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.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Bonding Time

There are times in life that draw us closer to other people. This bonding can happen through sharing good times. I had friends who once invited me along on a three-day trip to a place that was special to them. We spent hours together in the car. We ate together, relaxed together, and played games together. We lived in the same cabin, shared the same facilities, and saw each other first thing in the morning when we weren't quite at our best. That was a special bonding time, fostered by love and acceptance, by inclusion in the personal life of others, and by the reassurance that everyone was comfortable doing that.

Bonding time can happen simply through working or serving together. At the moment I don't recall any friendship-defining moments that fall into this category, but I have nevertheless observed the principle. On numerous occasions I have worked with someone that I previously didn't know well - in VBS, in church ministry, in outreach opportunities, etc. By the end of the day or week or quarter, I felt a closer bond to the person I had worked with, maybe wanting to give a hug to someone that previously I hadn't really known.

I believe that bonding time happens most effectively in going through difficult times together. I remember a mission trip to Mexico. Our team arrived to find that most of our team was staying in an empty apartment - with no beds and no doors, not even for the bathroom. The rest of the team was crowded into a small house with no running water. The days were very hot. We battled rain and super-sticky mud. Perhaps most challenging was the unpredictability of our days. We never knew when we would get food, and our ministry plans changed so often that it seemed there was no plan. At the end of our two demanding weeks, when we were very close to home, our flight got grounded, and we were stuck overnight. Through those shared experiences, there was a bonding with other members of the team. There was a rapport established by having gone through those challenges together.

I don't believe my experience is unusual. This is why support groups work; the members share the same difficult experiences, and a bond is created. Veterans can have a bond with each other, never having served together, based simply on their common background. A family can draw closer together during a serious illness, death, or crisis. Church members can bond through financial or legal challenges, a church split, death of a pastor, and so on. There is something about going through difficulties together that brings a closeness that other factors cannot bring.

In light of that truth, I want to consider that God shares every difficult experience with His children. "For He Himself has said, 'I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you'" (Hebrews 13:5). God will never leave His children, no matter how rough things get. He will always be there, even if everyone else deserts. Other friends may prefer to share only the happy times; those friends might become scarce when trouble arrives, maybe most scarce when the trouble is deepest. God is not like that. There is no trouble so deep, no trial so severe, no difficulty so challenging, that God decides He has had enough. There are no limits to what God is willing to go through with His children.

Such faithfulness by a loving God should promote a deeper bond between the believer and his Savior, as the believer realizes that God remained right by his side through the darkest hours. The believer recognizes that God stayed with him from beginning to end of the trial and never gave up. The believer becomes aware that God listened to his heart cry over and over again; God listened when no one else wanted to, or when the believer struggled even to express any words. God's love and comfort were constant. Beyond all of this, God gave the help and grace that no one else could have given. With these assurances, the bond should deepen. When God and the believer work through these challenges together, they should emerge with a rapport beyond what existed before.

Some might protest that there is still something missing. It is one thing for someone to remain faithful to give support during a trial and to be available, but there is a different, higher level of support from someone who has gone through the same thing. There is a difference between empathy and sympathy - between support and understanding. While a sufferer may appreciate someone who is willing to stand by him, he may feel that something is missing when the helper can't really relate. The support can seem insincere or ineffective if the helper doesn't share experiential knowledge; he is like an outsider looking on. There is a special, somewhat inexplicable bond and rapport with someone who has lived through the same things.

This is the beauty of the Savior. He was absolutely perfect, but Hebrews 2 teaches that He added to His perfection something that no one would have thought to require, making Him even better than perfect. "Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted" (Hebrews 2:17-18). Jesus came to this earth and learned about sorrow, pain, and temptation, so that He has a heart-level understanding of what His children are talking about when they come to Him. Jesus can sympathize. He can understand and relate very specifically to the trials of His people. He is absolutely equipped to go through every situation of life with them.

The believer has a Savior who not only is faithful but who also can sympathize. A trial is an opportunity to relish that relationship and watch it grow stronger. Each challenge is an opportunity for the believer to bond more deeply with His Savior and to emerge closer to Him than ever before. These are wonderful truths. The believer never goes through anything alone. At his side is someone who knows and understands him. God is always faithful and constantly shows His love and support. These truths form the foundation for a deep bond that cannot be matched with anyone else.

