This blog focuses on the quest to know and please God in a constantly increasing way. The upward journey never ends. My prayer is that this blog will reflect a heart that seeks God and that it will encourage others who share the same heart desire.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Think About It

There are times in life when God squarely confronts us with a particular topic. It may seem to come out of the middle of nowhere, or it may be something that has been gradually building until we are forced to notice it. Either way, one day we realize there is an issue in our lives that we need to deal with - or that God is dealing with us about.

For example, a recent incident in the family may have revealed the problem of selfishness. The promotion of a co-worker could have put the spotlight on our pride. Perhaps everywhere we have turned lately, we've heard people talking about contentment. The possibilities are endless, but the idea is that God poignantly directs our attention to a specific area in which He desires to work.

We may have already been aware of the problem, but didn't think it was a big deal. On the other hand, it may be something that surprises us - something that we had never previously noticed in ourselves. It could be something that we thought we had conquered, or something that we had perceived as a minor problem that suddenly exploded.

How should we respond when we ascertain an area in which God is working? I believe the first and most important response is humility. We must purpose from the first hint of conviction that we will be pliable in God's hands, allowing Him to work. We must determine to submit our wills to God and to change in whatever ways He asks. If this is our heart's desire, God will respond with the grace to make it possible. "God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6).

The aspect of response that I would like to focus on in this post is that of active consideration. When God brings some fault to our attention, sometimes we want to change and we want to do the right thing, but, frankly, we don't always know how. We are in actuality in the midst of learning. Learning, by its very nature, requires that at the beginning of the process, we don't know everything. Learning is sometimes a "light bulb moment" in which understanding suddenly bursts upon us. More often it is a gradual process, in which little by little we come to a fuller understanding.

In my experience both as a teacher and as a person, I have found that we learn faster and more thoroughly the more we spend time focusing on the subject material. I understand that we can overdo our efforts to the point of fatigue and decreased capacity to learn, but, in general, our accomplishments will be directly related to our efforts. Imagine the difference between a child who practices the piano for five minutes the night before his lesson and a child who practices faithfully for one hour per day, or a student who goes through his multiplication flashcards five times per day instead of once per week.

From a spiritual perspective, I will learn more in the areas God targets for growth if I will give sober and frequent attention to those areas. If I know, for example, that God is dealing with me in the area of pride, I can take an active role in learning that lesson. I can identify instances of pride in the Bible and see how God dealt with the people involved. I can talk to God about what I want Him to change in my life. I can tell Him about the situations in which pride seems to surface most easily. I can read a book or a blog on the subject. I can listen to a sermon. I can talk to a pastor, spiritual guide, or godly friend. I can make lists of the ways I evidence pride. I can be alert to proud thoughts and actions throughout the day, trying to "catch myself" in them and make corrections. I can choose a few appropriate verses on which to meditate. I can think about why I evidence pride or when I show it or with whom.  I can evaluate after a failure what I should have done differently; I can plan a godly response for the next time the situation arises.

An important part of learning is being able to evaluate and describe one's own learning processes. Spiritually, it can be helpful to understand why and when I struggle, to think through what makes me tick. If I am able to identify even some of what to look for, to be on the alert for, I can be more prepared to face the temptations when they come. If I can identify a barrier to my learning, I can attempt to remove that barrier.

The point is that when I know God is working in a particular area, I can strive (as much as God allows) to embark on a concentrated course of study. The more that I do the various things listed above, as long as I do them with a proper spirit, the more that my mind and heart are meditating on the issue. With the devoted focus, my heart is open and prepared for God to work. I am predisposed to allowing the Holy Spirit to bring truth to me. With this active approach to learning, I can progress from my current state of not knowing everything about the topic to the desired end of having a fuller knowledge.

I cannot depend on my own efforts. Ultimately, God must give the teaching. It is His grace that makes the learning possible. As I open my heart, however, and present myself to God as a willing pupil who wants to learn, God is able to pour out His truth on a receptive heart. So, when I recognize God's desire to work in a particular area, I must purpose to "think about it," dedicating myself to learning the lesson and saturating my day with invitations for God to work.

"Make me know Your ways, O LORD; Teach me Your paths. Lead me in Your truth and teach me, For You are the God of my salvation; For You I wait all the day." Psalm 25:4-5 (NASB)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

What Is Wrong? - Part 5

Why are there times that a believer can be seeking God and desiring to grow in the relationship with Him, but he seems to meet only drudgery and mediocrity? In this final segment about those frustrating seasons that cause a believer to cry out, "What is wrong?" we will look at what is probably the most fundamental reason of all. The bottom line is that God within His providential wisdom brings growth to the Christian according to His unique plan for each individual.

