Saturday, September 24, 2016

What Will It Take?

Don’t blame God when you are tempted!  God cannot be tempted by evil, and he doesn’t use evil to tempt others.  We are tempted by our own desires that drag us off and trap us.  Our desires make us sin, and when sin is finished with us, it leaves us dead.

            Many times we face adversity because of situations beyond our control.  But sometimes we face suffering not because of the circumstances which God brings in our lives, but because of our own unwise response to difficulty.  We compound our problems by blaming our troubles on others, and refusing to face-up to what God is trying to teach us.  It started in the Garden.  Adam said to God:  The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate. (Genesis 3:12).  He implies that he would have remained innocent if God had not put Eve in the garden with him. The blame-shifting in the Garden continues today. Our bruised hearts send us desperately looking for someone else to point to when we are confronted with our own trouble. There must be someone else—our spouse, sibling, parent, boss, co-worker, pastor, friend, or even God who is to blame. 

            We are sometimes so desperate to justify ourselves that we believe illogical and irrational things. You have likely heard these statements, and even said them yourselves (at least in your head): 
  • “I wouldn’t lose my temper if my co-workers were easier to get along with, or if my kids behaved better, or if my spouse were more considerate.” 
  • “I would be a patient person if I didn’t have so many things to do, and if the people around me weren’t so slow and incompetent!” 
  • “I would not worry about the future if my life were just a little more secure—if I had more money, and no health problems.”
  • “My spiritual life would be so much more better and I would struggle with sin less if the music in the worship service was more lively, or if the pastor did a better job.”
  •  “I would submit to my parents if they were not so out of touch.”  Or, “I would follow if we just had some decent leadership.”
  • “It’s not my fault that the people around me don’t know what they’re doing!”
  • “If you knew what I’ve been through, you would know that I could never forgive that person [or God].”
  • “It’s the people around me who start the conversations. There’s no way to avoid hearing what others happen to say. And when others ask me questions, I can’t avoid sharing what I know.” 
  • “I’ll never be happy as long as so-and-so is in my life.”
  • “I would be more generous if God gave me more money.”
The Holy Spirit has been bringing to me one question over and over this week:  What will it take?  We need to fill in the blanks of that question: 
What will it take for our churches to stop making excuses? 
What will it take to quit blame-shifting on others? 
What will it take to trust God and step out in faith and share Christ with our neighbors?
What will it take to stop worrying about what other people think and start doing what God thinks? 
What will it take to look at faith as a dynamic relationship with Jesus instead of just a static thing you possess? 
What will it take to read our Bibles as if our lives depended on it? 
What will it take for church members to serve instead of sit? 
What will it take to reach our communities with love for Christ? 
What will it take to grow in Christ?  What will it take? 
If you are in a circumstance you don’t like, what should you do about it?  What will it take to face down the difficult stuff you don’t like in your life?

Don’t blame God.

            God cannot be tempted.  God hates sin and disobedience; it does not appeal to him in the least.  It is a moral impossibility for God to even consider attempting to do evil because he is perfectly holy.  Since God cannot be tempted by evil, he therefore cannot tempt people toward evil.

            We practice blame-shifting because it is a cheap, easy, and pathetic way of absolving ourselves from responsibility for our own unwise choices, words, and actions.  There are only two ways of living with guilt:  either we humble ourselves through confession and repentance; or, we blame the sin on someone else.

            God does test us to improve our character and to bring us toward greater spiritual maturity, but he does not force us to make bad, immoral, or evil choices because of hard circumstances.  God may have very well brought the trial and testing into our lives; but how we respond to it is up to us.

The source of temptation is us.

            The real culprit behind temptation is one’s own personal desire.  It is our own strong intense have-to-do-it, have-to-say-it, and have-to-have-it desires which are at the root of temptation.  We all have legitimate needs and desires for love, security, companionship, and to make a difference in the world.  But we can often seek illegitimate means to satisfy those needs.  We are “enticed” to meet our needs through temptation toward sin.  Temptation lures us to satisfy our legitimate needs in illegitimate ways. 

