Friendship is one of the most essential ingredients for living life well, yet so many struggle to find it. One of the most moving stories in the Bible is that of the friendship enjoyed by David and King Saul’s son Jonathan. Here’s how it’s described:

1 Samuel 18:1-4 – “After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return to his father’s house. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.”

Friendship can only incubate in an environment of closeness and commitment. We see here closeness. Jonathan ‘loved David as himself’. And commitment. “Jonathan made a covenant with David.” Friends do that – they offer things that symbolize their commitment. Pinkie swears. Blood oaths. Here it was Jonathan sharing with David his royal robe, and his weapons.

Spoiler alert! Fifteen years later when Jonathan is killed in battle, David writes a psalm in his honor, where he says, “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.” (2 Samuel 1:26). This is a true, deep friendship – and no, in case it’s wondered: we are not meant to think that this was a homo-erotic relationship.

As I reflect on this story, I see in David and Jonathan’s friendship a number of things that serve as oxygen for it to breathe and grow. The first of these is a shared space.

Life just brings David and Jonathan together. Life is filled with places where people cross paths with each other, and this provides the soil from which a friendship can grow. Work, school, church, sports leagues, gardening clubs. Even “road marriage” – as my daughter calls it – that strange bond that occurs when you’re driving along the interstate for a long time and find yourself keeping company with a particular car or two.

Winnie the Pooh said it to Eeyore: “You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

If you’re the kind of person who never sticks around for coffee after church, then don’t complain to God later that you don’t have many friends at church. You have to be physically present with people, in a shared space where conversations can occur.

Life is filled with places where people cross paths with each other, and this provides the soil from which a friendship can grow.

In today’s world thanks to technology, shared space might be digital space. The computer provides incredible opportunity for meeting others. Video gaming, dating services, Skyping, social media are powerful ways to launch a friendship.

I can’t wait till we get to heaven, which will be the ultimate shared space. Right now I can’t be David’s friend, or C.S. Lewis’ friend – but in eternity I’ll have an opportunity to drink a cup of tea with C.S. Lewis and jam with King David, and maybe hear him actually sing one of his psalms. Maybe I’ll get a tap on my shoulder one day, and it’ll be a great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather of mine from a thousand years ago who’ll say, “I’ve been watching you, young man. Nice job. Let’s talk.”

So if friendships are hard to come by for you, here’s step one – get out of the house. Get away from yourself. Put yourself into the company of others. Take the risk, stick out your hand, introduce yourself and say, “So tell me about yourself.” Then go where the conversation leads you.

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“It is not good for man to be alone,” God said on Day 1 of humanity’s existence. The need for friendship and love is implanted in our hearts by God’s creative order. Aloneness is destructive to our souls (though don’t confuse this for “solitude” which is beneficial. Loneliness and solitude couldn’t be anymore different.)

The friendship of David and Jonathan gives us some healthy practices to imitate to grow in our friendships. Truth be told, this will be harder for men, than for women. It’s been said that men’s friendships are shoulder to shoulder, while women’s friendships are face to face. I’ve seen men who can bench press 200 and 300 pounds easily, but turning their body just that last little 90 degrees to face another man and share their heart will make their knees buckle.

Here are some additional encouragements to help you get started.

First, start small.

Maybe you can’t turn a full 90 degrees to another person yet, but why not start with ten? Friendship is not a big thing, but it’s a million little things, someone once said. Fire out a text. Remember a birthday. Grab a cup of coffee.

Second, get Jesus into the conversation early because it will lead to the sharing of souls.

Usually we’re told to keep religion out of our conversations because it will just lead to trouble. But there are tremendous resources and topics within our faith to stimulate the deepest of conversations. If you wait for months to get a spiritual conversation going with someone, when the time comes that it actually happens, it will probably seem awkward and forced. Talk about the Lord early and often, but keep it real and keep it natural.

So what’d you think of that last sermon? Tell me about how you came to faith? What do you find challenging about Christianity? Why do you think forgiveness is so hard? Man, I really struggle with this particular temptation! Hey, how can I be praying for you?

And speaking of prayer – there’s nothing more awesome than to finish a time together with a prayer that seals up what you’ve shared. “Hey, can we say a quick prayer?” Husbands, if you could start doing this with your wives. Parents, if you could start doing this with your kids. If when you have friends over for dinner, you’d pause and ask this. “Hey, can we say a quick prayer?” a layer of richness is added to your time together.

Third, be honest and be humble.

Set aside the masks. Stop with the posing. Honesty may not get you a lot of friends, but it’ll get you the right ones. Be honest about your own needs and struggles. And don’t be afraid to bring honesty into the conversation if you see the other person needs it. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”

This is risky. To be able to say to someone, “I did a really dumb thing,” or to say, “You really did a dumb thing,” is not easy. Forgiveness and friendship go hand in hand.

The Greek philosopher Socrates observed, “Sometimes you put walls up not to keep people out but to see who cares enough to break them down.” A friendship where there’s real honesty and real humility can be one of the most incredible things. A lot of people forfeit such intimacy though because they run the moment things get uncomfortable.

Fourth, if friendships are hard to come by, never forget that you have the friendship of God first and foremost.

In grade school and middle school I could never find my footing because my family was always moving because of Dad’s job. I became a bit of a loner, and a target for bullying and the one thing that saved me during that time in my life was the knowledge that God loved me and that I mattered to him. That Jesus was my friend.

It’s not a legal fiction. Psalm 25:14 says, “The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him.” Jesus said to his disciples, “I don’t call you ‘servants’ anymore. I have called you friends, because everything I have learned from the Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15).

That’s an amazing thought. And a comforting thought as well. Think of it! In some real way we have not only the love of God, but his friendship. Though it might seem odd, for Jesus to say that means a little more to me than him saying, ‘He loves me.’

“Greater love has no one than this,” Jesus said, “than to lay down his life for his friends.” And Jesus did just that for you and me. He gave his life for us. He died so that I could find forgiveness, and so he and I could be friends.

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Just in time for Thanksgiving, we’re offering what we’re calling “Brouhaha Training” – dedicated instruction on how to sit around the Thanksgiving table and not fight with the ridiculous relative sitting next to you.

Here’s another suggestion: Develop the instinct to respect and listen to the person who holds a different opinion than you. 

This skill is the foundation for a civil society, which explains why society isn’t so civil these days. These days showing the decency to “hear another person out” is a lost art. Instead, if we hold the slightest disagreement with you, we curse and rage and label and bully and run to safe spaces.

The Bible in Romans 14 gives some inspirational training in how to deal with “gray areas” of life – places where people will think differently than others. The early church found itself in a transitional period. Many things that believers practiced before Jesus’ death and resurrection now were fulfilled in Christ, and no longer were binding, such as all the Old Testament food laws. Food fights were happening in the early church, and the apostle Paul wrote chapter 14 to convince them to put down their forks and ladles.

Here are three truths to remember when you encounter gray areas:

We need to get into our thick craws is that there are such things as gray areas.

Paul writes in verse 1, “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” Notice what he says – there are such things as “disputable” matters.

There are gray areas. Not everything is black and white. It’s not always your way or the highway. You can say “to-may-to” and I can say “to-maddo”.

My wife and I see the world differently. I love to cook but hate cleaning. Janis is not into cooking so much but keeps a great house. There have been times when Janis has walked into the kitchen while I’ve been cooking and screamed out audibly, as though she’d seen a hairy spider. She sees a disaster before her eyes. I see a craftsman at work. I see Michaelango stepping back from chiseling David. It’s just not a problem we’ve ever been able to negotiate in three decades of marriage and we’ve learned to accept it.

The challenge is to learn to distinguish between gray areas and areas that are black and white.  Part of the problem in the Church is that because there are very real black and white areas in our faith – there are doctrinal hills that we need to be willing to die on – we fail to recognize when we’re talking about a gray area, and then bring that same DEF-COM 1 spirit into our conversation. We bring a blow torch when a flashlight is called for.

In case you’re struggling to come up with gray areas, allow me to give some examples:

Church gray areas: Bible translations, worship styles, end-times theories, Harry Potter, alcohol, roles of men and women, young earth/old earth, Calvinism vs. Arminianism.
Political gray areas: Immigration, gun control, terrorism, climate change, the NFL…

So many battles, and so little time!

Then we make things worse by throwing around phrases like, “Well God told me this,” and the “Spirit told me that,” and we assume we’re on the inside track with God, rather than what we should say: “Well, here’s what I think God is saying to me. I could be wrong on this, but here’s my take…”

Here’s a second principle:

You need to respect the relationship that the other person has with God.

Paul says in verse 3, “The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.”

Rather than start the conversation assuming that the other is the spawn of Satan, why not give them the benefit of the doubt and start with the assumption that they’re doing their best to integrate their faith and beliefs together. You may learn in time that indeed they do have a 666 on their scalp, but the point is – don’t begin with that mindset.

Here’s a third principle:

You need to respect the thought that the other person has given to this matter. 

In verse 5 Paul writes, “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”

So rather than personalize the conversation right off the bat – You’re an idiot! You want to destroy the country! Anyone who votes for him deserves to be drawn and quartered! – here’s a better approach. Ask the other to give the reasons for their opinion. Then listen. See if you can pinpoint their logic. Assume their rationality first. Again, in time you may learn otherwise, but begin with the idea that this person sitting next to you also bears the image of God, and has some sort of cranial activity going on in their skull.

It’s humbling to realize that once we’re in heaven, we’ll find out who was right and wrong about all of these matters. The earth will either be very old or very young. Jesus either wanted women to be pastors or he didn’t. Pre-, post- or a- …one of them will be closer to the mark. Someone’s going to get it right, and someone’s going to get it wrong.

But the fact is, we’ll all be there in heaven to learn the truth. No one will be left out because they picked the wrong side. As long as we pick Jesus, we’re good to go. There are many Bible-loving, Jesus-worshipping people on all sides of each debate, and we need to learn to respect that fact.

On Thanksgiving we’ll all eat lots of turkey. But do you know what’s going to be served at dinner on the first day in heaven? Crow. Lots of it.

Charles Spurgeon is quoted as saying. “Christians need to be narrow in doctrine, but broad in fellowship.” Be narrow in doctrine – know what you believe and be able to Scripturally demonstrate why you believe it. But be broad in fellowship. Know how and where to draw lines. Be a good surveyor of the hills around you, and know which are the ones for playing on, and which are the ones for dying on.

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As Christmas draws close, the opportunity will present itself for you, if you’re a follower of Christ, to talk about your faith with others in a way that isn’t there at other times of year. The art of having “spiritual conversations” is without a doubt challenging, especially in these toxic times in which we live. But Jesus promised to teach us how to be “fishers of men”, so it must be possible.

Scripture gives us numerous examples of the Lord offering this training. John 4 – which describes Jesus’ interaction with a Samaritan woman at a well – is one such training manual.

We learn in reading the story that Jesus wants us to be inclusive, by seeing the God-given worth of each person we talk to. Black, white, gay, straight, Christian or Muslim – this must be your default setting at the front end of every conversation you have with someone, no matter how strange or crude or offensive they may appear. Say to yourself, “Here’s someone God created in his image. Here’s someone that Jesus died for.”

Jesus also shows us with the Samaritan woman how to be incarnational, by seeking to enter into the world of the other person and meet them at their level. Talk about things of interest to them. Use the things around you as icebreakers to take you into conversation. Small-talk your way into large-talk. Earn the right to be heard by listening.

Here’s a third lesson we learn in the story: Jesus wants us to be informed.

As their conversation proceeds, they eventually get in to talking about religion, and the woman says some things that just don’t mesh with reality or Scripture. As a Samaritan, the woman held some antagonistic opinions of the Jews. Jesus gently, yet firmly corrects her. He doesn’t veer away from speaking truth to her. “Salvation is from the Jews,” he says. I can picture Jesus saying the same words to a Muslim woman he would meet at Starbucks, were the story to happen today.

What we’re really talking about is something Christians call “apologetics”. This doesn’t mean you’re sorry for being a Christian, and you just feel terrible about having to tell them about Jesus.  An apologetic is what lawyers call a “reasoned defense”. To be apologetic means you know how to explain to others why you love and follow Jesus.

It’s like Peter said. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15).

Witnessing should never be a matter of shoving truths and Scriptures down a person’s throat who doesn’t want it. You can’t force a person, or yell a person, or terrorize a person into believing what you believe. Truth can never be obtained so cheaply.

Being an informed witness has numerous advantages:

It’s something anyone can learn.

Apologetics just requires you to do your homework. You read a little, think a little, practice a little, and in time, you improve in your ability to have spiritual conversations.

It defuses emotion from the conversation.

It seems like today, discussions of conflicting ideas quickly degenerate into yelling matches or Tweet storms. But when you exchange ideas – when you begin to ask the other, “Why do you believe that?”, something powerful can happen.

It doesn’t require you to have all the answers.

The Christian worldview is powerfully coherent and compelling. But you’ll only learn this as you put your faith “out there”, and let it go toe-to-toe with other worldviews. And if you get your butt kicked, that’s okay. Read a little, and think a little some more.

For example: Our culture’s assault on biblical sexual ethics has forced followers of Christ to dig far deeper into God’s plan for human sexuality than any generation of Christians before it. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s given us far greater compassion for anyone who struggles with sexual identity issues than past generations of Christians ever showed.

But it’s also deepened the moorings of our faith. Nowadays, Christians who hold the line against LGBT ideology can do so with greater confidence than past Christians could. Not only can we quote the Scriptures which set God’s boundaries, but we can give reasons for why God set those boundaries in the first place. And why it’s not hate which prompts us to point to those boundaries, but it’s one of the highest expressions of love imaginable.

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In the first half of Psalm 73 (verses 1-14), a man named Asaph journals for us how his faith is on the brink of falling apart. He looks around him and sees people who could care less about God living happy, carefree lives. “They’re always at ease,” he writes. Meanwhile people like himself, fighting hard to fight off sin, and to hold the line of faith and morality, find themselves struggling and suffering. “All in vain have I kept my heart clean,” he begins to say to himself.

But then Asaph makes a turn in his spirit. He veers away from that cliff he’s about to fall over. The last last half of Psalm 73 (verses 15-28), Asaph describes how he recovers his faith and returns fully to the love of God.

The first lesson Asaph teaches us is an important one:

When we are struggling or in doubt, stay close to the community of faith.

Look at verses 16-17 and see with your own eyes what it was that threw a safety rope around Asaph. “When I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God. Then I discerned their end.”

Did you catch that? “…until I went into the sanctuary of God”. 

If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a hundred times as a pastor. The temptation we face when God seems to have withdrawn from us, is to withdraw from him.  Out of a pout, or out of anger, or out of discouragement, we stop spending time seeking him and being with his people. These are very human and real responses. Why would you keep exercising if you can’t lose the weight? Why would you stay in the marriage if you feel only pain from it? Why stay in school if you keep failing the test?

But in the end, quitting usually only makes things worse. Quit the exercise, the weight will win. Quit the marriage, a quantum leap in misery will likely occur. And quit God? My goodness, sin and Satan will be chomping at the bit for you to do that.

So though it took real effort and discipline, Asaph kept dragging his bloodied soul into church week after week, and making sure he surrounded himself with God’s people. Sure enough, the time came when the dark thoughts loosened and let go.

Being part of a healthy church gives us tremendous help when we’re hurting:

  • Hearing a good sermon can give us perspective.
  • Sharing our story with others, then receiving prayer and support from them can give us emotional relief.
  • Listening to the music can be soothing as lotion on dry skin.
  • Serving someone else in ministry can break the spell of self-centeredness that has us in its grip.
  • The mere habit or ritual of seeking fellowship keeps other bad habits at bay.

In the end, quitting usually only makes things worse. Quit the exercise, the weight will win. Quit the marriage, a quantum leap in misery will likely occur. And quit God? My goodness, sin and Satan will be chomping at the bit for you to do that.

Then sooner or later, the breakthrough of grace comes. Like Asaph, we suddenly wake up one morning, and we see things just a little differently. There’s more light than darkness. More hope than grief. A solution presents itself we couldn’t see before. Doors we thought would remain forever shut magically open.

The key though is to keep ourselves in the palm of God’s hand, even when we can’t see or feel him near.

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What do all these have in common?

Wiccans drawing down the moon in a midnight ritual

Two Mormon lads in nice white shirts and ties knocking on a door.

The Jihadist strapping a vest of dynamite around his chest.

The Catholic grandmother fingering his rosary beads.

The Japanese Buddhist nailing a prayer card to a sacred tree devoted to her ancestors.

The Baptist Christian poring over an open Bible on his lap.

What do all these have in common? They are each searching for an experience of God.  When Isaiah cried out in 64:1 – “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!” he was speaking for all seekers and worshippers over the ages who have looked up to the skies and felt a yearning for their Maker.

If we make an idol out of needing an experience, we may risk missing out on God entirely in our journey, or – and this is scary – replacing him altogether.

We live in a day and age when people yearn for an “experience”. It’s no longer enough just to go to the movies. Today theaters are scrambling to come up with new ideas to put people in the seats – recliner seats, and gourmet sandwiches and 3-course meals brought straight to you. The movie is no longer enough. And talk about the movie: if the first three minutes don’t grab you by the throat in some fashion, its ranking on Rotten Tomatoes will dive.

Even my health insurance provider has added a new page when you log in to pay your bill. It reads: Your experience is about to begin. (Provide credit card number. Ooooooh! Click “Pay Bill”. Aaaaaaah!)

Churches also have caught this experiential wave. We now have countdown clocks leading us to the opening greeting. And high octane (and flawlessly played) music to bring us into “worship”. I was in a church recently where I accidentally got a hold of the soundman’s itinerary. Literally every beat of the service was timed out in advance to the minute. Scripture reading by 9:28, the Message by 9:31, and Benediction by 10:09.

These things aren’t necessarily a bad thing. “All things decently and in order,” the Bible instructs for our worship services. As a worship leader, I don’t want to be sloppy in my playing or singing. But…with this type of experience-management, a wise pastor should recognize that if we’re not careful, we are oh-so-close to evicting the presence of God straight out of our sanctuary and replacing him with a human-concoction.

Frankly, the “experience” of God cannot be managed. And when you begin to study all that Scripture teaches about experiencing God, we learn that a genuine spiritual life is not one experience after another, but instead has long gaps of time where we “walk by faith not by sight”. If we make an idol out of needing an experience, we may risk missing out on God entirely in our journey, or – and this is scary – replacing him altogether.

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In 2 Corinthians 4:7 Paul writes, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”

Paul is writing to a group of Christians here who are experiencing God in powerful ways. But they’ve grown a little obsessed with their experience, and arrogant too. So he writes to remind them that while we should seek God with the expectation of experiencing his presence and power, it’s not a constant thing.

Far from it. The Christian life is one of cross-bearing, on a narrow and lonely road, where there is real suffering, and sometimes the only thing keeping you going is naked faith without the warm fuzzies of experience.

Paul compares us to “jars of clay”. Jars of clay are fragile. Easily broken. Easily worn out. Short-lived.

These words of Paul are included in a famous (and lively) worship song. It’s so easy for us to sing: “I’m pressed but not crushed, persecuted not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed.”  But when it comes to actually having to go through it, it’s not so easy to sing anymore.

Jesus warned us about having shallow roots to our faith that wouldn’t be able to endure hardship. Matthew 13:20 – “The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.  But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time.  When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.” 

I want you to notice something that Jesus makes clear – Christians in this life receive extra hardship over what everyone else gets. We not only get the everyday trouble – the rain which falls on the just and unjust. That’s not all, Johny, but tell these Christians what else they’ve won!

We get the suffering of persecution – of people who mock us for our faith. We get the suffering of fighting off temptation and needing to acquire spiritual discipline. We get the suffering which comes when God seems to just disappear – what the saints of old have called the “dark night of the soul”. Then we get the suffering which God intentionally brings us through. Like Israel coming out of Egypt, like Jesus after his baptism, God will bring each of us into a spiritual desert where you feel alone, hard-pressed, perplexed, struck down.

Jars of clay, baby.

Christians in this life receive extra hardship over what everyone else gets.

But the suffering isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When a butterfly is trying to bust out of the cocoon, it struggles in a way that appears almost violent to our eyes. And if you came across that butterfly, you’d be tempted to help it out for pity’s sake. Maybe widen the slit in the cocoon so it could pop it open, with less exertion. But if you were to do that, you would doom that butterfly to a life without flying, and an early death.

Why? Because it needs that struggle to strengthen its wings. It needs to feel hemmed in, hard-pressed, perplexed to become all that it was meant to be.

My friend, Jesus wants you to fly. For that reason, the Christian life will not be one experience of God after another. You should be glad for that! You don’t become a Christian so that you can now lay back on some chaise lounge, having angels fan you and Jesus feeding you grapes.

When you become a Christian, God girds you with armor – why armor? Because you’ve got a battle ahead for you. But if you persevere and press on and never surrender – guess what?  You will experience God in the end in a far deeper and richer way than you could ever possibly imagine.

Romans 5:3 – “We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

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That God can speak is consistent with the truth that God exists. The creator of the mouth is capable of speech (so take that, Joy Behar).

God has a variety of ways to get his message across. First on his list is nature. Creation is God’s calling card. But then God does us one better, by seeing that his thoughts got put down on paper.

It’s great that the Egyptians left behind pyramids, but the greatest gift the ancients left to their progeny came from a smallish Semitic tribe called the Jews who left us with a book, whose final form we now call the Bible.

The Bible is God’s Word, Christians say. Scholars tell us that this is God’s special revelation to the human race. Because whereas looking at nature, God’s general revelation, only gets us so far in knowing God, the Bible writes it out for us in the greatest detail, through history, and poems and letters and biographies and prophecies.

How did the Bible come into being? Here’s what the Bible says about itself. 2 Peter 1:20-21 – “You must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

The Bible is your compass. It is bread from heaven. A lamp to your feet. It is honey for your lips. It is truth to guide you. Counsel to protect you. Commands to prosper you. Medicine to heal you.

Christians say that the Bible’s writing was “inspired by God.” God used the personality, and the writing style, and the grammar of the individual authors of Scripture (and there were 40 of them who wrote over a period of 1,500 years) and through them, God spoke to us the words he wanted us to hear about himself. (There’s also ample evidence for why we believe the words these 40 wrote down were supernatural in origin, but that’s for another article.)

It’s from the Bible then that we learn that there is only one God, and that God is good, loving and relational.

It’s from the Bible that we learn the will of God – the behaviors he approves of (because they honor his loving character and help us become more like him), and behaviors he warns us against (because they dishonor him and drive us into idolatry and self-destruction.)

It’s from the Bible we learn how to approach God, and seek him, and please him, and know him.

And most mind-boggling of all, from the Bible we learn that God came to earth clothed in human skin, in the person of Jesus Christ.

If you want to know and experience God, then the Bible is your roadmap. It is a rock on which to plant your feet. It is your compass. It is bread from heaven. A lamp to your feet. Honey for your lips. Truth to guide you. Counsel to protect you. Commands to prosper you. Medicine to heal you. Water to cleanse you. Fire to warm you. A summons to inspire you.

Next to Jesus Christ himself, there is no greater gift that the human race has been given than this book. Don’t you think it’s time to get this in your hands, open up its pages and begin to explore the riches of this life-changing treasure-house of wisdom?

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Healing is a touchy area with me. I spent two years with an unhealthy Pentecostal church back in college, where I witnessed firsthand how the Bible can be twisted oh so subtly to make Chicanery Soup. I had grown up in churches where Christ was talked about but seldom experienced. I wanted His Power and Presence. When I finally crossed paths with a group of people who claimed to have it, I dove in with both feet. Only to learn in time, as Bono once sang, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. 

