Friday, May 30, 2008

Ungranted Prayers

One of the biggest arguments that skeptics use against Christianity is the difference between the promises found in the Bible regarding prayer and reality. If we are honest with ourselves there are time when we wonder if our prayers are making it past the ceiling. It is embarrassing to try to explain the differences between the promises in the Bible and the reality in our lives.

Perhaps part of the reason for this is that the promises we read in the Bible don't say what we think they say. That is what H. Lynn Gardner argues in part one of his article When Our Prayer Requests Are Not Granted. Gardner writes:
People often speak of unanswered prayer. Is this the best term to use? It may wrongly suggest that God is either unable or unwilling to respond to our prayers when he may well answer in ways we do not recognize. Therefore, I prefer to speak of ungranted prayer requests.

Whenever we study the words of Scripture, we need to be careful not to take them out of their context. This is particularly true of Jesus’ prayer promises. Context controls meaning. Each promise should be read in the light of the statements surrounding it. To whom was the promise given? Does the context limit or qualify the meaning? What does the rest of Scripture teach?
Gardner goes on to examine several of the Biblical promises concerning prayer and helps us understand their context. We need to remember this when we get frustrated with our prayers. I encourage you to read When Our Prayer Requests Are Not Granted.

No Guarantee of Success

Into the Unknown: Part 5

It was a bleak time in the history of Israel. God had finally given them the king that they longed to have, but their country was still occupied by a foreign power. The Philistines ruled the land and the and the troops and the equipment to enforce their rule.

King Saul, facing overwhelming odds, took his two swords and six hundred soldiers and hid. He was waiting for a better time, for God to open up a door. While Saul hid his son Jonathan acted. Taking one sword and his armor bearer Jonathan decides to engage the enemy. This is what Jonathan tells the young man following him:
6 Jonathan said to his armor bearer, "Come on, let's go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised men. Perhaps the LORD will intervene for us. Nothing can prevent the LORD from delivering, whether by many or by a few." (1 Samuel 14:6; NET)

Here is the fourth parallel I want to draw. God has not guaranteed success. It is quite possible that God will not come through for you. Your son who has walked away from Jesus may never return even with all your love and prayers. Your wife may go through with the divorce in spite all of your efforts to heal your marriage. Your church may continue to decline even with all of your hard work. So what is our response to this reality? To move forward and hope that God shows up to work on our behalf. God has given us no guarantee that if we live by faith things will turn out the way we want them to. I don’t know what God will do in you situation.

This is what I do know: unless we move forward in faith nothing will change, we will continue to decline. Only by moving forward in faith do we give God the chance to show up and work through our lives. There is no reason why we should expect God to work in our lives if we are not living by faith.

When the Philistines occupied Israel it seemed to be a hopeless situation. Men deserted the army to hid in holes, wells, and caves. The king took what men were left and hid waiting for the right plan that would guarantee success. Only one man in Israel looked at the vast Philistine army and had hope: Jonathan. Only Jonathan had enough trust in God to give him hope of an Israelite victory.

Sooner or later in our lives we will face a hopeless situation. People on the outside might think that we are done and that our faith is toast, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Remember God loves to come through when things are the bleakest. While there is no guarantee that God will do what we want Him to do, there is reason to believe that God will do what needs to be done. This is what I want you to remember this series of ponderings: When we trust God there is always hope!

The future is unknown to us. We don’t know what God has planned for our lives, for our families, or for our churches. We don’t know how He will use us to make a difference in our communities, schools, and church families. What we do know is that God always uses people who live by faith. Regardless of the situation we might find ourselves in we can be certain that God will use us in some way.

By living a life modeled after the actions of Jonathan, rather than Saul, we give God the opportunity to show up and make in difference in and through us. Will we live like Jonathan?

  • Point to Ponder: When we trust God there is always hope!
  • Passage to Remember: 1 Samuel 14:6
  • Question to Consider: Will we live like Jonathan?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Know God's Desire

Into the Unknown: Part 4

Life has a way of throwing tough circumstances our way. In these tough times it is hard for us imagine a way out let alone see the light at the end of the tunnel. When this happens we usually conclude that God has closed the door and that we just need to wait around for God to open it back up again.

In 1 Samuel 14 we read about Israel’s tough situation. The Philistines occupied the land and their army was large and well equipped. Israel’s army had dwindled to 600 men with two swords. King Saul’s solution was to hide, but his son Jonathan had a different idea.

Here is where I want to draw the third parallel. The first step forward is understanding God’s great desire. Jonathan moved to engage the Philistines because he understood that God’s desire for Israel was for the people to be free. So what is God’s great desire today? Matthew 28:18-20 give us good summary of what God’s desire is:

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (ESV).

No matter what situation we might find ourselves in, whether things are looking bright and hopeful or if things are dark and hopeless we need to set our minds to making disciples. This needs to be part of our prayer life, the reason we give money, and be worked into the conversations that we have. We need to live our lives with the purpose of making disciples of people, this isn’t just about evangelism, but it is also about help fellow believers mature in the faith. It won’t be easy and it will be risky. It certainly was for Jonathan and his armor-bearer.

Here is the speech, the pre-game pep talk, Jonathan gives to his young armor-bearer:

“Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows. Perhaps the LORD will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6; NIV).

The part we like about this verse is that last sentence: Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few. That is the part that gives us hope. It reminds us that the victory, the success we have, isn’t about our strength or power, but about God working through us. So we underline and highlight that part of the verse to give us confidence and a guarantee that isn’t there.

I want to draw your attention to the second sentence: Perhaps the LORD will act on our behalf. I find it interesting that Jonathan went to battle without a guarantee from God that he would have success. We know by reading the rest of the text that he does have success, but God did not guarantee success to Jonathan. Jonathan acted on what he knew hoping that God would show up and give the victory.

Knowing what God desires does us no good if we don’t live by faith and act on that desire. Living faith (trust plus obedience) is what sets disciples of Jesus Christ apart from everyone else. It isn’t just about knowledge, but trusting God enough to act. Jonathan could have remained hidden with the other Israelites and taught about the power of God, but that wouldn’t have been faith. Faith for Jonathan was to go and engage the enemy. Faith for us requires us to trust God and do whatever it is that He is asking us to do.

  • Point to Ponder: Living faith is what sets disciples of Jesus Christ apart from everyone else.
  • Passage to Remember: 1 Samuel 14:6
  • Question to Consider: What have you risked to obey God?

Our Problems Don't Define Us

"We are not our problems. We are not our wounds. We are not our sins. We are persons of radical worth and unrevealed beauty. If we face ourselves fully, we will be broken by what we see, by the selfishness and fear and rage and lust that cover our spiritual beauty like tarnish on silver. But the silver is there. Something brilliant and intact gleams through the stain of our brokenness.

"Labeling each other makes the shine of silver hard to see. It directs attention to the tarnish. Labels encourage us to believe that our problems define us. Of course our problems are never pretty. So we either use them to manipulate people into taking care of us or we hide who we mistakenly think we are." ~ Larry Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth, p. 34

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Faith is Needed

Into the Unknown: Part 3

In 1 Samuel 14 we find Israel in a desperate situation. The Philistines occupy the land with some 30,000 troops, plus they have armored chariots to go along. The Israelite army, commanded by King Saul, was down to 600 men and they only had two swords, Saul had one and his son Jonathan had the other.

