Purpose

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 21, 2018

Refuge

I recently attended a ladies' retreat with a group from my church. Because of my continued health struggles, I had seriously debated canceling. I know such situations are challenging for me, especially if I don't sleep well, which is almost a given in this setting. Knowing the potential risk, I finally decided to go, praying that God would make the retreat worthwhile.

My life has been sober lately, carrying various challenges. While my health has improved somewhat, the prolonged nature of this trial is a burden. Even still I manage the bare minimum in terms of activity, generally needing quantities of rest every evening and every weekend. There are still significant questions regarding future treatment; I've procrastinated emailing my doctor for lab results, not wanting to know the answer. My parents' health has been especially concerning lately, with emergency medical intervention for both of them. I can't help them, and wouldn't have the capacity to do so even if I lived closer. I had limited information on new complications occurring the day before my trip. Work always has some level of challenge; my morning before leaving for the retreat didn't go well.

At the retreat itself, new challenges surfaced. I was already tired, and poor sleep made things worse. Normal people can take in the activities of a big event; they might get tired, but they can enjoy the time and handle it okay. I can't, and I was reminded of my distance from being normal. My life is simple enough that I was not interested in typical female activities that others were doing; I felt disconnected. I was aware that while I would love to speak in such settings, the limitations of my body would interfere with my effectiveness and even ability to do so.

In the difficult moments of recent weeks and months, I have had a great longing, one that was present and reinforced even at the retreat. I have wanted someone to lean on - literally; I have yearned for someone to hug me or put their arm around me and hold me close, to support me, comfort me, and allow me to share my heart's burdens. There is no such person in my life, and I did not anticipate anything different at the retreat setting, even though it is what I still wanted.

I know there is one Person who does care about me that deeply and is willing to express that level of support, and my primary goal at the retreat was to seek solace and support from God. I went to the retreat knowing that I did not need the crafts, game time, conversations, fellowship, or various other pleasures of the camp; I needed to rest in God. I went with the intention of spending extended time with God, communing with Him through His Word and through prayer. I wanted to sit and relish His presence. I knew that I needed every possible minute of such activity, so I spent the free time of my weekend in the Psalms. I read and meditated. I talked to God about what I was reading: confession, yearning, petition, thanksgiving, and praise. My in-depth approach meant that I only reached Psalm 90, but it also meant that God could minister precious truth to me.

As I jotted down major recurring themes, two words stood out: "refuge" and "trust." Much of what I read tied into those ideas. God is repeatedly called a refuge. He is proclaimed as worthy of trust. There need be no fear of being ashamed in life's trials. God's track record is spotless, having repeatedly delivered His children and given them blessings. God is exceptional in every way; His righteousness, goodness, lovingkindness, and faithfulness are constantly proclaimed. Believers can be confident in God's care, fully assured of His attention. This is not based on their perfection, because they are frail and often fail. The Psalms echo with prayers of aspiration to walk closely with God, to grow and to be led. God does amazing work in the heart and soul, where the profoundest troubles of man occur. God's response is often compared to that of other sources. Man can't help himself, and the help of others falls far short. Even when others oppose, God supports, and the help He gives is the only truly effective aid. He always hears when His children call to Him. He especially cares and notices the most needy. He accepts and welcomes them, offering a close relationship. God is the best possible refuge, one that can be trusted whole-heartedly. These wonderful truths stirred my heart to poetic expression.

A Trusted Refuge: Themes in Psalms (Sonnet 49)
I find in God each day a refuge sure.
Through countless acts, He's proven year by year
He always does what's right and good and pure.
His fail-proof, matchless pow'r is ever near.
I need this refuge, for I am so weak;
My heart and soul oft' struggle and despair.
God knows my frailty, but asks that I Him seek.
My deepest struggles bring His deepest care.
If others do not help, I can survive,
For God responds each time I call to Him.
My self and friends can never make me thrive,
But God prevails when other hopes are dim.
He is a shelter safe in which to trust,
So rest in peace and wait on Him, I must.