An individual believer cannot force spiritual growth. The maturity and sweet relationship with God is something that a believer aspires to primarily because he has seen it displayed in the lives of others around him. (See Psalm 119.) He cannot, however, force or fabricate that spiritual vitality just by determining that it will be so. He cannot say, "By this time next month (or next year) I will be a Christian like that," and then work to produce that result.

The attempt to do so ignores at least two factors. First, the relationship with God is just that - a relationship. It is not a structured series of steps or a regimented procedure. It is not a mechanical challenge in which someone systematically moves through the sequential levels until he reaches the pinnacle. The attempt to move through prescribed steps actually detracts from and depersonalizes the relationship aspect. Relationships are built over time, and because people are different, the way relationships progress will be different from person to person. So one Christian cannot even use another Christian's life as a surefire pattern to follow.

Second, an attempt to force spiritual growth by doing the right things errs in regards to motive. Such a forced effort is tainted with pride and self-dependence. The believer in question soon finds himself making comparisons with others. He becomes pleased (or worse) about how he has progressed more than someone else because he has "done the right things" to make that happen. He becomes proud of his understanding of how to proceed, of his faithfulness in following his plan, and of his subsequent progress. He then believes himself able to determine his own spiritual status simply by doing the right things and following the correct procedures. He puts himself in the position of control, rather than God. He forgets that without the grace of God, no man could draw near to God. Just as salvation cannot be achieved through human efforts, neither can Christian maturity. These things come not by works, but by grace, as the believer humbly realizes that he is incapable of producing results and is dependent on God's favor.

This does not excuse the Christian from pursuing God and attempting to grow in his Christian life. The speaker in Psalm 119 desired that growth, and he dedicated himself toward pursuing that. Over the course of his life, God brought about the goal he desired. God is able to do that work in the lives of those who are humble under His hands and who place themselves in a position where God can do what He wants to do. I heard one preacher explain it this way: it is the believer's responsibility to jump into the river, but God controls the river. God determines how deep and how swift different parts of the river are, as well as how the currents move within that river.

If Christian growth comes down to God's work, some questions emerge. Why would God ever take things slowly? Why would He allow or choose these frustrating times when seemingly nothing is happening? Wouldn't it be wiser to make everyone grow really fast? The answer is that we cannot completely understand God's work. Even when we do understand what would make sense, God inexplicably does not always work the same way we would. With some factors completely outside of human understanding, there are some possible factors that we can grasp at least in part.

Lasting growth is often achieved gradually. It is the repetition that creates true strength and genuine mastery. A man without training might be able to lift one hundred pounds once, (maybe hurting himself in the process), but a man with training achieves the ability to lift that weight consistently and without injury. An untrained child might make a lucky three-point shot in basketball, but regular training and lots of practice allow an athlete to succeed regularly. Likewise, God works on a steady and gradual basis so that the spiritual muscles are properly trained for the tasks that await them.

God may also allow gradual growth at times because of the setting typically required for more concentrated growth. Those times of rapid growth often occur during a trial; often the more intense the trial, the more dramatically God works through it. At times in my life, God has given such explosive growth that I felt like a surfer riding the crest of a huge wave that just wouldn't end. The growth was exciting, but also a bit overwhelming with all that energy threatening to topple me. We cannot always maintain that level of intensity, so God plans calmer times to let us fully absorb what He has taught before we plunge into the next adventure.

While it is true that exciting times are often the catalyst for growth, the exact opposite can also be true. We must learn to trust God in the dull times too, not just in the excitement of activity. We need to be faithful when life is "boring." Our walk with God is an everyday walk, not just an emergency walk. Maybe begging Him for help and insight in a time when nothing seems to be happening will bring key growth that cannot be achieved by begging Him for help in the midst of crisis.

The important thing to remember when our spiritual life seems dull in spite of our desire for it to be otherwise is that God is doing His work in us. Important growth may be happening without our being able to see it. God knows just what areas need help, and we may not even be aware of the need or of the work He is doing. We need to trust Him that He is working according to His plan. While we do need to pursue God and put ourselves in a position where He can work, we must also remember that God is the one who must do the work.

"For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." Philippians 2:13

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What Is Wrong? - Part 4

In this segment of our study, we will look at several more possibilities for why a Christian may find himself struggling spiritually. In spite of the desire of his heart to be close to God and pleasing to Him, the believer may at times find himself hitting a wall or feeling defeated. Some of the possible reasons for this disappointing sensation of seeming coldness can actually be quite practical.

