jasonbwatson

February 26, 2016

God’s Unbreakable Love

Filed under: Biblical Worldview,Spiritual Growth — jbwatson @ 9:43 pm
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A couple of years ago I posted a message I had preached on the love of God, a message I had entitled “God’s Love Is.” in that examination of John 3:16 and the characteristics of God’s love, I ended with the point that God’s love is unbreakable. I said that there is nothing…absolutely nothing…that can separate us from God’s love. I drew this from the closing phrase of John 3:16, which says, “whoever believes in Jesus shall not perish but have everlasting life.” There is no question, there is no condition, there is no fine print or exception, there is no “hope so” when it comes to the eternal life God has promised to those who accept His Son as Savior.

To reinforce this point I also looked briefly at Romans 8:38-39, and I want to unpack that verse a bit more here as a follow up. As you read this text, ponder carefully the words:

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Now read it again from The Living Bible, because hearing or reading it a different way can sometimes reinforce a point or reveal something you did not notice the first time.

For I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from his love. Death can’t, and life can’t. The angels won’t, and all the powers of hell itself cannot keep God’s love away. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, or where we are—high above the sky, or in the deepest ocean—nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God demonstrated by our Lord Jesus Christ when he died for us.

Depending on your translation, verse 38 begins with “I am persuaded,” “I am convinced,” “I am sure.” This word meant, in the original language, a strong and unwavering confidence or certainty. So Paul is saying, in other words, “I have no doubt whatsoever—I am 100%, absolutely, positively, no doubt about it, sure that nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

At the risk of bringing you crashing down from that spiritual mountaintop, let me give you two important points before I unpack these verses a bit more, because they are full of such profound truth that we cannot miss it. First, you must always remember that the unbreakableness (if that’s a word) of God’s love has nothing to do with you and everything to do with God. You and I are not expected to maintain our connection to God’s love, nor can we. We are fallen sinners and, even after salvation, we continue to sin. That we are still loved by God is not because we are so wonderful, certainly not because we deserve it, but because God chooses to love us.

Finally, the fact that God’s love is unbreakable and nothing we can do can separate us from that love is not permission to sin. The fact that we could never mess up so badly that God would stop loving us does not mean that what we think and how we act does not matter. Galatians 6:9 says that we are not to grow weary in doing good. James 2:26 says that faith without works is dead. Hebrews 13:16 says, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Ephesians 2:19 reads, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” And Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

I think it is also worth noting that just a few verses earlier, in verse 28, Paul said “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” In verse 35 Paul rattles off another list of things that his readers might think could separate them from the love of God–or be evidence of their separation from the love of God. He writes this: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” Then in verse 37, the verse immediately preceding the two verses we looked at last time and began with here, Paul answers that question like this: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Now, did Paul know a thing or two about suffering and persecution during his lifetime? Absolutely. We know, from Scripture, that Paul was stoned and left for dead. He was beaten with rods three times. Five times he received thirty-nine lashes with a whip. That was the maximum number allowed by Roman law, and it was so violent and severe that there are many instances of people dying from those whippings. Paul was attacked by an angry mob. He had to be lowered over a wall in a basket in an order to save his life. He was shipwrecked and floated at sea for hours. He was bitten by a poisonous viper. He was under house arrest for two years without ever facing a trial. So Paul knows that of which he speaks!

John Calvin commented on this passage this way: “He is now carried away into hyperbolic expressions, that he might confirm us more fully in those things which are to be experienced. Whatever, he says, there is in life or in death, which seems capable of tearing us away from God, shall effect nothing….”

Alexander MacLaren, a 19th century Irish minister, had this to say about Paul’s list:

The Apostle begins his fervid catalogue of vanquished foes by a pair of opposites which might seem to cover the whole ground-’neither death nor life.’ What more can be said? Surely, these two include everything. From one point of view they do. But yet, as we shall see, there is more to be said. And the special reason for beginning with this pair of possible enemies is probably to be found by remembering that they are a pair, that between them they do cover the whole ground and represent the extremes of change which can befall us. The one stands at the one pole, the other at the other. If these two stations, so far from each other, are equally near to God’s love, then no intermediate point can be far from it. If the most violent change which we can experience does not in the least matter to the grasp which the love of God has on us, or to the grasp which we may have on it, then no less violent a change can be of any consequence.

Rev. Rodney Kleyn addressed this passage in a sermon by recounting a story he had heard that made abundantly clear to him the power of God’s love, and I think it bears repeating since it could indeed help to grasp just how comprehensive the love of God is:

I heard an illustration in a sermon preached on this verse from one of our older ministers. That was ten years ago. It stuck in my mind. So I am going to use that illustration now so that, I hope and pray, it sticks also in your mind. This is like a child who has to sleep at night and it is dark in his room. He is crying to his parents: “I can’t sleep. I think there is a bogeyman in the closet.” And so his father comes into the room and says, “Son, there isn’t. Let me show you.” And he turns the light on. And he opens the closet door to show his son that there is no one there. And then he says to his son, “Just to make sure you know, let’s look in every part of this room.” They look in all the drawers, and they empty out the toy box—and there is no one there. Then he says to his son, “But just in case you still wonder, let me take you through the house.” He takes his son by the hand and takes him into every room in the house. They look in every closet, in every drawer, in every trash can. They go into the basement. They look in the utility room. They dig through the garage. And he says to his son, “See, you can sleep. There’s no bogeyman.”

Something like that here. Paul transports us from our experience in our life to all the expanses of the universe—past, present, and future. He takes the doubting and the fearful and the questioning child of God who is looking at his own life, and he says, “Come with me, let me show you.” Not death, not life, not angels, not principalities or powers, nothing in the present, nothing in the future, not height, not depth, and in case I missed it, no other creature, no other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of Christ. Why so? Because there is a love stronger, greater, than any creature. What a wonderful comfort that is for the child of God.

Everyone has fears. Everyone is afraid of something. For us as adults it probably is not the bogeyman. For us in America it probably is not persecution for our faith. But we still have very real fears that we face. Taking some of those fears from Chapman University’s 2015 Survey of American Fears, and adding some others that I know many people fear and think about, let me offer you a rewording of Romans 8:38-39 in very contemporary vernacular:

I am certain that neither terrorism nor nuclear attack, nor global warming nor overpopulation, nor Democrats nor Republicans, nor government corruption nor Obamacare, nor earthquakes nor tornadoes, nor unemployment nor bankruptcy, nor artificial intelligence nor identity theft, nor cancer nor heart attack, nor anything else ever created nor yet-to-be-created shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Psalm 118:1 says, “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”

God’s love truly is unbreakable.

