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, December 30, 2017

Strangers

In 1962 Jim Reeves wrote a song containing these words: "This world is not my home. I'm just a passing through." In 1678 John Bunyan expressed the same idea in his book, originally titled Pilgrim's Progress From This World to That Which Is to Come. In A.D. 64, the apostle Peter said, "Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul" (I Peter 2:11).

Peter lovingly addresses his readers, earnestly urging rather than forcefully demanding. His entreaty is given because he wants what is best for these beloved Christians. He wants them to do what is best so that their lives can be the best as they ought to be.

Peter addresses his readers as aliens and strangers, which is the basis for his urging. The action he is encouraging is reasonable based on the realization of who they really are. The two terms share one Greek root, while each includes a second root that creates the distinction between the two words. Alien deals with the dwelling itself, or by implication the family. In other words, the family unit or home is now located in a place that is not its origin. Stranger refers to making one's home or residing. Beyond the fact of having one's house in a foreign land, it is the idea of settling in there and realizing that one is now living in a foreign land, probably never to return to his original home. The reality that the believers are aliens and strangers, not really belonging where they are, is the reason they are to act and live as Peter is about to encourage.

The concept is quite familiar to his readers. Peter had already referred to them as strangers in the first verse of his epistle. In 1:1, however, he was referring to earthly geography. These believers had been forced from their homes in the Diaspora. They were now living in various regions which are listed in the epistle's opening. They know exactly what it is like to be displaced and to live in a strange place. In 2:11, Peter is applying the same concept in the spiritual realm.

Peter is stating that this world is not the true home of these (or any) believers. These readers, who understood the concept quite well due to their geographic displacement, are to apply that understanding to their spiritual lives. They are now residents of heaven, holding heaven's culture and values. This world's cultures and values are foreign. A Latin would feel out of place in an African culture and would not participate nor be interested in certain practices. A diplomat in a foreign country might explore various cultural practices, but he might never understand them or embrace them for himself, even though he lives in the country where they are practiced. This is exactly how a Christian should be toward this world.

Because of their foreign status in this world, Peter urges the believers to abstain from the fleshly lusts associated with it. They are to hold themselves off from such things and not let themselves go toward them. Specifically, the fleshly lusts are the longings and desires associated with this world. They are urges that are bodily, temporal, and unregenerate. "For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father but is from the world" (I John 2:16).

Peter's basis for urging this response is completely logical. Because these believers are aliens, it is reasonable and expected that they would not embrace the practices of the corrupt world in which they are living as non-citizens. Various religious groups have recognized this danger in the past. The Pilgrims, for example, had left England and settled for a time in Holland. In Holland they feared the world's influence as they saw the culture damaging their children in terms of worldliness and corruption. The Pilgrims ended up leaving Holland as a result. While a geographic move may not be necessary, or even effective, the underlying concern is correct. Earthly, sinful, basely passionate, self-centered, and proud desires have nothing to do with Christianity. Instead they are the true manifestation of a world without God. No Christian should embrace those things.

Peter goes on to tell why his instruction is so important. The fleshly lusts are dangerous and should be avoided, never embraced, because they wage war against the soul. Experimenting with or involving oneself in those lusts is asking for trouble and inviting conflict. Fleshly lusts, once embraced or experimented with, create a raging conflict. The war already exists, but it is folly to make the war harder by inviting the enemy into one's own camp. The wisest action is to avoid the battle as much as possible and to have good defenses so that the enemy doesn't have a good opportunity. Embracing (failure to abstain from) fleshly lusts is deliberately causing the battle to rage.

This battle is quite serious. Although a battle dealing with fleshly lusts would seem to be a physical battle, it is actually a spiritual battle. Satisfying the flesh carries the battle into the arena of the soul. "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).

Satan is at the root of the world's system and its fleshly lusts, and he wants to destroy Christians. Christians must respond soberly, seeking to limit the temptation and pull of the world. They should never (intentionally or unintentionally) make the battle harder by deliberately embracing something that earnestly seeks to destroy his soul. Many things about the world hold some appeal, and they are readily embraced by the citizens of this world, but they should not be part of the lives of believers, whose residence here is that of strangers.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

No Hope

NPR recently reported that life expectancy in the U.S. has dropped for a second straight year, a rare occurrence even for a single year. The report cited three reasons for the on-going decline: accelerating deaths from opioid abuse, increased alcohol-related deaths, and a rise in suicides.