The demands of life can have an impact on the spiritual walk, especially when those demands rise above the ordinary. Every effort and every relationship requires energy. When the physical or mental energy is severely depleted, there is naturally a corresponding effect on the spiritual life. This could happen as the result of an illness, especially a severe or extended one. A single parent or a mom of young children may have too many demands to allow for any remaining energy. A father working two jobs may likewise find himself exhausted. Anyone with sleep deprivation for whatever reason will have his energies depleted. Someone can also be drained by a physically demanding job or one that maintains a high level of mental intensity.

When the mind and body are so overwhelmed, the spirit also suffers. Someone serious about his Christian walk may need to make some decisions about his priorities, perhaps reducing some of his demands so that he has energy to devote to his pursuit of God. Understandably, some of these situations are outside the realm of human control. In such situations, the believer should take any steps he can to reserve some energy for spiritual pursuits. In what he cannot influence, it can be helpful to remember the reality of the limitations, and also to trust the God who does have control to uphold the believer through the trying time.

Another factor that can subtly influence one's spiritual thermometer is that of conflicting input. While seeming benign, this input could actually place a heavy weight on the spirit. This weight could be in the form of books and magazines, television, music, and other similar types of input. This input may be unintentional, such as background music at someone's workplace. Even though the believer might not be purposefully or even consciously subjecting himself to this input, it can still have an effect on his spirit, leading to suppressed spiritual sensitivity and therefore a bleaker estimation of one's spiritual condition. A wise Christian will take inventory of his surroundings to see if there is some worldly input that is dragging him down. I Peter 2:11 states that these "fleshly lusts . . . wage war against the soul."

Another dampening influence on spiritual vigor is the very practical aspect of being "in a rut." Any relationship will seem dull if nothing interesting or different ever happens. It is easy for believers to develop a checklist of things they ought to be doing every day or every week; they assume that doing everything on the list is the means to spiritual health and vitality. Unfortunately, those tasks can become automatic and routine; their potential impact can easily diminish. Someone who is struggling might be wise to change things up. He might switch to a different method of Bible study or a different section of the Bible for his study. He might try a different time of day for his devotional time. He might plan a weekend vacation with God, in which he devotes an entire weekend to some special time with God. He might attend a conference or retreat. Whichever tactic he uses, the idea is to freshen up the relationship and redirect the efforts. David expressed his heart by stating, "O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly" (Psalm 63:1).

The final factor for this post is the need to consider an attack by Satan. Satan does not want Christians to grow or to enjoy their relationship with God. One of the most powerful oppositions to Satan's plan for the world is a joyful, triumphant Christian. A vibrant Christian is strong evidence against Satan's lies. In his desire to squelch such testimonies and dim their influence, Satan goes on the attack, seeking to discredit God's work and to destroy Christians. Jesus told Peter, "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat" (Luke 22:31). Peter was not alone in facing Satan's attacks. We know that the "adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (I Peter 5:8). When a Christian desires a close walk with God, is attempting to do the right things to promote such a walk, and still finds himself struggling, he should consider the possibility that Satan has targeted him. He must resist and fight back.

In what he can control, the Christian must try. He can guard his energies, examine his surroundings, and seek fresh ways of pursuing his relationship with God. In what he cannot control, the Christian must trust God. He must realize that God controls the circumstances of his life, and that God's help is needed to combat Satan. Sometimes the time of spiritual struggle or disappointment that causes the Christian to ask, "What is wrong?" will continue for some time, but it should not be because the Christian has given up.

"But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me." I Corinthians 15:10 (NASB)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

What Is Wrong? - Part 3

We have been examining the frustrating times of life when a believer feels that his spiritual walk is not going well. At times things just do not seem right, but the believer may not be able to pinpoint the reason. We first noted things that are basically under the Christian's control - a willful hanging on to sin rather than confessing, a resistance to God rather than humility, and a failure to spend time with God. We then noted the possibility of ignorance. A believer's growth can be retarded by things that he does not know - things he is involved in that he does not yet realize are damaging, as well as salutary truths from Scripture that he has not yet learned.

Another possible reason for a confusing spiritual desert is simply that of immaturity. Not surprisingly, once a believer does learn valuable lessons, those new lessons are not mastered immediately. They require practice. When we evaluate our passion for God, our success in resisting temptation, or our perceived maturity, we often make invalid comparisons. We tend to measure our spiritual success or maturity by looking at aspects of our current lives and comparing them to aspects of our lives at some point in the past. Our evaluation may be that we are not as "x" as we used to be, that there was a time that we handled "y" better, or we may wonder why we don't do "z" like we used to. I would like to consider several fallacies that could arise during this type of comparison. 