Still I’m grateful for those two years, for it did show me that following Christ is not all something you just have to take “on faith”. We can taste and see that the Lord is good, as the Bible says, it’s just not a continual experience, one warm-fuzzy after another as I was told. Even Paul for all his mighty experiences still came round to saying “we walk by faith, not by sight”.

I developed a rule for my life as I transitioned from that church into another that was far more balanced and biblical: Let God be God. In other words, if God shows up, then you’ll know it. It’ll be obvious. I won’t have to conjure something up, or twist the facts to convince myself that it was Him.

Take healing for example. I have no doubt that I have experienced God’s healing in my life on occasion. I’ve had nausea vanish through prayer. A food poisoning episode I went through once dramatically and suddenly ended. One April morning in Minnesota, I flew off the back step after an overnight ice storm and landed hard, three steps down, on solid concrete. A “Voice” or something immediately welled up inside me and said, “Praise me!” and as I did, my head cleared, the pain went away, and I spent the rest of the day trying to conjure up some sort of injury so I could get some sympathy from my wife, but I didn’t have even a broken nail to show for it.

I have no doubt that these were moments when God showed up, and gave me a little gift of his love. But then I’ve had plenty of the other. Bowing weakly and heaving mightily before the Porcelain Throne. Colds that took weeks to dry up. Years later after that ice storm, I blew out my back snow-shoveling and that injury has been a constant companion ever since. I have suffered from psoriasis my whole life, and rather than dramatically heal me, God has essentially said to me, “Use your medicine.”

We see the same mixed bag through Scripture. Elisha did more miracles than any other prophet, yet died of a sickness. Paul did more miracles than any other apostle, yet carried a “thorn-in-the-flesh” in his body that God would not heal, because he wanted his power revealed in Paul’s weakness.

Jesus taught that faith can heal, and his brother James taught that prayer could raise up the sick person (so therefore our attitude in facing sickness can make a huge difference, and we certainly should talk to God about the creaks and moans our bodies make.) But Jesus didn’t heal everyone, couldn’t heal some, and the book of Hebrews tells us that sometimes our faith can lead to mighty deliverances from God, and sometimes it can lead to a prison cell or torture or scarcity or worse.

Let God be God. 

There’s just no way to package this into a nice, tidy theological sound-bite, where we can confidently proclaim God will do this if we do that. (And if you run into somebody who has God all figured out, best to run the other way.)

What do we do then? Well, we do what we should always do. We seek him. We run into his big, fatherly arms. We don’t go and sin our heads off. We lock eyes with our Maker, our Lord, our King and our Friend, and we don’t break the gaze. And we say like David over and over again, “I love you, O Lord, my strength.”

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I had just finished my coffee and time of devotions, and before I got started with the day’s work, I went down to the basement to lift a quick set of weights.

Janis had been on a cleaning blitz, and I noticed that the basement was particularly tidied up since the last time I had been down there, and it brought a smile to my face. She really had worked hard on it. There were neat stacks everywhere, things were put away, goodness she had even cleaned the cat litter, and that’s my job.

As I set up the weights, I thanked God for my wife and asked him to bless her day. It was a nice, warm-fuzzy moment – until I saw that the mirror on the wall was gone. Any weightlifter understands that it’s tough to lift weights without a mirror. And don’t misunderstand: it’s not that you want to look at yourself – it’s really to be able to see if someone comes up from behind you to scare you. You don’t want to be scared and drop a weight on your foot.

A cloud blew over that sunny moment I’d been having. “Now where did that silly woman put my mirror?” I asked myself. I looked around and couldn’t find it. The cloud became bigger and darker, started to mushroom like one of those big, mountainous thunderheads. The more I looked, and the longer I couldn’t find it, the more ticked off I was getting.  Lightning was now going off in my head.

One of the reasons we call the day of his death Good Friday is because of the goodness Jesus brings to birth in our hearts when we accept his sacrifice.

After ten minutes of scrounging around, at last I found it – in the garbage can, broken into pieces. She must have knocked it off the wall while she was cleaning. That’s when the Lord intervened with a cuff to the back of my head.  “Hey nimrod – how ‘bout you breaking the stovetop last Thanksgiving. I think that cost a little more than your precious ten dollar mirror.  Don’t you dare get angry at her. You can see how hard she was trying.”

I’d never had the Spirit of God call me a nimrod before, but there it was. Thankfully, I received the Lord’s rebuke, repented for my trying to give way to the dark side of my personality, went and lifted weights and before long, all the warm fuzzies had washed back in, just as before.

Now you need to understand something. There was a day in my life when there was no turning back from that storm that was brewing inside of me. There was a day when in my own stupidity and selfishness, I would have opened both barrels on Janis when she got home. Even though in the grand scheme of things it was really nothing at all, I would have found a way to squash her and make her feel wretched.

I’m not claiming perfection by a long shot – there’s a real beast in me that’s alive and well, the Bible calls it my sin nature. And Janis and I continue to miss the mark with each other over and over again.

But Jesus Christ is also alive and well inside of me, and as I have learned to submit to his leadership in my life, he has helped me bring to heel many of these ugly things inside of me. In the school of holiness I’ve advanced – maybe from first grade to third or fourth, but it is a moving forwards.

Jesus died for our sins we are told. One of the reasons we call the day of his death Good Friday is because of the goodness he brings to birth in our hearts when we accept his sacrifice. In this week’s worth of devotions we’ll unpack how that transformation happens.

Now go and give someone you’ve mistreated recently a hug and ask them to forgive you and ask God for help in doing better.

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“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” ~ Proverbs 9:5-6

This little proverb describes the journey of how a life can change for the better. First, we must come…come to Jesus, for we were made by God and for God, and without a relationship with him, we’ll be lost before we even begin the journey.

Then we must “eat of his bread”. We must let Jesus teach us how to live rightly. Without the nourishment of his Word, we won’t have the strength or direction to continue the journey.

The phrase “and drink of the wine I have mixed” tells us that to take this journey, we must be prepared to suffer.

In Mark 10, James and John came before Jesus, and asked if they could sit beside him on his throne once his kingdom was established. Jesus asked them, “Are you able to drink the cup I drink?” They glibly said, “Yes,” but they had no idea what they were talking about. Jesus was saying, “Are you ready to follow me on the road to suffering?” (James, incidentally, was the first of the original 12 disciples to be martyred. Be careful what you ask for.)

If you want to learn how to conquer sin and become a more loving, Christlike person, then know up front that suffering will be part of the deal.

Proverbs 9 begins with the words, “Wisdom has built her house…She has hewn out its seven pillars.” The writer compares building a life to building a house. When you come to Christ and give him your life, Jesus is not just going to add on a room to the building of your life, or splash on a fresh coat of religious paint, so that you look good. That’s not Christianity.  When Jesus comes into your life, he wants to tear your house down to the bare studs and rebuild your life from the ground up.

I like that word ‘hewn’. Have you ever split wood? When you swing that ax, you’re hewing.  And what you do after you hew is you say, “Whew! Glad that’s through.” (Perhaps after reading that last sentence you’re thinking, “Pew!”)

Hewing is hard work. So is building a life. Building a marriage that is strong and life-giving – takes hard work. Overcoming a nasty habit that’s been part of you for years – it’s hard.  Developing spiritual discipline – not easy. Some people say, “Time heals all wounds.” Time heals nothing. It just drives the scars and splinters deeper.

Healing will not come until you say, “You know what! There’s a splinter here, and this has got to come out.” And there’ll be screaming and there’ll be howling, there’ll be spewing while you’re hewing, and it will hurt, and you’ll want to quit. But for those who have the guts to address the splinter and do what it takes to get it out, Jesus will help them to learn to live in a way they never knew how before.

Building a marriage that lasts, walking away from an addiction, learning how to love – there’s nothing harder. It takes real suffering. But it’s worth every drop of blood, sweat and tears.  Jesus shed the blood. You shed the sweat. And that will bring the beast inside you to heel.

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“I love you, O Lord my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.” (Ps.18:2)

So wrote King David, nearly 3,000 years ago in one of his best loved psalms. We know this was a popular psalm because the writer of 1 & 2 Samuel – a biography of David’s life – includes it in his work, right before David speaks his last words in 2 Samuel 22. It’s understandable. The psalm is Shakespearean in its writing and epic in its scope as David describes how God has delivered him from trouble time and time again.

So many of God’s names in the Bible refer to his power to deliver. The Hebrews spoke of God as Jehovah-Rapha: the Lord our Healer, who delivers from sickness. And Jehovah-Jireh: the Lord our Provider, who delivers from need. Also Jehovah-Nissi: the Lord our banner, who delivers us in battle, when enemies come against us. Jehovah-Shalom: The Lord our peace, who delivers from despair. Jehovah-Tsidkenu: The Lord our Righteousness, who delivers us from sin.

My friend, when you think of God, do you think of him as your Deliverer? If that’s not on your radar, then learn some lessons from Psalm 18.

The first lesson David wants you to learn is to acknowledge that God has delivered you already.

David finds it easy to think of ways to describe God. It pours from his lips in verse 2. “The Lord is my rock, my fortress…my shield, my stronghold.” All he has to do is call to mind the countless ways he has experienced God delivering him from trouble in the past. You could do the same.

It’s not that you’ve never experienced God’s deliverance before. You’ve just never recognized it and acknowledged it. So give credit where credit is due. I believe when we get to heaven and look back on this life through the infrared lens of eternity, that we’ll be able to see time after time when grace and good fortune was given to us, and come to find out, it was God providing it.

I’d encourage you to take a moment right now to write your own little psalm of praise to your Maker. I’d challenge you to put in your own words how you have experienced God’s deliverance in your own life. Write out, “The Lord is my…” then fill in the blank. Go ahead, I dare you.

You may say, “But what about all the bad things that have happened? And are happening still?” To which I’d respond by saying: Give it a rest! We spend so much time, most of us, fixated on the bad things in life. For once, I encourage you to orient your mind in a new direction. If you remember your “What About Bob?”, Take a vacation from your problems. 

For two minutes, let go of life’s problems. (Trust me, they’ll still be waiting for you when you’re done.)  For two minutes, think about what’s good about your life. Bono of U2 wrote their classic Beautiful Day after realizing that he spent far too much time consumed with life’s countless injustices. The absence of praise had coarsened his heart.

Gratitude can be a doorway for finding God and experiencing his peace. We enter his gates with thanksgiving, Scripture says.

So say the words with David: The Lord is my _______”. Better yet, let this phrase purse your lips and penetrate your heart: I love you, O Lord my _____ “.

Say that ten times…and call me in the morning.

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What’s the last thing you usually hear before a redneck dies? ‘Hey y’all – watch this!’           

Go ahead. Laugh a little. It’s good for you.

Did you know that joy and Jesus go hand in hand? You might not know it by walking into many a church, but it’s true. Joy is part of the birthright of being a Christian.

A duck walks into the drugstore and asks for a tube of ChapStick. The cashier says to the duck, ‘That’ll be $1.49’. The duck replies, ‘Put it on my bill’.

Jesus wants his followers to have joy. How do we know that? Well, first Jesus said so.

Our Lord said in John 15:10-11:“If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” 

Joy is part of the birthright of being a Christian. 

Furthermore, we know God wants you to have joy in your life because joy is one of the nine fruit of the Spirit which God gives to every believer. 

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22) When you become a Christian and the Holy Spirit indwells your heart, seeds for each of these virtues are planted in you. And God will help each of these virtues to grow in you, if you let him.

Scientists who study human behavior will say that people’s dispositions and moods are largely innate, a product of birth and genetics. Some babies are born happy, some are born grumpy. No doubt, a good deal of who we are is a product of how God wires us.

But the good news of Christianity is that genetics is not destiny. The good news of Christianity is that by the power of Christ in us, we can change, we can alter our course, we can set sail for new horizons. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” the Bible promises (Galatians 2:20).

Thirdly, we know that God wants his people to have joy because joy is at the very heart of God’s nature, and we are created in his image. 

Zephaniah 3:17 says, “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” 

The good news of Christianity is that genetics is not destiny.

If you could lock eyes with Jesus right how, what expression do you imagine would be on his face?  If many a Christian were to honestly answer that question, they would imagine God frowning at them, or worse shaking his head in disgust, or worst of all, angry on the verge of banishing them from his sight.

But Zephaniah says that God takes great delight in you, and – imagine this! – sings over you. You say, “But I’m such an idiot. I blow it time and time again. If I am one of his sheep, then I must be the blackest sheep in the herd.” But this is where you’re getting it all mixed up.

God knows all this about you and me already. God knows that the infection of sin is in us, and he knows that getting it out is going to be a long, hard struggle. What do you think the Cross of Jesus Christ is all about anyway? 

It’s God being angry at me, you say.

But you’re wrong. It’s about God being angry at sin, and at Satan, but not you. “For God so loved the world that he gave his son.”

Let your mind chew on this one – it wasn’t just God’s wrath and anger at sin that sent Jesus to the cross. It was love and joy for you and me.

The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus, “for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame.” (12:2).

What joy could Jesus possibly feel in the thought of going to the cross? you ask. The joy of you being forgiven, cleansed, made new by his sacrifice, and adopted into God’s family, never to be lost again. That joy.

So reach out to Jesus right this minute. Receive his forgiveness and love afresh, and ask him right now, “Lord Jesus, fill my heart with your joy today.”

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Philippians 4:4-8 teaches that a follower of Christ is connected to a limitless supply of joy. We can find joy in the Lord. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul writes (vs.4). Scripture urges us not to forget the benefits of our faith and lose the joy we are meant to have in Christ (Ps.103:2).

We can find joy with the Lord. “The Lord is near,” Paul writes in verse 5. Jesus’ desire is that his joy would be in us, and that this experience of joy would be full and overflowing (John 15:11). This joy diminishes anxiety, increases gratitude, and secures us with peace (vss.6-7).

Finally, Paul teaches that a follower of Christ will experience joy for the Lord. He says in verse 8: “Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” 

What do we mean, joy for the Lord? Think about it this way: Is joy, in and of itself, a good and godly thing?

Not at all. Joy is just an emotion, pure and simple. Joy is the raw sensation of something giving you pleasure. God gave us bodies and minds for feeling pleasure, but that’s not to say that every pleasure our bodies and minds feel is from God.

There are some people who experience joy when they look at the images of unclothed children. It’s real pleasure that they feel. Others experience joy as a drug courses through their veins. It’s a real surge of endorphins firing in their brains. Serotonin levels rising in their blood. Does that mean it’s good and godly? Not on your life. There are some people who experience joy when they put the competition out of business, or when they climb the corporate ladder on the top of the heads of someone else.

It depends what the joy is for which shows whether it is good and godly or not. If the joy is for something that is consistent with God’s goodness and holiness, then that joy will be life-giving. If the joy you feel is for something selfish or evil, then you have a serious problem on your hands. That joy will destroy your life in the end.

“There is a way that seems right to a man,” the Bible says, “but in the end it leads to death”.  The Bible has only one thing to say to the person like this – Repent! Recognize the sorry, damnable state of your life and fall at Jesus’ feet and beg him to have mercy on you. Beg him to forgive you and wash your sins away. Beg him to give you a new heart and mind that take pleasure in the right things.

What makes becoming a Christian difficult is there’s still this old, nasty part of you that’s very much alive and kicking, which wants nothing to do with God and takes pleasure in all the wrong things.

But the good news of our faith is that all this can be unlearned. With the Lord’s help we can train our minds to “take captive our thoughts” and focus on what is true, honorable, just, pure and lovely. As the mind of Christ grows within us, we then experience joy for the Lord.

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There’s a reason biblical Christianity swept away centuries of Greek and Roman paganism in a few generations – and no, it’s not because the Christians killed all the pagans. Christians had absolutely no power whatsoever for more than three centuries, yet it spread over the Roman empire like a wildfire. Why?

Because the Christians spoke a message unlike any that had ever been heard before, then backed up the message with lives unlike any that had been lived before.

And the message was simple. You are radically broken. You are radically loved. And you are radically called to the most meaningful life possible.

After years of swimming in self-esteem pablum, a lot of the little narcissists we’ve created have a hard time grasping the first truth, that we are broken and sinful. But truth is still truth. Take away our comforts and the props of civilized society, and just watch. Our world will become a Walking Dead universe overnight.

The second truth takes on its greatest meaning when you understand the first truth. In spite of the fact that we’re selfish little brutes who live short miserable lives, the God who created us sees in us such beauty, nobility, and worth that he launched the greatest rescue mission ever undertaken.

Now forgiven of his or her sin through Christ, the seeker of God then learns a third radical truth: that they are called to the most meaningful life possible and the highest destiny imaginable.

We are called to grow in Christlikeness and love.

This was God’s original intent when he created us. Ephesians 1:4 tells us that even before “the foundation of the word” God chose us to be “holy and blameless in his sight.” Then humans fell into sin and rebellion, setting up a little detour we call human history. But now in Christ, God returns us to the path of our original destiny. To grow in holiness and grow in love.

To put it another way, we are called to push back against the evil that still lurks inside of us (we are called to be holy). And we are called to push back against the evil that still lurks outside of us in the world (we are called to grow in love, so that others might experience God’s goodness as well.)

Our world is drowning in narcissism on one hand, and nihilism on the other. Nothing can lift us above these dreary philosophies more than the radical call that God places on us in Christ.

Jordon Peterson, a professor of psychology from the University of Toronto has become a rock star in our time, because of his message to his listeners to stop yelling for “freedom and rights” and instead follow the path of “truth and responsibility”.

First, we need to dispense of the “I’m a snowflake” nonsense by admitting our brokenness (Truth #1).

“It’s self-evident that we are flawed and there are things to be done about that,” he says.

But don’t stop there. Peterson then calls his listeners to listen to the call of God within them that they possess incredible worth to the universe (Truth #2).

“One of the highest moral obligations you have is to treat yourself like you’re a person of value,” Peterson says. “Recognize your divine worth.”

But don’t stop there. Now lift yourself up above your narcissism or nihilism and do something meaningful with your life (Truth #3).

“It’s self-evident that the world is a place of suffering and there are things to be done about that,” he says. “So become a force for good in this world.”

Sounds like Christianity to me.

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“Now all this came to pass, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Behold the Virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which is, being interpreted, ‘God with us’.” ~ Matthew 1:22-23

Prophecy. Quick somebody. Strike up the X-Files theme song. Because the Bible is filled with predictive prophecy. No other religion offers predictive prophecy to the world as proof of its truthfulness. Christianity does.

Sometimes we Christians take this astonishing part of our faith for granted, and forget what a powerful thing this is to have in our corner. It’s like being in line to take an expensive tour of all the movie stars’ homes in Hollywood, and then remembering, “Wait, Bradley Cooper is my uncle. He can show us around town.” It’s like trying to get a loan from the bank and they ask if you have any collateral, and you say, “Not really, I’ve just got a brand new Lamborghini sitting in the garage that I inherited from my folks. Is that worth anything?” Prophecy is a powerful part of our Christian witness.

What sort of prophecies are in the Bible? There are dozens of prophecies about what would happen to Israel throughout its history – all fulfilled or being fulfilled as we speak. There are dozens of prophecies about what would happen to the nations around Israel – all fulfilled or being fulfilled. There are countless prophecies about the condition of the earth in the last days, and what would take place in those days – and my goodness, a stage is being set up as we speak.

And there are more than sixty specific prophecies about the Messiah laid down 500 to 900 years before Jesus was born – all fulfilled by Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Such as this one Matthew records from the prophet Isaiah.

Why did God put prophecy in the Bible? There are two primary reasons.

First, to convict unbelievers.

Quite a few fantasy movies in recent years have made great use of the idea of prophecy in their stories. In “The Matrix” Neo was ‘the One’ foretold. The Harry Potter saga was driven along by prophecy. In “Lord of the Rings” Frodo was ‘meant’ to have the ring.

But no one stops for a moment to ponder the implications of the existence of true prophecy. For prophecy to actually exist, that would mean there must be an overarching supernatural power above time that is guiding existence along.

If the Bible is filled to the brim with prophecies and it can be demonstrated that those prophecies were spoken long before their fulfillment took place, then what you’d have is undeniable, irrefutable evidence that the God we Christians worship is real. It would be evidence that we – in our stubbornness and hardness or hearts – would not be able to explain away (see Isaiah 49:4).

A second reason why God inserted prophecy in his Word was to console believers.

On Easter day, Jesus appears beside two disciples along the road to a village called Emmaus. They’re moping along, and like Eeyore they tell Jesus how Jesus was arrested and crucified. Then they say, “And then this morning some women came to us and told us they saw an angel who told them that Jesus was alive, and they found the tomb empty but him they did not see.”

At this, Jesus has had it with their whining. He turns to them and says, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25) Then Luke adds this flourish: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)

Life is hard, and there are a lot of times when we’re tempted to let loose our inner Eeyore. What do you do in those moments, when God doesn’t feel close, or you’re not even sure if he’s there, or maybe you’ve made this whole thing up?

It’s in times like that, that you call to mind the undeniable, unexplainable wonders that are found in our faith, such as an empty tomb. Or fulfilled prophecies which foretold that tomb centuries earlier.

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“When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priest and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means last among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’” ~ Matthew 2:3-6

Last time in discussing the Wisemen we made the case that one of the great truths about human nature worth knowing is that we are stupid. Now don’t go running to your safe space. What we mean is that spiritually speaking, we are incapable of knowing God on our own. We need God to make the first move. (“Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till He appeared…”).

The next few verses of the Christmas story double-down on this narrative of numbskullness. We meet Dumb and Dumber.

First, there’s Dumb. His name is Herod. Unlike the Wisemen, King Herod we know a lot about. He ruled as a Roman-appointed king over Judea for 33 years. And this guy is one nasty dude. Picture Tony Soprano in a tunic. To preserve his power, Herod murdered his wife, three of his sons, his mother-in-law, his brother-in-law, and an uncle. Whacked ‘em all. (And later, a village-full of infants.)

Here’s what I find fascinating about this story. Herod knew that there were prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures regarding the coming Messiah. In fact, there were not a few nut-jobs who appeared on the scene every now and then proclaiming that they were the One. (And when they showed up, Herod whacked ‘em.)

Here was a new twist however. A third party came on the scene saying, “The Messiah’s been born; God’s given us an unmistakable sign; can you help us find him?” (Which when you think of it, was a most unwise thing for the wisemen to do. You don’t go up to the then-reigning king and inform him that his replacement is nearby, and can you help us locate him?)

Herod calls together the religious leaders. Here we meet Dumber. Herod asks them, “Where’s the Messiah, the Christ, supposed to be born?” He has enough belief to consult the Holy Book and use it as some sort of guide. But he can’t put two and two together to realize that if the Holy Book is true, then maybe he ought to be changing a few things in his life. That’s dumb.

The religious leaders though are dumber. For they know their Bibles backwards and forwards. They teach it. They breathe it in, day and night. Yet these are the same people who thirty years later will fight Jesus tooth and nail every step of the way, even though they and can see Jesus fulfilling Scriptures very words.

Humans haven’t changed any. There are plenty of people today like Herod who know enough about real faith but still reject it. Goodness, how can you go through an entire Christmas season, listen to the music, listen to Linus explain Christmas to Charlie Brown, and still not put two and two together. Still not have the slightest curiosity awakened in you to say, “Hmm, I wonder, could there be something about this. Maybe I need to find out more.”

Then there are people just like the religious leaders. They go to church, they read the Scriptures, they listen to the sermons, they sing in the choir, they’ve got box seats to all of it, and still it doesn’t take hold of their heart. They too just drift through their lives unchanged, unaffected.

But don’t sit there and shake your head or finger at any of these. Look inside your heart first, and make sure none of this silliness and stupidity is inside of you. 

