Purpose

A blog that 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, September 30, 2017

The Greatest Hope

Life is hard. It can include frightening situations, emergencies, tragedies, sorrows, loss, obstacles, challenges, and trials. Life can present problems that man cannot fix and for which he can find no remedy. Life can rob hope and bring despair.

Consider worldly responses to such difficulties.
·         Self-reliance: I'm tough. I can beat this.
·         Resignation: I'll make the best of it, lemonade from my lemons.
·         Stoicism: It is what it is. I just have to tough it out.
·         Indulgence: I'll drown my sorrows with alcohol, diversions, or rewards.
·         Counseling: My therapist will give me coping strategies.
·         Detachment: I'll never let anyone get close to me or hurt me again.
·         Bitterness: My anger will give me strength.
·         Suicide: I will end this awful life.

The Bible reveals much better responses for Christians. It reveals that believers can learn more about God through trials and can be encouraged by His love and faithfulness. The Bible teaches Christians to trust God and be assured of His good hand in all things. The Bible teaches believers how to have peace and enduring faith and how to grow in maturity. It teaches Christians to pray and to be thankful in everything.

While this wealth of helpful instruction exists, one truth about dealing with trials is exalted above all others. The glorious truth of unparalleled benefit is the promise of heaven.

First Peter, a book about suffering, presents this truth very clearly. In the opening verses to believers who had been driven from their homes into exile, Peter presents the great hope. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (I Peter 1:3-5). Peter describes an inheritance from which no deficiency can arise due to its inherent nature, which no outside force can contaminate, which cannot be diminished by any means, which is guarded by God who holds it in readiness, and which waits for believers who are protected by God so that they survive to receive that inheritance.

These words of hope about the inheritance are not without purpose. Peter continues his thought in verse 6: "In this you greatly rejoice." Due to the difficulty of their lives, these believers were not rejoicing naturally; Peter acknowledges their present reality as having "been distressed by various trials" (1:6), but the hope of heaven was intended to bring rejoicing even in those circumstances.

Peter continues to direct the believers' gaze heavenward with an admonishment to focus on heaven above all else. "Fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:13). Peter encourages them that heaven is coming soon. "The end of all things is near" (4:7).  He reminds them that God "called [them] to His eternal glory in Christ" (5:10). Christ's suffering, presented as an example for them, was linked to "the glories to follow" (1:11 & 5:1). 

Paul echoes this teaching in First Thessalonians. "Comfort one another with these words." What were the comforting words? "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord" (4:16-18).

When Jesus saw that His disciples' "heart [was] troubled," He encouraged them by saying, "In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also" (14:1-3).

This truth sustained Abraham and other heroes of faith. "For he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. . . . All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. . . . They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one" (11:10, 13-14, 16).

Focusing on heaven doesn't make troubles disappear or get easier, but it provides important perspective. Christians are pilgrims, aliens, strangers, exiles, and sojourners on this earth. Compared to eternity, this pilgrim life is very short and its accompanying weight insignificant. "For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison" (II Corinthians 4:17).

Believers should certainly draw encouragement from the Bible's other truths, but when those other truths fail to lift their spirits in especially difficult trials, this great truth remains: Soon this life will be over, and eternity in heaven awaits.
·         We will be reunited with loved ones.
·         We will be free from pain, sorrow, and death.
·         We will be delivered from our awful sin nature.
·         We will finally have perfect, complete peace and unity with God.
·         We will finally see the One who is so precious to us.
·         We will be able to embrace, thank, and adore our Savior.
·         We will remain in glory with Him forever.

"For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (II Corinthians 5:1).

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Having an Impact

I was recently thinking about people who have had significant impact on my spiritual journey. In most cases, they were people in some level of leadership who took seriously their God-given instruction to minister to others.

Impacting lives includes guiding and teaching those who will rise to positions of Christian leadership. "The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (II Timothy 2:2).

Impacting lives also includes ministering to those who are weak, encouraging them to continue and grow in their faith. "Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed" (Hebrews 12:12-13).

Impacting lives is required of spiritual leaders. "And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-12).