"When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. . . Since you are precious in My sight, since you are honored and I love you." Isaiah 43:2&4a (NASB)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Is God Reliable?

"Why has my pain been perpetual and my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will You indeed be to me like a deceptive stream with water that is unreliable?" Jeremiah 15:18 (NASB)

In chapter 15 of his prophecy, Jeremiah expresses the frustration and difficulty of his life. He calls himself "a man of strife and a man of contention to all the land" (v. 10). "Everyone curses [him]" (v. 10). The Lord has told Jeremiah that things will be different, that people will look to him for help (v. 11). At this point, however, Jeremiah does not see the good.

Jeremiah calls out in prayer to God. He first gives three requests. He prays that God would remember and notice him, that God would protect him by taking vengeance on his enemies, and that God would not end his life (v. 15).

Jeremiah then gives four responses of his heart. First, he delights in his dedication to God and His Word (v. 16). Second, he is lonely since he has not joined in the frivolity of others, but has been consumed with his service to God (v. 17). Third, he is hurting; Jeremiah describes constant pain that finds no remedy (v. 18a). Fourth, he is uncertain. He doubts God's constancy. At times God seems to be deceptively near to him, but at other times completely absent (v. 18b).

This questioning of God's faithfulness is common for believers who are suffering. They want to know if God is reliable. They want to know how God can promise the things He does and then seemingly let His people down. This doubt is particularly troubling for those, who like Jeremiah, believe that they themselves have been faithful. So where is God?

God responds to Jeremiah with reassurance. God first calls Jeremiah to return to Him and be restored (v. 19). Jeremiah was apparently not quite as close to God as he thought he was. God desired to restore Jeremiah.

After this call for Jeremiah to draw near, God gives him three promises. He promises that Jeremiah will stand before Him as His spokesman who carries His message (v. 19). He promises to make Jeremiah strong, like a fortified wall of bronze (v. 20). He promises to protect Jeremiah so that his enemies will not be able to conquer him (v. 21).

God is faithful. He is reliable. He declared His dependability to Jeremiah and spoke anew of His promises. God is the same for His people today. God never changes. His Word is always true. His promises are always reliable. His character is steadfast, so that what was true of God in the past is still true today. This changeless God can always be relied upon.

Every aspect of God is reliable, and nothing about His character ever changes. The poem below references aspects of God that He specifically declares to be forever: His Kingship, His righteousness, His mercy, His truth, His love, the sufficiency of His death, His Word, and His presence. These things cannot and will not change.

The Same (Sonnet 5)
In days gone by, the reigning King was He,
And He was righteous, merciful, and true.
His love was real, His death enough for me.
His Word endured; He stayed right with me, too.
In life today, as mighty King He reigns,
I see His mercy, truth, and righteousness.
I know His love; His death still breaks sin’s chains.
His Word holds firm; His presence is no less.
In years to come, almighty King He’ll be.
His mercy, truth, and righteousness He’ll show.
His love will last, His death sufficient be.
His Word will stand; He’ll always with me go.
So yesterday, today, forever, just
The same is He - so worthy of my trust.

People change, but God does not change. Believers need not fear that He is fickle. They need not doubt that He is dependable. There should be no worries that He is weak and therefore cannot maintain the character He once had. God is just as strong, just as true, just as reliable as He ever was. Believers can safely rest in this unchanging Rock. The dependable God of Jeremiah is the one who still faithfully keeps His people today.

"For I, the LORD, do not change." Malachi 3:6 (NASB)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Required Courses

In college I had to take required courses. Some were general coursework: literature, history, science, and physical education. Others were foundational courses and prerequisites specifically for my major. There were also the major content classes for my degree.

Sadly, as an eighteen- to twenty-two-year old, I wasn't always entirely perceptive of the value of each course. Too often my mindset was that I was taking the class because I had to. I slid through the two semesters of History of Civilization with a D and a (gracious) D-. Other classes were easier; I aced Physical Science Survey. Volleyball and Badminton were fun. Here's the point. Regardless of how well I did or how much I liked a class, I was mostly checking requirements off my list. I did the homework, completed the projects, took the tests, and moved through each unit until I finished the course. My accomplishment was in completing the class, hopefully with a respectable grade.