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“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wisemen, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.” ~ Matthew 2:16-17

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” And for many, Christmas is just that. It’s like God gives the world a spiritual shot of heavenly novocaine which deadens us to the pain and nastiness of life for a short while.

A few Christmas Eve’s ago, backing out of a parking lot, I bumped into another car. To my dismay, I had left a softball size dent in the man’s rear panel. I hung my head and reached into my car to retrieve my insurance information.  The man whom I hit looked at his car and said, “Friend, don’t worry about it. I have a buddy who can get that dent out in a jiffy. This is an old car. It happens. Merry Christmas.”

But for many, it’s hard to feel any of that joy. How many commercials celebrate the joy of family, but what do you do if your family is a hot mess, or you’re separated from your family, or tragedy has picked off friends and loved ones that you’ll never see again. Guess there’s no Christmas for you.

Christmas is all about giving and getting, we’re told. But what if you have nothing to give, because you have no job, no money, no health, no opportunity, no hope. Guess there’s no Christmas for you.

A recent study pinpointed Christmas Eve as the one day of the year where there are more heart-attacks than any other. Loneliness is rampant. Suicide hot-lines ring off the hook at Christmas. Sorrow and weariness which runs like a low-grade fever the rest of the year, becomes soul-crushing at Christmas.

But that’s when we have to return to the Christmas story. The real one. The one that’s in our Bible’s.

Right here in the heart of it we see a tyrant king, a Hitler of the 1st-century, bringing anguish to countless families who will never be the same again because of what they suffer. If you think the overall message of Christmas is that this world is so wonderful, so cheer up – you couldn’t be any more wrong.

No, this world is broken almost beyond comprehension. The reason the Christmas story gives me hope is because it shows me a God who sees full-well how bad this world is. And then he does something unexpected. He actually enters into this world to do something about it. No, he doesn’t just snap his fingers and rid the world of Herod (because then he would have to rid the world of me because I have a little Herod stomping about in my heart.)

The reason the Christmas story gives me hope is because it shows me a God who sees full-well how bad this world is.

God’s ridding the world of evil requires another way. A longer way. A more hidden way. But a way far more real, life-changing and world-changing than we could ever imagine.

So don’t despair. Or think you’re missing out on something. Dear one, it’s not yet Christmas. Give your life afresh over to Jesus right now, and you won’t miss out on a thing. There’s an amazing Christmas coming, just for you.

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A third truth Solomon teaches us about time in Ecclesiastes 3 is this: Time comes in seasons.  “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven.” 

If you really want to screw your life up, then ignore this truth about time.

What’s a season? It’s a period of time characterized by particular circumstances, opportunities and limitations. Winter is a season. It’s characterized by particular circumstances – typically much colder temperatures, snow, shorter days – and winter opens up particular opportunities – special holidays, skiing, fires, hot chocolate, and gives us particular limitations – no picnics, gardens, beachdays or suntans. Each season is like that.

Because a season is like this, it can be predicted and prepared for. Because there is a rhythm and an order to life, seasons should never come as a surprise to us. There are always things we should be doing to get ready for the changing of a season. You don’t wait till winter to cut your firewood. You don’t wait till summer to plant your garden.You don’t wait till the storm comes to fill up your pantry. You don’t wait till the Big One comes to prepare your earthquake kit.

What does this have to do with life, and the use of time? Only everything!

Seasons can be predicted and prepared for.

There are things you ought to be doing in your teen years that will make your 20s go smoother. Parents, you’re to help in this. You’re not to be your child’s best friend. Not now. Not in this season. Your job is to prepare your child for life as an adult, so that you can give to the world someone who is a good, decent, responsible human being.

There are things you ought to be doing in your 20s to make your 30s go smoother. Things in your 30s to prepare for your 40s. And you don’t have endless time to waste. And if you miss your appointment with time, then the road ahead will be harder for you. Or you’ll miss the appointment altogether.

What’s frightening about this great adventure Janis and I are on with Jesus – selling our home, stepping down from jobs, moving to California, me taking a year off from work to write – is that we’re in our 50s, a season where the clock is ticking and we should be doing everything we can to shore up our savings, not depleting it. I’m not unaware of the rules we are breaking to do this. I’ve been teaching those rules for years. I’m not unaware of the season of life I am in.

But in a way it was precisely recognizing the season of life I was in that propelled me to take this chance. I’ve written stories since I was a boy. And my mind never stops churning out stories and books and ideas. And so I realized, “Unless I want to be one of those people who on his deathbed is filled with regret about all the things they never did, then it’s now or never.”

The clock is ticking on my life. So I took the leap. And because of it, novels and screenplays and websites and a ministry exist that never existed before. There are still no guarantees of “success” for the coming days. But at least I can lay my head peacefully on my pillow on my last night on earth.

“Teach me Lord to measure my days,” the psalmwriter prayed. In other words, recognize time comes in seasons.

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Too many Christians subscribe to the notion that they don’t need to be an active, committed part of a local church family. But scripture insists that whenever we dismiss this part of faith, we not only end up weaker, but we injure the larger body of Christ.

The New Testament gives us at least a half-dozen metaphors (word-pictures) of what a healthy church is in the eyes of God, and each metaphor provides a reason why it’s critical that we move heaven and earth to get involved in one.

One of these metaphors is a “brotherhood” or family. Time and again, Christians are told to regard each other as “brothers” or “sisters”.  It is not just a cliché for us to look at each other this way.  There is something very real about this – in fact, the bond that you can have with a spiritual brother or sister can often be deeper and more intimate than the bond you may have with a physical family member.

If the church then is a family, this suggests a compelling reason to get involved in one: it will help my love for people grow through fellowship.

Because what does God expect us to do within this brotherhood or sisterhood he’s given us?  He expects us to care for each other and grow in love.

Jesus said in John 13:34 – “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  And Paul in Philippians 1:9 wrote – “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more.” 

So why do I need to be part of a local church to do this, to grow in love?

Well come on, think about it. Love by its very definition requires another person. You can’t love others when you’re by yourself. You might feel warm fuzzies for someone else on your own, but love isn’t primarily a feeling; it’s an action.

Love by its very definition requires another person. You can’t love others when you’re by yourself.

In the Bible’s famous “love chapter” (1 Corinthians 13), we’re told that love is patient. Well to display patience or grow in patience, you need to be around other people who will push your patience-buttons. Love is kind. To grow in this virtue, you need a place to test out your kindness-muscles. This requires being around others. Love does not envy. Overcoming this sin requires being part of a community where you can have this burned out of you.

The church is what we might call a laboratory of love. It’s where love can be worked on, experimented with. It’s where we get adjusted, sanded down, worked over.

Do you think this is an easy thing? Of course not. The church is filled with messed-up, broken sinners who needed Jesus to die on that cross for them. And I’m Exhibit A. And you’re Exhibit B. Don’t come into a church with the Rodney King kind of whining, “Can’t we all just get along?” as though this ought to come naturally.

But when you come into a healthy church where the Holy Spirit is present, where there is a spirit of forgiveness, grace and second-chances, slowly but surely Jesus will start to teach you how to love, and  how to care for others who are not like you except for their common need of Jesus Christ.

If you’re not part of this laboratory of love, or if every time things get difficult or complicated you pick up your toys and go somewhere else, then you won’t grow in love. The problem in church life today is people never give one another the time and space that is necessary to grow in love.

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A recent Barna study showed that nearly half of all Millennial Christians think that evangelism isn’t proper for a follower of Christ to practice. Click here.

It’s a bothersome finding, especially when you consider that our Lord was rather fond of the idea that his people “make disciples” and “fish for men” and “not hide their light under baskets” and “acknowledge him before people”. These activities point to a fourth metaphor the Bible uses to describe the Church. That of a “battalion”.

Actually, Scripture doesn’t specifically identify the Church with such a label. But the shoe fits because the Bible is filled with military references to faith. “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote Timothy (2 Tim.2:3). Christians are to be vigilant to armor up (Ephesians 6:10-17). David said of God, “You train my hands for war” (Psalm 18:34).

The church is an army of soldiers fighting to rescue people from their captivity to sin and to Satan (2 Tim.2:26; Col.1:13). It’s “through the Church that the wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). In other words, it’s through the Church that God intends to rub the devil’s nose into the fact that he may win some battles, but he’s lost the war. The meek will indeed inherit the earth.

Christ left the church on the earth for the precise purpose of being his hands and feet to reach this lost world for him. “The Church is God’s Plan A, and there is no Plan B,” someone once said. Therefore a healthy church will equip the saints on how to do this, by providing training and encouragement for outreach and evangelism.

But if we can be honest, many Christians – not just the Millennials – and entire churches struggle to prioritize and practice evangelism.

It’s easy to see why Millennials might struggle with this. They’ve grown up in a post-modern world which denies that there is any such thing as Truth, especially spiritual truth. And they breathe the air of “multiculturalism” which has drilled into them since childhood the maxim that no culture, or country or religion is “better” than another.

How do we recapture the importance of evangelism? We have to do some deeper thinking to get to that place. We can’t just think biblically by reciting the verses which tell us to share our faith. We need to press on to think theologically on why this is important to do. And when we really start to reflect on it, answers present themselves.

Some of the questions we need to ask ourselves are:

Why is it legitimate to speak of the “supremacy” of Christ? What makes him different, and yes, “better” than the other religious leaders which have arisen over time?

What is life-giving about Christian values and ethics, compared to those of other worldviews, religions and philosophies? Jesus promised that those who put his teachings into practice would experience more stability and strength than those who followed other paths (Matthew 7:24-27). How might that be true?

How has the world been made better across time because followers of Christ were acting as salt and light in the places where God planted them? And how would the world be made better if there were more practicing Christ-followers running around today?

Once you begin coming up with some solid answers to these questions, the need – even urgency – to get on the battlefield and start winning souls for Christ – will well up within you. It won’t be thought of as inappropriate, or a drudgery, but a necessity, and even privilege.

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A few Easters ago, I went on a treasure hunt in Scripture to try and uncover all the good things that Jesus gave to me through his death on the cross. I ended up with a list of six wonders. Jesus’ death opens the door for me to receive…

Propitiation/Expiation – I am freed from facing God’s wrath.

Justification – I am freed from the guilt and condemnation of my sin

Redemption – I am freed from the power of sin, death and the devil.

Adoption/Reconciliation – I am freed from my separation from God

Sanctification – I am freed from my inability to obey God

Glorification – I am freed from death

The second evil we have been freed from is: the guilt and condemnation of my sin.

Sin and shame have been together since the Garden of Eden. Before Adam and Eve sinned, the book of Genesis says that they were “both naked and they felt no shame.”  Because of their purity and innocence, Adam and Eve had nothing to hide.

Yet once they sinned, all that changed. The very first reaction they had to the act of disobedience was shame, which prompted them to sew fig leaves over themselves. The cover-up was on. And humans have been trying to coverup their sin and shame ever since.

I heard a clinical psychologist once say that half the people who came to him were looking for absolution more than a pill; they just didn’t realize it. Our fig leaves today are prescriptions and alcohol and bingeable TV – anything to keep us from facing the reality of our sin and brokenness, and our desperate hunger to find forgiveness.

Hemingway tells the story of a father estranged from his son Paco. Desperate to be reconciled, the father placed posters throughout the town – Paco meet me in the city square tomorrow at noon. All is forgiven. The next day when he went to the city square, he found more than a dozen young men named Paco waiting.

Whether you’re willing to admit it or not, you and I need forgiveness. In the classic Christian book “Pilgrim’s Progress”, John Bunyan describes the main character before his conversion as a wanderer, struggling beneath a crippling, heavy pack which presses down upon his back, forcing him to stoop and limp along. What a haunting picture of the weight of sin and shame upon us.

The good news of Christianity, and one of the reasons why we call the day Jesus died Good Friday, is that Jesus’ death on the cross makes it possible for us to receive a gift unlike any other – justification. The Bible says that we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (which if we would just be honest with ourselves, we know is true.) But then listen to what comes in the very next sentence. “…and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom.3:23-24).

Justification is a legal term. It’s used in courtrooms. An accused person who is “justified” in the eyes of the law is declared “not guilty”. The reason we can be justified in the eyes of God is not that we are “not guilty” after all. (God knows better, and so do we.) The reason we can be justified is that one who was truly “not guilty” stood in our place and took the condemnation we deserved upon himself.

For those who come to Christ and accept his gift of grace, pardon is granted. Which allows Scripture to declare: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom.8:1)

My friend, I hope you can hear the voice of God your Father crying out to you today: My child, come and meet me at the foot of the cross today. All is forgiven.

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Since Easter, we have taken a short devotional journey to explore the beauty and power of Christ’s death for us on the Cross. “Bless the Lord O my soul and forget not all his benefits,” says Psalm 103. And from the Cross pour out unfathomable benefits and blessings. Jesus’ death opens the door for me to receive…

Propitiation/Expiation – I am freed from facing God’s wrath.

Justification – I am freed from the guilt and condemnation of my sin

Redemption – I am freed from the power of sin, death and the devil.

Adoption/Reconciliation – I am freed from my separation from God

Sanctification – I am freed from my inability to obey God

Glorification – I am freed from death

Let’s consider the fifth of the Cross’ many gifts to us: what Christians call sanctification. The cross frees me from my inability to obey. 

The first four blessings of the Cross are undeniably rich. But what good is my forgiveness if I continue to do things that need to be forgiven? What good is redemption if I continue to act like a slave? What good is adoption if I continue to mock my Father to his face with rebel behavior?

Unless my sin nature is somehow disabled, unless I am changed from the inside out, history will eventually repeat itself. Is there anything in the cross of Christ that makes a provision for me to become a new person? Thankfully, the answer is a resounding yes!

Something miraculous takes place in the heart of a new Christian upon their repentance and conversion, which never took place prior to Jesus dying on the cross: God the Holy Spirit takes up residency within their hearts.

The Difference Between Then And Now

Back in Old Testament days, the Holy Spirit only came upon important people at important times and usually just to accomplish an important task. The idea of God living inside of a believer, of unpacking his suitcase and making a home there, was unheard of.

But that’s what Jesus promised. “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23)

We are truly born again. We are in reality given a new life. A fresh start. Christ himself is with us through the Holy Spirit, to guide us and help us in the journey of our lives. And why is he there? He’s called the Holy Spirit, not the Happy Spirit. Christ in us will teach us and train us to live and love like himself. Which is what sanctification literally means – to be made holy.

You may be saying to yourself right now, “Well I don’t feel all that new.” That’s because sanctification is a journey. One that will stretch across the span of our lives, and not be completed until we make it across the other side.

The Difference Between Justification And Sanctification

Justification happens in an instant. God pronounces us forgiven, and in his eyes we are cleansed and pardoned. All is forgiven. Sanctification you might say is the journey of catching up to our forgiveness.

When Lincoln declared the slaves to be emancipated, in the eyes of the law they were no longer slaves. But the next morning, I’m sure most every slave didn’t feel free. I’m sure when most of them passed a white man, they dipped their heads in subservience. I’m sure when most of them heard a white person call out to them, they trembled. They had to catch up with their emancipation.

Sanctification is the journey of catching up to our forgiveness.

A few years ago, the Lord led me to look back at my forty years of serving him, and itemize the many victories he had helped me win. I was stunned to see how much he had changed my life. He had helped me win the battle against profanity. I used to have a foul mouth. It still can bubble up at times, but largely, it’s gone. The battle against lustful thoughts. This has been a fierce, violent war in my life, which is largely in check. The battle for my marriage. If it wasn’t for Jesus in our lives, Janis and I would, in all likelihood, have not survived as a couple.

There were plenty more. The battle over anger. The battle over money-mismanagement. The battle over father-wounds. The battle over stress. The battle over depression. The battle over laziness and apathy. The battle over grief. 

In none of these areas would I pronounce myself completely free. In each one, I could quickly regress, should I neglect my daily connection with Christ, or abandon my spiritual training, or God-forbid, say to Jesus, “Okay Lord, I’ll take it from here.”

What Are You Waiting For – Start The Adventure

What Jesus asks of us here and now is that we begin the journey. Start the adventure. Let the miracle happen. The proof that you are saved is not that you’ve come this far or made this amount of progress. The sign that you’re a Christian is that you’re making the journey. The sign that you’re an apple tree is not that you’re producing ripe October apples, but that the fruit of the apple is in you, however small, however early, and gnarly, and undeveloped it appears.

It’s those who show no fruit at all, who aren’t fighting the sin that’s in them, let alone even concerned about it, those who don’t seem to care about staying close to Jesus through Bible study, prayer and fellowship, those who think because they’ve been baptized they can now coast along – those are the ones you can have doubts about.

Sooner or later the fruit of whatever tree you are shows itself.

The beauty of living under the cross is that God gives us time and space to grow. When you have a victory over sin – and you will have victories for “greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world” – you come to the cross and thank God for the miracle of grace that made this transformation possible.

And when you are defeated by sin – something that is always possible but never inevitable – you come to the cross again, and plead for the blood of Jesus to cover you, and make you clean, then ask the Father to pick you up and help you try again.

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Church architecture tells us a lot about theology when you look more closely.

Walk into most any Catholic church and what do you find center-stage? The altar, the table where the Eucharist is served in virtually every Mass.

Now walk into most any Protestant church and what do you find instead in the center? Usually, it’s a pulpit or lectern (or these days, there’s a good chance you’ll find a bistro table).

That difference in sanctuary layout tells a huge theological story – that for Protestants the teaching of the Bible is one of the most pivotal activities in their worship service.

It begs a huge question: Why do we need to be taught? And why does a healthy church insist on teaching the Bible?

Here’s one answer the Bible gives. Because we all enter the kingdom of God as spiritual babies. Paul reminds Timothy how “from childhood” he had been acquainted with Scripture, thanks to a godly mother and grandmother (2 Tim.3:15). The word translated here “childhood” literally means “infancy”. (Parents, you should see a flashing light around this verse – teach your kids early and often! Wash, rinse, repeat.)

Scripture insists that anyone who enters God’s kingdom is, spiritually speaking, a baby. 1 Peter 2:2 say, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up onto salvation.”

There was a group of American tourists vacationing in England, who were walking through a little village one day. They passed an old man sitting in a park, and one of the tourists, being a wise guy, called out in a fake English accident, “Old chap, were any great men born in this village?” The old man replied, “Nope, only babies.” We all start off as babies.

Sometimes we look at the Bible and we see Moses parting the Red Sea, David slaying Goliath, Elijah taking on the prophets of Baal, Mary and the great courage she showed in being the mother of Jesus, and rather than be inspired by them, we’re intimidated. They’re so far above us, we think. But that’s not true.

Each one of them started off as babies. And they weren’t like Jack-Jack, the baby in the Incredibles who was born with the power to shape-shift and shoot lasers from his eyes and fire from his fingers.

And you my brother, my sister, have that same opportunity in front of you. The opportunity of growing in faith. Of growing in love. Of growing in purity. Of growing in fruitfulness. Of growing in peace and joy and contentment. What will release this growth in your life?

One thing – will you or will you not commit to learning, then living out, all the Lord’s teaching? Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. That’s it. It’s no mystery.

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The story of David and Jonathan’s friendship in the Bible is a powerful template for how you and I can experience deepening friendship with others. One requirement is shared space. You have to be with a person if friendship is to blossom.

Another prerequisite we see in the story of David and Jonathan which takes their friendship to the next level is shared experiences.

My future friend C.S. Lewis said: “Friendship is born the minute one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’”

David and Jonathan were both young warriors. David has barely had a chance to show his mettle yet, but the raw material was in him. Before he faced down Goliath, he faced down a lion, and also killed a bear. David had indomitable courage. Jonathan had it too. He single-handedly (along with his servant) scrapped with a platoon of twenty Philistines and routed them. David and Jonathan both were natural leaders. Men were drawn to them and rallied to be by their side.

Shared experiences have great potential to deepen friendships. On paper at least, marriages should deepen over time, simply because of all that a husband and wife shares together. It’s sad when that doesn’t happen. After 33 years with my woman, and my best friend, I know that is true. All I have to do to get Janis’ eyes to light up is say the words: “Hannah” or “England” or “New Zealand” or “St. Louis Cardinals”. (Sports is the #1 way to my wife’s heart. Now if you believe that, I have a bridge in Utah to sell you.)

Shared experiences that forge friendships can also be dark and difficult experiences. Shared pain can link hearts together in a powerful way. Those who have served in combat have a natural affinity for one another. One veteran locks eyes with another, and at once there’s a bond that few could understand.

At the end of the Lord of the Rings movies, the four hobbits are together back in Hobbiton, sharing a drink after their indescribable adventures. No one else gets it. They’re surrounded by noise and people, but it’s as if they’re alone. They manage a smile and raise their glasses to each other, for what they have shared.

David and Jonathan were caught up together in the drama of dealing with Saul’s growing madness. Jonathan didn’t get a pass because he was Saul’s son. He was subject to his father’s wrath on occasion. And when after a short time, Saul went all ‘Game of Thrones’ on David, and tried to kill him, Jonathan didn’t hesitate in deciding who he was going to help. Because this was his friend.

Perhaps you’ve heard the Irish proverb: ‘A friend asks you what’s wrong. A good friend gives you a shoulder to cry on. A best friend helps you bury the bodies.’ That’s what Jonathan does with David. He helps him to escape his father’s wrath.

Sadly, they never see each other again. David becomes a fugitive whom Saul tirelessly hunts for the next decade. But in years to come, when God brings David at last to the throne, and Jonathan has been slain in battle, David will remember the shared experiences of friendship he had with Jonathan by caring for his disabled son.

Once again, you should see what’s needed to find friends: turn off your TV, get out of your easy chair, leave your house, and go experience life.

How do we handle disagreements with others? What do we do when a brouhaha (don’t you just love that word?) breaks out in church life? Or at home? How do we fight fair?

Paul in Romans 12:18 said, “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with one another.” It sounds good on paper. But in practice, this is hard work.

What really makes it hard is that Scripture teaches that there are multiple paths that we can take when someone hurts us. Paul told Timothy that as a pastor he needed to be ready to “correct, rebuke and encourage” (2 Tim.4:2). Sometimes people need a pep talk, and sometimes they need  a pop in the jaw. Here’s what’s tricky – any given approach might be the right one or the wrong one depending on what the situation requires.

One response the Bible teaches is called forbearance. The New Testament says in several places we’re to forbear each other. Ephesians 4:2 says, “With all humility and gentleness, with patience…[bear] with one another in love.” Colossians 3:12-13 – “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another….”

To bear with another person who has sinned against you means that you let it go. You give it over to Jesus, and choose not to make a big deal about it. It’s giving the other person a mulligan. You could throw the penalty flag if you wanted, but you pick up the flag and put it back in your pocket instead.

Psalm 130:3 says, “If you, O Lord should count sins, who could stand?

Why might forbearance be the proper response at times when someone sins against you?

For one thing: Because we’re all really good at sinning. I mean really good. The sheer quantity of stupid, selfish things that we unleash on the world because of our sin nature is immense beyond measure. Because we’re so good at sinning, do you really want to go through life taking note of each and every slight, hurt and offense?

Psalm 130:3 says, “If you, O Lord should count sins, who could stand?” If every wrong thing that we do to each other needs to be put on the table for examination, and accounted for, apologized for, made right, well, forget about it. I don’t think that’s a game we want to be playing. Because we’ll all lose.

Better to imitate Sergeant Schultz if you remember your “Hogan’s Heroes”. Sergeant Schultz would see Hogan and his fellow prisoners goofing off, and he would say with his thick German accent: “I see nothing!” Why not practice that later today when someone messes up.

