If sharing your belief in Jesus with others is a challenge which you shrink from (and no harm, no foul – you’re far from alone), then Jesus would ask of you a series of questions that might help you recalibrate your heart.

The first question Jesus would ask us if we struggle with evangelism is, “Do you love me enough?” In other words, my struggles with witnessing could be a question of my devotion to Jesus. This principle shouldn’t be too hard to understand. We talk about those things we love. The feelings are so strong in us, we can’t hold them back. It’s part of who we are.  It just comes out.

It doesn’t take people very long before they learn that I love Mountain Dew, racquetball, beaches and dandelion-free lawns, because I’m always yapping about them. But if we don’t love something all that much, or we’re embarrassed in any way by it, then mum’s the word.

In John 21 is a story of Jesus appearing before the disciples at the Sea of Galilee. The boys are out fishing, at Peter’s suggestion. But after a night of casting their nets, they haven’t caught so much as a stick of seaweed. Till Jesus appears on the shore, tells them to cast their nets on the other side at which point they nearly swamp the boat with all the fish they catch.

John, who’s seen this movie before, says, “It’s the Lord!” and impulsive Peter makes like a labrador retriever seeing a duck, and dives into the water to swim to shore. After they’ve enjoyed a fish breakfast (John pauses to tell us that they caught 153 fish), Jesus pulls Peter aside and asks him three times in succession, “Peter, do you love me more than these?”

I almost feel sorry for Peter here. It’s as if Jesus were picking on him. But think about it. What was Peter doing when Jesus first met him? Fishing. And now here it is three years later, it’s after the resurrection, Jesus has already told the disciples in chapter 20, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Yet what does Jesus find Peter doing? Fishing.

Fishing is Peter’s default pleasure setting. I don’t know why he loved to fish, because every time you read about Peter fishing in the gospels, he can never catch any. But he was the kind of guy where you give him a boat, and a net, and a lake, and he was set. He was in his element. We all have something in our lives that’s like that for us.

Not that there was anything wrong with this. It’s not wrong to do the things we love to do. But it’s very easy, if we’re not careful, for the things we love to do to become competition for the One we are to love the most.

“Do you love me more than these?” Jesus asks Peter, no doubt looking about the beach at the 153 fish flopping on the sand, the drying nets, and the peaceful shore of the lake. (And since Peter was in the business of fishing, a good case can be made that he was the one who counted up the fish. He knew the monetary value of their haul.)

When you look about your life right now – especially the business part of it – of what activities and interests would Jesus ask you, “Do you love me more than these?”

One thing Jesus demands from those who follow him is that he be first in their heart above all else. He demands that we make him our “first love”. And if we say, “Yes, Lord, I love you more than these”, then he gives us a way to show it. It’s what he says next, three times to Peter, after asking the love questions.

“Feed my lambs.  Take care of my sheep.  Feed my sheep.” 

Peter will show his love for Jesus by going and finding lost lambs and wandering sheep, then bringing them to the Good Shepherd. And the same will be true for us. If you look in Jesus’ eyes and say, “Lord, I love you”, then Jesus will turn you around to the world out there and say,  “Then there are sheep of mine out there that must be found, and fed and cared for. Go and find some of them.”

For the child of God, the beach, the lake, the lawn, wherever your hiding place is, cannot be a permanent way of life. It’s a place to go to for rest and renewal, but then Jesus will ask you to join him on his mission of reaching this lost and broken world.

If you make Jesus your first love and accept his mission for your life, I promise you, you will end up a long, long way from where it’s at now. And your life will certainly not be easier than it would be if you stayed at the lake doing only the things you felt like doing.

But your life will be better than you could ever imagine if you find a way to serve your Lord, and reach out to the lost and wandering lambs he died to save.

Do you love me more than these? Maybe if you struggle with evangelism, that’s the issue you need to settle today.

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If sharing your faith in Jesus with others is difficult for you, maybe it’s not your love or faith or knowledge that’s the problem. Maybe it’s the fear factor. The question Jesus could ask you is: “Are you bold enough?”

I’m always encouraged by the fact that Jesus says to us, as he said to Peter and the other disciples, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” What that tells me is that it’s not all up to me. Jesus promises to give me the strength and training I need to do this. My part is to stay close to him.

And if I’ve blown it in times past, and run for cover when I had a chance to share my faith, or I’ve lost my nerve when the opportunity was there to plant a seed, then Peter of all people should be of encouragement to us, because he blew it too, didn’t he?

Three times in succession he lost his nerve and denied his Lord. “You’re with him also?” someone asked him. What a leading question. Wouldn’t you love it if someone just came up to you and asked, “You’re one of those Christians aren’t you?” But Peter was lost in a fog of fear.

Yet Jesus forgave him and restored him. And in days to come, he became the boldest of the original band of disciples, facing down Pharisees, Sadducees, Gentiles, high priests, the demon-possessed, and crowds of thousands. Jesus kept his promise and made him a fisher of men.

Now don’t confuse what boldness is. Boldness is not the absence of fear.  Boldness is moving forward in spite of your fear. Proverbs 28:1 says, “The wicked man flees though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.” Without boldness, you run away. With boldness, you stand your ground, even though you may be afraid.  Without boldness, you clamp your lips shut. With boldness, you speak, even though you do so with fear and trembling.

The young men who crossed the English channel on D-Day showed this boldness.  You don’t think they weren’t fearful as the Normandy beaches drew near, and they threw themselves blindly into the hands of God, knowing that many of them were just seconds away from losing their life? You’ll never see a greater example of courage, save maybe one.

Another young man 2,000 years ago prepared to voluntarily face the most brutal form of execution that sinful hearts could conceive of. He begged and pleaded with his heavenly Father for the cup to be taken from him, he wept, he shook so violently that blood squeezed through his pores. But he stood his ground. He did what had to be done.

And because of his boldness, you and I are given a second chance at paradise.  Jesus did what none of us could do.  He paid the price that none of us could pay. Just one thing he asks from us in return for his great sacrifice. That we tell others about it. That we bring others to his Cross that they might find forgiveness and eternal life. Is that too much to give for the One who gave us everything?

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Reason #2 why we should be memorizing Scripture: the simple act of memorization sharpens our thinking and deepens our faith.

 First, memorization sharpens our thinking.

I mean that quite literally. I read a fascinating book awhile back called “The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains”. The writer Nicholas Carr points out that memorization was a key component of a classical education for centuries leading back to the days of the Renaissance.

The ancient Greeks worshiped Mnemosyne (NEE-mos-sinee), the goddess of memory, who gave birth to the nine muses, who in turn governed the study of the poetry, dance, history, music and astronomy. In other words, memory allows for musing which allows for the richest development of human life and thought.

The 18th century writer Samuel Johnson wrote: “Memory is the primary and fundamental power, without which there could be no other intellectual operation.” In his book, Carr goes to great lengths to describe physiologically how through the act of committing something to memory, we are literally strengthening and expanding the neural network of our actual brains.

But these days because of the Internet, we off-load our need to remember things to technology. “What do I need to remember that for? I can just Google it whenever I want,” we say. “Besides, I can then free up some of my brain power for more important things.” If our brains were exactly like a computer, that might be true. But computers have limited storage capacity, while our brains do not. Carr writes:

“The brain cannot be ‘full’…The very act of remembering appears to modify the brain in a way that can make it easier to learn ideas and skills in the future. We don’t constrain our mental powers when we store new long-term memories. We strengthen them. With each expansion of our memory comes in enlargement of our intelligence.”

On the other hand, when we turn to technology to do the remembering and thinking for us, the reverse happens. Here’s Carr again:

The more we use the web, the more we train our brains to be distracted – to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even when we’re away from our computers. Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering. The Internet makes us shallower thinkers.”

Sounds to me like memorizing Bible verses would be a very helpful exercise. And useful as well, because…

Secondly, memorization deepens our faith.

Because my thinking is deepened by the act of memorizing, it naturally must follow that when I bring memory-work to my faith, it too will be deepened. To hear it said by an outside speaker, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son,” is awesome. But to hear it said by your own lips passing through your own heart, is powerful beyond description. Now you possess those words, or maybe it should be said, they possess you. You have in a real sense, as Jeremiah said, eaten the word of God when you memorize it.

Actors who memorize Shakespeare testify that in the act of memorization, their understanding of what he is writing grows, and with that, their appreciation of the majesty of his writing, and his thought. Take the simple line from Romeo and Juliet, “He jests at scars who never felt a wound.” A simple, cursory hearing of that line, and it probably blows past you. But stop. Say it again. “He jests at scars who never felt a wound.” Slow it down, say it yet again. What is Romeo saying? People who have never been hurt have a hard time at empathy. Through pain and experience we grow in our capacity to feel and to comfort. The act of memorizing that line brings it into focus for us. It deepens our understanding.

And the same thing happens when we memorize Scripture. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Say those words out loud right now. As the words roll over the tongue, they begin to roll right into my heart. I begin to grasp what those words mean.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in need. He is with me. He will provide for me. He will protect me. He cares for me. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And so as my thinking deepens, so does my faith. Through simple memory work, my knowledge, and awareness and love of God grows.

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Most every follower of Christ has experienced times and seasons where they question if God is near, and if their faith even matters. It’s in times like this when I usually take a deep dive into the psalms, and for two reasons.

First, because the writers of these sacred songs usually let it all hang out with God. They’re brutally honest about what they’re feeling, so it’s easy to find psalms that speak right to where our hearts are at in any given moment.

But secondly, I love the psalms because they often take us on a journey of faith. The psalmwriter may begin in one place – in despair or doubt, but ends in another – usually with their faith and hope restored. How they make that journey is profoundly encouraging when God seems distant.

Take Psalm 73 for example, written by a worshipper named Asaph. If Asaph were a pop star, when the psalm begins he’s singing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” But by the end of the psalm he’s singing “I Can’t Live If Living Is Without you.” Let’s walk with Asaph this week and see how he makes this transition.

In verse 1 he says, “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” Well, he starts well enough. But then verse 2. “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.” Meaning what? Asaph has experienced something which has caused him to question the worth of even believing in 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.”

That’s not the worst of it. Asaph then sees how these same people don’t give God a second thought. Verse 11: “They say, ‘How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?’ This is what the wicked are like – always carefree, they increase in wealth.”

 That’s still not the worst of it. Asaph has a bit further to fall before he hits rock bottom. Seeing these wicked, carefree people causes him to look at himself. Here’s what he says in verse 13. “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, seem to be getting the short end of life’s stick. Something’s terribly wrong with this picture.

Asaph is wrestling with an age-old conundrum. We’re not immune from asking questions like these, are we? 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 persecution starts.

In such moments, 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.” And then to make matters worse, you start looking around at people whom you know aren’t serving God, you turn on “Hollywood Extra” or you page through “People Magazine”, you call to mind examples of the 1%ers, and you see beautiful, smiling celebrities living pain-free, problem-free lives.

I once came across a show devoted to telling us which celebrities had the best body parts. Who had the best feet, the best legs, the best tush, the best nose, best eyebrows – all good fun, except for the millions of people watching, who ran to the mirror afterwards looking at how they’ve been shortchanged and ripped off.

If we’re not careful, it’s easy at these moments to start doing a cost-benefit analysis of following Jesus, and then saying, “This is what I get for believing in God, and this is what they get for not believing in God.” Soon we’re thinking like Asaph: “Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.” It’s all a waste. Following God. Staying holy. Fighting sin. It’s all been a waste of time.

Thankfully, Asaph won’t stay in this place, but let’s allow this first section of the psalm to remind us of an important lesson. I think the first thing Asaph would say to us is to affirm the truth that it’s okay to be honest with yourself and with God.

It’s okay in our praying to let God know exactly how we’re feeling. Since he can see further into our hearts even that we can, we can’t hide it anyway. So share it with him.

Toward the end of the movie Shadowlands, is a scene that gets me crying every time, where 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. And Lewis doesn’t give him a lecture or Sunday School answers or false comfort. He simply says, “That’s okay,” and then puts his arm around him and 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 poured out. Not bottled up inside. God can work with honesty.

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Asaph nearly lost his faith.

But because he was honest with God, and he remained connected to God’s people, and he worked hard to think it through, he found his footing again. In the final verses of Psalm 73 – some of the most beautiful words in all of Scripture – he reaffirms his faith by recounting the benefits of belonging to God.

In verse 21 he says, “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.” How could I have even thought of walking away! Asaph says. If I try to live without God, I’ll be little better than an animal.

Asaph realizes that it’s the belief in God that gives his life its highest meaning, and its highest dignity.

Then in verses 24-28, Asaph makes his stand, and reaffirms his love for God. These are words that I can never read often enough.

“Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

Psalm 103:2 urges us, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not his benefits.” Asaph does that here. It’s interesting that the first few reasons he calls to mind for turning to God have to do with this life. He experiences in some real way the presence of God with him. It’s not the face-to-face experience that humans had at first, and will have again (life is still very much a walk of faith). But Asaph knows that in his life there have been many times where he received from God strength (“You hold me by my right hand”) and wisdom (“You guide me with your counsel.”)

But then Asaph realizes that the far greater blessing awaits him beyond this life. “Afterward you will take me into glory.” What good is walking with God in this life, if this life comes to a screeching halt and that ends our story? Like St. Paul would later say, “If only for this life we hope in Christ we are of all men the most to be pitied.”

The problem with most humans is that there are tragically short-sighted. What does it profit a person, Jesus said, if you gain the whole world but forfeit your soul?

So what that the wicked amass great fortunes here and now, and seemingly enjoy happiness without end? Apart from the fact that the “happiness” of the insanely rich is often an illusion, the truest fact on earth is that beauty fades, strength ebbs and life ends. If you want your peace to last, then you must place it in something, or Someone, that also lasts.

Which is why when all is said and done, Asaph falls before his God and Maker and declares, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.”

Can you recount the countless blessings of faith in Christ which are yours, my friend?

When I do as Asaph has done, I realize that Christianity has given my life purpose, and moral order, and discipline, and joy, and appreciation for beauty, and balance, and peace. I see that it gives me forgiveness for the past, power for the present, and hope for the future, not to mention the hope of heaven and the assurance that my life counts for something.

And if you don’t know Christ my friend, I assure you that you were made for more than what you are settling for. And Jesus died on the cross so that you could have it. I wouldn’t waste another day trying to do life on my own. Take a lesson from a man named Asaph, and reach out for your Savior right now.

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“Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in Bethlehem, the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

The shepherds in the Christmas story learn three things about the newly born Jesus that banishes their fear. First, they learn that Jesus is Savior. But tell them what else they’ve won, Johny! Secondly, they learn that Jesus is the Christ.

The word “Christ” is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew word “Messiah”.  It was a magical word for the ancient Jew, and no doubt, when the shepherds heard that the Christ had been born, this is what caused them to drop everything and run for Bethlehem to see the child.

The Jews had been taught for centuries from their Scriptures that one day, God was going to send to the earth his Christ, the Messiah. The Christ would be more than just a Savior. Saviors were a dime a dozen. God had sent many Saviors to his people over the years to get his people out of this trouble or that trouble. The Christ though would be different. He would deliver them from much more powerful and darker things.

The earliest prophecy of the Messiah is found in the Bible’s third chapter. No sooner had Adam and Eve rebelled against God and bowed their knees to Satan, no sooner had the curse of sin begun to take root in the earth – bringing all its ugliness and hatred and suffering – than God promised he would one day send someone crush the serpent’s head and rescue us from its evil. (Though in so doing that person would have his own heel bruised. The Messiah would suffer somehow in order to deliver us.)

From that first cryptic reference, other prophecies were spoken of the Christ, and each one filled in a few pieces of the puzzle. He would descend from the tribe of Judah. He would come from the line of King David. He would be born in Bethlehem. He would minister extensively in the Galilee region of Israel. He would have incredible healing powers. But he would be rejected by his people. He would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver. And he would suffer a horrible death. His hands and his feet would be pierced somehow. Wicked men would gamble for his clothing. He would die alongside common criminals, but would be laid in the grave of a wealthy man. And the reason he would die in this way was to pay for the sins of the world. His death would be a direct assault on the power of evil.

All these details were foretold hundreds of years before Jesus was born, details describing what the Messiah, the Christ would do.  And Jesus fulfilled each and every one of them.

Can you understand why the shepherds’ every fear evaporated when they heard the angel say, “The Christ has been born”?

  1. Because he’s the Christ, then he’s the one who can do something about my greatest problem, which is my sin. I don’t need to just be saved from money problems, sickness, and ornery relatives. I need to be saved from the evil and self-centeredness that’s in me. Sin is the greatest root of all the fear that’s in me. It tears me apart from the inside out, it damages my relationships, and separates me from God. The Christ was sent to rescue me from all this by providing for me forgiveness for my failures and power to live a new life.
  2. Because he is the Christ, he can take away my greatest fear – the fear of death. The reason we fear danger is because it carries with it the risk of losing our lives. The terrorism of death keeps us from embracing life. But what if we knew for certain that death cannot snuff us out? That death is just a segue, a doorway, to real life? Because Jesus is the Christ we can know this for certain. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he promises those who follow him. “He who believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live.”
  3. And because Jesus the Christ, he also can fulfill my greatest longing, which is to know my Maker and God. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one can come to the Father, can come to God, except through me.” And this: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Do you want to know what God is like?  Then look at Jesus the Christ. Do you want to follow God? Then follow Jesus the Christ. Do you want to worship God? Then worship Jesus the Christ.  Do what the shepherds did. Drop everything and run to bow before him

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“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” ~ Matthew 5:9

Being a Christian peacemaker requires that we first understand what it is that God is calling us to. Included in this understanding is knowing what it’s not.

First, peacemaking is not compromising your faith.

Peacemaking will involve making compromises, but not this kind of compromise. Jesus while calling us to be peacemakers also said this: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother…” (Matthew 10:34-35).  

Here the Lord is talking about our allegiance to him. He is to be first in our lives, and no one, not even family, should ever take his place. And if the condition of me keeping the peace is disowning my Lord, then there won’t be peace. Because my love for Jesus comes first.

Second, peacemaking is not sweeping conflict under the rug. 

Jesus didn’t say Blessed are the peacekeepers. There’s a huge difference between peace-making and peace-keeping.

If you’re someone who abhors conflict and does everything in their power to never make waves, you’re not a peacemaker. You could just be a wimp.

Conflict can actually be a good thing if it leads in the end to greater love and understanding for one another. Through conflict we are given the opportunity to solve problems, to remove irritations, to learn to appreciate others, and to grow in maturity.

On the other hand, ignoring conflict does not get rid of it. It only allows its malignancy to fester, and resentment to grow, and anger to churn like a lava dome ballooning in size. And when it blows, God help us all. The spouse who codependently covers up their spouse’s drug addiction will in time be crushed by it.

I can’t tell you how many times I have been invited in to help troubled couples, only to find that the invitation should have come two or three years earlier. It’s far easier to put out a fire in its early stages, than when it’s consuming entire hillsides.

Third, peacemaking is not appeasement.

It’s not being the doormat and allowing the other person to walk all over you, and get his way. That’s not peacemaking at all.

“Well, the Bible tells me I have to submit to my husband,” I’ve heard women weakly say who are being trampled on by a domineering husband. No! Biblical submission is actually an expression of power where I willingly humble myself and set aside my power and privilege to serve and empower the other.

Appeasing another, and allowing them to steamroll you in the name of keeping the peace obliterates your self-respect, and insures that their selfish behavior will continue on its demonic path.

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There’s a final consideration about Christian peacemaking that we must bear in mind: it’s active, not passive. It’s Peace-MAKING, not Peace-HOPING.

You’ve heard of the “golden rule” – where Jesus said, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” Back in Jesus’ time, another version of that proverb was floating around: “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.” Do you see how Jesus took the original proverb and transformed it from a passive idea into one that is highly active? Under the old way of thinking, as long as you didn’t hurt anyone, you were pleasing God. But this isn’t going far enough. In Jesus’ eyes, we’re to not just avoid the bad, but pursue the good.

Pastor Albert Tate leads Fellowship Monrovia, a thriving multi-ethnic church beneath the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles. According to Pastor Albert, it’s not enough for a follower of Christ to say, “Oh, I’m not a racist.” Even if that were true, the goal is not just to cleanse your own heart of racial hatred. That’s just one stop on the journey of holiness, not the destination. The gospel has not completed its healing work in us until we become anti-racist – which occurs when we begin developing a heart for other people, listen to their stories, and appreciate their journey, so much so that we will begin to stand with them and work to push back at the evil in society that is pushing on them.

If you’re in a standing quarrel with someone, it’s not enough to passively say, “Well, I’m here with my arms open wide. All they need to do is come to me.”  To be a peacemaker means that you will go to them. You will initiate. You will reach out. Just as Christ did with us. “We love because he first loved us,” John said (1 John 4:19). If Christ hadn’t taken the initiative with us, we would still be wandering and lost.

It’s been said, “The first to apologize is the bravest; the first to forgive is the strongest; the first to forget is the happiest.” Our broken world will never be healed until those who bear the name of Christ model these virtues, and take the lead in the making of peace.

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Why else is community important? Ecclesiastes 4:8-12 adds this thought: Community brings fulfillment to our work.

Verse 8 describes a person all alone. It says of him: “There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ he asked, ‘and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?’ This too is meaningless – a miserable business!” 

Maybe you’ve heard the saying: Some people are so busy making a living that they forget to make a life. We act as though money is the be-all and end-all of life. I was living in Boston back in the late 80s when Chuck Stewart murdered his pregnant wife Carol, then blamed the attack on a black assailant. When the truth began to surface that Stuart had murdered his wife for insurance money, Stuart jumped off the Tobin Bridge and killed himself.

How pathetic, how perverse, how demonic to see relationships with the people you are supposed to love as secondary to the acquisition of material things. Proverbs 15:17 says, “Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.” You can have all the money in the world but without having people around you with whom you can give and receive love, it’s worthless.

I’ll never forget when the great baseball player Albert Pujols signed his first big contract with the Cardinals – seven years for a whopping (at the time) $100 million. He said in response, “This is borrowed money.” As a Christian, Pujols knew the concept of stewardship, that money was not the end goal of his work. People mattered more. And money wasn’t given him just to serve himself, but was to be used as a resource to help others. (I hope he’s retained that attitude after signing with the Angels later on for ten years and – cough – $240 million.)

The famous 18th century British evangelist John Wesley said, “If your income increases, it’s not just your standard of living that should increase, but your standard of giving.” Most of us assume that as the paycheck increases, it all gets funneled into the Me-Account. For the bigger house, the nicer car, the snappier clothes. Though there’s nothing wrong with upward mobility, there is no end to that game, unless you put a cap on it.

What Wesley did instead was settle in advance how much would be sufficient for him. I’d be happy with this size house. This model of vehicle. This many shirts, shoes and socks. The rest he gave away. For him, the value of his work was determined by how much he could invest in God’s kingdom work in others, and not in John Wesley, Inc.

For what, and for whom, are you working today? Are you making a life, or just making a living? Step back from your life today and take a fresh look at your priorities. Then ask God to help you make some course-corrections if they are needed.

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“Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, ‘May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.’ Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.’  ~ 1 Kings 19:1-6

Some people feel that depression is just feeling blue. But depression is more than just feeling sad or having a bad hair day.

We’re two months into the baseball season and I’ve figured out that my Cardinals pretty much stink. Then last night an unheralded Cincinnati Reds hitter smashed four home runs and drove in 10 RBIs off our best pitcher. I wake up this morning feeling rotten. But this isn’t depression. Give me an hour for the coffee to kick in, get this marine layer outta here and some sunshine smiling on me and I’ll be fine.