December 25, 2015

Celebrating Christmas

I want to consider two questions. First, why do we celebrate Christmas? And second, do we truly celebrate Christmas?

To the first question, no doubt most of us would answer, “because that’s when Jesus was born.” And that’s true. But there is really so much more to Christmas than the birth of Christ. It is wonderful that Jesus was born, and it is fitting that we should celebrate it, but the real reason for celebration is why Jesus was born. In a 2010 devotional entitled “Why Do We Need a Savior?” David Wright wrote the following:

As we draw closer to Christmas, we need to remember we are celebrating more than just the birth of our Savior. Christ came into this world to redeem us and save us. But from what?

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned (Romans 5:12)

Sin. Our sin, which is inevitably born through our thoughts and intentions (James 1:14–15), comes so naturally due to the sinful nature (Romans 7:14–25) we inherited from our father Adam who disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3). Sin, which has brought separation from God—both physical and spiritual (Genesis 2:17)—to all. Sin, which is deserving of death before a holy and righteous God. Sin, worthy of wrath and punishment, which we cannot overcome on our own no matter how desperately we try.

In the last post I examined the significance of the virgin birth. Mary conceived miraculously, doing something no human had ever done before or has ever done since. Mary, a virgin, gave birth to Jesus, the Messiah. The one and only human who ever lived who fulfilled all of the Old Testament prophecies, the one and only human who ever lived a sinless life, and the one and only human who could pay the penalty for sin demanded by a just and holy God. So let us not lose sight of the virgin birth, because nothing could be more significant.

But let us also not lose sight of the fact that Jesus came to die.

Matthew 1:20-21 says, “’Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’” There are many passages of Scripture we could look to as we consider that Jesus was born to die, that His death was the necessary payment for our sins that none of us could ever pay, but for the sake of time and space, let us consider only one. Romans 4:25, in the New Living Translation, reads this way:

He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.

Jesus was born, and that’s wonderful. It is cause for celebration. But it is not His birth or His life which saves us from our sins. Rather, it was His death, which provided the perfect atoning sacrifice demanded by a just and holy God and that none of us could pay. And then His resurrection, which defeated death, and made possible the gift of eternal life.

The second question I want to consider is this: do we truly celebrate Christmas? If you look in the dictionary, there is more than one component to the definition of “celebrate.” The first part is this: “to observe (a day) or commemorate (an event) with ceremonies or festivities.” We have that part down pretty well, don’t we? We have a day on the calendar set aside specifically to celebrate Christmas and no doubt we all have traditions we observe and festivities we enjoy as part of this celebration. I don’t think we need to linger here because we have this part figured out.

But the second part of the definition of “celebrate” reads like this: “to make known publicly; proclaim.” Sadly, I am not sure we do nearly as well with this part of the definition. Many of us acknowledge the real meaning of Christmas but sometimes we don’t really want to make a big deal about it. And that’s both interesting and odd, because there are so many other things in life we love to make a big deal about. Whether it be a new car, a new pair of shoes, a victory by our favorite sports team, the winning of an election by our candidate or, since it’s Christmas time, getting a present we really had our heart set on. We love to make those things known publicly, don’t we? Most of us don’t shy away from those things.

Recently, RealSimple.com asked readers to share the best gift they had ever given. Interestingly, most of the answers involved something along the lines of, “one year when I had no money…” followed by a recounting of giving a gift that was so well received specifically because it reflected thought, consideration and love. Most of the gifts themselves were not expensive, but each one was cherished because it was so personal, so thoughtful, so deliberate and so heartfelt.

Equally interesting was the fact that all of the stories shared ended with a testimonial to the enduring meaningfulness of the gifts.

• A woman from Jackson, MS described a mother’s ring she and her siblings saved to give their mother. “When we gave it to her, she cried. She still wears it daily.”
• A woman in Austin, TX described a particularly unique and thoughtful gift she gave her husband—a box with slips of paper with each one detailing something she loved about him. “He still displays it in his office,” she concluded.
• A woman in Ada, MI described giving her mother-in-law a piece of the kind of candy that her husband would give her every year for Christmas before he died. “The gift deepened our bond,” she said.
• A woman from Meridian, CT described giving her mother, who suffered from macular degeneration, a cassette tape with 30 of her favorite recipes. She said, “She used it until her death a decade later.”
• A college student from Atlanta described giving homemade burlap Christmas stockings to family members and said, “I love that we’ll use them year after year.”
• And a woman from Washington, DC described giving her husband an outdoor grill to celebrate their purchase of a new home. “Every time he leaps up to use it, I can see the excitement on his face.”

Do you see the point? When we receive thoughtful, deliberate, meaningful gifts, we cherish them. We don’t take them for granted. We don’t think, “oh that’s nice,” and then stick it in a cupboard or a closet somewhere. Far from it. Instead, we put them in places of honor, where we can see them and be reminded of the love and thought behind them. Even more than that, we tell other people about them. We are so touched, so appreciative, so grateful, that we want other people to know about the gift. Really, deep down, what we’re doing in that moment is declaring to others, “someone loves me so much, look what they did for me!”

No one ever loved you, or me, or anyone else, more than God does.

No Christmas gift was ever more expensive than the gift of Jesus Christ, but neither was any gift ever more personal, more thoughtful, more deliberate or more heartfelt. No gift ever has or ever will be more motivated by love than the gift of Jesus Christ. No doubt we will all, at some point, over the next few days be asked by someone what we received for Christmas. Or we will, voluntarily, share with others about one or more of the gifts we received. But how many of us will take the time to tell others, whether over the next few days or throughout the year ahead, about the love of God and the gift of Jesus Christ? The gift of Jesus is unlike any other gift we will tell anyone about. 2 Corinthians 9:15 says, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.” It is a gift available to everyone, and we lose nothing by sharing it with others. In fact, we gain by doing so.

David Mathis said this about the real meaning of Christmas: “Few things are more tragic than taking Christmas in stride. Its spirit and magic, that alluring sense of supernatural goodness, are not just for children, but even for the grownups. Especially for the grownups. God forbid that we ever get used to Christmas.”

So let’s not get used to Christmas. Let us never forget how miraculous, how wonderful, how incredible it really is. Today, and for every Christmas we have left, let us remember why we celebrate Christmas, and let us truly celebrate Christmas.