Paul in his famous love poem, 1 Corinthians 13, shows that he agrees with Sergeant Schultz when he writes, “Love does not keep a record of wrongs.” Better to learn a little forbearance.

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We live a stone’s throw away from a Buddhist meditation center, and it’s not unusual on a given day to walk by a group of orange-robed monks in the neighborhood. Knowing how to interact with people from other faiths is an important skill, especially today in a world that’s so divided and filled with venom.

There are two cheap and easy responses we can make, and one harder way that is modeled by Jesus in John 4 when he strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan woman.

One easy way out is to flippantly say, “I’m right, you’re wrong; I’m smart you’re dumb; I’m in, you’re out; I’m saved, you’re not” and leave it at that.  That would be easy and thoughtless.

Another easy way out would be to flippantly say, “You know, all roads lead to God, and we just need to learn to respect each other’s deeply held beliefs.  Who are we to judge someone else’s religion?”  That too would be easy and thoughtless. Not to mention, dangerous. If there is anything our post-9/11 world has taught us is that there is a great difference between religions, and we ignore those differences at our own risk.

If we’re going to get this right, then we’d better turn to Jesus’ own example to see how he interacted with those from other faiths. Thankfully, we get to see him up close and personal when he meets this Samaritan woman. And the first lesson he shows us is this:

Jesus wants his followers to be inclusive. 

I almost hate to use this word – it’s been so abused and overused by more liberal Christians, but rather than throw the word out, let’s reclaim it.

To be inclusive as Jesus was inclusive means to accept the worth and affirm the dignity of another person regardless of their beliefs or behavior.

This Samaritan woman had great worth in Jesus’ eyes, and he proves it just by talking to her, which was doubly outrageous, for in that day and age, Jews didn’t speak to Samaritans, and men didn’t speak to women.

Yet to Jesus, here was a life created in the image of God. For that, Jesus showed her love and respect.

It’s even more surprising that he did this because of the immoral life this woman had led. She was married four times, and was right then living with a fifth man. Jesus knew all this, yet treated her kindly even so. I’m sure her self-respect hung by the thinnest of threads, if she had any at all.

We’re seeing today in startling colors the power men often wield over women. Jesus could have absolutely crushed this woman, but he reached out to her bruised feminine heart with such astounding gentleness.

This is what true inclusiveness is – it recognizes the God-given value a person possesses just by being alive, regardless of what they think or how they live.

We’re seeing today in startling colors the power men often wield over women. Jesus could have absolutely crushed this woman, but he reached out to her bruised feminine heart with such astounding gentleness.

However, this is where Jesus’ definition of inclusiveness differs from modern definitions of inclusiveness. Today we are told to accept and affirm another person along with their beliefs and behaviors. We have to accept the whole package.

Well no we don’t. As his conversation with the woman continues, Jesus points out to her where her life has gone astray, then offers her a better path to follow.

Any parent knows full-well what this is about, because they do it all the time with their children. Sure, there are times when any parent can understand how it is that some ancient religions practiced child sacrifice. (Be honest!) But instead a good parent accepts and loves their child warts and all – which brings them into a relationship with them. Then because of that relationship, they begin the work of turning this little monster of theirs into a responsible, disciplined human being. That’s Jesus’ idea of inclusiveness.

Jesus’ definition of inclusiveness differs from modern definitions of inclusiveness. Today we are told to accept and affirm another person along with their beliefs and behaviors. We have to accept the whole package. Well, no we don’t.

So when you cross paths with the Buddhist monk in his orange robe, or that bearded fellow in the grocery store who has the Sikh turban around his hair, the Jew with his skull cap, or the Arabic husband and wife who own that convenience store – remember that all of these are God’s image-bearers.

And our first response in crossing paths with them should not be anger, or mockery or condescension, but respect, love and affirmation, just as Jesus modeled it. And when you engage them in conversation your goal should not be to win a debate, but to win a person, a living, breathing person whom God loves, and for whom Jesus died.

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God asks that we love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. But what about when you don’t feel like worshiping? What about times when God seems a million miles away? When things are happening around you that don’t add up? When it’s twenty below, and spring’s a long way off.

How are you supposed to love God when it seems that God has abandoned you, or worse, seems to be slapping you around?

In times like these, I like to turn to the Book of Psalms for comfort and perspective. The psalms are actual songs/poems written by people who went through the fire and the flood, then describe how they found God in the midst of their pain. One of the most powerful of these is Psalm 73, written by a companion of King David’s named Asaph.  Reading Asaph’s words can give us some insight into how we are to worship God when we’ve lost that loving feeling.

Asaph begins Psalm 73 saying, “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.”  He starts well enough.  But then verse 2. “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.”  Asaph has experienced something which has caused him to question God’s love for him, and consequently, it was threatening to undo his love for God.

In verse 3, Asaph begins to let us see inside his heart, and why he’s thinking this way

“For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills.” (He must have watched the Golden Globes the other night.)

But then he adds this:

“This is what the wicked are like – always carefree, they increase in wealth.  Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning.” 

What is at the heart of Asaph’s struggle? He’s watching godless people lead lives of leisure, prosperity, happiness and health. Meanwhile, the godly ones, those who love God and His truth, people like himself, are getting the short end of life’s stick. For Asaph this doesn’t add up. Something’s terribly wrong with this picture.

We’re not immune from asking questions like these. When the doctor says that tests came back positive. Or the job is lost, or the job is not found. When the child becomes prodigal. When the car says, “I’m done. That’s all folks.” When the prison doors shut. When the obscenities shower down on you.

Our reflex is to say, “Hey wait a minute. This isn’t what I signed up for. God, I thought you were looking after me. Maybe this being a Christian is just a waste of time. Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure.”

We’ve all had thoughts like these at one time or another. As for the thought of worshipping God at moments like these – please.  No loving father would allow his child to go through this, we say to ourselves. God must not be very loving, or maybe God’s not there at all.

Asaph will take a journey in Psalm 73 which brings him to a much better place in the end. But before we explore that journey, the first healing thought is to be found in realizing that you’re not alone in having these experiences. Neither are you the “black sheep” in God’s family.

These questions you’re struggling with are questions that God’s people have been wrestling with since the beginning of time. There are entire books in the Bible devoted to the subject of “God-abandonment” – such as Job and Lamentations. There are people who took master’s degrees in the art of suffering, like Jeremiah who watched the final destruction of Jerusalem, was hated by the people, and was not even allowed by God to find consolation and happiness in a wife. (No wonder he is called “the weeping prophet”.)

The first healing thought is to be found in realizing that we’re not alone in having these experiences. Neither are you the “black sheep” in God’s family.

“Well, if I’m not God’s black sheep, what am I then?” you ask. You’re a human being with a fallen nature who lives in a broken world, that’s who. And because of that, suffering is part of the deal, for good and bad alike.

What’s more, you’re a human being with a fallen nature whom a very powerful and loving God has looked upon with incredible grace and compassion. So much so that he entered this broken world of ours, suffered with us, then suffered for us, and now is reaching out to you, yearning for you to invite him to come close.

If you take his hand, some of the pain might go away (as you learn to stop doing the stupid things that hurt you.) You may also experience an increase in pain (as the people around you, who are doing the stupid things, resent you for trying to live differently). But then all the rest of the pain will still be there. The only difference – and what a difference! – being you won’t have to face that pain alone.

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Psalm 73 is a case study in what to do when you slip into a season of spiritual doubt and struggle. A godly man named Asaph is in a fog of confusion and anger at God. There are things he sees as he looks around the world that don’t make any sense, especially for a person who believes that a loving and powerful God rules over this world.

But as the psalm continues, we get to watch as Asaph climbs out of this pit into which he has fallen. The first thing he does is to pour out his pain to God. Honesty with God is always a good starting point. The second thing he does is he keeps himself connected to the community of faith. He doesn’t quit church or kick his Bible across the room. He keeps seeking God. In fact, it is while he is in church that the storm in his heart breaks, and healing begins to wash back in.

A third lesson Asaph would teach us is to remember what God has done for you in times past. 

This is especially critical when – from your point of view – God seems a million miles away in your present.

In verse 23, Asaph says to God, “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel…”

In Psalm 77, Asaph writes a similar psalm about worshipping God when the feelings are gone. In verse 9 of that psalm, he says, “Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion? Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.’ I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds.”

The problem with us, is we’re so forgetful. God does something amazing for us, or brings us through a trying circumstance, and our hearts are filled with praise at his faithfulness. That is until the next time we get a flat tire. And then we’re grumbling and doubting and grousing all over again.

A person wise and mature in the Lord would say, “You know, God you brought us through that last test, and so now that I find myself between a rock and a hard place again, I’m going to choose to trust you.” I will remember your miracles of long ago.

Back in the days of Samuel, God brought Israel through a dangerous threat, and Samuel built a stone altar of remembrance to the Lord and named it “Ebenezer” meaning “stone of help.” Samuel then said to the people that whenever they looked at that altar, they were to call to mind that God had helped them up to that point. So why would he not help them now?

A person wise and mature in the Lord would say, “You know, God you brought us through that last test, and so now that I find myself between a rock and a hard place again, I’m going to choose to trust you.”

In the hymn “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing” is an verse which says, “Hitherto Thy love has blest me; Thou hast brought me to this place”. Those words were actually changed from what the author originally wrote. The original verse said, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, Hither by Thy help I’ve come.”

I guess it was felt that modern Christians couldn’t handle a tough biblical word like Ebenezer. But you child of God need to set up Ebenezers in your home. Surround yourself with visual reminders to you of God’s faithfulness in days gone by, so that the next time things get tough – and they will – you’ll remember God’s faithfulness.

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“Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious?” (2 Cor.3:7)

Would you like to experience more of God in your life? Then these words from Paul should be of interest to you. In so many words, he tells them (and us) that their “experience of God” will blow away anything we see in the Old Testament.

Which leads to an important question: In what way does the New Covenant under Jesus Christ blow away the Old Covenant under Moses? It’s important that we understand this.

The temptation is to think that Paul is talking about miracles, the outward supernatural signs of God’s power. So is Paul saying that the miracles experienced in the New Testament age blow away the miracles experienced in the Old Testament age?

Not likely. If this were a reality show – “Old Testament Miracles vs. New Testament Miracles”, I think Moses wins the thing going away. The parting of an inland sea down the middle like a 7-layer salad pretty much blows away anything Paul did.

Is Paul saying then that Christians under the new covenant can expect to have more miracles done in their lives than the Jews had done in theirs? Is following Christ just one big power-trip, just one amazing experience after another?

Then why does Paul turn around two chapters later, and say, “We live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor.5:7). Clearly Paul is not saying that a Christian’s life is just one episode of “Touched By An Angel” after another.  In fact, this is one of Paul’s reasons for writing these letters to Corinth. To calm them down. To throw some water in their face. They’re so ga-ga over their spiritual gifts, and over their “experience”, that they’re missing the point of why God gave them the Holy Spirit in the first place.

Those gifts of the Spirit which you so desperately crave are meant to help produce in you the fruit of the Spirit which you – and the world – so desperately need.

So how is the ministry of the Spirit more glorious now than what happened in the days of Moses? Paul goes on to say in 2 Cor. 3:12: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

Sure, Moses did miracles. Paul did miracles. Every once in awhile God still pulls a rabbit out of the hat. It’s great when it happens. That’s nothing though. What Moses didn’t have, and what the Old Testament Jew didn’t have, because Jesus hadn’t died yet, is – drum roll, please: the inward power of having God’s very Spirit dwell within us, to heal our hearts from sin, and grow within us the character and love of Christ. 

That is the greatest miracle of all, and this is what changed between the Old and New Testaments. It was Jeremiah who foretold a time coming when God would establish a “new covenant” with us. “The time is coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” (Jeremiah 31:31, 35).

This is what Paul is trying to get across to the Corinthian Christians in 2 Corinthians 3.  You think you’re experiencing God because you speak in tongues and have seen a few healings? Ooh, ahh. The glory which comes from outward acts of power fades away, Paul argues. It’s what’s happening inside of you that matters most.

So know this in your quest and desire to “experience God” – dramatic answers to prayer are awesome. Warm fuzzies from heaven are great. But you begin to truly experience God’s power in your life when you can turn away from a temptation that used to throttle you. Or love someone that you used to find impossible to love before. Or experience peace in situations which used to fill you with worry or despair.

Those gifts of the Spirit which you so desperately crave are meant to help produce in you the fruit of the Spirit which you – and the world – so desperately need.

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Recently Joy Behar, a TV host on The View made waves by claiming that Christians who claim to “hear God’s voice” are mentally unstable. With one fell swoop,  Behar mocked 2,000 years of Christian history, and slandered millions of Christians alive today who claim to have a “relationship” with God.

More than 2,000 times, the words, “The Lord said,” appear in our Bibles. The Bible makes no bones about it – God speaks. Jesus said, My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

To believe that God speaks today requires our belief in several assumptions.

First of all, that there is a God. 

You have to believe that God exists before you can believe that God speaks. A scientist pointed his finger at God once, and said, “You don’t exist! I don’t believe it!” So God said, “Okay, if I don’t exist, then I challenge you to a man-making contest.” “You’re on,” said the scientist, and he at once knelt down to scoop up a handful of dirt. “Wait a minute!” God said. “Not so fast, pal.  You get your own dirt.”

Maybe your biggest hurdle is that you’re not sure if God is really there. Well, take a good look around you today. Let your eyes peer at the heavens. Reach down and finger some of the ground beneath you. Let your nostrils take in some of this fresh air. Let your ears have a listen.  He’s here, my friend.

The notion that God speaks today next draws upon the premise that:

God is a personal and knowable. 

Maybe you believe in God, but to your mind, God is so far above us, so far away from us, that any idea of communication seems laughable. The Bible does agree with this idea, to a point.  Isaiah 55:8-9 say, “The Lord declares, ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” But notice – the Lord speaks this truth to us.

A greater being can speak with a lesser being. Animal researcher Shaun Ellis once raised three wolf pups by entering their world, howling like them, sleeping like them, even – and this is gross – eating like them. The wolves bonded with him.

A lesser being will have a hard time speaking the language of a greater being. But a greater being can speak in the language of a lesser being. My two cats cannot speak English, but if I say, “Meow”, they look at me with wonder, as though I were a god. “How does he know?” they say to each other.

Christians claim that our God is personal and knowable because he has entered our world in the person of Jesus Christ; he has stooped to speak our language.

Which leads to a third premise behind this notion that God speaks today:

 God is loving and relational.   

There’s a reason God has stooped to speak to us. Because he loves us and desires to have a very real relationship with us.

In John 14, Jesus says, “He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.  If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.  My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

It’s amazing, that God wants to show himself to you and me. He wants to make his home with us. 

This is relationship language. Most people, when they think of God think of religion. They think of doing enough religious stuff and doing enough good stuff so that they might catch a break with God – who is out there somewhere.

But God doesn’t want your religion. He wants you. If you do religious stuff, and your heart doesn’t come along for the ride, you’re just playing a game, and God will not play along. True Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship. A relationship where the living God can speak to the creatures he made. Including you.

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St. Patrick, before he became a saint, was a kidnapped British slave, serving as a shepherd to an Irish nobleman. While out in the fields one afternoon, a voice spoke to him, “Go now, your ship is ready.” He ran like Forrest Gump, a full hundred miles to the coast, and found there docked on the shore an English ship which took him back to his homeland, where he trained for the ministry, then returned to Ireland as a missionary, and through his work saved that nation, and then all of Western Civilization when the Dark Ages fell.

St. Augustine, before he became a saint, was one of the greatest of sinners. His life was lost in perversion, sexual sin and self-absorption. One day he was sitting in a garden, in agony about the condition of his life, and he heard a child’s voice speak aloud, saying, “Take and read.” He looked about him, and saw nothing, but an open Bible nearby.

He leaned over, took it, began to read these words: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not fulfill the lusts of sinful flesh.” And he realized that Almighty God was calling him to forsake his sinful ways and surrender his life to Christ.

Not only does God speak to us through creation, and through his Word, but Christians have testified over the centuries that God also speaks to us with direct precision through his Spirit.

You might hear the stories of Augustine and Patrick and say, “But these were great men of God, I am no one. God wouldn’t speak to me.” And you couldn’t be more wrong. When the Holy Spirit was given to the church, he was given to every follower of Christ, in direction fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy from Joel that described how everyone – old and young, men and women, slave and great – would share in the experience.

What that means on a practical level is that God now can communicate with us in a way that wasn’t possible before Jesus. We all have a river of thoughts that flow through our mind each day. Somewhere in that jumble of thoughts, God may be trying to get a word in edgewise. Isn’t that exciting to realize?

How do I have more of this experience? Three things are necessary.

First, you must follow Jesus Christ. 

Only a disciple of Jesus has the Holy Spirit within them, so only the follower of Jesus can have this experience. God can speak to unbelievers also (he is God, after all) but usually it’s an external thing, like a voice shouting from across the fence, and not the warm, familiar, internal voice of Someone making a home within your heart.

Second, to hear God’s voice, you must study and obey the Word of God. 

The Bible is our measuring stick for determining what’s really from God or not. If the voice you’re hearing doesn’t line up with the clear teaching of Scripture, then that voice – however loudly it speaks – is not from God.

Third, to hear God’s voice, you must stop, look and listen. 

Turn down the noise in your life. Stop with the busyness, leaving no margins in your schedule. Stop crowding out all the quiet places in your life. I go to the gym, and see nothing but people with earbuds stuck in their ears. I see people in their cars, and they have their radios blaring. At night, you walk by house after house and see the white glow in the windows of TVs that are on.

You’ll never hear God if your life is in such a condition.

The Bible says be still and know that he is God. For those who learn to do this (and it is a skill that can be learned), the time comes when out of all the voices playing inside their heads, there comes a whisper of something different, of something sweeter, of something that we know is not us. When that happens, pay attention. God could be near.

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As I’ve mulled over what the Bible teaches about healing over the years, I see two reasons why Jesus healed.

The healing and miracles he performed were proof that he was the Messiah. They were his calling card. The prophets foretold that the Messiah would come healing blind eyes and unstopping deaf ears and making the lame walk (Isaiah 35:5-6), and wouldn’t you know, those were the exact miracles that Jesus did.

And secondly, the healing and miracles he performed were a foreshadowing of the blessings that await us all in God’s eternal kingdom when God wipes away every tear, and “there shall be neither mourning or crying or pain” (Rev.21:4).

The Bible uses a special word to describe Jesus’ healings and miracles: they were signs.  What’s a sign?  It’s a pointer to something. A foreshadowing of something good to come.

So with that in mind, right there we know for a fact that healing on this side of heaven will come in ways that will seem very peculiar and random to most observers. This ailment over here might vanish when we talk to God about it, and this ailment over here might not. In which case, we continue to talk to God about it, but we shift in our prayers by asking God to reveal his purpose and glory through this pain that doesn’t go away.

There might be all sorts of reasons why God allows us to feel pain. Pain is God’s megaphone, C.S. Lewis said.

Maybe we’re not taking care of ourselves properly, and God’s not going to make up for our refusal to exercise wisdom. Maybe he wants to instill in us empathy for others who are suffering as we are. Some of the most powerful ministries on earth were borne out of suffering. Maybe he’s chiseling away on our inner character, trying to burn sinful attitudes and thoughts out of us.

Pain is God’s megaphone, C.S. Lewis said.

Besides the fact (and I don’t want to sound crass) that we’re all going to die, and there’s just no easy way to go about crossing that line without pain. The 18th century evangelist John Wesley said of the early Methodists, “Our people die well.” A curious but powerful testimony to the hope the gospel brings.

Sad to say, but too many modern believers don’t do aging well, let alone death. Paul insisted that there should be something that stands out in the way Christians exit this life. “We grieve, but not as people who have no hope.” (1 Thess.4:13). Every Christian funeral should somehow show evidence of the hope and joy that eternity will bring.

A well-known, well-loved pastor was found to be with stage-4 cancer. When he announced it to his church, he said, “I’ve taught you for years how to live. I’m now going to teach you how to die.”

Here’s one more thought about healing to consider: healing in the Bible is never confined solely to the body.

The ancient Hebrew would be befuddled by our 21st century pursuit of painlessness and physical health at the expense of pursuing spiritual health or emotional health. Physically, we’re the healthiest, fittest, longest-living generation the earth has known. But the ancient Jew would look at the brokenness in our homes, the violence in our streets, the immorality of our culture, the apathy in our churches, and he would say, “Folks you are sick. You are not healthy. You have no shalom within you.”

Healing in the Bible is never confined solely to the body. 

This is why when a paralyzed man was brought before Jesus by his friends, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth were, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” We read the story and we want to say, “Oh come on Jesus! Don’t tease him. You know he didn’t come for forgiveness!”

But it was the most loving thing Jesus could have said to him. He spoke to the area of greatest healing that this man needed – to have his sins forgiven that he might have peace in his soul with God. For what good is it to have a young, healthy body attached to a diseased soul? (There are plenty of those in Hollywood, and I wouldn’t trade with them for all their money, fame and beauty.)

Some of you reading this right now are so obsessed with your body – keeping it free from danger and disease – but you hardly give any thought at all to the condition of your soul, or your relationships, or your emotions. If that’s you, you’re not healthy, my friend, no matter how much you can benchpress, or how many heads you turn as you walk down the street.

You need healing. You need Jesus.

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“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” ~ Proverbs 9:5-6

Christianity specializes in changing lives for the better. You come to Christ when you are one thing. As you follow Christ, you become another thing.

I’ve discovered through years of reading the Bible that this moral journey is beautifully described over and over again, sometimes in the most obscure places. I recently read Proverbs 9:5-6 and laughed out loud, because here it was again – an invitation from God to open my broken, sinful heart to him, that he might bring something more loving and holy from it.

It begins with just the first word: Come.

The moral journey begins with you coming to Jesus. The healing of your soul and the rebuilding of your life cannot happen until you bow your knees to him.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus said. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29).  

We’ve seen the tale of the moral journey in a thousand movies, where the weak or wounded or misguided or selfish main character comes into the presence of a guide or mentor who will train them, and release the hero inside of them. The Matrix. Star Wars. The Mask of Zorro. The Karate Kid. A Christmas Carol.

The greatest stories are all based in some fashion on the Great Story told in Scripture of Christ, who comes to earth from heaven to call us to our true destiny. But this journey is birthed in grace. It is not something we can obtain on our own. So we must come to the Lord and Master and present ourselves to him.

Notice two things in what Jesus said. First, you come as you are.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened.” 

You don’t say, “I can’t come to Jesus. I’m weary and burdened. He doesn’t want a mess like me.” Such thinking is all wrong. It’s precisely because you’re weary and burdened that Jesus wants you to come. You don’t clean up your act and then come to Jesus. He already knows you can’t clean up your act. It’s too late. He already knows there’s an unchained beast raging in the basement of your soul. It’s why he died for you. So come as you are.

Secondly, to come to Jesus means you come, and don’t run away.

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.”

A yoke is a heavy, wooden collar that binds two oxen together. And once you’re yoked, you don’t leave the other’s side. Too many people come to Christ out of their need, then as soon as that need eases up, or this Christian-thing gets too demanding or too boring, they’re gone. Or they mess up, then give up. They fail, and bail.

No, my friend. That won’t cut it. To take the moral journey from sin to Christlikeness will require us learning things from Jesus. Learning is a process. It’s hard work. We’re not going to understand everything at first. Some things we’re going to learn – especially about ourselves – will be very painful to hear. And difficult to leave behind.

The temptation to run will never be far away. This is why a yoke is necessary. But those who submit to this yoke, and accept the pain it will bring, are the ones who in the end will find true rest.