Rather than taking a step of faith and doing what God had asked him to do, Saul hid, not wanting to engage the enemy. Who can blame him? We find ourselves doing the same thing every day. Rather than stepping out in faith we wait around for circumstances to be just right for us to act. In the process we miss out on the opportunity altogether. Saul was hiding waiting for just the right time when he could be assured victory.

Here is where I would like to draw the second parallel between the story and our situation. This is the parallel: There is no formula for success. I am convinced the Saul hid because he was waiting for the battle plan that would guarantee victory. He was unwilling to risk the lives of himself and his men until he knew victory was his.
1 Then one day Jonathan son of Saul said to his armor bearer, "Come on, let's go over to the Philistine garrison that is opposite us." But he did not let his father know. 2 Now Saul was sitting under a pomegranate tree in Migron, on the outskirts of Gibeah. The army that was with him numbered about six hundred men. 3 Now Ahijah was carrying an ephod. He was the son of Ahitub, who was the brother of Ichabod and a son of Phineas, son of Eli, the priest of the LORD in Shiloh. The army was unaware that Jonathan had left. 4 Now there was a steep cliff on each side of the pass through which Jonathan intended to go to reach the Philistine garrison. One cliff was named Bozez, the other Seneh. 5 The cliff to the north was closer to Micmash, the one to the south closer to Geba. (1 Samuel 14:1-5; NET)

Saul was afraid to take that step of faith. The future was unknown to him and he didn’t know if he would live or die; succeed or fail if he engaged the enemy. There was no secret formula that Saul could rely on for success.

The fear of the unknown is what holds us back, especially in difficult times. When we been burden with a difficult time we can talk ourselves out of living by faith, telling ourselves if it is really God’s will He will open the door. God will often close the doors to see if we have enough faith to follow Him through. The first step in living by faith is asking ourselves the question: Am I willing to trust God to lead me where I need to go?

This isn’t about praying in order to manipulate God into doing our will nor isn’t about doing the right spiritual disciplines, it is simply about trusting God with our lives. We can be disciplined people performing empty rituals, but it will not make one bit of difference to God. What God is after is not rituals and disciplines, but faith expressed through obedience.

God, through Samuel, will tell Saul that very thing:
"Does the LORD take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as he does in obedience? Certainly, obedience is better than sacrifice; paying attention is better than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22; NET)

While Saul lacked faith his son Jonathan did not. One night while in hiding Jonathan couldn’t sleep. Why we don’t know. Perhaps he was frustrated by the actions of his father. Perhaps he was excited by the prospect of engaging the enemy. Or perhaps God kept him up to give Jonathan an opportunity to act.

When this war first started Jonathan had 1,000 men under his command, but because of the desertions he no longer has those men to command. The army, what was left of it, was under Saul’s command, but Jonathan still had one man under him, his armor bearer. A young man who was no older, and probably younger, than Jonathan. “Come, let’s pick a fight,” Jonathan tells the young man, and together they go over to the Philistine outpost. Jonathan had no plan or strategy. He had only a clear understanding of what God wanted for Israel. So he went, in faith, to engage the enemy.

Things may not look very promising in your life right now, but the answer isn’t about praying the right prayer or adding a new discipline to your life. The answer is about doing what God has asked you to do, even though the task looks impossible. Do you have enough faith to trust God with your life? That is what being a Christian is all about.

  • Point to Ponder: What God is after is not rituals and disciplines, but faith.
  • Passage to Remember: 1 Samuel 15:22
  • Question to Consider: Do you have enough faith to trust God with your life?

Spiritual Community

In The Safest Place on Earth Larry Crabb writes, "Like you, I want to contribute to spiritual community, to provide my family and friends with a safe place to face their brokenness and find God" (p. 38). I don't know about you, but I share that desire.

I love being able to preach, teach, and write about God's Word. My motivation has always been to encourage people as they travel the road of faith. I have always hoped that something that I have said or have written has encouraged a person to take that next step of faith.

As much as I have loved this I have growing desire in my heart to truly connect with other people. To enter into their lives in such away that I am not seen as the preacher or teacher, but as brother and friend. In other words I want to live life with other people instead of following my agenda and trying to overcome my problems and fears on my own.

It is a desire to experience Christian fellowship that moves past potlucks and Sunday morning greeting times. A fellowship that serves together, play together, learns together, loves together, prays together, and worships together. A fellowship where we take on each others burdens' as well as celebrate each others' successes.

I am tired of this individual Christianity where we isolate ourselves in our search for God and when we are together we do our best to act like we have it all together. If we want to experience real spiritual growth, not only for us as individuals, but also for our church families, then we have to enter into each others lives. We need the true fellowship of spiritual community to help us become spiritually mature.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Bleak Situation

Into the Unknown: Part 2

Israel faced an impossible situation. The Philistines occupied the land with 30,000 soldiers and Israel had an army that had dwindled to 600 men with just two swords among them. How could they ever defeat the Philistines when they were out-equipped and out-manned?

Life throws difficult situations at us all the time. From the overwhelming situation of a continually more perverse culture seeping into our homes and influencing our families to wondering if you should help with youth group or pick up a few overtime hours to help the budget situation a little easier. Life is out of our control and the result is that often our circumstances are not what we would like them to be.

Here is where I would like to draw the first parallel between the circumstance Israel found herself in and the circumstance we find ourselves in as we try to live a Christian life. The parallel is this: Circumstances look bleak. It is easy to be discouraged. I know that I have been there, and have been there recently. The church family I minister is in decline. They were declining before I accepted the position, and while we have held steady the last year and half, it will only take a couple of funerals to send us over the edge. It is discourage and the future doesn’t look very promising. I don’t know what situation you are facing, but I sure that you have experienced equally discouraging circumstances.

Saul’s response to such a hopeless situation was to hide. He took his 600 men and hid rather than engaging the enemy:
2 Now Saul was sitting under a pomegranate tree in Migron, on the outskirts of Gibeah. The army that was with him numbered about six hundred men. 3 Now Ahijah was carrying an ephod. He was the son of Ahitub, who was the brother of Ichabod and a son of Phineas, son of Eli, the priest of the LORD in Shiloh. The army was unaware that Jonathan had left. (1 Samuel 14:2, 3; NET)

Who could blame Saul for hiding? What chance did he have with 600 poorly equipped men against the vastly superior army of the Philistines?

Something that we have to remember is that Saul knew God’s desire for Israel to be free. It was one of the great promises God gave Abraham that his descendants would occupy the land of Canaan. That is why it was called the Promised Land. Not only did Saul know of God’s desire, but God had give Saul authority to lead. Saul had the political, military, and the religious authority (as evident by the presence of the priest) to lead this small band of Israelites. But the risk seemed too great, and so Saul hid waiting for the secret formula that would ensure success and eliminate the risk.

Faith is stepping into the unknown even when things aren’t in our favor. It requires us to trust God to provide along the way rather than insisting that He provides before we set out. James writes about the great icon of faith:
20 But would you like evidence, you empty fellow, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that his faith was working together with his works and his faith was perfected by works. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Now Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness," and he was called God's friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:20-24; NET)

Abraham knew God’s desire and was willing to trust God to provide what he needed. Abraham lived that way when he left his homeland to follow God into the unknown of Promise Land. He lived that way when he went to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham trusted that if God asked him to do something then God would provide to make it possible.

