Monday, December 29, 2008

"Am I Really So Awful?"

“Am I really so awful?” laments Jillian. Busy with holidays, she’s been asked by every store’s check out, “Do you want to give a dollar to feed a hungry family this Christmas?” What a question?!? Jillian feels that she has lots to be thankful for this year. She’s trying to feel for all those in her life who seem to be hurting. One friend lost her husband and mother this year! And between the news on TV, the many prayer requests coming through church lines, and feeling spent getting her family’s Christmas ready, she is feeling guilty for not feeling the pain of others. “I know I need more empathy for others!”

After quoting to me the verse of scripture that says, “Weep with those who weep, and mourn with those who mourn,” I started to feel kind of guilty myself. Then came this heaviness. Maybe I too am not feeling the pain of others enough! Is my own heart calloused and stony? Thanks a lot Jillian!

Seriously, whenever God’s call on me seems too heavy, I re-examine what He’s saying to me. At such times I find, that I’ve often added to God’s word, making His yoke, burdensome. Following Jesus should not be unbearable. Jesus said to the weary:

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:29,30

Have you ever felt that the Lord’s burden and yoke were not easy or light? If so, it may be that the burden you are carrying is not His. Looking back at those weeping and mourning verses for instance: Paul is not asking you to empathize with anyone.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.”
Romans 12:9-19

Here, mourning with those who mourn, and rejoicing with those who rejoice, are not extra commands from God. These are outcomes of being in a faith filled community. Paul has been writing a long letter to the fellowship of believers in Rome. He is addressing people who are already in community. When you are a people who share faith in God; facing persecution for it, while encouraging one another to remain strong and godly amidst opposition, you will naturally hurt when others among you hurt. And you are going to be happy for those among you, who are blessed. The key is being devoted to one another in community. Not just attending a church; but being devoted to the community of believers there.

The problem with quoting verses out of context is that they can seem like an isolated command of God. Paul rather, is exhorting the faithful to be so even more. Our faith is working to make us more Christ-like, and we are to spur one another on and to encourage one another in this work God is doing. Paul is just encouraging believers to live out their faith.

God doesn’t ask us to empathize with others. Though every human culture seems to have a “Walk in his shoes” saying, God is not the one pushing empathy. Why would He? His calling is infinitely higher! Empathy is self-centered. Just consider the mechanics. Rather, God calls us to to be “devoted to one another in brotherly love.” That does not require or involve empathy. When you are devoted to one another, empathy is just silly. And it is to such a devoted group of believers that Paul is exhorting.

Wanting to put a dollar in to help those you don’t know is fine. It is nice of you. And certainly when the cashier asks you, “Would you like to help feed a hungry family this year at Christmas?” it can feel awkward to just say, “Nope!” Especially if you are wearing your fish pin and WWJD bracelet! But empathizing isn’t going to help anyone.

At my mom’s funeral, I found myself having to console two people at different times, who were sobbing. I didn’t even know who they were! On further inquiry, they hardly knew my mom! They were empathizers, saying how they could just imagine what losing their mother would be like. God’s grace was on me that day, because my mom died. These folk didn't have His grace on them, cause they were upset at their own mother's deaths, which had not even happened! If my mom were there, she’d have slapped them.

Who asked these people to imagine how they’d feel if their mother’s died? Not God. Probably some talk-show host told them to. I didn’t even know them, and they hardly knew my mom! We weren’t in community. So in order to work up the tears, they had to empathize with me, imagining what it would be like to have lost their own moms. A better way, when nobody is looking, is to simply pull a hair out of your nose. Either way gets the tears going, and they have about the same value. Empathy delivers the tears, but not the love. The empathizing person is thinking about them selves. Devotion to community develops the love that will probably result in tears when those you've come to care about are truly hurting.

God has called His children to be ministers of truth. We cannot do that, if we are empathizing and imagining things. We are to be clear minded, eager to minister to those truly hurting. The people who ministered most to me that day, recognized that I had God’s grace and pointed it out to me; reminding me that God was with me. We are to think true thoughts always:

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."
Philippians 4:8

I know these folk at the funeral meant to help. That was cool of them. But had they not been imagining, they could have been sober in judgment, and seen that others there were needing counsel.

“But Tom, what about this verse?” My “King James only” friend, quoted me, concerning having compassion for those suffering:

“But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”

1 John 3:17


After a discussion on how people “in sundry times” sure loved one another funny, I thought I should check this verse out. My Bible has it as:

“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”

I’m not a very good actor. I suppose some folk can work up pity. But can they do it in truth, and without empathizing? In context, John is not writing this to people who don’t know each other. He is talking to people who are in community. He is talking to people whom “the world hates,” and John is encouraging them to live lives devoted to one another. The community he wrote were being attacked for their faith; some losing property, and others being killed because of their belief in Christ. They were facing persecution! And they were together, devoted to one another. When you are in close community with such folk, believe me, you won’t have to work up pity.

God works in the heart, and love results. Unspiritual people slap rules down on each other, to produce the appearance of love; in this case tears around crying people. God gives compassion, and unspiritual man advises empathy. Once we are in community, committed to one another, living according to truth, with our mission to reach the world for Jesus, despite the cost to ourselves, each of us being changed into the image of Christ, we will naturally rejoice with one another, or hurt with one another. Real friends and family just do that. Being transformed is not a painless process.

Remembering the poor is a very good thing. Paul writes:

“All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.”
Galatians 2:10

Jesus said we’d have the poor among us always. Ministering to them doesn’t require feelings. We should do so in truth; not waiting till our feelings of “how would it feel if I were poor,” come.

Feelings of compassion come when you are in community, and when those you are devoted to, suffer. So plug into your community of faith-filled folk. The compassion will come naturally. Or as some of my friends would say, your bowels will simply open up by themselves.

Oh come on!

You knew that was coming!

Friday, November 28, 2008

“Shouldn’t We Bear One Another's Burdens?”

How many ministries have you been asked to join or help with this week? There is so much going on! Someone recently complained: “Why wouldn’t he help with my ministry? Doesn’t the Bible tell us to “bear one another’s burdens?"
How do you recruit help for your ministry?" While it might be nice to come to the rescue of one another, these “burdens” that the Bible are talking about are not activities. We read in Galatians:

“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry is own load.”
Galatians 6:1-5

These “burdens” are not helping one another with ministry projects, or taking up the slack for someone who has overextended their schedule. These “burdens” are temptations, or perhaps moral failures that folks in Christ have suffered. We are to carry our own “loads,” while helping (through gentle restoration, encouragement, accountability, etc.) others who are struggling.

God calls us to walk with Him by faith, while serving Him in freedom. Paul was writing to Galatian believers, that had come under the influence of extremely legalistic men who insisted that non-Jewish followers of Christ be circumcised as Jewish. Paul’s letter emphasizes the importance of serving God in the freedom that Christ obtained for us on the cross.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
Galatians 5:1

It’s about serving God in freedom! Just before these burden-carrying verses, Paul describes living according to the “flesh” or “sinful nature” versus living according to the Spirit. After describing the results from living each way, He says,

“Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”

Galatians 5:25, 26

Allowing people to minister in the freedom Christ intends is essential. How we consider one another is very important to God. God requires each of us to walk in freedom and to live by faith. God wants His children free!

I’m excited about a new ministry. I really want to see it happen! Immediately I can think of several people who I’d love to partner with me on it. It involves rescuing children. And I can rest, knowing that God cares more about them than I do.

What do I see in potential ministry partners? Do I see talented people who can serve my vision? Or do I see people whom God has created, called, gifted, and chosen to minister to Him in freedom and faith? For me it is usually a mixture of the two. God help me!

I must protect the freedom of those I approach, and to respect God’s calling for them to walk by faith. If I try and sell my vision; try to convince them of their need to help out, or maybe coerce with guilt, reminding them of that week when I selflessly and tirelessly fed their cat, I am operating “according to the flesh.” I’m avoiding the Holy Spirit’s involvement. No matter how important I feel this ministry idea is, I have to respect their calling too.

It makes sense. Sure, we hope people will come aboard and help. But ultimately don’t we want to be working with people whom God has called, rather than those who we have merely “recruited?” To achieve this, we should sow the ministry vision that God has given.