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Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of understanding.” ~ Proverbs 9:5-6

Changing your life for good (for the better), and for good (in a way that lasts) requires coming first to the God who made you. Any life-change you pursue without him might seem to work for awhile, 70 or 80 years at best, but then you’ll die and discover you were an eternal soul after all, and what will you do then? When you walk away from God, you’re sawing off the limb you’re sitting on.

Then you need God’s bread, i.e. his Word. You need the directions that Scripture provides for your journey, and then the Bible does you one better by giving you strength for the journey.

Then you need to brace yourself for suffering (‘drink of the wine I have mixed’.) This journey will ask difficult things of you. Painful things. Things you’d rather not face, but face them you must if you’re to become the man or woman you’re capable of becoming. And here’s why it’s hard. The journey requires you to stop doing what you were doing and move your life in a new direction.

“Leave your simple ways behind and you will live.”

Christians call this repentance. Repenting isn’t just saying, “You’re sorry”. The abuser who apologizes to his wife, but then returns to his violence hasn’t repented at all. Confession is just the front-half of repenting. The back-half is learning to live differently.

When John the Baptist summoned his listeners to repent, he added that those who were stingy had to start sharing, tax collectors who were defrauding people had to stop their larceny, and soldiers who were using their power to push people around had to stop abusing their authority.

Welcome to the journey. Because changing habits, behaviors, thoughts and attitudes seldom go away overnight.

“If anyone would be by disciple,” Jesus said, “he must pick up his cross daily and follow me.”  Daily, as we spend time with Jesus, we ask him to search us, try us, cleanse us. Then when he brings something to light through his Word, or through the voice of His Spirit, or through the influence of our traveling companions, we acknowledge it, confess it, then ask for his help in overcoming it.

“Repentance is a lifestyle.” ~ Martin Luther

Some sins fall off easily. They peel off like sunburned skin. Other sins are imbedded deep like cancer, and the surgery needed to remove it will not be easy. That’s how I learned to overcome anger. That’s how I’ve learned to keep lust in check. That’s how I’ve learned to love my wife. I’m not perfect in any of these areas, but I’m much further along than I ever was before.

Repentance is never a one and down thing. Martin Luther said “Repentance is a lifestyle.” Life-change is a continual battle. Sometimes I look like William Wallace at the end of a battle in Braveheart.  I’m scarred, I’m bloodied, I’m sweat-stained, I’m smelly – but I can raise my sword and shout in glory to God – freedom!

The good news of repentance is that anyone can do this. Earlier in Proverbs 9, the writer personifies Wisdom. Verse 3 says, “Wisdom has sent out her maids and she calls from the highest point of the city. ‘Let all who are simple come in here!’ she says to those who lack judgment.’”

The life-changing power of Jesus Christ is available to anyone who comes to him. It’s not just for the rich. Or for the educated. Or for those who are religious. (Pastor Pete Scazzero says it’s possible to use God to run from God? You should ponder that one.)

“How hard it is for the rich to inherit the kingdom of God,” Jesus said.  Probably because the rich, the smart, the powerful, the religious, and the beautiful cannot bring themselves to repent, because they see nothing in themselves that needs to change. And so the beast of their sin roams uncaged inside their souls.

The shame of it is that what Jesus is offering – forgiveness and freedom – is accessible and available to anyone who asks for it.

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Here’s a way to study Scripture that will blow your mind and expand your faith: study the names of God.

I was reading through Psalm 18 recently, and landed on the thought of God being my “Deliverer”. The more I poked around in the psalm, and just hung out with that one idea – God is my Deliverer – the more things I discovered.

The first three verses of the psalm reminded me that God has delivered me already time and time again, though I hardly ever acknowledge it. Verses 4-6 teach another lesson: if I won’t acknowledge the times God has delivered me in the past, then I should at least admit that I need God’s deliverance from this point moving forward.

David writes: “The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.  The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help.”

David made no bones about it: he needed saving. Did you notice all the verbs and images he uses. Entangled. Overwhelmed. Snared. Distressed.

Work with me for just a moment, you who think that you don’t need deliverance from anything.  Are you so sure about that?

Try danger, disease and death on for size. Do you have any conception at all how fragile your life is? Conservationist John Muir described squirrels as “little sparks of life”. But that’s all you and I are. Just little sparks of life.

And there are a 1,001 ways for that spark to be extinguished. Tell me honestly, how much control do you really think you have over your life? Can you control what that car up ahead of you is going to do? Can you control what the financial markets are going to do next week? Can you control what the cells and blood vessels in your body are doing right now? Jesus pointed out that we can’t even control the number of hairs on our head.

That’s all you and I are. Just little sparks of life.

But it’s not just deliverance from physical harm that we need. That’s the least of it.

We also need deliverance from evil that’s outside of us. There’s a whole spiritual side to life that so few anymore seem to be aware of, from which we need deliverance. The Bible says we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Deny the devil’s existence all you want; it still won’t prevent him from working to make your life a ruin.

And then we need deliverance from what the Bible calls “sin”. We need deliverance not only from the evil that’s outside of us, but also from the evil that’s inside of us.

It’s at work in you right now. Do you think that man who murdered his wife and kids the other day, then took his own life, thought on his wedding day that this was how it all would end up? So what took him there?

Be careful that you too quickly lay the blame for this at the feet of mental illness. If we’re not talking about an actual biochemical condition, then what often is labeled “mental illness” is actually just the final stop on a journey of internal disintegration that actually begins much earlier.

What takes us there? Unchecked anger. Relentless pride. Uncorralled lust. Unchallenged bitterness. Unresisted unforgiveness. In short, sin, from which we need deliverance.

What often is labeled “mental illness” is actually just the final stop on a journey of internal disintegration that actually begins much earlier.

Maybe that could never happen to you, you think. But sin’s a cancer. Let it sit there, it will fester and grow. Better to admit up front where you feel entangled, overwhelmed, or ensnared. Admit where your weaknesses are. Then whisper quietly under your breath, “Lord, deliver me from evil.”    

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Philippians 4:4-5 is one of the best loved passages of all of Paul’s writing, where Paul will tell us where a Christian can get joy. He makes three important points in succession.

A Christian can get joy by rejoicing in the Lord. Then with the Lord. Finally, for the Lord.

First he says:  “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all.”

A person can get joy in a lot of things. We can get joy in the coming of spring, especially out here in California where the natives suffer with one or two months where the temperature can barely squeeze its way to 70. Take my word for it – it’s awful. Sleeping on my new mattress gives me and my back joy. I get joy in being married…most of the time. I get joy in watching my cats.  And in going for a run.

Life – when it’s firing on all cylinders – is chock full of amazing pleasures, all gifts from God, for you and me to enjoy.

But the thing about life’s pleasures that you and I must recognize is that we have to lay them all down. Not one of them lasts. And if you try and put all your eggs in one of these baskets, then your world is going to break apart in the end.

If you’re going to truly live a meaningful life, a successful life, or a joyful life, then you better decide right now to build your life on a foundation that is going to last, and there’s only one thing that isn’t going to fail you, that will even outlast death – a relationship with the God who made you.

The thing about life’s pleasures that you and I must recognize is that we have to lay them all down.

A Christian in a relationship with Jesus Christ is hooked up to a reservoir that will never run dry.  That’s why Paul urges us to rejoice in the Lord.

  • There should always be joy in your heart if you are a Christian, for starters because you are saved –  your sins are forgiven, and your name is written in heaven.
  • There should be joy in your heart because you are being saved, that through the power of the Spirit in your life you can unlearn your sinful ways and live differently than before.
  • There should be joy in your heart that one day you will be saved, entirely, completely.

Can you imagine what that will be like, living in a body that will not sin, will not be attracted to sin, where every thought will be pure, every motive undefiled, every act holy and good. With a body that cannot get sick. Cannot break down. Cannot die. Will never again doubt, or fear, or hate or envy, or weep.

When life is working as it should, it’s awesome. Enjoy it. Thank God for the blessing. But your baseball team will not win each year. One day that new car you’re driving will sit rusting in a lot, awaiting demolishment. One day the house you’re living in and the yard you’re tending will belong to somebody else. When that day comes and they put your body in a box in the ground, you’ll be somewhere else. You’ll be standing before the tribunal of heaven, and the book of life will be opened, and a search will be made to see if your name is written there.

But you don’t have to wait till then to know. If you give your life to Christ, you can be sure of it – your name will be found written there.

So rejoice in the Lord.

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“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” ~ 1 Tim.1:15

The Cross of Christ teaches three great truths about myself: I am radically broken, I am radically loved and I am radically called.

There are people who have been serving the Lord a long time and after while if they’re not careful, they may be tempted to forget that they are radically broken. They look in the mirror and they say, “You know what, I’m not half-bad. I’m a pretty good person. I’m not nearly as bad as so-and-so. Yep, you and me God, we’re a good team.”

If that’s you, then come back to the Cross, and think deeply about what it’s telling you. That you are radically broken and sinful.

It’s interesting how the further along Paul went in his Christian life, the more aware he became of the full depth of his sin, and the full depth of his need for Christ, even as he was growing in holiness. He’d say things like, “I am the chief of sinners.” Or “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Or “We have this treasure in earthen vessels [jars of clay].” We’re all crack pots!

But for argument’s sake, let’s say that you truly are a better person than most. That your life is more well-ordered than others. In terms of mere quantity, let’s say you sin less than those without the Lord. You’re a good neighbor and a decent human being. Does that mean your heart is not as sinful as someone else?

Sorry. Here’s a truth-check for you my friend. Your spiritual heart is just as sinful, diseased and corruptible as any other human being’s. The Bible says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt.” That goes for your heart too. The only difference, between you and the unbeliever, is that you are a recipient of the amazing grace of God.

The further along Paul went in his Christian life, the more aware he became of the full depth of his sin, and the full depth of his need for Christ, even as he was growing in holiness.

Did you have godly parents? That was God’s grace to you, that they provided discipline, teaching and encouragement to help keep your sinful heart in check.

Did your parents stay together in marriage? If so, what a gift that was. Your sinful heart wasn’t agitated with the same fear and agony that besieges the heart of children whose parents divorce.

Did you go to church when you were young? Did you grow up hearing those wonderful Bible stories over and over again, memorizing those wonderful verses, singing those wonderful songs? That was God’s grace to you, helping your faith to grow, keeping your sinful heart in check.

Did you grow up in a stable community led by a decent government with a good economy and good schools? We’re you free from worrying about rioting in the streets, bombs in the air, joblessness, and lawlessness. That was God’s grace to you, keeping your sinful heart from expressing itself in a thousand ugly ways.

Christian, if these have been your blessings, don’t let your head get big. It’s not because you’re so good that you are where you are today. It’s because God is so good. Whether God keeps you from evil or delivers you out of evil is no difference – it is his grace bringing you to freedom.

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This Advent, we’ll walk verse by verse through the Bible’s Christmas story as chronicled by Matthew and Luke.

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” ~ Matthew 1:18-19

If there is one person who is usually given the short end of the stick when it comes to Christmas, it’s Joseph. There are no hymns that I know of written of his role in the Christmas story. Do a Google search of “artwork of Mary”, and you’ll get thousands of replies. Type in “artwork of Joseph”, and you’ll hear the hard drive whirr around aimlessly. In Nativity scenes, Joseph is usually standing back, the strong silent male looking on quietly along with the cows and the little drummer boy.

What’s interesting though as you read the Bible’s Christmas narratives, particularly Matthew’s – is that Joseph is is very much front and center. And what we see of him in these few short verses is impressive. This is a godly man, and one way he exhibits it is the mastery he shows over his emotions.

What do you think Joseph was feeling at this moment? To be in love with a women, and then find out that she is pregnant and you know this is not your baby. There is no anger on earth like the anger felt when you believe the one you love has been unfaithful to you. We hear all the time about crimes of passion. I’m certain Joseph was at least tempted to go there. Tempted to slap Mary around. Tempted to find out who slept with her and take one of his carpenter’s hammers to his head.

Masculinity and passion go hand in hand. We have this hormone called testosterone which surges through us like a lava flow. God gave it to us. It’s part of who we are by creation. Properly channeled it enables a man to attempt great things, to exhibit courage, to launch into the deep, to explore, to invent, to conquer, to battle, to initiate.

Part of the problem in America today is that men are told that this passion is bad. So we take little boys and remove their GI Joes and Tonka trucks and give them teddy-bears and dollhouses. But leave the little boys alone, and suddenly the teddy-bears become Transformers, which start stomping on the dollhouses. It’s not that this passion is bad and must be removed – it’s good and must be channeled. And a godly man will learn to channel that passion, like Joseph did.

So WWJD? What would Joseph do? He ran his emotions through God. The passage tells us he was a just and righteous man. Which is code-language meaning he was a God-seeker. We see evidence of that in what Joseph does next.

He “resolved” to divorce Mary quietly. The Greek word points to great forethought and planning. Joseph had numerous options before him. Punish Mary. Humiliate her. And then in his heart came another option – break it off quietly. Keep your head. Be a man of honor.

Where did that come from? It no doubt came from God as Joseph sought him for what to do.

How are you doing in reeling in the passions inside of you? Are you a master of your emotions, or do they pull you around by the nose? The Christmas season unleashes a lot of emotions in us, not all of them good. It would be a great gift to give to your family this Christmas to begin to allow Jesus to train you to walk in emotional self-control.

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“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” ~ Matthew 1:24-25

In the Christmas story, Joseph shows that he is the master of his emotions (Day 1). And in these verses we see that he is a master of his sexuality.

Of all the options Joseph had out on the table of what to do with his “Mary problem”, going ahead with the marriage was probably the one he discounted the quickest, because it never really occurred to him that Mary was telling him the truth. That’s why an angel was no doubt required at this moment. Sometimes God speaks in a still, small voice. Sometimes he must use a sledgehammer.

And then verse 25 – “But he knew her not until she had given birth.” Which means even though they were now legally married, he didn’t have sex with Mary until the pregnancy was over.

We can only speculate on why this was what they decided to do. It’s not that sex is bad or unholy. Our sexuality is one of the most beautiful gifts God has given us. (And forget about any suggestion that Mary remained a virgin the rest of her life. Scripture is clear, Jesus had siblings. Mary and Joseph played pattycake after Jesus’ birth – if you remember your Roger Rabbit.)

What we see happen in the Bible though is that there are times when God gets very, very close to us – and everything we have, everything we are, everything we do is laid at his feet, including our sexuality. When Israel first approaches Mount Sinai to receive God’s commandments in Exodus 19, God tells the people to “consecrate themselves” in preparation for this awesome moment. One thing God specifically says is “Abstain from sexual relations”.

Not that sex is bad. But God is better. And he needs your focus right now. I think that’s what’s going on here. That Mary’s pregnancy is such a holy thing, such a God-thing, that they decide either with God’s direction or all on their own that they’re not going to mess around with what God’s doing by messing around, if you catch my drift.

However, having said that, don’t think this was necessarily an easy thing for Mary and Joseph to do. They’re two hormonally-charged, love-sick, young people who were now legally married.  Yet Joseph and Mary were masters of their sexuality.

All day long we are bombarded with the message that purity is not possible. Everybody’s doing it. It’s unnatural to restrain your natural urges. Just give in to it. 

If you listen to those voices long enough, you may start to think, “Well maybe it is impossible to wait till I’m married. Maybe it is impossible to hold back these feelings.”

Well, no it’s not impossible. You don’t have to sink to everyone else’s level. You can attempt difficult things and achieve difficult things. The potential is in you, because God put it there.

Nobody yet in the history of the human race has ever died because they couldn’t have sex. Deny yourself food – you die. Deny yourself water – you die. Deny yourself oxygen – you die. Deny yourself sex – your heart keeps beating. It’s not the end of the world. This may be the hardest form of self-denial that God calls us to practice – but the point is – it can be practiced. It can be done.

And Exhibit A is Mary and Joseph.

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“After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” ~ Matthew 2:9-11

I love the magi for their costly obedience to God.

Their obedience was costly in terms of the time it took and the miles they crossed to find the Christ.

 “We saw his star in the east…”. We don’t know how far they traveled, but their words indicate it was a considerable journey. Two years ago Janis and I moved to LA from Connecticut. Sometimes when we say that to locals, their eyes glaze over, as though we were talking about a suburb of Phoenix. But when we say we came from “out east”, they nod their heads. It’s so far away, that it’s more descriptive to just give a direction.

Their obedience was costly in the shame they risked.

I’m sure they each had family and friends who thought they were a little nuts to go Messiah-chasing. Just as Janis and I saw eyebrows contort when we said, “Yeah, we’re selling our house and moving to LA with no jobs waiting for us. Or a house either.” Let it be known to your classmates or co-workers that you too love Jesus and they’ll start seeing you as a wee bit quirky.

Their obedience was costly in the danger they faced.

Mixing it up with King Herod was a little like wrestling an alligator. He could bite off their heads on a whim. Better not take their eyes off of him. Maybe you don’t think of being a Christian as something that’s dangerous. Count yourself fortunate then. Because for 2/3rds of Christians in the world today, danger is a very real part of what it means to follow Jesus.

Their obedience was costly in the uncertainty of their quest.

Seldom when God bids us to do something for him does he show us what the journey will look like in advance. His way with us is just to reveal the first step, then another, and another. Janis and I had no guarantees in how this season of life would unfold for us. And still we press forward, not knowing what is coming next.

One thing’s for sure: in doing it this way, God compels us to be on our faces continually before him. We don’t want to miss a turn. Or take a wrong step.

The magi “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” when the star reappeared because they were in darkness for awhile, not knowing what to do next. That’s how faith usually works. A voice here, a nudge there, an experience now and then, then silence and darkness for a spell, during which time we hang on tight to God and try to enjoy the ride.

And their obedience was costly in terms of the worship that they offered Jesus.

These gifts they brought – gold, frankincense and myrrh – these weren’t stocking stuffers from Bath and Body. These were priceless and sacrificial gifts. Gifts that were both prophetic and providential.

They pointed symbolically to the roles Jesus as the Messiah would fill – prophet, priest and king (myrrh was often used as a burial spice – a curious gift to lay before a child, unless you happen to know what that child will do when he grows up.)

And I’m sure that gold came in handy a short time later when Joseph had to round up his small family by night and flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath.

One good measurement of Jesus’ worth to you is the obedience that you offer him. Jesus himself said it, from his lips to our ears, “If you love me, you will obey me” (John 14:15).

As we think about the Magi, let’s ask ourselves a few self-reflection questions.

  • What is the greatest sacrifice I have made for Jesus?
  • What shame have I been willing to endure for Jesus?
  • What is the costliest gift I have ever given my Lord?
  • What changes have I been willing to make for my Savior?
  • What pleasures have I given up for him?
  • What’s the most dangerous thing I have done for Jesus?
  • If an outsider were able to follow me around and observe me for a week, would one of their conclusions about me be that I am nuts about Jesus Christ.

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What happens once in a minute, twice in a moment, but not once in a thousand years?

Answer? The letter M.

Time indeed is often a riddle, but the Bible has quite a bit to teach us about using time well.

Wise King Solomon in chapter 3 of his life journal Ecclesiastes explores the subject of time and lands on at least four truths about it worth remembering.

The first is that time is a gift from God.

“Everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil – this is God’s gift to man,” he writes in verse 13.

You and I have no right to be here. We don’t deserve to be here. We didn’t buy our way here.  We are here not because of random forces of nature. We are here because of the sovereign will of Almighty God. It’s his gift to us. He willed you into existence, and knew your name before your parents even thought of it.

Why is it important to know this? Because it keeps us from losing our way in life. Jesus said the path to life is a narrow path and few there are that find it. If you’ve ever hiked on a narrow path, it’s very easy to fall off the trail, one side or the other. And when we forget that life is a gift of God, we humans can fall into one of two errors: arrogance or despair. 

There are those who strut about the earth like little kings and queens, thinking they own life, that they are in control, and that they have no need whatsoever for God in their life. But the day will come when life teaches them otherwise. The young are particularly vulnerable to this sort of thinking, which is why Solomon says later on in Ecclesiastes: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth.”

But some people fall off the path to life the other way. Their problem is that they don’t see themselves as important at all. They look at all of life around them, and take in the vastness of the universe and the billions of people walking the earth – and they see themselves as nothing, to the where despair or nihilism overtakes them.

It’s one of my life mottoes: we are made by God and for God. And until a person figures that out, they will stray from the path to life (i.e. they will experience less life than God intends).

You’re not a god, trust me in that. You’re far less in control than you realize. But you’re not just a worthless pile of molecules either, floating like pondscum on the sea of life. Because God willed you into existence, because God wants you here, when you get yourself in a right relationship with him, you’re going to start to see things differently, and those feelings of despair will start to wither on the vine.

There’s more in you than you know, because God put in there – so grow.

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If you want to live life well, don’t forget this truth about time taught by Solomon in Ecclesiastes 3:

Remember that time is fleeting, but spiritual life is eternal. 

Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:11 – “God has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart He has set eternity in the hearts of men.”  You weren’t just made for time. You weren’t just made for the earth. You were made for eternity. And you will only live this life well, when you leave room in your heart for the next life.

The great 19th century Russian novelist Dostoyevsky was arrested in his late twenties for his membership in a group thought by the czar to be subversive, and was soon sentenced to death by firing squad. Dostoyevsky would never forget the horror of being dragged out to the execution area, lined up against the wall, kissing the cross of the priest, seeing the soldiers raise their guns toward him, listening to the drums beat faster and louder, hearing the orders to “Aim” given, and then to his astonishment, the guards put down their guns and marched away. The czar like to play such mind games with those he imprisoned. Dostoyevsky would remain imprisoned for a few more years, but from that moment on his life was changed.

He wrote a letter to his brother in which he said this: “When I look back on my past and think how much time I wasted on nothing, how much time has been lost in futilities, errors, laziness incapacity to live; how little I appreciated it, how many times I sinned against my heart and soul – then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift!…Now in changing my life, I am reborn in a new form.”

In the middle ages, God’s saints would often display skulls on their desks or on their shelves, actual real skulls, to serve as a reminder to them that they did not have all the time in the world, that their existence here would be measured and short.

I don’t own any skulls, but on the walls of my office at home hang four famous paintings – “The Voyage of Life” – by 19th century painter Thomas Cole.

The first painting is simply called Childhood, where we see a human life beginning his or her journey. The moment is filled with light and softness and innocence and possibility.

The second painting is called Youth. It is a season of chasing down your dreams, a time of vision and excitement and idealism and hope.

The third painting is called Manhood. The skies have now darkened, the quiet streams have become dangerous rapids, the gaze of the traveler is now heavenward.

The final painting is called Old Age where the only hope to be seen at all in the Traveler’s line of sight is the hope that is offered by eternity. In a way, these paintings are my skull. They’re my reminder that my time here on earth is limited and brief, soon to be swallowed up by eternity.

And why remind myself of this? Because I want to live my life on earth as richly, as honestly, as purely and as passionately as I possibly can. But to do this I need to call to mind often that time is so short and fleeting, because I was made first for Eternity.

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Have you ever had a part of your body that suddenly didn’t work right? You wake up in the middle of the night with a charley-horse (and where the heck did that name come from?) Or a tooth starts hurting? Or a thousand other things.

Believe it or not, but that happens to the Church all the time.

A second metaphor the Bible uses to describe the Church is a Body. We call ourselves the “body of Christ”. The apostle Paul got great mileage out of this idea, first in Romans 12:3-8, but then more fully in a wonderfully dense theology riff in 1 Corinthians 12.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (vs. 12). Paul then goes on to imagine the “foot” feeling sorry for itself because it doesn’t function like the “hand”, or the “ear” being jealous of the “eye” and feeling unimportant, or the “eye” feeling all full of itself thinking it doesn’t need the other parts of the body.