November 30, 2015

Mercy is Messy

For the past eleven years I have been in positions that entail enforcing rules and administering discipline for young people. There have been many times when I have wrestled with making the right decision in situations when disciplinary consequences were necessary, hoping and praying that I would make the right decision. Balancing justice and mercy is not easy to do. For some reason, though, a recent situation prompted me to wrestle with this matter even more than I have in the past, or at least more than I have in a long time. I probably spent the better part of three days mulling over how to handle a situation, praying for guidance and wisdom. Here’s the conclusion I reached after all that mulling: mercy is messy.

It is easy to make a decision to impose consequences. When in an institutional setting, there are almost always guidelines in place that inform discipline. Nothing could be easier than finding the offense and following your finger across the chart to the predetermined penalty. That requires no thinking at all, though; a computer or a robot could be programmed to do that. People are more complicated than that, though. And when you are enforcing discipline in a ministry that claims to be following Christ, it gets exponentially more complicated. God does not use a cookie cutter approach to discipline. He does not kick us out of His family when we blow it. He does not revoke our salvation. He does not eliminate the consequences of our actions, either, of course. There are often very real, even very painful, consequences for sin. Dallas Willard wrote, “If you choose to step off the roof, you cannot then choose not to hit the ground.” His point was that our actions and choices all have consequences, and we cannot opt to avoid the consequences after we have made our choice. I agree with that wholeheartedly, and I do not want anything I am saying here to suggest that I think we should eliminate consequences. What I am saying, though, is that meaningful, effective, God-honoring consequences do not come in neat, clean packages.

Laura Coulter has written this: “I think when we aren’t being merciful, it’s because we aren’t seeing the wild mercy of God in our own lives. If we were, we couldn’t help but splash it everywhere we go, all over everything.” This is the rub, actually. When I stop and reflect on all of the mercy God has shown me, I am left wondering how in the world I could not show mercy to someone else. If being a Christian means being like Christ, showing mercy has to be an essential part of how I live my life. The reality, though, is it isn’t. I don’t really like mercy most of the time. When I have been offended or wronged or, let’s face it, even just irritated, I want justice. I want revenge. I want punishment inflicted and pain felt. I want to hear wailing and gnashing of teeth. I want to see fire fall from heaven and the offending party obliterated, blown into a billion tiny particles scattered across the universe. I want the offending party to get exactly what’s coming to him.

When I calm down and think about what I am really saying, however, I realize exactly how much like Jonah that sounds. Jonah got ticked off at God because He decided to show mercy to the people of Nineveh. Jonah wanted no part of mercy. He wanted to see cosmic destruction, up close and personal, from a front row seat on a hill overlooking town, enjoying the shade of a lovely plant that God provided for him. When God took away the plant and extended mercy on the Ninevites Jonah was so incensed he wanted to die. How many times have I read Jonah’s story and used him as a great example of the wrong kind of heart, the wrong kind of attitude? It’s not so fun when I look into the mirror of God’s Word and see Jonah staring back at me, though.

Being merciful means taking a huge risk. Multiple risks simultaneously, in fact. It means risking the comments that will come from others who see you as weak for not giving someone what they deserve. It means risking the behavior that others may engage in when they saw someone else “get away with it,” whatever “it” may have been. It means risking the possibility of having that mercy thrown back in your face by the very one to whom it was extended when, rather than seizing the opportunity to change his life, he decides instead to capitalize on the opportunity to do whatever he wants yet again. It means taking the risk of having to look back later and wonder if all of the trouble, headache and heartache that comes from the possibilities just enumerated could have been avoided by just saying “see ya” the first time someone messed up.

I have no idea if the decision I made in the instance that I alluded to at the start of this post will turn out well or not. It is too early to know for sure. I do know, though, that I have–for now anyway–peace about that decision. When I ponder why I have that peace I am left with a simple conclusion: if doing my best to treat someone the way God would treat them, I cannot be doing the wrong thing, even if it turns out to be a disaster. Phillip Holmes wrote recently on the grace of God, describing it like this:

God is neither motivated by his own sinfulness nor enabled by his ignorance. He is a holy and righteous God, completely void of sin and full of goodness and love. He’s never made a mistake and can do anything but fail. He is perfect in all his ways. If he were a doctor, he’d never lose a patient. If he were a lawyer, he’d never lose a case. There is no moral compass that could measure how upright and blameless he is.

Nevertheless, when we, his sinful and rebellious prodigal children, spit in his face, wallow in our sin, and grieve his Spirit, he calls us to repentance with open and loving arms saying, “Come home, child.”

He’s not ignorant of all the ways we’ve sinned against him. He knows everything we’ve ever done and is able to stomach it. His knowledge of who we really are will never hinder his love for us. He’s even aware of the evil behind our righteous deeds. The intimacy by which the Lord knows us but is able to lovingly embrace us as his children is supernatural. God’s grace is mind-blowing. Every time I think of this reality, I’m brought to tears because I serve a God whose love and grace baffle me.

I have to agree. God’s love and grace baffle me, too. So does His mercy. God gives me far more than I deserve, and, in His sovereignty, does not give me what I do deserve. I am not God. I am not perfect, I am not all-knowing and I surely make mistakes. I know all of that quite well. Here’s what else I know, though: If taking the opportunity to extend mercy to someone has even the slimmest chance of leading them to the Lord, or closer to the Lord, it’s worth it. Every time. All of the mess, the risk and the headache is worth it. I do not spend much time reading Rick Warren and I rarely quote him, but he got it right with his blog post on May 21, 2014 entitled “Don’t Be Reluctant to Show Mercy.” “The mercy God shows to us is the motivation for us to show mercy to others,” Warren wrote. That is certainly true, because in and of myself, there is no motivation for mercy. In and of myself I am just like Jonah. In and of myself I am like James and John in Luke 9–I want to call down fire from heaven. But I don’t really want to be like I am in and of myself. I want to be like Christ.

In a sermon entitled “Blessed Are the Merciful,” John Piper said the following about mercy:

[M]ercy comes from a heart that has first felt its spiritual bankruptcy, and has come to grief over its sin, and has learned to wait meekly for the timing of the Lord, and to cry out in hunger for the work of his mercy to satisfy us with the righteousness we need.

The mercy that God blesses is itself the blessing of God. It grows up like fruit in a broken heart and a meek spirit and a soul that hungers and thirsts for God to be merciful. Mercy comes from mercy. Our mercy to each other comes from God’s mercy to us.

The key to becoming a merciful person is to become a broken person. You get the power to show mercy from the real feeling in your heart that you owe everything you are and have to sheer divine mercy. Therefore, if we want to become merciful people, it is imperative that we cultivate a view of God and ourselves that helps us to say with all our heart that every joy and virtue and distress of our lives is owing to the free and undeserved mercy of God.