You sow the vision by letting folk know what you believe God is leading you into. Then water this sown seed with prayer and thanksgiving. In sowing the seed, you have to let it drop. If that’s difficult, remind yourself how God loves those you hope to reach through this ministry, even more than you do. Ask Him to make this vision reality. Then expect a time when the vision seems to die.

Seeds have to die before the life they're meant to birth can grow. This can be painful. But ask anyone who has ever started a ministry. At some point it seemed their vision would never materialize. Their vision had to die. Then God gives the vision, life! I think this keeps people from taking credit when the life springs forth. We then freely give Glory to God, as it should be.

Be honoring when inviting people into your ministry. No trying to sell it! We must honor one another’s freedom! We should give people room to hear from God. Then they'll be serving God, and not ourselves, or out of some vague sense of obligation. By walking according to the Spirit, there won’t be “jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions” etc., but the “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness” and etc. that comes from people freed to walk according to the Spirit, rather than recruited by our ambitious flesh.

If you must ask for help, check your questions. Honoring how God creates people, extend them complete freedom to follow Christ. Jesus said:

“Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’:
Matthew 5:37

Jesus let’s people say “no.” So we must allow for “no.” Being visibly or audibly upset when someone says “no” to our request is manipulation. The question was not really even a question. We must let one another experience faith. Yet faith isn’t even involved unless God speaks first!

“Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”
Romans 10:17

The “word” here, is “Rhema” in the Greek. It means that word which is God breathed. The other word for “word” in scripture is “Logos.” Logos includes the written word of God. Therefore quoting Bible verses to convince people doesn’t help them exercise faith because faith comes from the "Rhema" of God, and humans don't speak Rhema. Give God room! If God gives us a vision for ministry, and if we sow generously, telling others about what God is leading us to do, then along the way, we can trust Him to call others by His Rhema. Then they can exercise faith freely and serve God with great joy.

We do the sowing. God does the growing:

“A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain_”
Mark 4:26-28

If God gives you vision, your job is to sow and maybe to water. Let Him grow it! So much stress, fatigue and strained relationships come from trying to make it happen! Don’t do more than God has appointed for you.

Walking by faith doesn’t guarantee you'll see the ministry finished in this lifetime. The above verse assures us that we will “not know how” this growth occurs. Don’t be fooled by your eagerness to see it to completion! It’s not your baby. Paul was content in ministry, understanding this:

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow.”
1 Corinthians 3:6,7

Don’t be dismayed. God calls all His children. Others may reap for the Kingdom, what you have sown for the Kingdom. Likewise we often reap what others have sown. Jesus describes this as:

“…the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying, “One sows and another reaps,” is true.”
John 4:36,37

In Hebrews 11, there are listed many people of great and notable faith, and starting in verse 37 we read:

“They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.”

Hebrews 11:37-39

We may be reaping what other people of faith have sown. Scripture goes on to say that these people mentioned will yet receive the goal of their faith. The point is we mustn’t push it. Paul writes in chapter 4 of Abraham’s faith. Abraham exemplifies to us both faith and the blunder of pushing the promise. His faith in God’s promise led to Isaac and so Israel, from whom comes Christ our Savior. But before Isaac was given, He and Sarah rushed the vision. Perhaps tired of waiting for God, Ishmael was born when they pressed Hagar to bear Abraham a son. This Ishmael would become the great Arab nation; and just as God then announced, the two nations have never been at peace.

Has God spoken to you? Awesome! Then sow the vision and trust Him. If folk aren’t coming aboard yet, maybe the seed needs to die. Just sow the vision, pray and live for God each day. There will be a harvest. You won’t know how it happens, but God will be praised.

Monday, October 27, 2008

“How Can I End This Loneliness?”

Paul’s loneliness seems unbearable. He aches to get mail from home! He has faith in God, but really struggles and asks, “Am I not trusting God enough for this? Why am I so lonely?” He’s been told the usual, “Just remember how much God loves you!” He does, but this lonely feeling is so strong!

Saying, “You’ve got to get out and meet people!” isn’t the answer either. We can be in a room full of people, but that feeling of loneliness can still come upon us. Hey married people can feel extremely alone even if they are together. The remedy for loneliness isn’t companionship. The cure for loneliness is being known. Meeting more people won’t help. It isn’t about being well known. It's about being known well.

One almost gets the impression when searching the scriptures for a remedy, that God simply doesn’t consider loneliness. “Lonely” is mentioned 2 times in Psalms, and 2 times in the gospels. But the word “lonely” here is not even talking about feelings. David was lonely amidst enemies. He was by himself. Jesus went out to lonely places to pray. It was the place He went to pray that was lonely. The word has more to do with being isolated or in solitude. Only once does the Bible mention lonely people, but even here, the Psalmist is talking about situation.

“A Father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, He leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun scorched land.”
Psalm 68:5,6

Perhaps God never mention loneliness because He’s already remedied it. He “sets the lonely in families.” While we are on earth, He simply provides us with family. I’ve known so many secret believers who, after moving back into Muslim villages, would amazingly find themselves meeting other secret believers. God does this! You’ll often read such encounters in missionary newsletters. When brother Abdullah was assigned a room at the factory he’d just started working and living at, he soon found that his roommate Enwer, was also a secret follower of Christ. They caught each other reading the Bible and were amazed, thanking God. God sets the lonely in families!

If a believer feels loneliness, they probably have either not let God put them into a family, or they are not being themselves while in the family that He has put them in. People try to not be seen as needy. To be “successful,” we learn to put on a mask of confidence. To need others is mistakenly considered a weakness.

My friend in prison tells me that in order to survive, he must appear mean. He only takes his mask off when he gets mail from people who know him well. In prison culture, there are predators who go after those perceived as weak. So his tough mask stays on. While writing letters home he can put down the mask and make himself known. This being known time gives him rest from his loneliness. Maybe that is why inmates and missionaries love getting mail from home.

We Church folk are famous for our happy masks! Visitors might think we are problem free. Yet our church prayer sheets are filled with desperate need! If we consistently keep our masks on at church, we’ll soon feel that nobody knows us. Loneliness sets in, and soon we’re looking for a “more loving” church. You can’t be known if the mask is on. Be sincere!

Our Heavenly Father leads us into families. The early church folk would meet daily at the Temple courts, and after hearing the apostle’s teaching, they’d devote themselves to fellowship, communion and prayer. Then they’d go to one another’s homes, and eat together “with glad and sincere hearts.” (Acts 2:42-47)

Sincere hearts don’t wear masks. Sincerity allows you to be known. Find a group of people who honor biblical teaching, and enter with your glad and sincere heart. Get to know others too and help dispell their loneliness! As folk get to know you, your loneliness will likewise subside.

Ann and I once moved to a place where very few westerners had ever been seen. We were a novelty. Half a world away from all who knew us, the local people would turn and stare, point and talk. Some would touch my clothes or perhaps while feeling the hair on my arms, mention something about evolution, and then just walk away. With limited language ability, it was hard to be known.

I remember this one day, when I was really tired, and feeling so alone. The language was so slow in coming! After months it seemed, nobody knew me. The loneliness was intense! All we could talk was the mundane, for shopping and getting directions. Nothing deep! Once after a winter’s afternoon in the bazaar, I shuffled on home, sliding over the icy road toward our apartment. I saw a family standing there: father, mother and daughter.

The little girl was staring at me, and the father was explaining me to her, so that she wouldn’t be scared. I smiled at them, but they just stared back expressionless. In order to be friendly, I spoke to them. “Hello! How are you today?” No response. They just stood there staring at me. I decided to try again, a bit louder this time. “It’s not too cold today, eh?” I waited for a response. Nothing. Finally the father turned to his wife and looked down at his daughter and said, “It can talk!” Then the three just turned and walked on leaving me standing there with my mouth opened.

It was one of those freeing moments with Jesus, when we can either despair, or else realizing God’s there, burst out laughing. If Satan intended for me to despair that day, he overplayed his hand. God was there, seeing and knowing what I was feeling and experiencing. With Him there, it was just too funny! His being there and knowing us, made instances like this something that Ann and I could laugh about. Time and language would soon enough make us some good friends, but for those early months, it could feel pretty lonely. The remedy came whenever we, realizing His presence with us, knew that He knew.