Our situations may be bleak, but we know what God has called us to do. We have been called to make disciples. Now that will look different for all of us, but if God has called us to make disciples then we can be certain that He will provide what we need to accomplish that task. There is no reason to hide and every reason to step out in faith.

  • Point to ponder: God will provide what we need.
  • Passage to remember: James 2:20-24
  • Question to consider: What makes your situation bleak?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Peering into History

Into the Unknown: Part 1

The people of Israel were God’s chosen people, but that did not mean, as you probably know, that circumstances always went well for them. If you know anything about you the Old Testament you are aware that Israel went though times of occupation and division once they took control of the Promised Land.

Near the end of what is called the “captivity of the land,” which lasted from the death of Joshua through the reign of Saul, we discover another instance when Israel’s hope for freedom looked very bleak.

What I hope to accomplish as we take a look at this event in the history of Israel and as we draw parallels to our lives, and the fears that hold us back, so that we will find some encouragement as we head of into the unknown, what Shakespeare called the “undiscovered country,” the future. Take a few moments and read the Biblical account of what happened.
1 Then one day Jonathan son of Saul said to his armor bearer, "Come on, let's go over to the Philistine garrison that is opposite us." But he did not let his father know. 2 Now Saul was sitting under a pomegranate tree in Migron, on the outskirts of Gibeah. The army that was with him numbered about six hundred men. 3 Now Ahijah was carrying an ephod. He was the son of Ahitub, who was the brother of Ichabod and a son of Phineas, son of Eli, the priest of the LORD in Shiloh. The army was unaware that Jonathan had left. 4 Now there was a steep cliff on each side of the pass through which Jonathan intended to go to reach the Philistine garrison. One cliff was named Bozez, the other Seneh. 5 The cliff to the north was closer to Micmash, the one to the south closer to Geba. 6 Jonathan said to his armor bearer, "Come on, let's go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised men. Perhaps the LORD will intervene for us. Nothing can prevent the LORD from delivering, whether by many or by a few." 7 His armor bearer said to him, "Do everything that is on your mind. Do as you're inclined. I'm with you all the way!" 8 Jonathan replied, "All right! We'll go over to these men and fight them. 9 If they say to us, 'Stay put until we approach you,' we will stay right there and not go up to them. 10 But if they say, 'Come up against us,' we will go up. For in that case the LORD has given them into our hand - it will be a sign to us." 11 When they made themselves known to the Philistine garrison, the Philistines said, "Look! The Hebrews are coming out of the holes in which they hid themselves." 12 Then the men of the garrison said to Jonathan and his armor bearer, "Come on up to us so we can teach you a thing or two!" Then Jonathan said to his armor bearer, "Come up behind me, for the LORD has given them into the hand of Israel!" 13 Jonathan crawled up on his hands and feet, with his armor bearer following behind him. Jonathan struck down the Philistines, while his armor bearer came along behind him and killed them. 14 In this initial skirmish Jonathan and his armor bearer struck down about twenty men in an area that measured half an acre. 15 Then fear overwhelmed those who were in the camp, those who were in the field, all the army in the garrison, and the raiding bands. They trembled and the ground shook. This fear was caused by God. (1 Samuel 14:1-15; NET)

Don’t you love jumping part way into a story? You aren’t really certain of what is happening or why it is happening, so let’s take a moment so we can understand the events which have led up to Jonathan taking such an amazing risk.

When Saul became king of Israel the nation was occupied by two other nations. Remember this is the period of history that is called the “captivity of the land.” Even though Israel was in the Promised Land they were captives of the nations around them. In the west were the Philistines as we read about in our text. In the east were the Ammonites. In his first year as king, Saul gathered an army and defeated the Ammonites.

The Philistines were still a problem. So in the second year of Saul’s reign he chose 3,000 men and he placed 1,000 of those under the leadership of his son Jonathan. Now at this time Jonathan is a young man in his late teens, possibly as old as twenty. With those 1,000 men Jonathan began to engage the Philistines and have success.

The military success of Jonathan drew the attention of the Philistines who decided to reenforce their Israelite outposts. They sent in 3,000 chariots, which were manned by 6,000 men, and a vast number of infantry. The 3,000 men under the leadership of Saul and Jonathan looked at this reenforced army and became afraid. A number of them left and hid.

When Saul counted the number of his army he found only 600 remained. Not only did the Philistines have a numeric advantage, but they were also better armed. The Philistine occupation of Israel forbid Israel from having blacksmiths. The result was a steep tax to have any metal work done, such as the sharpening of farm equipment, but also prevented Israel from making weapons. While the Philistines boasted the latest in military weaponry, chariots and armor, Israel had two swords: Saul had one and Jonathan the other. The rest of the army had weapons they converted from every day tools such as axes, picks, sickles, slingshots, and the like. What hope did Israel have of defeating the Philistines and becoming free?

  • Point to Ponder: We need encouragement as we face the future.
  • Passage to Remember: 1 Samuel 14:1-15
  • Question to Consider: What is the source of our hope?

Chuck Norris on Atheism

At Worldnetdaily Chuck Norris has an opinion piece about atheists using the first amendment as the basis for taking prayer out of public meetings. He writes:
But these atheists make the same classic blunder about the First Amendment that the ACLU and others have been making for years. They reinterpret it in ways it was never intended to be understood. They actually use the very amendment that is intended to protect our religious and speech rights and liberties and turn it on its head and make it a law of prohibition against prayer. And in so doing, they bastardize America's founding documents and founders.
He goes on to write:
The fact is these atheists have every right to voice their grievance – that is their First Amendment right to freedom of speech. But their request to restrict others' religious freedom is unconstitutional. And it is on that basis of the council members' First Amendment rights that they (and any other requests like this one across our land) ought to be forthright denied as unconstitutional. It is the constitutional right of all civic leaders and groups to include prayer as a constituent of their meetings.
Take some time and read God Bless the atheists!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Salvation Begins with God

William Pile in his book What the Bible Says about Grace reminds us of this important truth:
Any theology that construes salvation as some sort of cooperative effort between God and man is false.  Whatever man does in reference to his salvation may be seen as responsive, not causal.  Jesus, God's gift, is the sole cause. (p. 105)
Our salvation doesn't depend on our righteousness, but on God's grace.  We could never hope for heaven, we could never have our sins forgiven, and we could never have eternal life without God first deciding to give us these things.  Grace is what makes Christianity so great.

Keep It Simple

The other day my brother Tom and I were talking about preaching. We talked about one of the problems that many preachers run into is making things more difficult than they need to be. Preachers, sometimes, get so enamored by little things that they discover in commentaries or in theology that they feel the need to work these captivating tidbits into their sermons.

Take baptism for instance. There are many different opinions on what baptism is and its importance for the Christians. We debate about the mode, place, and significance of baptism in a Christian's life. While we are outlining our position we miss the simple truth that Jesus wanted us to know: Be baptized! I like what Malcolm Smith wrote in The Lost Secret of the New Covenant:
"Is a person save if he or she is not baptized? Questions like this turn the grace of God into law. It is a pointless question that any Pharisee would have loved! God commands it; so do it, and stop discussing how many angels can stand on a pinhead" (pg. 52).
Sometimes we make things more complicated as we seek to understand how things work.

One the compliments that I have recently received about my preaching is: Your sermons are understandable and usable. They have meaning for us in the middle of the week. Isn't this the goal of preaching? People are hungry for truth that is relevant for their lives, and instead preachers offer them definitions for Greek words that effect their lives one bit.