That last sentence is a doozy, isn’t it? How transformational it is to understand that everything in our lives is “owing to the free and undeserved mercy of God”!

Importantly, Piper also points out that knowing when and how to show mercy is not easy. Note what he has to say…

If we ask, How shall we know when to do justice and how to show mercy? I would answer, by getting as close to Jesus as you possibly can. I know of no hard and fast rules in Scripture to dictate for every situation. And I don’t think this is an accident. The aim of Scripture is to produce a certain kind of person, not provide and exhaustive list of rules for every situation.

The beatitude says, “Blessed are the merciful,” not, “Blessed are those who know exactly when and how to show mercy in all circumstances.” We must be merciful people even when we act with severity in the service of justice.

That’s an insightful reminder to end with, I think. It seems contradictory, but sometimes mercy does require the effective administration of swift justice. Guess where that leaves me, though? Exactly where I started–with the point that knowing what to do and when is difficult. Mind-taxing, heart-wrenching, time-consuming and just plain hard. Like I said…mercy is messy.

November 5, 2015

Genuine Worship

When is the last time you read through Malachi, the short book at the end of the Old Testament? If it has been a while, or if you have not pondered what Malachi’s prophecy is really all about and how it applies to Christians today as well, let me encourage you to read it, meditate on it and examine your heart and life in its light. I trust that this will serve as an introduction to what Malachi is getting at in those four chapters.

Malachi begins with an emphasis on the greatness of God as seen in His love for His people. The people, however, question that love. When God says, in verse 2, “I have loved you,” that indicates that He had loved them in the past and He still loved them now. The people, incredibly, asked, “How have you loved us?” When the Israelites questioned His love for them, God reminded them that He chose their forefather Jacob and his descendants–not Esau and his descendants–to be His servant-people. The Israelites’ faith, however, had given way to doubt and skepticism. They were ignoring God’s commands. They were neglecting worship or they were offering unacceptable sacrifices when they did go to the temple.

Now let me ask you, how often do we question God’s love today when we face hardships? This is the “what have you done for me lately?” attitude.

The priests were the first to be accused of abandoning God. God said, through Malachi, that they despised His name. They did not give Him the respect He deserved. They did not even act in the way that a good child or servant would act toward a father or master. A faithful son honors his father, but the priests were not honoring their heavenly Father. A faithful servant has reverent respect for his master, but the priests despised the name of the Lord.

Beginning in verse 7, God points to the defiled food they were offering on the altar to Him—-food they never would have offered their governor. These actions reveal an attitude of contempt toward God and they dishonor His greatness and holiness. By bringing lame, blind and sick animals to the priests to be offered to God, the people were revealing exactly how much God mattered to them. In Leviticus 22, God declared that the sacrificial animals were to be perfect, not sick or deficient in any way. Yet the people were bringing inferior animals—-the ones that were leftover or rejected and for which they had no other use-—and thinking that would be sufficient. Really this is mocking God! And the priests were just as bad, because they had the nerve to ask for God’s favor on those sacrifices!

What are we expressing about our love for God if we do not give Him our best? Sadly, many who profess Christianity today are the same way. They give God their leftovers-—whatever is easy or convenient or painless or superfluous. After all of their bills are paid and they have done all the things they want to do, if there is some money left over they might give God some. If there is nothing else going on on Sunday morning that they would rather do they might go to church. This is not what God deserves, expects or requires. Instead, we are to honor God and His greatness by offering Him the very best of our time, energy, talent, service and resources. The quality of our offerings will reveal the intent of our heart, and that is what God cares about and wants-—our hearts. God does not need our money, our time, our talents or anything else we could possibly give Him. And God is not really concerned with the quantity of our gifts. This is what Jesus was teaching His followers in the case of the widow’s mite.

In Luke 21:1-4, Jesus said, “these”—-the rich, who were putting in exponentially more money than the widow put in-—were giving out of their abundance. In other words, what they were giving did not cost them anything. There was no sacrifice involved. The widow, on the other hand, gave all that she had, which demonstrates two important things. First, her love for God exceeded everything else in her life; He was the most important thing to her. Second, she trusted that God would provide for her needs. Too often our temptation is to think of the expenses we have, all the things we need to do, and rationalize that if we give God a tithe, or more, then we will not have what we need to meet our obligations. The widow demonstrated that she trusted God. Now does this mean that we should all give everything that we have to the Lord? When I get my next paycheck should I sign the entire thing over to the church? No. There is such a thing as being foolish and prevailing upon God—-testing Him, really—-and that is a sin, too.

In Malachi 1:12, after declaring that His name would be exalted in the sacrifices of sincere believers in the future, God told the Israelites that they were profaning His name through their attitudes toward the required temple sacrifices. To profane something means to treat it as insignificant. God is holy; to treat Him as insignificant demonstrates contempt and extreme arrogance. The people were scorning the sacrifices, treating them as contemptible. They did not see any need to follow God’s instructions or to bring anything special for their offerings. They believed that offering any animal was fine as long as they offered one. They went beyond that, though, and even expressed doubts about the validity or need for the entire sacrificial system. The people either no longer believed in the system or they were so far from God that they did not even care. When God said to them that they were treating the process as a nuisance He uses a word that basically meant “a whole lot of trouble for nothing.” The people were just going through the motions; they had no conviction about what they were doing. Their heart was not in it. They were completing an activity purely out of habit. It was an empty ritual to them.

This will probably remind you of Genesis 4 when Cain and Abel brought their sacrifices to God. Abel brought what God required. Cain, however, did his own thing, thinking that should be good enough. It tells us that for Cain’s offering God had no regard, and that should be a lesson to us, as well.

Now in chapter 2, verses 1-9, God announced that He was turning from the people and bringing His curse on them. Not only were the people mocking God through their sacrifices, they were not honoring Him in their lives. They were marrying pagan wives and husbands who worshiped idols. Verse 1 reveals that the priests’ actions demonstrated contempt for God, for His temple and the entire sacrificial system. So God says, in verse 2, that He is going to curse them. Verse 8 tells us that they had turned away from God and what He had prescribed for them. We addressed much of this already in chapter 1. Now in verses 10-12, Malachi turns from addressing the priests to addressing the people. God called them to live honorable lives, fulfilling obligations to one another-—especially in their marriage relationships. The ESV uses the word “faithlessly” in verses 10 and following but the KJV and HCSB and some others use the word “treacherously.” That word occurs five times on verses 10-16 and its root meaning is “to cover” or “to act covertly.” The idea is acting falsely or deceitfully and trying to get away with it.