“Be still and know that I am God.”

Psalm 46:10

We’ll sometimes feel lonely this side of heaven. But that isn’t God’s plan for us. He puts us into families and He wants the masks off! It is up to us to follow Him into His family, and we must each take off our own mask.

God already knows us completely:

“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
1 Corinthians 13:12

The power and joy of the Christian life is not that we love or know God. It is that we are loved by and are known by God.

“We love because He first loved us.”
1 John 4:19

Our very ability to love comes to us because we first are loved by God. If you love God, it is because He knows you.

“But the man who loves God is known by God.”
1 Corinthians 8:3

God has promised that we would not be alone in Him:

“God has said, “Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”

Hebrews 13:5

Jesus’ final words to us in Matthew are:

“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Matthew 28:20

The power of loneliness ends when we see that He fully knows us. Jesus died on that cross, so that He could reconnect us with God. Then He sent His Holy Spirit, so that we could know that He is with us, and realize how He knows us completely. When we see that God Himself is right here with us, the joy of the Lord will become our strength. Loneliness ends when we are being known.

Feeling lonely? Let God put you in with His family. We’ve all heard it said, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” If you are not thrilled with His family there, take your mask off first, and let your glad and sincere heart encourage others to remove their masks also. And if it takes them a while, know that God sees what you are trying to do and know that He delights in you.

“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—“

Hebrews 10:25

There’s just one friend
Who sticks closer than a brother.
Yet I fretted through one and then another,
and felt alone and sad and sighed
with Jesus right there by my side.
And all the angels here unseen
just cocked their heads and shrugged their wings
as I sat rescued and unharmed
through wasted days and slipped by hours
forgetting, ignoring, and begging Him too;
crying for friends as if He wouldn’t do.
And He will wait until I can see
that there’s no one greater who will ever love me.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What If My New Bride Doesn’t Love Me Well?

Married only five months now, Bill already despairs that maybe he had made the wrong choice. He asks, “Where is that chapter about love, in the Bible? Wasn’t it in Corinthians?”

Oh right, the one that will say that she’s like “a clanging gong?” Yeah Bill, that is 1 Corinthians 13, but I don’t think you want to start quoting that one just yet. Men from generations past found that using chapter 13 on their wives only led to cold stares, cold beans, and rolling pin lumps. In more modern times, it leads to more marriage seminars. While many use chapter 13 to enhance their wedding ceremonies or to rebuke a grumpy spouse, the actual purpose of Paul’s writing it, was rather to help a disorderly church prophesy more effectively.

There are two reasons people mistakenly hold this chapter up to their increasingly frustrated spouse. One problem is human tampering with scripture, and the second one is the limitations of the English language. The scriptures didn’t originally have chapter headings or numbers. This is a letter to the Corinthian believers. It didn’t have chapters. And once someone sees a chapter heading, they think of it as a good stopping point. The end of chapter 12 is not a good stopping point. Neither is the end of Chapter 13. What is written in chapter 13 here, often called “the Love Chapter,” is part of an explanation of how to present spiritual gifting.

If you’ll read from the beginning of chapter 12 to the end of chapter 14 in one sitting, (you can do it, I just know you can), then you will not see “the Love Chapter” as how you or your spouse need to be behaving. Rather, you’ll see what your heart must be flowing with while you are exercising God’s gifts in “the most excellent way.”

The second problem in comparing chapter 13 with people, is that in English we have only one word for “love,” but in the original Greek, the Bible has 4 words for love. The word used in chapter 13, is the word “Agape,” which human beings do not even possess. Agape is “God’s love in action.” It is the love that God has, that we are to allow flow through us as we present His gifts to His children. If you are holding this chapter up to your spouse, you might as well accuse, “Hey, why aren’t you God!?!” Kind of loses the umph! Eh?

As chapter 12 starts out, Paul is helping the brothers and sisters in Corinth, who follow Christ, understand how people are entrusted with various spiritual gifts, all given by God:

“Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.”

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.”

Paul then explains that each believer has a gift, and then lists several, such as: messages of wisdom, messages of knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, discerning between spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpreting such tongues. Believers in Corinth were actively sharing these gifts, but they needed to see how all these gifts, being from God, also needed presenting in His love.

Paul then goes on to explain that each person uses their gifts to build up the whole body of Christ; that is the whole church. Just as our bodies have different parts, so the body of Christ has many different people who are each members of His body, with differing gifts. As we often do today sadly, the Corinthian believers were honoring certain gifts over others, and it was apparently causing pride and division. This is not how God sees His gifts or His people. Just before heading into the now famous “Chapter 13,” Paul writes:

“But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way.”

Chapter 13 is talking about how we should minister in the gifts that are manifesting God’s presence among His church, believers in Christ. These gifts to the church include: apostles, prophets, teachers, workers of miracles, healing gifts, helping others, administration, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues. Notice we are not told how to present these gifts technique-wise. But we are told that, if to be at all effective, the gifts are to be expressed in the Agape of God. But when they are done without His Agape flowing: when instead they are expressed with boastfulness, rudeness, pride, anger, fault finding, and evil intent, then the gift is doing more harm than good. Without God’s love flowing through the gift-possessor’s heart, it is obnoxious; like the sound of a “clanging gong.” Without love as the motive and intent for using God’s gifts, they are not being presented with God’s heart. God is love.

“Who ever does not love, does not know God, because God is love.”
1 John 4:8

The way we offer God’s gifts to others is very important! They are the “gifts of the Spirit.” They are not ours. It is more like God intends to give the people a gift, and He has entrusted each believer with certain ones. Imagine sending me to a dear friend of yours, with a special present all wrapped up from you. But on the way, I hit traffic, the "check engine" light goes on in my car, I get drenched in the rain and then laughed at because my comb-over no longer is, and finally I stub my toe upon seeing your friend. By now totally miffed that you ever needed my help, I chuck the box at your friend, snarling, “Happy Birthday!” and storm off. How pleased would you be with me, when hearing how your friend received the gift you sent them? Presenting God’s gifts accurately means also using His tone of voice. And God is love. He isn’t easily angered: boastful, envious, proud, rude, self-seeking, or unforgiving. He is God our Savior. And when He entrusts you with a gift to give to one of His children, you must do so with His heart.

The love chapter tells us that God’s “Agape” is the greatest. Now see how Chapter 14 begins? Verse one is going right back to the spiritual gifts. That is because the writer Paul had never stopped talking about spiritual gifts. He’s not writing about your wife! He continues with:

“Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophesy.”

I know that some organizations teach that these gifts that are mentioned in chapters 12, 13 and 14 are not for today. They say these no longer are "in operation." They teach how these gifts were for back then only, in something called "the apostolic age.” I call these groups, “Non-prophet Organizations.”

Perhaps the reason some churches in America don’t experience more of these gifts, is not because God has ceased bestowing them, but that we have ceased letting Him love through us. Ask God? If He gives you a gift with which to build His children up, check your heart. Is God’s love for them your motive in presenting this gift? Are you excited because God loves them so much that He wants you to tell them something? Or are you just sick of the way things are and wanting folk to change?

Ask God to examine your heart before you deliver what you believe God’s gift to be. He may have lots of cleaning up to do in your attitude, before you can give the gift with His heart's tone. But as we learn to do so, the joy of using His gifts is so worth it! As we start giving His gifts to encourage and strengthen His children, His way, then He will entrust us to do so more and more.

In finishing with this subject of how to use the spiritual gifts, Paul writes to the Corinthians:

“Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophecy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”

Make sure you are loving people, while you are ministering to your church family. “Chapter 13” is talking about God’s love; and not your spouse.’ Young married couples that find them selves struggling, just need to rest more. Rather than use 1 Corinthians 13 in your wedding invitations, here are some verses you might want to try instead. Space prevents me from typing them all out, and so you’ll just have to look them up yourself. In fact, don’t print out the verses on the invitations. Just let the recipients look them up themselves. Months later, when you and your honey are struggling to understand one another, look up these verses again, reminding yourself why you wanted to marry each other in the first place.

Suggested Verses:

Galatians 5:20
Job 19: 17,18
Exodus 13:36

And my personal favorite:

Ezra 2:27
____________ (Add your own here).
____________(Share them with others).