I believe that part of the problem is that we want everything to make sense. We want our questions answered and we want to know how things work. In the process of knowing the details we muddy the clear waters of truth because so much of the details comes down to speculations and opinion. While God has revealed Truth to us, much of who God is and how He works is covered in mystery. It is impossible for us to figure out God.

Rather than getting so worked up and concerned about the "signs of the times" we should rest in the knowledge that Jesus is coming back. Rather than debating about the place of baptism in a believers life we should simply encourage all believers in Jesus Christ to be baptized. By making things complicated we ensure that people remain immature in their faith because they will come to believe that the Bible is a complicated book only understood by people with degrees.

There is a place for Biblical scholarship, for understanding the ancient languages and cultures, and for studying theology, but these things should not make up the bulk of a sermon. A sermon does a person little good if they are unable to understand it. The job of the preacher is to take the relevant truth of the Scriptures and make it understandable for his listeners.

It is simple to preach a complicated sermon, and people might even go away marveling at the preacher's knowledge even when the truth of God's Word remains obscure to them. It is more difficult to preach a simple sermon making sure the Truth is exposed for all to find. People may not marvel at the preacher's knowledge, but they will be eternally blessed. As you communicate God's word don't muddy it with a bunch of speculations and opinions or with complicated theology and Greek, but keep it as simple as it can be. In this you will bless both yourself and your hearer.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Making the Most of Opportunities

Opportunity Knocking: Part 5

God loves to come through at the bleakest of hours. One could say that it is His M.O. That is why we needn’t get discouraged about our situation, God can use us to make a difference, but for that to happen we need to respond in faith. God isn’t just give us people and provide us with money if we have not demonstrated that we are good stewards of what He provides. He isn’t going to step in and do things for us that He requires us to do ourselves. The response of faith is crucial if we expect God to show up.

My favorite Old Testament story is found in 1 Samuel 14. This is another time Israel found themselves in a bleak situation. God has anointed Saul king and has given him the responsibility of kicking out the occupying Philistines. Saul’s army, because of fear, dwindles down to 600 and the entire army has two swords between them. Saul had one and Jonathan had another.

One night while Saul was paralyzed with fear and hiding, Jonathan took his young armor bearer and said: “Let’s go pick a fight.” Jonathan knew that God would deliver the Philistines into their hands, but first Israel needed to be spurred into action. Jonathan doesn’t know if he will live or die he hopes that his actions will get the recent of the army to do something. This is what Jonathan told his armor bearer before embarking on this suicide mission.
6 Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the LORD will work for us, for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few. (1 Samuel 14:6, ESV)

It may be that the LORD will work...Jonathan doesn’t know what will happen, he just knows that without faith there is not hope that God will show up. Stepping out in faith means that their is a possibility that God will show up and do a miracle.

I can’t say for certain that if we step out in faith then our church family will continue for years to come. I can say that if we don’t step out in faith then our doors are already as good as closed. God responds to people of faith. Are we people of faith?

Here is what I want us to remember this series of ponderings: Every situation provides an opportunity to share Jesus with others. We need to look at our situation, as hopeless as it may look, as an opportunity to make a difference for Jesus. Who can we tell about Jesus? How can we love people? What can we do for the community that we are a part of? When we make the most out of our situations we seize the opportunity to live out our faith in the real world and we provide God with the opportunity to show up.

  • Point to Ponder: Every situation provides an opportunity to share Jesus with others.
  • Passage to Remember: 1 Samuel 14:6
  • Question to Consider: Are you making the most of the opportunities God has given you?

Spiritual Journey

Reading Larry Crabb's book The Safest Place on Earth I came across this paragraph which really struck a chord with me:

"We moderns tend to think our spiritual journey as a God-directed adventure until something goes seriously wrong or until certain problems persist past the time we give God to take them away. Then we think about solving the problems more than about finding God in the midst of them. We focus more on using God to improve our lives than on worshipping Him in any and every circumstance. We think more about pathology--what can be fixed--than about the journey we're on." (p. 17)
In our efforts to create the life of our choosing, even a "spiritual" life, we miss out on God. We miss out on God because our purpose becomes more about fashioning the life we want rather than truly connecting with God and receiving from Him the life He wants us to have. Something to think about.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Pharaoh's Hard Heart

At his teaching site Chuck McCoy, one of my Bible Doctrine professor at Nebraska Christian College, has an article about God's involvement in the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. Was God responsible or did Pharaoh have a say in the matter? McCoy writes:
The hardening of Pharaoh's heart (Exodus 7:3 - 14:17) has been a topic of discussion for some time. Those who hold a “deterministic” (God controls/manipulates everything) view, argue that God saves who He chooses (totally on His own whim/authority) and hardens and condemns whoever He chooses, regardless of their inclinations, choices or responses.
Take some time and read what else my old Bible College professor has to say about the Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart.

Rejoice Always

Opportunity Knocking: Part 4

When God sends an opportunity our way it will rarely be when the circumstances of our lives look favorable. The greatest opportunities God gives to us happen when we are down and out and our circumstances look a little bleak. These opportunities require us to respond in faith, because it will go against every instinct we have to make the most of what God has given us.

That was true with the apostle Paul who found himself in prison, chained to a Roman guard. Paul lost the freedom to travel the countryside and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. But that reality didn’t stop Paul from preaching. He taught the guards who guarded him and the people who came to visit him, and a wonderful thing began to happen, the guards began to put their faith in Jesus and Paul’s visitors were encouraged.

Paul seized the opportunity God gave him, even though circumstances were bad, by responding in faith. Paul’s faith is seen in the fact that he reached out to the people around him and through his encouragement of these people. Paul didn’t let his circumstances get him done, but he made the best out of a bad situation.

The last action of faith that we need if we are going to make the most of the opportunities God gives us is that we need to REJOICE. Paul wrote to the Philippians saying; But what does it matter? Just this, that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed, and because of this I rejoice. (Philippians 1:18; ISV)

The apostle Paul didn’t get upset that some people were preaching Jesus out of wrong motives, instead he rejoiced that Jesus was being preached. Paul didn’t offer criticism, only words of praise to God because of the good that was happening.

Instead of focusing on our circumstances we should focus on the positive things that are happening. Paul wouldn’t have been able to rejoice if all he thought about where the chains on his wrists and the greedy preachers. The focus for the apostle was on the advancement of God’s Kingdom rather than on his personal circumstances and that gave him reason to rejoice.

We need to open our eyes to what God is doing around us. Whether it is in our families, church families, communities, country, or world. It is easy to get depressed by focusing on the negative things about life. We can get overwhelmed when we think about all the problems, suffering, and evil there are in the world. How can we rejoice when we know that there are people who are going through great amounts of pain? How can we rejoice when our lives are a chaotic mess? Focus on what God is doing.

By changing our focus not only will we be able to see God at work in this world we will also be able to see new opportunities for us to seize. Rather than letting life pass us by we will grab the opportunities that come our way. Rejoicing changes our perspective on life.

Don’t allow yourself to dwell on the negative aspects of life. Instead rejoice for what God had done in your life, what He is doing in the world, and the responsibilities He has entrusted to you. Finding reasons to praise God helps us see our lives, and the world, in a whole new light.