What I did not appreciate was the value of what I was learning. Even within my major, I often evaluated that one class was boring, another required a lot of projects, and another was all about memorizing lists. I thought of my classes primarily as educational, rather than instructional. That is, taking them helped me to earn a degree, but I didn't see them as teaching me how to be prepared for life.

I doubt that I was the only student who ever thought that way. Overall, I enjoyed college, but I had a limited perspective of the real value. Professors have some insight into this immature appreciation for learning. A history professor might be satisfied for the students to finish the course unable to rattle off dates and specific facts, but with an understanding of God's overarching control of history. A literature professor may rest in the confidence that his students will know how to evaluate what they read in the future, though they don't remember themes of specific works. A Bible professor might understand that his students will throw away the projects they submitted, but will have learned how to study the Bible and how to teach it to others. A wise teacher will focus on building skills rather than knowledge, since a student with skills can later pursue knowledge on his own.

There is, therefore, value in the course whether or not the student fully appreciates it, but good teachers design their courses to maximize learning. Probably the most value is achieved when the professor gets the students engaged in the process - participating actively in class and doing projects outside of class. The content becomes more practical when a student verbalizes it in discussion or writes a paper that gives increased understanding of a particular facet. For the most part, the more actively involved the student is, the greater is his long-term value from the course.

A wise student can increase his profit from each class by deliberately focusing on it. If it is computer applications, he will learn that topic thoroughly during the time the course is offered in order to best utilize those skills in the future. If it is a 101-level course, he will strive to master that information, knowing it will prepare him for 102 or 201. A wise student does not concern himself with 201 material while he is taking 101. Some of the more advanced content may be introduced to him, but he is content to master what is currently before him and then tackle the other lessons when they come.

An insightful student knows that tests will check his mastery. Instead of cramming so the content sticks in his mind just long enough to make it through the test, he genuinely learns the material so that he still knows it when exam time arrives or when his future boss assigns him a project. He regularly reviews the material, stating it out loud or rehearsing it with someone else. An exemplary student does not expect the teacher to spoon-feed him. He enhances his learning by reading his textbook, seeking out resources, and studying on his own. He embraces each project, not just to check it off his list, but to earn deeper knowledge or practical experience.

God also has required courses for His children, and the combination of classes is tailor-made for each student. Some of the lessons may seem mundane, some incredibly demanding, and others unpleasant. Instead of focusing just on "graduating with a degree" or making it into heaven, the believer must seek to gain the maximum profit from each course. Failing to do may result in mere overviews of topics rather than mastery. Since God's lessons for life are more important than college courses, a believer must give due diligence to truly learn the lessons. Then instead of just passing the course with a D and earning the credit, he is able to pass with an A, while at the same time gaining true knowledge for life. He is prepared for the next time he is tested over the same material or for the harder course of study for which this class is intended to prepare him.

This mastery can be achieved with much the same strategies that an enlightened college student would utilize. When a particular issue comes up in life, an area in which God is working, a Christian must likewise take full advantage of that course of study. Instead of muddling through the eighteen-week course like a college student might do just to check off that requirement, a wise Christian will seek to fully learn that lesson during the time it is being offered.  He will realize the wisdom of focusing on the current lesson, rather than agonizing over every other lesson yet to be learned. He will ask the Teacher questions about what he does not understand. He will seek out tutoring from the Instructor or from a designated representative. He will read the Textbook. He will review what he is learning, perhaps writing it down, verbalizing it aloud, or sharing it with others. He will do research projects, using the Bible as his source, and striving for complete mastery of that topic.

To make this last aspect practical, I want to briefly share a few examples from my own life. As someone who became increasingly emotional through age and illness, I was troubled by the suggestion that tears are stupid and inappropriate; I studied the Bible to find out what God reveals about tears - who cried, and why, and whether they was condemned. After more than one person presented me with an understanding that Christians shouldn't need friends, I studied friendships in the Bible to see what God had to say about friends. I once came to the troubling realization that I barely loved anybody, and I looked to see what the Bible has to say about love between Christians. During a missions trip to a challenging field, I did a study on peace. Currently, my heart tells me I need to know more about the love of God, so that's what I am studying.