            Temptation comes in many forms, but it always gives us amnesia about who we really are, and pushes out any thought of consequences.  It just looks like such a good way to deal with my anger, my anxiety, my impatience, my spiritual apathy, my bitterness, and my lack of spiritual growth.  Ah, blame-shifting feels so good; it gets the guilt-monkey off my back – at least for a time.  But like a bad addiction, blame-shifting has to occur in a bigger dose after a shorter duration of time.  Before you know it we are hooked.  The temptation has enticed us and we have taken the bait.  Like a fish-eyed follower of evil we succumb to the lust for ambition, revenge, sex, power, fame, and money.

The result of giving-in to temptation is ultimately death.

            Temptation, like a smooth operator, comes along and gives us a slick pitch about how our troubles can be taken care of through blaming others, even God.  And, all of sudden, like a hungry fish looking to be satisfied, we take the bait and go to bed with the idea.  We give in to sin.  Now it is within us.  Like a fetus, the small sin grows and grows inside us.  Eventually, this pregnancy must end.  But instead of giving birth to life, there is the agony of death.

            Every single one of us struggles in some way with some sort of temptation.  We do not all wrestle with the same demons, but we all are tempted in some manner.  The cycle of guilt and separation from God can only be broken through humility and submission to Jesus Christ.  The glory of the gospel is that it breaks the power of sin.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mr. Lucifer

            Most believers, it seems, have never looked a real demon in the face.  They have not been a part of an exorcism, or seen demonic manifestations occur right in front of them.  That is likely because the enemy of our souls is much more crafty and subtle than to put blatant evil out there for everyone to clearly discern that something insidious is among them.  Rather, Satan cleverly disguises his dark agenda in ways that are sometimes barely discernible.  In fact, it can be so subtle that we even take the presence of evil for granted.  I hope that last statement scares the be-jeebers out of you because our struggle as Christians is not a contention with humanity, but with unseen dark forces and powers.

            If you have ever felt like your Christian life or your church is just plain dull, as if things were like a perpetual gray sky with no sunshine, it is quite possible that an evil canopy hovers above.  I’m not really talking about a literal cloudbank of evil, but a palpable intuition that something is askew and not quite right.  The true face of evil is ordinary and common, shallow and superficial.  When expecting to see the sight of evil in the apparition of a devil with a pitchfork, the real presence of evil is a well-dressed and well-groomed gentleman name Mr. Lucifer.  He looks more like a pencil toting paper-pusher than the architect of severe systemic evil in the world.  While far too many Christians are wasting time on witch hunts, the respectable looking Mr. Lucifer strolls unopposed into the church.

            Mr. Lucifer says things that make sense to church folk:  “I’m quite sure it has never been done that way before;”  “Perhaps you ought to induce a little guilt in order to get the people to serve;” “Well, not everyone can really follow Jesus like Billy Graham or Mother Teresa;” “Everyone in our town already knows about God, so there is no intelligent reason to plant another church – after all, what about us and our needs?”  Maintaining the status quo at all costs is at the heart of the satanic agenda because life transformation through the power of the Holy Spirit is Mr. Lucifer’s greatest nemesis.

            “Zeitgeist” is a German word.  It roughly translates in English as “the spirit of the age.”  In other words, zeitgeist has to do with what is already assumed around us.  It takes for granted the way things are, and feels threatened if anything is new or different.  Because God desires spiritual growth and maturity in his people, Mr. Lucifer will oppose anything that develops others into disciples who learn to follow Jesus.  And he does it not through pitched open battles, but in the shadows.  Parking lot conversations, church prayer chains, and meetings that never seem to get anything accomplished are his standard fare.  Anything that takes place in the dark and keeps people in it is the realm of his power.

            Make no mistake about it:  not only is there a Spirit of the Church; there is also a spirit of the church, a zeitgeist, a low-lying snake-crawling yawn-inducing banality that wants to keep slipping demonic roofies into the after-church coffee.  The effects of it inevitably lead to a preference for discussing the weather and last night’s football game over how to put the just-listened-to sermon into practice.

            The good news of it all is that God wiped out the charges that were against us because of Mr. Lucifer.  God took all our disobedience and shame and nailed it to the cross.  It was there that Christ defeated all dark powers and forces (Colossians 2:14-15).  God has given us a new lease on life – one in which we no longer have to succumb to unthinking conformity to the way things presently exist.  We have the freedom to question, to fail and get back up again, to love without fear.

