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, April 30, 2016

Obedience Is Never Wasted

My previous post referred to a political campaign that I've been involved in for the past few months. When I wrote that post, we were anticipating victory. Although the contest was close, in the end another candidate received more votes. When I learned this sad result, one of my first thoughts was that our campaign had been a waste. The campaign had required extensive investment in terms of time, energy, dedication, enthusiasm, and money, yet the objective was not achieved. This realization led to a sense of loss, disappointment, and discouragement. As I allowed God to minister His truth to me, however, I realized that the campaign was not a waste. I was able to see value and profit on many levels, and I want to focus here on just one of those.

Obedience to God is never a waste. My friend ran for office out of obedience to God's direction, and I worked within his campaign for the same reason. Quite simply, we were doing what God had asked us to do.

There are many people in the Bible who obeyed God without seeing success. Abraham obeyed God by leaving his homeland and traveling to the land God had promised him, where he lived in tents his entire life, never seeing God's promises fulfilled. Moses obeyed God by demanding that Pharaoh free the Israelites, only to face Pharaoh's obstinate refusal and even harsher conditions for the Israelite slaves. Jeremiah obeyed God by preaching faithfully for nearly seventy years, even though the people refused to listen to his message, disregarded his counsel, imprisoned him, and tried to kill him. Hosea obeyed God by taking a wife that God had told him would be unfaithful and who ended up leaving him and giving herself to prostitution. Hebrews 11:35-39 describes people who obeyed God but still faced torture and death without ever seeing God's promises fulfilled.

History reveals additional stories of men who obeyed God only to end in "failure." David Brainerd was a promising young man who obeyed God's call to preach to the Indians. He died before age thirty, his potential seemingly wasted. Jim Elliot and four other men obeyed God in reaching out to the savage and unreached Auca tribe; they were attacked and murdered on their first trip to meet those people. Adoniram Judson obeyed God in going to Burma, where he faced tremendous trials (including the deaths of two wives and three of his children) and worked seven years before he saw a single convert. Man would look at these situations and declare that these men had wasted their lives.

This sense of a wasted life reaches into the modern day. Pastors give their entire lives to a church, only to see people walk away from God or even to see their efforts destroyed by a church split. Some ministries thrive until a new leader comes along; as the ministry embraces liberalism, it would seem that the founder's efforts were wasted. Dedicated teachers devote their lives to a Christian school only to have that ministry close down for lack of finances. I personally know two good men who obeyed God by taking on a pastorate in a new place, only to have Him direct them back to their previous place of service in only a year or two. Parents pour out their lives trying to encourage their children to walk in God's ways, only to see them turn their backs on God. Believers witness to friends, family, and coworkers for years with no apparent result. In each of these cases, it seems that the effort, perhaps the entire life, was wasted, even though it was based on obedience to God.

Obedience is linked to difficulty. Hebrews 5:8 reveals that even Jesus learned obedience through suffering. Obedience is not learned by a life that is easy or that follows what the person wants. Children, for example, do not learn obedience by being commanded to go for ice cream or play a game; they learn obedience when they are instructed to eat their green beans or clean their room. When life is hard, disappointing, or seems worthless, but a believer follows God anyway, he is learning deeper and more consistent obedience.

Army boot camp provides another good illustration. Some of the instructions and drills may seem extreme, unreasonable, cruel, pointless, counterproductive, or even impossible, but learning obedience is critical both to the individual soldier and to the army as a whole. Obedience makes a man into a soldier, and it makes a group of soldiers into a unit that is prepared to face the enemy, follow commands, and act purposefully in battle. On D-Day thousands of young soldiers obeyed the command to storm the beaches of Normandy, and huge numbers of them died in the process. While it is sad that those men had to die, an objective view of history confirms that they had to. Their loss was not a waste, because it was only through that loss that the objective of victory could be achieved.

