependence on God, of keeping our eyes on Jesus.

I think about Aleppo. I don’t claim to understand why innocent infants and children are dying by the hundreds, or are left traumatized, or are orphaned. I don’t claim to know why the horror of Hitler happened. I don’t claim to know the whys of many things. But I can recognize faith when I see it. I read a recent article about how the missionaries in the city of Aleppo are going out and evangelizing even amid the bombs and bullets. Not only do they face this danger, but the missionaries who stay to help with humanitarian aid and to share the gospel also risk torture, rape, and execution at the hands of the jihadists. Talk about faith under fire. Talk about things looking bleak. Talk about focus on Jesus.

Notice when Peter cried out to be saved that Jesus’ response was immediate. Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. They climbed back in the boat, the wind died down, and all the disciples worshiped Jesus: “Truly, you are the Son of God.” It’s faith in Jesus that allays fear, gives us assurance that there’s more than this life only, and moves the proverbial mountain.

If you disagree, consider this. Peter was a man of little faith in this instance, and also when Jesus was arrested. He said he would follow Jesus to death if he had to, but when his faith was tested, he denied knowing Jesus three times, one time even vehemently calling down curses. This same man became the leader of the church, a “pillar” in the faith. The other disciples had abandoned Jesus at his arrest, but all of them were later martyred for their faith with the exception of the Apostle John. Since that time, their work for the gospel has spread down through the ages and around the world to untold billions of people.

So, why did they all fail the first time? Well, a few things occurred to me. If they hadn’t, the early church would have been without first-hand accounts of Jesus, two gospels, end times prophecy, authoritative teaching, and all the myriads of influences the apostles had on individual lives. God, who always works good, had a better plan. That is why, no matter what happens on the world stage, in this election, or in my own life, I will trust God to answer my prayers only if they align with his perfect will.  After all, just before his crucifixion, even Jesus prayed “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (John 14:36). We can be thankful, for the sake of all believers, that this is the one prayer his Father did not answer according to the desired request.

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.”