  • Point to Ponder: Rejoicing changes our perspective on life.
  • Passage to Remember: Philippians 1:18
  • Question to Consider: What do you have to rejoice about?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Encourage People

Opportunity Knocking: Part 3

Usually when we think opportunity is knocking it is because circumstances have been arranged in such a way to make a certain situation positive. In God’s economy that is often not the case. Opportunity knocks the best on a closed door, and it is in these negative situation that God provides us with our greatest opportunities.

That was certainly the case for the apostle Paul who found himself in a Roman prison. The amazing thing is that Paul didn’t let his chains stop him from using the opportunity God sent his way, in the form of his prison guards. Paul seized the opportunity and reached out to the only people he had contact with. If we are going to step out in faith and make the most of the lives God has blessed us with then we need to reach out to the people around us.

The second action of faith we need to do in order to make the most of our God given opportunities is to ENCOURAGE people.
14 Moreover, because of my imprisonment most of the brothers have been made confident in the Lord to speak God's word more boldly and courageously than ever before. 15 Some are preaching Christ because of their envy and rivalry, while others do so because of their good will. 16 The latter are motivated by love, because they know that I have been appointed for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition and without sincerity, thinking that they will stir up trouble for me during my imprisonment. (Philippians 1:14-17; ISV)

Paul, with his preaching, encouraged people. He probably encouraged some directly through teaching when they came to visit him in prison, and indirectly through reports they received about what Paul was doing in prison.

In a situation like this It would be so easy to get discouraged. Paul being the leader that he was realized that many Christ Followers would be discouraged to know that he was in prison. There was a risk to following Jesus in that place and Paul’s imprisonment made that danger real. So Paul continued to preach in chains and these other Christians who were discouraged discovered hope and encouragement in Paul’s actions. They once again took up the call and started to preach and teach about Jesus. Now some did it out of selfish motives, perhaps with the thought to replace Paul or to get other people to support them so they didn’t have to work so hard. Whatever the reason Jesus was being preached and people were being encouraged.

Depression and discouragement are out of control in this country. People need to have hope and they need to know that their lives have meaning. When we live lives of hope in bleak circumstances we become a beacon of hope to the people around us. When we encourage people with the Good News of forgiveness, mercy, grace, and salvation we offer people a source of hope that will help get them through the tough times.

The hardships of life provide us with the opportunity to encourage people and to offer them hope in the midst of the trials and tragedies of life. We can’t afford to become self-absorbed when the tough times hit, we have to see them for what they are: opportunities. Make the most of your difficulties and encourage someone else.

  • Point to Ponder: The hardships of life provide us with the opportunity to encourage people and to offer them hope in the midst of the trials and tragedies of life.
  • Passage to Remember: Philippians 1:14-17
  • Question to Consider: Who was the last person you encouraged?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Reach Out To People

Opportunity Knocking: Part 2

As we read through the Bible it is obvious that God likes to use the under dog who is up against a no win situation. Usually we think opportunity is knocking when things are looking favorable, but often for the follower of Jesus opportunity knocks when things can’t get any worse.

When the apostle Paul wrote Philippians things were not going well for him. He is in prison in Rome. No longer can he travel the country preaching about Jesus, his mission to take Jesus to the Gentiles has come to an end. Yet from this bleak situation Paul tells us that a victory emerges.
12 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that my situation has actually turned out to advance the gospel: 13 The whole imperial guard and everyone else knows that I am in prison for the sake of Christ, 14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having confidence in the Lord because of my imprisonment, now more than ever dare to speak the word fearlessly. 15 Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. 16 The latter do so from love because they know that I am placed here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, because they think they can cause trouble for me in my imprisonment. 18 What is the result? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed, and in this I rejoice. (Philippians 1:12-18; NET)

From this situation in Paul’s life we can identify three actions of faith that can help us make the most of the opportunities God sends our way.

The first action is OUTREACH:
12 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that my situation has actually turned out to advance the gospel: 13 The whole imperial guard and everyone else knows that I am in prison for the sake of Christ, (Philippians 1:12-13, NET)

The phrase “I want you to know...” can carry the tone of answering a question or that what Paul is about to tell them is the opposite of what they expect (College Press NIV Commentary: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon; p. 34). So in essence Paul could be saying, “What I have to say you will not to believe.” This news is amazing and very unexpected.

What is this amazing news? That being in prison hasn’t hurt Paul’s ability to preach the Gospel. He has been able to reach out and build relationships with the guards and any other visitor he might have.

The result is that the real reason Paul is in person is revealed, the fact that he is in prison for preaching about Jesus, and members of the royal guard are giving their lives to Jesus. It is truly amazing what is happening.

Think for a moment about your situation. I don’t know what is happening with you, but I do know that we can talk ourselves out of reach out with the Gospel, whether by words or deeds, because of our current circumstances. Perhaps we have convinced ourselves that we don’t know enough or that we or too busy or that we don’t want to get hurt. It is easy to convince ourselves that opportunity isn’t knocking at our doors.

The reality of being in prison didn’t stop Paul from reaching out to the people that he could reach. Paul continued to focus on the reason God had called him to preach Jesus, and he did what he could with the situation that he was in and a miracle began to take place.

The first action of faith that we need if we are to impact our families, friends, and community for Jesus is to reach out to people. This isn’t about being “preachy” and tell them that they will burn if they don’t don’t turn. It is about exhibiting love, acceptance, and telling them the truth. It won’t be easy, but if we never take this step of faith then we will never be able to make a difference in the lives of other people. Reaching out to other people with the Good News of Jesus Christ is an act of faith.

  • Point to Ponder: Reaching out to other people with the Good News of Jesus Christ is an act of faith.
  • Passage to Remember: Philippians 1:12-13
  • Question to Consider: How are you reaching out to people?

Creationism is Dangerous to Science

I was reading PZ Myers' blog, Pharyngula, today and read his reaction to a study that surveyed High School Biology teachers about their belief of God's involvement in the formation of life on earth. According to Myers the study was the most depressing thing he has seen this week (just think the week is still young, things could get a lot more depressing). It was depressing because the vast majority of H.S. Biology teachers believed God created life. 47% believed that God guided the process of evolution and 16% (the most depressing number) believed in some form of young earth creation.

It was interesting to read Myers' response to this so called problem, which happened to be in agreement with what the authors of the study concluded. The solution to this dangerous problem of believing in a Creator is more education. In their minds these teachers who believe in creation would cease to believe in God if they had all the facts. After all we can't have people disagreeing with the powers that be.

Read what one commenter had to write:
In my opinion the 72% of biology teachers, who invoke magic to explain evolution, or deny evolution completely, should be fired immediately.

Sounds a little like Expelled to me. It is easy to see from reading the comments how their atheistic world view colors the way they look at science. To even suggest that a Creator had a hand in creation is blasphemy to the atheist scientist.

I look at this study and it confirms my belief that the greatest threat to the Church isn't militant atheism or the teaching of evolution, but the seduction of materialism. The vast majority of people will look at this world, even through the lens of science, and conclude that there is a God, but the things of this world keep those very same people from truly committing their lives to Him.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Learning to Say No to Good Things

Randy Alcorn on his blog Eternal Perspectives wrote a wonderful post about using our time wisely. In the post, Planned Neglect, Randy wrote; We shouldn’t say yes to something just because it’s a good thing or even a great thing. One of the things I have thought about recently is how easy it is to start feeling like a horrible person because you can't support all the good causes there are to support.