Economist Anne Case calls these "deaths of despair," explaining, "So we think of it all being signs that something is really wrong and whatever it is that's really wrong is happening nationwide." She continues, "The decline of well-paying jobs with significant yearly salary increases, job security and good benefits may be fueling a sense of frustration and hopelessness. . . . That may be one reason fewer people are getting married and more people are having children outside of marriages." Her remarks conclude, "It may be the deaths from drugs, from suicide, from alcohol are related to the fact that people don't have the stability and a hope for the future that they might have had in the past."

Her analysis is insightful, but she fell short of identifying the real problem. Her final statement is true, but the root of hopelessness goes deeper than the external factors of job and family. People lack stability and hope because they are trying to live life and define success apart from God.

Modern America has no hope because it has abandoned the source of hope. By and large, Americans have ignored God at best, and at worst have outright rejected Him. Society is fighting to remove God from public arenas, to redefine Him in such a corrupted way that His relevance is lost, and to undermine traditions and lifestyles that are linked to Christianity or the Bible.

Life without God has no real hope. Sometimes life proceeds according to plan, but frequently reality falls short of expectations. The world is imperfect, and people are imperfect; therefore, nothing will match the level of hope, bliss, and anticipation that people desire. Jobs will be stressful, unpredictable, and mundane. Health will falter, and injuries will occur. Marriages will have rocky moments, children will disappoint, and people will be less than ideal. Hope that is dependent on success at work, at home, and personally will be bruised regularly and shattered repeatedly.

There is only one Person who is constantly faithful and consistently positive. God is who He is, and He does what He says He will do. He is always right, always pure, always dependable, always wise, and always a reliable rock on which to lean. Hope in God will not be disappointed.

Hope in God is primarily future-looking rather than present-focused. The greatest cause for hope is the expectation of heaven. "Looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus" (Titus 2:13). To someone who does not have that ultimate hope, the disappointments and frustrations of current life can be overwhelming and quite discouraging.

Beyond the eternal aspect, hope in God also looks to the future during difficulty. Trials are a realistic part of life, but someone who believes in God looks forward to God's deliverance and renewal of blessing. "I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the LORD" (Psalm 27:13-14).

While the above discussion highlights the necessity of the gospel for those who do not have it, the sad reality is that the statistics cited in the report also include professing Christians. It would be naive and delusional to think that Christians never die from suicide or substance abuse - or to expand the idea of hopelessness, that Christians never get so discouraged and disappointed that they consider such things. Hopelessness can exist without ending in a related loss of life.

How can such a condition exist among Christians? Well, if life without God has no hope, life without God at the center isn't much better. For God to have significant impact on the life, He must be a regular and central focus of that life. Sadly, many who claim Christ as Savior nevertheless hold God at the fringe. They make Him an add-on or afterthought. With lives filled with the same pursuits and ambitions as the unsaved, such Christians face the same discouragements, disappointments, and frustrations. In reality, God has little impact on their lives, and they grant Him little control over their thoughts or daily existence.

Lest my readers dismiss themselves as not falling into that category either, let me challenge each of us to aspire for the best, rather than compare with the worst and thereby decide we are okay. In truth, the more deeply and consistently we connect with God, incorporate Him into our daily lives, and let Him determine how success is defined in our lives, the greater will be our hope.

Even sincere Christians who claim to love God and who are fairly consistent in Christian expectations can easily fall into the trap of looking for hope in the wrong places. They can seek hope in a happy marriage with the right partner, in children whom everyone admires, in a ministry with wide and positive impact, or in many other "successes." For some people, successes in those areas might be pretty consistent, but it is highly unlikely that there will not be failures and disappointments mixed in. If hope is focused on those lesser things without looking ultimately to God, the inevitable disappointments can be devastating, even for a Christian.

