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, July 29, 2017

Devotional Drags and Snags: Part 1

While most Christians are aware that reading the Bible regularly, (often referred to as daily devotions), is a good idea, many believers are frustrated in their attempts. Others fail to appreciate the potential of such a routine.

Some common thoughts lead to these devotional drags and snags. As I provide sample statements to represent these weaknesses, I fully realize that they can contain a measure of truth and can be meant differently by various people. My intent is not to criticize or condemn, but rather to clarify or adjust the thinking in order to provide better understanding and prompt greater profit.

1) "I didn't have my devotions yesterday, so I had a terrible day."
People who think this way often reflect a similar thinking about God in other areas. They see God primarily as a disciplinarian, perhaps impatient, ready to punish them for every offense. They know that God loves them, but His love is viewed as more intellectual and dutiful than personal.

The truth is that God has a very personal, intimate, and tender love for each of His children. He wants His best for them, and He wants to bless them. He is ready to prosper their struggling attempts and is quick to forgive. The statement above (and the thinking that goes with it) would be much more applicable to ancient deities or animistic religions than of the true God.

God is not magical or mystical. He is not capricious or vindictive. He will not make someone's entire day fall apart or his life be beset with tragedies because he missed reading His Word that morning. Having devotions is not a good luck charm. Someone who thinks this way (or the opposite - "I read my Bible, so I'll have a great day") is placing too much emphasis on his own efforts and merits. The truth is that God will give to each day what He deems best for that day; His decisions are based on His great wisdom, not on one's failure to have devotions.

Obviously, someone could carry this clarification too far in the other direction, asserting that it matters not at all whether he reads his Bible. That is, of course, false. Reading the Bible does matter. The reason that the above quotation sounds legitimate is that regularly reading the Bible helps a believer to learn more about God and helps to direct his thoughts God-ward. It helps him to have a godly and biblical mindset as he goes throughout his day.

Just like conversation or interaction with any special person, such as a spouse or friend, interaction with God has a positive and beneficial effect. It can be a helpful and encouraging opener to the day. It can help a Christian to start off on the right foot, so to speak, but failure to read the Bible will not inevitably or mysteriously ruin his day. A more precise statement could be, "I didn't give any thought to God yesterday, and that oversight affected my ability to handle my day properly and with a biblical mindset."

This truth can encourage someone who for whatever reason misses his devotions on a particular day. He may not have the opportunity to sit and read his Bible during the course of work, school, or activities, but he can still direct his thoughts to God. The day is not hopeless, and the opportunity to properly channel his thinking is not lost.

2) "I have to read the Bible to get a verse to help me today."
This sounds like a wonderful thought. The person verbalizing it realizes that he needs help and that the Bible is the place to find that help. To that extent, it is good thinking. It is short-sighted, however, and comes from someone focused on the immediate. This Christian is probably in a constantly overwhelmed state by whatever challenge happens to dominate that particular day.

First, he faces a challenge in successfully finding his daily verse. Unless he limits himself to the Psalms or a few choice verses, he will have a hard time effectively locating an applicable verse for his current state. The Psalms are wonderful, but there is much more to the Bible, so, secondly, this believer is likely to have a shallow and unbalanced knowledge of the Bible.

Third, this type of person can be frustrated, thinking that the Bible doesn't apply very well to his life. He might view the Bible as old-fashioned and impractical, not lining up with his life circumstances. Fourth, skimming or scouring the Bible for a verse to meet a particular need or a specifically-focused trouble can easily lead to misinterpretation. The reader filters everything he reads through his current problem and can construe verses to mean what they do not.

Fifth, and perhaps most significant, this reader is likely to have limited profit from the Bible. When he finds a verse to apply to his immediate need for the day, he stops looking. His searching of the Word ends too soon, and he misses the grand purpose of the Bible. Instead of looking for help for himself for the day, he should be looking for God and His truth. Ironically, it is in knowing God through a thorough knowledge of the entire Bible that the reader will find the most meaningful help for each day. With a strong foundation, a Christian has spiritual stability and is not nearly so desperate for the daily "perfect" verse. Changing daily challenges are less capable of throwing him into desperation, and he will be more likely to know where to go for help in specific challenges.

There are days and even seasons of life in which a person might need to dwell in a certain part of the Bible, a particular truth, or a special verse. There are days when the proper statement is "I especially need God's help today," but a better habitual statement would be "I need to progress deeper into God's truth."

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Introduction to First Peter

I Peter was written to suffering believers. In the 105 verses, I find at least thirty-four references to suffering, beginning in the very first verse; fifteen of those references are actually some form of the word suffer. Throughout the epistle Peter gives instruction about suffering; he especially desires that these suffering believers make a difference in their world, handling their suffering in a way that impacts others.