We only have a limited amount of time, money, and influence. When we allow these things to be spread to thin over a great number of causes then we diminish the good that we can do. It would be better for us to pick a few causes that we can support whole heartedly and give ourselves to them. I encourage you to read Randy's thoughts because I think this is something all of us need to ponder.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Living Hope

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Because of his great mercy he has given us a new birth to an ever-living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead 4 and to an inheritance kept in heaven for you that can't be destroyed, corrupted, or changed. 5 Through faith you are being protected by God's power for a salvation that is ready to be revealed at the end of time. (1 Peter 1:3-5; ISV)

It is no secret that life is difficult. It doesn't matter who we are or what we have been though life doesn't take it easy on anybody. If we are going to keep persevering as we follow Jesus then we need to be able to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. In other words we need to know that our present suffering is worth enduring.

The light at the end of the tunnel, according to the apostle Peter, is living hope. Living hope is hope that is able to endure even death. All the hopes that we can think of, from having a family to getting a new car to going on our dream vacation, are destroyed at death. Life is soon discovered to be meaningless if death is the end.

Peter says we have a living hope because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. That is a claim that no other religion can make. Sure other religions offer eternal life, but only in Christianity do we have evidence that life exists after death because of Jesus' resurrection. Let me be clear about this, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then we would have no hope. The hope for the Christ Follower is found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Don't Concede the High Ground

Monday as I was mowing the lawn I had a Burning Heart Moment. It all started as I began to think how the favorite argument against Christianity for some people has become the argument of why a good God allows evil. The question of evil is one that the Christian has to answer.

As I thought about this ongoing debate I realized that far too often the Christian is placed in a defensive position as we try to respond to the skeptics questions rather than trying to turn the tables of the skeptic and force them to answer questions as well.

This is something Jesus did rather than to allow Himself to be dragged into pointless debates. (What makes the debate pointless is not the question be raised, but the unwillingness of the questioner to change their position. They are only interested in stirring up controversy.) During the last week of His life a group of religious leaders came to Jesus and wanted to know by what authority did ride in to Jerusalem like a king, cleanse the Temple, and teach the people. Before He answered their question Jesus wanted them to answer a question:
29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and then I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 30 Was John's authority to baptize from heaven or from humans? Answer me.”
31 They began discussing this among themselves. “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Then why didn't you believe him?’ 32 But if we say, ‘From humans’…?” For they were afraid of the crowd, because everyone really thought John was a prophet.
33 So they answered Jesus, “We don't know.”
Then Jesus told them, “Then I won't tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (Mark 11:29-33; ISV)

These guys weren’t interested in hearing Jesus’ answer, they were interested in starting a controversy and finding some reason to condemn Him because of His popularity. Jesus had been down this road before, and rather than covering the same ground He asks them a question to put Himself in control of the situation. Because of their refusal to answer Jesus declared that He didn’t have to answer.

As I thought about this I realized that we don’t ask enough questions of the skeptics who want nothing more than to stir up debate and controversy in order to paint a picture that Christianity doesn’t possess the answers to their questions.

Perhaps we should start asking questions of our own. Question like: In world that is consumed by evil why is there good? Why is suffering and tragedy evil? How could people create a good God of love when they experienced the reality of pain, suffering, and evil?

The truth that God allowed me to understand while mowing the lawn isn’t some irrefutable proof that will answer the question of evil, but that we allow skeptics too much freedom. This war of ideas, philosophies, and world views we concede to them the high ground while we try to defend the valley. We need to come up with our own questions for them to answer as a prerequisite of participating in debate. Rather than constantly waiting for our beliefs to be challenged we should be challenging the beliefs of others as well.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

More than Good Advice

In Christianity we find many different teachings and rules on how to live. We are told to love people, to help the poor, not to get drunk, not to have sex outside of marriage, and not to murder anyone. Therefore it is easy to look at Christianity and see it as another system of advice on how we should live our lives. Many people equate Christianity with good advice. They put the teachings of Jesus along side the teachings of Buddha and point to the parallels between the two.

The world is full of "good advice". Everywhere we turn there are people offering us advice on how we should live. We get it from movie stars as well as politicians. We get it from living talk show hosts as well as dead philosophers. If Christianity is just another collection of "good advice" would it matter if we dedicated our lives to following it? It may make our lives go a little smoother because we would stay out of trouble, but it would be absent of hope and promise. It would be the same as receiving advice for Dear Abby.

{16} If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. {17} And if Christ has not been raised then your faith is useless, and you are still under condemnation for your sins.
{18} In that case, all who have died believing in Christ have perished!
{19} And if we have hope in Christ only for this life, we are the most miserable people in the world.
(1 Corinthians 15:16-19; NLT)

In this passage we see what makes Christianity more than just good advice. The resurrection of Jesus provides Christianity with hope and assurance that what we believe is true. Jesus rising from the dead makes all the difference.

You can compare all the religions and philosophies in the world but you will not find a parallel to Jesus. Because Jesus lived, died, and rose again we have a promise that is better than a smooth life right now. We have an eternal relationship with God!

Understand this, Christianity is not just a system of rights and wrongs, it is not just a system of truth, it is not just a religion. Christianity is a relationship. It is a relationship with God made possible by the resurrection of Jesus. Since it is a relationship we should not approach it with the attitude of I have to do this or I can't do that. Approach your relationship with God with the attitude, Thank You for Your love. What can I do to say thanks?

  • Point to Ponder: Because Jesus lived, died, and rose again we have a promise that is better than a smooth life right now.
  • Passage to Remember: 1 Corinthians 15:16-19
  • Question to Consider: How can we say thank you to God?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Don't Be Led Away

We live in an age where it is so easy to hear different viewpoints, philosophies, and theologies. This can be good because it can cause us to wrestle with what we believe, but only if we are truly seeking God's truth. There is a big danger in accepting "truth" claims without at least thinking them through. If we are not going to think through everything we are told to believe we will end up being lead astray.

This was the apostle Paul's frustration with the Galatians. People came in after Paul and give these young Christians other beliefs (namely that they had to convert to Judaism before they could really be followers of Jesus) that lead them away from Jesus. This is what Paul writes:
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ to follow a different gospel, 7 which is not really another one. To be sure, there are certain people who are troubling you and want to distort the gospel about Christ. (Galatians 1:6-8; ISV)
Let this be a warning to us. We have to be discerning about the "truths" and the "beliefs" we allow into our lives, because some will lead us very far away from Jesus.

Monday, May 12, 2008

God Uses Underdogs

Opportunity Knocking: Part 1

I am sure you have heard the old saying, "Opportunity Knocks". By this we mean that things are looking favorable. We have been offered the “perfect” job or we have been given a tip on some good stocks or we have been invited to the event which give us the chance to meet and network with some important people.

From our perspective when things are looking up and favorable we can hear opportunity knocking. I believe that if we look from God’s perspective we would realize that every situation, every moment, provides us with an opportunity to make a difference in this world. Here is the question I want you to consider: Are you looking for opportunities to share God’s love with others?

Reading the historical accounts recorded in the Bible gives one the impression that God likes to be the underdog. God enjoys backing the long shot and making something great happen.

Remember Moses? God’s job for him was no simple task. God calls Moses to walk into the Egyptian Palace and confront Pharaoh. Moses, a shepherd for the last 40 years was to demand of the most powerful man in the world, “Let my people go!” This certainly isn’t one of those times when we would think opportunity was knocking. The more likely scenario is that Moses has gone crazy watching after all those sheep in the wilderness.