Too many Christians struggle through life's required courses, talking to their friends about how they feel, reading books by "experts," drowning their trouble in increased activities or entertainment, internalizing their angst, or simply holding on till things get better. God has the answers for every situation in life; sometimes He wants us to do a research project. What do you need to study?

"Seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence." II Peter 1:3 (NASB)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Hero: Joseph

If life were filled with one disappointment after another - if it were a series of disillusionments and frustrations  - if nothing ever seemed to work out right - could a believer still trust God? Joseph did. Joseph was a man who earnestly desired to serve God, yet it seemed that nothing could go right for him. When someone evidences a heart for God and does his best to serve God, shouldn't there be a more ideal answer than continued trials?

Here is a summary of the difficulties and disappointments Joseph faced. His mother died when he was young. He was hated by his half-brothers. His brothers attacked him with the intention of killing him. His brothers sold him. He was forced to serve as a slave. He was falsely accused and put into prison. He was forgotten by someone who could have helped to bring about his release. He was separated from his family for 22 years.

As a faithful servant of God, Joseph didn't deserve judgment, and his repeated disappointments seem illogical. In fact, with the large portion of Scripture about Joseph, there is no revealed failure like those in the lives of the heroes examined in recent posts. (Obviously, Joseph did sin, but God choose not to record that.) Even as a young man, God revealed things to this tender young man who sought to follow Him. Joseph was obedient to his father and concerned over the evil behavior of his brothers. As both a slave and a prisoner, Joseph's work prospered, an indication of God's blessing. He resisted daily temptations from Potiphar's wife. To the cupbearer and later to Pharaoh, Joseph identified God as the source of his help. Pharaoh himself recognized the divine spirit that was in Joseph. Joseph acknowledged God in the naming of his children. He gave repeated gifts and grace to his brothers, rather than exhibiting hatred, bitterness, or revenge. His concern for his father denied any resentment over the life-altering effects of his father's favoritism. Joseph offered forgiveness to his brothers because his thinking was focused on the work of God. He knew, even through the wrongs committed against him, that God had sent him to Egypt and was using these trials for His purposes.

With human reasoning, it is easy to question why such a godly man had to experience these repeated trials. Wouldn't it have been fitting and right for God to have delivered this faithful man? Why didn't God do things differently? It is not hard to imagine ways Joseph's story could have turned out differently.

God could have spared the life of Joseph's mother, which likely would have alleviated some of the tensions in the home. God could have caused Jacob to see the negative effects of his favoritism. He could have changed the hearts of the brothers to look kindly on their little brother. He could have held Joseph's dreams back for a few years or prevented Joseph from sharing those dreams with his brothers. Jacob could have refrained from sending Joseph to check on his brothers. Joseph could have failed in finding his brothers. God could have controlled the brother's hateful thoughts, causing them to abandon or limit their evil plans. Reuben's plan of protection could have been successful. God could have prevented the band of traders from passing by at that precise time or from buying Joseph. Joseph could have escaped from them. The brothers could have told Jacob the truth and Joseph been recovered. He could have been sold to someone who had connections in Canaan.

Joseph could have been so respected as an overseer that he gained his freedom. Potiphar could have known his wife's ploys and given second thought or evaluation to the case. A witness could have been available to tell the true story. Joseph could have been given a fair chance to defend himself. He could have escaped with all of his clothing. The wife could have responded in a different way to Joseph's rejection. There could have been an end to his sentence or a general amnesty. The favor of the guard could have resulted in his freedom either legally or surreptitiously. Joseph could have used his privileges to find a way to escape. The cupbearer could have remembered Joseph immediately. Someone else in the meantime could have spoken on his behalf. Pharaoh could have had his dream sooner. When he was released from prison, Joseph could have found a way to return home. Pharaoh might have learned his story and sent him home. The famine and whole story could have been put into a shorter time frame to reduce the years of separation. At some point the brothers could have become guilt-ridden and could have revealed the story.

Such a list of possibilities actually puts the story into even clearer focus. Any of those things could have happened to have made Joseph's personal life more pleasant, but if they had happened, they would have messed up the bigger story. Many of the above-mentioned possibilities were tiny details, and every one of those details had to happen in order for the overall plan to work out. So not only did God not choose to employ any of those other solutions, He purposefully orchestrated each detail that did happen, often in direct opposition to the alternate solutions. God needed His nation to grow in a place that would nourish it. Egypt was that place, and God had to get His people there. God had to set up the scenario with Joseph as the means of relocating His people and blessing them once they did relocate. Without this provision, Israel would have died in their own land, or without an advocate in Egypt, they would have been rejected and died anyway.