Verse 11 tells us that a detestable thing has been done. That is a strong word, meaning disgusting or loathsome. What had the people done? They had profaned the sanctuary of God by marrying daughters of a foreign God who worshiped pagan deities. When they came into the temple their presence defiled the temple. They were unclean. Even some of the priests were marrying unbelievers according to Ezra 9. Early in their history the Israelites had been instructed to marry within their own nation of worshipers because God wanted them to be uniquely His, not worshiping any other gods. God, through Malachi, was condemning marriages of Jews to idolaters or those outside of the Jewish faith, and the reason was purely to maintain religious purity. This had nothing to do with race or nationality. This was all about the relationship with God. This is akin to the New Testament instruction in 2 Corinthians 6 not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. This is an important reminder of the necessity in choosing carefully ones spouse and of living a faithful and committed marriage. Later in this chapter it talks about husbands who were divorcing their wives so they could marry younger, pagan wives.

In an earlier post I addressed the topic of integrity in worship. That is the same thing here. God is telling the people that they cannot say they love Him and worship or live the way they are living. James 2:14 asks what good it is to say we have faith if we do not have works that demonstrate that faith. That is what Malachi is getting at here. The people of Jerusalem may have said they had faith, but they were not living it out. Their worship was ritualistic and hollow. Their lives were not demonstrating a sincere faith or even that they cared about how God wanted them to live. God is not interested in our professions. Neither is He interested in our hollow “acts of worship.” What He is interested in, what He wants, is our hearts. When our hearts are right with Him, our worship will automatically result. A heart that is right with God cannot help but worship Him.

October 8, 2015

Choices

Filed under: Spiritual Growth — jbwatson @ 6:52 pm
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Ephesians 5:15-16 says, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” Circumspectly is a big word that does not get used much these days. It means “accurately, precisely, with great care.” And fool in the Bible does not refer to intellectual limitations but to an unbelief in God–or at least inattention to what God says–and the behavior that results. So what does this have to do with choices? This: to do something accurately and precisely requires thought and planning–it requires a strategy. And a strategy involves choices.

So what can we do? The Bible gives us instructions. Here are eight helpful ones:

1. Put off the old and put on the new – see Ephesians 4:22-24
2. Capture your thoughts – see 2 Corinthians 10:5
3. Cast off the works of darkness – see Romans 13:12
4. Lay apart all filthiness – see James 1:21-22
5. Deny ungodliness – see Titus 2:12
6. Flee youthful lusts – see 2 Timothy 2:22 and 1 Timothy 6:11
7. Abstain from the appearance of evil – see 1 Thessalonians 5:22
8. Study – see 2 Timothy 2:15

What do all of these have in common? They are all verbs. They all require action. In other words, they all come about as the result of choices we make. Each of the eight actions listed above requires action, and we must make the choice–either one way or the other. We can choose to do what the Bible says we should do or we can choose to do our own thing, do what’s popular, do what feels food, do what feeds our own lusts and desires.

1 Thessalonians 4:7 says that God has not called us to uncleanness but to holiness. In verse 4 of that same chapter it says that we should know how to possess our vessel (our body) in honor.

We know what the Lord’s will is. Or, if we do not know, we have access to knowing, because it is contained in the Scripture. However, God has given each of us a free will to choose–and the choice is up to us. Ultimately, no one else can make the choice for us. The victory over sin has already been won; we can experience victory when we yield to the Spirit’s working in our lives and make the choose to do what God wants and instructs us to do.

What choice will you make?

September 10, 2015

Integrity in Worship

With this post I want us to think about the matter of integrity. When I say integrity, what do you think about? If you say someone is a person of integrity, what does that mean? The dictionary defines integrity like this: “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty; a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition” such as structural integrity.
I want to get even more specific, though. What does it mean to worship God with integrity? Along those lines, how do we keep familiar acts of worship meaningful–how do we make sure that we are not just going through the motions? Integrity of worship, I think, includes worshiping God sincerely and not for self-serving reasons. It means ensuring that there is not a disconnect between what we do at church and what we do away from church. It means making sure that what we profess and what we practice are consistent. It means that when we are here at church to worship God, we are here. Our minds are not elsewhere, we are not checking the clock or our watch, we are not just putting in our time. No, we are focused on worshiping God.

I would love to tell you I have this down, but I don’t. I would love to tell you that my mind is always fully engaged and focused on the hymns we are singing or the message I am hearing when I am in church, but it’s not true. I say that partially so you know that I am not telling you I have this all figured out and you need to get with it. I say it also partly to assure that if you’re thinking, “Sometimes I struggle with that,” you are not also thinking, “I really messed up. God is so disappointed in me!” We will all mess up at times. There will be moments when each of us will slip or get distracted or even, dare I say, fall asleep in church! That’s not the end of the world but it should not be something we are comfortable with, either. God wants us to prepare ourselves for worship and to commit ourselves to worship with integrity.

To consider this subject, I would like to draw your attention to Zechariah 7. I’ll wait a few minutes if you would like to read the passage.

Shall we continue? Here’s the setting: Zechariah has been ministering to the people of Judah in Jerusalem for approximately two years now when God gives him the messages that we have recorded in chapters 7 and 8. The rebuilding of the temple is half finished; there will be another two years. A delegation of men from Bethel arrive and ask the priests and the prophets whether or not they should continue some of the fasts they began during their time of Babylonian exile. In response, God asks whether they were keeping those fasts for the Lord…or for themselves. This delegation had come about 12 miles from Bethel, and their names suggest that they were born in Babylon and were given Babylonian names. Now that they are back in Israel, they want to know if they should continue to keep the fasts that they practiced during the time of captivity. They were seeking God’s will in the matter.

These men ask specifically about one of the fasts that the people had been keeping. There are others, though. The Day of Atonement was an annual fast that God clearly required of the people–you can find that in Leviticus 23:27. We also know from other Old Testament passages that God sometimes called for other fasts at specific times and for specific reasons. The fall of Jerusalem was actually remembered by four different fasts, held in the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months of the year. Because the temple fell in the fifth month, that fifth month fast was considered the most serious one, so these men from Bethel use it specifically as a test case to find out whether or not they need to continue with this practice. They had been keeping this fast for many years–they were in captivity for seventy years–and in their situation at this time, now that they are back in Israel, the temple is being rebuilt in Jerusalem, it seemed that perhaps it was no longer necessary.