While it seemed unlikely God delivered a nation of slaves from a nation of masters. It would never have happened, the odds were just too great for Israel to overcome, if God hadn’t intervened.

Here is another example: Gideon. Israel has been under the occupation of the thieving nomads of Midian. God calls Gideon to lead an army against these invaders. So does God send tens of thousands of men to Gideon’s aid? No. 22,000 men show up, but God thinks that is too many so He has Gideon let everyone who was afraid go home. Now there are but 10,000 men. Still too many, so God has Gideon thin the ranks again based on how the drank water from the stream. After all is said and done 300 men remain against a foe that numbered in the tens of thousands. The numbers make it impossible for Israel to win, yet once again God intervenes and Israel wins their freedom.

In the Old Testament we find numerous examples when God’s people were against a bleak situation only to be delivered by God. What matters is not so much the situation itself, but our faith in the God who can do the impossible. Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul wrote:
15 Therefore be very careful how you live - not as unwise but as wise, 16 taking advantage of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 For this reason do not be foolish, but be wise by understanding what the Lord's will is. (Ephesians 5:15-17; NET)

Our faith in God is seen in how we handle the opportunities we have been given to touch the lives of others. If we are not making use of the opportunities, whether things look good or bad, then we are not living by faith.

  • Point to Ponder: I believe that if we look from God’s perspective we would realize that every situation, every moment, provides us with an opportunity to make a difference in this world.
  • Passage to Remember: Ephesians 5:15-17
  • Question to Consider: Are you looking for opportunities to share God’s love with other

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Blessing of Mom

I used this quote from Thomas Edison today in my sermon (Mother's Day):
“I did not have my mother long, but she cast over me an influence which has last all my life. The good effects of her early training I can never lose. If it had not been for her appreciation and her faith in me at a critical time in my experience, I should never likely have become an inventor. I was always a careless boy, and with a mother of a different mental caliber, I should have turned out badly. But her firmness, her sweetness, her goodness, were potent powers to keep me in the right path. My mother was the making of me. The memory of her will always be a blessing to me." (1001 Great Stories and Quotes; p. 290)

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Thoughts on Baptism

Mark Moore shared a few thoughts on baptism and then concluded:
However, given these five blessings of baptism, it boggles my mind why anyone would be contentious in refusing such a gift directly from the hand of Jesus, especially when it models the self-abnegation he enjoined on his disciples.
You should go read what he says the blessings of baptism are.

God Can Use The Bad

Spiritual growth is not easy. It requires more than reading books, singing songs, listening to sermons, and placing a few dollars in the offering plate. For spiritual growth requires that we follow Jesus, and we do that by applying God's Word to our lives.

It would make sense that Satan, our great enemy, would throw many different obstacles into our path to prevent us from truly following Jesus and thus from maturing in our faith. Satan will throw out fear to get us to hold back rather than following Jesus into the unknown. Satan will sit the trap of temptation causing us to miss out on experiencing God at work in our lives as we pursue the pleasures of sin. He will dig the hole of guilt causing us to fall in as forget about God's grace and forgiveness and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the sin that is in our lives.

I have good news for you: God uses Satan's obstacles as opportunities to make us better people! Just as Joseph told his brothers; "As far as I am concerned, God turned into good what you meant for evil" (Genesis 50:20; NLT), we can be certain that God will use the bad in our lives to bring about good. God is so powerful that He can even turn evil into good!

The key for us is not to give up. When things aren't going our way and the weight of the world is on our shoulders it becomes so easy to throw in the towel. We convince ourselves that following Jesus isn't worth the hardships of life. Remember the promise of God is that when we remain faithful He will bring about the change. We have to live our lives by faith. Remember what the Lord's brother wrote in his epistle:

Dear brothers and sisters, whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy. For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be strong in character and ready for anything. ~ James 1:2-4; NLT

James says that we should approach trials with joy, because we know God can use them to produce in us character that is more in line with the character of Jesus. Because God loves us He will not waste our painful experiences, our failures, or our troubles. He will use them to make us stronger, and in many cases, He will use them for the benefit of others.

When trials, troubles, and failures come our way shouldn't get discouraged and wonder where God is. Rather we should respond with trust knowing that through even the most horrible of circumstances God can bring about His will and create us to be a more like His Son Jesus.

  • Point to Ponder: God uses Satan's obstacles as opportunities to make us better people!
  • Passage to Remember: James 1:2-4
  • Question to Consider: Are you willing to do whatever it takes to follow Jesus?

Friday, May 09, 2008

Salvation From An Empty Life

Are you satisfied with your life? I know that I am not. Just today I allowed myself to get discouraged as I thought about all the things I haven’t done: write a book, speak at a large conference, get married. As we contemplate our lives it is easy to focus on all the things we haven’t achieved and think that our lives are empty and meaningless.

You want to know a little secret? It doesn’t matter how successful we might be our lives are empty without Jesus. No matter how great our accomplishments are they are unable to provide us with the hope that we truly need for life. Remember this: Being a success doesn’t make life worth living!

It is easy to think of people who are successful in the different areas of life. From Donald Trump to Tim Duncan we can point out men and women who have experienced success in this life. Many times they have experienced this success without any faith in Jesus Christ. Which at times can cause us, as Christians, to become discouraged. We become discouraged because we have been trained to view success in the same terms the world sees success. We measure the importance of our lives by the amount of money in our bank accounts, the power at our fingertips, or the influential connections in our address book.

The problem is that sooner or later these types of things will not make any difference to us. What good is it to have money we are not around to spend it? What power can we keep once we are six feet under? What connections will help us once we are dead? King Solomon, a man who had it all, wrote:
2 "Futile! Futile!" laments the Teacher, "Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!" 3 What benefit do people get from all the effort which they expend on earth? 4 A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth remains the same through the ages. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets; it hurries away to a place from which it rises again. 6 The wind goes to the south and circles around to the north; round and round the wind goes and on its rounds it returns. 7 All the streams flow into the sea, but the sea is not full, and to the place where the streams flow, there they will flow again. 8 All this monotony is tiresome; no one can bear to describe it: The eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear ever content with hearing. 9 What exists now is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing truly new on earth. 10 Is there anything about which someone can say, "Look at this! It is new!"? It was already done long ago, before our time. 11 No one remembers the former events, nor will anyone remember the events that are yet to happen; they will not be remembered by the future generations.(Ecclesiastes 1:2-11; NET)

Solomon took a long look at his life and came to the realization that everything that he did, whether it was good or evil, was futile. Time and death are great equalizers for they render many, if not all, our success irrelevant. We can give our lives away and accomplish great things, but death still robs us of all our success.

How can we avoid living the futile life? We need to follow Jesus Christ. The apostle Peter wrote:
18 You know that from your empty way of life inherited from your ancestors you were ransomed - not by perishable things like silver or gold, 19 but by precious blood like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb, namely Christ. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was manifested in these last times for your sake. 21 Through him you now trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:18-21; NET)

God wants to save us from a life made empty and meaningless by death. He does this by provided us with hope. Earlier in 1 Peter the Apostle describes it as a living hope (1 Peter 1:3) made possible by the resurrection of Jesus Christ and discovered through a life of faith. For the follower of Jesus success is measured differently. Success for the Christ Follower is discovered by faithfully following Jesus no matter what else happens. Are you willing to take that step of faith?
  • Point to Ponder: Being a success doesn’t make life worth living!
  • Passage to Remember: 1 Peter 1:18-21
  • Question to Consider: Does following Jesus make life worth living?