One error is that we do not always have good memories, especially when we are discouraged. If we already have the mindset that we are failing as Christians, it isn't hard to find "evidence" to back that up. Suddenly we notice all the negative factors in our current situation, and we tend to forget or minimize the negatives of the past. In our guilt and self-judgment, we compare our worst response from today with our best response from five years ago, yielding an invalid comparison. (See Philippians 3:13-14.)

A second error is that we can have unreasonable expectations. Maybe five years ago, we resisted something bad or did something good fifty percent of the time. Now that it is five years later, we expect to be at one hundred percent. "After all," we think, "anyone who has been saved as long as I am should never struggle with this." Growth in every area of life is gradual. Maybe we are still only at seventy percent, but heading in the right direction. That's not failure; that's growth. In terms of expectations, we must also realize that we know more now about being a Christian than we did five years ago; our increased knowledge produces increased expectations. If we seem to mess up more times per day now than we used to, it might be because we are aware of many more issues than we used to be aware of. (See Ephesians 4:12-13 and II Peter 1:5-8.)

A third error is our skewed evaluation of intensity. We sometimes fail to realize that not all challenges are created equal. Some temptations can be met and combated quickly, while others, by their very nature, may take a length of time to work through. Losing a spouse is certainly different and will take longer to process than breaking a bone or having an argument with a friend. If the Christian life were compared to sewing projects, some challenges are as simple as hemming a handkerchief, while others are as intricate as assembling a detailed quilt. We may be discouraged that we still struggle, but the issues we are struggling now with may be far more significant than what we used to struggle with. (Compare Job's responses in chapter 1 with those of later chapters - 3, 7, 10.)

A fourth error is our narrow vision. For example, we may be currently discouraged that we still don't trust God like we ought to. While our evaluation may be true, life does not usually allow us to compare apples with apples. The situation in which we had to trust God before is not the same as the situation in which we have to trust Him now. So many things in life change; our Christian experience exists within a constantly morphing context. Factors may include a different job, a different economic position, poor health, loss of a loved one, a geographic change, increased responsibilities, a new pastor, a new neighbor, the pressure of aging, an unexpected area of temptation, and hundreds of other variables.

Our response of trusting God (or not) is not specific to a single variable; rather, it is a response within the comprehensive scope of all variables. The current cumulative setting may be much harder than previous settings, or it may simply be different. It may be exercising a different set of spiritual muscles - or the same set of muscles but in a different way. These varying combinations require constant growth and adjustment. The process of adjusting and growing can feel uncomfortable, therefore leaving us with the perception of failure.

I think of the example of a teacher - a good teacher - who is thrust into a new set of circumstances. He has to teach a new subject, a new grade level, or in a different language. He may need to teach without electricity, without textbooks, or without a chalkboard. Even a good teacher will struggle to some extent with the changes. A good teacher will still be a good teacher, but in some ways he will find himself feeling like a new teacher who has to relearn the best way to teach.

The Christian life is like that. We can mature and gain levels of victory and have areas that seem to be completely mastered. Then God changes some factor, or usually a combination of factors. In the constantly changing kaleidoscope of life, we are continually faced with new learning curves. We have to take what we know and apply it in new ways. This type of application is what demonstrates true mastery. The stumbling and adjustments as we seek to master the changing challenges indicate movement. They demonstrate that we are walking forward, that we are progressing, rather than settling into the comfortable safety of stagnation. "And He was saying to them all, 'If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.' " (Luke 9:23)

Our immaturity means that we do not reach our expectations overnight, and it also means that we do not always accurately see what God is doing in us. One thing is sure: if God is doing a work in our lives, which He says He is, there will be change. We may not see the growth, but God is able to do a transforming work in us.

"But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit." II Corinthians 3:18 (NASB)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What Is Wrong? - Part 2

The topic under consideration is this: What about those times in life when it seems that spiritual growth has stagnated or is struggling? When the believer struggles to have victory and conquer temptation? When the Christian cannot currently describe his relationship with God as being alive, vibrant, successful, and passionate? Perhaps the most troubling aspect of such times is when the Christian senses this apparent decline or coldness and is at loss to explain it. In frustration with his seeming failures and the inability to understand them, he may cry out, "What is wrong with me?"

In the previous post, we looked at the possibility of sin or rebellion in the life. In many cases, this is at least part of the problem, perhaps combined with carelessness in failing to give proper time to the relationship with God. These problems must be dealt with and corrected. I believe there are times, however, when a discouraged believer can sincerely examine his heart and not find sin or neglect as the reason. Either he is unaware of any such barrier, or, having become aware of one, he has resolved it. In these dull and disappointing times in the Christian experience, there are other factors that can sometimes contribute to a lackluster relationship.