I could have done nothing better with my weekend. While not an exuberant, bubbling victory, it certainly was not defeat. It was stability, calmness, and comfort in the midst of what threatened to be the opposite. It was sweet reassurance that God alone can meet my deepest needs. He held me like I longed to be held, listened to me, comforted me, and gave me helpful truth. He was my refuge. God's answer was not dramatic nor outstanding, but He answered my prayer. He made the retreat worthwhile.

"Trust in Him at all times ... God is a refuge" (Psalm 62:8).

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Failure Redeemed

A kinsman-redeemer is "the relative who restores or preserves the full community rights of disadvantaged family members. The concept arises from God's covenant relationship with Israel and points to the redemption of humanity in Jesus Christ" (Dictionary of Bible Themes, Martin Manser).

There are various situations in which a disadvantaged person could require restoration through a kinsman-redeemer. A poor man might have been forced to sell his land to an outsider in order to survive. A poor person could become so desperate that he would voluntarily become a slave. A woman could lose her husband through death, leaving her helpless and her husband's heritage at risk.

The Old Testament law provided the solutions for these situations. As related to the land, a kinsman-redeemer had the opportunity to buy back his relative's land from the new owner, thereby keeping the land in the family (Leviticus 25:25). In situations of servitude, the kinsman-redeemer was able to buy back the years remaining on his relative's arrangement (Leviticus 25:44-49). When a man's brother died, leaving the widow childless, the kinsman-redeemer was expected to marry the widow and provide an heir (Deuteronomy 25:5).

Since people are imperfect, those noble expectations were not always met. One family's sad story reveals failure in fulfilling the kinsman-redeemer's role. The story involves Abraham's great-grandson; Er was the oldest son of Judah. Er married Tamar, but sadly, Er "was evil in the sight of the LORD, so the LORD took his life" (Genesis 38:7). Although the laws described in the paragraph above had not yet been given, the passage implies a clear expectation and recognition of what should have happened in this situation.

Judah instructed his second son, Onan, "Go in to your brother's wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her; and raise up offspring for your brother" (38:8). Onan made some pretext of complying, but when the time came, he deliberately refused to father a child with Tamar. "What he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD; so He took his life also" (38:10). Onan failed to be the kinsman-redeemer.

Judah made a pretense of rectifying the situation. He told Tamar to remain in her father's house until Judah's third son, Shelah, was old enough to marry her. Judah, however, was afraid that Shelah would die as well. Judah apparently never intended to fulfill his promise. "Considerable time" passed (38:12). "Shelah had grown up," and Tamar remained a childless widow (38:14). Judah failed to perform what was right, meaning that Shelah also failed to become the kinsman-redeemer.

In time Judah's wife died, leaving him a widower. Tamar, realizing she had been misled and neglected, took matters into her own hands. She learned that her father-in-law Judah would soon be passing nearby. She dressed as a prostitute, placed herself where Judah would see her, seduced him, and became pregnant by him (38:14-18). This created a complicated situation of seeming success, but through wholly unlawful and unsatisfactory means. Tamar achieved the goal of carrying on the family line by having one of her dead husband's kinsman become the father of her child. However, the child was the result of an adulterous and incestuous encounter; furthermore, it was not a willing fulfillment of duty. Because success was achieved unlawfully and unwillingly, the role of the kinsman-redeemer failed for the third time.

Tamar gave birth to twins, Perez and Zerah (38:27-30). If the story ended there, it would remain one of the saddest, most tragic, and most sordid stories contained in the Bible. It was a triple failure in what the passage reveals was a God-ordained expectation that a family member would redeem Tamar's situation.

The story of Perez picks up again in the book of Ruth. The story of Ruth is the best-known example of a successful kinsman-redeemer. Ruth's situation was similar to that of Tamar. Ruth's husband died; in the same general time frame, her father-in-law and brother-in-law also died. Three women were left widows: Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth. The kinsman-redeemer concept (in terms of marriage) did not apply to Naomi or Orpah. Naomi was an older widow with adult sons. Orpah chose to remain with her own people. Ruth, who returned to the land of Judah with her mother-in-law, did qualify for the aid of a kinsman-redeemer.