We all feel blah from time to time. Our emotions are in constant flux, each and every day. But depression takes on a life of its own. It’s not there one day and gone the next. With depression, it sets in like a long, bad cold that doesn’t go away. You can’t just snap out of it.

Elijah is depressed. He is the wearer of the original Life Sucks Then You Die t-shirt. How do we know it? He’s given up. “Let me die Lord.” He prefers isolation. He leaves everyone, including his servant. He goes off by himself. He just wants to curl up in a fetal position and sleep. His diet has also been disrupted. An angel has to club him over the head and tell him to eat. Later on, Elijah will tell God, “I alone am left.” You hear such verbiage in the depressed. They misinterpret the world around them and see things in greatly exaggerated hues.

What has brought this about for Elijah? What causes depression? We need to be careful here because it might be tempting in our moments where things are going well to look at depression as a sin, and to treat depressed people with a kind of You oughta know better attitude. But to do this would be one of the absolutely worst ways to respond.

There is no necessary connection between sin and depression. Your sinning may lead to depression as it did with King David. Your depression may lead to sinning as it did for King Saul who could not control his melancholy spells and gave way to increasing fits of destructive behavior. But depression itself is not a sin.

As I look at the periods of depression in my own life, I’ve come to see depression as my spirit’s response to life’s heaviness. Life on this side of heaven is ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’ as Thomas Hobbes famously described it. This world is broken. And sometimes when life gets heavy and hard, it’s all we can do to just get through the day. Depression is what happens when we take time to adjust to the blows of life and we’re trying to grieve and process and sort it out all at once.

Here’s Elijah after courageously obeying God and facing down Ahab and Jezebel, and yet when the sun sets that die, they’re still in power and he’s the one on the run. All his expectations of what would happen, and what should have happened, are blown apart. As for God – he’s nowhere to be seen.

Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” That’s what it’s like for a person who is depressed.

Hopefully, you can see why this is not the place or time to tell the depressed person to just cheer up or rejoice in the Lord always.

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God has ordained three ways for you and I to establish a connection with Himself: the study of His Word, fellowship with other saints, and prayer. If you want to have great faith, then you must learn the disciplines of great study, great fellowship and great prayer.

Another thing God has done is provide in Scripture flesh and blood templates of how to grow in these disciplines. For example, Hannah in the book of 1 Samuel is a great prototype for how to be a prayer warrior (picture Diana from Wonder Woman but on her knees.)

Hannah is married to a man named Elkanah who also happens to have a second wife, because in this day and age, 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, polygamy was still practiced. The Bible is not condoning this behavior, it’s just describing it.

As you read the Old Testament, it’s clear that there were some sinful behaviors that God overlooked for a time while he worked on other sins. Polygamy was one of them. By the time of the early church, if you are not the husband of “one wife” you cannot serve in leadership in the church. Even King David would not have been a leader in the early church with his little harem. (It’s a reminder that God in his mercy never deals with all our sins all at once, or it would likely destroy us.)

But in time, God will burn this demeaning and disgusting habit out of his people. And we can see what’s inherently wrong with polygamy in the story of Hannah itself, with the emotional rivalry that’s set up between Hannah and Elkanah’s second wife, Peninnah. Polygamy does not make “big love”, no matter what Hollywood says. It’s hollows out love, in a most ugly and destructive way.

And for Hannah, it’s made all the worse by the fact that she is barren.  Penninah is cranking out babies right and left, while Hannah can’t bear children. And on one of the annual pilgrimages which Elkanah and his family made to a place called Shiloh to offer sacrifices to God (Jerusalem wouldn’t become Israel’s center of worship for another 75 years at least), Hannah reaches her breaking point.

She comes into the holy tabernacle of God where the high priest Eli and his two sons were in charge, and she falls before God and prays. ! Samuel 1 tells us:

“In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord…As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk.”

Hannah was weeping as she prayed. When was the last time you showed that kind of emotion as you prayed? Or any emotion? There’s a trail of tears that every Christian should leave behind over the course of their lives as they grow up in the Lord.

A Christian should first learn to cry for their own sins and failings. If you’ve never wept in repentance before the Lord, I seriously doubt that you know the full depth of your sin, and the full measure of God’s grace to you in Christ.

Secondly, a Christian should then learn to cry to God for their own needs, as Hannah is doing here. Such emotion shows that you recognize how desperately you need God in your life, and without him you are lost. If you’ve never wept in need before the Lord, I suspect it’s because you think you’ve got everything under control. That’s a slippery and dangerous place to be at.

As you grow up in Christ, and start to see things through his eyes, there’s a third set of tears you will cry. This time, it’s not for your own sins, and own needs. A Christian should also be moved to pray for the sins and needs of others. When you can cry for the lost ones around you, when you can weep for our nation as it drifts further and further away from God, when you can start to do without your very food for the sake of intercession, when you start to lose sleep for the sake of prayer – now you’re starting to grow up as a child of God.

And the Christian trail of tears has one final stop, one last place where every true Christian will weep – when they stand before Jesus and see him face to face.  Then let those tears fall for those will be tears of the greatest joy you will ever experience.

And then the Christian trail of tears will end, for Revelation 21:4 says that Jesus will “wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away.” The first lesson Hannah shows us is that every Christian should leave behind a trail of tears.

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For Christians, thinking of God as our “Father” is woven deep into our DNA. Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer to say, “Our Father who art in heaven”. When we recite the Apostles Creed we begin saying, “I believe in God the Father Almighty”. But what does it really mean – that God invites us to call him “Father”?

Here’s one thought: to call God Father is to say that God has authority to lead.

There was a time, and not too long ago, when if you knocked on the front door of a house and asked for the head of household, a man came to the door. The very word “father” meant someone with authority.

So where do we see in the Bible that God the Father has authority to lead? In the Trinity. In the Trinity, we see the Father exercising authority and leading. “For God so loved the world that he gave the Son.” The Son didn’t give the Father. The Father gives the Son. Jesus said in John 5:19 – “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing.” Here again the Father is leading. Initiating. When Jesus breathed his last, he cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). To the very end, Jesus recognized the authority of the Father to lead his life.

And yet – listen carefully – the Father in leading, in using his authority, shares all of his glory and honor with the Son. Philippians 2:9-11 – “Therefore God [the Father] exalted him [God the Son] to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” Do you see this? The world says when you lead, you should become greater. But God says, when you lead, others should become greater. The Father leads, and Jesus becomes greater..

Far too many people today hear the word “father” and at once call to mind a man whom they see maybe a couple of times of year; a man who drifts from job to job; a man who drinks to oblivion; who can’t speak a sentence without swearing and cursing, who roughs up their mother. And they’re supposed to call God that? Some struggle to God ‘Father’ because they can’t disassociate from the pain that word causes.

But the Bible’s solution for that sort of pain is not to run from the word that’s been contaminated. But get the contamination out of the word. The people in Flint, Michigan couldn’t say to themselves after their drinking water was contaminated, “I’m never drinking water again.” No, they needed water. But they have to get the contaminants out.

And homes need fathers. Sons and daughters need fathers. Wives need husbands. Society needs men who know how to use their strength and authority to lead as God the Father leads. Who know how to use their strong muscles to protect, not punch. Who know how to use their strong voices to bless, not curse. Who know how to use their strong hearts to fulfill their responsibilities, and not run from them. Who know how to take the strong sexual energy inside of them and put down the porn and learn how to truly court and love a woman.

It’s essential in today’s world that is so confused about sexuality and gender that we remove contaminants out of the idea of “manhood” and “fatherhood”. We need to rediscover what these words ought to mean. And that begins by looking straight and full at God the Father.

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Genesis 12 tells us that the age of 75, God appeared to a man named Abram and told him to leave his homeland and move to a place that would one day be the land of Israel, and in that place, God would give him a son and make of his descendants a great nation that would be a blessing to the entire earth.

Abram obeyed. A most remarkable obedience when you think about it because in leaving his homeland and his kin, he was leaving them for good. No Internet to keep him connected. No jet travel to hurry home in an emergency. This was a clean break with everything he knew and loved.

Years pass by. Abram is wandering about this Promised Land, living in tents with his wife Sarai. He has servants and great wealth, but still no promised son. And after what was apparently an extended period of silence from heaven, God speaks to Abram once again at the beginning of Genesis 15. “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield, your very great reward.”

Abram replies, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless.”

How do you think Abram feels at this particular moment? From what Abram says back to God, I think he must be feeling a bit like a woman who’s just been handed a present from her boyfriend, and expecting it to be an engagement ring, she finds that instead it’s tickets to the auto show.

Abram is flattered, no doubt, that God has taken the time out of his busy schedule to appear before him, and it’s nice to know that God is his shield and reward, but…well, you know, what about the child that you promised I’d have!? 

Abram, whose name God soon changes to Abraham, is held up in Scripture as a model of how to walk by faith (cf. Romans 4, Galatians 3, Hebrews 11). This particular story, and its aftermath, serves as a template for every believer who has ever struggled to make sense of life’s twists and turns, and yet remain at peace in God.

The first thing to take note of is that Abram did in fact struggle. Abram is at this moment discouraged by the circumstances of his life. He feels inside that God has forgotten him. And even if God does remember his promise to him, well, it’s already too late. When Abram looked at his outward circumstances, he saw an old-getting-older man, and a wife who was no spring chicken either. Maybe God didn’t mean what he said earlier. Maybe I misunderstood him. Maybe I just made all this up. What a crazy old loot I am.

Why take note of this? Some of you reading this are thinking to yourself, “God has hung me out to dry.” So one of the reasons to study Abram’s story is to remind yourself that you’re not alone. What you’re going through is by no means unusual, nor does it prove that God’s left you. Suffering in life proves none of that.

But there’s another reason to walk with Abram. To remind ourselves that God has an answer for all the pain and perplexity that we face. It’s called faith. And when we learn how to walk by faith, we discover that it is a key which opens the door of life to a sunswept pastureland of joy and peace. “And this is the victory that overcomes the world – our faith,” wrote John the apostle (1 John 5:4).

Jesus said that one of the reasons he came was that his followers would have “abundant life” (John 10:10). There should be confidence in the heart of a Christian. A bit of a swagger in our step.

So if this is God’s expectation for us, how do we get there? What lifted Abram out of his doubt and despondency?  This wouldn’t be Hollywood if I didn’t leave you with a cliff-hanger. Check in next time as we continue Abram’s story. But know this very minute that with God, every day is like a spring day. With God, there is always hope.

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In Genesis 12, Abram obeys God’s call to leave his family and country, then journeys to the Promised Land. Buoyed by a promise God gave him that he would raise up a great nation from him and his wife, Abram did well for a number of years, but when we come to Genesis 15, the waiting is starting to wear on Abram. He’s discouraged that God still hasn’t fulfilled his promise.

But then, God appears to him once again and spoke to him in a vision, reaffirming his promises to Abram that he would indeed have a biological son, and  his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. At that very moment Abram’s depression vanished. Not because his circumstances changed.  But simply because Abram believed what God said, then placed his trust in him. And Abram was able to rest again.

It’s important to clarify something here, however, for this is where some people misunderstand what faith is. Please understand something – what we’re talking about is not the power of positive thinking. Faith is not looking at the bright side of life. Faith is looking at the God-side of life.

Pessimists are people who, when discouraged about  life, will say to the people around them, in a mopey sort of way, “Well, life is what it is.” But that’s not true. Reality is never that simple. Somebody else can be experiencing the exact same reality as they are, and yet respond in a completely different way.

People who are optimists like to say, “Life is what I say it is,” and then they make a choice to see their life in a more positive way. That’s a step in the right direction. I’d rather be in the presence of an optimist than a pessimist. But that’s still not faith. Faith is not saying, “Life is what it is,” and it’s not saying, “Life is what I say it is”, but rather, “Life is what God says it is.”

Make no mistake, God is the positive being in the whole universe. To God, every day is a spring day. His mercies are new every morning. No purpose of his can be thwarted. That God could look on a sinful, selfish creature like me and see me one day becoming a new and holy creature reflecting the radiance of Jesus Christ, I mean, WOW! – God is truly the most optimistic being that exists.

But not everything God sees is positive. Sometimes we see peace, peace, and God doesn’t see that. Abram’s nephew Lot looked at a town called Sodom and saw a town he could make himself at home in. God looked at Sodom and saw a culture ripe for judgment.

Abram looked at his life and saw plenty to get him down – his age, his weariness, his wandering. God looked at Abram and saw that things were right on schedule. The key to living by faith is to discover what God says something is, then believe what he says and trust him. That’s the faith that can move mountains and give us victory over this perplexing world.

It’s for this reason that the Bible tells us that “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). The quickest, surest way to strengthen faith is to put your head up against God’s chest, and listen to his heartbeat.

We do this with an open Bible on our laps, pencils out, studying and thinking. We do this by listening to godly, biblical sermons (and in this age of technology, you don’t have to wait for Sunday for that to happen.) We do this by gathering with others who seek and love Jesus, helping each other learn and grow. We do this by filling our lives with music that sings out God’s words and truth.

And then when God speaks, and tells me his thoughts about something – whether something is good or bad, helpful or harmful, holy or sinful – and I then direct my life to keep in step with his words, then I am walking by faith.

 Never forget – life is what God says it is.

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Because he ministered in an agrarian culture, Jesus told many agricultural parables in his teaching. (Back in Big-Boy’s School, they called this “contextualizing” which is a basic principle for effective speaking: know your audience.)

One of the most famous is the parable of the sower. According to Jesus, this is the most foundational parable of them all. In Mark 4:13, he says, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” In other words, if you don’t get this parable, the others won’t make any sense to you. But then when you read the parable, you understand why. It spells out the keys for how a person grows spiritually.

At the start of the parable, Jesus says, “Listen! Behold, a sower were out to sow.” Jesus goes on the describe four different types of soil that the seed comes into contact with – the hardened soil of a path, thin rocky soil, soil choked with thorns, and good, fertile soil. Later he explains that the seed sown by the sower is the word of God, while the different types of soils point to different types of hearts that people have when they come into contact with the word.

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves though, and miss an essential principle for anyone who wants to grow in Christ. Spiritual growth starts as a seed. In other words, it takes time. 

Leonard Ravenhill tells the story of a group of 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, “Old chap, were any great men born in this village?” The old man replied, “Nope, only babies.”

It’s true for all of us, isn’t it, and let’s not forget that. Sometimes we look at the Bible and we see Moses parting the Red Sea, David slaying Goliath, Elijah taking on the prophets of Baal, Peter preaching thousands into the kingdom with one sermon, Paul scattering demons and diseases with his prayers, 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 spiritual babies. Each one of them began with the seed of faith being planted in their hearts, and that seed had to be nurtured along. Just like the seed that’s in you needs to be nurtured, watered and protected.

And because it’s a seed, it takes time. I remember in college talking to a pastor I knew, and someone walked up and said, “Oh Pastor, I’m blown away by how well you know Scripture.” And it was true – you could say two words of a verse to him, and he’d tell you where it was found without hesitation. It intimidated me a little, but also inspired me to keep up my own Bible reading. Years later, I was shaking hands with folks in my church after preaching, and someone came up and said, “Oh Pastor, I’m blown away by how well you know Scripture.” Suddenly I remembered that little moment from so long before. And smiled a prayer of thanks to God that he had given me the grace to keep my nose in the book day after day, and year after year. Without hardly even noticing it, the seed in me had grown.

One of the things that encourages me when I read the Bible is to realize how many of the great heroes of faith arose out of obscurity, after spending years in the wilderness, out of the limelight. Before Moses marched into the royal hall in Egypt to face down the Pharaoh he spent 40 years in the desert. Before David conquered Goliath, he spent years as a shepherd. Before John the Baptist started crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” he was eating locusts in the wilderness. Before Paul began his prolific missionary career he spent more than fifteen years in his hometown of Tarsus.

What were they doing during these years? Just faithfully serving and seeking the Lord. Worshipping. Staying in fellowship. Reading their Bibles. Doing ministry. Fighting off sin. Telling others about the God they loved. And with them scarcely noticing, the seed of faith in them was growing. 

Were any great men and women born in your church? Nope. Only babies. Babies in whom a wonderful seed gets planted. The greatness comes by nurturing that seed.

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A final principle for spiritual growth that emerges from the parable of the sower is this: Check the condition of your heart.

In the story, the seed (i.e. the message of God’s Word) falls on different types of soil. First, Jesus mentions seed that falls along the path, and birds come and eat the seed. Clearly, this represents people with hard hearts. They’re completely resistant to any thought that there might be a God before whom they are accountable.

God’s Word has no chance of penetrating such a heart, because that person already has everything figured out, and will resist every attempt – even militantly if need be – to change them. The only hope for such a person is that he crosses paths with enough faithful Christians whose lives become chisels that will crash down against his heart, and shatter it.

Jesus then mentions seed that gets sown on rocky soil, and the seed springs up right away, but then as soon as the sun comes out, the plant is scorched and dies. These are people with shallow hearts.  Jesus says that they have no root, and so when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. They’re open to a Christianity that promises “your best life now”, but as soon as the road narrows, and things get hard, they jump off the bandwagon.

Though Jesus died on a cross for us, we’re not done with crosses. Following Jesus will lead to hardship and struggle. Christianity is not the easiest way; it’s the best way. People with shallow hearts struggle to understand such things, either because they were poorly taught when they first came to Christ, or they purposely look for teaching that tells them what they want to hear. The only way to reverse this is to adopt a mindset which is open and submissive to the full counsel of God’s Word. For “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt.4:4).

Then some seed falls among thorns, and the plant that springs up in that soil is choked, then killed by the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things. This is an example of those with divided hearts. David wrote in Psalm 86:11, “Unite my heart, to fear your name.” For he knew that there were so many things in life that threatened to crowd out God as the first love of his life. Our hearts are “idol factories” as someone once said, and so we must be on guard to keep those assembly lines of sin shut down.

Spiritual growth is your God-appointed destiny. Paul says in Romans 8:29 that “God… predestined [us] to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.” While we’ll never come close to completing that journey in this lifetime, neither do we have to wait till heaven to start the transformation. The fruit-bearing can begin right now.   

If you come to the end of your days after a lifetime of following Christ and yet you’re still the same ‘ole miserable cuss that you were when you were young, still spitting out the same old pus of bitterness, gossip, lust, anger, addiction; still fighting with the wife, still cursing the boss, still laughing at those racist jokes, still harboring all that resentment at the guy who crossed you 40 years before, still as selfish as the day you were born, then you have missed out on the best part of being a Christ.

Not to mention, and are coming dangerously close to having Jesus say to you when you first lock eyes with him, “Sorry, but I don’t know you. You’ll have to leave now.”

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“Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:13-15)

James describes here what we might call the “cycle of sin”. It describes how evil grows in a person’s heart, leading them from bad to worse.

King David in his sordid affair with Bathsheba illustrates the cycle of sin. Sin begins with desires that churn inside our heart. The desire itself may be harmless at first. David unexpectedly caught a glimpse of Bathsheba bathing, and it stirred his God-given sexual desires. Living in this sex-saturated world, this happens to us all the time.

Temptation is best managed in the desire stage, because it’s still just a bud of a thought, which with a little discipline and self-control, is easy to nip. At least “easy” compared to what comes next.

The second stage of the cycle of sin is “deception and doubt”, where rather than putting that desire to death, we chum with it. We pour it a cup of coffee and invite it to sit down with us. “Let’s talk,” we say. Which desire loves to do. It will begin to speak of all the reasons why we should fulfill its wishes. And why the boundaries God has set around it are so excessive and unnecessary.

Temptation is harder here to fight because now we must summon reasons in our heart why obedience is best. David asks some of his men who the woman is. One speaks up. “David, she’s the wife of Uriah the Hittite,” one replies. That was David’s escape hatch. With those words, David should have realized his vulnerability and cried out to God for help. It would have been a good time to write a psalm. Or put out a 911 to Nathan the prophet.

But the very next words in the story are heart-sickening.  Verse 4 – “Then David sent messengers to get her.  She came to him, and he slept with her.”

Step three in the cycle of sin is disobedience. “Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin,” James say. What this passage teaches is that our sinning is not a spontaneous, uncontrollable thing that sideswipes us out of nowhere. It’s the product of a long process of gestation. It begins with the fertilization of a good desire with a corrupting temptation, it moves to the womb of our mind where we doubt the boundaries of God or of our conscience. We can feel the baby start to kick inside of us. And then sin is born – a bleeding, kicking, screaming act of defiance and rebellion against God.

It may seem that person who “suddenly” has an affair, or “goes postal” at work, or steals from the company coffers does it out of nowhere. “I never thought they were that sort of person,” the neighbors will tell the reporters. But it’s not out of nowhere. Unseen to anyone, deep in their heart and mind, a battle of thought and desire was going on inside of them.

A person who fails to feed their mind with spiritual truth and shore up their character with biblical values and godly friends, who neglects the strengthening of their will with smaller, scarcely detectable acts of integrity is being set up for a slaughter. Long before a bridge “unexpectedly” collapses, soil shifts, moorings erode, and braces weaken, preparing it for disaster.

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“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” ~ John 14:3

C.S. Lewis famously asserted that Jesus Christ can only be one of three things: a liar, a lunatic or the Lord of life. People who speak of respecting Jesus for his morals or his philosophy don’t know what they’re talking about. Christ’s very words do not give us that option. For he said things that only a madman would say – such as in making the claim to his followers that one day he would return to earth. You either run from a person who says such things – or you fall down and worship him.

As we think about the return of Christ, an obvious question comes to mind: What’s the reason for it? What’s it all about? (Other than just mucking up a lot of plans we might be making.)

No other religion has a teaching quite like this.  Muslims don’t believe that Mohammed resurrected from the dead nor that he is returning to earth (yet they claim that he is greater than Jesus – oh, okay.) Buddhists aren’t looking for Buddha to return. Some Eastern religions teach the reincarnation of great figures from their past. But reincarnation is a far cry from resurrection. In Eastern religions, life is a wheel, a circle of birth, death and rebirth, going nowhere, and ultimately ending in nothingness.

Atheists have their own religion, their own priests (e.g. Al Gore), their own eschatology (a fancy word Christian theologians use to refer to the “end times”.) They worship at the shrine of evolution, and believe that if the human race does not destroy itself, then nature will finish us off through any number of extinction level events – a comet, a caldera, global warming, an uprising of apes. Or one day, if we make it that far – the sun will just give out.

Here again, life is going nowhere, ending in nothingness. Not one of us makes it out of existence still existing.

Christianity is unique among the faiths and philosophies of the world in declaring that there is a point to it all, and that history is actually taking us somewhere because there is an intelligent, loving Creator overseeing it. History is his story. 

John in the first chapter of Revelation writes, “Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come.” Life is not a wheel spinning in place, but a line taking us into the future, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and all of it superintended by God.

If we missed it the first time, God speaks for himself in verse 8: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”  If this is true, then everything that has taken place in the past, everything that is taking place as we speak, and everything that is yet to come is all part of this grand story which God is writing.

If we missed it the second time, Jesus gets in on the act, declaring in verse 17 – “Don’t be afraid.  I am the First and the Last.” How many ways can it be said? And so you see, the return of Christ to the earth signals the closing chapter of this story, this drama, that stretches out over thousands of years, of God rescuing the human race from its sin.