The problem could be rooted at least partially in ignorance. This could include sin of which one is unaware. I am not referring here to deliberate or willful sin, but rather sin that exists due to limited understanding. New believers in particular might be involved in certain things without yet having the spiritual discretion to recognize them as damaging to their spiritual sensitivity. Perhaps a believer does not recognize a thought process as wrong, when in reality it exhibits a failure to humbly submit to God. Someone could be holding on to an area of life or making a particular decision with the earnest belief that it is right, perhaps even giving what seem to be spiritual arguments to support his position; in reality, he may be using flawed human thinking. In these cases the believer is not trying to do wrong and may, in fact, be trying to do right. Because of what he does not know, however, he is actually working against himself.

God is not cruel to hold things over our heads when we are earnest but ignorant. In other words, He doesn't sit in heaven saying, "That guy is messing up because he doesn't know any better. I'm going to let him become mired down in his own stupidity." God is patient and gracious, and He loves to see a heart that desires Him. It is also true, however, that flawed, immature thinking and undiscerning choices have an effect on the believer. The simple reality is that they hold him on a restricted level. Wrong friendships, for example, could drag a believer down. The same could be true for music, entertainment, habits, thought processes, and much more - all of which have been so ingrained into the person that up to this point in his life they are all he knows. Until he learns differently as a Christian, those damaging influences can weigh him down.

Ignorance is not limited only to the area of sin. Just as there are sins (or dangers) that we have not yet recognized as such, there are also positive actions and practices that we haven't yet learned either. As we follow God, we will constantly be learning new things that can enhance our relationship with God. We know what it is like to break into a new realm of blessing by learning a spiritual lesson; before we learned it, there was something missing, and consequently, growth was impeded. One day, however, we heard the right sermon, read the right verse, or heard the right testimony that brought new light and increased understanding. As we made the appropriate decision or adjustment, we began to experience blessing that was not available to us before.

This may seem like a frustrating answer. If our spiritual walk is suffering because of something we don't know, how are we supposed to know it? The answer is to seek God with a tender heart, asking Him to reveal these stumbling blocks to us. God will show us these things as we continue to expose ourselves to Him and His truth. In His gentleness, God will prepare us to receive His answer, and He will reveal the answer at the right time for our hearts to receive it and prosper from it.

In this area of ignorance, there are two helpful questions to ask of God. First, is there something that I am doing that I should not be doing that is hindering my spiritual progress? Second, is there something that I should know that I don't know that would advance my spiritual progress? These two prayers are expressed biblically below.

"Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way." Psalm 139:23-24 (NASB)

"Make me know Your ways, O LORD; teach me Your paths. Lead me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all the day." Psalm 25:4-5 (NASB)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

What is Wrong?

How many times do we read a blog like this one about spiritual growth and find ourselves somewhat helplessly believing the concepts to be beyond us? We may admire the spiritual aspirations, long for the heart inclinations, give full approval to the concepts, and appreciate the practical ideas - but think to ourselves, "I could never be like that. I will never achieve such godly and victorious living."

I can sympathize with that discouraged thinking; in fact, I totally agree. There are (too many) times that I seem entirely incapable of following through on what I want to do. I read what I have written and wish that it could be true of me. My posts sometimes come from what I have struggled to learn in the past, but often they come from what I am struggling to learn in the present. Sometimes in that struggle, I seem to be only at the beginning of the learning process, and I share a truth that I've learned to be the answer, but have yet to master. More than once I have considered whether I should stop writing the blog until I can get my own heart and life in order.

Maybe it's not a blog that we relate to in this way, but a testimony shared by a fellow believer, a sermon preached at church, a truth taught by a book, or simply Christ-likeness demonstrated by a friend. Whatever the source, the sentiment is the same. We find ourselves confronted with the fact that we are neither where we should be nor where we want to be in our Christian walk. We find that our passion for God, which in the past was warm and glowing, has grown cold. Instead of thinking godly and spiritual thoughts, our minds are constantly fighting ungodly and even perverse thoughts. We know that the Word of God should encourage us, but its message falls dully on our hearts. It is a struggle to read the Bible that we know we ought to love. Meaningful prayer time has become alien. As we consider these deviations from what should be true, our hearts plunge into discouragement at our inability to be "good" Christians.