Talk about your self-esteem builder! Paul’s point can’t be more clear – each person in the church has a special uniqueness and value to the community, because he or she has been placed there by God with a very specific assortment of gifts and abilities to share.

This points to a second reason why I need to be involved in a local church: it helps my service to God grow through ministry.

Each person in the church has a special uniqueness and value to the community, because he or she has been placed there by God with a very specific assortment of gifts and abilities to share.

I’ve always been blown away by the fact that God wants to use us. God wants us to work with him as a sidekick. If the human race had never fallen into sin, God still would have shared labor with us. Our marching orders were to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Which in my mind means had we not rebelled against God, we still would have built cities, composed music, discovered electricity, sailed the oceans and flown into outer space.

Now that God is hard at work rescuing the earth from its sin, bringing it back into fellowship with himself, it doesn’t surprise me at all that God wants us to share in that great work with him.

How can being a member of a local church family help me with this? The church is my training ground for ministry. You don’t go off to seminary to get trained for ministry. If you’re a part of a healthy church, you’re being trained for ministry right now. Seminary exists to fine tune what you’ve already started learning. But the learning begins now.

All the gifts I use now as an ordained minister – preaching, teaching, worship leading, small group facilitation, youth ministry, counseling, administration – each and every one of these gifts was conceived and brought to birth in the womb of a local church family.

Growing up having godly Sunday School teachers and caring youth leaders and wise pastors and loving parents, all of these prepared me for ministry far more effectively than getting a Master’s of Divinity degree.

So what are you waiting for? Don’t be a charley-horse.

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The following is a sample devotional from Bear’s new book Living Under The Cross, available now through Amazon. If you’re looking for a personal, or family, or couples’ devotional to get you ready for Easter, this might be a perfect resource!

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” – 1 John 5:3

Living under the Cross will change the way we look at holiness, a lesson illustrated by the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son.

When the prodigal son returns, and his father kills the fatted calf for him, the older brother is incensed and refuses to go in to the party. He says to his father “Look, these many years I have served you.” (The NIV says, “I have slaved for you.”) “And I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” (Luke 15:29)

His very words show that the way he thinks of holiness is defective. Here he’s been obeying his father, and how does he look at it? My brother’s out having fun while I’m back here slaving for you. How many times have we thought: Oh I’m a Christian now. No more fun for me. It’s the Mardi Gras fallacy. Let’s party it up while we can, ‘cuz the next 40 days are going to be sheer drudgery.

Could we think this through logically for a moment? Who is going to end up happier in life – someone who goes around carousing each weekend, staggers into the house at 3 AM, wakes up puking, can’t think straight, can barely hold a job, can scarcely hold his marriage together, hardly knows his kids – or someone who doesn’t do all those things?

Who’s going to look in the mirror at the end of his or her life and feel better? Sure there’s pleasure in sin. The Bible says as much. I’m sure at first, the younger son was having the time of his life when he ran away. But it’s a pleasure that never lasts. And this movie always ends the same way. Addiction. Poverty. Regret. Shame.

Where is true happiness found? It’s found in obeying God. In keeping his commandments. King David wrote in Psalm 16, “In your presence there is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” There’s nothing to be gained or learned by ever giving in to sin.

The older son griped because his dad never gave them a goat to celebrate with. But whose fault was that? Did the father ever forbid it? No! In fact, the father turns around and says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

Christian, do you know that you’re home right now? You just need to click your heels together three times and you’ll be there. And if your life of faith has seemed droll and drab lately, whose fault is that? You need to look at your life the way this parable tells you to look at your life. You are always with the Father. You are forgiven of everything you have ever done wrong. You are an heir of eternal life. And the Holy Spirit is inside of you to teach you and help you live rightly.

You’re not missing out on any true joy by being a Christian. And you should never envy those who are adrift in their sin. It will all dry up on them in the end. And then it will enslave them, and destroy them.

Don’t envy them. Instead pity them. Love them. Pray for them. Go to them and share with them the hope that is in you. Introduce them to Real Joy.

1. Why do you think the “pleasures forevermore” that God gives sometimes seem less desirable than the pleasures our sin offers?

2. What would you tell the older brother if he came and asked you for advice?

Prayer
Father, you are always with me, and everything you have is mine in Christ. Jesus you said that if I loved you, I would obey you. So Spirit of God, would you increase my love for you. Fill me to overflowing, that I would see the pleasures of sin as they really are – lifeless and empty.

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The third gift I am given at the Cross is Redemption – which means I am freed from the power of sin, the devil and death.

Whereas justification is a word pertaining to the courthouse, redemption is a word that pertains to the ancient marketplace, where slaves were bought and sold.

When God brought Israel out of slavery to Egypt, he described it as a redemption. “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm.” (Exodus 6:6)

Centuries later when God brought Israel out of the slavery of exile to Babylon, he used this same word to describe what he was doing. “Leave Babylon, flee from the Babylonians!  Announce this with shouts of joy and proclaim it…say, ‘The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob.” (Isaiah 48:20)

Isaiah then introduces a new word to add to the mix: the word “ransomed”.  Isaiah 51:11 – “The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads.” (Isaiah 51:11)

If you’ve read the beautiful love story of Ruth, you find that Boaz functions as a liberator called a kinsman-redeemer He does not allow Ruth to continue in slavery, but purchases her freedom and wins her love.

Of course, all of this Old Testament language is preparing us for Jesus, who used the language of redemption and ransoming to describe his mission. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

Paul said of Christ, “In him we have redemption through his blood.” (Eph.1:7), a theme which is echoed over and over again in the Epistles (Rom.3:24; 1 Cor.1:30; Col.1:14).

Perhaps you’re doubting the idea though that you are in bondage to anything. The religious leaders in Jesus’ day insisted, “We have never been slaves to anyone!” (John 8:33). But this isn’t true at all. Jesus then showed them three things they were captive to:

SIN

“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34). Go ahead; try to keep from sinning. You can’t do it!

Why you can’t even live up to the moral standards you’ve set up for yourself, let alone God’s. Right now I can find dozens of articles on marriage on my Flipboard, filled with principles for how to have a good marriage. But more than half of marriages still fail, and Millennials these days are avoiding it like a plague. We need redemption from our sin.

SATAN

Jesus tells the religious leaders next, “You are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.” (John 8:43) Go ahead; try to keep an evil thought or temptation to do wrong from entering your head. You can’t do it!

The idea that a personal force of evil exists is laughed off by many today. Franklin D. Roosevelt could not comprehend the Nazi atrocities uncovered after World War II until he read the Christian philosopher Kierkegaard. Only then could Roosevelt grasp “an understanding of what it is in man that makes it possible to be so evil.” Deny it all you want, but outside of Christ, Satan can grab a piece of your heart or mind any time he chooses. You’re in slavery – you need redemption.

DEATH

A few verses later, in John 8:24, Jesus says with sober bluntness, “If you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.” Go ahead; try to keep from dying. You can’t do it! Why not? You’re in slavery – you need redemption.

There is only one way out of this bondage: you must be redeemed, bought, ransomed…and there’s only being in all the universe that can do it – and only one being in all the universe that is willing to do it – Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross made this redemption possible.

“[Jesus] shared in [our] humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” ~ Hebrews 2:14-15

“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” ~ 1 Peter 1:18-10

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The sixth achievement of the cross of Christ is glorification. The cross will free me from death.

Glorification refers first to what happened to Jesus when he returned to heaven after his ascension. In coming to earth, Jesus set aside the “glory” that was his by nature, as God the Son. Paul speaks of Jesus “emptying himself” when he came to earth, even though he was fully “equal with God” (Philippians 2:6-7).

In praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, John suggests that Jesus anticipated his return to that glorified state. “And now Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” ~ John 17:5

When John first saw the risen Christ in Revelation chapter one, he fell down at his feet as though dead, such was the glory with which Jesus appeared to him. The obvious quality that comes to mind with the word “glory” is that of light. But the word connotes much more. Something at full glory is something that exhibits the fullness of its greatness. It speaks of something at the height of its power, beauty and fame. Something so magnificent, it leaves us breathless in wonder.

What’s stunning about the Bible’s use of the word is to realize that glorification is something which awaits every faithful follower of Christ. Jesus will share his glory with us.

“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are…heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” ~ Romans 8:16-17

Glorification is the final stop on the journey of salvation. Romans 8:29-30 – “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, and those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

If we had eyes of faith to see it now, my brothers and sisters – the glory that will surround us in eternity, in our sinless state! Perhaps it is the glory of God which clothed us in Eden before we sinned, glory which was shorn from us after our rebellion, leaving us naked and defenseless.

But because of Jesus’ death on the cross, we’ll be clothed in glory once again. 

“Therefore, we do not lose heart,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, and to us. “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.” ~ 2 Cor.5:16-18.

You see then our need for the cross of Jesus Christ. For there would be no glorification if there were not first propitiation of the wrath of God, expiation of my shame and guilt, justification for all my cursed lawbreaking, redemption from my slavery, reconciliation from my separation, and sanctification of my empty way of living. All of this and more I find by kneeling at the cross of my Savior.

With Paul I pray for you to grasp “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” as revealed by the Cross. We’ll spend all eternity pondering its wonders, and never get to the bottom of it.

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Jesus didn’t save us so that we could sit in a pew the rest of our lives, sing songs, get our heads crammed full of Bible verses and doctrines, and then just hang on until he returns.

When Jesus first appeared to Paul, he said to him these words: “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness…I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles.  I am sending you to them” (Acts 26:16-17).  Do you notice this?  “I have appeared to you to appoint you…”  “I will rescue you…to send you.”

That goes for us too.  Jesus appeared to us to then appoint us to a high calling. He rescued us to send us out to do good in his name. We are saved to serve. We are blessed to be a blessing.

Christianity gave this unique idea to the world: that every life matters, because every life has been shaped and gifted by God to make a difference in this world.

1 Peter 4:8-11 is a remarkable paragraph which functions as a sort of tutorial for Christian service. It answers at least 4 questions about serving Christ:

  • What’s the right motivation for serving?
  • Why should we serve?
  • Whom should we serve?
  • And who should do the serving?

Take the first question: what’s the right motivation for serving? Peter answers this question in the first phrase of verse 8: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly…”

The Greek word used here for “love” is yet another idea that Christians gave the world: the word is “agape” (a-gop-ey), which refers to an unconditional love which sacrifices itself for another, regardless of whether its deserved or not. Agape is a word the Greeks and Romans didn’t use a lot, because this sort of love wasn’t practiced a lot.

Christianity gave this unique idea to the world: that every life matters, because every life has been shaped and gifted by God to make a difference in this world.

The world’s way of loving is a “because” sort of love. I love you because I feel love for you. I love you because of what I get out of it. I love you because you’re so loveable and beautiful, not to mention you’re nice to me.

But that’s not how God loves us. The apostle John said, “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19). God loved us first, even when that love wasn’t being returned. God’s love is not a “because” sort of love, but a “just because” sort of love. It’s who God is. “God is agape” John said (1 John 4:16). It’s the essence of his being.

Because of this, “agape” is self-giving, not self-serving. It doesn’t come with conditions attached to it. And it’s sacrificial in nature, because the one offering it gives, just because. Whether they get anything in return from it or not.

For this reason, Christ’s death on the cross for us is the highest expression of “agape” love that we can conceive of. It’s our model. John said, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the [sacrifice] for our sins.” (1 John 4:10).

Most Christians though understandably struggle with this. Most of us are guilty of what I might call sloppy agape.

There’s a reason for this. To love someone as God loves us requires the Lord’s helps. It’s not in us by nature. “For the love of Christ controls/compels us,” Paul wrote (2 Cor.5:14), “because we have concluded this: that one has died for all.”

And this is how we practice agape love. By asking the Lord to help control us with this love, and by reminding ourselves again and again, or how Jesus showed this same love for me by dying for me on the Cross.

The idea being: if my Lord did this for me – when I deserved something much worse – than how dare I not give this away to others.

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Friendships arise out of shared spaces and shared experiences, but most deeply, friendships arise out of the sharing of souls.

David and Jonathan had that sort of friendship. 1 Samuel 18:1 says they “became one in spirit”. If you’ve read any of the “Anne of Green Gables” books you’ll understand this concept very well. It’s the idea of discovering a friend who becomes a ‘bosom friend’ or a ‘kindred spirit’. It’s someone “to whom I can confide my inmost soul” says Anne to Diana.

The bond that drew David and Jonathan together more than any other linkage was clearly their love for God. From the story, we can identify three soul traits that linked these men.

Jonathan and David shared a similar fire for God’s honor.

The Israelites were being pulverized by the Philistines, so much so that the Hebrews were forced to flee to the hills and caves. Jonathan grows fed up with this. One day Jonathan says to his armor bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows.” (1 Sam.14:6)

David got fed up with the never-ending standoff with Goliath. So much so that when he sees Goliath strutting across the battlefield, defying Israel, he says, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Sam.17:26) Do you see the similarity in their language? Both men had a zeal for God’s honor.

Jonathan and David also shared an instinct to seek God’s will.

In chapter 14:8 Jonathan seeks God’s direction by setting a fleece. He says to his armor bearer, “If the Philistines see us and say, ‘Wait there and we’ll come to you,’ we’ll stay put. But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ that will be our sign that the Lord has given them into our hands.’” The Philistines say, ‘Come up,’ Jonathan without hesitation jumps into battle. Verse 13: “The Philistines fell before Jonathan…In that first attack Jonathan and his armor-bearer killed some twenty men…Then panic struck the whole Philistine army…It was a panic sent by God.” (14:13-15).

David was just the same way. He was eager to know God’s direction. In 2 Samuel 5 is a story of David battling the Philistines. In 5:19 he “inquires of God” the Bible says. “Shall I go and attack them? Will you hand them over to me?” God says, Go get ‘em. And David wins the battle. A short time later, the Philistines are back. David didn’t assume the directions from last time still applied. He inquired of God yet again in 2 Samuel 5:23. And this time God says, “Go, but don’t go straight up; circle around them this time.” David, swift to obey God, wins the battle again.

Jonathan and David shared a similar confidence in God’s power.

In 1 Samuel 14:6, Jonathan says to his armor bearer, “Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.” They then press the attack against the Philistines. David, charging out to face Goliath cries out, “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saved; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give all of you into our hands.” (17:47). These two men who didn’t grow up together, nevertheless shared an absolute trust in God’s power.

No wonder when these two men first met and started sharing their stories and their passions with each other that their hearts started pounding inside their chest. These were twin sons of different mothers, sharing one soul in two bodies.

And when that linkage between you and another is Jesus Christ, you’ve found something that is stronger than steel. Something that will outlast time itself.

How do you experience this sort of sharing? How do you find a soul friend? You have to go beyond talking about the weather, and sports. You have to take the chance and lay bare your soul to someone else. Are you willing to take that chance?

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With Thanksgiving this week, a little training in conflict management would be good. For it won’t take long for weird Uncle Joe to get weird, or Aunt Martha still mired in the 60s to get political, or the fans of different sports teams to start hurling turkey legs at each other.

One solution for conflict is called “forbearance”. Forbearing is when you let it go. You give it to God. It’s not sweeping it under the rug or saying what they did wasn’t hurtful. It’s just giving it a mulligan this time around.

Here’s another reason why forbearance is an important skill to practice: Because God forbears us all the time.

Jesus says, “Don’t be taking specks out of other people’s eyes when you have a log hanging out of your eye.” It’s so easy to see another person’s sin, but seeing our own? Not so much. Try to see what’s on the end of your nose right now as you’re reading. (Go ahead. I’ll wait.) It’s hard to do, isn’t it? We’re not used to angling our eyes in that direction. Now try to look at the end of another person’s nose who’s in the room. Which was easier?

But that’s Jesus’ point. It’s easier to see someone else’s sin more than our own. And our sin is usually worse! Yet God overlooks it time and time again. We need to learn to recognize how much forbearance God has already given us. Think about all the times in your life when you did something, said something, thought something that you knew was wrong, and you looked up, expecting the hammer to fall, and instead received…nothing.

Rather than take note of all the sinning others do, take note instead of all the forgiveness God has given you. Forgiveness, grace, mercy – that’s what swallows whole the immensity of all our sinning. Peter said, “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Paul said, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). James said, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

It’s easier to see someone else’s sin more than our own. And our sin is usually worse! Yet God overlooks it time and time again.

It’s not that we are to forever forbear. There’s a time and a place for direct talk and confrontation (we’ll get to that in the next Spark).

But our instinct, our reflex, should be to opt for mercy first.

It’s not just for their well-being either. It’s for your own health and wellness. People who are in the sin-counting business become bitter, whiney, miserable souls. Like Jonah sitting on a hill outside of Ninevah, hoping to see judgment fall on the nasty Assyrians. And God comes to him and asks, “Are you upset?” And he says, “You bet I’m upset!” Jonah in that moment is not someone worthy of imitation. He’s a miserable, crotchety old man.

Like Inspector Javert in “Les Miserables” who cannot, will not, must not ever deviate from the law one inch, or his world is undone. And of course, here is Jean Valjean, the man of grace, through whom the spirit of Jesus shines. Which would you rather be? Shortly before ending his life, Javert looks to the heavens and shouts, “There is nothing on earth that we share; it is either Valjean or Javert.”

It’s absolutely brilliant how the writers of that musical captured the tug of war that is inside our hearts between law and grace. Grace is incomprehensible to someone who keeps running tallies of everyone else’s sinning. Forbearance allows grace room to operate. Forbearance gives the running of the universe back over to God. It lets him fix the people that need to be fixing. We don’t have to micromanage that.

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In John 4 is a fascinating story about Jesus’ interaction with a sin-riddled Samaritan woman at the local watering hole. (Not a bar, mind you. They met at the village well.) We should meditate long and hard on this story because it gives us insight into how to interact with people who are not from our political, cultural or religious tribe.

As the conversation unfolds, we see Jesus model a variety of traits we should imitate. He models true inclusiveness, by seeing her value when no one else would. Here’s a second idea:

We should be incarnational, by learning how to enter and understand the world of the one we’re talking to.

God became human in Christ (we call that the “Incarnation”) to draw us closer to himself. For us to understand him, he’d have to speak our language. He’d have to walk awhile in our shoes.

That’s what we see Jesus do when he comes to a well to rest, and meets a woman who’s come to draw water. How does he enter her world? He begins the conversation by talking about…water.

He asks her for a drink. Which astonishes her because he’s a Jew and she’s a Samaritan, and they didn’t didn’t talk to each other back then. (Here’s Jesus is being inclusive.)

Then Jesus says, “If you knew who was asking you for this drink, you’d ask him and he’d give you living water.”

By the end of his lengthy conversation with her, Jesus will spell it out to her in black and white by saying to her outright, “I am the Messiah.” But notice: he doesn’t begin that way. He doesn’t begin where he is at, but where she is at.

Learning how to walk a mile in the other person’s moccasins, as the old saying goes, is a lost art today. Because of how politically divisive our culture has become, few even bother listening to others. They wait to hear buzzwords, so that they can slap a label on you, and then start attacking.

To a non-Christian, the word “Christian” now means “Trump voter”, “gay basher”, or “young earth Neanderthal.” Creating thirst for Jesus in the one you’re talking to is going to take some real effort today.

But it was the same for Jesus. The women at the well was also quick to slap labels on other people. She had everything figured out. But Jesus patiently poked around, asked probing questions, listened, and gently inserted his point of view at strategic parts of the conversation. And when it all was said and done, he so captivated her that she ended up bringing people to him!

Try being incarnational with others today. Don’t force them to enter your world. You enter theirs. Don’t expect them to listen to you. You listen first to them. And then with one ear tuned upwards to listen to God, begin to speak, and see where the conversation might go.

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Asaph is having a really bad day.

He writes about it in Psalm 73. Such a bad day, in fact, that he’s entertaining the thought that his faith in God is worthless. And that people who could care less about God actually live better lives than he does.

So what are we supposed to do in such moments? It’s not an unimportant question because everyone of us is going to experience what Asaph is going through. Life is too long, and too hard, and too mysterious for any of us to avoid times of doubting and struggle.

In the first fourteen verses, Asaph is essentially venting. He writes out what he’s feeling, describing it to the tee. Which points to one important lesson when you’ve lost that loving feeling for God.

Be honest with yourself and with God.

When Asaph begins his rant about how the wicked lead carefree, happy lives, he is letting God knows how he feels. Guess what? It’s okay to do that with God.

In the movie “Shadowlands”, Anthony Hopkins, who plays C.S. Lewis, goes to comfort his stepson Donald after Lewis wife and Donald’s mother Joy has died.

“I don’t believe in heaven,” Donald says. Lewis doesn’t pounce on him in that moment. He doesn’t use it to give him a lecture or Sunday School answers or false comfort. He simply says, “That’s okay,” and then weeps with his stepson.

It’s okay to be honest with God about the pain or confusion or struggle that you’re facing.  Feelings will change, especially as they are shared, and not bottled up inside. God can work with honesty.

Some might say – especially those raised in the name-it-and-claim-it school of thought – that such honesty is a betrayal of God. To say such things is not walking in faith. Such thoughts are nothing but sinful, and need to be repented of.

This is one of the problems with this brand of theology – people who believe that a person who has true faith will walk on a continual flower-strewn path of healing, prosperity and victory just don’t do suffering well. And usually lack the empathy to treat suffering people well.

No one is saying that we’re to remain in doubt. No one is saying that we shouldn’t work to overcome our fears. In Psalm 73, we actually get to see Asaph climb out of that dark hole he finds himself in. There’s nothing spiritually healthy about staying miserable all the time.

But to overcome our doubts, fears and worries, we first have to acknowledge that they’re there. And be able to describe with great specificity what we’re feeling. You can’t correct a person’s bad math until they begin putting numbers on the chalkboard.

“Pour out your heart before him,” Asaph’s boss, King David, writes in Psalm 62:8. Giving God an honest assessment of what’s churning in your heart, however dark or negative it might be, is what David means. And sets you on the road toward healing.

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So God has disappeared on you, you say. He’s playing hide and seek with you. You can’t find him anywhere. What do you do?

A writer named Asaph experienced that, and he wrote about it for us in Psalm 73. How did he get through that ‘dark night of the soul’? The first thing he did was pour out his heart with honesty to God. If God dries our tears, then that means it’s okay to weep before him.

The second thing he did was stay close to God’s people. In fact, the breakthrough he was looking for came while he was in church. When God seems to disappear on you, running from God – i.e. ‘sticking it to him’ – is the worst thing you can do.

Asaph did a third thing that helped. He looked back at all the times in the past when God had been faithful to him. This encouraged him to believe that God would do so again.

There’s a fourth and final thing Asaph did while in his spiritual funk that brought him through it:

He recounts the blessings of being a believer.

The final section of the psalm are among the most beautiful in all of Scripture, as Asaph writes out some of the benefits and blessings he enjoys as a worshipper of God.

  • Nevertheless I am continually with you, he writes. So God never really abandons us. We have his presence.
  • You hold my right hand. God actively supports us when we struggle, though we may not feel it right at the moment. We have his power.
  • You guide me with your counsel. Through his Spirit, his Word and his people, the Lord will give us wisdom to get us through that season. We have his guidance.
  • And afterward you will receive me to glory. The hope of eternity with him is no idle fancy. In fact, it is the strongest hope a believer can have when the goodness of this life wears thin or wears out. We have God’s salvation.
  • Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish. The world is too broken and I am too sinful for this life to satisfy my every longing. Without God in my life, I am truly lost, even if I possess all the world’s riches and comforts.
  • You put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. God will put an end to evil upon the earth. Not every wrong will necessarily be put right in this life, but when all is said and done, the Lord – his truth, his values, his ways, his kingdom – will be fully vindicated.