The rise and fall of nations is all part of this story. The life, death and resurrection of Israel – part of this story. The life, death and resurrection of Christ – the most pivotal, page-turning, plot-twisting core of the entire story. The 2,000 years since, part of the story. What’s happening in the world today – conflict in the Middle East, expansion of China, North Korea’s missile-rattling – all part of the story.

Your life, your existence, the choices you are making today – all of it also is part of this incredible story.

The amazing thing about how God is writing this story is that he occasionally turns to you and me and puts the pen in our hands. He’ll see to its ultimate ending – he’ll make sure the good guys win and the bad guys lose – but there are many places along the way where God turns to you and me and says, “You take it from here. Give me a page. Contribute a verse.”

So what are you doing with that part of the story that God is allowing you to write? Sadly, so few seem willing to contribute anything worthwhile to the story, and tragically, so few will be ready when Jesus Christ returns.

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It’s one of the most powerful images of courage that we will ever see. In June of 1989, during a six week pro-democracy protest in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, as the Chinese government began to send in its military to enforce martial law, a line of onrushing tanks was briefly brought to a standstill by one lone protester. As the tanks turned to go around him, he simply repositioned himself to remain in front, defying them to move forward.

No one knows for sure what became of Tank Man, but hundreds of arrests and deaths followed the crackdown, and his fate can surely be counted among them. For in the eyes of the government, if ever there were a “dangerous” person, it was he.

These would be good days for followers of Christ to remember Tank Man. And as you do so, to read, or re-read, the book of Acts, the story of the first generation of Christians who took to the streets of the Roman empire and proclaimed Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. Talk about your dangerous people.

We live in a day when great cultural powers have marshaled against biblical values, and those who hold them. We find ourselves defending truths and values that were accepted as commonplace just a generation ago, and now are under full assault.

The first Christians had it worse though. They weren’t struggling to defend values already in place that were eroding. They were trying to present those values to a morally corrupt culture where those values didn’t even exist at all.

The Roman empire had no concept of life’s sacredness. Abortion and infanticide were commonplace. They had no doctrine that said humans bear the image of God, and so they dredged the nations they conquered to find slaves to serve them and gladiators to entertain them. The idea of sexual purity was unheard of. Whatever sexual proclivity you entertained was fine. The “gods” they worshipped were often more debased than they were. Power and pleasure were their chief virtues, while Christians insisted that humility and service should be our aim.

It’s always tougher to be the pioneer. I’ve taken some difficult hikes over the years which have had me grumbling, cursing and vowing never to touch my foot on a trail again. But at least I had a trail. I’ve often thought what it must have been like to be the first ones who actually cut through the forest, and pushed out the boulders, and laid the trail down.

That’s what we find the first Christians doing in the book of Acts. Which is why we need to revisit this story. In the face of unrelenting opposition, these faithful men and women simply could not be slowed down. They refused to be discouraged. These were dangerous. Not because they were out to blow up buildings or harm people. Quite the opposite. They were dangerous because they didn’t back off from their convictions or water-down their message in any way, even if it meant – like Tank Man – laying down their lives in the process.

Threatened by the authorities, they said, “We must obey God rather than men.” Whipped, they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for Jesus. Oppressed, they prayed. Imprisoned, they sang hymns. Driven from their homes, they planted churches in the new places they came to. They could not be stopped.

It causes a person to wonder, “Wow, how could they do this?! They’re either the most courageous people who ever lived, or the most foolish.”

In the next few Sparks we’ll unpack three ideas that gripped the hearts of these believers which kept them from buckling when threats and hostility were hurled at them. God is looking for dangerous men and women to serve his kingdom in this generation. Are you willing to be one of them?

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In Romans 8, Paul asks a series of six rhetorical questions to his readers, which are meant to encourage them to hang on to Jesus no matter what. If a believer can grab hold of the truth behind each question, it will strengthen them from the inside out, and make them dangerous, because their faith will become unshakeable and unbreakable.

So Paul asks, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” pointing to the amazing truth that God is on my side, so I don’t need to live in despair.

Later Paul asks, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” pointing to the truth that we are forgiven, so we don’t have to live under condemnation, and we can give God’s grace freely away to others.

The third truth Paul wants you to take hold of from chapter 8 is encapsulated in these final two questions:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” ~ Romans 8:35

The final truth is: I can live courageously because nothing – not even death – can separate me from Christ’s love.

I was astounded by the eulogy offered by Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, who was murdered in Charlottesville by a neo-Nazi protester who drove his car into a group of bystanders.

“They tried to kill my child to shut her up,” she said. “Well guess what. You just magnified her.” She went on to say, “This is not the end of Heather’s legacy. You need to find in your heart that small spark of accountability. What is there that I can do to make the world a better place?”

I don’t know anything of Susan or Heather’s faith, but this is what a heart animated by the love of Christ sounds like. Anchored by the presence of Christ (Truth 1) and the forgiveness of Christ (Truth 2) and the love of Christ (Truth 3) a person can take to the public square and stand up for righteousness and justice no matter what it costs them.

This is the spirit in which the first generation of Christians took to the streets of the Roman empire and proclaimed the gospel, in spite of all manners of opposition. They passed that courage on to the second generation of Christians, who by their time were facing organized and relentless persecution. They passed that courage on to the third generation of Christians who continued to push back against evil and call their culture to repentance.

That same courage will be needed today for those who are Christians, because the cost of following Christ continues to rise, as culture increasingly discards the biblical scaffolding that used to be around it.

What Paul says in conclusion to finish up chapter 8 are words that need no comment, except to read them, and be inspired by them.

 “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

 Now go and live dangerously.

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A person of integrity distinguishes themselves from others. And they pursue excellence.  Returning to the story of Daniel and the lions’ den we discover another quality of those who walk in integrity: they’re incorruptible.

The story tells us that Daniel’s enemies tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel, but they were unable to do so. Why?  Daniel 6:4 – “They could find no corruption in him.” In other words, they couldn’t get Daniel to compromise or weaken his moral stand no matter what they did to him. You can’t buy an incorruptible person off. You can’t bribe them.

A survey was done where people were asked, “What are you willing to do for $10,000,000?” Two-thirds of Americans polled agreed they would do at least one, if not several, of the following:

  • Would abandon their entire family (25%)
  • Would abandon their church (25%)
  • Would become prostitutes for a week or more (23%)
  • Would give up their American citizenship (16%)
  • Would leave their spouses (16%)
  • Would withhold testimony and let a murderer go free (10%)
  • Would kill a stranger (7%)
  • Would put their children up for adoption (3%)

Two thirds of Americans, a significant majority, said they would do one of these things for the money. In other words, they could be bought. They were not incorruptible.

And in case you’re wondering, somebody who would abandon their family or sleep with a stranger for ten million dollars is not twice as good as someone who would do it for only five million dollars. The bottom line is: you can still be bought. You’re corruptible.

An incorruptible person can’t be bought, no matter what the price. They’ve drawn a line and they will not be moved.

Daniel will learn that there is a cost to being incorruptible. Through some unscrupulous political maneuvering of his enemies, a law is passed commanding everyone to pray only to the king for a 30-day period. Daniel changes nothing about his life: he faithfully seeks God in prayer each day. What changes is that one day he is law-abiding, and the next a law-breaker.

Daniel could come up with all sorts of excuses why he should just play along with the new law. It’s only for thirty days. God knows my heart. The Bible tells me to honor the emperor. But for him there’s no decision to be made. He will continue to pray only to the true God, end of story. Naturally, his enemies pounce on him.

How about you? Where do you fit? Are you part of the two-thirds that can be bought? Or part of the one third that won’t buckle? This isn’t just hypothetical.

Unscrupulous political maneuvering is going on as we speak. Laws are being proposed all around the country attempting to completely undermine traditional understandings of morality and sexuality. If these laws are passed, one morning you will wake up and find yourself a law-breaker simply for believing what every human being on planet has believed for thousands of years – that the human race is divided into male and female, and that society should be organized around this obvious, unchanging, biological reality.

God help America if the moral fiber of our people, and especially the people of faith among us, are found corruptible.

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“Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!” ~ James 5:9.

Grumbling is one of those dark “one another” verses the Bible mentions. This is a wicked good slipper of sin if ever there was one. It’s so easy to slip on. If I were to give you permission to let loose and start griping about everything in your life there is to gripe about, you could have yourself a good pity-party. And would you feel good afterwards? Not a bit.

Because grumbling is the opposite of encouragement. When you encourage someone, you build them up, the way Barnabas (whom the Bible calls the son of encouragement because he was so good at it) could walk into a room and immediately lighten everyone’s heart and infuse them with hope.

And for a Christian, there’s always hope. To God, every day is like a spring day. There’s no ‘shadow of turning’ with God, we sing. He doesn’t have to set his clock back this weekend. Or hunker down to endure a long, cold winter. Even in the bleakest moment, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

But the Grumbler forgets this or knows nothing about this. (The Grumbler – I think he’d be a good villain on Batman. Imagine him standing next to the Joker.)

The Grumbler doesn’t build up; the Grumbler tears down. The Grumbler sucks hope out of the room and out of the heart. The Grumbler weakens the faith that God summons us to have. And that’s how you know you’re in the presence of the Grumbler – by what they do to you.

An encourager like Barnabas still can point out things that are wrong, and that need to be corrected. But they do so in a way that inspires you to action. The Grumbler can only see the problem and not the solution. They can see the cloud behind every silver lining. They say of hope, “There is none,” and of faith, “That won’t work.”

For that reason we are not to do this to one another. So don’t you be responsible for inflicting this on a brother or sister in Christ. Resist the pity party. Summon hope. Look up, not down. Fix your eyes on Jesus today.

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Creation is sufficient proof that God exists, and leaves us without excuse before Him. At the very least, creation should prompt us to begin the search for God. But where do we turn to discover truth about God?

The knowledge of God comes through what Christians call revelation: that is, God’s own self-disclosure. This “revelation” is given us in three ways: the general revelation of creation, the special revelation of Scripture, and the personal revelation of Jesus Christ.

Creation is called God’s general revelation, because this knowledge is accessible to everyone. From looking at nature, what then can a person conclude about God? According to Paul in Romans 1:20, there are three things we can discern about God from observing creation – 1) his eternal nature, 2) his power, and 3) his deity.

“His eternal power and divine nature are clearly perceived in the things that have been made,” Paul writes.

Logically, that God is eternal stands to reason. The Creator of time and space (and consider how vast those are) must himself be outside these dimensions. He therefore must be an eternal being, without beginning or end.

The Creator must be a being of power such as we cannot possibly comprehend with our minds. The tiniest thunderclap is enough to startle most of us. Yet if you were to put together the power of every lightning bolt that has ever rammed into the earth, God could hold them all within his hand and it would feel to him like a carpet shock.

And clearly, for the creator to bring all of this into being, he must be divine. He must be the ultimate being, supreme in his deity.  He must be…ahem…God.

“His eternal power and divine nature are clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” ~ Romans 1:20

Outside of this though, can nature teach us anything else about God? For example, can creation teach us how many Gods there are? Not really. It made sense to reasonable human beings for thousands of years to think there were many gods. It sort of flummoxed everybody when this little Hebrew tribe started harping on there being only one God.

Can creation teach you if God is good or not?  On a beautiful day of warmth and sunshine, a person would think God is good and loves beauty. However, if I were a citizen of Puerto Rico standing in the rubble of what was once my house after Hurricane Mario blew through, I might have other opinions about God’s goodness.

No, creation cannot tell us everything about God. The least that creation will do is also the most that creation will do – it will put you on the path to searching for and seeking the true God. It will give you some hints of what he is like; but the full disclosure of God will have to come from someplace else.

C.S. Lewis says about this point, “Nature cannot satisfy the desires she arouses nor answer theological questions nor sanctify us. Our real journey to God involves constantly turning our back on nature; passing from the dawn-lit fields into some poky little church or maybe going to work in an inner-city parish.”

The Christian believes that the definitive truth about God was revealed to us by God himself and is contained in the pages of the Bible and is visible in the life, words and deeds of Jesus Christ. We need more than general revelation. We also need God’s special revelation of himself and his personal revelation.

You won’t find these truths written in the stars. You won’t find them skipping stones along the seashore. These life-giving, spirit-nourishing truths are found by curling up in a quiet place with the Bible in your hands and the Holy Spirit in your hearts, or plopping yourself on a wooden pew or chairs with other seekers.

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God reveals himself to us through the general revelation of nature, the special revelation of Scripture, but God in all his glory is shown us in his personal revelation of Jesus Christ.

Psalm 145:11-13 says, “[Your saints] will tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might, so that all men may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendor of your kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generation.” To have a kingdom, you must have a king. And the glory of Almighty God and of his kingdom has been revealed to us finally and fully in the King of Kings Himself, Jesus Christ. “We have seen his glory,” wrote John in his gospel (John 1:14).

This talk of a glorious kingdom isn’t just pious language. When the Bible talks about God’s kingdom, something should leap within your heart. You see God is not content to leave this earth as it is. This brokenness we all see – he will heal it.  This rebellion we see all around us – he will end it. This sin and death that is everywhere – it will be no more.  God will bring the glory of his kingdom and the rule of his king to this earth.

The invasion began millennia ago when God took that little Hebrew tribe and brought them out of slavery to Egypt. The invasion of his kingdom intensified when God took that little runt of a shepherd named David and raised him up to be king over his people, who would be a symbolic prototype of the coming king. In fact, the prophets went one better. The coming king would come from the actual lineage of David. The prophets added other glimpses of what he would be like. Where he would be born. How he would treat people. The power of his miracles.

Then suddenly it happened, D-Day, the pivotal moment in human history when God threw the whole weight of his kingdom against the sinful powers of this earth – the day when Jesus Christ, God in human flesh, died upon a Roman cross, and at that moment the powers of hell, death and Satan were overthrown.  And now, spread over the entire earth even as we speak, God has established outposts of his kingdom, little platoons of his faithful ones, each given a holy task: to tell others of the glory of God’s kingdom and his King, and to live out as best they can the values of that King.

And if ever you doubt your faith, or doubt that this is really true, then just look at Jesus, and your doubts will soon fade away. For who is like him? Explain away Jesus, and then and only then will I abandon my faith.

Explain away his perfection. He did not sin. You read the gospels. Tell me where he sinned! Mohammed sinned. Joseph Smith sinned. Buddha sinned. Moses sinned. They’re all mere men. Not Jesus.

Explain his perfection. Explain away the greatness of his power to me. This one who could still a storm with his words. Who could cleanse a leper instantly with his touch. Who could send a legion of demons fleeing with just a command.

Explain away his goodness to me. He lived in the first century A.D. but he was not from the time and culture. Look at the way he treated women with respect. Look at his love for children. Look at him touch the leper’s skin. Look at his compassion for the poor. “The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down” David wrote, and that’s who Jesus was.

Explain away his resurrection to me and I will abandon my faith. Explain how the stone was moved. Explained how his small band of frightened followers who denied him, betrayed him and ran from him became in just a matter of weeks an unstoppable missionary force of love and goodness, which soon overspread the entire Roman empire.

Look at Jesus my friend, the personal revelation of God himself, and your sins will be forgiven, your doubts will wash away, your despair will melt, and your life will never be the same again.

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David is called a “person after God’s own heart” because he showed some uncommon spiritual qualities we should seek to imitate. Here’s a third quality:

David refused to quit after failure or difficulty.

Scarred by battle, David knew that life was difficult and dangerous. But David had a warrior’s heart, and so he knew how to persevere no matter how difficult things became. Defeating Goliath was easy, compared to driving out the Philistines from the land. It took years of running from King Saul, then living in the desert as a fugitive, and enduring countless hardships until he took the throne. Though a righteous man falls seven times, the Bible declares, he or she rises again. (Prov.24:16).

But how many weak and wimpy Christians pack up their tent and bug out after a little sign of trouble? Something doesn’t go your way, someone crosses hairs with you, you get your toes steps on, experience a loss or a disappointment, and you throw a tantrum that puts any preschooler to shame.

You then stop reading the Bible, stop praying, stop going to church, you quit – and guess what? you take a bad situation and make it a thousand times worse. Because now you’ve disconnected from Jesus, which removes you from under his umbrella of protection.

I’m so glad that in the darkest hours and days of my life – whether it was being chained up by lust or wracked with grief or overwhelmed by anger – I never, ever stopped reading my Bible, talking to my Lord, going to church, or worshiping him. Somehow by his grace I clung to a God I could not feel, see or hear. If your instinct is to give up after failure, it’s time to grow up as a man or woman of faith.

As I look at the battles I have won by the grace of God, one thing that stands out is that gaining the upper hand in them in most cases took years of determined discipleship. And in no area where I now have the upperhand can I say that the fighting is over, or that my victory is complete and I can now take it easy.

The battle for my marriage took two years of counseling to get Janis and I to a place where there were more good days than bad, and then several years of more soulwork. When we were at the place of deepest despair, we couldn’t sit down in a restaurant together and get through one meal without fighting.  Now we can go weeks without any kind of conflict, and we never have the kind of blowouts like we used to have.

In my battle for sexual purity, it took a long time to “train myself to be godly”, to build up appropriate riverbanks in my mind and heart through which the river of my sexuality could flow.  As I have battled depression in my life – each episode has taken months to work through.

As I look at the battles I have won by the grace of God, one thing that stands out is that gaining the upper hand in them in most cases took years of determined discipleship.

Getting to a place where we were financially disciplined was a journey that took several long, hard years, with many places of failure and difficulty along the way.

Hopefully you can see that quitting should never be an option for a follower of Christ.  This journey of faith will usually be three steps forward and a step back, a valley here, a mountaintop there.

What’s been most comforting for me in my journey of growing is to learn that Jesus knows this about me also. He not standing there to crack me over the back with a whip every time I blow it.  He already took the whip for me, and the thorns and the nails and the hell and the judgment as well. That gives me the time to work out my salvation with fear and trembling.

My part is not to quit.

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So sharing your faith with others is a challenge for you – well, get it line. It’s something many struggle with. But it’s important to get at the heart of why we don’t do it more readily. Perhaps it’s a matter of my devotion to Jesus. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks us, because we talk about the things we love.

It’s possible that if you only kinda, sorta love to tell the story, that there is another problem. Maybe the question Jesus would ask you today  is “Do you believe in me enough?” In other words, it could be a question of my faith in Jesus.

Of all the jobs I’ve had in my life, the one where I was a complete and utter failure was selling cookware one summer in college for the West Bend Company. And not just any old pots and pans, you know. In fact, they drilled it into us – do not refer to these as pots and pans. We’re talking $300-400 dollar sets of premium Lifetime cookware, in which can cook your vegetables without water, thus preserving all the vitamins in them, and can sauté a boneless chicken breast in less than ten minutes, and if you make an order with me today, I’ll throw in not 4 place-settings, not 6, but 8 (insert exclamation point here) place settings of bone china or elegant stoneware, absolutely free.

I had everything going for me.  I could speak well enough. I had no trouble memorizing the speel. I wasn’t afraid to knock on a stranger’s door. I had a winsome smile, and don’t forget – I’m from Iowa. They don’t grow up from much better stock than that. And best of all, my market as a cookware salesmen was young, single women. This job couldn’t have been designed for me any better.

But I absolutely bombed. I fell so hard on my face, I pushed my nose out the other side of my head. You want to know why? I did not believe in the product. I could not bring myself to see how cookware could cost so much money, and I could not believe how many foolish women there were out there ready to shell out that kind of money for – I can’t help myself – pots and pans. 

To sell the product you must believe in it. Of course this principle holds true when we’re talking about sharing our faith with others. And for some Christians, this is the problem. Their faith is weak. Doubts still nag them. How can you go out there and tell others about Jesus if you’re still not convinced that it’s all true?

Peter for all his bravado did not jump into this Jesus thing with both feet right off the bat. Unlike his brother Andrew who met Jesus once and was like, “Peter, come and meet this guy.  We’ve found the Messiah!” Peter was like, “Yah shore, ya betcha Andrew, shore ya have.”  (Peter was a Swedish fisherman.)

Peter wasn’t born yesterday. He’d been around the world once or twice (at least across the Sea of Galilee.) He saw holy men and Messiahs come and go. So Peter’s faith grew incrementally, over time, as he listened to Jesus teach, as he watched Jesus in action, his belief in Jesus gestated in the womb of his heart. And then came the day when Peter’s faith was born.

If you saw the new movie, “The Case For Christ”, that’s how it was for Lee Strobel. With every journalistic bone in his body, he tried to prove his wife’s newfound faith a sham. And couldn’t do it. Staring down the wall of evidence after months of investigative work, his objections all crumbled. He believed.

One day Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  And in that moment, Peter determined that he had seen enough and heard enough, and he jumped to his feet and declared, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God!”  He chose to dismiss his doubts and declare his belief once and for all.

And from then on out, his belief protected him.  In days to come, Jesus’ teachings became more controversial and challenging, and his popularity began to wane. When the crowds began to thin out, Jesus turned to the disciples and asked, “Are you also going to leave me?”  It was Peter who looked at Jesus and said, “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

That’s the power of faith. It gives you the passion to say, “I love to tell the story.” Run a diagnostic on your belief today. Is there anything more you need to hear or learn before you accept Jesus finally and fully as the Lord of your life? It’s time to stop wavering. Hem and haw no more. Fall down and worship him. Then go tell others to do so also.

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This week I want to challenge you to think seriously about a habit that most Christians neglect but which – if practiced – can do more to enrich your spiritual life than just about anything I can think of. Here it comes. Are you ready? Wait for it…

Scripture memorization.

 Alright, I get it. Half of you just groaned, and the other half rolled your eyes. If you grew up in a church, from your earliest years of Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, you were asked to memorize Bible verses, the books of the Bible, and important statements of the faith like the Apostle’s Creed. But that’s usually where the idea of memorization gets left – back with the kids’ stuff.

But this is as far from child’s play as something can be.

Now I know wheel-barrel’s full of Scripture, and can find my way around the Bible like a speed-dater on steroids. But I was shocked to learn how few verses I had actually memorized – where I could roll the verse off my tongue word-perfect, with the reference. So when I launched my purity series for Lent, I committed myself to learning the memory verses that were part of it…and was amazed how stimulating it was for my faith.

Then I stepped it up a notch and I began to commit to memory a number of psalms in their entirety. It became a part of my Bible study and prayer time. As of this writing, I can now roll off my tongue, word-for-word, Psalms 1, 16, 23, 84 and 121. Once again, I cannot exaggerate how this has empowered my prayer-time, and brought order to my thought life.

So much so, that it would be a point of pastoral cruelty to not share this with you and encourage you to try it for yourself.

Trust me, I can hear the blowback, even now. “But Pastor Barry, I don’t have a good memory. Not everyone is cut out for this sort of thing. I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast this morning. I’m always forgetting where I placed my keys.” Alright, I get that. Some of us tend toward forgetfulness.

Maybe you heard the story about the three elderly men who went to the doctor’s office for a memory test. The doctor asked the first man, “What is three times three?” “274,” was his reply. The doctor rolled his eyes and said to the second man, “It’s your turn. What is three times three?” “Tuesday,” replied the second man. The doctor shook his head sadly, then asked the third man, “Okay, your turn. What’s three times three?” “Nine,” said the third man proudly. “That’s great!” said the doctor. “How did you get that?” “Simple,” he says, “just subtract 274 from Tuesday.”

So I get it. Memory work isn’t the easiest work for everybody. However, I’m of the belief that you and your brain are capable of more things than you’re letting on. Chances are actually quite good that if you pushed yourself just a little bit, you might just find out that there is an undiscovered country inside of you.