God answers, through Zechariah, beginning in verse 5. He refers to the fast of the fifth month and the fast of the seventh month, the one that mourned the death of Gedaliah, the governor appointed by Nebuchadnezzar. But from His response, we see that God was questioning the sincerity–the integrity–of the people’s fast. Were they fasting for God or fasting for themselves, out of self-pity rather than out of repentance and sorrow? Remember, the temple was destroyed because the Israelites had not obeyed God. When they fasted, were they mourning their sin and disobedience or were they mourning the fall of the temple and the punishment of God?

The purpose of a fast, throughout Scripture, is to help a person have a deeper experience with God. It is to be a time of confessing, of praying, of seeking God. Those things that can easily become routine and time-consuming parts of our day, and that can perhaps cause us to be comfortable, like eating food for example, are eliminated temporarily and instead we focus on God. The Hebrew word for fast literally means “to cover the mouth” and fasting does most often refer to abstaining from food for a time. We see it referenced many times in Scripture and I think fasting has a place in the life of a Christian for a specific purpose and time. I am not convinced that it needs to be a regular practice. If you fast regularly, and you do it for the right reasons, I think that’s fine. If, however, someone fasts because they think God expects it, or because they think somehow God approves of it and it earns them favor with God, that is wrong. The motives are not pure. There is no integrity there. I also, by the way, am skeptical of someone who wants to make sure everyone knows they are fasting. There may be times when a corporate, organized fast is appropriate (i.e. Esther asking the Jews to fast and pray before she went before the king), but generally speaking I think fasting is a personal matter between an individual and God. If you are wanting everyone to know about it, it more than likely means that you are seeking some kind of approval or recognition for what you are doing. That does not come from pure motives. There is no integrity there.

God then asks the people about other practices, the eating and drinking that would accompany some of the Jewish festivals such as the feast of the Tabernacles. Were the people at those times focusing on the meaning and purpose of the festivals or were they just eating and drinking for the fun of it, enjoying the fast and the celebration and all of the pleasure of the occasion? The answer that is implied in these questions is that the people were doing these things for themselves, not for the Lord. The implication is that their worship was not sincere.

We do not have anything really that equates to these fasts and feasts in the church today. We celebrate the Lord’s supper, and that is good and I think it is biblical. And while someone certainly may do that and just be going through the motions, I do not think many people celebrate the Lord’s supper purely for themselves. I think perhaps a better comparison would be Thanksgiving. Now Thanksgiving is not commanded in the Bible, we see no specific biblical example of it, but I think the example works. Thanksgiving was originally intended to be a day of feasting but along with that a day of focusing on God and His provision for the people–of thanking Him for His blessings. How often is that really what we do not? Other than a quick prayer before the meal, how much time do we really spend on Thanksgiving thinking about God, thanking Him for what He has done? Instead, we get caught up in the food, the fellowship, the football…. Thanksgiving today, for many people, is much more about the pleasure and enjoyment they get out of it personally than it is about truly giving thanks and worshiping God. That’s what God is getting at there with what He says through Zechariah.

In verse 7 of chapter 7 God asks the people about their obedience. God is basically here saying, “I asked your ancestors the same question before I sent them into Babylonian exile.” Indeed, their ancestors were exiled primarily because they were no longer obeying God. It was obedience to God that brought peace, prosperity, joy and blessing to the people of God for a time, but once their obedience was replaced with ritual accompanied by doing whatever they wanted, God judged that. And He is telling the people here that the same thing will happen to them if they get focused on ritual.

I think there are some sincere and pious Catholics. I think there are some Catholics who are saved. But I think there are a lot of Catholics who are doing exactly what is being addressed here. I have known some of them. As long as they went to confession and went to mass–as long as, in other words, they checked the right boxes and fulfilled the right rituals–they could do whatever they wanted, live however they wanted in the in-between times. That is not worshiping God in spirit and in truth. That is not worshiping God with integrity. It is not only Catholics who do that, though. There are plenty of other folks sitting in churches on Sunday mornings thinking they are doing their duty for God and as soon as the final Amen has been said they can live however they want until the next Sunday morning.

In verses 8-10 God provides instruction on what it means, what it looks like, to express or live out the integrity He is telling the people He wants. When we examine the messages delivered by some of the earlier prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah we see that God wanted the people to practice what they professed. Acts of worship become empty, ritualistic and meaningless when they are not accompanied actions. This is what James emphasizes, right? Faith without deeds is dead!

God, here, is telling the people that He wants them to produce fruits of righteousness. Basically, God is saying the rituals, the fasts, the feasts, in and of themselves mean nothing. “I want you and I want you to live your life in a way that reflects your relationship with Me, that demonstrates that to others,” He is saying. Justice, mercy and compassion should be character traits of true followers of Christ. The widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor are people who are vulnerable and who have no ability to repay acts of kindness. Because of that these individuals become easy prey for those who are unscrupulous. Followers of God who worship with integrity, however, do not oppress or defraud or take advantage of those who cannot defend themselves. Again, this is exactly what James says in 1:27, writing, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

Finally, in verses 11-14, God instructs the people to learn from the past. We can learn a lot from the experiences of others, from the lives of those who have gone before us. It is not necessary for us to experience everything for ourselves in order to learn! Here, God says that “they”–the Israelites addressed by the earlier prophets before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity–refused to listen to God. God gives five specific responses of the ancestors toward His commands to treat each other with truth, justice, love, compassion and fairness. What were those responses?

1. They refused to pay attention (v 11)
2. They turned a stubborn shoulder (v 11) – this pictures an oxen that will not let its owner put a yoke on its shoulders
3. They closed their ears (v 11)
4. They made their hearts like a rock (v 12) – God wants pliable, open, yielded hearts
5. They would not obey the law or the words of the prophets (vv 12 and 13)

What was the result of this? In verse 13, God says because of their hardness, their disobedience, their rebellion, when they called, He did not listen. Not until the invasion finally came did the people call out to God and by then it was too late. Even then, in fact, they called out to God primarily for physical deliverance, not out of repentance and confession.

The last sentence of verse 14 is important. No doubt there were some people among those in Judah who blamed Babylon for what had happened to Jerusalem and the surrounding land. No, God says; it was the ancestors, the unbelief and disobedience of the people that caused the downfall. Sin has consequences.

Like the people of Judah, we need to examine our worship. Are we worshiping God with sincerity? Are we worshiping Him with integrity?

August 25, 2015

He is God and we are not

I have addressed in this space before there fact that I think too many people have become far too casual in their attitude toward and approach toward God. I realize there are differences of opinion as to how one should dress for church, and there is certainly no biblical text which clearly presents a case for dressing one way or the other. Still, I will always be of the opinion that one should dress differently–read “better”–to go to church than to go about his or her ordinary daily activities. If there is no difference in the clothes I wear to the grocery store, the ball game, the workplace and church then there is, in my opinion, a problem. To me the casual attire worn by so many to church indicates that church is not a special place. Sure, the church building is just a building and the people there are just other people, but those people are gathered in that building for the purpose of worshiping Almighty God–and that is not to be taken lightly.