Friday, August 29, 2008

Who Do You Think the Anti-Christ Will Be?

Dave’s Bible study group wants to know what the book of Revelation is all about. “Who is the Anti-Christ?” “Is the Laodicean church this generation’s church?” “Is America the ‘Great Whore’?” “Are the 7 years of Tribulation, after the rapture or before the rapture?” “Do the ten horns on the beast represent the European Union? And if so, who is the talking horn?” “Is the 'Mark of the Beast' a computer chip to be implanted under the skin?” “Please help us on this, as we aren’t all in agreement!”

My, my, my! Not in agreement? And you call yourselves Christians! Well, sit back Dave, and let me tell you exactly how this is all going down. Ha! Right!

Instead, let’s take a look at the Revelation itself, and see what God wants us getting from this amazing book. I recommend folk read Revelation for themselves, after they’ve read the Gospels, Acts, and Romans. Then see what you get from it? The differing teachings and theories concerning the end times are all fascinating. Almost everyone I’ve heard teach from Revelation sounds rather convincing. But if I thought that my understanding of this book indicated spiritual maturity, I’d suck my thumb.

It used to seem that whichever teaching I had read last, was the right interpretation. Here’s what I now believe God wants us to get out of this book. This may be too simplistic for some. So if you think you have more insight about specific orders, identities and locations from Revelation, please write a book and send me a copy. I’m sure I’ll believe you too.

Okay, what does God want us to get from Revelation? First of all, He wants us to be blessed! At the very beginning of the book, we find that those who read and honor this book will be “blessed.”

“Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.”

Revelation 1:3

We aren’t told how we’d be "blessed." Scripture doesn’t mention Rolex watches, gold fillings, or miraculously received dividends off our tithing. We just aren’t told. We simply trust that one day we’ll see how it was good to have read and taken to heart, the words of this prophecy. Verse one of the book, tells us this:

“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place.”
Revelation 1:1

It is “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” It is not the revelation of the identities of the Whore of Babylon, or the Beast or the False Prophet, or the Anti-Christ, or the Rapture, or who the talking horn is. We are being shown through this prophecy, a fuller picture of Jesus. The gospels and Acts show us who Jesus was on earth, his death and resurrection, and that He’s now alive. Revelation reveals to us more of who Jesus is, from an eternal perspective. So when reading this wonderful book, focus on Jesus. Read the descriptions of Him! Watch who is worshiping Him! Notice the insanity of those who rage against Him more and more frantically as their end draws nearer and nearer. His servants need to know Him as he is now, for what will “soon take place.”

Read what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Examine your heart! How is your attitude towards God? Are you willing to suffer for Him if need be? Would you die for your Lord?

“Oh, but Tom! I have heard that “the Rapture” takes place before the Tribulation period.” Yes, I actually came to faith while reading a book about just that. But other Christians teach that the rapture comes in the middle of the 7 years of Tribulation. And more historically, the church assumes that we'll go through the tribulation period before being taken up to glory. We all agree that there is going to be a terrible Tribulation Period. And we believe that sometime by the end of this Tribulation Period, we in Christ will be taken up to God in glory, and that it will be wonderful!

The word “Rapture” is not found in scripture. The first mention by Christian writers of a pre-tribulation “rapture,” is around 1830. This doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Just that it’s a relatively new doctrine in Church history. Considering the churches historical position on the subject, it isn’t essential that believers worldwide should agree on this. It’s coming whether we are in our p-jays or a tux.

In 1830, a Scottish girl named Margaret MacDonald had a dream or vision that Christians were taken up to God just before the Tribulation. Pastor Edward Irving heard about this dream and taught it to his congregation. Soon afterwards John Nelson Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren, visited Miss MacDonald and then began teaching a pre-tribulation rapture.

The teaching then came to America shortly after the Scofield Bible was reprinted in 1917. This version included Darby's view in the commentary. Various Bible colleges and seminaries began also offering this theory in eschatology (study of the end times). I’m not saying that the rapture won’t take place before the Tribulation. I’m just saying that God’s people don’t all agree on the particulars.

Funny Thought: I find that the ones most able to present the end times Tribulation Period, seem to be the very Christians who don’t actually believe that they are going to be around for it.

I can’t think of a best selling book or author who talks of “end times” believers going through the Great Tribulation. Ever see a movie about the Tribulation that had Christians not raptured before Tribulation starts? I’m sure people have presented a post tribulation view. They just aren’t best sellers in America. It won’t hurt to look at both views. Preparing our hearts in case one day, we have to face either denying our faith in Jesus or being executed, (Just as Christians everywhere have always done and are still doing in parts of the globe.) is historically realistic.

Here’s what we know from Revelation. There’s a Throne in Heaven with worship happening. We see what Jesus has done for us, and how He alone is worthy to open the scrolls of God. We are shown spiritual beings in Heaven, in worship, and in battle. We get the big picture of the battle of the ages. We learn that all our prayers here are continuously effectual. (See chapter 8). Mostly, Revelation is a “Revelation of Jesus.” We need to keep our focus on Jesus when reading this book.

We need humility when discussing this book. There is much that John saw, that we are not told. In chapter 10, after the “Little Scroll” was opened, John says,

“I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write them down.”
Revelation 10:4

God hasn’t shown it all to us. It is interesting to discuss and to read the different theories. But we don’t have to agree upon what is going to happen step-by-step. God doesn’t seem to require “knowing it” of us.

Simply put, we are blessed if we read or hear, and take to heart “the words of this prophecy.” We know that we don’t know it all, because John wasn’t allowed to tell it all to us. So let’s keep it humble.

One last thing we need here. At the very end of the book of Revelation, there is a stern warning to anyone who is going to discuss this prophecy with any authority. And this is why we need to be very humble when we approach this prophecy. John writes:

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

Revelation 22:18,19

I suggest reading or listening to Revelation in its entirety. Inserting our opinions as if we are quite sure that we know what this or that means risks adding "to the words of this Prophecy.” Avoiding verses that don’t jibe with our theories, risks “taking away,” words from this Prophecy.

1. You are blessed if you read it and heed it. (1:3)
2. You don’t have all the facts, cause John wasn't allowed to tell you. (10:4)
3. You need to humbly not change a thing. (22:18,19)

So while you may think that Hollywood is Babylon, and that the girl who laughed at you in Jr. High is the great whore; and while you’ve calculated which presidential candidate’s name matches the number of the Anti-Christ, you should just sit on that. Discussing possibilities with friends humbly is fine. But do be careful. I’m quite certain that everyone so far who has predicted with any certainty that Jesus was coming back on any specific date, have been wrong. Let me check. Yes, they were all wrong! Next?

PS: Dave, I checked your math and I’m quite sure that it is NOT Pat Sajak.

Friday, July 25, 2008

“Can’t I Just Learn From Jesus Directly?”

Ben's Bible study group has been arguing. “Everyone is an expert!” he complains. So he asks, "Can't I just learn from Jesus directly? You know, just the Bible, the Spirit, and me?"

We can learn from Jesus directly! Jesus is alive, and has sent His Holy Spirit. For born again followers of Christ, Jesus promised that He would send the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. (John 16:12)

The Bible is also important for "learning" about God and about mankind, and about how we to live the life God expects for us. The scriptures are God's "Logos." That is, it is His word that we can see. When the Spirit of God speaks to us, it is by the “Rhema” of God, or the word that is breathed by God’s Spirit. We need both types of God’s word. The Scriptures are an anchor and guideline, so that when we are hearing spiritually, we can better discern what God is saying to us.

"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."
2 Timothy 3:16

But "my Bible, my Jesus, and me,” really isn’t enough.” In order to learn directly from Jesus there is one missing ingredient. Obedience! When Jesus invites us to "learn from" Himself He isn't just talking about gaining information. Jesus says:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
Matthew 11:28-30

Today’s society thinks of learning, as something cognitive, academic or philosophical. Today kids may have to write book reports on Harry Potter, but their educated predecessors studied Greek thought. We value thinking. We value studying! Got a problem? Here’s a book! Need to learn something? Take a class! God's not so into academics as we are. People only learn directly from God when they choose to obey Him.