The fact is, you’re already a memorization hound. Complete the following sentences for me. “For God so loved the world….” See. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that….” Remember this one? “Two all-beef patties, special sauce…” (If you’re under 40, Google it!)

So hang with me this week as we talk about reasons for adding this amazing tool into your spiritual tool kit.

And here’s your homework for the week. I challenge you to memorize Psalm 1. On your mark, get set… (see, you already knew which word was next, ‘cuz you’ve memorized it.) You can do this!

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A couple of Halloweens ago, our church hosted a Trunk ‘r Treat in our parking lot for the neighborhood. I dressed up as a “writer”, and when the kids came by my car looking for candy, I playfully asked them to help me with my writing. “I’m thinking of a story from the Bible, but I can’t remember what it was called,” I said to them. “Maybe you can help me. Jonah and the…oh what was it? Jonah and the…” One child proudly called out, “Jonah and the Chocolate Factory!”

When I asked for help with David andDavid and…,” I got back the same blank faces. “David and the Statue of Liberty!” said one, looking at one of our church members who was dressed up as Lady Liberty.

Maybe one out of fifteen kids got the answers right. Sure, the night was a lot of fun, but I came away so sad from the experience, to see first-hand how little of the Bible these children knew. Because I knew for a fact that without that knowledge, these children would grow up poorer.

A third reason we should memorize Scripture is this. Memorizing Scripture ennobles us. To ‘ennoble’ means ‘to lift up, to raise in dignity, to increase in value.’ The opposite of ennoble is to debase. To debase means ‘to cheapen, to lower the worth of, to strip of dignity, to make more animal-like.’

Language can ennoble or debase, depending on how it’s used. Walk into a room and hear the Hallelujah Chorus you feel ennobled. Walk into a room and hear a dirty joke punctuated by a string of F-bombs, you feel like you need to shower off afterwards.

Why does Shakespeare continue to live on five centuries after he lived? Because his plays ennoble us. His command of language, and his grasp of the moral complexity of the human heart, woven together in timeless stories inspire us and warn us as few writers ever have.

This is why up until a generation or two ago, the Bible was taught in public schools. It was allowed, even encouraged, not because it made the children into better Baptists or Congregationalists. But because it made them into better human beings. It was recognized that there was something about the language and the stories and the poetry of the Bible that ennobled us.

In fact, so many of the great writers of Western Civilization, including Shakespeare himself, borrowed extensively from the Bible. It informed their worldview, and shaped their writing. So many of the great speeches we recollect today are bejeweled with Scripture.

How many today would know that when Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he was quoting Jesus. Or when Martin Luther King Junior referred to ‘justice rolling down like the waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” he was quoting the prophet Amos. Even Professor Woerner, an atheist professor I had in college, became choked up as misty eyed as he recited Psalm 23, the words of King David penned 3,000 years ago.

Oh if those same mothers I met that Halloween night could see this. And would take the time to put their children on their knees and tell them over and over again the stories of Jonah and the Whale or David and Goliath. And teach them the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. And most importantly, to tell them that Jesus Christ is not a swear word, but the greatest, most loving, most amazing person that ever walked this earth.

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Asaph the psalmwriter is having a very bad day as he begins writing Psalm 73.

As he looks around him, he sees a whole lot of unbelieving people who don’t have a God-bone in their bodies (which is discouragement #1) who seem to be living life far more easily and richly than he is (discouragement #2). And Asaph asks himself, “What good is my faith in God if this is where I end up?”

Thankfully, Asaph doesn’t remain in this dark place. In verse 15-16 he starts to think it through.

“If I had said, ‘I will speak this way’ I would have betrayed your children. When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me.”

Asaph is now talking in prayer to God about what he’s feeling. And he says in so many words, “God, when I think this way, I’m disowning everything that my life has stood for up till now. I’m flinging mud in the faces of all my church family. I’m spitting on the cross.”

Asaph needs God to help him work through this. But then at last, the breakthrough. Verse 17.

“It was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.”

What was it that at last cleared the cobwebs away for Asaph? He walked into God’s sanctuary. He sought fellowship with his church family. And by doing that, his vision cleared, he begins to see the truth of his life through the eyes of God, and the fog of his despair begins to break apart.

The truths that Asaph learns which remove his depression he’ll share with us in the remainder of the psalm. But before we consider those truths, let Asaph teach you another lesson today.

Asaph would say to us: no matter what you’re going through, remain in fellowship. Trying to figure everything out was oppressive to Asaph till he entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood…”

The temptation we face when things start to fall apart and God seems to have withdrawn from us, is to stick it to him by withdrawing from him. But in doing that, the only one we end up sticking it to is ourselves. We’re like the man who slams his thumb with the hammer, then in anger kicks the wall and fractures his toe.

One of the signs that you’re beginning to mature as a believer is that fellowship for you becomes no longer optional. You know that no matter what, you must stay connected to God, and you’ve learned that his Church is one of the places God has chosen where that connection has the greatest chance of happening.

If you’re out on your own right now, alone and cut off, because you feel that God has abandoned you, give up the sulk, and return to his people. Give the Lord a chance – through a song, or the sermon or a prayer or the hug of a friend – to whisper hope back into your heart. Don’t despair; He’s waiting for you there.

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“Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in Bethlehem, the town of David, a Savior has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord” ~ Luke 2:11

What are you afraid of today?

It’s arguably the strongest emotion we feel inside. I get upset with my cat who remains traumatized by our move to California and jumps at every sound, but truth be told, the same fear lurks in me.

A few weeks ago, a 140 pound mountain lion was found hanging out in a tree outside of a public school in our town. I’ve been unnerved ever since. Every jog I go on, I find myself peering into each tree I run under.

Fear wears many masks:

The fear of rejection. If I’m not pretty enough, sexy enough, thin enough, tough enough then I’ll be worthless and unlovable, we tell ourselves.

The fear of poverty. Jesus said a man’s life does not consist in his possessions. But most of us think Jesus was lying. At least we act like it. We act as though money is everything.

The fear of failure. Of looking bad in front of others. We care more about having people’s friendship and approval than we do about having God’s friendship and approval.

The fear of danger, or death. In a world that has grown so unsafe, where terrorists (and 140 pound mountain lions) lurk in unexpected places, who hasn’t struggled with this one?

It’s interesting that when an angel appeared to shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus, the first words out of his mouth were, “Don’t be afraid.”

The shepherds were people just like us. Strip away our technology and learning, slap a tunic over our slacks or skirts and stick a staff in our hands, and we’re not all that different from them. They had all the same fears that you and I struggle with. Concerned about their looks. About running out of money. About keeping safe from Roman terrorism and safety. (And wild animals hiding in trees – don’t forget that!)

But what they hear and what they experience on this holy night of Christ’s birth is about to change them completely. By the time this night is over, their world will seem a lot less fearful than when that night began. Let’s walk with the shepherds this week and discovered what changed them.

But first, take time today to identify your fears. What things in life cause you knees to knock most? For those are the very things that God wants to deliver you from.

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“Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in Bethlehem, the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

“Don’t be afraid,” God speaks to our hearts. It’s a tall order when you consider what a fearful place the world can be. But then God gives us three reasons why we can live fearlessly. In Jesus, you and I are given a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Each word has significance.

Now think of the word “Lord”. What does that mean? Back in the days of the Roman empire, one of the things people had to say to each other was “Caesar is Lord”, meaning, “Caesar is divine”. “Caesar is a god”. It wasn’t just a term of respect. It was a term of complete allegiance, even worship.

Which is why the Christians refused to say “Caesar is Lord”. We’ll honor Caesar, they said. But won’t worship him. Instead, the Christians said, “Jesus is Lord”. And that simple confession got them into trouble. They were arrested as lawbreakers, hounded as infidels, slandered as atheists.  Christians were subjected to horrible abuse because they said what the angels said when Jesus was born. He is the Lord. He is God in human flesh.

But I want you to understand something. There’s a risk if you do this as well. Most people don’t mind it if you turn to Jesus as your Savior. Someone to come to when you need some advice or a quick exit ramp off of Trouble Road. That’s all well and good.

Most of them won’t mind if you talk about Jesus as “the Christ”, mostly because they don’t have a clue what that means. And besides, many of them like to use the word too (albeit, in different contexts.)

It’s when you start talking about Jesus as “the Lord” – as the one to whom we owe our supreme allegiance and worship – that they start getting miffed. Because Jesus is my “Lord”, he ‘commands my destiny’ as a popular Christian song says. Lords can do that. They can tell you what to do. And most people prefer to be their own lords, and call their own shots.

Here’s the deal though. If you want to banish fear from your life, then the Lordship of Christ is not optional. More often than not, if you call on God to save you from something you fear, he will respond by giving you something to do.

During the days of the great prophet Elisha, there was a Syrian general named Naaman who contracted leprosy. He heard of Elisha’s power to heal and came to Israel. He humbled himself and asked for help. Elisha told him, “Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River (the main river in Israel) and you will be healed.” At first, Naaman was put off my this. “Couldn’t I just wash in any of the rivers back in Syria? They’re better than the Jordan River.” But then with the help of his servant, Naaman thought better of it, and he obeyed Elisha. He did what he was told to do.  And he was healed.

If you come asking for God’s help with the financial mess you’ve made of things, one of the first instructions God will give you through his word is that you must tithe. Give the first 10% of your earnings to him. That might seem ridiculous to you! “What!?  Here I’m in debt, and God tells me to give more money away?” I’d do it if I were you.

You come asking for God’s help with your marriage, and maybe one of the first things God tells you to do is cook a candlelight dinner for your husband. “What!” you say in protest. “That bum’s not worth a TV dinner.” I’d do it if I were you.

Jesus is both Savior and Lord. You can’t have one without the other. Call on him to save you. He stands ready and willing to help you. But then do what he commands.

In time, you will find this world a less fearful place.

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Are you locked in a never-ending conflict with someone in your family or church? As you look about your community, do you see only people who are like you in color or status? If you follow Christ, then you are called to the work of ending these divisions by being a “peacemaker”.

So what does it mean to be a peacemaker? It’s important that we understand the foundation or ground of peacemaking before we examine its practice. If we fail to drink from the spring of biblical peacemaking, we’ll soon dry up. The Church is filled with social justice advocates who slip into self-righteousness or cynicism or anger or despair because the work becomes too hard or too political.

Ephesians 2 is a classic case study in peacemaking, as the apostle Paul explains to both Jewish and Gentile readers how Christ’s death made these two formerly antagonistic communities into one community built around the love and grace of Christ.

There are a few things a Christian peacemaker must always remember:

We have a common need.

Paul writes in verse 1, “And you were dead in the trespasses in which you once walk.” Jew or Gentile, black or white, Asian or Hispanic, male or female – we all share in a common condition – we are desperately lost in sin which has separated us from God our Maker. We are besieged by evil, both outside of us (we follow the “prince of the power of the air”, vs.2) and inside of us (we struggle with “passions of our flesh”, vs.3). Left in this state, we are “children of wrath”, liable for judgment (vs.3).

Translation: I’m not any better than anyone else.

We receive common grace.

Paul writes in verse 4 – “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved”. God’s intent is that in “coming ages” he might show “the immeasurable riches of his grace” (vs.7), “for by grace you have saved through faith” (vs.8).

Translation: I’m not any better than anyone else.

We are rescued from sin and reconciled to God by a common Savior.

Verses 14-16 are powerful. “For he [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” (vss.14-16)

Translation: I’m not any better than anyone else.

And finally, we share in a common community.

Paul’s assumption is that every blood-bought soul will find fellowship with every other blood-bought soul regardless of skin-color, gender, economic status or nationality.

Verse 19 – “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (vss.19,22)

Translation: I’m not any better than anyone else.

What this means is that when we find division in the body of Christ – because of sin or because of skin – we should recoil against it, and do everything in our power to build a bridge of reconciliation to heal the rupture. Because – say it with me – “I’m not any better than anyone else.” And in fact, I need them to be in my life, if I want to experience all that Christ has for me.

To fail to have this instinct is to forget, even deny, all that Jesus’ death was meant to accomplish.

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The following is repeated in every sanctuary Sunday after Sunday.

Sitting toward the back is Kenneth, 39, whose job had just been eliminated through one of those downsizing moves. Misty sits toward the front. She’s 42 and her husband died in an auto accident thirteen months ago. She’s back to teaching Sunday School class now, and very few ask how she’s doing anymore. The assumption seems to be that she’s gotten over it and is moving on with her life.  Then why does she cry herself to sleep each night? Fred is 73, a widower, he lives alone. He buried his daughter before the summer. The doctors told him a month ago that he’s losing his eyesight, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Esther is in her mid-50s and has just finished her first bout of chemo. She walks through each day as in a fog, scarcely believing that she – a hospice nurse – is now the one wearing the wig. Ted and Tricia come to the first service, because their mentally retarded child Tommy is less active early in the morning, but all that seems to be changing since he turned thirteen, and the strain of caring for Tommy is becoming increasingly unbearable. They choose to miss church more often now, because what’s the use? – he usually has his first outburst before they’re even finished with the opening worship. Scott is single and he’s decided that this is his last Sunday, that is unless someone comes and greets him during coffee hour. For each of the three Sundays he has visited, he has sat alone during that time drinking coffee and only gotten one “Hi, how are ya?” from one person who whisked by and then was gone.

Pew after pew, person after person, comes to church Sunday after Sunday and each one has a story to tell of needs and burdens and challenges that threaten to overrun them.

According to the great second century Christian writer Tertullian, unbelievers would look at Christianity as practiced by the early church, and breathlessly exclaim, “See how they love each other!” I wonder if the same could be said of us today.

The church was built by our Savior to provide many things – but among them is koinonia, a Greek word we typically translate as “fellowship” or “community”. But koinonia is much more than Christians sharing the same space. When we talk about “community”, koinonia points to a sharing of lives and hearts and resources. It’s something we humans desperately need. It’s something that you need. You were not made to walk through life alone.

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Ecclesiastes 4:8-12 is a little essay about why we need community. Verse 9 offers another point to consider: Community gives us help through life’s storms.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work. If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?” 

Perhaps you’ve heard it said, “God never gives us anything we can’t handle.” Sorry friends, but that one is fake news. The trouble is, we interpret those words as rough and tough individualistic, go-it-alone Americans. God won’t put anything on our shoulders that we cannot find the strength to go through on our own, is what we’re really saying. But that’s a lie!

There are all kinds of things that life throws at us that we cannot handle alone. Divorce.  Disability. Death of loved ones. Face those alone and you will be crushed. Don’t you ever toss those words out of your mouth again – God never gives us anything we can’t handle – unless you add the words: with your brothers and sisters nearby. Only then is that statement true.

We need community because we need the burden-bearing offered by others. And if you don’t need it now, then mark my words, you’ll need it later.

As with all things, there’s a balance here. Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” But then look at what Paul writes a few verses later in verse 5:  “…for each one should carry his own load.” Is Paul contradicting himself here, to say that on the one hand we must carry each other’s burdens, and then three verses later that we’ve got to carry our own load? Is he such a twaddle-head that he can’t remember what he writes from one verse to the next?

Of course not. The burdens we’re to carry for each other are different from the loads we’re to bear alone. The load we are to bear ourselves has to do with the ordinary, everyday hardships of life, which all of us must face. The burdens we are to carry for each other are the tidal waves, the tornadoes, the catastrophes that life hurls our way.

Parents have a responsibility to raise and discipline their own children; that’s a load they must carry. It’s not up to someone else to do their job. But what do you do if life throws at you a special needs child that is mentally incapacitated? I cannot describe for you in a sentence the heartache and hardship that these dear parents go through each and every day, not to mention the isolation they feel, and the indescribable strain their children’s condition places on their homes, their marriages, their families.

That’s not a load, it’s a burden, which summons the strong shoulders and backs of other brothers and sisters to come alongside to encourage and assist. Take a few moments today to recall the times when you were borne up on the wings of the community around you. Thank God for those times, then promise him to provide that support for someone else.

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And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty…” The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. ~ 1 Kings 19:9-13

Depression is our spirit’s response to life’s heaviness. As such, it contains two elements: grief, as we mourn what we’ve lost. And reflection, as we process what we’ve lost.

Both require time and compassion.

Depression many times for a Christian is at its heart a theological struggle. Elijah’s spirit needs time to adjust to what’s just happened to him. He didn’t expect things to unfold the way they did. Someone once said that depression is anger turned inward, and no doubt, mingled with his sorrow, Elijah is angry. But not only with himself. Go ahead. Admit it. Say it. He’s also angry with…God.

Back in college, I belonged to a “church” that told me if I had enough faith, I would be healthy. Just one problem – my body was caked with sores and lesions caused by psoriasis. Believing the lies this “church” told me about God, I threw away my medicines. Rather than watch God heal me for my obvious faith, I got worse, and nearly ended up in the hospital. I fell into a very serious depression. But at its root was an anger at God. God wasn’t supposed to treat me like this – at least the “God” I had been told of.

Life didn’t add up with my beliefs. My head was poisoned with false teaching, and I needed time to figure out what the truth was.

Depression can be brought about by loss. By sudden trauma. Unexpected sickness. Excessive stress. It can be brought about by wrong-thinking about life. Depressed people are full of negativity about themselves and about how life should work.

How does a depressed person emerge out of this long, dark tunnel? How can we minister to someone who is struggling with depression?

There are a number of ways that God ministers to Elijah in this moment. But here’s maybe the most important lesson. God treats Elijah with tenderness.

God wasn’t in the great wind, or the mighty earthquake. He wasn’t in the blazing fire. He was in the whisper. The still small voice. That’s where he heard and met God.

Isaiah 42:3 says of Christ, “He will not shout or cry out. A bruised reed he will not break. And a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” It’s a beautiful image of how to treat someone who is depressed. You treat them just like a flickering candle. You tenderly hover over them, you guard them, you go slowly. You don’t rebuke them for their weakness, or pepper them with Sunday School answers. You listen, you hug, you stay close.

When friends came to comfort Job in his trials, they started well. They sat with him silently for seven days. But then they blew it when they did one thing – they opened their mouths. From there it went all downhill.

It’s with a still, small voice that healing can begin.

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In addition to real emotion, a prayer warrior like Hannah will exhibit real passion.

1 Samuel 1:12 says, “As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk.”

Do you get the idea that people weren’t praying a lot in those days? When the high-priest – presumably the most spiritual person in the country – sees the real deal, he confuses it for drunkenness!

You always know that you’re in a spiritually dead environment when people observe genuine spiritual passion and are offended by it. It happened on Pentecost when the disciples, newly baptized in the Spirit, rush out into the streets to proclaim Christ. And what do observers say? “It’s 9:00 in the morning and these guys are drunk!” Just like with Eli.

And things were indeed spiritually dead under Eli’s leadership. Eli’s sons were out in the back room of the tabernacle sleeping with prostitutes. And skimming fat off the sacrifices that people brought to offer God for their own profit.

God’s not a big fan of faith without fire. Romans 12:11 says, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” God expects passion. Meanwhile to the complacent church of Laodicea, Jesus said, “Because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold – I am about the spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16.)

However there’s a big difference between faith with fire, and faith with fanaticism. I was a pastor for years in Connecticut, the land of steady habits, where you try to keep a lid on your emotions. And the Bible is careful to warn us that not all types of zeal are godly. Paul wrote of the unbelieving Jews in his day who were persecuting Christians, “they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” (Romans 11).

Which could certainly be said of every Muslim extremist today, who commits barbarous acts in a misguided passion for a god they’ve made up in their heads. It’s not emotion for emotion’s sake which God approves of. If you jump off the pews and swing from the rafters on Sunday morning and then sin your head off on Sunday night, you’re not pleasing God one bit. You’re just a caffeinated, high-strung, obsessive-compulsive, undisciplined sinner with ADD.

So where’s the balance here? The Bible commands us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. So this love includes all our heart: that’s emotional fervor. All our soul: that’s spiritual honesty and spiritual accuracy. All our minds: that’s mental control; you never unplug your brain when following Jesus. And all our strength: which points to how we use our bodies.

So it’s not passion alone. But passion with truth. And passion with purity. And passion with self-control. This is the passion that a prayer warrior like Hannah shows.

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There’s a second idea Scripture teaches us about God the Father. To call God “Father” reminds us of God’s power to provide for our needs. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers, tells us, not to worry. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.” Maybe the hardest thing to learn how to do in life is to stop worrying.

As opposed to concern which prompts us to take responsible steps to ward off future trouble, worry is emotional restlessness for future trouble, and so it accomplishes nothing except to rob us of sleep and steal our joy. Someone once said: Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday. And where did it get you? Did anything change because of all that worry?

A far better response is this: having taken responsible steps to ward off future trouble, we then place our trust in God for the outcome. We let him run the universe. Which is what Jesus goes on to say next.

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 7:25-27).

Now let’s be careful here. Don’t think to yourself that this means we just get to kick back and do nothing, and God will take care of us. He’ll do all the work. He’ll pay all our bills. He’ll fix all our problems and make life easy for us. That’s not what Jesus is teaching. Because that’s not what a loving father does for his children.

Yes, sometimes God will directly meet our needs. For a season, God sent Israel manna from heaven. But once the manna dried up, how did God meet their need for food? They grew crops. And raised cattle. They learned to store up grain for the future. He showed them how to become hardworking and responsible. That’s what a loving father does for his children.

And so in the Bible we find God the Father meeting our needs in interesting ways.

God as our Father meets our needs by giving us instruction. Proverbs 4:3 – “When I was a boy in my father’s house, still tender…he taught me and said ‘Lay hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands and you will live.” The assumption here is that as God’s child, I will listen to his instruction and put it into practice.

God as our Father also meets our needs by giving us discipline. Hebrews 12:7 – “Endure hardship as discipline. God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?”

Life is hard, and the world unforgiving. If we do receive instruction and discipline from our fathers and our mothers, and from our Heavenly Father, then the world out there will crush us. God doesn’t want that for you. So he teaches you and disciplines you. As a loving father should who wants to provide for the needs of his children.

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Abram has been waiting for God to fulfill a promise that he made to give him and his wife Sarai a son. But God has been dawdling, as Abram sees it. (And haven’t we all felt it? Haven’t we all wondered about what time zone God has set his watch to? If he even wears a watch.)

Abram tells God in Genesis 15:2 that he is preparing for his servant to be his heir. God at last one night breaks his silence, saying to Abram, “This man will not be your heir. But a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” Then God directs Abram outside and asks him to look at the heavens and count the stars.

I’ll never forget my first trip to Sedona, Arizona a couple years ago, and going out one night and staring at the heavens. I never realized how much “light pollution” had been shrouding my experience of star-gazing out on the East Coast till then. There’s nothing like looking at a starry sky from the desert.

“Count the stars,” God says to Abram, “If indeed you can count them.”  Then God said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”  Then the Bible says something interesting. “Abram believed the Lord and he credited it to him as righteousness.”

Right then and there, Abram’s doubt vanished.  His anxiety was swept away.

Why? Did Abram’s circumstances change all at once? Did Sarai get pregnant right that minute? No. In fact, Abram would wait more than fifteen more years for the promised child to be born. Did Abram see anything with his eyes that told him that things were now different? No.

What changed was not Abram’s circumstances, but his attitude. His way of looking at things.  Abram chose at that moment to believe that what God said about him was true.  He chose to look away from his circumstances and disregard his feelings and trust God’s promises instead.  He exercised faith in what God had said.