Being able to influence others in significant ways (when the suffering one would seemingly be the one needing help) would require something special. That kind of person would need a strong foundation, a profound hope, and a deep relationship with God. He would need insight and understanding about God and His work.

Peter provides that needed insight. In fact, the early part of the epistle focuses on those foundations rather than on suffering itself, as Peter lays the groundwork for what a suffering believer needs to know and think about. 1:1 introduces the suffering. 1:6-7 talks about suffering. 1:11 mentions suffering (Christ's). After this handful of mentions, this book saturated with the theme of suffering does not mention the topic again until 2:11 (a gap of 25 verses).

Instead Peter talks about what God has done for these believers. He talks about how God saved them, gave them new life, holds an inheritance for them, protects them, gave His Word to them, has a hope waiting for them, purchased them with a precious price, helps them to grow, shows His kindness to them, puts them in a special position, provides an example for them, and so on. Peter expounds these wonderful truths about the hope found in God so that the believers can endure the suffering and can be what they need to be through it.

After acknowledging in the first verse that his audience is made up of persecuted saints who have been chased from their homeland and scattered as aliens in foreign lands, Peter shares some wonderful truth. "Who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure" (1:1-2).

More important than the fact that these believers were scattered was the fact that they were chosen. These people were selected as favorites, as extremely special. This choosing was not by fairly insignificant people like neighbors or society, nor by special people like family or friends, nor even by powerful people like employers or rulers. No, they were chosen by God Himself. Being chosen by any of those other people would lack both the temporal significance and the eternal ramifications of being chosen by God. God's choosing means everything.

The believers were chosen by the foreknowledge of God. God knew ahead of time that He would choose them, because He has had all knowledge for all eternity. God receives all who believe, and He has always known who those believers would be. Throughout every moment of eternity and history, God has simply been waiting for them to be born and believe so that the choosing could come to fruition. For eternity, God knew each individual and thought, "Someday John or Mary will turn to Me, and I anticipate receiving him/her practically, as he/she is already chosen in My heart."

Part of God's foreknowledge is that He has also always known every person intimately. He knows every flaw, every shortcoming, every failure, every rebellion, every sin. He knows the wickedness and deceitfulness of the heart. Knowing all that, being completely aware of their condition both before and after salvation, God still chose them. Such unworthy people were chosen as special by the Most Worthy One.

The believers were chosen by the sanctifying work of the Spirit. The Spirit purified them and made them holy. This is why God can choose such horrible and unpredictable people: because He has the power to change them. They do not continue to be who they were before. There is an immediate change as God makes them new creatures and imputes Christ's righteousness to them, and there is an ongoing change as God progressively sanctifies them. This dramatic change cannot happen by self-effort, but only as the indwelling Holy Spirit teaches and convicts.

The first purpose for being chosen was to obey Jesus Christ. These believers are to hearken attentively to Jesus, comply with His wishes, and submit to His commands. They should desire to know what Jesus wants them to do, find it out, and then agree to do it. As a believer grows in sanctification, he will become more successful in obeying Christ. Obedience is the demonstration that sanctification is happening.

The second purpose for being chosen was to be sprinkled with Jesus' blood. Jesus' sacrifice paid for their sins. While obeying is in active voice, being sprinkled is in passive voice. It is a fact that when the Spirit sanctified these believers, without any effort or merit of their own, God chose to apply Christ's redemptive blood to them. This sprinkling established the relationship to God once for all, not through deserving or earning, but wholly because God chose them.

After this description of the amazing and completely unmerited blessing of God in choosing them, Peter indicates that the blessing is not exhausted. He desires for them grace and peace in the fullest measure. He wants these great blessings to be added on to their already wonderful position. He wants God to pour out on them rich and abundant expressions of His favor, giving them undeserved blessings. He wants God to give them quietness and rest in their knowledge of the complete provision of God. In fact, when God chose these believers, He extended the ultimate grace and the profoundest peace. Peter desires that these qualities multiply and abound so that these chosen and blessed believers will have every bit of grace and peace possible to face their suffering appropriately and triumphantly.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Book Review - Shadow of the Almighty

Several books relate the lives and ministry of the five young missionaries who were murdered by the Auca tribe of Ecuador. Through Gates of Splendor shares the story of their attempted outreach. Elisabeth Elliot wrote another book specifically about her husband Jim, the best known of the five men.

Shadow of the Almighty has a different focus than Through Gates of Splendor. While there is necessarily some overlap between the two books, Shadow of the Almighty is written not so much about Jim's life events, but rather about what made him who he was. The book draws largely from Jim's own writings - letters and journals - to reveal the heart of a devoted servant of God.