Back in June there was a daily devotion in Tabletalk entitled “To whom are we speaking?” In this entry, the author presents another side of the overly casual approach that many seem to have toward God. “Knowing the identity of the One to whom we are praying is essential. Over the past few decades, there has been a move toward reducing formality in our culture and making all of our relationships far more casual than our forefathers would have considered them. Although we could perhaps find some positives in this, it is also true that we have lost much in the process.”

I can remember when the transition began from addressing pastors as Pastor Smith to Pastor Adam. As a young person it did not feel appropriate to me, given my upbringing and the ingrained habit of not referring to adults by their first names. I have heard the arguments about leveling the playing field, not elevating themselves above others, etc., and if that is someone’s personal preference then I suppose I can get used to that. That, in other words, is not something we need to argue about or fight over. What we do need to take far more seriously, however, is our view of God.

The devotional writer suggests that we have “lost an awareness of the One whom we approach in our worship and prayer. All too often we view God as merely a friend. Now certainly it is true that Jesus has granted us the privilege of calling Him ‘friend’ (John 15:15), and we are not denying the truth that our Savior is our friend in the sense of being our loyal–indeed, our only perfectly loyal–companion. However, the problem is that we have turned the concept of the Father and Son as our friends into the Father and Son as our ‘pals,’ as persons who are on essentially the same level that we are. Our Creator, as friendly as His disposition may be to those who have been declared righteous in Christ, is not our pal; rather, He is our Lord.”

Scripture makes it clear that those who encountered messengers of God were awestruck, reverential and even afraid. Other than the time that Jesus lived on earth as a human, I can find no support in Scripture for approaching God–the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit–with anything other than reverence, awe and humility. I have met a number of “celebrities” during my life, and never have I approached one of them with the bonhomie with which I would approach my brother or a close friend. No doubt if I did so they would find it unimpressive and presumptuous on my part. Now, you may argue that that is because I do not have a relationship with those individuals and therefore I could not presume to put myself on their personal level. I could grant that point, but I believe it goes beyond that. There is a scene in the movie The American President in which Michael Douglas, playing the president, and Martin Sheen, playing his friend and chief of staff, are having a very frank and personal conversation. Douglas’s character at one point tells Sheen’s character to drop the “Mr. President” and talk to him they were old friends. Sheen’s character refuses, though, because even though they were old friends and knew each other “back when”, Douglas’s character had risen to the office of President of the United States, and that position demanded respect and certain decorum. Regardless of their lengthy friendship, there was no place for a casual buddy-buddy interaction.

The same is true of our relationship with God. Yes, He does allow us to call Him friend. Yes, He does stick closer than a brother. Yes, we have been given the privilege to go directly to God in prayer without the need for any mediator. The fact, though, remains, that He is God…and we are not. Let us not forget that. Let us approach His throne boldly but reverently, unashamedly but also unassumingly.

August 21, 2015

Reflections on Psalm 56

Filed under: Spiritual Growth — jbwatson @ 8:50 pm
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For those reading this who know me personally, please do not be alarmed by this poem. I am not feeling particularly oppressed or abandoned, I am not struggling or angry. At times, though, I find it helpful to read through Psalms and re-work their themes into my own words. I find that it helps me to more fully comprehend what the psalmist is saying, perhaps even feeling, which in turn gives me a greater appreciation for the faithfulness of God that he also remembers.

Reflections on Psalm 56

It feels at times like I’ve been run over,
Caught in the stampede of life.
Everyone rushes from one thing to the next,
Lives marked by chaos and strife.

There seems no end to those who oppose me,
Their animosity, enmity, scorn.
They have no regret for their hatred or rancor,
They seem not one bit forlorn.

At times like these I may question and fear,
Wondering where I can turn.
When I look, though, to You Lord, it is then that I find
There is still much I can learn.

What can man do to me? You gently remind me.
What have I on earth now to fear?
My tears and my heartache are known to you, Lord–
The words of my heart You do hear.

When I put my trust in my God above,
I will praise Him and not be afraid.
For I know that He keeps me wrapped up in His love,
And His faithfulness never will fade.

August 20, 2015

Finding Meaning

Last January, after a trip “back home” to the east coast my mind was wrestling with a lot of “what ifs”. The trip had taken me back to the area where, at one time, I had envisioned spending most of my life and my career. The trip had reminded me of the friends I have who are doing what I thought I was going to do with my life. Eventually the spider webs cleared, the pity party was called off and I was reminded that the Lord has a specific plan for me–even if it is not what at one time I thought it would be. I would love to say I have conquered that particular weakness, but I have not. The reality is, in my heart I wanted something bigger, better, more impressive, more meaningful that what I am doing now. That sentence in and of itself should reveal that I sometimes feel like I am not doing much where I am–something I hate to admit. I suspect, though, that you may have similar thoughts at times–wishing for more. I do not know what your more might be–it could be money, influence, possessions, recognition or any number of other things–but I know I am not the only one who sometimes wants more.

Recently similar thoughts have crept into my mind again. As the start of a new school year rolled around and the enrollment was not what I wanted it to be, it did not take long for the “I could be at a bigger school” thoughts to pop up. Again, I was really asking myself if I am doing something that matters, or at least something that matters as much as I want it to matter.

Thankfully, I recognized pretty quickly this time that my mind was going in the wrong direction and I began to think, pray and read things that would hopefully get me back on track. In some cases it was not even intentional!

The truth is that what matters in God’s eyes is often the same thing that seems to matter in the world’s eyes, and what matters is God’s eyes is often not glamorous. There is a great line in the not-so-great movie Pearl Harbor. In it, we see the story of two friends, Rafe and Danny, who survive Pearl Harbor and enter WWII as fighter pilots. Rafe is one of the top fighter pilots in America, and when America holds back on joining in the fight against the Germans, he volunteers to go help the British. When he arrives in Britain, he is being shown around the airfield by the British commander when he sees airmen shot up in the previous day’s battle. While they are walking, a messenger informs the commander that two more British planes have been shot down.
The commander turns to Rafe and asks, “Are all Yanks as anxious as you to get themselves killed?” Rafe quickly responds, “I’m not anxious to die, sir. I’m anxious to matter.”