Faith is a word which we Christians banter around quite bit. Abram’s story shows us that real faith has two parts to it. If you’ve been living a defeated, dreary type of Christian life, then there’s a good chance that the problem comes down to one of these areas.

First, the story says that Abram believed the Lord. Which points us to the first part of faith – belief. For some people the reason they have weak faith is that they’re still not sure if Christianity is entirely believable. Was Jesus really born of a virgin in Bethlehem? Did he really rise from the dead? Is the Bible really the Word of God?

There’s a saying I heard years ago while still in college: My heart cannot accept what my mind rejects. I grew up in a Christian home, but just because Mom and Dad said Christianity was true didn’t make it true.  I had to know if this story about Jesus was true.  Did it hold water?  Did it stand up to scrutiny?

So I read, and studied, and pondered. I deliberately took classes that tried to poke holes in Christianity, then searched to find if Christians had an answer. I did the same thing with Mormonism, and as a result, realized that I could never be a Mormon – because the whole structure of Mormonism is patently and demonstrably false. The story the book of Mormon tells is a lie, fabricated in the mind of Joseph Smith – with no historical, archaeological and anthropological merit whatsoever.

Not so with biblical, historic Christianity. The faith that Jesus asks us to have in him is not blind faith, but it’s reasonable faith – a faith built on evidence, and experience and eye-witness testimony. Until you’re convinced of the believability of Christianity, you shouldn’t become a Christian. Because your faith will be very weak.

Unlike cults such as Mormonism which tell you to never question the authority and teaching of its leaders, God says in His word, “Come let us reason together.” That speaks volumes to me about the integrity – and believability – of this faith built on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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In Genesis 16, Abram’s story takes an unfortunate turn. Though God had promised Abram and Sarai a son from whom would come a nation that would bless the earth, ten years into their waiting, they ran out of patience with God.

Back then, in that corrupt culture, it was a custom that if a wife was infertile, then she was expected to provide a surrogate for her husband, to perpetuate the family line. So Sarai, rather than listening to God, listened to the sinful culture (which still happens today) and gave Abram her servant Hagar to sleep with. (In case you’re wondering, Abram doesn’t get a pass here. In fact, he was twice as responsible to hold the line, because he’s the one who had the visions from God. Poor Sarai could only ride on her husband’s faith.)

Their sin leads to the birth of a boy they name Ishmael, who in time becomes the patriarch of the Arab nations, which in time will enter into perpetual “step-brother” conflict with the Jews (again, which still happens today).

It’s an important principle for every child of God to learn – that living by faith still requires our obedience. The Puritan writer Richard Sibbes said, “Sin always leads to a declining state.” Translation: Disobeying God always weakens us, and sets us up for struggle which we were never meant to have.

Many Christians stumble on this because they are taught (rightly) that we are saved by faith alone, not by our works. But then they turn around (wrongly) and draw incorrect conclusions from this. That holiness is for “extra credit”. That I can kick back and coast the rest of the way to heaven. That I can sin my head off and God must forgive because I have my get-out-of-jail-free card.

But the Bible makes it clear that while we are not saved by good works, we are saved for good works (Eph.2:8-10). Obedience is meant to “come from faith” (Rom.1:6). The only thing that counts, Paul said, is faith working through love (Gal.5:6). Our good works are the fruit of faith, which prove if the seed of faith is in us (Matt.7:18-20). If we truly repented, then we are to bear fruit in keeping with that repentance (Matt.3:8).

We drove by a grove of fruit trees on the way to Sequoia National Park the other day, but couldn’t tell what they were. My daughter said, “Without the fruit, you can’t tell what kind of tree it is.” That’s the point.

The whole purpose in Christ dying for us was not only to provide a way for us to be forgiven of our sins, but to be set free from our sinning. If you’re serving a prison sentence and you get pardoned, are you going to ask the warden as you’re leaving, “Warden, if I find that I’m missing my jail cell, can I come back here and sleep at night?” If you’re a brand new butterfly, are you going to sit around and mope because you can’t crawl around in the dirt like a worm the way you used to. “And for Pete’s sake, do I really have to fly everywhere?!” If you’re a beggar on the streets eating the scraps that restaurants throw in the dumpsters, and a rich aunt leaves you a million dollars, are you going to buy a dumpster that you can put in your new mansion, so you can have a snack every so often?

Sin is such a wretched thing, why would you even consider hanging onto it? If you’ve become a true follower of Christ, then your life is going to change. And you’re going to want it to change. Let’s hear no more foolish chatter of, “My, now that I’ve been saved by faith, I get to do whatever I want!”

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Agriculture is a wonderful analogy for our spiritual lives because most farmers and gardeners understand that if you’re going to have something to harvest by season’s end, it’s going to take a collaboration between you and God. You’ve got something to do, and God’s got something to do. And if either of you drops the ball, there won’t be a harvest.

Which points to another important spiritual principle: Spiritual growth requires you and God working together.   

Philippians 2:12-13 is a verse which describes this holy collaboration.“Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Notice, Paul writes, “Work out your salvation.” He doesn’t say “work for your salvation.” Salvation has already been given you as a gift from God.

It’s like exercise. When we exercise, we’re not working for our bodies – God’s already given us those – we’re working out our bodies. We even say, “I’m working out.” Far too many Christians, knowing that they are not saved by human effort, proceed to live out the rest of their Christian lives that way – not giving any effort.

“Let go – let God,” they say as though they don’t have to do anything. No! You’re never going to grow that way. Let’s take the analogy of exercise a bit further. Picture the kingdom of God for a moment as a health club. Jesus comes to you and says, “If you take my hand, I’ll deliver you from the wheelchair of your sin.” You reach out your hand by faith, you repent of your sins, and Jesus does what you could never do by your own effort – he heals you and brings you to your feet and leads you inside.

He leads you into this large, wonderful room that is filled with weight equipment, and treadmills, and swimming pools. And Jesus says to you, “It’s time to work out your salvation.” Yet even here, Jesus does not leave us alone. He gives us a personal trainer to always be by our side, called the Holy Spirit. He gives us a personal training manual to guide us, called the Bible. He gives us training partners to encourage us along the way, called the church.

He fills the room with glorious lighting, and inspiring music, called worship. He gives us a room to rest in, called the Sabbath Day. All this Jesus does for us. Just one thing he asks for us to do to grow. All you have to do is stand in the middle of the exercise room, close your eyes, hold out your hands and say, “Let go, let God. I’m feeling my muscles grow.”

(Insert scratching sound of record album here.) No! You’ve got to use the equipment! Exercise.  Start sweating. Exert your will. 

What do you observe about the following verses?

“Let us…make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” ~ Romans 14:19

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” ~ Ephesians 4:3

“Make every effort to live in peace with all men, and to be holy.” ~ Hebrews 12:14

“Make every effort to add to you faith…” ~ 2 Peter 1:5

“Make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.” ~ 2 Peter 3:14

What do you notice?  Salvation depends on God.  Growing in salvation depends on God…and you.

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That human beings are morally flawed should be one of the more obvious truths about us. The most popular TV shows of the early 21st-century – from Walking Dead to Breaking Bad to This Is Us love to explore the twisted depths of the human heart.

But why are we by nature “bad”? It’s important that we get this answer correct, for the right diagnosis leads to the right treatment. A faulty diagnosis leads to mischief, or worse.

James 1:13-15 provides helpful insight. “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”

This passage describes what we might call the “cycle of sin”. If we were to plot it out on a flow chart, it might read Desire – Deception – Disobedience – Death. If we understand the cycle of sin, we’ll discover some clues for how to combat evil. Notice where our moral failures begin – with an evil that resides inside of us.

“Each one is tempted when by his own evil desire…”.

It is commonly believed that humans are essentially good, and that the reason we break bad is because of external problems that must be fixed. If everyone has access to good jobs, education, healthcare, freedom, then our natural goodness will flower and society will improve.

Look, one of the God-given glories of being human is to be good stewards of our world, and strive to leave things better than we found them. Fix the outside, please. Education, yes. A solid economy, bring it. Fight injustice, everywhere you find it. Promote strong families. Care for the environment. But let’s not pretend that this alone is our golden ticket to Valhalla.

After World War II, Great Britain organized a massive rebuilding project that provided affordable government housing to its urban population. While living in London in the late 80s, I saw with my own eyes how many of these planned communities had turned into nightmarish concrete jungles of despair and crime in less than a generation.

Remove the heel of tyrants’ oppression from off of the necks of the Iraqi, the Egyptian, the Libyan…and it was believed an “Arab spring” would ensue. Instead, the Middle East has become a seedbed of terrorism and chaos.

Jesus knew full well “what was in a man” (John 2:24). When Jesus was having a discussion with the Pharisees about what it was that made people unclean, the Pharisees insisted that it was the outside contaminants which defiled us (which was why they stayed away from sinful, broken people, rather than minister to them.)

Modern day Pharisees on Right and Left today point to all sorts of exterior things that need to be fixed, silenced or removed from office if our world is ever to improve. It’s Hollywood, it’s the Liberal press, it’s those hateful Christians, it’s global warming…

No, Jesus says, the problem doesn’t start out there. The problem begins in here. And he puts his finger straight on your chest and mine.

Mark 7:20 – “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’  For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.  All these evils come from inside and make a man unclean.” 

When your car misfires, go ahead and wash it and wax it if you want, but until you raise the hood and poke around with what’s inside, you won’t fix the problem.

If something is misfiring in your life right now, you can blame your spouse, your boss, Trump, or a thousand other things if you want. Here’s a thought. Find a mirror somewhere close, and take a good, long look at what’s staring back.

Let’s start fixing what we see there first.

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The hit show “Breaking Bad” follows the descent into depravity of Walter White who evolves from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher into a ruthless drug lord. His motive sounds noble at first glance. Learning that he has advanced cancer, he wants to provide for his family’s financial future after his death.

But we quickly see that there are other desires at work in his heart. A desire for control. And vengeance. And for others to pat him on the back and stroke his ego. As initial guilt wears off for the crimes he’s committing, he gets good at doing bad, and each and every step downwards he takes is made with a bodyguard of lies and self-deception.

The show ends with the death of Walter White, whose heart is now black as night. But one thing is obvious for the viewers who take the journey with him – long before his body died, death was wreaking havoc all around him. The first to go was his conscience. Then death destroyed his marriage. It brought ruin to his extended family. It murdered countless souls lost in addiction to the drugs he manufactured. It sickened everything and everyone he came in contact with.

According to James, death is the final stage in the cycle of sin. “Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15). The Bible tells us bluntly that the “wages of sin is death” (Rom.3:23), but we mustn’t be so wooden in our interpretation to see death as what happens at the end of the line. Rather it is a relentless and ruthless companion all along life’s road.

Repentance is coming to Jesus and falling before him with sorrow in your heart for how you have broken his heart. But it’s also rising to your feet with a new determination to grab hold of Jesus, and allow him to teach and empower you to stop your sinning.

God warned Adam and Eve that “the day” they touched of sin, they would die (Gen.2:17), yet Adam and Eve lived for centuries afterwards. Yet God was right – for the very day they sinned, we see Adam and Eve begin to tear each other apart with blame and accusation. Death passes along to their first children, Cain and Abel, in the form of jealousy, bitterness and murder.

Death is the full-flower of sin on display. Which is why it is vital that we recognize sin’s cancer at work in us, and resist it at every turn. For if we don’t, then like a cancer cell, it will grow and metastasize. Every bit of sin we leave unattended inside our hearts – pride, lust, fear, envy, resentment – will advance in size and strength. And death will show itself in short order. “To enter a sinning state is to enter a declining state,” warned a wise Puritan writer.

Thankfully, there is a remedy for sin’s malignancy. It flowed out from the Cross of Calvary on which Jesus Christ shed his blood and died. He did this “to save us from our sins”, the Bible promises. His death puts to death our death, if you can see through the redundancy. His death allows us to be forgiven, and through that forgiveness, we now live.

The “breaking bad” that sin unleashes in us is interrupted in the heart of a Christian. Jesus becomes a warrior in our hearts to help us resist the spread of sin inside of us. And though we will still die physically at the end of our days, that death will not permanently claim us. “You will be with me in paradise,” Jesus promises.

How you experience this for yourself begins with something the Bible calls repentance. Which is more than just saying sorry. Repentance is coming to Jesus and falling before him with sorrow in your heart for how you have broken his heart. But it’s also rising to your feet with a new determination to grab hold of Jesus, and allow him to teach and empower you to stop your sinning. Death’s march through your heart is arrested at that point. Life flows in, as he who is the Lord of Life takes up residency within you.

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As we continue to consider Christ’s second coming in this week’s Sparks, a third question comes to mind: How will the return of Christ be received?

Scripture is very clear on this and the news is not good. John writes in Revelation 1:7, “All the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him” echoing the words of an Old Testament prophet named Zechariah, who foretold a time when Israel would mourn when they “look on the one they had pierced”.

Why this mourning? Because when Jesus Christ is seen visibly, physically, in the heavens – in that one indescribable moment it will dawn on people in a flash what is happening, but it will be too late. Too late to repent. Too late to change. Too late to get right with God.

The Bible says in Hebrews 9:28 – “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to save those who are waiting for him.”

Back in the frontier days of the Old West, a story was told of a young man who risked his life to stop a runaway stagecoach heading straight for a cliff, and in that stagecoach was a little boy. The little boy grew up to become a lawless bandit, and one day he stood before a judge to be hanged for a string of violent robberies. The prisoner looked up and recognized the judge as the man who – years before – had saved his life. So he pled for mercy on the basis of that experience.

But the words from the bench silenced his plea. “Young man, then I was your savior,” replied the Judge. “Today I am your judge, and I must sentence you to be hanged.” One day Jesus Christ will say to those who refused him, “During that long day of grace, I was your Savior, and I would have forgiven you. But today I am your Judge.”

To those who are not ready, the Bible tells us that the return of Christ will come suddenly, unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. “While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman and they will not escape.” (1 Thess.5:2)

9-11 was that type of morning for America. Here we were minding our own business, getting kids off to school, heading off to work, drinking our coffee, enjoying that beautiful late summer sunshine – thinking to ourselves that this is life, this is how is should be, this is how it works – never dreaming that all of it was just an illusion that would soon come crashing down around us when the towers fell. And then we realized that life was actually very different than what we were pretending it to be. And there was much more to life than what we had thought of it.

The return of Jesus Christ to earth will have that same sort of impact. Here we are minding our own business, living life, punching our time clocks, maybe throwing God a bone every now and then, maybe doing him a favor every so often by showing up at church, but never actually imagining that the stories about Jesus were real. And the things that Jesus said and taught were true. I mean, if I had really thought that…

But then in a flash, in a twinkling of an eye, we’ll realize that life is actually very different than what we were pretending it to be.

If you want Jesus to bear your sins away, if you want to have forgiveness and get right with God, then now’s the time to do it. Once he returns, it’s game over, everyone out of the pool – too late. I pray you’ll not be among those who will be found mourning on the day Jesus returns.

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We need more “dangerous” Christians today. More believers who live fearlessly and faithfully, though pressures and problems mount against them.

In Romans 8:31-39, Paul writes to Christians who live in a hostile culture that you and I could scarcely imagine. Trouble and persecution are always simmering around them. To encourage them to remain faithful, Paul shares three truths with them that he wants them to grab hold of. Each truth comes packaged in a pair of rhetorical questions.

Paul first asks them this pair of questions: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” 

It’s a beautiful, even poetic way to convey this truth: God is on my side. I need not fear anything or anyone.

Many Christians have a hard time believing – really believing – that God is for them. Oh, we might say it on Sunday morning. But get out there in the grind of the workweek, and watch things start to fall apart around us, and we begin to grumble. And what’s behind the grumbling?  We’re wondering where God is at in our lives. Maybe we think God is absent, or maybe we believe God is too busy to bother with us.

Or maybe we go further yet in our thinking and wonder if God is not even resisting us.  “Oh God, why did you do this to me?” we might say. So not only is God not “for” me, but he is actively “against” me.

What a dreadful theology. And a worse way to live.

When I got my spiritual life straightened out my freshman year in college, the first person who turned away from me was my girlfriend. We were very close, and had dated for three years, and even talked about marriage. But she couldn’t comprehend the changes that were happening in me, and she didn’t wish to share them with me. The Lord spoke to my heart, “Son, you need to let her go.” But I couldn’t, and cried out, “Lord, I can’t do it. You gotta help.” I got a phone call the next week from her asking to break up. I almost said, “Wait a minute, you can’t fire me. I quit!” but then stuffed it, and said instead, “Yeah, you’re right.” Because I knew God was at work.

It may seem a small thing, but it was remarkably painful at first, but a great lesson in the end. For in time I learned to say through the difficulty, “God you are on my side. You are for me. You want to give me all things. So I trust you.” I didn’t date for the next two years but focused on my studies and growing in my young faith, and then I met Janis, and 33 years later, I can still say it is a blast having a sister in Christ for a wife.

When you experience a time of testing or trouble and rather than wilt, you choose to say with Paul, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”, and choose to believe that God is ready, willing and able to give you all of himself in that moment, your faith takes a quantum leap forward. You start to become – shall I say it? – even dangerous.

Perhaps the change in your heart can come with you just simply beginning to recite the words, over and over again. (Goodness knows, we recite all the other garbage over and over again.)

So say it: If God is for us, who can be against us? And while you’re at it, say aloud these words from David in Psalm 118:6-8 (which Paul must have been thinking of): “The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? The Lord is with me; he is my helper. I will look in triumph on my enemies.”

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“Lord, I lift your name on high!” Samantha sang at the top of her lungs as she cruised down the highway. Suddenly, a blue sports car zipped past her as though she were standing still. Without batting an eye, she yelled out, “Hey, watch what you’re doing, you moron! Think you own the road? How’d you ever get a license!” She paused a moment, then resumed her singing. “I’m so glad you’re in my life…”

“Wasn’t that something how that CEO just up and died like that?” said Phil to a co-worker on the phone as he sat at his cubicle and pulled at a thread on his polo. “Serves him right. The way he cheated his company.” As his friend spoke, Phil’s eyes lit up. “Golfing? Tomorrow? Gee Fred, I got this project to finish.” He paused while his friend spoke again. “Yeah I know. Sunny and seventy. Tell you what. I’m feeling this bug coming on. What time are you teeing up?”

Integrity.  It’s one of those words that sounds good rolling off our tongues. But showing it in our lives can be quite often another story. In the dictionary “integrity” is defined like this: firm adherence to a moral code; incorruptibility; the quality or state of being undivided; completeness or honesty. We might also add that it’s Daniel in Daniel 6 – the story of Daniel in the lion’s den which most of us have heard since childhood. In the story, Daniel exhibits all the traits of integrity.

First, a person of integrity distinguishes himself or herself by their character. Verse 3 says, “Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom.”

To ‘distinguish’ yourself means you stand out from others. And we should add, you stand out for your goodness. A lot of people stand out for the evil which they do. The racists in Charlottesville. The terrorists in Barcelona. In 2006, a gunman entered an Amish school house in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and killed five grade-school girls before turning the gun on himself.

It’s what happened next in Nickel Mines which astonished the nation, as the Amish community distinguished itself for its goodness. In the immediate aftermath of the killings, family members of the victims and the entire Amish community began to minister to the family of the shooter, and offered forgiveness for the evil he committed, even setting up a memorial fund for his children.

I had preached on forgiveness before then, but that response showed me I knew nothing about what it was.

To see such Christlike integrity demonstrated before the whole world left me speechless. And still does. This must have been what it was like to see Jesus crucified, bleeding, dying, then hearing him say from the cross, “Father forgive them, they know not what they are doing.”

But this is what people of integrity do. Like Daniel, like this Amish community, they distinguish themselves from others by the good they do imitating as best they can the Lord they love.

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The story of Daniel and the lions’ den shows us another quality in Daniel, which proved him to be a person of integrity. Daniel 6:4 says, “They could find no corruption in him because he was trustworthy, and neither corrupt nor negligent.” Which shows us that a person of integrity is trustworthy. 

A lot of people claim to be trustworthy. But when do we find out if a person is trustworthy or not? When you leave them alone. If you are trustworthy, then that means that you can be counted on when you’re not being watched. If Mom or Dad always has to hover over you to see that you’ll do your chores, you’re not trustworthy yet. If the boss is always watching you out of the corner of his eyes, you’re not trustworthy yet. You know you’re making progress when the boss throws you the keys and say, ‘Hey, would you lock up for me. I’m not feeling well.” D.L. Moody said, “Integrity is what a person is in the dark.”

During his time as a rancher, Theodore Roosevelt and one of his hired men lassoed a steer that wandered into his fields from a neighbor’s range, whose name was Lang. They lit a fire, and prepared the branding irons to identify the steer. As his cowboy was preparing to apply the brand Roosevelt noticed something wrong. It was Roosevelt’s brand the cowboy was using.

Roosevelt said, “Wait, it should be Lang’s brand.”

“That’s all right, boss,” said the cowboy.

“But you’re putting on my brand,” Roosevelt said.

“That’s right,” said the man.

“Drop that iron,” Roosevelt demanded, “and get back to the ranch and get off my property.”

The cattlehand looked stunned.  Then Roosevelt said, “I don’t need you anymore. A man who will steal for me will steal from me.”

A man or woman of integrity is trustworthy and faithful. They’ll do the right thing even if it’s the hard thing. They’ll do the right thing even if no one is watching. They’ll do the right thing even if they’re being watched – by people who approve of what they’re doing.

Does this describe your heart today? Are you faithful…

…in your marriage?

…in your worklife?

…as a friend?

…with money?

…to your church?

If not, then you and your Savior have some soul-searching to do. And some soul-repairing. I’d get down to it if I were you.

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In the Bible’s “parenting manual” (Proverbs 2 through 7), the father speaks to his children frequently about sexuality. (Proverbs 2:16-19, all of chapter 5, 6:23-35, and all of chapter 7).

Why’s the Bible so obsessed with sex? you ask. Wrong question. God, because he loves us, speaks to us the most about those matters which have the greatest power to bless us, or hurt us.

When my daughter Hannah was a teen, what do you think I talked to her most about – how to handle a car or how to handle the TV remote? Was it because I was obsessed with cars? No. Why then?

Because an automobile has great power to bring a lot of joy and freedom to us. But it also has as great a power to bring life-long heart-ache. God talks to us the same way. The Bible is filled with teaching about the things that have the greatest power to bring joy and freedom if used properly, or can ruin us if used wrongly. And our sexuality is Exhibit A of such a powerful thing.

We mustn’t think that the need for sexual discipline is for any particular segment of the population. Don’t think it’s only for the young. Or only for the creepy.

Years after George Reardon died, a 2007 renovation in this pediatrician’s former home uncovered tens of thousands of pornographic videos and slides of children he had abused. It was only death that stopped him from committing his atrocities against children.

We mustn’t think that the need for sexual discipline is for any particular segment of the population. Don’t think it’s only for the young. Or only for the creepy.

Don’t think this subject is only for those who are single. If you struggle with porn before you’re married, guess what? You’ll struggle with it after you’re married. Marriage will help, but it will not heal, your purity issues. In marriage, there’s another human being who thinks and feels differently than you. If you’re not accustomed to saying no to your desires, you’re going to struggle when you don’t get your way in marriage.

You’ll need to grow up and acquire the discipline to say, No.

Speaking of porn, maybe a generation ago you didn’t need to teach all that often about controlling your sexual desires, but today, with the land flooded with erotic images everywhere you look, to not provide this instruction to your children would be sinful.