God had a much bigger plan than just Joseph's comfort or mistreatment, and Joseph understood that. He didn't know all the ramifications of what God was doing, nor where everything would end up, but he knew that God was in control of his life. His understanding must have grown as he saw the events of his life play out, but even before that, he submitted to God's plan for him, knowing that God had good purposes in all that He did. In his varying life situations, Joseph continued to live for God. There is no verbal expression of his faith until after he was reunited with his family, at which time he stated his faith very clearly. Although words like these had not previously been recorded, Joseph had obviously believed through all those years the truth that he finally expressed. His brothers had hated and sold him - God meant it for good. He had been falsely accused and imprisoned - God meant it for good. He had been forgotten by the cupbearer - God meant it for good. Life didn't make sense - but God meant it for good. What a tremendous truth from a great hero!

"As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive." Genesis 50:20 (NASB)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Failed Heroes: Conclusion

"Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall." I Corinthians 10:11-12 (NASB)

The things that happened to those in the Old Testament happened to them as examples for later believers. The events of their lives were not accidents. Those events were then written in Scripture for the instruction of later believers. The fact that these particular stories were chosen as part of the biblical manuscript is not by mistake. The application is clearly stated. Believers are to give earnest heed to these stories, learning from those past mistakes, for the purpose of preventing falls in their own lives.

Over the past two months, we have looked at the lives of numerous Bible heroes, including patriarchs, judges, kings, prophets, and apostles, each of whom failed at some point. I wanted to take one post to give a summary of this study.

These men were heroes. Half of these men are listed in Hebrews 11 as heroes of the faith. While not all characteristics apply to each of the men, there are a number of common qualities. This group includes men whom God noticed were serving Him when others were not. The list includes men who had very personal relationships with God and directed others around them to do the same. They believed God even when they did not understand. They obeyed God even when the task was immense or confusing. They fearlessly proclaimed truth. They rejected the world and followed God. They held important positions of leadership; many of them served faithfully over long years. These men endured affliction; they performed great exploits and even miracles. They were empowered by the Spirit of God. They were respected in their day. They authored large portions of Scripture and carried God's message to the world.

Each of these men failed. If we look merely at their failures, the list is a bit shocking. Noah had an instance of drunken indiscretion that led to personal and family shame. Job wavered under his continuing trial, defending himself and challenging God. Lot exposed himself and his family to oppressive wickedness because of the temporal benefit he thought his choices would bring. Abraham had periodic failures of faith, even repeated failures in the same areas. Jacob used manipulation and deceit as he sought to control the lives of himself and others. Moses committed murder; when God tried to use him, he responded with excuses, and later displayed both disobedience and anger. Gideon was controlled by doubt, insecurity, and fear. Samson made terrible choices about women and lived based on his fleshly passions. Samuel failed with his own sons; in spite of their wickedness, he placed them in positions of leadership. Saul made foolish decisions and disobeyed God, choosing his own rules for worship and living. David was involved in polygamy, adultery, and murder; several times he took into his own hands actions that had great impact on others. Hezekiah was troubled by fear and pride. By ignoring warnings, Josiah obstinately interfered in the work of God. Elijah faced fear and discouragement; Jeremiah had great discouragement as well. Peter repeatedly spoke without thinking and then ended up denying Jesus. Paul was a notorious and vicious persecutor of the church, as well as struggling with daily Christianity.