Three major emphases stand out to me. The first is that Jim's life was entirely in God's hands. Jim did not die at the hand of the Aucas because God was not able to protect, but rather because it was the means for accomplishing God's purposes. God could have spared Jim's life, and He did so on multiple occasions when Jim was  mere inches or seconds from death. Narrow escapes include the bullet through his hair, the train that demolished his car, flood waters that swept the clinic building over a cliff, and a prolonged raging fever. Jim died when and only when it was God's time for him.

The second emphasis is Jim's submission to "the Will" (as he called it). Jim was absolutely committed to following God's plan for his life; he was sensitive to God's timing and made deliberate choices based on his understanding of that will. Jim's personal preferences and desires were secondary to what he believed would best accomplish God's work through him. This firm passion to follow the will led to decisions about attending college, extra-curricular activities while in college, being a wrestler, spending time with his family, learning life skills, involvement in ministry opportunities, devotion to the Word, dedication to language study, postponing marriage, and much more. If something would help him to accomplish God's work, he would do it; if something would hinder him, he would refrain.

The third emphasis is that Jim was passionate but not perfect. He clearly had a heart that pursued God, and his writings reflect that intense heart desire. Through Bible study, prayer, Christian fellowship, and so on, Jim attempted to protect and increase his devotion to God. His spiritual life was not, however, one of unbroken excitement and intensity. He faced times of discouragement and emptiness, when his spirit seemed dull and when nothing seemed to be happening. He battled through seasons when his Bible study and ministries seemed unproductive and profitless. Through these times, this man with a heart for God persevered and pushed through. He continued faithfully due to his conviction that walking with God really worked and really was worthwhile.

Jim Elliot was used greatly by God through his life and his death. Such effective ministers of God do not happen by accident. They happen when there is an individual who above all loves God, who deliberately pursues a relationship with Him, and who gives himself unreservedly to God's work. Oh, that more men and women today would live that way! Wherever in the world those people exist, that is where God is doing a great work.

Some readers will prefer the easier narrative style of Through Gates of Splendor, but a Christian who wants to be challenged in his walk with God would profit from Shadow of the Almighty.

Here is a list of other books about the five martyrs and the ongoing work among the Aucas. I knew about several of these, but found a more complete list on a blog by Natasha Metzler. Her post provides brief descriptions of the various books as well as some other related resources.

·         The Journals of Jim Elliot
·         Jungle Pilot: The Story of Nate Saint, Martyred Missionary to Ecuador
·         Peter Fleming: A Man of Faith
·         The Savage, My Kinsman
·         The Dayuma Story: Life Under Auca Spears
·         A Saint Among the Savages
·         Unfolding Destinies: The Ongoing Story of the Auca Mission
·         End of the Spear
·         Gentle Savage Still Seeking the End of the Spear
·         Unstilled Voices: A Look Back at the Auca Massacre and the Lives It Touched and Changed

"He is no fool who gives that which he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose." (Jim Elliot)

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Motivation for Ministry - Part 2

The previous post revealed wrong motivations for Christian service. It also provided the foundation of love as a proper motivation. There is much more to consider regarding a heart that lovingly desires to serve God.

Service for God is not like any other labor. It comes from people who have been changed by God and enabled to serve on a spiritual level, reflecting worship back to Him. "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). "So that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter" (Romans 7:6).

Service for God is based on deep gratitude for an amazing Savior. "Serve Him in truth with all your heart; for consider what great things He has done for you" (I Samuel 12:24). "Let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe" (Hebrews 12:28). This gratitude should spark a deeply rooted desire. "Serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind" (I Chronicles 28:9). "I delight to do Your will, O my God" (Psalm 40:8).

A properly motivated Christian realizes that all service is ultimately for God. "Slaves, be obedient to . . . your masters . . . in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; . . .  as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart" (Ephesians 6:5-6). "Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Colossians 3:17). "It is the Lord Christ whom you serve" (Colossians 3:24).

 A rightly thinking servant knows that an all-seeing God will give all the reward that really matters. "And your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you" (Matthew 6:4). "With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord" (Ephesians 6:7). "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord" (I Corinthians 15:58).

Proper motivation comes from a heart of humility. "Serving the Lord with all humility" (Acts 20:19). "The one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant" (Luke 22:26). "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me" (Matthew 16:24). The servant expects no credit, realizing that he is a mere instrument in the hand of God who does the work. "I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth" (I Corinthians 3:6-7).