And forget about thinking that a generation ago everything was just fine. In every church I have served, I have learned that incidents of sexual childhood abuse had occurred years earlier, in the church.

We can’t talk about this enough. Thank goodness the father in Proverbs loves his child enough to talk often about his sexuality, and how to harness its desires.

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The Christian believes that the definitive truth about God was revealed to us by God himself and is contained in two places: in the pages of the Bible, and in the life, words and deeds of Jesus Christ. We call these truths God’s special revelation (as distinguished from the general revelation of God in nature.)

One vast truth that God reveals about himself is that he is great.

Psalm 145:3-6 reads: “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom. One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts. They will speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty, and I will meditate on your wonderful works, and I will proclaim your great deeds.”

Christians use three terms to describe God’s greatness.

The first is omniscient, meaning God is all-knowing.

Anything that is capable of being known is already in the mind of our God. He knew all about calculus in the days when our ancestors were still counting on their hands and feet. He knew all about rocket science when our ancestors were carving out the first wheel. All knowledge of our universe is firmly in his possession, because he is the Creator.

Furthermore, he knows the future as clearly as he knows the past. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. “Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely O Lord,” Psalm 139 declares. The Christian is confident about the future, because God is already there waiting for him or her. “Behold, he who watches over you will not slumber,” says Psalm 121. It’s a good truth to reflect on living in troubled times of uncertainty.

A second word Christians use to describe his greatness is his omnipotence, meaning he is all-powerful.

How can we peer at Niagara Falls, or turn our eyes away from a blazing sunset, or gape at the power of a great white shark and not know that God is all-powerful is beyond me.  We might have reason to question how God chooses to exercise his power, but that’s another question we can take up next time. As Yoda might say: Powerful, he is.

A final word that Christians use to describe God is omnipresent – meaning God is everywhere at once.

There is no place you can go where his Spirit has not already beat you there.

The Christian is confident about the future, because God is already there waiting for him or her.

I never realized this quite so acutely as when I made my first flight across the ocean, back in 1987. There I was 32,000 feet above the Greenland Mountains, picking at a grizzled piece of leather that had been advertised on the plane’s menu as a “choice filet of steak”, sticking my fork into “lorette potatoes” which if I were a betting man were nothing but tator tots, and that wonderful dessert – “honey dipped biscuit dressed in passion fruit and plum sauce”, which looked to me like a couple animal crackers tossed into a spoonful of apple sauce.

While I enjoyed this banquet, I happened to look out my window. 32,000 feet is a long, long way down. And as my mind started to meander and picture what it would be like to crash on those white, desolate mountains I began to despair. I felt like pushing my food away and curling up in the fetal position under my seat.

And then, like the rush of a wind, I sensed in a way that I seldom ever had, the presence of God sidle up beside me, and I heard the voice of the Holy Spirit saying in so many words: “Shh. I’m here. Don’t be afraid. I’m right here with you.”

And a verse of scripture came to mind, that the clouds are but the dust upon his feet, and I started worship God right there on Flight 297. Nobody else saw it, nobody else knew what was happening. No one else would have believed me if I told them. But right there, the omni­present and very great God and I were in sweet communion.

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Perhaps you’ve heard it said that King David was a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam.13:14). Sometimes when we focus only on David’s greatest sins, we struggle to see how this was so. But it’s helpful to also call to mind those times when David was firing on all cylinders for God.

He has much to teach us about how to have a vibrant relationship with God. There are at least a half-dozen qualities David exhibited at his best which any follower of Christ should imitate. Here’s the first one:

David made sure that he sought God daily. 

We know more about David’s devotional life than about anyone else in all of Scripture, because David wrote about it in the psalms. He’s the one who told us to mediate on God’s Word day and night, for then we would become like a tree planted by streams of water (Psalm 1). He’s the one who told us to seek after God in prayer like a deer panting for water (Psalm 63). He’s the one who told us to find godly people and make them our heroes, and our companions (Psalm 16). He’s the one who told us to sing to the Lord with all our hearts (Psalm 9).

Bible study, prayer, fellowship, worship – these are the life-giving, essential disciplines of a mighty man or woman of God. Apply yourselves daily to these practices, and you will flourish.  Neglect them, you will wither.  Why?

Because these are the disciplines that connect you directly to Jesus. These are the practices that allow you, like a branch, to tap into Him, the Vine. These habits allow your Lord’s life and power to flow into you, which sets the whole engine for transforming your life into motion. These are the disciplines that allow God to speak into your life, direct your steps, encourage your heart, strengthen your spirit.  But once you stop this, you’ve just muzzled God, and all bets are off.

The very worst thing you can do when you feel no hope, or see no light, is to close up your Bible, seal up your lips, stop going to church, and throw away your Christian music. No one becomes a holier, happier soul by drifting from God.

But if you seek him with all your heart through these holy disciplines, God will break through for you, I promise. David promises. “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! Wait for the Lord; be strong; and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Psalm 27:13-14)

No one becomes a holier, happier soul by drifting from God.

I can show you in my quiet time notebooks written throughout the past 30 years how God led me to verse and verse after verse which spoke directly to whatever challenge I was facing, whether I was fighting against anger or lust or depression or grief. It’s happened so many times that I doubt I will ever doubt him again. (Though I’m infected enough with sin that yes, I still can turn from him.)

And it will happen for you too, but you must open the book, bow the knee, sit on the pew. Jesus will turn no one away on the last day because they did x, y, or z wrong. Jesus will say but one thing: I never knew you. In other words: you never sought me; we never had a relationship.

You were made by God. And for God. Don’t miss your life’s highest purpose by refusing to seek your Maker.

So imitate David, for in this he truly was a man after God’s own heart.

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In times of fatigue or confusion or weakness, it is not enough for me to simply “let go and let God” as some are fond of saying. When I’m hungry, it’s not enough to “trust God”. I must trust God…and eat.  When I’m sick, it’s not enough to trust God. I must trust God…and take medicine.

It’s wasn’t enough for David to trust God, if he was to take the throne. He needed to trust God…and then have a team of warriors around him. On his own, David could slay Goliath, but he was no match for the Philistine army. He needed soldiers who would fight alongside of him. David was far from a loner, and in this he shows us another trait of a “person after God’s own heart”.

David was always on the lookout for strong, godly people to come alongside of him. Early on, his friendship with Jonathan, the son of Saul, was a comfort to his heart. Joab, the commander of his army, became a dear and trusted friend. Asaph was a partner in worship. Nathan the prophet was a man who was not afraid to confront David, and say, “You are the man” when David tried to hide his sin.

David was always on the lookout for strong, godly people to come alongside of him.

As I look at my own life, I see a veritable platoon of people God surrounded me with to help me grow. In overcoming anger, I brought along an older Christian as a mentor. In overcoming lust, I shared my struggles with a trusted few, and fed on the counsel of others who had been in the trenches like me. I read their books, and listened to their sermons. In finding healing for our marriage, Janis and I went to a wise counselor who sat with us for nearly two years.

In Psalm 16 David wrote: “As for the saints in the land, they are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.” 

If you’re trying to go it alone, you’ll never be a mighty man or woman of God. Seek godly friends. Put yourself in the company of mentors. But then – and this is critical – you’ve got to remove your masks, tear down the walls you’ve built around your heart, confess your sins to these others, and knock off the smug, “I’ve got it all together” little smile that you wear. Only then can you be healed.

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If you struggle with button-lip syndrome – you clam up when opportunities to talk about Jesus come around – maybe the problem is not your love for Jesus or your faith in him, but maybe it’s a competency issue. Maybe the question Jesus might ask you is, “Do you know enough?”  Ignorance of the faith can be a barrier to witnessing.

Think of Peter again and how he started out. A fisherman. The Pharisees would later look on Peter as a common, uneducated man. But he didn’t stay that way. He grew in knowledge, and even wrote in his final words of his second letter, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus.” 

How do I grow in knowledge?  2 Timothy 2:15 says, “Do your best to present to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”  The King James says, “Study to show yourself approved.”  You’ve got to do your homework.

I know they’ve got pills for everything else these days, but they still haven’t come up with one to help you achieve instant spiritual wisdom. I’ve never seen a faith-based infomercial where a preacher-looking guy holds up a bottle to the screen and says, “Give your faith a boost today with devil-proof Bibletron. Ask your pastor for a prescription today.”

Sorry, ain’t no such thing. 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” I’ve heard many believers lament the fact that a Jehovah Witness or a Mormon on their doorstep knows more of the Bible than they do. Well, first of all, having had conversations with hundreds of them over the years, I know for a fact that’s not true. What they know are the particular Bible passages they’ve been trained to learn.

Which points to what is the difference between most Christians and the cult member on their doorstep – dedicated training. They’ve read loads of books, attended seminars, gone on extensive mission trips, received personal mentoring – they’ve studied to show themselves approved in the eyes of their leaders.

Now why can’t a follower of Christ study to show himself or herself approved in the eyes of their Savior? Here we are as close to truth as nectar is to the flower, yet way too many Christian honey bees fly around aimlessly and lazily – refusing to drink, then wondering why the other honey bees seem so much more energetic than they are.

If you need to learn more stuff before you’ll feel comfortable sharing your faith, well then physician heal thyself! Chances are good your home church provides a smorgasbord of resources for spiritual growth that you haven’t taken advantage of yet. Your pastor would gladly sit down with you and design a practical curriculum of books and audio-visual resources that would help you take a quantum leap forward in your knowledge and skills of discipleship.

You’ve thrown away enough weekends binge-watching Netflix. Don’t you think it’s time to binge-study about the Lord you say you love?

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So why should I devote time to memorizing Scripture? Reason #1 is this: All of God’s people in Bible times devoted themselves to this, and Jesus led the way in setting the example.

What we see throughout Bible times is that it was simply assumed that God’s people would do this. Think of it – most of them didn’t even have access to God’s Word, so they had to memorize it when they heard it. You and I have no excuse for not being filled to overflowing with his Word.

So Joshua could say, as recorded in Joshua 1:8, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth,” because he assumed people had it already stored up in their hearts.

Moses could write in Deuteronomy 11:18 – “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds,” because he had the reasonable expectation that his listeners and readers would do just that.

Jeremiah said, “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight” (15:16), which is a clear reference to memorization. David wrote in Psalm 40:8 – “I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” Can you say something similar today?

But above all these faithful saints of old, Jesus did it, and if Jesus did it, I need to do it. And you can’t say here in protest, “Well, you know Jesus was God, and so of course Jesus knew the Bible.” Sorry. Wrong answer!

Yes, Jesus is God in human flesh, but in coming to earth, Jesus ‘emptied himself’ the Bible says (Philippians 2:6-7) the idea being that he often refused to make use of his divine power. When he was arrested, he said to the soldiers who were tying him up, “Don’t you think I can’t call on my Father and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” When asked about the time of his second coming, Jesus said, “Dunno. You have to ask the Father.” Not because he didn’t know. He just refused to access that omniscient God-part of himself that would have known.

So in other words, Jesus knew the Bible not because, in Matrix fashion, he was born with it automatically downloaded into him. He had to learn it the same way we do. By being taught it as a child by his parents, by going to church, by committing himself to reading it and learning it as he grew old enough to do that. And by the age of 12, we see evidence that Jesus was already on his way to mastering a good cross-section of the Bible.

Luke says of Jesus that he “grew in wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52).

Thinking of Jesus at 12, I wish I could tell every 12 year old out there that you were made for more than just playing video games and knowing how to text at the speed of light. You’re selling yourself way short if that’s what you do with most of your time. And you’re selling your future short. You’re better than that. You’re not too young to start reading the Bible for yourself, learning its words and trying to live it out.

And adults – how about you set the example?

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Here’s a final reason why we should memorize Scripture. It is a true source of spiritual power for us.  Psalm 119:11 says, “I have hidden your word in my heart…that I might not sin against you.” Do you see what this verse is saying? The act of filling ourselves up with God’s Word by studying it and committing it to memory protects us when the siren song of sin comes calling.

I can’t count the times when my mind was being overrun with dark thoughts. Lust or anger or fear was rushing in. I began to call to mind or say aloud Scriptures I knew or a psalm I had memorized. And within seconds, the power of the temptation broke apart, like fog before sunlight.

Jesus himself illustrated the truth of this verse in his dramatic encounter with Satan recorded in Matthew 4. Jesus is just saddling up to begin his public ministry. This is days, perhaps hours after his baptism. Satan comes calling to knock him off his horse even before his ministry begins.

(The Enemy will do that, you know. If you accept Christ, early in your young faith, a test will come. Or if you make a decision to step it up in your faith – “You know, I’m going to start reading my Bible every day. I’m joining a LIFE group. Enough of this being a Sunday only Christian. I’m going all in for Jesus!” –  if you cross that Rubicon, you can bank on it – Satan will push you back against a wall, and say, “Oh no you don’t”.

And God will allow it. Matthew 4 tells us that Jesus was led ‘by the Spirit into the desert’ to go mano-o-mano with Satan. Why would God allow your faith to be tested? Every weight-lifter understands it. Muscles only grow when you break them down through resistance. Then as the muscles repair themselves, they come back bigger. What doesn’t kill you – makes you stronger. And see, you knew how that sentence ended because you had memorized it already.)

How does Jesus pass the test? When Satan comes at him, Jesus resists his advance by quoting Bible verses he knew.

This is the ultimate sword fight. Satan attacks. “Turn that stone into bread!” Jesus ripostes saying, “Man does not live by bread alone!” Satan comes at him again. “Jump off the temple, the angels will catch you.” “Do not put God to the test!” Jesus replies quoting another verse. Satan comes at Jesus a third time. He shows him the splendor of all the kingdoms of the world and says, “Jesus, all this I will give you, if you bow down and worship me.” Come on Jesus, switch sides. Join my team. You know you want to! His way ends on a cross. My way ends in power beyond your wildest dreams! And Jesus fires back yet again with another verse he has memorized. “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

My friend, you have incredible power right at your fingertips. Just begin the work of laying up God’s Word in your heart. As with Jesus, Satan will come and press you where you are weakest. “You are alone in this world. Nobody likes you!” “No, Satan, I am not alone. Jesus promised to be with me always to the end of the age.” “You know, you’re never going to have nearly enough money to do what you want in life. Time to worry, don’t you think?” “No! For it is written, ‘Be content with what you have, for God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” “You know, just one more click and you’ll be able to feast your eyes on one beautiful creature after another.” “No! The Bible says my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. I will honor God with my body!” “How cruel of God to take the love of your life from you. Your tears mean nothing to him.” “No! It is written that my Lord is a man of sorrows and familiar with grief. He takes up my sins and carries my sorrows.”

The only antidote to the poison of Satan, to the lies of our culture, and to the deceit of our sin nature is to stand anchored on the truth of the Word of God.

So what are you waiting for? Memorization is not rocket science. Nicholas Carr tells us how to do it. “The key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. Storing memories and equally important, forming connections between them, require strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition.” Or do what Pastor Rick Warren advises: Review, review, review.

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Yesterday Janis and I put our daughter on a plane for London, then tracked her journey through a flight app on our phone which pinpointed on a global map where her plane was at in any given moment. As we read Psalm 73, we’re doing something similar, by tracking the spiritual journey of a worshipper named Asaph who begins the psalm distant from God, but then gets closer and closer to home as he moves along.

He started the journey being completely up front and honest with God about what he was feeling – how it seemed like those who could care less about God were doing better in life than believers. He didn’t stop there though. Next he ‘entered the sanctuary’ (i.e. he went to church and joined his fellow travelers) and ‘then I understood’, he wrote. In the act of being with God’s people, he begins to think more clearly, and his fog of doubt evaporates.

“Then I understood their final destiny,” he says of those he’s been envious of. “Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin.” (vss.17-18)

 What he realizes is that when he only considered the here-and-now, of course he’s going to find examples of unrighteous people who seem to be enjoying amazing lives. But he’s forgetting to look at the big picture.

It was when he started looking at his life through the lens of eternity, that the cobwebs cleared. These godless neighbors of his who seemed to be so happy – who could drink, party and lust their lives away, who had the perfect feet, legs, and teeth – well their lives were not as altogether as it seemed. And even if they were happy for the moment, that happiness was not going to last. Because doing life without God never ends in happiness.

And once we realize this, and start adding up what we have as followers of Christ, once we start thinking it through, we will stop comparing our lives with unbelievers. And maybe instead we’ll start pitying them, and praying for them, and reaching out to them.

The lesson Asaph is teaching us here, is that to have a strong faith I must learn to fully think things through. Unbelievers tell themselves that to believe in God, a person must unplug his brain and stop thinking. The truth is it’s exactly the opposite. Rather than being a leap into the dark, trusting Christ is more like a step into the light.

It’s those who won’t believe that are actually the ones who are short-sighted and stubborn – refusing to see evidence of Truth and Reality that is right in front of them.

A skeptic will point to suffering as “proof” that there is no God, as though that is some sort of great revelation. Big whoop. Believers acknowledge that already. Asaph’s been going on about that for half the psalm.

Believers though will go further in their reasoning. They’ll look outward at the vastness of creation, then they’ll look inward at the vastness of their own hearts, they’ll ponder great themes like time and eternity, good and evil, love and justice – and they’ll realize that there is a great Architect behind all of this. And if they’re thinking properly, they’ll fall to the knees and worship.

Never unplug your brain as a worshipper of the living God. Do as the Bible says, do as Asaph models, and love God with all your heart, soul, MIND and strength.

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“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” ~ Luke 2:9

 Well, that’s an understatement. Who would blame the poor shepherds? Somebody sticks their head in my office door when I think I’m alone, and they have to peel me off the ceiling afterwards. I need to start putting cowbells on people.

Once the shepherds manage to pick themselves up off the ground, the angel speaks again. Listen carefully to what he says.

“Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in Bethlehem, the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

Imbedded in these amazing words we find two powerful reasons for why life does not have to be top-heavy with fear. Reason #1 for why I should not be afraid – Jesus is my Savior. 

A few years back were two brothers who owned a wrecking company in Connecticut. They began illegally dumping debris on the empty lots that surrounded their building.  Five years later they were finally caught. In addition to being handed a $900,000 fine, they were ordered to clean up their mess.

They worked on the pile for a year but barely made a dent in it. Little wonder. The mound of rubble they created covered two acres and was 35 feet high! Said one of the brothers, “It was never supposed to get this big.”

That’s what happens when our lives get out of control. The addict says, “This habit never supposed to get this big.” The person under a mountain of debt says, “It was never supposed to get this big.” The husband and wife who began so well end up saying to a therapist, or the divorce court judge, “It was never supposed to get like this.”

If the truth be told, we all need saving from one thing or another. We all find ourselves in fixes we can’t do anything about. Some of you are there right now. And these situations can fill our hearts with such unrest and fear.

Until we remember, a Savior has been born to you.

You might protest that God has much bigger fish to fry than you and your problems. That’s when you remember that the Lord’s angel spoke these words to shepherds – the lowest of the low in that culture. God doesn’t work from the top down when he does his saving. He starts from the bottom up. Your life very much matters to him.

Psalm 118:5 says, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear.” Choose to believe those words today. And these words as well: “A Savior has been born for me.” Say those words over and over again throughout the day, then tonight as you drift off to sleep. And maybe you’ll get a good night’s sleep for once.

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It was 25 years ago that Los Angeles exploded in race riots, after four police officers captured on videotape beating a black man named Rodney King were acquitted by a jury. In the violence that followed, 58 people lost their lives, 11,000 were arrested, and property damage exceeded a $1 billion.

During the storm of rioting, King himself came on TV and asked, “Can we all get along?” His question has sense morphed into an often-repeated cultural meme: Why can’t we all just get along?

King’s plea was not a Pollyanish view that disagreements shouldn’t happen in society. We are human, and part of being human is that we each look at the world through different sets of eyes and through different experiences. Of course we’re not going to automatically be on the same page with one another about everything. Of course there will be disagreements.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “There are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you, to show which of you have God’s approval.”  (1 Cor.11:18-19). Disagreement comes with the territory of being human.

King’s plea was essentially the recognition that since we all share the same space, we need to find a way to figure out how to live in peace with each other. Because if we don’t, then we’re going to destroy each other sooner or later.

25 years later, it could be argued that our nation is more bitterly divided than ever, and that the tinder for another conflagration is very dry, just waiting for a spark to ignite it.

One thing is for certain – it is time for followers of Jesus Christ to step up and show our culture that another way is possible.

The Lord said it clearly in the Sermon on the Mount.  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)  The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 14:19 – “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” 

To edify means to build up. A Christian is to be in the business of building up, not tearing down. God’s counting on you, his child, to do everything in your power to hold things together.

God is in the business of reconciliation. He came to you when you were an enemy of God and built a bridge to bring you back home. “We were God’s enemies, [but] we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son…” (Romans 5:10).

Once the vertical reconciliation between you and your Maker is accomplished, then God sets us to work on the horizontal reconciliation that must take place between his children.  After all, the world is hardly going to hear our pleas for them to be reconciled to God if we remain at war with each other.

There may be no more essential work needed in our nation today. And nothing harder to achieve. But you as a child of God are to lead the way.

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So how do we then practice Christlike peace-making? Here are seven steps to consider.

Step One – Talk to God before talking to anyone else.

In Psalm 59, David writes, “Deliver me from my enemies, O God; protect me from those who rise up against me…Fierce men conspire against me for no offense or sin of mine, O Lord. I have done no wrong, yet they are ready to attack me.”

David wrote many psalms like this, where in the midst of conflict, he first vents by crying out to God. His reflex was to hit his knees first, not hit back first. That needs to be our instinct also. Prayer isn’t the only thing we do, but it should be the first thing we do.

Step Two: Commit to seeing the other person the way Christ sees you.

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh,” Paul instructs us (2 Cor.5:16). The world’s way of conflict-management usually means dehumanizing the other person.  We call them names, we question their intelligence, we gossip behind their backs, “She’s this,” “He’s that”, “They’re the other thing.” We’re not to act this way if we’re Christians.

In peacemaking, we’re to see the other and treat the other as Christ did with us. He saw us as God’s image-bearers. He saw us not as we were, but as we could be, should God’s grace have its way with us. He came offering forgiveness, not punishment. Mercy, rather than judgment. When Christ commands us to love our enemies, this is what he means, and he modeled it first in the way he treated us.

Step Three: Talk to the person you’re in conflict with before you talk to anyone else. 

Matthew 18:15 – “If you’re brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”

The world’s way is to talk to everyone but the one you’re at odds with. How often I’ve seen it happen in churches that whispering campaigns and letter-writing campaigns and back-room politicking go on long before any one-on-one conversations take place. The devil has a field day with such behavior. It destroys churches, small groups, friendships, marriages.

Step Four: Affirm what’s being felt.

James 1:19 – “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” 

Listening allows the other person to share their heart. And those feelings that come pouring out – whether they’re rooted in reality or not – need to be validated. Philippians 2:4 says, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others.” It’s in my best interest to know what interests you. To find out what makes you tick, smile, cry, or come alive.

I may not understand or agree with everything another person feels. But I can show compassion for what they are feeling. Who knows, but perhaps in the listening, I may learn something about myself that I was blind to, and that contributed to the problem. Which leads to a fifth step.

Step Five: Confess your part of the problem.

Own up to any contribution you may have made to the disagreement. Don’t manufacture something just for the sake of keeping the peace, or to manipulate the other into confessing his wrongdoing, but be honest. Be humble. The Bible says God gives grace to the humble. And in that grace that he gives you, you are likely to find forgiveness and reconciliation.