Ruth's story is well-known. Ruth was providentially led to work in the fields of Boaz, a near kinsman. When the circumstances were revealed, Boaz was willing to perform the role of kinsman-redeemer. He was willing not only to buy the lands belonging to Elimelech, Chilion, and Mahlon, but he was also willing to marry the widow Ruth in order to carry on the family line (Ruth 4:9-10). He did what another kinsman could not or would not do (Ruth 4:6), and through his actions, Boaz provided a wonderful success story of the kinsman-redeemer.

Tucked into the end of this success story is the redemption of the earlier failure. Everyone knows that Ruth became the mother to Obed, who was father to Jesse, who was father to David. Ruth's redemption was amazing, with the end result that she became the great-grandmother of King David.

In addition to sharing Ruth's and Boaz's descendants, the Bible also reveals Boaz's ancestors. Boaz was the son of Salmon, the son of Nahshon, the son of Amminadab, the son of Ram, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez. The genealogy revealed in the final verses of Ruth does not extend further back; it does not mention Judah, Jacob, Isaac, or Abraham. Rather, it starts with Perez, the illegitimate offspring of a thrice-failed attempt at redemption. Perez's rough heritage was redeemed. He was the ancestor named in the beginning of the line that led to the great success story of the kinsman-redeemer.

Consequently, that line continues past David until it reaches Jesus, the greatest example of the Kinsman-Redeemer. God can take the most tragic failure and can turn it into unsurpassed success. No one is beyond the reach of His grace.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Why Love Matters

People want to be loved. This universal desire includes children and adults, men and women, Christians and non-Christians. Clearly, the deepest fulfillment is found in  the love of God. Additionally, God expects His children to express His loving nature through their own lives. For many reasons, it is important that Christians show love.

In reference to God, Christianity without love is disobedient.
The expectation to love is ubiquitous in Scripture. "Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). Jesus pointedly revealed the necessity of love by commanding His followers, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another" (John 13:34). This essential command to love one another is repeatedly referenced in Scripture (I John 2:7-11, I John 4:21, II John 1:5-6). If a Christian refuses, or even neglects, to love others, he is directly disobeying the primary commandment of the New Testament.

In reference to genuineness, Christianity without love is contradictory.
Love is such a crucial aspect of Christianity that the absence of love calls into question the legitimacy of one's claim to be a Christian. "The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love" (I John 4:8). God clearly states that His children take on His nature. If they do not love others, it is because they do not personally know His love. The opposite is also true; if one does know the love of God, he will be able to love others. "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God" (I John 4:7). For a Christian, loving others is proof that he has experienced the love of God and shares the divine nature.

In reference to self, Christianity without love is legalistic.
This concept begins with love for God. "And He said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind'" (Matthew 22:37). If one does not fully love God, he is merely going through the motions of Christianity. This man gives the appearance of serving God and living uprightly, but he does so without a true heart motivation. The same concept transfers to the treatment of others. If there is no love at the core, then the actions come from another motivation, such as obligation, guilt, or conformity. Christianity becomes an empty drudgery, consisting of laws that must be followed and expectations that must be met.

In reference to one's children, Christianity without love is unappealing.
Children expect love from their fathers. God recognizes that the love from fathers to children is natural and expected, and He uses this common reference point as a way to describe His own character. "Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him" (Psalm 103:13). Even godless fathers ought to naturally display some love to their children. "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!" (Matthew 7:11). With a father's love serving as a pattern to reveal God's own love, it is critical that a father love his children. If he does not, his children will struggle to understand the love of God and will not be attracted to a relationship with Him.