Whether it be the Bible characters, the historical figures, or the modern day examples listed above, obedience (and the resulting loss) is necessary in order to achieve a greater objective. All of those people were right to obey God. They may never have seen the results of their obedience, but God worked through each obedient response to achieve His desired objective and sometimes a dramatic victory. In spite of the confusion, frustration, or discouragement, the outcome of obedience must be entrusted to God.  Obedience is always the right thing to do. It reveals a heart that trusts God. It demonstrates a submission to follow Him. It shows a sensitive spirit that is dedicated to God.

God receives glory when Christians obey. He also honors that obedience and uses it within His plan. God determines the outcome; He only asks believers to follow His leading. Whatever God asks, even if it seems hard, if success seems unlikely, or if past results have been disappointing, the believer must obey God. Then in spite of the results that people see, the obedience is never wasted.

"The people said to Joshua, 'We will serve the LORD our God and we will obey his voice.'" Joshua 24:24 (NASB)

Friday, April 22, 2016

Politics and Religion

One of my friends is running for political office; with God's help we hope to see a victory in just a few more days. I have been actively helping him for the past two months as a campaign volunteer. As I have observed and considered the process, I have noticed some similarities between politics and Christianity.

First, being involved in either is a volunteer position. I guess the really big campaigns can afford to hire some full-time people to run things, but most campaigns are run by volunteers. Even in the large campaigns, most of the work is done at the grass roots level by volunteers.

Similarly, those who decide to serve God do so voluntarily. God doesn't force them, but He gladly accepts all who desire to serve Him and all who dedicate themselves to His service. "Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship" (Romans 12:1).

Second, being involved in either brings the risk of attack. Things started out pretty smoothly for our campaign. Activities progressed calmly and on schedule. As the election drew nearer, however, the attacks, lies, and accusations started, and they have intensified as the day of reckoning is imminent.

Likewise, the Christian life is not without attacks. Things may start out well, and there may be calm and peaceful stretches in the believer's life. Attacks will come, however, especially when decisions are required. Those who take a stand will be criticized and maligned. As the Day of Reckoning draws nearer, those attacks will continue to intensify. "Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (II Timothy 3:12).

Third, in both realms, there is a victory coming. There is a day when the ballots will be cast and a champion will be announced. In the political world, the outcome is often in question. Sometimes there is a surprise result that stuns the pundits and mocks the pollsters.

In the spiritual realm, the victor is certain. The day is coming when the contest will be declared over. God will win, and all those who serve Him will win with Him. There is no question, no doubt, and no uncertainty - and for those who know Christ, no surprise. "The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet" (Romans 16:20).

Fourth, there are differing levels of involvement in both the political and the spiritual worlds. As I consider my friend, I see various responses from those who would declare to be "on his side." Some would verbally assent to supporting him; they might even wish for things to go well, but no supportive actions follow. Some will show up on election day and vote for him, provided they aren't too busy with other things. Others will be more committed voters; they are absolutely determined that nothing will stop them from casting their vote, but the vote itself is their only visible support.

Beyond these supporters who are limited primarily to a verbal commitment, there are others who are more involved - the volunteers. Even within that group, there are varying levels of activity. Some show up to help a few times, while others come faithfully week after week. Some give two or three hours; others give twenty or thirty. Some show up enough to fulfill their civic duty, while others are there rain, cold, wind, snow, or shine. (Yes, we went out on days when the temperature was below freezing as well as in the midst of a five-inch snowstorm.)

I know that people have varying lives; some people have more free time or fewer commitments than others. Some have family or ministry responsibilities that prevent frequent involvement. Those factors aside, I believe there is a significant factor that determines how involved people are. Some volunteer out of a sense of duty or obligation; others have a compulsion and motivation to help. Those who are doing their duty will perform a token number of tasks, but those who are inspired by the candidate and motivated by his message will be as involved as they possibly can.

That precisely describes the Christian life. Some are verbal, or nominal, Christians. They claim the name of Christ. They check His name on the ballot, so to speak. They sign up as being on His side, but their lives do little if anything to show that they are His followers.