Step Six: Speak the truth in love.

(Ephesians 4:15) Harsh words, raised voices, slammed doors have no part in being a peacemaker. “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)  Scripture commands us again and again to be gentle. Proverbs 15:1 – “A gentle answer turns away wrath.”

Part of speaking the truth in love is a reminder to attack the problem, not the person.  Rick Warren writes: “You cannot fix the problem if you’re consumed with fixing the blame. You must choose between the two…You will never get your point across by being cross… If you say it offensively, it will be received defensively.”

Step Seven: Emphasize reconciliation, not resolution. 

 This again comes from Rick Warren who writes: “We can re-establish a relationship even when we are unable to resolve our differences. Christians have legitimate, honest disagreements and differing opinions, but we can disagree without being disagreeable… God expects unity, not uniformity, and we can walk arm-in-arm without seeing eye-to-eye on every issue.” 

Will we model for a broken world how broken fellowship can be repaired, restored and made new? Will we show it in our marriages? Our children are watching. Will we show it in our friendships? The unsaved are watching. Will we show it in our church?  The world is watching. Make the choice right now to be a peacemaker.

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 “I am a rock, I am an island,” sang Simon & Garfunkel in a famous song from the 70s. Great song, but miserable philosophy. Ecclesiastes 4:8-12 is a marvelous essay which tells us why we need community if we are to thrive.

The first thing it tells us is that community wards off loneliness. Verse 8 – “There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother.”

At the very beginning of human history, the Bible tells us that God allowed the man Adam to walk alone for a short while. He wasn’t entirely alone. He had a garden to tend to and animals to care for, but deep inside Adam’s heart was still an unmistakable ache for someone like himself.  And God declares right there in Genesis 2:18 – “It is not good for man to be alone.”

God himself exists in community – as a Triune being, Father, Son and Spirit. Since we are created “in his image” then the same impulse will be in us.

Even those we would look on as perfect loners need community. Eric Rudolph needed community. For five years the man responsible for a number of bombings (including the bombing at the 1996 Olympics) was on the lamb, hiding from authorities in the wilderness of North Carolina as a fugitive of the law. Many assumed that he was literally living off the land, eating and dressing himself with whatever he could pick, catch or make. Myths began to spring up about him. He was looked on by some as a sort of hero, a Daniel Boone lookalike, envied by some caught in the 9-5 rat-race.

But where did they catch him in the end? Foraging through a dumpster in a Walmart parking lot. In his loneliness, he needed community.

Loneliness is one of most awful of all human emotions. Have you ever felt real loneliness? Not solitude, mind you. Don’t confuse the two. I enjoy solitude, and we all need it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” 

Solitude is life-giving. Loneliness cripples the spirit. Early in my marriage, we moved partway across country, and my wife went away once for a month to be with family. It was fine for a few days, but it didn’t take long for an odd weirdness to overspread my heart. She came back and found that I had bought furniture and signed up for book clubs and was trying out ornate beard styles.

I encourage you to reach out to someone who is lonely today. If you need help, a study by the American Council of Life Insurance reported that the most lonely group in America are college students. Followed by the divorced, welfare recipients, single moms, and the elderly.

Sorry, Simon & Garfunkel – that song (which you sang together, incidentally) – is dead wrong.

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“O Lord, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit. I am like a man without strength…You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths…You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief.” ~ verses from Psalm 88

Have you ever felt like the writer of this psalm? Can you track with what he is feeling? Abandonment. Sorrow. Hopelessness. God-forsaken. In a word: depression.

One of the beautiful things about the psalms is they speak to the entire spectrum of human emotion. The psalms don’t just put on a happy face, they tell it like it is – which is good news if you find yourself in the throes of great melancholy. And let’s be honest – each one of us will find ourselves in that dark place throughout our lives.

Even the great ones. We can point to numerous people in the Bible who experienced depression. Job. Jonah. Mighty David. And 1 Kings 19 tells the story of when Elijah fell into a pit of despair where he just wanted to give up and die.

Outside of Moses, no person in the Old Testament casts as large a shadow as does Elijah. He was the greatest of the prophets, arriving on the scene in one of Israel’s darkest hours. It was a time when Israel was backslidden, addicted to the worship of pagan gods, especially the god Baal.

They were ruled by a wicked king whose name was Ahab, whose wife was worse yet. His wife, Jezebel, made the Wicked Witch of the West look like Cinderella by comparison. Jezebel declared open season on the Hebrew religion, openly persecuting and killing God’s true priests and the prophets.

It came to the point where God had had enough. And the attack dog which God sicked on Ahab and Jezebel was Elijah, a one-man wrecking ball – a bald, aging prayer warrior who just walked out of the woods one day.

The showdown is described in 1 Kings 18. It’s a dramatic story where Elijah summons Israel, and all the false prophets and false priests of Baal, to the top of a mountain called Carmel to settle once and for all the question of who was the God of Israel. And when the dust all settles, God reveals himself through fire, leaving 450 priests of Baal dead at Elijah’s feet.

It would seem that after this dramatic story in chapter 18, that at the beginning of chapter 19, this would be Elijah’s great moment. That all he needs to do is mop up by sweeping Ahab and Jezebel out of power. Instead, Elijah finds himself freefalling without a parachute from this mountaintop experience into the deepest pit of depression imaginable.

This week we’ll explore what depression is, using Elijah as a template. You may want to have a read of chapter 19 before we unpack the ideas in the story.

And if this is you, have hope my friend. God wouldn’t place stories like this in the Bible if he didn’t want to bring light into your darkness, and hope into your despair. Depression will not have the last laugh over you.

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My first experience with depression came when I was in college. I was part of a cult-like “name-it-and-claim-it” church which taught that if you summoned enough faith, you would never be sick. Problem was, my body was covered with the sores of psoriasis, and I was a walking, breathing contradiction to this false teaching.

But I needed time to figure out that this teaching was false, and in that space of agony and reflection, I was locked up in depression. (It’s important to separate out depression that is caused by bio-chemical imbalances in the body from that which is caused simply by life’s weariness. There’s nothing wrong with accepting medications to help win this battle. We just need to be careful that we don’t short-circuit the work God would do in our hearts by treating symptoms, and not the underlying causes of the depression.) The story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 offers helpful lessons for facing depression.

We see in how God tenderly meets Elijah here, that he gives him two vital things. First God gives him his presence. God comes to Elijah in his despair and speaks to him in a still, small voice, and asks him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God’s assurance to Elijah brings comfort. And God’s words to him bring clarity. Elijah had been thinking wrongly about God and his work. He thought that after his show-down with Ahab and Jezebel, everything would get immediately better. He thought that he alone was standing up against the evil in the land.

In the midst of my depression, I was filled with so much anger at God. In my times of prayer, I would literally yell out at God. Till the day came when I threw down a Bible on the bed in my disgust. At once I sensed something inside of me say, “Look down at the Bible.” I picked it up and looked straight at a verse and read, “I know your sitting down and your going out and your raging against me.”

I started to cry. It was the still small voice of God that I needed to hear. I needed God to say, “Son, I love you. What are you doing here? I’ve been with you all along.” I needed to know that God wasn’t rebuking me for my little faith. He was just saying, “Son, I know what you’re going through. And I am with you.”

The healing of my spirit began that very day. It took time. I had to get my theology on straight, that no, God doesn’t heal everyone, but often his power is made perfect in our weakness. And God brought a lot of people  into my life, including a beautiful woman named Janis who ministered to me in my depression (spoiler alert – I married her!)

It’s interesting what God gives next to Elijah. Second, God gives him a work to do. He sends him back into the world to anoint two kings, as well as his own successor.

Which is what God did next with me. He next directed me, “It’s time for you to get out of this church.” Which I did. I started worshipping with Janis at her church. And as God healed me – not my skin, but more importantly my heart and mind – I began to sense a renewed call from God to serve him.

I started teaching the senior high students in Sunday School. And got involved in leading worship. After Janis and I were married, we went to England, where we served for a year in a beautiful inner city church. God’s call in my heart grew stronger and louder. When we returned to the states, I enrolled in seminary. The call grew stronger and louder. Every person emerging from depression needs to know this – that their life matters and has purpose. That’s what I needed and that’s what God gave to me.

What’s the lesson here if you’re experiencing depression? Though everything inside of you may be screaming for you to do otherwise, keep yourself connected to God and his people. Don’t stop going to church. Don’t blow off your small group. Don’t stay holed up inside your house with the shades pulled down. Even though you don’t feel a thing, drag yourself out every Sunday and plant yourself in that chair. Give God a chance to comfort you and speak to you.

And secondly, keep serving. Keep helping others. It seems counter-intuitive, but Jesus insists that when give our life away, we strangely end up finding life flowing back to us. In giving, we don’t end up depleted, but more filled. So again, even though you won’t necessarily feel it right away, step out in faith, or habit if need be.

In time, sooner than you think, God will appear. And joy will return.

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As the story of Hannah continues, she shows us another trait of a prayer warrior: A prayer warrior is a person who trusts in God’s goodness and power. After Hannah corrects Eli – that no, she is not drunk but is praying – Eli pronounces a benediction of sorts over her, and 1 Samuel 1:18 says, “Then she went her way and ate something and her face was no longer downcast.” 

Why did she leave in a good frame of mind? Was she pregnant? No. In fact, the writer tells us that “in the course of time” the Lord remembered Hannah and she was able to at long last conceive. The answer to her prayer did not come at once or even right away, but she had peace in her heart nonetheless. Why? Because having cast her burdens on the Lord, she trusted that God was good enough and powerful enough to work out his will for her life.

Prayer warriors like Hannah are the ones Paul was thinking about when he wrote in Philippians 4:6 – “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 minds in Christ Jesus.” Prayer warriors have a peace that’s beyond understanding. It’s not because of circumstances, it may not even make sense humanly speaking. Where does it come from? It’s anchored in the trust of God’s goodness and power.

One of the reasons that so many doubt that their prayers matter is because they usually don’t see the immediate impact of their prayers. When we want something, we want it now, and if I don’t get it now, then it must not have worked. We think of prayer as a form of magic, rather than how we should view it – as a conversation we keep on the journey of life with a good and loving God who is with us.

I can think of all sorts of prayers which God doesn’t answer overnight, but “in the course of time”. If you ask God to help sort out your finances, he will, but rarely with an unexpected check in the mail. He answers the prayer by teaching you how to work hard, budget, save and give. Years ago, I prayed for God to heal my marriage, and our good and powerful God answered that prayer. But it took learning how to love and learning how to forgive, which took several years of seeing a marriage coach, and hundreds of quiet times where the Spirit of God would speak into my life about how to love my wife better.

We can’t just blithely quote Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” – and then expect God to grant our shopping list. There’s a condition to this verse. It assumes that we’ve learned to take joy in God’s desires first.

Once Jesus becomes your all-consuming passion, that brand new camper just doesn’t start to look the same anymore. Sure, you can still talk to God about it. And if it comes, you can praise him for it. And if it doesn’t…well, you can praise him for it. Because you’ve reached a place where you trust his goodness and power.

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A third truth we learn in calling “Father” is the truth that God wants to draw close to me.

It’s no exaggeration to say that God wants you to be a son or daughter in his family. Galatians 4:6 – “And because you are sons [and daughters], God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying ‘Abba! Father!’”

This word Abba is a tender word that a child would use to speak of their father. It means Daddy! Papa! It’s the word you’d use as you leap into the arms of your father to hug him. As you jump onto the belly of your father on the floor to wrestle with him. Jesus  wants you to know that God loves you like that.

For a Jewish worshipper walking the streets of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, when Jesus appeared and began referring to God as his Father, it was shocking. It’s not the way Jews worshipped back then. Each way they turned, the Jew raised in the Old Testament perceived a stark separation between him and God.

To worship God, they first had to physically come to the temple. Once at the temple, you couldn’t even walk in without first offering some sort of sacrifice. Once inside, if you weren’t Jewish, forget any chance of getting close to God – for you there were bleacher seats in a separate court outside the temple. And if you were Jewish, you’d better be a man to get the best seats.

Then let’s say you were lucky enough to get front row seats at the fifty-yard line of the temple. Do you think you’re getting closer to God? Tough chance! You still have the priests in the way. And above all, between you and the Holy of holies, that sacred place in the temple where God’s glory was said to dwell, was a thick woven veil, forever excluding you from direct access to God. And you weren’t even allowed to use God’s name in prayer. That beautiful name God had given Moses with which to speak to him – “Yahweh”, or “I Am” – Jewish tradition warned against using that name.

Picture now if you will, Jesus walking on the scene, calling the Almighty, Unmentionable, Unapproachable God, his Father. Why did Jesus do this? Because he was trying to remind the people of a great truth that they had forgotten over the years because of their tradition – the idea that God wanted us to know him and to be close to him. It was right there in their Bibles. Verses like Jeremiah 3:19, filled with longing from God, where God says, “How gladly would I treat you like sons…I thought you would call me ‘Father’ and not turn away from following me.”

Their tradition wasn’t all wrong. It’s important to know that there were true, necessary, biblical reasons for the sense of separation the Jew felt back then. Each of these were powerful reminders to God’s people that God was holy, and they were not, and they couldn’t just come running into God’s presence any way they chose. The sacrifices pointed to the truth that sin’s high cost needed to be paid, but not by humans. God would have to come and pay the price. But once Jesus paid that price, a bridge of grace and forgiveness was thrown down between God and humanity. Which now by faith, any person could cross.

Including you and me. You’re just a prayer away from the most necessary, and powerful relationship you have ever known. A relationship with a God so close that he invites you to call him, your Father. Cry out to him now.

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Christian faith requires belief. “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness,” says Genesis 15.

But belief is just the first part of faith. I know many Christians with strong belief – they buy into the Christian message, they embrace all the doctrines – but they still have weak faith. When things don’t go well for them, they grumble and pout. When temptation comes along, they buckle under it.

What’s the problem? Chances are they haven’t embraced the second part of faith – which is trust. Abram didn’t just believe the Lord – it wasn’t all just up in his head. His faith also ruled his heart. And he was able to experience peace which lasted a good, long while, as he continued to wait on God.

Belief alone doesn’t cut it. The Bible says the devil himself believes, and trembles. The belief that counts is the belief that leads to trust. Which is the ability to let go, lay down and rest in the arms of God.

When a Christian has weak faith, their circumstances rule the show. If God says something else in his Word, it doesn’t matter because Look at what’s happening to me now! When a Christian has strong faith, God’s Word runs the show, and serves as a gatekeeper through which all his or her circumstances and feelings must pass.

Here’s a couple examples of how this works. Maybe you feel that God couldn’t possibly forgive you. Your sins are too deep and too numerous for even God to forgive. You feel condemned by your past. God might forgive everyone else. But not you. You are the black sheep if ever there was one. You are the one God looks at and says, “Who dares to approach the great Oz?”

Then one day you read 1 John 1:9 – “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” As you read those words, a little light goes on inside your brain, and it dawns on you, “Those words apply to me!” Suddenly, there it is. Faith! You believe those words and you trust that they are true for you. At once, the light of faith pours into your darkened soul, and all the ugliness and blackness of that shame is erased in an instant.

Maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe you can’t forgive someone else. They hurt you years ago, and left a gaping wound and since then you have sat there behind the granite walls of unforgiveness, despising them, cursing them, forever connected to them in this twisted dance of hate that never lets you go. You go to church. You know the words. You say them each week: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, but the joy and peace of Jesus can never break through for you.

Why? Because you’ve never come to that point of trusting that God will take care of all the wrongs we suffer. And no one ever, ever gets away with it. And it is God’s work to avenge – so you can forgive. You can let it go.

Suddenly, you make the choice to trust that God will take care of it, and at once, the hammer of faith falls against those walls that have been imprisoning you all these years, and in a moment, you are free.

This is how the faith which trusts works. Abram made a choice to believe and trust God – and like resetting a broken bone, the bitterness and doubt drained out of him, and his soul was made right.  He was able to let go of his anger and disappointment, lay down his head on God’s shoulder, and rest. It’s how it worked for Abram, and it’s how it will work for you and me.

My friend, if you make your happiness dependent on circumstances working out for you, and getting your way, and never facing disappointment – then you’ll never experience joy and victory in your life. You’re making an idol of this life, and this life is not heaven, it only gives us glimpses along the way. Without a faith that believes in God and trusts in God, you are writing yourself a prescription for misery.

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There’s a bumper sticker out there that absolutely drives me nuts. I can handle all kinds of lame-brained political bumper stickers, but this one drives me over the edge. And when I see it, there’s a nasty side of me that wants to scrape it off, find the owner and shove a sermon down their throats. It reads: Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven. 

I know the intent of the saying is noble. It’s an attempt to counter all the self-righteous Christians out there who strut about the earth thinking to themselves that they are God’s gift to humanity. But in suggesting that the only difference between a Christian and non-Christian is the matter of forgiveness is dead wrong.

Scripture tells us that “Jesus became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor.5:21). This means two things. First, that Jesus died for us so that we might become right with God – for left in our natural state we are separated from God by our sin. So yes, forgiveness matters a great deal. But also secondly, Jesus died for us that that we might learn how to walk righteously before God.

“Call him Jesus,” the angel said to Joseph while Mary was still pregnant with Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.”  Yes, Jesus died on the cross so that we might have forgiveness. But that’s only the first part of what his death accomplished. He will also save us from our sins. The prophecy of Isaiah 53 tells us that Jesus “…was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Is.53:5)  Jesus’ death brings us peace (forgiveness) but also healing.

What good is forgiveness, if when we come to Christ, we continue to do those things that require it? Forgiveness is just the beginning. After lopping off that massive tumor of unforgiveness that will drag me into hell if it’s left there, Jesus then reaches right into the very depth of my soul where the cancer of my sin nature festers and grows, and he performs a miracle. He plants the seed of salvation inside of me, and if that seed is allowed to grow, the sin in me will begin to get smaller and weaker, and over time I’ll begin to look like and act like Jesus.

This is the miracle of Christianity. The saying ought to read: Christians aren’t perfect, but they are forgiven and then given power to get moving in the right direction. (Which then will take up the entire bumper, so it will never be a sticker.)

Christians like to call this journey of spiritual growth discipleship. You can’t do a thing about the forgiveness part of salvation other than receive it. God did all the work. But you have a lot to say about the healing part. The growing part. It’s your birthright as a Christian to grow in Christlikeness. And it’s your responsibility.

This week we’ll unpack some ideas about how we grow up spiritually. But for now mull this one over: Jesus accepts us just as we are. But then he never leaves us that way. He loves us too much to let sin have its way with us. 

Some questions to ponder: Are you growing as a Christian the way you would like? What are some areas in you that you think that Jesus would like to work on if he had the chance? What are some things you could do to promote more growth in your life?

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Spiritual growth is not a mystery. Why, look at a farmer sowing seed in the ground, and you’ll understand it. So says, Jesus in his parable of the sower. And his parable spins off several important lessons. It tells us that God expects us to grow. He expects a harvest. Christianity is not just about being forgiven of sin, but being saved from our sinning. Jesus accepts us as we are, but then never leaves us that way.

The parable reminds me that spiritual growth starts as a seed, so its beginnings are small and humble. I need not despair that I’m letting God down with my slow growth. No great men and women of faith are born into God’s kingdom – only spiritual babies. Growth takes time.

If spiritual growth is like a farmer sowing seed, then that shows me that it takes God and me working together in a holy collaboration to bring it about. God makes it all possible, and he provides all the raw materials, and without him I am utterly lost – nonetheless he invites me as his son or daughter to share in this amazing work.

What about the seed itself? Let’s not forget that. Jesus tells us that the seed is “the word” (Mark 4:14), the “word of the kingdom” (Matt.13:17). This then points to a fourth principle. Spiritual growth depends on my closeness to the Word of God.

Jesus wants you to know that whatever ends up happening in your life – whether you end up being swallowed up by Satan, or tripped up by life’s troubles, or choked up by the pursuit of wealth and pleasure, or whether you end up being a fruitful and growing follower of Christ depends on what you do with God’s Word.

Of all the spiritual disciplines, none as important as the habit of having a daily connection with God’s Word. There is nothing Satan has worked harder at than keeping the message of the Bible from getting into the hands, heads and hearts of people.

Everybody prays – at least most everyone says they do. But in prayer, it’s usually us talking to God. With the Bible though, it’s God talking to us. So many people bemoan the fact that God never speaks to them. But he does! People say, “Oh I wish I knew what God’s will is for my life.” But we do know!

95% of what God wants you to do with your life is right there in the pages of Scripture. Master the 95% of what’s already been given you and the other 5% will probably become clearer. Nothing you do in your day is more important than taking time to open this book.

The Bible says of itself that it has the power to reach to very inner depths of our being to expose our sin and cut away our selfishness. Hebrews 4:12 – “For the word of God is living and active.  Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Your heart and mind are like soil (more on that next time.) It’s begging for seed. Why let your life remain barren and empty any longer? Read or listen to God’s Word. Reflect on it. Then respond. And repeat. Day after day. That’s how a child of God grows strong in faith.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s as simple as gardening.

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King David walked out on his roof one starry night – to pray, to play his lyre, to binge-watch some TV, no one knows. But across the way, he saw a woman bathing. She was beautiful, and at once David felt the machinery of his masculinity swing into motion.

The cycle of sin which James 1:13-15 describes begins with desire. “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” Yet notice – desire is not sin.

David’s sexual desire is a God-given and good gift God has given to the human race. What David felt the first instant he looked at Bathsheba was the firing of attraction and longings which were normal parts of his humanity. What makes sin sin is fulfilling those good desires in ways which God prohibits.

Because God loves us, he puts boundaries around our desires and behaviors, not to stifle our happiness, but to insure it. Notice then where temptation meets us – at the point where our desires meet up with God’s boundaries. It’s at that point of intersection that we feel the sting of temptation.

And if we let temptation linger and gnaw on us rather than chase it away at step one, then we proceed to step two in the cycle of sin – deception and doubt. The more we loiter at temptation’s doorstep, the more our mind begins to question God’s boundaries. Satan comes to Adam and Eve in the Garden and says, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 

Eve starts to talk to him. Big mistake! The devil can out-talk you, out-argue you, out-smart you, out-persuade you every time. He’s had a lot more practice than you. He can line up all sorts of reasons why God’s boundaries are so unfair, and why this sin you crave is not so bad after all. In fact, some good will come from this!

When Eve tells Satan that she would die if she eats of this particular fruit, Satan says, “No you won’t. Your eyes will be opened and you will become like God, knowing good and evil.”

David knew what God’s boundaries were when he saw Bathsheba. But the very next verse of the story in 2 Samuel 11 says, “David sent someone to find out about her.” This is David telling the devil, “Hey, grab yourself a cup of coffee, pull up a chair, let’s talk about this.”

What’s interesting is David’s messenger comes back and says to David, “This is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” David is given one more chance to come to his senses.  She’s the wife of another man, David, God speaks to him. The boundaries, David! Hello!  

God always comes to us in that moment when the deception occurs. That much he promises us. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” In the darkest moment of temptation when the deception seems greatest, and your doubt is churning, God is there.

Well, why doesn’t he just take the temptation away then? He already tried to do that. Step one – remember? That was the easy way out. But no, you wanted the hard way. God’s going to help you still, but now you’re going to have to sweat a little bit. God wants to strengthen your heart which has been weakened by misplaced desire. He wants you to learn how to say no. So he opens a door of escape for you. The next move is yours.

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It will be the greatest event in human history. There will be nothing like it that you or I will have ever experienced. When it happens, life as we know it and experience it will be forever altered.