In reference to the church, Christianity without love is empty.
Church members are to operate with each other on the basis of love; love is the necessary foundation for all service. "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels . . . if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith . . . if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing" (I Corinthians 13:1-3). Ministry without love also results in these evaluations: "I am nothing" and "I have become a noisy gong." This empty service can have disastrous consequences. "See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled" (Hebrews 12:15). This verse charges believers to make sure other Christians have sufficient favor and good will. Since the surrounding context involves helping the weak, I believe this bitterness, with potential to divide a church, happens when Christians fail in practically expressing God's love. For example, "A complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food" (Acts 6:1).

In reference to observers, Christianity without love is powerless.
God intends that the mutual, observable love of Christians be a powerful attraction to unbelievers. "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).  Those without Christ should be able to easily see the love that Christians have for one another. This appeals to their own desperate desire for such love and draws them toward the family of God. Without seeing this love, unbelievers have less pull toward God.

For all of these reasons, Christians must show their fervent love for each other. "Fervently love one another from the heart" (I Peter 1:22). They must grow in their love. "And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more" (Philippians 1:9). In families and in the church, repeated, visible expressions of love must be expressed through both words and actions. The greatest indication of love is sacrifice. "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Love matters.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Something Real

In recent years, many have wondered why so many young people are leaving the church. While often viewed as a recent phenomenon, there is nothing new in the disparity of Christian fidelity from one generation to the next.

In American history the First Great Awakening (1730s-1750s) primarily targeted church members who had never embraced true Christianity. That revival did not mark a permanent adherence to Christianity in America, however. The Second Great Awakening took place in the 1790s to 1830s, and the Third Great Awakening occurred in the 1850s to 1890s. Many cite another great revival on the heels of World War II. Why have these revivals been needed so frequently? Why has Christianity, once ignited, not persisted?

The same questions easily apply to biblical history. Israel had great revivals interspersed with periods of egregious wickedness. The book of Judges highlights this repeated cycle. Revivals happened during the reigns of Asa, Jehoshaphat, and Manasseh; outstanding spiritual awakenings occurred under both Hezekiah and Josiah. After the years of captivity, another great revival happened under Nehemiah, but that one didn't last either. Jesus decried the empty worship in His day, and the book of Hebrews was written to Christians considering a return to Judaism.

Wikipedia shares surprising insight in its article "Great Awakening": "Pulling away from ritual and ceremony, the Great Awakening made religion intensely personal to the average person." God stated the problem this way: "This people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote" (Isaiah 29:13). That truth is illustrated poignantly in the book of Malachi, and Jesus applied Isaiah's assessment to His generation (Matthew 15:8).

The bottom line is that Christianity has to be based on something real; it must be internally genuine rather than externally compliant. The genuineness of Christianity starts with salvation, when a person begins a new relationship with God, but this is only the beginning. Many people have started there, yet never progressed into deep Christianity. Many have been saved for years with only marginal effect on their overall lives. Others have walked with God, perhaps even rendering some level of Christian service, but eventually ended up in complacency and ambivalence. Why do some Christians waver or remain anemic, while others are steadfast and dynamic?

Again, the answer is that Christianity must be based on something real. This is true for the ongoing relationship just as it is for the initiation. Sadly, too many believers do not comprehend the significance of the relationship aspect. They see Christianity merely as an eternal redemption or a life philosophy, but not as a constant practical relationship.

Christians' initial ability to appreciate the "something real" aspect of the ongoing relationship with God comes with knowledge of the Bible. Christians must be exposed to and challenged with biblical truth. They must be taught about life-long growth in their faith. For a new Christian, this may involve discipleship. For some Christians, this may involve counseling or one-on-one Bible study. For every Christian, this must include regular church attendance and personal Bible study. Someone will not achieve a life-long and life-impacting relationship with God if he does not know that such a relationship exists.