A hopeful life is possible, but only when the focus is right. Paul said, "For to me, to live is Christ" (Philippians 1:21). "The fruit of the Spirit is . . . joy" (Galatians 5:22). Jesus assured, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10). An abundant life of hope and joy is available to the Christian who is fully fixed on God.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

What Can I Give Him?

Christina Rossetti's famous Christmas poem poses a question.

"What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part.
Yet what can I give Him?
Give my heart."

Without considering Christmas, my similar thoughts had started in Psalm 116:12. "What shall I render to the LORD for all His benefits toward me?" The psalmist answers his question with a list that includes prayer (v. 13), public service (v. 14), an entire life of godliness (v. 15), a life of service (v. 16), thanksgiving (v. 17), and praise (v. 19). While realizing that no gift is sufficient to repay God, sincere gratitude and heartfelt dedication prompt believers to make some seemingly outstanding gifts.

Abraham gave his son Isaac. While God did not require the actual sacrifice, in Abraham's heart and mind, the deed was done. He was willing to give his precious son for whom he had waited many years. (Genesis 22)

Moses gave his life of ease and privilege. He chose to abandon "the treasures of Egypt" in exchange for "ill-treatment" in following God's call. (Hebrews 11:24-26, Exodus 2-3)

When the time came to build the tabernacle, "everyone whose heart stirred him and everyone whose spirit moved him came and brought the LORD's contribution" (Exodus 35:21). These life-long slaves who had fled Egypt with only what they could carry surrendered their most precious possessions, as well as giving their labor to make what they did not own. (Exodus 35:22-29)

Although rash in his vow, Jephthah determined to give God the first thing that came out of his house when he returned from battle, and he followed through even though it meant the sacrifice of his only child. (Judges 11:30-39)

For years Hannah was tormented by her rival and terribly burdened in her own heart because she did not have a son. When God answered her prayer, Hannah gave her precious Samuel to serve God "all the days of his life." (I Samuel 1:2-28)

When God turned back His hand of judgment, David's gratitude led him to make a great sacrifice at a particular location. Although the owner of the land offered to donate the location, David bought the land and animals in order to make a one-time offering. He determined that he would "not offer burnt offerings to the LORD [his] God which cost [him] nothing." (II Samuel 24:15-25)

In response to God's blessing, David aspired to build a magnificent temple for God. When God revealed that this role was not for David, David gave his obedience and also did everything he could to plan and prepare for the temple that his son would build. As the time approached, David added rich contributions of his own wealth to supplement the materials that he had already gathered. (II Samuel 7, I Chronicles 28-29)

The people joined in contributing for the temple. When David asked who was "willing to consecrate himself" to the Lord, the people gave "willingly" and "with a whole heart" of themselves and of their resources. (I Chronicles 29:5-9)

Both Solomon and Hezekiah made extreme and outlandish sacrifices at special times in Israel's history. When Solomon dedicated the temple, he "offered a sacrifice of 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep" in addition to other offerings that went on for weeks. (II Chronicles 7:4-10) In a time of great revival, Hezekiah renewed the Passover that had been neglected for years. The celebration continued for an extra seven days, and Hezekiah's personal contributions for that extension alone included "1000 bulls and 7000 sheep." (II Chronicles 30)

At this same time of revival, the people of God brought their tithes and offerings. They brought so abundantly that for four months those who received the offerings had to pile them in heaps. The chief priest reported "plenty left over" and a "great quantity left over." (II Chronicles 31:4-10)

This trend of abundant giving continued in the New Testament. When Jesus called His disciples, they immediately left all and followed Him. They walked away from their families, their comforts, and their businesses to give themselves to God. (Matthew 4:18-22)

A poor widow came to make her small offering, which Jesus identified as a great offering, saying, "She, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on." Considering those ramifications, this lady gave far more than anyone would have expected. (Matthew 12:41-44)

Another woman gave an incredible gift to Jesus. She brought "an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard." The woman took this perfume, estimated at a year's wages, and expended it entirely in a single moment of worship. (Mark 14:1-9)

Regarding his dedication to serve God, Paul spoke of the love of Christ that controlled him, impelling him not to live for himself, but to give his life's service for the One who had died on his behalf. (II Corinthians 5:14-15)