The humble servant willingly serves God and desires that ultimately all the glory go to the God who rightly deserves it. "As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever" (I Peter 4:10-11). "Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (I Corinthians 10:31).

Even man's weakness, employed in service that would ordinarily be ineffective, is designed to glorify the God whose immense power brings success through inadequate vessels. "I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God" (I Corinthians 2:3-5). "But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God" (I Corinthians 1:27-29). "Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me" (II Corinthians 12:9).

Should a believer not care at all how others evaluate his service or whether anyone else notices it? What about the pastor, for example, whose responsibilities include overseeing the ministries of the church and training leadership to assist in the service of the church?

In one sense, it should not matter at all what others think or see. If the believer is sincerely serving God with the right motives in the ministries to which God directs him, the evaluations of men do not matter. A servant might do something that no one else ever knows about, and that is okay. The primary benefit of someone else noticing and approving the work is that of confirmation that the servant has properly executed what God has asked of him. He can, however, accomplish that objective without the commendation of any human.

A spiritually discerning pastor or coworker will discern the same thing God discerns, making human approbation redundant of God's approbation. An onlooker who improperly discerns is unfortunate, but does not in any way diminish the effectiveness of the service or God's approval.

Either way, whether noticed and approved or not, the servant can glorify God. The God who sees all and who always properly evaluates will take care of the reward and of directing into future service.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Motivation for Ministry - Part 1

For several reasons, I recently volunteered to teach a class at my church's VBS. It enabled me to be a part of my church's ministry. It helped to fill a need. It allowed me to support the couple who was directing the week. It gave me an opportunity to teach Bible truth. None of those are bad motivations; in fact, I believe they are all in keeping with the mission of the church.

In the midst of my desire to be used as a servant of God, I also perceived thoughts of a different nature. To put it bluntly, I wanted people to think I was doing a good job. I wanted to be respected and valued as a teacher, at least partially so that I could be entrusted with other opportunities in the future. As I realized these desires for the praise of men, I knew they were not right, and I determined to adjust my thoughts with God's truth. I wanted to see more clearly what God says about motivation for ministry.

Jesus addressed the wrong type of heart behind spiritual service. He warned His listeners, "Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them" (Matthew 6:1). "How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?" (John 5:44). The notice and praise of men should never be the motivation for service.

Wanting to make people happy and pleased is another wrong motivation. A servant cannot effectively serve two masters. Devotion to pleasing men negates the ability to truly please God. "Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh . . . not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ" (Ephesians 6:5-6). "For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ" (Galatians 1:10).

Self-promotion is a wrong motivation for service. Paul talked of men "who cause dissensions and hindrances"; these men who wanted to be seen as right were, in reality, "slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites" (Romans 16:17-18). Paul himself was okay with the description that "his personal presence [was] unimpressive and his speech contemptible." Paul knew that being compared favorably with others was not important or even wise: "For we are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves; but when they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding" (II Corinthians 10:10&12).

It is wrong to serve God with a conceited mindset, assuming that no one else would be able to do the job as well. "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude [humility] in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:3&5).

The pursuit of personal profit is a wrong motivation. Paul speaks favorably of Timothy, who had a genuine concern for the church's spiritual welfare. Paul set Timothy in contrast to many others, who "all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:21). Not only is such self-seeking service ineffective in God's work, but it does not bring the results people seek. "For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption" (Galatians 6:8).

Peter spoke harsh words to Simon, a converted sorcerer, who was enamored with the power of the apostles. Peter ascertained a dangerous motivation: "Your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity" (Acts 8:21-23). Simon had some serious heart problems that caused him to desire the spiritual gifts of the apostles.

In addition to identifying wrong motives, thankfully the Bible also addresses proper motives for service. By word and example, Paul admonished the believers, "You must help the weak." He continued by quoting Jesus' words, "It is more blessed to give than to receive"(Acts 20:35). It is good and right for believers to want to reach out to help their brothers in need.

Ministry to any need within the church must be motivated by love. "If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing" (I Corinthians 13:2). Without love, the service is empty. The Bible actually commands loving service. "Through love serve one another" (Galatians 5:13).

An even greater motivation than love for others is a love for God Himself. Love for God is the motivation behind the joyful and willing keeping of His commandments, one of which is to lovingly serve others. "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15). "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome" (I John 5:3).

A believer who truly loves God will want to do what God wants him to do. Part of God's will is to serve others in need and to serve within the church. Love motivates a believer to perform this service willingly and joyfully, not seeking praise, prestige, or personal profit.

Was it wrong for me to want to do a good job? Not at all. I should desire to serve God to the best of my ability. My motivation, however, must be independent of the perceptions of others. I should want to do my best for God alone, whether people notice or not.