Stephen Cole, a pastor, wrote in Leadership Journal about reading a biography of Charles Spurgeon and praying that God would bless his ministry to become like Spurgeon’s. Which, being translated, can also mean fame and accolades. One day, during the time period he was reading the book, he was jogging when he had the thought, “What about John Spurgeon?” He was Charles Spurgeon’s father. He was a pastor, and the son of a pastor, but if it were not for the world-famous ministry of his son,we never would have heard of him. Cole wrote, “As I jogged, I thought, ‘Would I be willing to serve God faithfully and raise up my children to serve him, even if I never achieved any recognition? Even if no one but my own small congregation knew my name?’”

Then I was driving down the road listening to a CD by Christian artist Rebecca Friedlander. She has a song entitled “Driving” which talks about the desire for more prominence and greater influence. It is written as someone speaking to the Lord, and the chorus is the Lord answering. After telling the Lord of her desire for a more prominent ministry, and how she might even do it “better” than those whose ministries she cites as an example, the Lord answers her and He says, “What is that to you? You’re doing what I told you to / and as long as you are pleasing me, you just leave the driving up to Me.”

Jon Bloom, in May, wrote an article that appeared on the Desiring God web site, an article entitled “You Are God’s Workmanship”. In it, he writes, “No, there is nothing boring about you and there is nothing boring about what God has given you to do today. If you are bored, remember what Chesterton said: “We are perishing for want of wonder, not want of wonders.” Wonder at this: God has prepared just for you what he’s given you to do (Ephesians 2:10). Nothing you do today is unimportant. God is keenly interested in the smallest detail. You don’t need a more wonderful calling; you may just need more strength to comprehend the wonder of his loving ways toward you (Ephesians 3:17–19).”

Just last Friday, a Stephen Altrogge article appeared on Desiring God entitled, “When God Messes With Your Life Plan”. That title got my attention, because frankly, that is exactly what I sometimes feel! In this article, Altrogge wrote this: “Are you in a place you never expected to be? Has God taken you on a path you never would have willfully chosen? Take heart. God hasn’t deserted you. He hasn’t forgotten you. He hasn’t made a mistake. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows exactly what you need and where you need to be.”

A couple of Sundays ago I was listening to RC Sproul lecture on Ecclesiastes. The emphasis of Sproul’s lectures was on the meaning of life, the only way in which we can find significance, and the importance of what we do and how we live right now. Sproul referenced his column in Tabletalk, the one that is entitled “Right Now Counts Forever”, and he explained that there are two historical, secular views of the importance of our actions: right now counts not at all, or right now counts only for right now. Ultimately, he said, those are really the same thing—-because if right now only counts right now, it doesn’t really count. However, we know that our actions, our behaviors, our influences will have lasting meaning.

“We are all concerned with the lasting significance of life,” Sproul said. “Any hope of finding significance in your life that is limited to this world is an exercise in vanity (futility).” But, “We live in time and for eternity.”

What we do-—regardless of what position we may hold—-what each of us does this year, and every year, will count forever. One way or the other, it will make an impact. A lasting impact. My prayer is that I will continue to surrender my own selfish goals and schemes and be content allowing the Lord to use me where I am, or wherever He would have me be. May that be your prayer, as well.

July 29, 2015

The Narrow Way

Last month my wife and I spent a few days in Denver. Odd though it may sound, it seemed to me that the Denver area had the narrowest parking spaces I can remember ever encountering. Even if I was parked squarely within the lines of my space, and the car in the next space was as well, I felt cramped. It seemed like we were much too close together, and I had to be very careful when opening my car door not to hit the car next to me. When I mentioned this to a friend who had also been in the Denver area recently she said, “Well, Colorado is supposedly the fittest state in the nation; maybe they don’t think they need the extra space!” She was joking, but at least it is a possible explanation… Of course, it is also possible that I have become used to the area in which I live, where parking lots are as likely as not to have no spaces marked off and people figure it out. I am inclined to doubt that, though, as I do encounter delineated parking spaces often enough. Still, I am not going to blog about narrow parking spaces, which I am sure is a relief to you. You were just about to stop reading, weren’t you?

Instead, I want to write about the Narrow Way. Jesus talks about this concept a number of times in the gospels, most notably in Matthew 7. He said, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (verses 13-14). Jesus was making the point that pursuing a life that is pleasing to God, living a life that endeavors to demonstrate Christ to others, will not be easy. It will not be comfortable. Just as I was irritated by the proximity of the cars next to mine while I was parking in Denver, we do not like the feel confined, closed in or restricted. When given the option, most people will choose the wide way, the way with plenty of elbow room, the way that allows them to do their own thing without bumping into anyone else or anything else–anything like walls, fences and boundaries. Of course walls, fences and boundaries, when it comes to life, can mean rules, guidelines and expectations. It can mean putting personal preferences, desires and tendencies aside in order to pursue Christ and live according to His direction. It can mean yielding to the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives instead of following self.

It is interesting, I think, that Jesus instruction to take the narrow way comes immediately after His instruction to do to others as we would have them do to us. The Golden Rule is followed immediately by the instruction that taking the wide way will lead to destruction. In fact, if your Bible has section headings, it likely sets verses 12-14 apart, possibly under the heading “The Golden Rule.” Immediately before this section is Jesus’s instruction to ask God for what we need and to trust that God will provide for our needs; immediately after is instruction about false prophets and recognizing trees by their fruit. Taking the narrow way, then, necessarily means doing to others–living proactively in a way that lives out the teachings of Jesus, the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. As I have mentioned here before, this was a revolutionary teaching by Jesus. The Jewish leaders had always taught “do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you,” but that is not nearly the same thing as what Jesus said. After all, I can refrain from smacking you across the face without ever being kind to you, without ever considering your needs ahead of my own, without ever helping to bear your burdens.

The truth is, I can refrain from smacking you across the face without being all that uncomfortable. There may well be times when I would like to do it, and when doing so might seem like it would feel really good, but I can probably live a perfectly content and comfortable life while still resisting any temptation to smack someone. Going beyond that, though, can be rather distressing. Showing kindness to you when I do not feel like being kind–or when, frankly, I do not even like you all that much–is not comfortable. Setting aside my preferences in order to make way for yours can be annoying. Forgiving you when you have wronged me unjustly can be, let’s face it, excruciatingly difficult. Still, this is all part of what it means to take the narrow way. As Jesus said, it is hard. It would much easier to take the wide way, to avoid the unpleasant elbow rubbing and shoulder bumping of the narrow way. The wide way, though, leads to destruction. It may be n easier path, but the destination is not worth it. I much prefer life to destruction, even if the path is a bit narrow.

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