Paul spoke of the churches of Macedonia, who wanted to take an offering for other needy Christians. Even though the Macedonian believers were in "deep poverty" and "in a great ordeal of affliction," they gave an abundant gift that was "beyond their ability" and begged for this gift to be taken to the other believers. This generous monetary gift was a result of an underlying gift; "they first gave themselves to the Lord." (II Corinthians 8:1-5)

These examples reveal that God values these great and sacrificial gifts. They also reveal that everyone has something valuable to give to God. When a person gives his heart to God, he gives himself. After that starting point, no other gift is too great to give. The outward gifts of wealth, possessions, family, or service are often lavish, extravagant, and sacrificial; the ultimate underlying gift is a heart of worship, praise, and thanksgiving. While the heart-gift will inevitably lead to other more tangible gifts, it is the heart-gift that is most important and valuable. 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Humble Dependence

While every Christian has times of victory, there are nevertheless times of struggle and defeat also. When facing temptation, disappointment, and failure, a Christian must admit his struggle to God.

God already knows man's condition. "For [Jesus] knew all men, and . . . did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man" (John 2:24-25). Nothing man tells God about his weakness will shock or surprise God, but recognizing one's shortcomings can initiate movement toward help.

Admitting he is not where he would like to be is a step of growth for a Christian. Paul powerfully expressed his weakness: "Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?" (Romans 7:24). Clearly, Paul wanted to be more consistent spiritually. He admitted that he longed to be free from sin's recurrent impact on his life.

Asaph also admitted his struggle. While his words were written after he had gained victory, they disclose his piteous condition in the midst of the temptation. He summarized, "But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling, my steps had almost slipped" (Psalm 73:2). Asaph had been so troubled in his spirit that he was ready to give up on following God. "Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence" (v. 13). Asaph admits how low he had sunk in his emotions and actions. "When my heart was embittered and I was pierced within, then I was senseless and ignorant; I was like a beast before You" (vs. 21-22). This story speaks honestly of a nearly tragic failure that Asaph did not want to repeat.

Jesus spoke to a father whose son was troubled by an evil spirit. As Jesus prepared to heal the son, He questioned the father's faith. "Immediately the boy's father cried out and said, 'I do believe; help my unbelief'" (Mark 9:24). If this man possessed no belief, he would not have come to Jesus, yet he freely recognized and admitted that his faith was lacking and imperfect. He was not in the position where he wanted to be.

Admitting one's need is a helpful starting point which leads logically to formulating a resolve. In spite of moments of tremendous failure, David had a sincere heart to follow God. Whether before or after his great sin, he penned this resolve: "I will set no worthless thing before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not fasten its grip on me" (Psalm 101:3). David knew something of his own weakness, and he made this statement that he wanted to do anything he could to avoid sin.

Paul also recognized his own weakness in the midst of his resolve. "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" (Romans 7:18). Paul desperately wanted to do the right thing. His heart was in the right place. He knew, however, that the struggle to follow through was too great for him.

While it is important for a Christian to resolve to do right, he must realize that the strength to follow through depends on God. The resolve must be coupled with eyes that are fixed on God. In a time of fear, David prayed, "When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You" (Psalm 56:3). He freely told God that he was fearful. At the same time, David recognized that God was the answer to his weakness. David's resolve to trust could not be separated from the God in whom he was trusting.

Another psalmist penned the amazing Psalm 119. He starts by noticing and admiring faithful believers around him. This young man realized and admitted that he was not where he wanted to be. His resolve was also coupled with admission to God. "Oh that my ways may be established to keep Your statutes!" (Psalm 119:5). His heart's desire could not be accomplished without the help of the God to whom he prayed.

Anyone was struggles, either with the oppression of temptation or with the reality of spiritual immaturity, must realize that victory is possible only through God. Paul revealed that his spiritual growth and success were achieved only by God's grace. "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me" (I Corinthians 15:10). In fact, Paul disclosed that even the desire to please God could come only from God Himself. "For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:13).

These steps work together effectively. A Christian realizes and admits his weakness. He resolves to please God in that area. He recognizes that only God's help can bring success. This leads him to asking God for help.