Ordinary Christians are also expected  to minister in this way. "Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing" (I Thessalonians 5:11).

What characteristics enable believers to edify each other effectively?

People who impact others have compassion. The greatest potential for impact often comes at a time of struggle, hurt, or need. Not only is this a critical time for intervention to take place, but it is also a time when people are likely to be looking for answers and help. People who are struggling welcome the help of a caring and concerned friend or leader. Without compassion for the individual who is hurting, the opportunity to impact will often be lost.

People who impact others build bridges and invite interaction. When someone finds himself needing help, he often goes to someone who has previously shown interest, given encouragement, or offered help. People who impact have often taken the first step, either deliberately in initiating a platform for impact, or indirectly by establishing a rapport that will be remembered later.

People who impact others are concerned especially for spiritual needs. Sometimes people need practical help with the events or circumstances of life. While ministering in practical ways is important and demonstrates love, it is ministry to spiritual needs that has lasting impact on the life. Beyond merely assisting with outward needs, spiritual impact brings about real change with inward needs. A person who impacts will regularly share Biblical truth and will consistently challenge others toward a fuller understanding of the Bible and a deeper relationship with God.

People who impact others pray for those to whom they are ministering. Prayer is powerful, opening the door for success that can come only through God's intervention. Prayer takes commitment, and knowing that another person is committed to praying for him is significant to the one needing help. Praying with someone helps to build a bond that facilitates greater impact.

People who impact others are selfless. No one is without problems, so the decision to focus on another's problems displays selflessness. Often people who impact give things of monetary value: a card, a meal, or a small gift. The greatest gift, however, is that of time. People who impact are willing to give their time and listening ear, often in regular or significant portions, in order to minister to others.

People who impact others remain committed for the long term. Too often those who are seeking help find someone who is willing to talk with them a single time. Spiritual problems and spiritual growth are complex; they require extended time in order to achieve real and lasting change. If the process of growth takes time, then the support and guidance must also cover a range of time. Without continued support, the danger for victories to be reversed increases.

People who impact others have patience. If the goal is to bring someone closer to God, then the reality is that there is currently some distance from God. Perhaps the person has never yet built a strong spiritual foundation, or perhaps he is drifting from the foundation to which he once clung. In either case, that instability is going to result in frustrating shallowness, obvious displays of the sin nature, and probably times of stumbling or even moving backwards. A person who really impacts will not give up due to these disappointments and setbacks.

People who impact others share from their own hearts and lives. One challenge for people who need to grow is that they recognize their own weaknesses, sometimes to an extreme, and they think they are the only ones to struggle so much. It seems to them that victory is not possible. It can be helpful to realize that the struggle for godly growth is not unique. The person who is ministering can share (with discretion, of course) times of struggle in his own life as well as the victories God has given. A certain amount of transparency serves to reveal the example of another imperfect heart that is genuinely seeking God, which is often the exact pattern and testimony that the struggling person needs.

People who impact others are not perfect. The realization of one's imperfections make him compassionate and understanding. When focused on or intimidated by his own limitations, a Christian can be reluctant to become involved with others. If everyone waited for perfection before reaching out to others, the church and world would be in a sad state.

In general, spiritual impact is most effective through personal interaction, though a pastor or teacher often influences on a broader scale. Peer impact may not seem as dramatic as that coming from a spiritual leader, but is also quite valuable. Whether deliberately guiding someone through a particular challenge, or simply edifying him in the course of normal life, everyone can impact someone. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

What's the Point?

At times life can be frustrating, discouraging, or even hopeless. When one sees no apparent reward for his effort, no apparent value in his existence, no apparent reason for his circumstances, no apparent connection with others, or no apparent stability in his situation, he can easily ask the question, "What's the point?" He loses determination, motivation, and interest.

A father tries to support his family but loses job after job through corporate changes. A single lady waits many years to be married, only to have her husband die after a short time. A couple's lengthy pursuit of children results only in miscarriages. Parents who have tried to carefully lead their children see one after another leave the church. A person in the prime of life faces persistent health problems that rob his best years. A widow lives on for decades with no one to support her. A single person endures a distasteful job so that he can come home every day to an empty house and a solitary life. Liberalism or false teaching creep into a ministry to which a faithful man had dedicated years of labor.