If we think of the constant upward climb of the Christian life as taking place on a mountain, there are times that the trail goes into thick underbrush. Even the weeds and wildflowers grow up so thickly that we have to push through them. We maneuver through the briars, trying not to get scratched too much, and squeeze through tiny passages between branches. Other times the path resembles a forest after a brutal storm; branches or even entire trees have fallen to block the pathway and there appears to be no way through. Maybe we reach a swampy area; perhaps we are determined to wade through, even accepting that we will be wet and uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the mud is so thick that we keep sinking in, our shoes are sucked from our feet, and we become mired down. We may come against a stony bank or rocky incline where progress is painstakingly slow; we have to be very careful with our footing to avoid a precipitous slide or a dangerous fall. And what if, instead of a rocky incline with some footholds, we face a sheer rock wall that stretches up and up - or our path ends at the edge of a cliff that plunges down at our feet?

With these illustrations, I am not referring to the trials and circumstances of life that present challenges and difficulties. Instead, I am referring to the spiritual battle - to that internal struggle of the heart that may or may not be prompted by a trial or life situation. Any of us who thinks he is alone in this battle is crazy. Those thoughts and feelings, however, can produce guilt, frustration, and discouragement that hinder our progress and cause us not to enjoy our relationship with God.

I'm not sure that the scenarios above each relate to distinct situations in the Christian life, but there are a number of possibilities for spiritual coldness (or the perception thereof). My next post will look at a number of possible reasons that are largely outside of our control, but I think the first place we need to look is at what is within our control. We must consider the possibility that sin or failure on our part is hindering our spiritual growth. If we are honest enough to examine ourselves openly, we will often find that sin is at least part of the problem. In David's prayers of repentance, he describes his sins as "a heavy burden [that] weigh too much" for him (Psalm 38:4). He goes "mourning all day long" (v. 6), and "groan[s] because of the agitation of [his] heart" (v. 8). In Psalm 51:12, he asks God to "restore to [him] the joy of [His] salvation." Unconfessed sin creates a great burden and weight upon our relationship with God.

Humble confession, on the other hand, has a wonderful restorative ability, bringing grace, peace, and renewal to our hearts. "God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit therefore to God. . . . Draw near to God. . . . Cleanse your hands . . . and purify your hearts" (James 4:6-8). If our sin and our own wrong choices have put a barrier between us and God, we must submit humbly to God, confessing those things and receiving His grace. We must examine whether we are stubbornly clinging to some sin, obstinately maintaining control over some area of our life, failing to forgive a brother, or neglecting to obey some instruction that God has given.

In addition to outright sin, we must also look at carelessness that could be hindering our relationship. Maybe we are involved in so many other things that our time for God is limited and our passion for Him grows cold. Perhaps we love and depend on other people so much that we take our relationship with God for granted. Possibly we are failing to spend time with Him as we should - in His Word, in church, in prayer - so that there is no fuel for the fire, and our heart easily grows cold. All of these things stem from human failure, and because of the weakness of our flesh, all are quite possible.

The good news is that as long as we keep pursuing God and at least have that as our intention and desire, we can keep making progress. The best news is that God keeps doing His work, often whether we want Him to or not. God started a work in us when He saved us, and He fully desires and intends for us to move toward greater and greater sanctification until the day that we stand before Him permanently and completely transformed. We may be weak and limited, but God is not, and He can continue working in our lives.

"For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus." Philippians 1:6 (NASB)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Strength for the Weak

Weakness comes in many areas, primarily because mere humans are not equipped to handle life on their own. The weakness may be physical - tasks that are too difficult or (more likely) too numerous. The body becomes weary when the list of jobs never ends; the person feels like he cannot do one more thing. The weakness may be emotional - crises or challenges that are too intense or too constant. The emotions become weary when life is filled with stress, pressures, changes, and sorrow; the intensity can be quite draining. The weakness may be spiritual - temptations that are too powerful or lessons that are too challenging. Even when victory is won, the process of working through these things can zap one's strength.

If man lacks the strength to meet these challenges on his own, the good news is that he is not required to do so. A Christian has God to help him. God is well able to make up the difference between the believer's feeble reserves and the strength needed to face life. Isaiah 40 shares some wonderful truth about man's weakness and God's strength.

One very comforting aspect is the realization that God is aware of the believer's weakness. Israel asserted, "My way is hidden from the LORD, and the justice due me escapes the notice of my God" (v. 27).  Such a statement is completely false. God's "understanding is inscrutable" (v. 28); He knows everything about His children. This is a God who knows the name of every star and when each one is due to make its appearance (v. 26). Likewise He sees each one of His children and knows everything about them.

Along with his inscrutable wisdom, God has limitless power. God created every one of the stars (v. 26). He created the dazzling array that boggles the mind of man, and He has maintained His masterpiece for thousands of years. The stellar world continues to operate just like it should, because it is upheld by the mighty hand of God. His power does not stop there. God is everlasting; He has maintained the creation from the beginning, continually maintains it, and always will. In the midst of such fathomless responsibility, "the Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired" (v. 28).