On the day it happens, the New York Times will have printed its last paper. The last bullet of the last war will be fired. The last crime will be committed. The last baby will be born. The last wedding will be performed. The last death will be mourned. Your favorite TV show will not air the following week. That test you were cramming for won’t be taken. The vacation you were planning won’t occur. Everything will change the moment it happens – the moment that Jesus Christ returns to the earth.

It’s a doctrine of Christianity that is so easily misunderstood, often abused, but absolutely certain. Jesus said he would be with us “till the end of the age” (Matt.28:20) – and so this part of time we call “human history” will wrap up like a 3-act play. Then Jesus promised multiple times that he would return, and when the author of the play comes on stage, it’s over. At least this part of things.

What will Christ’s return look like? Scripture tells us that it will be visible. Everybody’s going to know about it because they’ll see it with their own eyes. There’ll be no denying it. Jesus came the first time born as a baby to a peasant family, laid in a manger. Very few knew about it – a handful of shepherds, a few wisemen, one wicked king. God parachuted in undercover that first Christmas night. Not so with his second coming. There’ll be no guessing what’s going on.

Secondly, Christ’s return will be physical. When Jesus walked the earth the first time, nothing stood out about him. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,” wrote Isaiah the prophet of Christ. But not the second time. The second time comes the unveiling of Jesus as he really is – God in human flesh, King of kings and Lord of lords. John the apostle takes great pains in Revelation 1 to describe as best he can what the risen Christ looks like now. “His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rush waters…When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.”

How should we respond to this thought? Several ways. Let’s be honest. Thinking about the “end of the age” is unsettling. Even for believers. When I first began to study this doctrine back in college, I was ready to take on the world. I was filled with thoughts of marriage and a career and chasing down dreams. As much as I wanted to see my Lord, my prayer was hardly, “Come, Lord Jesus” but “Hold on, Jesus.” When life is busy, and going well, unfolding as we hope, who wants that to end?

But the idea of Christ’s return is also encouraging. Paul called it the “blessed hope of the Church”. Let’s face it – life doesn’t fulfill our every wish. In fact, on this side of heaven it is filled with disappointment and pain. If we put all our eggs in the basket of this life, we’re setting ourselves up for despair. Put yourself in the shoes of a Syrian Christian refugee who has lost everything they had. Think back to first martyr Stephen, then fast-forward all the way to today where a new generation of Stephens are giving their lives for the Lord they love.

Suddenly the thought of seeing Jesus doesn’t seem so bad. I think the Lord intends for us to keep both of these feelings nearby to our hearts. In times when we get lost in our own plans and our own comfort, thinking these are the be-alls and end-alls of life, it’s good to be unsettled, and reminded that we are part of something much greater than we can see.

But then let’s never forget the encouragement that is found in Jesus either. The CEO of a major corporation came to his office late one night and came across a janitor on his coffee break reading his Bible. “What are you reading?” the CEO asked as he walked by. “The book of Revelation,” the janitor answered, and the CEO scoffed. “Nobody understands that crazy book. Tell me what it means.” The janitor looked up and smiled. “That’s easy,” he said. “It means Jesus is going to win.”

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Dozens and dozens of prophecies promised the first coming of Jesus, and each and every one of them were fulfilled by him. Guess what? Dozens and dozens of prophecies promise the second coming of Jesus, and it’s eye-opening and heart-stopping to consider how many of these are being fulfilled as we speak.

 Jesus promised that Israel would disappear as a nation for a long, long time. That Gentiles would rule Gentiles. And then toward the end, Israel would get it all back. Check.

Jesus promised that the message of the gospel would go out and reach the entire earth, and that the end would not come until that happened. Goodness, do a run in your mind of everywhere you find Christians today. Soon to be checked.

It would be a time of wars and rumors of wars, of great ecological upheaval, a time of growing godlessness, where “love in people’s hearts would grow cold” and people would be in distress for what was coming on the earth. Check.

Even specific (and not a little scary) things like a “mark” being placed on the right hand or forehead of everyone, and that “no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark” – something that used to be considered only symbolic – now suddenly in our times we find the technology for the literal fulfillment of that prophecy coming to pass. It was in the news just the other day! (Click here, and check.)

Scripture tells us that people will respond in one of three ways to the thought of Jesus’ second coming.

You can be a sleeper.

“As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept,” Jesus warned in a parable about his return (Matt.25:5). You can go back to putting your head in the sand and pretend that the stories are not true, and go about living life as you see fit. Many will choose to do that. Jesus compared his coming to the days of Noah.

“In the days before the flood,” Jesus said, “people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matt.24:38),

You can be a scoffer.

 2 Peter 3:3-4 says, “In the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this coming he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’” 

Atheists and evolutionists think that they can disprove God’s existence by pushing back the age of the universe. But every time they do that, they open the door and – God’s still there. Billion years – “Hi!” Two billion years, “Smile!” Let’s make it five billion years – “Me again!” Science proves nothing against biblical Christianity. Mock away if you want. Jesus Christ is still the way, the truth, and the life – and he is coming back soon.

Or you can be a seeker.

I always look down on those who read the ending of a book first, but I think it’s important that you know how the book of Revelation ends. John writes: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people…He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be nor more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

All this is yours for the asking. But you must ask. You must seek. God wants sons and daughters, not robots – he will not force this on you. You must cry out to him to forgive you for your sinning and for your trying to live life without him.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Jesus wants to teach you how to live a new life, here and now. He offers you forgiveness for the past, and power for the present, and hope for the future. Your part is to respond by repenting, then grabbing hold of his hand and following where he leads.

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We live in a poisonous world these days full of angry people who seem to love slinging condemnation at each other. (It’s a hatred that can easily morph into something deadly, as we saw just yesterday in Charlottesville.) Does the Church have an antidote to this poison? I’ll say. It’s called the gospel. 

The message that Christ died for you and me when understood properly has the power to stop us dead in our selfish tracks and redirect us in startling directions. In Romans chapter 8, Paul asks the Christians he’s writing to a series of questions to hammer home three truths he wants them to grab hold of which flow from the gospel. Questions 3 and 4 (in verses 33-34) are these: “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” 

The second truth Paul wants them to grasp is: God has forgiven me by Christ’s death. I need not fear any condemnation.

Just as there are many Christians who have a hard time coming to a point where they truly believe that God is on their side (Truth #1), there are Christians who have a hard time accepting that God has accepted them. They look on their lives, and with a moment’s honesty, they see how much sin and selfishness is on their resume. What then?

Paul began chapter 8 with a great trumpet blast of gospel truth when he said, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” A child of God who has repented of their sins, and accepted Christ by faith, is pronounced justified in God’s sight. Your forgiveness is settled. Your salvation is secured. End of story.

But I don’t feel forgiven, you might say. What do feelings have to do with it? If you are arrested and tossed in jail, and then are later acquitted by the judge, it doesn’t matter how you feel – what matters is what the court says. You can walk around in prison rags if you want, but you’re free.

And there are too many Christians walking around in prison rags, tormented by a past which God has already forgotten. Psalm 103:12 tells us “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” It’s interesting: you can measure the distance between north and south. But you can’t measure the distance between east and west. And that’s what God’s forgiveness is like. Beyond measure.

If you can accept your forgiveness, then you become dangerous, because Satan can’t trip you up with condemnation any longer. Before, all he had to do was drop one thought in your mind of what you once did, and all the spiritual power ran out of your feet.

But now, when he comes round shaking that chain, you can say, “Be gone devil. For my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more.” (Someone should turn that into a song one day.)

But what if I keep on sinning? you ask. Most Christians when they blow it are right back to feeling condemnation, as though they’re unsaved all over again.

If you think that way, then you still aren’t fully understanding the gospel. You should feel sorrow when you sin, but not condemnation.

You don’t lose your salvation when you sin. Your fellowship with God is affected, but not your relationship. You’re still his child. A child who needs to grow up. A child who needs to “train themselves to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7). (Here’s a good place to insert a reminder that forgiveness removes condemnation, but not necessarily consequences. There’s a pastor in the news right now who had a great moral failing not too long ago who is suddenly pronouncing himself fit for a return to ministry because he is “forgiven”. Not so fast. There’s a boatload of hurt people out there who should sign off on such a restoration.)

The miracle of grace is that Christ’s death on the cross gives us space and time to work out our salvation. Proverbs 24:16 says, “Though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again.” 

Can you see why this type of attitude, nurtured by the gospel, will make you dangerous? It changes the way you look at yourself. Satan can’t accuse you. He can’t bury a hook in you. He can’t throw a noose over your head.

And…drum roll, please, because here is where the gospel can prevent Charlottesvilles from happening…it changes the way you look at others. For if God has given such grace to you, you cannot possibly fail to give that same grace to others. If God has not condemned you, then if and when they fail, you must set aside your own instinct to judge and condemn. You must give them space and time to grow as well.

Nothing is more courageous and powerful than forgiveness. And nothing can unleash forgiveness like the gospel.

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In the story of Daniel and the lions’ den, we are told in Daniel 6:3 that “Daniel so distinguished himself…by his exceptional qualities” says the NIV. An “excellent spirit was in him” says the ESV.

How do you know a person of integrity when you see them? Here’s another quality:  Daniel shows us that a person of integrity is known by their excellence. While the Babylonians were in power, Daniel’s excellence was so evident that he became one of the most important men in Babylon. Then the political deck got reshuffled. Here comes the Medes and Persians rising to power replacing the Babylonians. No matter. Once again, Daniel is moved to the front of the line, because of his excellence. Like they say, cream rises to the top.

The great composer Oscar Hammerstein, who knew one or two things about excellence himself, once saw a picture of the Statue of Liberty taken from a helicopter, and he was amazed by the detail he saw which the French sculptor had worked into the top of Lady Liberty’s head.

Hammerstein wrote about what he saw in his book Lyrics. 

“The sculptor had done a painstaking job with the lady’s coiffure, and yet he must have been pretty sure that the only eyes that would ever see this detail would be the uncritical eyes of sea gulls. He could not have dreamt that any man would ever fly over this head. He was artist enough, however, to finish off this part of the statue with as much care as he had devoted to her face and her arms, and the torch and everything that people can see as they sail up the bay. . . When you are creating a work of art, or any other kind of work, finish the job off perfectly. You never know when a helicopter, or some other instrument not at the moment invented, may come along and find you out.”

Hammerstein didn’t know that half of it! Followers of Christ already know that a watchful eye is looking after them. And so Christians have the best reason possible to pursue excellence in the things that they do.  Colossians 3:23 tells us, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” 

Yet even here, be careful of your motive. It’s not like God is peering at me sternly from above a nearby oak tree, with a clipboard in hand, checking things off as I mess up. I don’t give God my best out of fear that I’ll get whacked for doing wrong. I give God my best because he already has given me his best.

I live to honor my Lord, not out of compulsion, but out of gratitude for all that he done for me. I don’t pursue excellence to compel God to love me, or accept me – because he already does that in Christ. It’s because I’m immersed to overflowing with his grace that I desire to pursue excellence.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart. You’re not just working for Aetna or Walmart or Stanley – you’re working for Jesus. Like Daniel serving Darius, like Joseph serving Potiphar, you should be the most faithful, most reliable, most outstanding employee in your company.

From the making of my bed, to the working at my job, to the doing of my homework, to the words I use, to the loving of my family, to the serving of my church, a person of integrity is mindful to build a resume of excellence.

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The story of Daniel in Daniel 6 not only shows us what integrity is, but it also shows us what some of the potential threats to integrity are. The first threat to Daniel’s integrity is the threat of the crowd. In the story we find out that there are 120 satraps that King Darius has appointed, 3 administrators, as well as additional prefects, advisers and governors.  Daniel is part of an enormous bureaucracy. And the whole point of tension in the story is that this sizeable group is trying to push and squeeze Daniel into its mold.

If there’s one thing a group can’t stand it’s an individual who stands apart from them. And so notice verse 6 – “So the administrators and the satraps went as a group to the king…”  If you’re going to be a person of integrity, you’d better get used to the fact right now that you’re going to raise the ire of the godless groups around you.

Beware of the power of the crowd. Young people, why is it hard to take your Bibles to school and snatch a little devotion during the middle of the day? Because of the crowd.  What will the other kids say?

You get it at the workplace. There’s always a “group” vocabulary everyone uses. If you don’t sprinkle a little profanity into your talk, you’ll stand out.  F’in this and F’in that. But it’s even more dangerous than that today as a sinister political correctness has taken over, where if you dare express your “Christian” opinion about social moral issues, you are immediately targeted for censure, or worse.

The second threat to integrity in Daniel story’s is the threat of the law. All of King Darius’ bureaucratic officers convinced Darius to pass a peculiar law that every citizen can only pray and worship the king for one month. The king is gullible, and certainly vain, and so goes along with it. And so it becomes law. Daniel is grieved that this has happened, but he’s a man of integrity, so he will not give in to this threat. He prays the same way he prays each and every day, no matter what the law says.

Once again we see this particular threat ratcheting up in intensity today. There are many things today which are legal, which are lawful, which are acceptable in the eyes of the government, in the eyes of the crowd, which are nonetheless intolerable to God and intolerable to a person of integrity.

Abortion is one example. But because the Supreme Court decides that an action is lawful, does not change God’s mind one whit. Social laws and mores change all the time. People without integrity will just go with the flow. They don’t want their comfortable little lives to be disrupted. And so they read the latest opinion poll and make their decisions based on what everyone else thinks.

First it was homosexual marriage. Today its “transgender rights”. If that’s the law, who am I to speak out, people will say.  And in Nazi Germany, that’s how it happened, one rule, one law at a time.  A man or woman of integrity takes the moral high ground and there he or she stands, while the laws and customs sift and shift around him like the plates under the earth.

Integrity is not something you can legislate.  It’s not about what is lawful, it’s about what is right, plain and simple. Why did the Good Samaritan stop and help the robbery victim? The Pharisee walked right by, the priest walked right by – and guess what? They weren’t breaking any laws in ignoring the poor fellow. No one was going to throw them in prison for not helping.

But integrity is not about doing what is lawful, or minding what the crowd thinks. It’s about doing what is right, and that’s why for people like Daniel, and the Good Samaritan, there was no question in their minds what needed to be done.

How about with you?

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How do we know that there is a God? Can God be proven?

Well, not in a scientific sense. God is not something we can capture with the microscope or telescope or camera. When the first Russian cosmonaut landed on the moon and sarcastically reported, “Comrades, God is not here,” as if to say he had proven there was no such thing as God, in actual fact, he was saying nothing.

A Nobel prize will never be awarded to any scientist for discovering God. God will never be discovered in the same way as America was discovered, or as DNA was discovered. It is not the man or woman of science who will definitively know God. It is the man or woman of faith. Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith, it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists.” 

However this is not to say that there is no evidence at all for God, and that God just expects you to blindly believe in him. The faith the Bible asks you to exercise is what we might call reasonable faith.

“Come let us reason together,” God invites us (Isaiah 1:18). As if God were saying, “Let’s put all the evidence on the scales, and see where we end up.”  And if you do that, the scales tip decidedly in the direction of God’s existence. So much so, that Scripture says matter-of-factly that the fool says in his heart there is no God (Psalm 14:1). To not believe in God’s existence is just plain dumb.

Where’s the evidence? you ask.  It’s all around you, the Bible declares. The calling card of the Creator is the creation around us. Romans 1:20 declares, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

I’ll never forget visiting Mount Rushmore a few years ago. It’s amazing how this magnificent, massive sculpture could be carved – with dynamite no less – out of a mountain.

There is no human being on earth who would see Mount Rushmore and conclude that this was made by random forces of wind, rain and ice acting on the mountain over time.  There is no human being on earth who would not conclude that this sculpture was made by creative intelligence.

Yet, the very same people who look at Mount Rushmore and detect an Intelligent Designer will look upon a living, breathing human being and say, “No Intelligent Designer here. Random forces over time, and presto, here we are.”

I hope you see the absurdity. We’ll look at a stone model of a human being and conclude: Intelligent Designer. Then we’ll look at the real thing and deny that there is intelligence behind it.

I’ve often said that it takes more faith to believe the non-theist version of existence than it does to believe what Christianity says, and this is Exhibit A.

And this is why the Bible says creation leaves all men without excuse. You just can’t argue against this. Of course there is a Creator.  How do we know there is a God?  Don’t be a fool.

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That Christians say God is great shouldn’t be so surprising. It’s what Christians say next that sends people running for the exits. We also say that God is good.

David writes in Psalm 145:7-10, “They will celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness. The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.”

 Here is where the need for faith kicks in. To say that God is great seems undeniable looking at this vast creation. But to say God is good isn’t so easy to say. To say God is good can sometimes stick in the throat. For how can a good God allow some of the things that happen in this earth?

How can a good God allow a cancer ward for children? And hurricanes to ravage an island nation already crushed by poverty? How can a good God allow mad dictators to tyrannize their people. Take the worst of life, and you fill in the blank – how can a good God allow ____________?

Furthermore, skeptics say to us, “You Christians can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that God is both great and good. Looking at the world as it is, if God were great, then he must not be good, because otherwise he’d use his greatness and power to stop this madness. Or if God were good, then he must not be great, because a good God wouldn’t stomach this. He’d stop it at once. You can’t have it both ways?

Of course there are answers to explain this enigma. The Bible is not silent about this. We live in a broken world, cursed by sin. We live in a rebellious world, deceived by Satan. If God swooped in like Superman to stop every evil person from committing evil, or to catch every plane in which an engine failed, or to deflect every bullet that was fired, in no time at all human freedom and human responsibility would cease to exist, and we would be no better than birds in a cage.

Of course God intervenes at times, of course there are times he answers our prayers in wondrous ways, there are “signs of his kingdom” all around us. But life on this side of heaven will always be what Thomas Hobbes called it: short and brutish.

And yet, think about it. You think we have it bad! David lived 3,000 years ago. No anesthesia.  An average lifespan of less than 50. No x-rays to find the sore tooth, and no dentists to get the sore tooth out. Get a kidney stone, it would kill you. No ice cream. You had to walk everywhere.  Plagues of smallpox were routine. No electricity. Winters came long and hard. No hot showers.  You think your underarms smell bad now? The threat of invasion from the Philistine next door or the Assyrian a thousand miles away was always looming. And if those armies didn’t come, the locusts always would. No refrigeration. Eating pretty much the same stale food each and every day.

Yet it is a man from this time and this place who wrote, “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.” 

How could he write these words? He didn’t make it up, I promise you. The made-up gods are the ones like the Greeks and Romans worshipped, or the Canaanites – their gods were very made up; they were mean and nasty, they fought with each other, they lusted over each over, they treated human beings like playthings. They were just extensions of human nature.

That’s why I know they were made up. But this God David writes about, this could only be revealed to David by God Himself. There’s no way that David could make this up. David looked at life on this side of heaven and compared us to a vapor, to evening grass, to a morning mist.  That being the case, David knew that the only way he could safely navigate his way through life was to reach out and take the hand of his great and good Creator.

And what blew David away was that when he reached up for that God, he felt a tug on the other side. He felt God’s embrace. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” David would write in Psalm 8.

I encourage you to reach up for that God today. Even now. Seek him. He is good, and waiting for you.

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Scripture calls David a man after God’s heart because David’s instinct was to seek God regularly (i.e. daily) to lead his life. But he didn’t stop there. He then submitted to God’s leading.

After spending time with God through Bible study, prayer and worship, David would receive marching orders from God. And David would follow.

His predecessor Saul didn’t act that way. If God said, “I want the enemy completely wiped out,” Saul would keep back some of the best cattle for himself, then rationalize it in some way. Not so with David. He wanted to keep in step with God. If he won a battle one way, David didn’t assume God would do it that way the next time around. So each time he went into battle, David sought the Lord. And if God said, “Go left around the hill,” he went left. If God said, “Go right around the hill,” he went right.

For David, seeking God and then listening to God was his #1 strategy for success in defeating his enemies. “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only,” Scripture says (James 1:22).

Christians love “How To” books. They eat up teaching that promises seven steps to overcome anger. Or five habits to have a happy marriage. Or how to have you best life now. There’s nothing wrong with this, mind you. This sort of teaching can be very helpful. The Bible is chock full of principles. Jesus said if we’d only put his teaching into practice, we’d have a much better life in the end.

But Christianity offers the world more than principles. What we have to offer the world is a living Person named Jesus Christ, who invites us to come close and have an actual relationship with him.

Sometimes I think though that we prefer the principles to the Person. To follow principles is something that I can control. To follow a person, that’s another story.

Christianity offers the world more than principles.

Janis and I had a rough go of it early in our marriage. I remember when I began to really start praying about this. As I began my life as a pastor, I realized unless we got past some of these problems, I wasn’t going to be in ministry for very long. And so I started praying to God, “Lord, you’ve got to do something about my wife. You have to change her.”

No sooner did I start praying that way, than God started throwing it right back in my face. “Change her? Son, what about you?” And it really started to irritate me that every time I went to talking to God about Janis’ weaknesses, he wanted to talk about mine. But that’s what you get when you are dealing with a living Person.

Principles are easy. They can be followed or discarded. Dealing with a person though – you better fasten your seatbelts.

So sure, go to your seminars. Read the books. Pick the brains of those who have been-there-done that. But do not substitute any of these things for time spent sitting in the presence of your Savior, who will begin to guide your steps if you let him. And once you begin to detect his leading, then follow. You never will become a mighty man or woman of God like David without a submissive heart yielded to Christ.

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Do you want to have a long, happy life? Take a guess which of the following things is the #1 way to get there:

a) diet

b) exercise

c) steering clear of addictive substances

d) having friendships

You guessed rightly,

a) because you’re clever, and

b) because you read the title of the devotional.

But yes, the answer is friendships. Loneliness is just as destructive to health as obesity, or never exercising, or being an alcoholic, or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Pick your poison.

One commonality in most of our nation’s mass-shootings is that those who stoop to this type of evil are not only losers, but loners. And it’s the loner than usually comes first, and creates the loser. It’s a scary thing to have only yourself for company.

Studies show that having friends boosts your lifespan more than 20% on average. Having a friend talk to you regularly if you’re depressed is just as effective as therapy or medication. Having friends is even more important for your well-being than even your own grandchildren.

Of course, none of this should surprise those of us steeped in Scripture. The Bible spells this out two chapters into the book. “It’s not good for humans to be alone,” God says, shortly before he creates Eve for Adam. We need friends to journey with us through life.

You can have hundreds of friends on Facebook but everyone knows deep in their hearts that that’s just window-dressing. A true friend will do more than toss you a ‘like’ every now and then.

Someone once said: True friends are the ones who have nice things to say about you behind your back. Or how about: Friends are God’s way of apologizing for our families. This one is funnier. And more useful. Friends are like bras: close to your heart and there for support. (How come I never see that on a church sign?)

It’s actually not a bad definition, because it gets at two thing present in every true friendship. Closeness and commitment. A friend is someone close to your heart (closeness) and there for support (commitment). Which distinguishes it from ordinary relationships. Or mere acquaintances. Or your so-called “friends” on Facebook.

The Bible says in Proverbs 18:24 – “A man of many companions may come to ruin but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” You can have hundreds of friends on Facebook but everyone knows deep in their hearts that that’s just window-dressing. A true friend will do more than toss you a ‘like’ every now and then.

This week we’ll dive deeper into the subject of friendship – how to find them and how to nurture them. It’s a topic we all could benefit from looking at more closely.

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