            “Dear friends,” the Apostle John said, “don’t believe everyone who claims to have the Spirit of God.  Test them all to find out if they really do come from God” (1 John 4:1).  Evil is much closer than you think.  And the solution to it is yet even closer.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Poverty, Plenty, and Paradox

The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.  But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position because he will pass away like a wild flower (James 1:9-10).

            Webster defines a paradox as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is true.”  The Bible contains a lot of paradoxes, telling us that the ones who give receive, the weak are strong, the empty are full, the slave is free, the cursed are blessed, and that death brings life – all statements which first strike the ear as contradictory, but when we think about them we realize they are true.  The pithy Englishman G.K. Chesterton once gave this insightful definition of a paradox:  “A paradox is truth standing on its head shouting for attention.”  Paradox can be a powerful vehicle for truth, because it makes us think.

The poor person is rich.

            The Christian in humble circumstances, the lowly poor person actually has a high position because:  poverty enables him to be open to God; and, the pressures of poverty lead him to rely on God’s enablement and provision.  Whenever you find yourself with few material possessions; when you work hard but struggle to keep food on the table; and, find it difficult to pay the bills – then, you are stripped of the illusion of independence and are left vulnerable before God.  And it is in this state of humility that the believer in Jesus cries out to God, recognizing his dependence.  Trust is no option, but absolutely necessary for survival.

            What God deems important is a broken, humble, and contrite heart.  God cares about our poverty of spirit.  A person can be economically disadvantaged, but, at the same time, be spiritually advantaged.  We are loved by God not because of either wealth or poverty, but because we realize we desperately need to trust in him.

            The Scripture’s use of paradox calls us to make a choice:  Will we pour our lives into things, or into people?  Will we look for ingenuity and technical solutions in order to make our personal and church budgets budge, or will we come to God?  Will we define success in family and church as worldly wealth, or will we define success as acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God?

The rich person is poor.

            It is difficult for wealthy people to trust in God and not in their riches.  Anyone who trusts in things is the truly underprivileged person.  A sirocco wind is a weather name given to hot and humid southeast to southwest winds originating as hot, dry desert-air over North Africa, blowing northward into the southern Mediterranean basin.  The early believers all knew about these winds that could unpredictably come through their area and wither perfectly good and apparently strong plants.  But those plants could not stand a sirocco wind.  Trusting in our resources rather than God will not stand in the judgment.

            The real issue is one of trust – locating and placing faith in the person and work of Jesus, and not in wealth with the influence and security it brings to life.  We live in a time when many church leaders are nearly obsessed with the ability to measure everything from numbers to quantifying spiritual growth and development.  Incredible amounts of money go into budgets, buildings, and programs.  The book of James in the New Testament gives a pushback on our compulsion with money and measurement.  Perhaps declining churches are in a humble state to recognize God; maybe growing churches are in need of better listening skills in order to hear God.  Before making new plans or just maintaining the old status quo in the church, several slow and careful readings of James just might give us some guidance and wisdom of where our real efforts in ministry need to be directed.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Rejoice in Hard Circumstances

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.” (James 1:2-3)

The book of James in the New Testament of the Bible was written to a group of Christians struggling to make their way far from their land of origin in an alien country.  If you put yourself in the position of these Jewish Christian refugees, leading off with this kind of an exhortation seems a bit over the top.  Telling them to consider their situation as pure joy is a really hard pill to swallow.  I am not sure what the believers were thinking when they first heard this from James, but they must have thought the guy was crazy.  These are people who have experienced not only hard things, but have felt the brunt of living in a broken and fallen world.  To tell hungry families with no wealth or status who were wondering where their next meal is coming from that they ought to consider their situation as pure joy may seem strange, even calloused. 

            But James was looking to fortify the believers with some important truth.  When we get a cut or a laceration, the first thing that needs to happen is to apply peroxide to the wound so that there will be no infection that results from the injury.  It might seem insensitive because to get peroxide in an open wound stings like nothing else.  But it has to happen.  It is a necessary part of the coping and healing.  James actually cared enough about the people to tell them what they absolutely needed to hear right up front.  Without a positive, godly, and wise perspective on their situation, they would not make it.  Infection would set in and destroy the fledgling church.