Jesus calls us to put on His yoke. By following Him that day, folk learned about God’s heart for the Sabbath: about the value of people, important lessons in spiritual warfare, and Jesus even revealed some future plans. They learned that obedience was key. Jesus said, pointing to those following Him:

"Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven are my brother and sister and mother."
Matthew 12:50

We so value academic learning, that we often undervalue faith. It’s by doing what the Lord is telling us to do, without yet knowing the results, that we begin learning from God. First we choose to obey, and then we start learning. Someone said to me, “I read the Bible cover to cover, and it did nothing for me!” They must’ve missed where Jesus says:

“If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.”
John 7:17

Nutshell: In earthly education systems, we learn first and then we take our test. In God’s school, we must take the test first, and then the learning begins.

The test is whether will we obey or not. Choose to do first, find out (learn) as a result. It is about faith. The Lord said to Abram:

“Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”

Genesis 12:1

By obeying God (leaving), Abraham discovered what God had for him. Because God lives, learning of Him is relational. It isn’t just the study of Him, but relating rightly with Him that leads to learning. The test asks us, “Is He your Lord?”

In China God told me to start praying for people’s healing. It was something I had been neglecting and hesitant to do. I said “Yes Lord.” And then the learning began.

First I learned why I had neglected such prayer. I was afraid of looking bad. I’d been talking Jesus up for years! But I can’t control God, and what if I prayed and nothing happened? I’d look bad! That wasn’t fun to learn. I had pride to kill.

I learned that God was not telling me to heal people, but only to lay hands and pray. Results were up to Him. Once I said yes, it was amazing how many people were sneezing on me, coughing around me, limping towards me! People told me of their many ailments. I would offer to pray for them right then and there.

I learned that prayer opens hearts. Not one person got upset at my praying in Jesus’ name or the results. In fact, several asked me for Bibles afterwards. One man, who’d refused a Bible the year prior, now asked for one.

I learned not to try and interpret results. This was my favorite lesson learned! Mr. Zhang was a Communist Party Leader at our school. We were very friendly. But we were cautious around him too. We could be deported for Christian activity.

One day I walked into his office to get our mail, and saw him soaking a bloody foot. He’d stepped on a rusty nail, and the clinic was closed for the weekend. Concerned, I said, “If that nail was rusty, you need a tetanus shot, or you’ll get lock jaw and die!” I know, just call me: “The Voice of Hope!” Immediately, I was reminded to pray. Now in the habit, I asked Mr. Zhang if I could pray for him in Jesus’ name, explaining to him what the Bible says about prayer. Mr. Zhang said, “It’s okay.” And so I started to pray.

I lifted his bloody foot, and with both hands on it, I prayed for healing. Praying wasn’t easy. My mind wandered. “What am I doing? We are going to be deported!” Then I thought of how special the Zhang family was to ours and I really didn’t want him getting lockjaw, “and so could You please heal his foot Lord!” Yikes! And then I remembered that when Mr. Zhang says, “It’s okay,” in English, he really means, “No thank you.” Too late! I was praying! Focusing, I prayed more fervently, and a bit longer than usual.

After saying “amen,” I opened my eyes and looked up at Mr. Zhang. His eyes were tearing up, and his lower lip was sort of quivering. Moved at the sight, I thanked God in my heart for this moment. And then Mr. Zhang said something to me that I don’t think I will ever forget. He said in a rather affected voice, “Tom, you are squeezing my foot!”

Horrified, I can’t remember how I got out of that office, but I forgot my mail. For two days, I wondered if I should pack or pray. I prayed. Ann was no help cause when I would bring it up, it would just get her laughing again.

Finally, I saw Mr. Zhang on campus, smiling and waving me over. He wasn’t angry! As I came over, he pointed to his foot and limped in a circle, smiling. Very funny! He shook my hand and said, “Tom, thank you so much for praying! After you prayed, the pain was so bad, that I was carried home.” I knew a punch line was coming. He continued, “When I got home that night, the pain was unbearable and the swelling increased. Then my foot was turning colors!” I felt like rolling my eyes, but didn't. He continued, “So in agony, I was rushed to an emergency clinic, and when I told them about the rusty nail, they got angry at me for waiting, gave me a shot, and squeezed out all this junk.” Smiling still. And then Mr. Zhang floored me saying, “So Tom, thank you so much for praying! I might have died!”

He was being serious! He credited prayer! Was that a healing? Not according to me it wasn’t! I felt like such a foreigner! Between Mr. Zhang and God, something happened there. It was nothing I would write home about. But God got glory from Mr. Zhang, and a confused smile from me. I learned something huge that day! Since then, I can much better leave results to God. I prayed for a foot, and God showed Mr. Zhang that He was real!

You don’t learn this from books. Just say, “yes, Lord!” Obey Him! And let the learning begin!

God has led Ben back into fellowship. All of us members of His body, Jesus intends that we each use our gifts to build one another’s faith. But that’s for another day.

When Peter and John were arrested, the authorities looked at them and "they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men." They were astonished and “took note that these men had been with Jesus.” Well, they weren’t just “with” Jesus. They obeyed Him! They followed His lead! When ordered to stop teaching about Jesus, Peter and John said:

“Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.”
Acts 4:19

Obeying God made them learned men.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Am I Really a Hypocrite?"

David really slipped up to the delight of his neighbor, who then called him a hypocrite. “You Christians talk about right and wrong, and then this? You are a bunch of hypocrites!” Hypocrite is a word that unbelievers don’t actually understand. I even hear Christians misusing the word. Come on brothers and sisters! One cannot be both a hypocrite and a Christian. You are not hypocrites!

Instead of nodding sheepishly next time you hear someone ranting about a Christian being a “hypocrite,” offer this little vocabulary lesson. The word “hypocrisy” comes from the Greek and entered the English language via the Bible. The word refers to either: 1. The role an actor takes, or 2. To the position one takes when participating in a formal debate. For instance if Joe and I were on the school debate team, debating whether the world was round or flat, whoever took the position that the world is flat, “for the sake of the debate,” that person would be the hypocrite. Hypocrisy is not failing at the standard you hold to be right and good. Hypocrisy is simply pretending to be doing something that you aren’t actually doing. In the debate, the hypocrite appears to be trying to convince us of the world's flatness. In fact, he is trying to win an argument. Moral success is not the opposite of hypocrisy. The opposite of being in hypocrisy is simply being genuine.

When Jesus called someone a hypocrite, He wasn’t talking about people caught in some sin. He was talking about people doing blatantly pious things such as praying, fasting and giving of alms. What made these hypocrites was that they were only pretending to be doing these things. Here are three examples in Matthew 6: giving, praying, and fasting:

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men.”

Matthew 6:2

These people pretend to be giving, but they are really taking. They are in fact not giving at all, but purchasing the honor of men. They are pretenders! Their actions appear giving, but they are taking.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.”

Matthew 6:5

These people pretend to be praying, but they aren’t even focused on God. They are pretenders. Praying is an act of devotion to God, but they are concerned with gaining the notice of others.

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.”
Matthew 6:16

See? These make their faces up pathetically to appear to be depriving themselves. In fact, they skip meals to gorge themselves on the awe of undiscerning people. They are pretenders! What they are doing appears self-sacrificial, but in fact, they are self-indulging.

Real biblical hypocrites don’t get caught at some brothel or iffy bar. Falling short of God’s standards does not a hypocrite make! It is a wrong use of the word. Christians caught in a sinful act have erred for sure! But if the Holy Spirit indwells them, they will soon repent. And truly repenting people are genuine. And in response, truly spiritual people are instructed carefully to help “gently restore” them to the path that God had set them upon. Nonspiritual people point and gasp and cry something inane like “hypocrite!”

“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.”
Galatians 6:1

Nowadays it’s people holding to biblical standards of morality, who are accused of being hypocrites, when they don’t measure up to the standards they hold dear. That’s not hypocrisy! It's a temporary failure. Get over it! They aren’t pretending! They just failed. Hypocrites pretend!

Pondering: Perhaps there were some self-flagellating monks in the 15th century, who secretly liked pain. If so, then I guess you could call them hypocrites: but not the struggling believer who has slipped into sinful behavior or thought patterns. For such hurting brothers or sisters, there remains confession, repentance, and hopefully they have a community of Holy Spirit filled believers around them who know how to gently restore them to their calling.