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Throw Off the Old

One of the great hindrances to spiritual maturity is not changing our behavior. We hold on to little vices, telling ourselves that they do not harm our spiritual growth. What we forget is that sin has a way of multiplying. Thomas À Kempis wrote; “ The person who does not avoid small faults, little by little slips into greater ones” (The Imitation of Christ, p. 62). Our little sins tend to turn into bigger ones.

Isn’t true that our small sins often control our lives? The reason we do not get rid of these sins is because they are either addictions or they allow us to feel part of this world. While God has called us to be foreigners and pilgrims in this world we want to fit in with the people around us. We tend to hold on to whatever we can so we can feel like we are a part of this world.

These small vices pose a bigger threat our spiritual growth than we would like to admit. They keep us from experiencing God at work in our lives and thus to trust Him with more and more of our lives. On top of that they provide a doorway for bigger and more addictive sins to enter our lives. As long as we are willing to play in the mud of sin, no matter how shallow it might seem, we will always make ourselves targets for greater sin.

The apostle Paul wrote:
20 However, that is not the way you came to know Christ. 21 Surely you have listened to him and have been taught by him, since truth is in Jesus. 22 Regarding your former way of life, you were taught to strip off your old man, which is being ruined by its deceptive desires, 23 to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to clothe yourselves with the new man, which was created according to the likeness of God in righteousness and true holiness. (Ephesians 4:20-24; ISV)

The Apostle Paul wanted to make sure we understand that there must be a throwing off our old way of life. We can’t follow Jesus like we should if we continue to hang on to the vices of our old life. Not only do the keep us from experiencing God the way we should and lead us to greater sins, but ultimately the keep us from being a blessing to other people. Paul writes; clothe yourselves with the new man .That means being a Christian is about having a life that is dramatically different than what we find in the world around us. In this world of confusion about what life is all about Christians are to SHOW the world that there is a better way to live. We are blessings when we display our new nature that is found in Jesus Christ.

As long as we are hanging on to our old vices, no matter how small they might be, we are not allowing our lives to be changed. If we are not changing then we are not showing the people around us that there is a better way to live.

God knows that we cannot change everything overnight. He knows of our weakness, and that is what grace is all about, we don’t have to fear God’s judgment every time we sin. What God is interested in our faith as we take the necessary steps to remove sin in our lives which hinder our relationship with Him.

When we begin to take these steps we discover a greater intimacy with God, a strength and hope to deal with greater temptations, and the ability to be a light in the dark world. Part of having faith in Jesus Christ is throwing off our old way of life and trusting Him to provide a better way to live. Are you willing to trust Jesus to lead the way?

  • Point to Ponder: Being a Christian is about having a life that is dramatically different than what we find in the world around us.
  • Passage to Remember: Ephesians 4:20-24
  • Question to Consider: Are you willing to change the way you live and follow Jesus?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Living Life to the Fullest

We cannot see into the future. There is just no way to accurately predict what will happen in the future and if the plans we have worked so hard on will happen. Life is too unpredictable to be positive that the life we are working to create is actually the best life we could enjoy. It is for this reason why think it is important for us to consider the words of Henry and Richard Blackaby in their book Hearing God’s Voice:
People who make decisions based merely on what seems most advisable to them will inevitably choose something inferior to God’s best (p. 5).

Relying on what seems best to us does not mean we will enjoy the best life God has planned for us. The life God created us to enjoy has nothing to do with income and possessions, and everything to do with obedience and sacrifice. We can give our lives away chasing after the American Dream and in the end look back on our lives disappointed. Regret occurs in our lives, not because we didn't buy the right things, but because we didn't live the right way.

Here is the real shocker about life: the best life to live is found on the most difficult path to travel. Jesus did not die to make our lives comfortable and secure. Jesus died to make us truly alive! There is a huge difference between existing in the good life and living the full life. Don't merely opt for what seems most advisable and desirable to you, but pursue what God offers, even if it takes you very far from where you wanted to be.

One of the best know Proverbs reads; There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way that leads to death (Proverbs 14:12; NET). In life we all have a path that seems to be right, that seems to be the path of good, but which only leads to regret and death. With our limited knowledge we can spend a life time trying to live life to the fullest and in the process waste our life. What a tragedy that would be!

I think a good example of this reality is Ernest Hemingway. From the time of his boyhood in Oak Park, Illinois, to those teenage summers in northern Michigan, he went after everything that life offered. He became a reporter for the Kansas City Star, served as an ambulance driver in World War I, spent years in Europe, and was intimately involved in the Spanish civil way. In whatever Hemingway did—sports, warfare, romance— he went for all of it. And, of course he was brilliant. He was a man who did it all.

Carlos Baker in the his biography about Hemingway wrote these words about Hemingway’s final moments:
Sunday morning dawned bright and cloudless. Ernest awoke early as always. He put on the red "Emperor's robe" and padded softly down the carpeted stairway. The early sunlight lay in pools on the living room floor. He had noticed that the guns were locked up in the basement. But the keys, he well knew, were on the window ledge about the kitchen sink. He tiptoed down the basement stairs and unlocked the storage room. It smelled dank as a grave. He chose a double-barreled shotgun with a tight choke. He had used it for years of pigeon shooting. He took some shells from one of the boxes in the storage room, closed and locked the door, and climbed the basement stairs. If he saw the bright day outside, it did not deter him. He crossed the living room to the front foyer, a shrine like entryway, five feet by seven, wit oak-paneled walls and floor of linoleum tile. He slipped in two shells, lowered the gun butt carefully to the floor, leaned forward, pressed the twin barrels against his forehead just above the eyebrows and tripped both triggers. (1001 Great Stories and Quotes; p. 124)

Hemingway is an extreme example, not only in the way he ended his life, but also the gusto on how he pursued the life he wanted. For all his effort to live life Hemingway seemed to have missed it. His life ended with depression and illness so severe that it made life seem not to be worth living.

When we live our lives by doing what we think is best we end up missing the best God has planned for us. Instead of finding life we only discover death. Life is only found in listening to God and following Jesus Christ. One of my favorite verses is Acts 20:24. In this passage Luke explained the apostle Paul's decision to go to Jerusalem, even though all of Paul's friends and companions told him not to go. They know that what waited for Paul in Jerusalem was nothing but persecution and prison. Paul called Ephesian Elders to remind them about all that he has done and the mission God has given to him. Then Paul says; 24 But I do not consider my life worth anything to myself, so that I may finish my task and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God's grace (NET). The value Paul found in life did not come for his ambitions and desires, but rather it was found in his relationship with God. It was this relationship which gave Paul's life meaning, the reason he had endured hardships in the past, and the reason he headed off to face persecution now. Paul lived his life to the fullest not by doing what seemed best to him, but by doing the work God had given him to do.

You can try to find the good life by doing what seems best to you, or you can find the full life by following Jesus. Those are your two options, but remember that only one leads to true life.

6 Jesus replied, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6; NET).

  • Point to Ponder: The best life to live is found on the most difficult path to travel.
  • Passage to Remember: Proverbs 14:12
  • Question to Consider: How are you trying to live the good life?

Accept the Differences

Most of us understand that people are different and those differences are a good thing. The world would be a boring place if everyone beli...