The wonder is that this powerful God bestows His mighty power on weak man. "He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power" (v. 29). Even the strongest of men become weary; they stumble, at times badly (v. 30). God looks on those weary men; as they wait on Him, He gives them strength. He renews their strength with His own. He allows them to continue on, to walk, to run, and to mount up to the challenges ahead (v. 31). When human strength expires so quickly, God gives strength that cannot be exhausted.

Whatever the weakness is - physical, emotional, or spiritual - God can give the strength needed for the situation. That may not always seem true. Some struggles and demands seem like they will never end. It may seem that victory (or even survival) is impossible, but God is not limited. Neither does He lie. When God says He can provide the necessary strength, He can do it. At those times that a believer does not see the strength of God, he must wait on God with the confident expectation that God will give strength just like He says He will.

"Yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary." Isaiah 40:31 (NASB)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Book Review: Contentment

The Art of Divine Contentment by Thomas Watson

These two books on the same topic say much just by their titles. Both titles indicate that Christian contentment is of tremendous value, but that it is not universally or easily achieved. Both assessments are correct. There is something appealing and beautiful about a truly contented Christian, but unfortunately there are too few Christians who really fall into that category.

Both authors were Puritan preachers in London during the 1600s. They both saw the need for preaching on this important quality of contentment. Mr. Watson stated, "A gracious spirit is a contented spirit. The doctrine of contentment is very superlative, and till we have learned this, we have not learned to be Christians." Mr. Burroughs similarly declared, "To be well skilled in the mystery of Christian contentment is the duty, glory, and excellence of a Christian."

Some readers may be a little nervous about reading something written so long ago. For the most part, those fears are unfounded. The writing will seem a little awkward to someone accustomed to reading only modern writing, but the stylistic differences are not significant enough to prevent understanding or to mask the important message of these books. A few words are unusual ("creature" is used repeatedly to mean creature comforts), and the sentences tend to be long with multiple parts.

I understand that the style is typical of Puritan writing. One of the most noticeable things to me is the tendency to be so thorough and detailed that it may seem the authors are beating the topic to death. Some sections and chapters do seem somewhat repetitious. The overall organization is not so much an outline with everything arranged under a few major points, but more an exhaustive list that moves from one topic to another. To be fair, I believe both men originally wrote a series of sermons that were later put into book form. I believe it is also a Puritan tendency to rely on parallels in nature or life to illustrate a point. I did not always follow the connection or feel that these illustrations were valid (designed by God to teach what the author asserted). Despite these minor challenges, both books are well worth reading.

Mr. Watson's book at times seems to include rabbit trails that are not organic to the discussion, and I felt like it took him several chapters to actually get to the meat of his topic. He defines contentment as "a sweet temper of spirit, whereby a Christian carries himself in an equal poise in every condition." He presents some pertinent questions to help clarify what is okay and what is not okay regarding a believer's attitude in this area. Contentment does not require one to blindly think nothing in life is unpleasant, nor does it prevent him from talking to God about the unpleasantness or trying to change the unpleasantness through lawful means. In other words, contentment is not naivety or denial; it is a choice.

The author shares reasons for contentment. He shows why contentment is attractive and why the lack of it is not. He includes a rather lengthy section of excuses people give for why they can't be content based on their circumstances of life. He then provides arguments against those excuses. While the list may not address each person's excuse, the chapter does highlight the necessity of looking beyond the circumstances to the blessings or realizations of what God might be doing through an unpleasant situation. Watson then describes the benefits and advantages that accompany contentment and the disadvantages and pitfalls that result when it is absent. The author provides a list of characteristics of contentment to serve as a self-evaluation, and finally provides some counsel for how to develop contentment in one's life.

I found Mr. Burroughs's book to be more concisely organized than that of Mr. Watson, and Mr. Burroughs also more effectively challenged my heart and thinking. He defines contentment as "that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God's wise and fatherly disposal in every condition." He effectively expands on each word and phrase of the definition to give a good understanding of what contentment is. He discusses the mystery of contentment by pointing out the paradoxes of things that don't make sense to the world, but that a Christian comes to understand that allow him to be contented. He tells how Christ and the Bible teach the concept of contentment. There is a section describing the benefits and blessings of being content, and then a complementary chapter describing the evils of murmuring and illustrating how unbecoming it is for a Christian. Burroughs tells how people try to rationalize or excuse their lack of contentment by making themselves the exception. He as well closes his book with recommendations for how to attain contentment.