These problems are not exclusive to the modern day. After an unimaginable series of tragedies, Job faced a devastating health condition, while finding no comfort from his friends. Under these conditions, he did not want to keep living. "Why is light given to him who suffers, and life to the bitter of soul, who long for death, but there is none?" (Job 3:20-21). Job agonized, "What is my strength, that I should wait? And what is my end, that I should endure?" (Job 6:11).

Moses faithfully served God, having chosen "rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin" (Hebrews 11:25). His reward was repeated challenges, provocations, and threatenings. On one such occasion, Moses cried to God, "Why have You been so hard on Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all this people on me? . . . If You are going to deal thus with me, please kill me at once" (Numbers 11:11&15).

After three years in hiding, Elijah acted boldly at God's command, but victory dissolved into discouragement when Elijah's life was immediately threatened. Elijah went "into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and requested for himself that he might die, and said, 'It is enough; now, O LORD, take my life'" (I Kings 19:4).

Asaph's psalms reveal a sincere and sensitive heart for God. Faithful Asaph became discouraged when he observed the comfortable life of the wicked. He admitted, "But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling, my steps had almost slipped" (Psalm 73:2). In frustration he bemoaned, "Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence" (Psalm 73:13).

If anyone could have succumbed to the frustration of a life beset by problems and trials, it would be Joseph. He was hated by his brothers because of his father's choices, sold as a slave while obeying his father's command, falsely accused when he fled evil, wrongfully imprisoned, and forgotten by someone he had helped. Joseph spent decades separated from his family, living in a strange land in the service of others. Joseph was consistently faithful and innocent, but every time he started to see the blessing of God, a new tragedy would strike.

The Bible does not record any desperation or frustration from Joseph. Joseph did not cry out, "What's the point?" Joseph was different in the midst of trials, because he focused on God's truth. Joseph told his brothers, "Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life" (Genesis 45:5). He later stated, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good" (Genesis 50:20). Because Joseph focused on his role in God's service, he could continually face life with peace and assurance.

God also has truths for His children today. No matter how wrong or frustrating or worthless or pointless life may seem, there is always purpose in life. In the midst of setbacks, disappointments, reversals, and pain, God always has a plan for His children. Here are some applicable truths from God's Word that can provide purpose in any situation.

"Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).

"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).

"For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body" (I Corinthians 6:20).

"Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (I Corinthians 10:31).

"According to my earnest expectation and hope, that . . . Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death" (Philippians 1:20).

"Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men" (Colossians 3:23).

"So that the proof of your faith, being more precious than 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" (I Peter 1:7).

If one's goal in life is to experience health, comfort, stability, success, or respect, then life has great potential to seem pointless. If the most important thing is to enjoy life, spend time with family, be active socially, or prosper in ministry, there is ample opportunity for frustration to creep in. However, if one's goal is to please and honor God, based on a foundation of verses like those listed above, life cannot be pointless. There IS a point.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Hugs

Hugging has multiple identified benefits. Physically, hugging lowers blood pressure, lowers the heart rate, facilitates healing, reduces pain, balances the nervous system, relaxes the body, increases energy, improves concentration, and promotes better sleep. Socially, hugging decreases loneliness, aids in social bonding, promotes trust, and strengthens interpersonal connections. Emotionally, hugging makes people feel happy, wards off depression, soothes fears, promotes calmness, and reduces stress and anxiety. Hugged children benefit into their adult lives, and hugged seniors benefit through the end of their lives. Physical touch benefits people by adjusting levels of oxytocin, dopamine, seratonin, and cortisol. Virginia Satir, a family therapist states: "We need 4 hugs a day for survival. We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth."

Two realizations can provide some parameters for considering hugs (and other physical contact). First, people without God perceive a greater need for hugs, as they try to replace with human interactions everything that God can supply. Even significant interaction with people cannot match or replace the interaction with God. Second, God made both the human body and the emotions. The benefits of hugging are not accidental, but are by God's plan. Guided by these two factors, a Christian should recognize the God-intended value of hugging, while not depending upon it as desperately as the world does.