But for me it is good to be near God. I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works. By recounting all the blessings of faith that are his, Asaph ends the psalm in a far better place than he began it.

Why don’t you take ten minutes today and do what Asaph did. Make a list of the good things you enjoy because you are a follower of Christ.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,” Scripture tells us Psalm 103:2. Better have a big sheet of paper handy. That list of benefits might get rather long.

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I would not be a Christian today if there were no experience of the risen Christ to be had on this side of heaven, and it all had to be taken on faith.

The Bible tells us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps.34:8) and thankfully there are hors d’oeurves from the smorgasbord of heaven to be enjoyed on this earth. “In your presence there is fullness of joy,” King David wrote (Ps.16:11). Jesus promised we would hear his voice, and receive an outpouring of love, joy and peace in our hearts if we followed him.

But…(in true Christianity there must always be balance)…we must be careful with our craving for experience. We live in an age which idolizes experience. You can’t just walk into a coffee shop to buy coffee. You must experience coffee, which requires a certain atmosphere when you walk in, and certain music, and certain decore.

So we must be careful, because this same need for experience which our culture has instilled in us can easily transfer over to our walk of faith, and we’ll subconsciously make the experience of God our focus, and not God.

So why is this so bad? Here’s an important reason:

When we’re obsessed with experience it may make us forget that at the center of our faith is a cross. 

Back in the first century, there were groups of traveling speakers, much like today, and what the believers did is they became groupies of their favorite preacher or teacher. Whoever put on the best show, became their favorite speaker. Paul has to rebuke them for this. “My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’, another, ‘I follow Apollos’, another, ‘I follow Cephas.”  (1 Cor.1:11-12)

Here is where Paul steps in to remind them in verse 18 of something they had apparently forgotten. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Yes, the pastor and the worship team need to do the best job they can to make sure things are done with excellence, and not call attention to themselves by being too sloppy or too boring. But when it’s all said and done, it’s not about you-in-the-pew experiencing a good show. It’s about a band of brothers and sisters in a local community gathering around the cross of Jesus Christ, to worship Him, to confess sins to each other, to pray for one another, to hear his word simply taught.

It’s a dagger to any pastor’s heart to watch his people flock to the latest, greatest megachurch because they put on a better show. It’s a dagger to any pastor’s hearts to hear his sermons compared to Charles Stanley or Chuck Swindoll or Rick Warren. Few pastors can compete with this.

But when believers treat going to church the same way they treat going to the movies – where are they going to get the most bang for their buck? – this is what you get.  There is a time and place to be looking for a new church – don’t get me wrong – but this is not it.  These are not the reasons.

Paul says, “It’s not about signs, miracles, flashiness, eloquence – it’s about Christ crucified.” Which is not a very glamorous thing – but that’s where all the power is at – it’s you at the feet of a splintered, blood-stained cross.

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That God speaks is consistent with the belief that God exists. But how does God speak? It’s important we understand this if we are to have any sort of meaningful relationship with him. Here’s one way he communicates:

 God speaks to us is through creation.

Christians call nature God’s general revelation. The Bible says in Psalm 19:1 – “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech…”

Creation, we could say, is God’s calling card. It’s a package left on our front step to make us ponder the one left it.

So what does God say to us through creation? What can we learn about him?

 Creation teaches us that God is great. 

Just try to get your hands around the vastness of this universe. Let’s pretend that the earth is the size of a candy sprinkle. Then imagine the sun being the size of a ping pong, then place it fifteen feet from the candy sprinkle. Jupiter would be the size of a small marble, and to keep things in proportion, you’d have to place the marble a hundred feet away from the ping pong ball. Saturn would be the size of a pea which is 150 feet away from the sun.

Now leap in your mind to the nearest star system – Proxima Centauri. Where do you think you’d have to place Proxima Centauri, to keep things in scale? You’d have to get in your car, and drive 1,500 miles away to place Proxima Centauri in the right spot. And that’s just the nearest star system, which is one of billions of star systems. Chalk one up for the greatness of God.

Creation teaches that God is intelligent. 

Isaac Newton said, “The human thumb alone convinces me of God’s existence.” Why? Because of its clear design. Just look at your thumb right now. Look at the position of the nail, placed there to protect it. Consider the thumb’s stumpy size – suitable for locking objects in a grip. Yet it also has the ability to bend. Study the symmetry of your thumb’s fingerprint, and call to mind that your fingerprint is unique to you. There’s no one quite like you on the earth.

Creation teaches us that God is creative and artistic.

Why did he load up a human being with five senses, then fill the world with endless objects, experiences and sensations to stimulate those five senses? Why all the colors? Why all the tastes? Why all the sensations? Why all the aromas? Every time you eat a pizza or touch your lover’s hand you should have a religious experience, as you consider the artistry of the Creator.

Creation is an amazing way that God speaks to us. So much so that Scripture tells us that this alone should convince us of his existence, and so we have no excuse not to at least wonder: Is he there? (Romans 1:20).

However, if this were God’s only communication to us, we would be left scratching our head about what God is like, because frankly this is not enough information to go on.

Can you learn how many gods there are from creation? Ancient men looked at creation, and concluded that there were many gods, a god of wind, a god of the sea, a god of the sun. God himself had to reveal to the human race that he was the one and only.

Can you learn if God is good or evil from creation? Can you learn if God is caring or indifferent? Walk into a children’s cancer ward, or the ruins of a village washed away by a tsunami and tell me what you learn about God strictly from what you see there around you.

And so God ups the ante, and provides us with another form of communication from his heart – a love-letter, if you will, which we’ll talk about next time.

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“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

Our theology – or belief system – is important, because it impacts the way we respond to life. If our thoughts aren’t grounded in Reality, when Reality then comes and slugs us between the eyeballs, we’re going to get our world rocked.

Next, we’ll collapse into despair, anger, or doubt – usually against God. When all the while, these dark emotions wouldn’t be there, or wouldn’t be as strong, is we just thought properly and biblically to begin with.

Too many Christians in America have a very inadequate theology of suffering, and nested within those faulty beliefs are thoughts related to sickness and health.

In college, I went to a church that promoted what is sometimes called the “health and wealth” gospel – the idea that God’s will is for my perfect health and prosperity, and if I merely exercise enough faith in what God wants for me, then I’ll receive it.

To this day, churches that promote this idea bust at the seams because the message seems so “positive” (in comparison to those churches which teach such dreary concepts as “sin” and “crosses” and “repentance”).

But more so, the churches of these “faith preachers” are packed, and their books sell, because there will always be sick and poor people who are desperate for a quick fix. For every person who eventually drops out of the church because they learn that life on this side of heaven doesn’t work the way the preacher tells them, there’ll be ten more to take their place.

In my case, I had a severe skin disease called psoriasis which was a living contradiction to my college church’s unbiblical theology. I exercised “faith”, even going so far as to throw away my medicines. I fasted. I prayed. I memorized dozens of verses that spoke of healing. And nearly ended up in the hospital because my plaque-covered body swelled up with an infection.

My “healing” came only when I gradually got my theology in line with what the Bible really teaches. That yes, there are wonderful occasions where God does heal on this side of heaven.

And yes, God in his heart of hearts is a healer, who is determined to one day heal not only my lowly body, but the entire Cosmos.

But no, not all diseases will be healed here and now. (For sometimes God uses my body’s very weaknesses to show his power in a way that wouldn’t happen otherwise.)

And no, disease and death should never turn me away from God in anger or doubt, but drive me deeper into his loving embrace.

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“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” ~ 1 Peter 1:3 

A few years ago I came up with a little formula of sorts to better explain the Gospel message to others:

Jesus came to earth to teach us how to live rightly.

Jesus died on the cross to give us the power to live rightly.

Jesus rose from the grave to give us the reason to live rightly.

Obviously on this Easter, I’m thinking of this last line. If everything were true about Jesus except for his resurrection,  there would be a murky shroud of “Why bother?” or “So what?” hanging over our hearts.

Walt Disney being dead may make me sad, but it still doesn’t keep me from having a blast at Disneyland. It’s unfortunate that the Beatles never worked it out and came together in my life, but I can let it be because their music is here, there and everywhere just as it was yesterday.

But with Jesus, it’s another story. The fact that counting out three days from his death he returned to life in a resurrected body is absolutely essential to the rescue mission he undertook.

Why is the resurrection so critical?

First: Easter proves that everything we believe about Jesus is true.

The evidence for Jesus being who he said he was is considerable without the resurrection. He fulfilled dozens of specific Messianic prophecies written down centuries before he was born. That should mean something to you.

His very life is evidence. No one in history compares to him. His profound teaching, his perfect life, his unquenchable love, his astounding power speak volumes.

But for Christians throughout time, the resurrection is what clinches the deal. The apostle Paul went so far as to say that without it our “faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17).

Technically speaking, the resurrection is not what saves us. This was brought about by our Lord’s death. But the resurrection proves that his death worked. It’s heaven’s confirmation number that God accepts the transaction. Without it, we would have reason to wonder. Now that we know that we know that we know it’s true, we have every motivation to follow hard after Jesus.

Second: Easter proves that our destiny is to become good like Christ.

God places templates of eternity into everyday life to show us that our faith is not a myth or fairy tale. How can we possibly look at an elderly person and believe that they could one day be young again? Because resurrection happens every year as new, young life bursts forth miraculously from the grave of winter.

Likewise, in the miracle of the caterpillar which transforms into a butterfly we see a picture of the future glory that awaits us in eternity. The Bible assures us that one thing is certain about that time and place – followers of Christ in eternity will be forever rid of their sin.

  • Everything that causes evil will be weeded out of God’s kingdom (Matthew 13:41).
  • The journey begins in this life. “We…are being transformed [the Greek word is metamorphometha which should remind you of the word metamorphosis, so we’re not far off with the butterfly analogy] into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
  • But it comes to completion after death or upon Christ’s return (whichever comes first.) “In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye…we will be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:52). 
  • This transformation is certain for all blood-bought disciples. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” (Romans 8:29)
  • The end result of this miraculous metamorphosis is that we will resemble Jesus in our moral character and love. “We know that when he appears, we shall be like him.” (1 John 3:2)

How do we know these verses aren’t just wishful thinking? Simple: look at Jesus’ resurrection. His resurrected body is Exhibit A of what will happen to us. Paul called Christ the ‘first fruits’ of what will also happen to those who follow him (1 Corinthians 15:20). If there’s a ‘first fruit’ then a much larger harvest is to follow. Paul’s logic: if it happened to him, it’ll happen for his followers as well.

Why should this give us the reason to live rightly? When you know that something special is coming around the bend – getting married, a long-awaited vacation, a new job – you start making adjustments in your living long before it happens.

You don’t say to yourself, “The wedding is next weekend. I better get all my sleeping around out of the way this weekend.” Right after John tells us “We know that when he appears, we shall be like him“, he completes the thought by saying, “Everyone who has this hope purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 John 3:3). 

Third: Easter proves that Jesus is alive to help us.

Here’s the best news of all. If the resurrection is true, then we don’t have to do this alone. When Jesus promised he would be with us always to the end of the age, he meant it (Matthew 28:20).

We always think that growing in goodness is a matter of things that we must do. Every blog article is loaded with a half dozen principles for better health or happiness or hair growth.

But man does not live by principles alone. In the end when it’s all said and done, purity will not be achieved by principles, but by a Person.

You’ll get your principles for sure. As you learn to spend time with this Person, he will give you very practical things to do. Some of these things will be things that he asks all of his followers to do, but other things will be unique to you.

But it’s not the rules that matter so much in the end, as the relationship. Purity will not be achieved by the steps which you take, but by a hand which you take.

And Easter proves that when we reach out, He’ll grab hold of us.

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“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” ~ Proverbs 9:5-6

Life-change begins with coming to Jesus. For in the act of coming, we admit that we can’t save ourselves, and need the help of our Maker.

The second phrase in this verse from Proverbs says, Eat of my bread. This points to a second thing that must happen if our lives are to change for the better: we need spiritual nourishment. Colossians 3:26 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.”

While the ancient Egyptians were busy leaving us stone monuments to show future generations how great they were, the ancient Hebrews gave us a far better gift. We call it the Bible. If you’re new to this, your first order of business is to just start gobbling up the Bible. Don’t be shy. Put on a bib and stuff your face full of it.

Come, eat my bread, God says to us. What a gift of grace, to have the very words of God right at our fingertips.

Why’s is Bible reading important? Here are two reasons among many:

First, because I need to be taught God’s truth.

I’m not born plug and play. Humans are the most pitiful of God’s creatures when they are born. We are naturally ignorant. Everything must be taught us. (Listen up, parents!)

But it’s even worse than that. Scripture teaches that we are born spiritually dead. “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” (Ephesians 2:1)

What that means at a practical level, is that in almost every area of my life, if I play it as I feel it, I’ll make a colossal mess of things. The book of Proverbs says (and says it twice, so it’s got flashing yellow lights around it), “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (14:12, 16:25). In other words, we need to be taught.

Second, if I don’t learn God’s truth then I’ll be susceptible to all the bad teaching that’s out there.

Our culture is systematically sweeping away tried and true biblical teaching as we speak, especially in the sexual arena. Many are thoughtlessly going along with the social experiment. But if the Bible is true, then this is not going to end well.

Jesus, without apology, said that those who followed his teaching would get a storm-proof house built on rock. But those who ignore his words would get an unstable house built on sand, destined to collapse in ruins.

Look no further than your own heart. You’ve played it the culture’s way long enough and where has it gotten you? Addicted, broke, confused, empty, alone, frustrated. Jesus said that we humans don’t live on bread alone. What we need to live on is ‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:11).

Don’t you think it’s time that you sit down and open up the greatest book that’s ever been written, and figure out what it’s about? An intelligent person would at least do that much.

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“Come, eat my food, and drink the wine I have mixed.  Leave your simple ways behind and you will live; walk in the way of understanding.” ~ Proverbs 9:5-6

For those who come of Christ, who are willing to be nourished by the bread of his Word, and to drink the wine of suffering that must come in following him, and who have learned the grace of regular repentance, a glorious destiny awaits – that soul will come in time to look more like Christ.

You’ll begin to walk in the way of understanding. To “walk in” something means that you’re now comfortably settled in with it. It’s become second-nature to you because it’s now a part of you. It’s the very essence of freedom.

When you boil it all down, Christ’s came for just this reason – to liberate us. “If you hold on to my teaching you will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” Jesus said (John 8:32). The apostle Paul said in Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

To have sin, any sin, roaming inside of your heart, uncaged and ravenous, is as far from freedom as you can get. To have your soul ruled by greed, or lust, or fear, or unforgiveness, or jealousy, or any of a thousand sins wraps you in terrible chains. The beauty of knowing Christ is that his intent is to break those chains, one by one.

When you boil it all down, Christ’s came for just this reason – to liberate us.

But to reach this place, there are two things about sin you must understand. Your sins must be covered through repentance (which we talked about last time), and they must be unlearned through training.

“Train yourself to be godly,” Paul counseled Timothy (1 Timothy 4:7). Jesus died to cover your sins and provide forgiveness. But he also died to give you an opportunity to learn another way to live. And Jesus promised to train you, to teach you, and to show you how. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden…Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-30). The operative phrase there is “learn from me”.

Freedom then comes through training and discipline. There’s no other way to get there. If I could boil it down to a few steps it might look like this:

Freedom then comes through training and discipline. There’s no other way to get there.

Step One: Develop the discipline of meeting with Jesus every day in prayer and the Word, and weekly through fellowship.

Step Two: Pay close attention to what you are hearing, reading and learning. Learn to listen! In those messages, themes and verses will break through to your heart. Many of these will be the Spirit of God coming to you, pointing out where you need repentance and training.

Step Three: Begin to push back against the behaviors and attitudes that God is bringing up. This is the part of your healing that will seem painful. It’s easy to do what you’ve always done. Doing it God’s way will seem strange and unnatural at first. You can’t do this part alone! Reach out to mentors and spiritual advisors to whom you can be accountable.

Step Four: Celebrate your small wins, and brings your failures (and there’ll be many at first) to the cross.

Step Five: Press forward. Don’t give up. Continue meeting with Christ and his people. In time, the tide will turn, and you’ll notice a change is happening.

Step Six: Resolve to continue meeting with Christ, till the day you draw your last breath. Because once you’re “walking in the way of understanding” in that one area, guess what? It’ll be time to move on to your next lesson with Jesus.

Step Seven: Never forget that all of this is possible because of the amazing grace of God. Never get too proud of yourself or to down on yourself. Never get too jealous of others for being “better than you”, or despise others for not being where you’re at. There’s a Cross between us all. Since all of this is possible because of the grace of God, take joy in the journey and worship all the way home.

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A third lesson about God’s power to deliver from Psalm 18 is this: Believe that God is on my side.

In verses 6-19 David gives us a poetic picture of God rallying to his side. David, as you should know, was the Shakespeare of his time. In fact he’s one of the greatest warrior-poets of all time. He’s living proof that real men do like poetry. The arts are not just for the effeminate.

(Quick aside: it’s time for godly men exhibiting godly masculinity to get back into the arts at all levels: dance, painting, acting, writing, poetry.) In these verses we see an example of David at his creative best as he describes God coming swiftly to his aid.

Set your imagination free as we read these words:

“In my distress, I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears. The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook; they trembled because he was angry. Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it.

He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind…He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes who were too strong for me.”

It’s almost Thor-like, how David describes God coming to deliver him. So what do you think? Did David believe that God was for him?

You need to know that for David, this was not just a clever poem he had written, or just a picture in his head that he made up. David himself may not have experienced earthquakes and dark clouds and smoke, but he had something in mind as he wrote this poem. A real event, a real deliverance where God did use earthquakes and dark clouds, and hailstones and seas parting.

It was the single-most important act of deliverance in all the Old Testament. And time and time again, God told his people, “Don’t you ever forget this” – that miraculous occasion when God delivered the Hebrew slaves from Egypt and brought them through the Red Sea into the Promised Land.

This is what David was describing as he wrote these words.  And for David, how God delivered Israel back then was a picture of how God would come and deliver him out of trouble now. It was this event David must have been thinking of when he stepped alone onto a battlefield with nothing but his sling shot and saw coming his way a seven-foot, 300-pound, armored Philistine named Goliath with his blood-crusted sword raised high.

Every time he led his men into battle facing long odds and larger armies, David remembered how God came to deliver his people way back when, and said to himself, “God, I believe that’s how you’re going to deliver me now.”

Do you believe that God is for you? Can you say with the apostle Paul in Romans 8:31 – “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Do you believe that God is on your side?

You say, “Well, I might, I could if only I had some great deliverance from God to look back on. I don’t have any sort of Exodus in my life.”

You’re right. You and I don’t have an Exodus in our past. We have something far better. Far greater. A deliverance from God that blows the parting of the Red Sea away. A deliverance that also came with earthquakes and dark clouds and mighty winds and the rending not of seas but a veil of holiness that had separated men from God.

It was a deliverance God brought about on a hill called Calvary, where the sinless Son of God had his body broken and his blood spilled for you and for me.

The next time you wonder if God is really for you, my friend, look back to that Cross, and stand there in awe at what God your Maker did for you, to rescue you from sin, and shame, and Satan and hell.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” 

Don’t you ever doubt that God is for you. Don’t you ever doubt that you matter to God.

And if you call out to him, and believe that he is for you, you will experience his deliverance in your life. Just like David.

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There’s a second place where a Christian can get joy according to Philippians 4 – a Christian can get joy with the Lord. 

This is what Paul says next – the last sentence in verse 5 through the end of verse 7. “The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

The problem with life on this side of heaven is that it seldom unfolds as we would like. It seldom fires on all cylinders. Disappointments and heartaches and obstacles abound.

The famous writer and atheist Bertrand Russell said, “The secret to happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible.” 

Pastor Rick Warren put it a little more delicately in his book The Purpose Driven Life. “Life is a series of problems. Either you are in one now, you’re just coming out of one, or you’re getting ready to go into another one. The reason for this is that God is more interested in your character than your comfort. God is more interested in making your life holy than he is in making your life happy.”

Thanks Rick (he says sullenly). But it’s true. And the quicker we make our peace with this, the better off we’re going to be.

So where does a Christian find joy in a world filled with problems and tests? He or she finds it with the Lord. “The Lord is near”, Paul writes.

This truth leads into this great verse about prayer. It’s because the Lord is near, right by our side, that we develop this habit of talking to him constantly about what’s going on in our lives. “In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Everything means everything. You don’t need a Greek dictionary to figure it out. Some of you are going through a severe season of testing right now. Take Jesus’ hand and do not let go. Keep the conversation of prayer going each and every day. You may not get the answer you’re looking for, but you’ll get Jesus, and if you get Jesus, you’ll have all you need to see you through.

What this passage promises is not the answer to all your prayers or the fulfillment to all your longings. What it promises is peace in the midst of the storm.

And the peace of God (it’s not a peace based on circumstances, it’s the peace of God; you’ll only get it from him) which transcends all understanding (it’s a peace that doesn’t even make sense, humanly speaking, but God gives it to you nonetheless), will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (for we need to be protected during times of testing, because Satan is right there, trying to poison our hearts and minds with his lies.

So rejoice with the Lord.  I don’t know what his answer to you will be; it’s different for each of us. God is writing a personalized novel with each and every one of us. He’s that big. Peter once demanded of Jesus that he reveal to him his plans for John.  Jesus said to him in so many words, “Don’t worry about John. I’m writing my own story with him. Let’s talk about your story.”

But one thing I do know – Jesus will be with you in the storm, and somehow, someway he’ll get you through it, and the story he writes with you will be beautiful. Just don’t let go.

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“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation (i.e. sacrifice) for our sins.” ~ 1 John 4:10

The Cross of Christ teaches three great truths about myself: I am radically broken, I am radically loved and I am radically called.

At first glance, the first two assertions might seem like contradictions. True Christianity begins its work on us by first raking us over the coals of our sins. It tells us in no uncertain terms that we are infected by sin and pride at every level in our being. Jesus came right out and called the religious leaders of his time “evil” (which no doubt sent the Pharisees and Sadducees scrambling to find a safe space.)

Our hearts are deceitful above all things. We’re spiritually blind to all spiritual truth. We’re deaf to God’s Word. Our minds are darkened, unable to grasp the truth even if we could hear it. In fact, Scripture comes right out and says we’re spiritually dead. Stick a fork in us. (But other than being blind, deaf, dumb, and dead, we’re in pretty good shape.)

You almost couldn’t say anything worse about a human being than Christianity says. “What a low view of human nature!” a critic might say. But not so fast. Christianity swiftly moves on to teach us that we are radically loved and valued by God.

If a doctor sits you down and explains that the truth to you that you are dangerously sick, he’s not insulting you. He’s just telling you the truth about yourself. And if that doctor then goes on to say, “But I’m going to do everything in my power to get you better,” and he then proceeds to move heaven and earth to do just that, now you dramatically learn how much that doctor cares for you, and values your life.

Welcome to Christianity. Where God sits us down and explains the truth to us. That we are dangerously sick, and as things stand, our life will become an eternal ruin if things don’t change. But God doesn’t stop there. He then does something that the God of no other religion does (which is one reason among many why I know that if there is a true religion, then this one is it).

This God rolls up his sleeves, literally moves heaven and earth, by coming to earth as one of us, and then takes on himself all the ugliness, shame and punishment that my own sin has produced, and he carries it away from me, like a bomb that had been strapped to me, so that when it goes off, only he gets hurt by it, not me.

If a doctor sits you down and explains that the truth to you that you are dangerously sick, he’s not insulting you.