A very important aspect of contentment that both men appropriately address is the relationship between contentment and the understanding of God's providence. While submission to providence is not equivalent to contentment, it is an important foundation. It seems that achieving contentment is dependent upon ever-increasing understanding of God's providence as well as ever-deepening levels of submission to whatever God ordains.

Because the topic of contentment is so important and also so elusive, I recommend reading both books. The concept is so foreign to Christians that the repetition and continued reminders will help to reinforce the message. If reading only one of the two, I suggest the book by Burroughs. His book is considerably longer than that of Watson, however, so someone who is not a dedicated reader may choose Watson's book for that reason. 

"Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am." Philippians 4:11 (NASB)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Companions of Wisdom

Proverbs 13:20 states, "He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm." While it is true that we typically spend time with people who are similar to us, it is also true that those we spend time with have influence over us. We tend to become like them, and they will impact us for good or for evil.

Wisdom is a great companion, who in turn introduces us to a number of other great companions. Wisdom is associated with and accompanied by some other wonderful qualities. As we "hang out" with this group of stellar friends, we will profit as a result. Proverbs 8:12,14,&18 list eleven of wisdom's companions, each one of which is a different word. (I'm not smart enough to know what each of these words mean; my insights are taken from the definitions based on Strong's Concordance.)

Wisdom is the starting point. Wisdom has to do with being skillful in knowing what to do and what to say. It originates in the mind and is expressed through words and actions. Wisdom describes someone with the uncanny ability to always know just what to do.

The first companion is prudence. If the word were used in a negative sense, it would involve trickery, having just the right twist to fool people. This is a positive word, though; it involves having just the right twist or stratagem to give clarity or understanding.

The second companion is knowledge. This describes someone who is cunning or aware. It is someone who gains knowledge based on his observations. He sees something and is able to learn it.

The third companion is discretion. Discretion is an expression of sagacity; it is based on a plan. This describes someone who is able to consider a situation and come up with a plan to follow to give the best result.

The fourth companion is counsel. This is the ability to give advice and to guide others. It considers the situation and then presents a deliberate answer or direction to follow.

The fifth companion is sound wisdom. This would be used in talking about an undertaking or an enterprise, some project that is about to be launched. Sound wisdom gives support, understanding, and direction to help that project to be successful.

The sixth companion is understanding. This involves being able to evaluate and tell the difference between things. It is the ability to distinguish differences, perhaps subtle, and to cunningly discern the advantages or disadvantages of each component.

The seventh companion is power. The word comes from the idea of a powerful warrior or valiant champion, one who is able to meet extreme challenges and have the strength to gain victory over them.

The eighth companion is riches. This simply refers to the ability to accumulate wealth and to grow rich.

The ninth companion is honor. It has to do with giving something the proper weight or recognition that it deserves and is worthy of. It is splendor relegated based on the attributes or qualifications of the object or person in question.

The tenth companion is enduring wealth. Beyond just riches, these are resources with lasting quality. Instead of depreciating, they hold their value over time. They are solid, respected dividends brought about through solid, respected efforts.

The eleventh companion is righteousness. This is a moral rightness found in someone who has cleansed himself from impurity. He stands for justice and virtue, and he does what is right.

The fact that these great qualities accompany wisdom should not be surprising. They are pretty natural applications of Bible-based wisdom. A prudent person  uses godly wisdom to understand that extra little something that gives clarity to a situation. Biblical wisdom gives the right framework for properly observing and having knowledge of one's surroundings. Wisdom from the Word gives the discretion needed to devise the proper plan. God's wisdom allows a believer to give profitable counsel to others rather than just his own opinions. Wisdom from above fosters the soundness needed to direct projects properly. This wisdom based on the Bible enables a believer to have an understanding that distinguishes between things of differing value. God's wisdom gives power, as the energies are wisely directed in the best direction to adequately meet the challenges. Wisdom leads to good business sense, and riches come as the believer makes wise choices. Honor accompanies wisdom, as the worth of God's wisdom is manifested to others. More important than mere riches, Biblical wisdom promotes enduring wealth, bringing prosperity that is truly worthwhile and that will yield long-term benefit. Finally, godly wisdom will enable a believer to life a righteous and upright life as he makes the proper choices according to God's Word.

These wonderful qualities are found "along the way" as one pursues wisdom. Because of their close association with wisdom, they are logical by-products and come quite naturally to one who learns wisdom. Wisdom, in turn, comes as the fear of the Lord causes a believer to search His Word so that he can know God better and understand how to please Him. With such phenomenal benefits available through the study of the Word, why would a believer not want to spend time in it?

"I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion. Counsel is mine and sound wisdom; I am understanding, power is mine. Riches and honor are with me, enduring wealth and righteousness." Proverbs 8:12,14,18 (NASB)