The majority of hugging takes place within a family, between spouses or between parents and children. Where do people without a family (or without family nearby or with a dysfunctional family) get hugs? The simple answer is that God actually describes the church as a family. The bond between brothers and sisters in Christ can transcend that of biological family. "Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another" (I Thessalonians 4:9).

God intends for members of a church to meet each other's needs. "Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:1). Christ's new law to His followers was "that you love another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another" (John 13:34). Christians should desire and aid the well-being of others. "But whoever has the world's goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth" (I John 3:17-18).

God makes powerful statements about love in the church. "Fervently love one another from the heart" (I Peter 1:22). "Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another" (I Peter 4:8). "This I pray, that your love may abound still more and more" (Philippians 1:9). "May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another" (I Thessalonians 3:12).

God wants believers to love one another fervently, increasingly, and demonstratively. One might argue (correctly) that he can do that without physical displays of affection, but even the Bible encourages physically-expressed love. "Greet one another with a kiss of love" (I Peter 5:14). Hugging is an appropriate and common cultural equivalent.

Hugs (and other touches) communicate, usually positively. Hugs can communicate each of the following Biblically-appropriate sentiments.
  • I greet you as my sister in Christ.
  • I'm glad to see you.
  • I love you.
  • I'm sorry.
  • I forgive you.
  • Thank you.
  • Congratulations.
  • I'm happy for your good news.
  • I sympathize with your loss.
  • I care that you are hurting.
  • I realize it's hard to be in a spiritual (or emotional) battle.
  • I'm here for you.
  • I'll miss you.
  • Goodbye.
Hugs can also communicate negatively. Some people's hugs are so stiff that it seems they are trying to hug from across the room. Other hugs are obviously obligatory. Hugs can be given from mindless routine, without even looking at the recipient, or while already moving toward another person or activity. These hugs can actually be hurtful. Beyond failing to communicate the positive sentiments in the list above, they actually assert, "I don't want to hug you. I felt trapped into this. I don't really care that much."

An absence of hugs also communicates. Even human psychology recognizes what God declared as true. "That their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love" (Colossians 2:2). "Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity" (Colossians 3:14). Hugging promotes unity and trust by allowing and even welcoming another person into one's personal space. Without that expression of acceptance, trust is curtailed, acceptance is questioned, and the ability of the relationship to grow is hampered.

People come from different backgrounds and therefore different comfort levels and different expectations regarding physical touch. While Christians should grow into this aspect, it is important to be sensitive to other people's preferences and to the growth process. "Huggers" should not inundate "non-huggers" with frequent and lengthy hugs, while "non-huggers" should be sensitive to the needs and feelings of "huggers." It is important to note that meaningful hugs are an outgrowth of a meaningful relationship. Hugs without a supporting relationship have little meaning, but as a relationship becomes more established, hugs should become more frequent and more meaningful.

Many fellow Christians especially need hugs from their church family. There are widows and singles. There are people with alienated or unsaved family. Older couples, empty-nesters, and "church widows," (those whose husbands don't support them spiritually), need hugs. Children and teens need hugs. People who work in a secular workplace need hugs. Those who are sickly or shut in need hugs. Most people particularly welcome hugs in times of trial, bereavement, or tears.

Sometimes a brief hug is sufficient, while at other times a sustained hug is needed to do the job. Considering the positive and healthful benefits listed in the opening paragraph, believers should recognize hugging as a legitimate and valued Christian expression.  

"Let love of the brethren continue" (Hebrews 13:1).

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Spicing Up Devotions

My most recent posts have examined various frustrations that can occur regarding daily devotions. It is hard to continue any activity that is viewed as difficult or profitless, so I have attempted to give guidance to make devotions more accessible and productive.

The final of the six considerations I presented was "I am discouraged from having devotions because I get bogged down or bored." I discussed the need for variety in devotions, essentially for balancing slower, more in-depth study with quicker and broader but more shallow reading.