Then there are the Christian volunteers. Some are motivated by a sense of duty. They know what a good Christian is supposed to do, and they do it often enough to give an indication that they are following God. Some attend church (or read their Bible or pray or perform other acts of service) unless it's too cold, too snowy, or they are too tired. Others faithfully serve God at every opportunity. Acquaintances cannot know them without knowing they are on God's side. They advertise Him constantly by their words and by their lives.

What makes the difference? It's all about the heart. Those who have given their hearts fully to God and who are convinced that He is the most important aspect of their lives will overflow with service to Him. Unlike the Christians who perform a limited number of obligatory activities out of duty, a Christian who is inspired by his Savior and motivated by His message will live a life that is constantly promoting God. He will be as involved as he possibly can be, because his service flows from a heart that is deeply devoted to God.

"I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart" (Psalm 40:8).

Sunday, April 17, 2016

My Life Doesn't Matter

At some point in their lives, many people have made (or thought) the statement, "My life doesn't count for anything." In particular, they believe that their life does not matter for the cause of Christ.

There are many possible reasons for such thinking. Many Christians believe that if they are not involved in full-time service, they are not accomplishing anything worthwhile for God; they perceive that only the pastors and missionaries and Christian school teachers are really able to contribute to God's work. Others may think their lives worthless for God because they are "just" a stay-at-home mom or because they are retired or too old. Others despair that they have messed up too badly (or too often) or that they haven't been saved long enough. Still others may have a physical impairment that limits their activities or an extraordinary work load that hinders their involvement.

All of these people are wrong. Every life matters for Christ. God illustrates the church by comparing it to a human body. Every part is important. Consider someone who might be the little toe, the spleen, or the bony elbow. Those parts may not seem very noteworthy, but the body would be incomplete and lacking without them. It could not function to its full capacity; every part has value and has something to contribute.

It is a mistake to base one's usefulness to God on a single factor, no matter how significant that factor may be. Granted, it may be easier to see the value of the pastor or evangelist due to the fact that his forty-or-more-hour-per-week job is directly devoted to ministry. Every Christian, however, has the same number of hours in a week. Life is more than the major component of vocation; it is, in fact, made up of a combination and collection of tiny, ordinary moments that are joined together to make up the entire life.

For example, a mother can have tremendous impact for Christ within her own home. Every day provides opportunities to show her children how to love, how to behave, how to pray, how to be kind, and much more. Every day gives her opportunities to encourage her husband and assist him in his labors. Every day yields another opportunity to pray for her family members to grow in spiritual things.

Even without children in the home, a woman can serve God in many ways. She can sing faithfully in the choir or serve selflessly in the nursery. She can care for aging parents. She can ask how someone is doing. She can pray with a fellow believer, or pray for someone else and tell them so.

An elderly church member can pray for others. He can give godly advice to those who are younger. He can greet visitors with a smile or a handshake. He can sing as if he really means it. He can transport others to the doctor. He can write a note of encouragement or make a phone call to check on someone.

A Christian in the secular workplace can be a diligent worker who represents Christ well and who is not ashamed to speak of his faith in God. He can build up his own family and encourage others by being faithful in church. He can help out as an usher or fill other areas of need in the church. He can share a testimony of God's faithfulness or tell another believer what God is teaching him.

Every Christian can practice kindness and love within the church. Every Christian can give to meet the needs of others. Every believer can study the Word of God so that it shapes and molds his actions and attitudes. Believers can take advantage of missions opportunities or methods of outreach in their communities. They can give financially to help pastors, missionaries, or other Christian ministries.

Every one of these actions is a way of serving God. Many of them may seem small in and of themselves, but when they are added together, they can create a life that is constantly doing the work of God. Churches ought to be filled with believers who are doing exactly that - loving and edifying one another, encouraging others through faithfulness, and facilitating the work of the ministry. Any time one life touches another life, there is the opportunity to play some role in the work of Christ.

When someone dies, these life stories, composed of multiple small moments, are often shared. One person tells of encouragement received; another recalls being prayed for. Someone else reveals the impact of the person's testimony. Some will acknowledge that their lives were forever changed or that they resisted turning away from God, at least in part due to that person. I believe churches are filled with these people - dear Christians who are serving in ways that they don't even know and have far more impact than they realize. Maybe other church members do not realize the impact either until they hear everyone else sharing as well, creating a more complete picture of the deceased's life. In truth, only God knows the full story.