The failures and subsequent responses of these men impacted their ministries.
·         Noah's failure came after his ministry. He responded with indignation but did not show repentance or claim responsibility. Scripture records no further impact.
·         Job's failure came in the middle of his ministry. He humbly learned to keep his eyes focused on his great God. This resulted in a greater relationship with God, restoration of blessing, and a testimony that expanded in his own time and has endured for all ages.
·         Lot's failure was throughout his lifetime. Even at the most critical time, he still longed for the benefit of civilization at the continued risk of spiritual vexation. Lot's entire family met disaster, his ministry to his family and others proved ineffective, and we know of his righteousness only because God later revealed it.
·         Abraham's failures came during his ministry. He responded in faith and obedience to what God said next and learned to trust without understanding. He personally enjoyed increased victory, leading to an ultimate reputation of faith as well as blessing on the entire world.
·         Jacob's failures happened prior to his ministry. He eventually submitted to God, realizing he could not fix his own life. His submission led to spiritual strength and to meeting the needs of others rather than himself.
·         Moses' failures came both before and during his ministry. As he submitted to and obeyed God, he was still able to serve God in a tremendous way, although he did face the consequences of his sin.
·         Gideon's failures came both before and after his ministry. After much reassurance from God, Gideon obeyed in a mission far outside his comfort zone; he saw victory and gave testimony to the great faith that prompted his obedience. Being unwilling to continue in a godly role of leadership effectively ended his ministry and even led to spiritual decline in the people he had served.
·         Samson's failure throughout his ministry resulted in no apparent spiritual sensitivity. He was used in spite of himself, though his ministry was cut short, ending in imprisonment and suicide.
·         Samuel's failure occurred throughout his ministry, though it was most prominent at the end. His life-long sensitivity to God resulted in great impact on Israel, but his failure unwittingly undermined his ministry and ended up undoing much of the good he had accomplished.
·         Saul's failures started shortly after his ministry commenced. He responded with excuses instead of repentance. As a result, he was rejected by God, committed suicide on the battlefield, and was replaced by someone who would lead spiritually as he did not.
·         David's failures occurred during his ministry. His humble and godly repentance and his habitual seeking of God for counsel resulted in continued usefulness, repeated victory, and ongoing respect.
·         Hezekiah's failure happened during the later part of his ministry. Based on his early pattern of trust, and particularly due to the repentance of his pride, God  postponed His judgment, allowing Hezekiah to emerge with an overall positive testimony.
·         Josiah's failure came at the end of his ministry. Sadly, he had no chance to repent because he died immediately. This death of Judah's last godly king was followed soon after by the conquest of the nation.
·         Elijah's failure came in the later part of his ministry. His response of humility and renewed obedience resulted in the continuation of his ministry.
·         Jeremiah's failure happened throughout his ministry. He responded in his difficulties with consistent obedience and a tenacious fixing of his eyes on God; therefore, he was able to continue his ministry even into the time of captivity.
·         Peter's failures occurred during the early years of his ministry. His consistent passion for God coupled with his sincere repentance led to restoration and increased ministry. He ended up with opportunities that he had never imagined.
·         Paul's failures occurred both prior to and during his ministry. Whether in the glaring failures of his past or the persistent failures in his present, Paul relied on the grace of God. His ministry continued until his death, with tremendous impact on the early church.

The failures of these men are instructive in what it takes to keep a believer from failing.
·         Noah - I must be on guard at all times. I can't think I can do something once and get away with it. I can't push the boundaries of what is forbidden or see how close can I come without being in danger. My actions may have greater impact that I anticipate.
·         Job - I must realize that I see only the middle of the story, but God sees the end. I must trust Him for what I can't see and wait for His response. I must learn more about God and rely on His superior wisdom when my own is confused and I want to protest.
·         Lot - I must make all life decisions based on God's standards and on what will help me to be holy and effective for God, rather than on what seems likely to bring temporary benefit.
·         Abraham - I must live with my gaze fixed on the long term and on the promises of God, regardless of what I am actually able to see. I must remember that the answer is in eternity and obey without protest.
·         Jacob - Instead of trying to arrange my own life and make everything work out, I must look to God in faith and in recognition of my need. I must let God bring about His plans for my life instead of constantly striving to achieve my own goals.
·         Moses - I must submit even when it is uncomfortable and then trust God to help me do what I don't think I can do. I must be on guard even (or especially) in my areas of strength, realizing I always have the potential to fall, even where I think I am most victorious.
·         Gideon - I must trust God to do what He says He can do through me in spite of personal perception. I must recognize Him as the source of my strength and continue in whatever role He places me for as long as He desires.
·         Samson - I must yield to God, not fighting Him at every turn. I must realize it's not by my goodness that God uses me; God can use anyone. I must desire to give Him my best years and the full measure of my strength.
·         Samuel - I must realize the importance of my individual heart. I can't rest on my family or heritage, nor can I be held back by them.  I must serve God whole-heartedly.
·         Saul - I must exercise humility and follow God's instructions instead of thinking I know better. I can't make up my own answers or rationalize what God says is wrong.
·         David - I must depend on God's guidance for all decisions and respond humbly when I have sinned.
·         Hezekiah - I can't assume God's blessing is because I deserve it, nor can I be proud of my reputation or history with God.
·         Josiah - Even after years of faithfulness, I cannot assume I have wisdom for all situations; I must continue to seek God and obey His guidance.
·         Elijah and Jeremiah - I can't quit in the discouraging times. I must put my confidence in God and keep serving for as long as He desires.
·         Peter - When my heart sincerely desires to serve God, and when I humbly repent over my failures, God can pick up the pieces and restore me to usefulness, perhaps beyond anything I thought possible.
·         Paul - What has happened in the past, no matter how bad it is, does not need to keep me from serving God. In the present, I can't be so discouraged by my ongoing struggles that I hold back from serving God. I must remember that God's grace will help me.