Think of a time when you or someone else, were accused of being “a hypocrite.” Almost always it will be that they were caught doing something that they themselves don’t even believe is God’s will. When Christians fail, we admit it, and look again to Jesus. That’s being genuine.

What unbelievers don’t get is that in order to even know Christ, Christians have to confess that we have not lived up to the standards of God. That is why we need Jesus, duh! When using the word “hypocrite,” Jesus was not talking about stumbling believers! He was talking about those who were not actually doing the very pious acts that they were pretending to be doing.

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His word has no place in our lives.”

1 John 1:8-10

Christians look to God’s standard. Mature believers rarely expect to reach heavenly perfection while on earth. Instead of pretending to have arrived at perfection, we eagerly confess our failings to God and to each other, so that the light can dispel any darkness in us. We long for wholeness, freely confessing that we have not yet attained it.

Note: Yeah, I know that there are “Christians” who teach that they have or can achieve sinless perfection right now. Come on though! Every religion has its lunatic fringe!

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”
James 5:16

It’s fine to hold up a standard that one cannot themselves yet reach. This has nothing to do with hypocrisy! Hello! We call them “goals!” Or in Christ, “the prize.” If we aren’t hiding our failings, then we are being genuine.

Hypocrites are pretenders. They aren’t tapping their toes in bathroom stalls, or skulking about adult bookstores. Every instance of hypocrisy mentioned in scripture finds hypocrites boldly appearing to be religious. They are pretending to be perfectly pious. Christians don’t claim personal perfection.

The Apostle Paul himself claimed not to have yet been perfected:

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 3:12-14

Today’s cry of, “hypocrite!” is a smoke screen to get you to stop holding up God’s standard. Fearing failure, the unregenerate will keep lowering standards until they can achieved them. Christians have no such qualms about holding up God’s standard because we enjoy faith. Like sailors following the North Star through darkness, we are content to keep heading north. We don’t expect to reach the North Star itself. Not in these earthen ships. That would be absurd! God’s standard becomes that of the believers. Sure, sometimes we get off course. That is not being a “hypocrite.” Learn the word!

When God points out hypocrisy in us, we repent. When the Apostle Peter and Barnabas were caught in hypocrisy, Paul did not call these brothers “hypocrites.” They were Christians. But Paul did confront them for the church’s sake. The incident is described in Galatians chapter 2.

Jewish believers came, who observed the Jewish laws in their eating and customs. Prior to their coming, Peter had not been keeping Jewish law. But fearing losing the visitors’ respect, he began avoiding the non-Jewish believers and suddenly acted kosher. He was pretending! This hypocrisy could have led to ethnic division in the early church. In verse 13 Paul writes:

“The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.”
Galatians 2:13

They were appearing to be under the law for piety sake. In fact, they were not seeking to honor God but were rather, avoiding criticism. They were being pretenders. They appeared God pleasing, but in fact, they were people pleasing.

If you are being genuine, you are not a hypocrite. If you pray for God to expose any hypocrisy in you, then you are no hypocrite! And don’t be thrown off next time someone throws out that smoke screen. They simply don’t know the meaning of the word.

Another David writes:

“Test me, O Lord, and try me,
examine my heart and my mind;”

Psalm 26:2

Friday, May 30, 2008

"What Should I Do First?"

A brother leaving prison soon, was wondering what he should do first when he’s free? He asked me what I would do. And then he listed some really good ideas of things that he wants to do. His plans seemed good. He talked about vocational training. He’d seek healing and reconciliation with his parents. He talked about finding a godly wife. He'd eventually like starting a business that would enable him to help troubled youth. It all sounded so good! But he never mentioned the voice of God. He basically sent me his own wish list.

We don't need to wonder about this. Jesus tells us the first thing that we must do. Whatever our situation is, this applies. But it’s especially crucial whenever we are ending one season of life, and entering a new one. Jesus says:

“Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.”
Matthew 6:33

Jesus is talking here about God’s provision. Worldwide, most folk have little choice in what they will do for a living. When we lived in China, 80% of the people there were farmers. In the US today, less than 2% live on a farm. That means that people here have choices as to what we will do next. With choices come preferences. And with preferences come the temptation to make our plans and to “go for” them. Indeed we are trained here to do just that! But Jesus tells the believer to listen to His voice, and to “follow” Him. We are told to seek His kingdom and His righteousness first. We trust Him to lead us!

I don’t like to follow people in my car. Instead of following someone, I would rather get directions and say, “Meet you there.” If I get in my car and follow, they may lose me at a light or I may make a wrong turn. (Of course I don’t use a cell phone when driving! Stick with me here!) Our Bibles are not an ancient form of MapQuest to help us meet Jesus in heaven. That isn’t what Jesus means by “follow Me.” We can’t google or GPS our way to Christ. Jesus doesn’t say to us, “meet me there.” He says, “follow Me.” We already met Jesus when we became God’s children at our rebirth. From then on, we’re expected to follow Him. He’s already with us!

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me.”
John 10:27

And yet, when it comes to entering into a new phase of life, whether it is graduating from school: getting married, entering widowhood, entering retirement, being released from prison, or changing ministries even, it’s tempting to fall back on our secular training, and start planning and filling up our day with “good” things to do with our time and energy. Without hearing from God first, this is carnal thinking. Pause! Seek first the Kingdom of God.

I heard a preacher once say, “Good is Best’s worst enemy.” People who don’t take the time to hear what God is saying, will end up settling for something seemingly “good.” But by settling before hearing, we don’t enter His “best” for us, because we settle for the good that we’ve thought up ourselves (or with well meaning help). Our committees and boards and planning sessions all seem like we are being wise. But have we listened and heard from God? Don't just pray and then start planning either. Listen to Him. Can He lead us anywhere, even if it doesn’t seem to fit our wish list? It can seem wise, but if you haven’t even consulted God and waited for His answer, you haven’t even started using wisdom. Psalm 111: 10 says, “The fear of the Lord, is the beginning of wisdom.”

God has something that is actually better than you can ever even think up? You can plan and set goals, but He has something better than what you can imagine. Stop coming up with good ideas! Planning and goals are for after you have heard from God; not before! Listen for God’s best:

“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

Ephesians 3:20

The only way to step into this best that He has for you, is by first hearing what He is saying what that “best” thing is. This is what walking by faith is about. Seek first His Kingdom!

“Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”
Romans 10:17

Coming to Christ messed up all my plans. I’d had plans to advance my degree in Psychology, by zooming right on into grad school after college. But senior year I came to Christ, and He was quickly changing my direction and passions. I asked God, “What do you want me doing?” I decided to postpone grad school until I heard from Him.

After college, I was given a job that I loved. I enjoyed it a lot, was good at it, and so I was already setting new career goals. I’d gone back to making my plans and setting my goals. It sounded good. But I soon found that what God actually had in store for me, was something that I would never have come up with myself.

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

God says this to those who hunger and thirst for Him. That year I’d told God that I would follow Him anywhere. To my shock, one day after work, I heard God tell me to go to Haiti.

No, to Haiti!

I didn’t even know where Haiti was! I prayed immediately, offering God my bank savings for Haiti. I offered to pray daily for Haiti. Nothing. I reminded Him how I’d done miserably in both French and Spanish in High School. Nothing. He reminded me that I’d said that I would follow Him “anywhere.” Surrendered and shaken, I prayed, “Okay Lord. If you show me the way to go, I’ll go to Haiti.”

The very next Sunday in church, it was announced that at that evening’s service, a Brother DeTellis was going to come and tell us about his new work in Haiti. It took 8 months for me to actually get there. I had to fulfill my one-year’s commitment at work. I prayed often in those months. Time and again God gently confirmed I should go to Haiti. And so when the day came for me to fly, I flew. I never actually wanted to go. But only a week after I arrived, my journal starts reading about how I never wanted to leave Haiti. I loved it there! Did you ever feel like you were not out of place? That was my first time! I was so happy there! And nobody was more surprised than I was.

God knows you better than you know yourself. He knows your heart better than you know it. Follow Jesus. He loves us more than we love ourselves. And He is able to make things happen, doors open, and walls tumble, when we follow Him. Our plans have limits. God’s plans for us go beyond what we can think.

“For God is greater than our hearts, and He knows everything.”