            Suffering in the form of spiritual peroxide is absolutely necessary.  To just say what itching ears want to hear helps no one.  Suffering is a significant part of the Christian life.  God never promised anywhere in the Bible that life would be and should be all bunnies and unicorns.  In fact, he promised just the opposite – that everyone who wants to live for Jesus in this present broken world will have a hard time.  It is not a matter if you will face the testing of your faith; it is a matter of whenever you face trials.

            But the good news is that through the adversity God is producing in his people patient endurance, which is necessary to the development of our faith.  We can only become mature Christians through adversity, by having our faith tested in the crucible of hard circumstances.

            Faith is not a neutral or static thing.  Faith is an active dynamic thing that is always either developing or degenerating.  Without spiritual peroxide, faith will degenerate and become putrid.  Eventually, gangrene will set in and something will have to be amputated.  If you do not want to experience that, then we will need to learn how to experience joy in the middle of hard things.

            It seems to me that one of the tragedy of today’s American church is that we can live a trivial, blasé, and superficial existence as believers in Jesus Christ and get away with it because we have the ability to be independent, self-sufficient, and hold our own.  We don’t really need the church.  We say we need God, but then turn around and live our lives as if he isn’t even there.  The peroxide that we need in our lives for this day and for this time is that we are doing everything but exercising spiritual disciplines that would put us in touch with Jesus.  Church is optional.  Reading our Bibles is not a matter of life and death.  Prayer only happens if I want or need something, and is not a means of connecting with Jesus.  Giving and service happens if I have any discretionary time and money. 

            The Christian life was not meant to be easy!  It is challenging, it is hard; and, in the middle of that it can be invigorating and joyful.  Yes, joyful.  This is where our brothers and sisters throughout the world who undergo adversity to their faith every day can teach us.  Americans might have the money, but others have a unique spiritual depth of faith forged in the fires of resistance to governments and cultures that actively put them to the test.  And, despite their hardship, many know the joy of living for Jesus, while far too many in the West live dull depressed lives devoid of real faith.  Let us pray boldly for one another so that together we can realize a genuine faith in Christ that glorifies God and edifies his church.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Sacred Space of Prayer

“Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God” (Daniel 6:10).

            I really believe that the Old Testament character of Daniel is our best model in all the Bible of a person who exercised a planned, deliberate, and consistent prayer life no matter the situation.  There were two major characteristics of Daniel’s prayer life:  his planned approach to prayer; and, his consistent perseverance of prayer.

Our prayers need to be planned with deliberate practice.

            Daniel had an intentional plan for prayer.  Daniel did pray spontaneously in his life – all the time.  But that was not his bread-and-butter day-in-and-day-out life of prayer.  Daniel had set times in which he prayed three times a day.  I am not insisting that we all ought to pray at the set times of 6am, 12pm, and 6pm, as Daniel did every day of his life (although I think that is good biblical plan to emulate! – see Psalm 55:17).  However, there needs to be some planning and some intentional purpose behind creating and carving out time for prayer each and every day of our lives.  In other words, we need to approach prayer with the same deliberate discipline that we would approach anything else in our lives, like a person doing housework, a student writing his paper, an athlete preparing and practicing, or an employee getting her work accomplished.

            Prayer takes a lot of planning, energy and commitment.  On July 16, 1969 three astronauts (Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldren) went into space aboard NASA’s Apollo 11.  The rocket they were in was carrying over 5 million pounds of fuel.  At the liftoff, it took 5 engines producing over 7 million pounds of thrust in order to reach the velocity of 17,500 miles per hour which was needed to break the earth’s gravitational pull and get them into orbit.  Here’s the deal:  Prayer is the way we escape the gravitational pull of our fleshly lives and enter into God’s orbit.  It takes planning; it takes energy; and, it takes commitment; it takes focus; it takes discipline; prayer takes a lot of fuel.

            Using the example of Daniel, we have two plans that need to be worked out in order to engage in and sustain a consistent prayer life:  We need a set time to pray; and, we need a set place to pray.  Just as we set aside a special room in our house just for sleeping (a bedroom); just as we set aside a particular place (a bed) just to sleep; so, we really need a sacred space just for prayer.  Just as we understand that a good night’s sleep will not come with a nap, but with a plan for going to bed and arising in the morning, so we need to arrange a time to get in a particular actual place of prayer and go about the effort and energy of wrestling with God.  If prayer is important, then we will demonstrate and plan for that value by setting aside a place and a time to do it. 