These stories are varied; some are happy, and some are sad. Through the collection of stories, a few truths should be obvious. Anyone is capable of failing. Failure to repent typically ends the effectiveness of a believer's ministry and can potentially reverse the success he has seen. The proper response is always humble repentance and renewed obedience. With that heart attitude, God can continue to use His children in spite of their failures.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Lord Is My Shepherd

I was recently challenged to spend thirty minutes meditating on Psalm 23. My initial response was somewhat negative. "Why Psalm 23? The passage is so short that thirty minutes will be a challenge, and it's so familiar that I'm sure some other passage would be more profitable." I decided to try it anyway. I was to look for two things: what God is like and what God does. The point of the meditation was that there is something about God that makes verse one possible - "The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want [lack]."

This is where I should let you know that if you want the most blessing, you should do the meditation project yourself before reading the rest of this article.

What God is like
v. 1 - responsible, strong, observant, dependable, vigilant, committed, brave, loyal, patient, reliable, thorough, loving, compassionate, resourceful

v. 2 - solicitous, gentle, sensitive, peaceful, caring, serene, beauty-loving

v. 3 - restorative, healing, edifying, deep/pondering, wise, righteous, holy, apt to teach, possessive, with integrity

v. 4 - loyal, dependable, unfailing, brave, fearless, imposing, inspirational, bolstering, omnipresent, eternal, powerful, compassionate, loving, comforting

v. 5 - abundant, resourceful, fearless, bountiful, gracious, commanding respect

v. 6 - good, loving, kind, eternal, loyal, unfailing, accepting, gracious

What God does
v. 1 - cares for my every need; dedicates Himself to me day and night; keeps me from lacking anything; guides, protects, and remains with me

v. 2 - leads me in good ways and peaceful ways, ways of blessing; gives me rest and peace

v. 3 - restores my soul; strengthens my inner man; brings me back and gives me strength when I am wandering and weak; leads me in the right ways when I would go astray or wander aimlessly; helps me to know what is right

v. 4 - stays with me in the darkest times; casts a presence so strong that it reassures me and gives me confidence in His protection and care; through His guidance and constraints gives me comfort in troubling times; makes me aware of His presence

v. 5 - gives me bountiful provision even in the face of danger and when resources would seem to be limited or inaccessible; makes me comfortable to rest and continue untroubled when danger stares right at me; gives me special blessing and care - blessings so abundant I can't contain them

v. 6 - stays with me forever; shows His love and goodness throughout my whole life; takes me to live with Him when I die; makes me His family and belonging to Him

I then had these thoughts about "I shall not want."
  • God supplies my relational (social) needs. (v. 1a, 4b)
  • God supplies my temporal (immediate) needs. (v. 1b)
  • God supplies my emotional, internal needs. (v. 2, 4c)
  • God supplies my spiritual needs. (v. 3)
  • God supplies my intellectual needs. (v. 3b)
  • God supplies for my darkest, most intense needs. (v. 4a)
  • God supplies my needs when it is impossible. (v. 5a)
  • God supplies blessings above my needs. (v. 5b)
  • God supplies my life-long needs. (v. 6a)
  • God supplies my eternal needs. (v. 6b)
By the way, I filled the full thirty minutes - maybe two or three extra. And I was somewhat in awe of how much "life" there was in this very familiar passage. "The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want."