In case I’m being too obtuse, this is what God was up to when Jesus Christ was crucified on that Roman cross 2,000 years ago.

My friend, I can confidently say that no one, and I mean NO ONE, has ever loved you like this.

“In this is love…that God loved us and sent his Son to be a sacrifice for our sins.”

So on the cross we see both of these seemingly contradictory truths connected. I am radically broken, for how awful must the state of my heart be if this is the remedy to heal me. But I am radically loved, for how valuable I must be to God if he would pay this price to save me.

There’s a song that says, “How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure, that he should give his only Son, to make a wretch his treasure.” 

Don’t you ever doubt it for a second.

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“But as Joseph considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife; for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus , for he will save his people from their sins.” ~ Matthew 1:20-21

There was a guy who once prayed to God, “Lord, so far today I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped. I haven’t lost my temper, or been greedy, or grumpy, or nasty to my wife and kids. I haven’t told a lie. I haven’t used a swear word or had a lustful thought. I’m really glad about that, Lord. But in a few minutes, I’m gonna be gettin’ out of bed. And from then on I’m gonna need a lot more help.”

I’m sure we can relate to that prayer. As followers of Christ, we know that our Lord Jesus gave us forgiveness when he died on the cross. But now, does Christianity have anything to offer that helps me to be able to stop doing the things that need forgiveness? When the angel said to Joseph that his child would save us from our sins, what exactly was meant by that?

Thankfully, it is both. We are “saved” from the guilt and condemnation of everything my sinful heart, mind and body can conjure up over a lifetime of foolish and selfish living. The offer of forgiveness is arguably the greatest gift God’s grace in Christ gives us.

But we are also “being saved” from all the defects within me that make me prone to sin. (See 1 Cor.1:18, and note the grammar.) The Son of God was born into the earth that first Christmas to launch an all-out moral rescue mission that when it was accomplished, would transform us into beings that could live and love like him.

So Paul, after reminding the Corinthians that ”Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God”, could say in his very next breath “And that is what some of you were.” Again, note the grammar. (Who woulda thunk that taking English as a kid would make us better Bible readers!)

“And that is what some of you were.”

That doesn’t mean that this change comes easily. It cost the Lord Jesus his life just to put us on the pathway to transformation. And the Bible tells us that there’s a load of cross-bearing and dying to ourselves that awaits us. Jesus is going to have to train us to be godly.

Take anyone who struggles with sexual issues. Our sexual desires and drives are some of the most powerful forces within us. I saw a bumper sticker once that said: Sex is like pizza. When it’s good, it’s very good. When it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. So turning those desires toward a healthier destination isn’t going to be easy. (So the Church must learn to demonstrate great compassion to all the broken souls that pass through our doors seeking help. Especially the sexually broken.)

But if this child born that first Christmas is going to save me from my sins, then think about it! Your past is not your destiny. Your family of origin doesn’t get to bully you your whole life. Culture doesn’t get to call the shots. All the wrong you’ve done, and all the wrong that’s been done to you, doesn’t get to have final say in who you are. There’s a new sheriff in town. His name is Jesus Christ and he gets to have the last word in the lives of those who belong to him.

How’s that for a great big Merry Christmas?

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“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” ~ Matthew 2:1-2

I teach something called The Five Great Truths Of Life which on the surface, may not seem particularly great. But they absolutely hit the bulls-eye of truth, and until I learn and accept these truths, I will not be able to live life well. They are:

I am small. I am selfish. I am stupid. I suffer. I am short-lived.

The story of the wisemen and their encounter with King Herod illustrates the middle truth: I am stupid.

The stupidity we’re referring to is not in reference to our intellectual capacity. God actually thinks quite highly of a human being’s capacity for thought and reflection. He knew when he created us that we would one day siphon oil from beneath the sea, and harness energy from the sun, and send winged metal cylinders flying into the sky, and poke at distant planets with probes. He saw the poetry of Shakespeare, and the songs of Lennon & McCartney, Al Gore’s creation of the Internet, our discovery of the double-helix, and our invention of artificial hearts. It was all part of God’s plan for us, which he declared was, “Very good.”

It’s in reference to our spiritual capacity that we speak of human stupidity. Our intellect no matter how vast, our brain no matter how large, our reasoning powers no matter how dazzling cannot on their own lead us to the knowledge of God. Unless heaven comes to earth first, unless God stoops to humanity first, without Christmas, I will be hopelessly lost.

We have as testimony to this great truth of life a group of pious wisemen. We don’t know specifically where they came from, don’t know how many there were (the idea that there were three of them – we three kings – comes from the three gifts that were laid before Jesus.) They were certainly not kings, although it’s clear from the story they were comfortable around them. Magi were probably royal astrologers who watched the stars, and based on how easily they marched right up to King Herod, they probably gave advice to their rulers.

With that, we can assume they were highly educated, truly wise men. And they were unquestionably men of great wealth. The average person couldn’t break away from his job to make a long journey like this, and what’s more, the gifts they presented Jesus were not from the Christmas Tree Shoppe.

Our intellect no matter how vast, our brain no matter how large, our reasoning powers no matter how dazzling cannot on their own lead us to the knowledge of God. 

So think about it: What was it that brought the wise men to Jesus? What prompted their search for the king of the Jews? Was it their status or position? Was it their wealth? Was it their education? Their effort? When at last they came and bowed their knees before the infant king, could they look at each other and with a wink say, “Man, look at us! Aren’t we something?”

No, to each of these questions. The correct answer is God. Their search for God and their finding of God began with God. The star had to first appear above them in the skies, then within them. Only then could they seek God and find him.

This is what we mean when we say, I am stupid. It’s actually an outflow of the second great truth of life: I am selfish. Because I am by nature sinful, I am truly lost, and am incapable of saving myself.

Unless God comes to me first by his grace, and awakens me to his reality and my need for him, then I will remain small and selfish and without hope. We are called to be “grace-bred, Word-fed, Spirit-led” men and women of discipline. But grace must come first.

A thousand Scriptures bear this out.

  • “No one can come to me unless the Father…draws him.” ~ John 6:44
  • “We love because he first loved us.” ~ 1 John 4:19
  • “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me.” ~ Isaiah 65:1

So yes, the saying is true. Wisemen still seek him. But only after the Lord first summons them.

Take time today to thank God for the star of grace and wonder that he placed in your heart so long ago. And shines there still.

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“And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the Magi] departed to their own country by another way. Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.'” ~ Matthew 2:13-13

Reading the Christmas story, it may seem that the players in the story are receiving one experience from God after another. Angels and dreams and stars, oh my!

But that would be a misreading of these events, and a misreading of the ways of God.

Yes, there are experiences of God to be had in this life. “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” the Bible declares (Psalm 34:8). But to imagine that the norm is for us to be able to stitch together one warm-fuzzy from God after another would be faulty thinking.

Hardly anyone on earth enjoyed more of God’s power than the apostle Paul, yet he insisted in no uncertain terms that on this side of heaven, we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).

The pattern we see in the Christmas story is that life is usually lived with God “in, with and under” our lives, but often hidden, like a computer’s operating system. Only occasionally does the veil between heaven and earth lower to give us an encouraging reminder that we are not alone.

In between the times when the star appeared, the Magi pressed on, using their God-given powers of reason to live faithfully, waiting for further instructions. In between the dreams, Joseph followed and obeyed, exercising responsibility as he cared for Mary and prepared for his future, whatever that would be.

This is not unimportant to learn these lessons about life. I’ve met not a few Christians and entire groups of churches who believe and teach that following Christ is a never-ending feast of one miracle after another. Everyday God speaks to us! Every day is a power-trip from God!

But then when suffering comes, or darkness falls, or a silent night descends, all sorts of confusion wraps around the heart of that misguided believer.

We all want God to come close. “When shall I come and appear before God?” David asked with longing. And sometimes in life, God will grant that experience. When we seek, often we will find. At the right hand of God are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).

But often God calls us to seek, and wait. Or seek, and serve. Or seek, and suffer. 

How will you respond in those seasons of life? Best to imitate the pattern laid down of faithful souls like Joseph, and the Magi.

And cling to the promise God gives, that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” (Isaiah 40:31)

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In Ecclesiastes 3, Solomon goes on a riff about time. He recognizes first that time is a gift from God. With that comes a second truth – that time is a trust.

Verse 15 says, “Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before, and God will call the past to account.”  When something is given to you “in trust”, the assumption is that you will take care of it, and use it well, and then one day you give it back to the owner. With that, there’s the understanding that you will have to give an explanation for how you used what was given to you. Well time is just that sort of thing.

We are each given by God a certain amount of time on this earth. And we’re each given by God certain raw materials to work with as we use time – our bodies, our minds, our talents.

Please don’t misconstrue this point. It’s not that God arbitrarily says to himself, “Okay, you I’ll give 73 years to live, and you I’ll give 51, and you I’m taking you out at 17. And you I’m making blind. You I’m making deaf. You’re going to have a weak heart. You get psoriasis, you cystic fibrosis.” The moment I was born, God knew that I would have psoriasis, but he didn’t give it to me. He allows the transmission of disease and ultimately death to occur because it’s part of the curse of sin which we must bear on this side of heaven.

This curse is transmitted from one generation to another in accordance with laws of genetics and biology and chemistry which God established and which God superintends, but don’t think for a moment that God gets pleasure out of this or singles you out for some sort of cosmic torture, like Michael on The Good Place. 

What God gets pleasure from is watching you and me take this life, this time, this body, this mind that each of us is given – no matter the limitations and weaknesses we possess – and using them to expand his goodness and love on the earth in some way for whatever amount of time we are given.

At the end of years of backsliding where he chased down every pleasure he could find outside of God, Solomon concluded that life without the love of God and the love of neighbor is worthless in the end. The last two verses of Ecclesiastes read: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”

He’s like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, who needs to learn how to love others first, and only then does the spell of his time-trap’s meaninglessness gets broken. He needs to learn that time is a trust given to him, and he is not to waste it all upon himself.

A lot of people get stuck in life. Get stuck in a place where one day bleeds into another, and there’s no more excitement to it, and they wonder what it’s all about. They go to bed sighing, they wake up sighing. If that’s you, maybe you’ve forgotten that life is a trust given to you by God. Maybe you’ve been spending your time and energy as though it’s all about you, when that never was the point at all.

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In the movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life”, George Bailey was asked to imagine a world where he hadn’t been born. What he discovered when he visited that world startled him. He learned that his life mattered a great deal more than he ever realized. His presence seemed to give off an invisible vapor trail of grace, and when his life intersected with another, that life was altered and affected in some small way for the better.

Looking at it from day to day, his influence was scarcely detectable. Why, George Bailey couldn’t see it at all. But seen over the course of a lifetime, his impact on others was astounding.

Imagine for a moment a world where the church did not exist. Picture in your mind driving into a community where no church steeples poked through the horizon. Where there were no “Church Streets”. You’d hear no bells chiming out at noon. There’d be no sacred hush on Sunday morning, as life came to a brief, worshipful rest. All of that gone.

What difference do you think that would make? Maybe day to day, it wouldn’t be missed at all.  Some might even say, “Good riddance,” in light of all the recent scandals shaking some churches and pastors.

But I’d be willing to bet that if you erased the church from society, that you’d find in the end a lot more hurt, a lot more emptiness, and a lot more darkness than before. (Look at your own life. What do you think it would be like if you took away the church altogether? Would you end up a better person for it?)

If you erased the church from society, you’d find in the end a lot more hurt, a lot more emptiness, and a lot more darkness than before.

The most rugged individualists among us need community. Eric Rudolph, a man responsible for a number of bombings (including the bombing at the 1996 Olympics) hid in the wilderness of North Carolina as a fugitive of the law for five years. Myths began to spring up about him. He was looked on by some as a sort of folk hero, a Daniel Boone lookalike, living off the land, while on the lam. But where did they catch him in the end? Foraging through a dumpster in a Walmart parking lot. Even he needed the support that a community provided.

What’s astonishing is that this need for community we have is a reflection of God’s own nature. We are, after all, created in the image of God, the Bible says. And what do we know about God’s nature? God is a triune being revealed to us as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Meaning within his very nature, God is relational.

Therefore, we who were created in his image are also relational. We were made to be part of a family. Which is why God brought into existence a beautiful family called “the church”.

Jesus saves us one by one, but he never leaves us alone. Remind yourself today why being a member of a healthy, local church family is so vital. Never doubt again that the church is one of God’s greatest gifts to you.

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Why be a part of a local church that’s healthy? A third metaphor the Bible uses to describe the Church is a “building”, which points to another benefit I receive if I’m active in a church – it helps my knowledge of God grow through teaching.

Paul writes that Christians are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ…as the chief cornerstone” (Eph.2:20). The foundation which the apostles and prophets laid was their teaching. Acts 2:42 says the early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching”.

So I why do I need the local church for this? Can’t I read the Bible on my own? Can’t I just listen to teaching podcasts? Yes, but in the local church, you get this and so much more that will help you reach maturity. We could summarize those benefits of being in a local church with the acronym BIBLE.

 B – Belief is strengthened. 

Romans 10:17 – “Faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” There is something about hearing God’s word taught publicly that builds faith and strengthens belief.  How many times have we experienced this after a particular sermon, or a small group Bible study, or a Sunday School class that my resolve to follow Jesus is toughened up?

 I – Integrity is modeled. 

1 Timothy 4:12-13 tells us, “Set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” If you’re part of a church, not only will you hear God’s Word taught, but you’ll see it lived out. You’ll meet believers who have been following Jesus longer than you. They’ve won more battles and slain more dragons. Their marriages are stronger. Their finances are in order.  They know how to pray. Their very lives model what following Jesus is all about.

 B – Balance is maintained.   

Have you ever met anyone who has a pet area of theology and that’s all they think about? All they can talk about is the endtimes, or the gifts of the Holy Spirit, or numerology, or prophecy. Well people like this are out of balance. They’re so much more to the Bible’s teaching than a few esoteric subjects. But if you’re part of a church where the whole Bible is taught, you’ll be protected from doctrinal imbalances and dangerous errors.

 L – Learning deepened. 

Colossians 3:16 – “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another.” I’ve known people who have read the Bible for years, and still do not understand how it all fits together. They get in the Old Testament and they’re like a child lost in the woods. But by being a part of a church, and sharing in a class or a LIFE group, we receive the benefit of trail markers, and rescue rangers who challenge us to go deeper than we’ve ever been.

E – Encouragement received. 

“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another” says Hebrews 10:25. And who of us doesn’t need more of this in our lives? A three-fold cord is not easily broken Scripture tells us. But if you’re a lonely, little, solitary cord dangling by yourself in life, it won’t take much to cut you, break you or tear you down.

C.S. Lewis says, “Our real journey to God involves…passing from dawn-lit fields into some poky little church.” I’d listen to Clive Staples if I were you.

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“We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” ~ 1 Corinthians 1:23

Ask a Sunday School child why Jesus died on the Cross that first Good Friday, and he or she would likely say, “To save us from our sins.” And they would be correct.

But what does that exactly mean? How you ever pondered to the fullest “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph.3:18). When you catch even a glimpse of what Christ has won for you and done for you on the cross, you’ll understand why they call the day he died Good Friday. Scripture identifies at least seven terrible destinies that Jesus’ death has freed us from.

First, we have been freed from God’s wrath. To many people, the idea of God’s wrath seems antiquated, even slightly humorous. We make jokes about lightning bolts striking us dead from heaven. Especially people who are conditioned to think of gentle Jesus, meek and milk, have a hard time with the concept of God being angry with sin, and acting out in judgment against it. “God is love”, people may say in protest against the idea of God’s wrath.

People who speak in this way have a distorted view of what the love of God is. It’s precisely because God is a God of love, that he expresses wrath against sin. If God winked at sin and looked the other way, you would have reason to question his love.

When you catch even a glimpse of what Christ has won for you and done for you on the cross, you’ll understand why they call the day he died Good Friday.

When I was in the sixth grade, I had a teacher who never enforced discipline, and it didn’t take many days before the atmosphere in that classroom became a miniaturized recreation of Iraq under Saddam Hussein. There was a group of two or three bullies in this class who could have brought in iron maidens from shop class, stuffed us inside, and the teacher would have done nothing.

One day when our teacher was not in the room, I was pushed into a corner by these bullies. Knowing I was a Christian, they began punching me, trying to force me to use profanity. “Come on Clifton, we wanna hear you curse!”

Suddenly, in walked the principal. And his wrath broke out in that classroom. By the time the dust settled, the truth of what had been happening came out. Order was restored, justice was served. The moral balance was put right. Make no mistake about it friends, because God is a God of love, he is also a God of wrath.         

The Bible tells us in Romans 1:18, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men.” This doesn’t mean God only shows his wrath against the sin of really bad people. All sin will face the wrath of God.

That should give you pause, even if you are a believer. Any lie, any deceit, any lust, any pride, any hatred, any greed, any evil that is found in you makes you liable to face God’s wrath.

How do we deal then with the sin that is in us?  Do you remember the story of the first Passover, how God set the Hebrew slaves free from Egypt? God poured his wrath out on Egypt, by slaying every firstborn child in the land.

But that judgment included the firstborn of Israel as well. Any firstborn Hebrew who ran out in the streets that night and said to himself, “I’m better than those Egyptians, God won’t judge me,” would have died. One thing, and one thing only saved the firstborn of Israel that night from God’s wrath – those who took shelter in houses that had been marked with the blood of the Passover lamb.

The judgment passed over them (get it?) and they were saved.

To avoid being swept away by the wrath of God, don’t appeal to how good you are. Appeal to how good Jesus is. Our sins, like anyone’s sin, must be covered by the blood of the Lamb.

When Jesus Christ died on that cross, he took upon himself the wrath which our sins deserved. He took the bullet of judgment for us. He became God’s lightning rod, absorbing heaven’s judgment into himself and away from you and me.

Because of this, the Bible tells us – and what a beautiful promise this is – “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us…” (1 Thess.5:9)

Let your journey to the Cross this holy week begin here: Jesus has freed you from facing the wrath of God. That should be worthy of a little worship if you ask me.

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The fourth gift I receive from the Cross of Christ is reconciliation and adoption: it frees me from separation from God.

Christians often use the word atonement to describe what Jesus did for us through his death. Paul wrote in Romans 3:25: “God presented Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement.”

I doubt if there’s a more special word in the Christian lexicon than atonement. Take the word “atone” and divide it into two words – what do you get?  At one. Atonement refers to the price that is paid to allow us to be at-one with God. At its heart, it’s a reconciliation word.

Now do the math. If we need Jesus’ sacrifice to make us “at one” with God, then what does that say about our relationship with God before we come to Christ? It says we are separated from him. In fact, the Bible is more severe. It tells us we are at war with God. We are enemies with God. We’ve declared war on him (James 4:4, Romans 5:10).

A lot of people think – wrongly – that we are automatically children of God by nature, by token of being born on the earth. But the Bible tells us we are “by nature objects of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). You’re not a child of God by being born; you become a child of God by being born again, which takes place when you believe in and receive Jesus as your Savior and Lord (John 1:12).

This is why the Bible uses the word reconciliation to describe what happens when a person becomes a follower of Christ. “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…All this is from God who has reconciled us to himself through Christ.” (2 Cor.5:17-18).

Scripture goes one step further. It insists we need to be adopted back into God’s family. Galatians 4:4-5 says, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son… that we might receive the full rights of sons.” (The Greek word here literally refers to the process of adoption.)

The atonement provided by Jesus’ sacrifice enables reconciliation and adoption to take place. Without it, we would remain separated from God. “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you.” (Isaiah 59:2).

For me, one of the most convincing proofs of the truthfulness of Christianity is the idea of atonement. While some act offended by the idea that Jesus must die for me before I can be restored to a relationship with God, for me (and millions of others for 2,000 years) the idea is life-giving. Because this idea tells me the truth about…

…my sin.

I know – at least when I’m honest with myself – that there is something horribly broken within me, which keeps me from consistently doing what is right and good. I can’t even live up to my own standards, let alone God’s. As I look at the Cross, I can only conclude: how awful my sin must be if this is the remedy for it.

…my value.

But the atonement contains an unexpected twist. Just when I’m left feeling wretched beyond comfort by what I owe God for all my wrongdoing, another thought arises. Jesus willingly paid that price. Therefore as I look at the Cross, I can only conclude: how valuable I must be to God if he would go to these lengths to save me.

…my purpose.

The atonement then unlocks for me the highest motivation any religion can offer for my I should pursue goodness with my life. “Be good and God will (or may) accept you,” is the rule given by every other faith, religion or philosophy, except one.

Only Christianity says, “That’s a failed errand from the start. For you’ll never be good enough on your own. Instead, God accepts you on the front end because of Christ’s sacrifice. Now, forgiven and anchored by that acceptance, go and pursue goodness with your life. And give that same grace that you’ve received, away to others.”

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In my heart of hearts, I know that I need atonement. And the only place I find it is in Christianity, there at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ.

“Continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of.” ~ 2 Timothy 3:14

In this simple sentence, Paul provides Timothy with a pathway for spiritual growth. Growing as a follower of Christ takes you through three stages: first you must learn biblical truth. Then you must become convinced of it. And finally, you must continue in it. A ship that’s bringing you into safe harbor will be of no good to you if you abandon it.

But first things first: I must learn the Word of God.  

Let’s pretend that the American government has just passed a law forbidding us to own Bibles. I imagine most of us would be outraged. Even those who don’t read it. Like Bill Murray yelling, “Nobody steps on a church in our town!” in Ghostbusters, we can revere things we ourselves don’t share in.

Which makes me wonder: For how many of us would a law like that honestly change anything about how we normally go about our daily lives?

I’m not sure when we became this way as a culture, for it hasn’t always been like this. It used to be that the Bible was a prominent part of life in America. It was taught in all our schools. And everyone who went to church on Sunday also attended Sunday School classes before church to go deeper into learning about the Bible. Even those who didn’t go to church knew its stories and main teachings. The average child could have paired David with Goliath, and Jonah with the great fish, and Noah with the flood. Today they can’t.

A couple years ago, our church was hosting a Trunk ‘r Treat event on Halloween for our community, and I decided to make the kids earn the candy I would give them by finishing some sentences. So I’d say, “Jonah and the ________”, and they would have to complete the sentence. “David and ___________” “For God so loved __________”. And even I, who knew it was bad to begin with, was shocked by what I learned that night. 90% of the unchurched kids in our neighborhood were absolutely clueless about basic Bible stories. “Jonah and the _______”, “Evil stepmother!” one of them yelled out. “Jonah and the Jelly Bean!” said another. So I gave them hints. “It’s an animal.” “Jonah and the Worm!” “Jonah and the Moose!”

Honestly, I don’t quite understand biblical illiteracy. People are strange. If someone claims they saw Mary appear on a mountainside in France, people by the thousands will flock there to get close to God. If someone sees Jesus in the clouds, like they did in Argentina last week, near revival breaks out. If someone sees Jesus in a piece of toast, the world will go nuts for awhile, thinking that God has ‘spoken to us’.

But when God thought to give the world a gift to reveal himself to us and to show his great love for us, he didn’t leave us with a monument, he didn’t etch his face on a mountain (or a piece of toast), or shout at us from the heavens. It’s actually brilliant what he did.

It’s brilliant because what he did was lasting, and is accessible to everyone, and can be understood by everyone who makes half an effort.

God put his words, his thoughts, his ideas in a book, that anyone can hold in their hands. He wrote us a love-letter. But hardly anyone knows it, or cares to know it.

Don’t let that be said of you, my friend. You can experience God this very day. Plop yourself down in a chair somewhere. Turn down the noise around you. Bring the book to your lap. Open it. And read.

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