Our prayers need to persevere with consistent practice.

            Daniel was a teenager when the Babylonians came to Jerusalem, tore down the wall, and took the best young people of the city into captivity.  Daniel lived to be an old man well into his eighties.  For over sixty years, Daniel prayed three times a day, every day, without fail.  His prayers were consistent and sustained.  He never gave up.  The reason he always opened his window and prayed toward Jerusalem is that he was praying consistent with God’s promise that the exiles would someday return to Jerusalem.  He looked out that window every day, three times a day, praying over and over again for the return, for God’s help, and for the peace of his people.

            So you see, in light of this biblical teaching about prayer, why setting aside a special room in your church building and/or home for the expressed intention and practice of prayer is invaluable.  If you have never considered such a room, then I suggest you breach the idea with your pastor or church board.  Apart from God we can do nothing.  Therefore, prayer is not just a nice idea or optional equipment; it is vitally necessary.  So, it only makes sense to create a sacred space where prayer occurs with some planned consistency.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Work from a Christian Perspective

            With the Labor Day weekend upon us, it is good for us to reflect on the importance of our vocations.  One of the things that can often get lost in the rig-a-ma-roll of church ministry is the need for pastors to equip people for facing their jobs with a Christian perspective and worldview.  In other words, reflecting on the nature of work and the worship of God is not an ancillary enterprise, but a vitally necessary part of what the church can do for the world of business.

            How do you view your job?  How is work viewed in the Bible?  How can you connect your faith and your work?  Work itself is viewed positively throughout Scripture.  It was part of the creation mandate (Genesis 2:15); it ought to be respected (1 Thessalonians 5:12-15); and, it is a service to God (Colossians 3:22-25).  In other words, work itself is intrinsically good.

            Our faith commitments and our workaday jobs are meant to be integrated into a seamless unity.  They were never meant by God to be separate without one affecting the other.  There are opportunities every day for Christians to live out their faith in the marketplace.  Every job has its ethical challenges.  Not only do we have choices to make about steering clear of shady deals, avoiding cooking the books, and staying away from dishonesty, but we have the opportunity to help create policies that provide well for others, guide others into responsible work habits, and foster positive relations throughout the organization.

            Our jobs are also our mission fields.  God has sovereignly placed us where we are for the purpose of expanding his mission.  God desires to reach the lost, and he wants to use you to draw people to Jesus Christ.  This can be done in a myriad of ways, from speaking openly about your own faith commitment, to showing sensitive hospitality, to living above the fray of any company cultural muck around you.  Evangelism never has to be forced because we serve a God who has given his Spirit to do the kind of work that we cannot.

            Finding meaning and purpose in our own jobs and vocations is a must in today’s society.  Never has job satisfaction been so low throughout many American corporations and businesses.  A big reason for this is the paucity of interpreting our work through a Christian world and life view.  To see our particular vocations as a real calling from God, just like any calling that a pastor or missionary would have, is a must in today’s business environment.  Without this view we simply flounder and live for the weekends with no connection to what God is doing and wants to do on the weekdays of work.

            The work we do gives us the experience of personal transformation.  If you have never thought the thought that your Christian sanctification can come through your work, then I just now put it in your head.  Let it stay there and ruminate awhile.  When we work with a team of people in a common purpose in community and fellowship, it has the ability to change us for the better.  Learning new tasks, developing new relationships, and carving out new work disciplines helps foster personal change and brings fresh creativity to other spheres of life.

            One of the things that churches can do to help employees and employers is to highlight people within their congregations who are doing good work.  Feature such persons in a testimony about their work and what they do, or interview them so that others can see how God uses them on the job.  We all need help with our vocations because there are continual challenges, frustrations, conflicts, and moral decisions which need to be made on every job, no matter what or where it is.  It only makes sound spiritual sense for us to bring our jobs to the fore and give them the attention they need.  Let’s all work from a Christian perspective so that the church is built up, the world is blessed, and God is glorified.