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Failed Heroes: Paul

Why does it matter that these heroes failed? See introduction to series.

How was Paul a hero? Paul was, in the opinions of many, the greatest missionary that ever lived. He served God faithfully in spite of enormous pressures, numerous trials, and intense persecution. He was instrumental in carrying the gospel to an immense geographic area. He consistently shared God's Word with common people as well as with prestigious rulers. His writings comprise a large portion of the New Testament.

How did Paul fail? The most glaring offense on Paul's record was his persecution of the church. The first record of Paul (then called Saul) was at the stoning of Stephen; "Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death" (Acts 8:1). This event initiated "a great persecution . . . against the church" (8:1), and Saul was a key character in that persecution. "Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison" (8:3). As part of his attack, Saul traveled to Damascus, "still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord" (9:1). Saul's reputation was so violent and so well-known that even after his conversion, the church was afraid of him (9:13, 26).

Although Paul's role as persecutor is what most strongly categorizes him as a seeming failure, it is interesting that Paul himself revealed another aspect of his spiritual struggle, one that came after his conversion. Years into his ministry, as he wrote about sinners, he claimed to be "foremost [sinner] of all" (I Timothy 1:15). Readers of today, and probably those of Paul's day, may wonder what he meant by his admission. Scripture doesn't reveal specific struggles or glaring failures throughout Paul's ministry. Regardless of the observer's perspective, however, one cannot discount the revelations of this man of God. He knew his heart well enough to be aware of the sinful nature that still lurked there. He described his spiritual battle rather openly in Romans 7:18-21. "For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good."

What was Paul's heart response? In consideration of Paul's persecution of the church, his own words reveal his heart response. In I Corinthians, he states, "For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God" (15:9). The humility of this verse is immediately followed by Paul's insight into how God could possibly use him. "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain" (15:10). Paul again describes his previous lifestyle in Galatians 1:13: "For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it." Once more Paul tells the only way possible for such a man to be used of God. "But when God, who had set me apart from my mother's womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles" (1:15-16). It was only the grace of God and the calling of God that could take Paul (or any man) and make him qualified to serve God; Paul simply obediently accepted the call and humbly received the grace.

In the life-long aspect of his spiritual struggle, Paul revealed a similar solution. As he considered the darkness and rebellion within his heart, Paul stated, "Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin" (Rom. 7:24-25). Again, Paul exuded a humility of mind that acknowledged his own weakness and his absolute need for the help and grace of God. Only with his eyes on Jesus and dependence on the Savior was Paul able to do anything worthwhile. Paul also discussed the important aspects of his desire to do the right thing (v. 18-19) and his dedication to continuing the battle (Philippians 3:12-14).

How did Paul's story end? Before Paul was taken to Rome, he met with many believers for what everyone believed to be the last time. These meetings were filled with emotion, tears, gratitude, love, and support for this man who was so special to many (Acts 20:36-38; 21:5). Paul left a legacy of churches, believers, pastors, and gospel influence that perhaps will never be matched. As he neared the end of his life, he shared his testimony, revealing his own evaluation of his life and ministry. "For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith" (II Timothy 4:6-7). Though Paul ended his life as a prisoner and mostly likely in martyrdom, no Christian would doubt that Paul did a great work for God.

Application: One of the most powerful lessons of Paul's life is that one's life before salvation does not prevent a believer from serving God. If any man would seem to have been excluded from ministry, it would be Paul, yet God took Paul's exuberance, energy, and commitment, and He redirected them into work for His church instead of against it. Though Paul sorrowed over his previous life, he did not allow it to prevent him from service to God. He humbly obeyed, and God did great things through him. The other tremendous lesson from Paul's life is that even the most respected spiritual leaders have on-going struggles. Others may not see those struggles, but they do exist. Due to personal spiritual challenges, it is easy for Christians to believe themselves incapable or unworthy of serving God. "Maybe someday," they think, "when I have mastered this struggle or when I have achieved some spiritual stability." The truth is that all believers have challenges, often very intense. If everyone waited until he was perfect to start serving God, then no one would ever serve. Whether considering the skeletons of the past or the monsters of the present, the answer is the grace of God. As a Christian humbles himself before God and receives His grace, he can do all that God asks him to do.

"Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come." II Corinthians 5:17 (NASB)