1 John 3:20

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.”
1 Corinthians 2:9

I sometimes meet people who have finished a career; but who, just as they thought they were going to retire as planned, were called to a ministry. They testify with excitement, because they are stepping into God’s best for them. One recent retiree told how just a month after he retired, God “re-fired” him and sent him on a mission. God’s best for him was immeasurably better than the good things he’d planned!

So how about you? What are your plans for retirement? What are your post-graduation plans? What will you do when you get out of prison? Or what will you do when your ministry must change direction? What are your plans? Did you hear those plans specifically from the Lord? Then I exhort you to do as the Lord instructs. Seek Him first!

Don’t plan. Pause! Listen to the words of Christ! Then follow! He has what is best for you.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"Does Jesus Really Expect Me to Chop It Off?"

As a new believer, I must have gotten into a dozen such conversations about these very amazing words of Jesus:

“If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.”
Matthew 18: 8

Jesus then goes on to say that if your eye causes you to sin, to gouge it out for the same reasons, it being preferable to enter eternal life blind than to miss eternal life and be thrown into eternal fire. To what believer have these words not caused some alarm? How have you dealt with this question? Do you take Jesus’ words figuratively? Do they simply show his hatred for sin? I remember one young man lamenting, “God, if my mind causes me to sin, may I chop off my head and get it over with?” He had been thinking lustful thoughts and his eyes were already closed at the time. Would gouging out his eyes help? He didn't think so.

I don’t think Jesus was speaking figuratively here, but please put the cleaver down. I don’t think He is advocating for just everyone who sins (that would be like all of us) to amputate anything. Reading these verses in proper context, we see that Jesus is talking specifically to child abusers and pedophiles.

Are you surprised? There is a reason. In most modern Bible translations, there is a man made subject heading between verses 9 and 10, which takes the wind right out of Jesus’ advocacy for children. Read right from verse 9, on through verse 10, ignoring the heading. That is how it was written! The original scriptures didn’t have verse numbers, chapters, or subject headings. These were added to help students of the Bible. Usually they are helpful, but in this case, the subject heading may actually do harm.

Jesus had started this discourse by calling a little child over to Him and declaring that we needed to become like a child. Then He severely warns anyone who might harm a child. Verse ten is not about the parable of the lost sheep as most captions say. Jesus continues about children, saying:

“See that you do not look down on one of these little ones.”

There is no greater advocate of the children than God! Jesus is stating in no uncertain terms, that God’s heart is so strong for children that anyone who sins so against a child, should not want to face Him at the Judgment. He says:

“But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned into the depths of the sea.”

Vs. 6

Millstones are huge! We have to start thinking like eternal beings when it comes to God’s judgment. People who whine, “How could God allow bad things to happen to children?” need to hear this. He doesn’t allow it! Judgment is set in place! Yes, He has granted men to have free will. But God is not surprised by human evil. See what Jesus says there in verse 7? He is not surprised at the level of depravity people are capable of:

“Woe be to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!”

Vs. 7

Jesus says this while the child is standing before them. Jesus’ words of judgment are most severe, when talking about those who would harm a child. It is to such sinners that Jesus talks about cutting off hands and feet that would attack a child, or sick eyes that look at children with intent to sin. He is saying that if these folk want any part of eternal life, but they are leaning toward such wickedness, that they must do what it takes to see that they don’t hurt a child. Heaven is so very much what God wants for people, and hell is so not what we were created for, that it is worth taking extreme measures in order to be with God. In the Westminster Shorter Catechism we read: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.” This is what Christians believe.

”Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.”

Psalm 73:25,26

It is good to read scripture and to apply what you read to your own life. It is good to ask God if something you read may apply to you or not. But in this instance, Jesus is talking about those who might sin against children. He’s saying in no uncertain terms that they must not!

Scripture is very clear that believers are to speak up for those who cannot defend themselves. We must be extra diligent to be actively looking out for and speaking up for children who are at risk or in danger. These children need a voice and God expects us grown ups to be there for them.

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
James 1:27

I’m told that men who are in prison, who have molested or abused or killed a child; are the most reviled men there. The other inmates, when they learn of that man’s crime, strive to make their lives miserable. These sinners against children are most hated, among others who freely admit that they too have been lawbreakers. One Christian brother there confesses that his anger at these men burns so, that he has to refrain from joining others in attacking known pedophiles.

I think that his rage is not ungodly. It just needs redirection. From what Jesus is saying, it is so vile to purposely attack a child that He presents these extreme measures to those who claim to want to enter God’s kingdom, and yet who might harm kids in this way. Yet our brother is right not to join in on the taunting and beating of those who have been convicted of such crimes. As children of God, we are to leave justice up to God. And we need to agree with Him, that He knows best as to what to do about such crimes against children.

“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.”
Romans 12:19

Notice that the Lord Jesus, in telling such people to gouge out eyes and cut off feet and hands, is still extending heaven to even these vile sinners, should they comply. Does His mercy know no end?

Matthew 18:2-10 is a most wonderful passage of scripture, advocating for children. Cross out in your Bibles, that man-made subject heading between verses 9 and 10. And when the subject comes up, speak out for the children. God knows bad things will happen. But He assures that “woe be to” those who do this harm to children. He doesn’t allow it! Judgment is coming.

If you love children and mean no harm to kids, your eyes and limbs are safe. If you are struggling in other ways, fellowship with God’s people, prayer, and bringing dark deeds into the light of God’s presence, will bring healing. For more immediate results, simply set your shower dial to blue. Then cry out to God. He hears the repentant.

Monday, March 31, 2008

“Don’t I Need To Forgive Myself?”

Roy has a temper. He knows it. He wants to please God, but keeps failing. He is seeing a counselor who has told him that due to his hard past and personal failures that he needs to “forgive him self.” Roy asks, “I’m told that before I can really love others, that I first need to love myself. I tried to find that verse in the Bible, but haven’t been able to. Can you tell me where it is?” Roy wants this verse so that he can write to some people he has hurt, to help them to understand why he does the things he does.

Roy, you need to just knock it off. There are no Bible verses that tell you to forgive yourself or to love yourself. You forgive other people whenever they sin against you, and you ask for forgiveness from God and if need be, from others, when you sin. When it comes to personal forgiveness, you are either forgiven or you are not. If God has indeed forgiven you, then you need to accept that. Don’t wallow. It is your decision whether you are going to believe God or your feelings on this subject. After messing up, you may feel badly for some time because feelings last longer than actions, but forgiveness is not a feeling; it is a legal term. You are either pardoned or you are not.

Did you sin? Do you take responsibility for that? Then you go to the Lord and you confess your sin to Him (expressing your faith in Christ’s work on the cross). The blood of Jesus purifies us from sin. You shouldn’t wallow, but accept the suffering that Jesus took upon Himself for you. That may feel harder on the pride, but it’s humble and right:

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
1 John 1:9

When you are convicted of sin, act swiftly. Cry out to God, and ask for His forgiveness. And then if you need to, you go to those whom you have wronged, and you ask for their forgiveness. God forgives you through Christ. They will then have to forgive you for their sake, but if you come to them humbly and truly repentant (eager to forsake the sin that you won’t continue in), then you will have done your part to repair the damage. And don’t be slow about it. Don’t kid yourself into thinking anything to God is more important than this. God would even rather you make this right first, than to worship Him. Get it done! Jesus said:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
Matthew 5:23

I have heard Christian songs that talk about the need to love ones self before they can love others. That is more a reflection of our culture, than it is on what the Bible says about love. Love is not a feeling. Love is an action verb. You do not need to feel anything in order to show love. Of course, your name isn’t “Tron X-3,” and so you will be feeling things while showing love and forgiveness (and for when you see your need to be loved and ask for forgiveness from others). The sooner we just recognize that all of this is part and parcel of living on earth after the fall, the sooner we can get on with the real task at hand, and that is serving the Lord in the ministry He has commissioned us to; to reconcile the world to God.