In addition to varying the format of actual Bible reading/study, a Christian can add many other activities to complement his structured reading of the Word. Obviously, he cannot do all of these every day, but maybe he could do a few of them regularly and others sporadically. The beauty of the following activities is that they can help to extend a devotional attitude throughout the day. They can also provide something meaningful to do on a day when extra time is available.

1) Pray.
This should be a fairly obvious suggestion and a regular part of any Christian's life. The presentation can vary, however. Whether it is regularly structured or "extra" prayer time, different categories (self, family, church family, friends, leaders, missionaries, ministries, country, etc.) could be prayed for on different days. A day could be dedicated to a particularly pressing need. Special prayer could be focused on one's own growth and revival. Various Bible passages could be used to provide the content of the prayer.

2) Memorize Scripture.
This is a valuable practice for various reasons, including being able to properly focus one's own thoughts during challenges as well as being able to help others. In my experience and observation, memorization works best with some purpose and structure. There are programs available that compile lists of especially pertinent verses. Memorizing a passage (or even a book) can be more profitable than scattered verses. One can choose a favorite, familiar passage and memorize it.

3) Keep a journal.
There are multiple types of journals and journal content. Some people write down inspirational thoughts and quotations, perhaps from books or sermons. Others keep track of special blessings and answered prayers. Some include sermon notes or Bible study notes. Others focus on verbalizing their struggles, aspirations, or soul thoughts. There isn't really a right or wrong thing to record, and certainly a journal could include any combination of the above. A related activity is to go back and read past journals, perhaps even typing ones that were previously hand-written.

4) Listen to hymns.
It is helpful to listen to quality recordings or radio. Better yet, one can play hymns on a piano or other instrument or sing hymns mentally or out loud. He can make his own recordings of special hymns. He can memorize favorite hymns, which is great preparation for times of challenge or for the middle of the night. Another related activity is to read hymns, perhaps purposefully identifying Bible truths or underlying Scripture texts.

5) Read books.
No book is a substitute for the Bible, but many books can apply or enhance the truth of the Bible. There are many resources available, both in print form and electronically. One could read a theological book (gasp!), a Christian growth book, a devotional book, or a biography about a missionary, Christian leader, or ordinary Christian. (As a word of caution, Christian books come from many different backgrounds; not everything promoted as Christian is fundamental or Biblically sound.)

6) Listen to sermons.
While most effective when one can give his full attention to the message, recorded sermons can also accompany driving time or household tasks. Many churches offer recordings of their sermons; this is a good way to reinforce sermons, either on a regular basis or perhaps just for messages that had particular impact. Not all sermons come from a church setting; conferences and retreats are a source of much life-changing teaching that could be reinforced by listening to recordings. As with books, there is a lot of variety (and false teaching) on the online realm. Therefore, it is best to choose sermons from a pastor, church, or other resource that is known to be fundamental.

7) Type old sermon notes.
Many people who take sermon notes never refer to them again. This does not deny the inherent benefit in taking notes, but that benefit can be enhanced by reviewing the notes. One way of doing this is to type the notes, which not only reminds a believer of the content, but can also translate that content into a more accessible and neater format.

8) Write a Bible study.
It has often been stated (accurately) that the teacher learns more than the student. A Christian can learn much by pretending to be a teacher. He can write a Bible study as if he is the one who would be teaching it. For ideas, he could think of the topic for next week's sermon or Sunday school lesson, a Bible study or retreat that he was unable to attend, or a class that merely surveyed a topic.

9) Personalize a psalm.
Other passages of Scripture can be used also, but psalms are probably the easiest. Either verse by verse or concept by concept, one can write down a personal parallel to the passage. The believer can insert his own struggles and situation, thus leading to applying in his own life the lessons learned or the truth rehearsed by the original writer.

10) Be creative.
When a truth is especially meaningful to a Christian, he can sink more deeply into that truth or extend his time considering that truth by writing a poem or an essay or a song about that truth. He doesn't even have to be a professional, since he and God are the intended recipients.

Each of these methods can enhance or extend devotional time, while adding some variety or spice to a believer's spiritual life. Try something new!