The bottom line is that every person can have tremendous impact on the work of God by being faithful to the life God has given him and by quietly performing these multiple small actions that each contribute to God's service and to the benefit of the church. No one is too young, too old, too sick, too isolated, too talentless, or too insignificant to serve God. Therefore, each Christian should constantly look for opportunities both large and small to do what he can do in order to advance the work of God.

"He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much." Luke 16:10 (NASB)

"His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'" Matthew 25:21

"If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired." I Corinthians 12:17-18

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Imperfect Strength

When King David was about to die, he gave some final words of instruction to his son Solomon, who had already been established as the new king. Included in his words in I Kings 2 was a recognition of one of Solomon's strengths. "So act according to your wisdom" (v. 6). "For you are a wise man; and you will know what you ought to do" (v. 9).

David recognized that Solomon already possessed great wisdom. Based on the acknowledgment of that wisdom, David instructed Solomon to discern how to deal with a couple of specific situations. The remainder of chapter 2 recounts Solomon's actions in dealing with those situations. Not only was Solomon's wisdom acknowledged by David, but it was also demonstrated by Solomon's actions.

Chapter 3 (which comes later chronologically) tells the familiar story of Solomon's request to God. When God invited, "Ask what you wish Me to give you," (v. 5), Solomon made this humble and sincere petition in verses 7-9.

"Now, O LORD my God, You have made Your servant king in place of my father David, yet I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. Your servant is in the midst of Your people which You have chosen, a great people who are too many to be numbered or counted. So give Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people to discern between good and evil."

God granted Solomon's request, making this statement: "Behold, I have done according to your words. Behold, I have given you a wise and discerning heart, so that there has been no one like you before you, nor shall one like you arise after you" (v. 12). Solomon's subsequent increased wisdom was repeatedly affirmed by God, recognized by others, and demonstrated by his deeds.

Wisdom was already one of Solomon's strengths, but he realized that he needed more. One might even wonder if he really needed greater wisdom, or if he was actually wise enough already. The very fact that God gave wisdom to Solomon when he asked is an indication that he truly could use more. The continuation of Solomon's story also reveals the reality that his increased wisdom helped him in future situations. The magnitude of the job also supports the need for greater wisdom; Solomon was right when he recognized the immensity of the task that was before him. Even though he was wise, he needed more wisdom.

Just like Solomon, Christians have varying areas of strength. Some are naturally very loving. Some demonstrate unusual strength of conviction. Some are excellent teachers, while others are great servants. There are believers who excel in patience, mercy, forgiveness, boldness, stability, or dependability. Some are great prayer warriors, effective witnesses, or fervent students of the Word.

None of those believers, however, regardless of the magnitude of his strong point, is perfect in that aspect. Even where he is strongest, a believer still has plenty of room to grow. It would be easy to rest in one's strength, thinking, "At least I have that point down." This is dangerous thinking, setting one up for unexpected failure. It is also naive thinking; complacency can prevent the believer from more fully maximizing the way in which God wants to use him.

A humble and discerning Christian will pray for God to help him grow even where he is already strong. Whatever strength he has is only by the grace of God in the first place, and it is only God's grace that will enable him to continue in that strength or increase in it. There is always more that God can do when the believer is willing and desirous for God to work. He can increase a Christian's strong point to make him even stronger.

It is crucial that the believer remembers the source of his strength. In Solomon's case, he had a natural wisdom. Added to that was a God-enhanced wisdom. When Solomon used the godly wisdom, he prospered, but when he fell back on the natural wisdom, he put himself on the path to disaster. For example, it was a wise political move to form marriage alliances with so many other nations. It was a terrible failure of godly wisdom.