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us.”
2 Corinthians 5:18-20

There is something that seems so pious about feeling badly for our sins. It is as if we are afraid that if we move on too quickly, that that means we are not sincere in our repentance. And while certainly some quiet humility or tears of pain are appropriate when we have sinned, (godly sorrow) the work that is required for forgiveness and moving on, was finished on that cross a long time ago. Our wallowing and struggling to come to terms with our sin is not going to increase the power of the blood of Christ. The way some lament their failings, you’d think God forgave us based upon how sorry we are for our sin. No, but it was the blood of Jesus that paid the horrible price for our sin. There is nothing that can wash away sin except Christ’s blood. So what is needed is not coming to a place of forgiveness for our selves or feeling love for ourselves. The thing to do is to agree with Christ that in faith, we will obey Him and love Him and that we will actively love others.

Verses like Matthew 19:19 are not commanding us to love ourselves. These verses assume that we already love ourselves. God commands us to love others.

“Jesus replied, “’Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Matthew 19:19

“In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church-."
Ephesians 5:28,29

Yes, I know that we live in a sick world, where there are those who, for whatever reason, mutilate their own bodies and starve themselves because they have a distorted body image. I’m not saying that people love well. We need Christ every step of the way, to show us how to love. I’m just saying that our focus in loving is to be outward. We must love others. We needn’t strive to love ourselves. We are commanded to love God and our neighbors, regardless of how we are feeling. I have found that my feelings for others change, after I start showing them love. Love first, regardless of how you feel. It is nice to feel loving, but it isn’t required. Really, when you love others before you feel good about yourself, you are obeying God and expressing your faith in His rightness.

I remember once when I was wallowing in this whole self-forgiveness thing. My Theology Professor wasn’t going to indulge me this. “Tom,” he said, “the only one who is surprised when you sin, is you. God isn’t surprised when you sin. I’m certainly not surprised when you sin…,” (Hey, the tuition was free!) “The only one who is surprised is you.” I was to decide then and there, if I were going to accept as fact, and to live according to God’s forgiveness or not. When it comes to self, we are simply to agree with God, and receive what He has for us, be it love or forgiveness. Our wallowing in here just shows that we have too much pride. As for others though, we are to forgive and to love them, remembering:

“We love because He first loved us.”
1 John 4:19

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"How Can I Make God Proud of Me?"

Jimmy thinks he’s let God down. He’s repented and confessed to God, and to some friends. But he’s still feeling like a disappointment. “I just want God to be proud of me. How can I make God proud of me?”

Don’t let the English language rob you. God has better for us than that. I see nowhere in scripture where God is “proud of” people. Besides, your real desire is not to make God proud of you. You really want to “delight” Him. And God already does “delight in” you, Jimmy. When we turn to Christ, we are like the prodigal son whom God sees returning from afar. With great joy, He runs out to embrace us! We come to Him in our sin-stained rags, and He robes us with His good name, and Christ’s righteousness. If you’ve believed and trusted in Christ, you have been born into God's family. God delights in His children.

If you do a Bible word search on being “proud of” anything, you quickly come to the realization that it is not even a good thing. “The Lord detests all the proud of heart,” it says in Proverbs 16:5.

“Before his downfall a man’s heart is proud,
but humility comes before honor.”

Proverbs 18:12

While most folk admit that pride itself is wrong they mistakenly value taking pride in their relationships. I’m going to use the parent-child relationship as an example, but the same goes for any relationship. We have nothing to be proud of.

Why are we proud of our country, proud of our school, proud of our job, proud of our spouse, siblings, friends, children, and etc? Did we earn these? Weren’t they gifts from God? Yet if I said that I wasn't proud of my children, people today would call the DSS on me! The question is, should I be “proud of” my children, or should I “delight in” them? There is a difference. God is not proud of His children! He delights in us!

“For the Lord takes delight in his people,
He crowns the humble with salvation.”

Psalm 149:4

King David knew God’s delight:

“He brought me out into a spacious place;
He rescued me because He delighted in me.”

2 Samuel 22:20 / Psalm 18:19

The Father delights in the Son. Isaiah prophesied it, and Matthew reminds:

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight.”

Matthew 12:18

When Jesus was baptized, the Father spoke,

“And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:11

I’m not just being picky here. Right wording helps our faith. Don’t let culture sanctify pride. Being proud of someone, robs God of glory! It used to be that being proud of yourself was considered sick. Some people can only enjoy others, if others perform as they'd hoped. But that isn’t God’s way.

Some people are hard to please. Instead of just being pleased, they reserve “pleasure in” others for when those others meet their standards. That is not the kind of relationship God wants for His children. Do a word search of “delighting in,” and you’ll find that that is overwhelmingly what God wants us to have for Him too.

“Delight yourself in the Lord
and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

Psalm 37:4

To hear some parents’ shameless boasting, you’d think passing on their DNA was due to some self-sacrificial feat of great daring, done solely for the good of mankind. Think back people! My wife is a gift to me from God. Didn’t we ask for children? According to Psalm 127, “Children are a gift from the Lord.” Didn’t God preserve my wife through childbirth, despite having a truly lame labor coach? And doesn’t God instruct us in raising them? Doesn’t He call them?

We can make pride look so good! But Paul writes, concerning the hidden “motives of men’s hearts,”

“Do not go beyond what is written. Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?”
1 Corinthians 4:6,7

If I gloat over my children without turning to God in humble thanksgiving, I’ve missed the point. They are a gift from God! I didn’t earn them. Love never fails. People will. We must stop boasting and start delighting in our loved ones, however high they are able to jump!

If I truly believe that my relationships are gifts from the Lord, then it is absurd of me to take pride in them “taking after me,” or for their successes in life after taking my advice. Who gave me these relationships? Who instructs me how to conduct myself in them? We can enjoy our loved ones, even when they fail. And when they do well, rejoicing with them is good! But that pride exposes only our arrogance.

“God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.”

Peter 5:5 / James 4:6

Children don’t want their parents to be proud of them. It’s parents who want to be proud of their children. Get over it! Children want their parents to delight in them! But something gets twisted along the way. Trying to equip their children to survive and thrive in this hard world, many parents start putting conditions upon their “delight.” If their child listens and heeds their advice, they are pleased for now. Instead of delighting in their children, while diligently training them in the ways of the Lord, these parents enter the task fearfully, only enjoying their children when they advance. “You listen to me kid, and you’ll do okay in life.” Oh really? How did that work for you?

When will we no longer need God? When will our kids no longer need God? Get it vertical folks! It isn’t about others taking our advice.

Train a child in the way he should go
And when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

Proverbs 22:6

Feeling pride is easy. I first felt pride in my kids when the meconium squirted out; and I proudly announced each one’s very first solid stool. (New parents are easy to please.) At that point, I should have looked up to God in thanksgiving that they were healthy. What was I proud of? We feel pride so much before they can walk and get into trouble! That’s when parental panic turns their delight into a conditional thing. (This is so of any relationship). Instead of delighting in them, and trusting and thanking God for them, we start worrying that we might somehow lose them. God help us to trust Him, and just enjoy the relationships He has given us! There is peace in knowing our relationships are gifts from God.

Note: (If there is abuse in a relationship, that abuse is not of God. Those folk need to step back from that relationship and get help immediately).

You know, both pride and delight can cause people to smile. Delight is godly. Pride is not. The scriptures say that God delights in those who have chosen to become His children, through Christ. Maybe you never knew your parents’ delight. Receive your Heavenly Father’s delight through Christ now!

Parting seas do not impress God. Moses just held out his staff. It was God who parted the sea. The only thing that ever seemed to impress Jesus was finding faith in unexpected places. Two people in scripture seemed to impress Jesus; the Roman Centurion in Luke 7, and the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew 15. See Jesus’ reaction to the Roman Centurion’s faith expressed:

“When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following Him, He said, ‘I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.’”
Luke 7:9

One would expect to see faith in Israel, when the One Whom the prophets foretold had come. But for two foreigners to trust so strongly in His ability and goodness delighted the Lord.

Therefore, to impress God, exhibit more faith in Him than ever. Ask God to lead you into something bigger than you are capable of. Then wherever He leads you, step out and into it smiling, trusting as you step, that He Who is your Guide, will also provide. He already delights in you. You can trust Him! When you do trust Him so obviously, you will then know His pleasure.

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that he exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.”
Hebrews 11:6

Therefore, with faith, it is possible to please God. He already delights in you! Making a mess doesn’t take that away. Yet if you’ll now do what He says, even if you think you cannot, you’ll know your Father’s pleasure.