Something amazing happens when a Christian cries out to God in an admission of human helplessness and a plea for divine help. "God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (I Peter 5:5). When man thinks he is strong enough or spiritual enough to get victory on his own, he is depriving himself of God's grace. When he humbly appeals to God, God responds with the grace needed to achieve the victory.

In considering the weaknesses and temptations of man, God instructs, "Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16). There is no victory without God's grace, but God's grace is poured out on the humble.

"The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise" (Psalm 51:17).

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Glory to God

"Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (I Corinthians 10:31). Beyond being just a slogan for Christians to hang on walls or a mantra for them to chant before sporting events, these familiar words are foundational Christianity.

Ephesians opens with a repeated phrase of purpose regarding God's interaction with Christians: "To the praise of His glory" (Ephesians 1:12 & 14, variations in v. 6 and 3:21). In speaking of this intended goal, Paul includes the believers' choosing and adoption as sons, their redemption and inheritance, their sealing by the Spirit, and the functioning of the church. From beginning to end, Christians are to bring glory to God in everything.

Jesus said, "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). The good deeds and respectable lives of Christians should point to Someone far greater than themselves. Boasting of their own goodness, ability, and success gives glory to man and detracts glory from God. God knows man's tendency toward boasting, acknowledging that, if possible, man would boast even in the realm of salvation. "Not as a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8).

Beyond salvation, it is important for believers to decrease and for God to increase (John 3:30). This includes every area of Christian service. "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" (I Peter 4:11). In fact, God often chooses unlikely and seemingly incompetent people to do His work "so that no man may boast before God" (I Corinthians 1:29); the glory therefore goes to God instead of man.

Glorifying God should also be part of secular life. Those with talent in any area must direct glory toward God rather than boasting in themselves. Christians must constantly consider and magnify God in their employment. "Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters . . . as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart" (Ephesians 6:5-6).

There is logic in directing glory to God in these areas. Clearly, only God could have achieved salvation. Only God can help Christians live outstanding lives of good works. Only God can give talents and abilities. Anything Christians do on a daily basis should reflect glory to the God who enables them to do that activity effectively and with the right spirit.

The Bible also references glorifying God in a less expected context: trials. Paul understood this concept. When God chose not to remove Paul's thorn in the flesh, Paul rejoiced that his own resulting weakness highlighted God's power. Paul was perfectly content to allow God to receive glory by doing through Paul what Paul could not do. "Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me" (II Corinthians 12:9).

Paul's trials extended beyond the physical. In II Corinthians 4, Paul describes being "afflicted in every way," "perplexed," "persecuted," and "cast down" (vs. 8-9). As he considered his human frailty and inadequacy in this intense setting, Paul recognized several purposes. First, "that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves" (II Corinthians 4:7). If Paul was so weak and so beset by overwhelming circumstances, then God's power alone would be the explanation, and therefore God would receive glory.

Second, "that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh" (v. 11, variation in v. 10). In bearing trials and infirmities, Paul would look like (and remind people) of the Savior who had done the same. Paul provided a small illustration of Christ's suffering, and therefore his life pointed to and exalted Christ.

Third, "that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God" (v. 15). Paul's suffering was directly connected to his ministry for God. As he served others through suffering, the gospel spread, and many, many more people had reason to give glory to God the Savior.

Peter also understood this concept of glorifying God through suffering. "But if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name" (I Peter 4:16). Christians should not view suffering as a cause for shame, but rather as an opportunity to give glory to God when their lives draw the attention and focus of others.

Specifically, the unexpectedness of going through trials without despair provides Christians with opportunities to explain how that is possible. Any honest answer brings glory to God. "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" (I Peter 3:15).

While previous verses have dealt primarily with glory being given to God during this lifetime, there is also an aspect of glory that will be given to God in heaven. A believer whose faith endures through the trials of life provides proof of the reality of God and of the transforming work and stabilizing strength found only in Him. "So that the proof of your faith, being much 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). Truly God deserves glory through every aspect of life. Someday He will receive that glory, but He should also receive it now.

"Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen" (I Timothy 1:17).