Just as God had predicted, foreign wives tore Solomon's heart away from God. God had pled with Solomon not to turn to the idols of his foreign wives, but to no avail. Solomon's natural wisdom made a poor choice that flagrantly rejected the wisdom revealed by God. As a result, the end of this monumentally wise man reads this way: "For when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away after other gods; and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God. . . . Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and did not follow the LORD fully. . . . Now the LORD was angry with Solomon because his heart was turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods; but he did not observe what the LORD had commanded" (I Kings 11:4,6, 9-10).

Solomon's wisdom, something that started out strong and then increased even more with God's blessing, ended up failing in the end. It was an extremely unwise choice to ignore God's specific instructions and repeated warnings. Oh, for a heart that will not fall to the same fate. By God's grace, may He take my weaknesses and make them strong. May He take my strengths and make them even stronger. May He keep my heart tender to rely on Him and recognize that any good I have comes only from Him.

"Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall." (I Corinthians 10:12)

"But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain." (I Corinthians 15:10)

"Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on." (Philippians 3:12)

Friday, April 1, 2016

Working for Good - Part 3

"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, . . .to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren" (Romans 8:28-29 NASB).

Many Bible passages are so straightforward that their meaning is simple and clear;  there is no doubt or confusion as to what is meant. For many passages, however, understanding is progressive. There are many passages that a believer acknowledges as true, while realizing that he does not fully understand them. In many more instances, he is not even aware of missing something important.

When a believer finally understands something he has not understood before, it is like finding a key that unlocks a door to expanding truth. Suddenly, multiple related passages start exploding in the believer's mind, providing a clear indication that accurate understanding has been achieved. Here are some of the fireworks that went off in my mind as I considered the truth of Romans 8:28-29 that the primary good God is working through all things is that of conforming His children to the image of Christ.

"In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials" (I Peter 1:6). The trials come because they are necessary. They are working Christ's character in the believer and are designed by God to do that. Until a Christian fully reflects Christ's character, he needs the trials.

"Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1:2-4). There is no way to consider multiplied trials to be joy unless one understands the intended result of completing godly character.

God does accomplish His work of Christ-likeness through training His children, often in the form of trials. "All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness" (Hebrews 12:11).

Romans 8:26-27 speak of the Spirit's role as He prays for God's will to be accomplished in the believer. As the Spirit participates in this process, He knows what God wants in terms of Christ-likeness. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23).

The Bible declares as expected and reasonable that God would want to do this work. "Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. . . . So that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:1-2).

The end result of a Christ-reflecting faith produced through trials is so special to God that He says in I Peter 1:7, "So that the proof of your faith, being more precious that gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."

It should not be surprising that growth requires trials. The Bible declares about Jesus Himself, "to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings" (Hebrews 2:10) and, "Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered" (Hebrews 5:8). In fact, Jesus' prayer when He came to the soul-troubling hour of suffering was for God to be glorified. "But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name" (John 12:27-28).

When God conforms a believer to be more like His Son, He truly is working things for good. The result is good for the individual involved. "For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison" (II Corinthians 4:17).

The result is good for others who observe. I Peter 3:15 shares what should happen when a believer's Christ-like character shines forth in a trial. "But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you." Godly character,  abnormal for the world and possible only through Christ, provides the opportunity to share the hope of Christ with those who don't know Him.

The result is good for God as Christ is exalted. This is God's stated purpose in Romans 8:29: "to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren." As believers imitate Christ in the ultimate display of worship, Christ receives the glory that is due Him, and God is able to fulfill His desire of giving many brothers to Christ ("they also, whom You have given me" John 17:24).

Before leaving this precious passage, it should be noted that "God causes all things to work together for good." While Christians tend to consider bad things used for good, God also uses good things to work out His good. God can work through a friendship that demonstrates unselfishness, through a good job that provides resources for service, through a godly marriage that gives support and stability, through a loving family, strong preaching, or an opportunity to work in a particular ministry or attend a certain school. A Christian cannot waste these good parts of God's plan by failing to profit from them as God intends. In all things, whether considered good or bad by people, the believer must be conscious that God is doing the good work of conforming him to Christ-likeness. This knowledge should result in a submissive and prayerful spirit that desires for God to do His work and that seeks to mature through every contributing factor.