Beyond merely understanding that such a thing can happen, the "something real" must be modeled so a believer sees what the relationship should look like. Christians should encourage others toward meaningful relationships with God by demonstrating such a genuine walk themselves. This allows newer or less mature Christians to translate theoretical knowledge into deeper awareness. This is what happened for the author of Psalm 119. As he observed other believers, he noticed, "How blessed are those whose walk is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD. How blessed are those who observe His testimonies, who seek Him with all their heart" (vs. 1-2). As he observed the deeper relationships of others, this man desired the same for himself. "Oh that my ways may be established to keep Your statutes!" (v. 5).

Paul taught, "Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have seen in us" (Philippians 3:17). "Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ" (I Corinthians 11:1). Every sincere Christian should desire for his walk with God to inspire and encourage others toward a deeper walk. "Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds" (Hebrews 10:24). The dangerous mantra that "Christianity is personal, and I don't talk about it" must be abandoned; believers must speak biblical truth and must share testimonies. Believers must exercise some transparency in actively displaying their Christianity, beginning with their own families.

In understanding the "something real" of practical Christianity,  first-hand experience is even more powerful than second-hand example. No one desires adversity, but it is the most powerful venue for revealing the precious relationship that exists with God. There is no greater confirmation of God's character and faithful support. After Job passed through adversity, he admitted, "I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You" (Job 42:5). Looking to God during hard times clearly reveals the genuineness of the relationship and provides a platform specially designed for deepening that relationship. "After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you" (I Peter 5:10).

Even believers who already have a lasting, significant relationship with God should earnestly desire to strengthen their relationship by seeking God's truth, by being encouraged by others, and by seeking communion with God through their own trials. Furthermore, they must let others know by their words and by their examples that such a special relationship is possible. Christians who refuse to share their own "something real" have no grounds for bemoaning the weakness of Christianity around them.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Book Review: To the Golden Shore

I have read Courtney Anderson's biography of Adoniram Judson more than once, and it has been a blessing and encouragement each time. Although the book extends to five hundred pages, it is compelling and interesting.

The author begins by relating Judson's background. Judson was brought up with great spiritual advantage, as his father was a pastor. Judson's father was a man of conviction, often finding himself under disapproval from nominal churches and in conflict with anemic congregations. Judson saw the example of a man who stood for truth.

Judson was incredibly bright even from a very young age. His father encouraged his abilities and tried to provide him with opportunities to develop and learn. Judson was regularly confronted with the expectation of doing something exceptional with his life.

When Judson went to college, he became friends with a godless young man, and with no strong convictions of his own, Judson soon turned from God. For four years, he walked his own way, mostly trying to hide his lack of belief from his parents. After some dissatisfaction, he reached a crisis point where he faced his immortality and finally turned to God.

With his new-found faith, Judson's background, intelligence, and ambition became great tools in the hands of God. Judson still desired to please his father by doing something great, but he also desired to serve God. These ambitions came into conflict when Judson declared his intention to become a foreign missionary.

The path toward missions did not proceed smoothly. Foreign missions was unheard of in America and was actually opposed by some of the church leaders that Judson approached. With a group of similarly-minded friends, Judson continued to pursue this goal and finally embarked for the mission field. The young men had little guidance or preparation. They were not able to make arrangements with foreign governments and were unaware of where they would be able to go or what it would take to get there.

One-and-a-half years were consumed with ocean travel, government opposition, threats of deportation, roadblocks, and closed doors until Judson and his wife finally landed in the inhospitable country of Burma. Almost no missionary work had been done in Burma, and foreigners were not welcome. Religious intolerance was high. Judson had been told that missionary work would be impossible.

In fact, the missionary endeavor was not easy. Judson faced fear, superstition, and obstinacy, as he was viewed with suspicion. Without any official welcome, people were afraid to even talk to him; government and established religion provided strong opposition. It took about five years to see the first convert, nine years to see eighteen converts, and nearly twenty years before the number of converts extended into the hundreds and interest became widespread.

During the long and fruitless years, Judson faced isolation, illness, and the deaths of several children. All three of his successive wives died. Judson spent a few years in a seemingly fruitless effort to gain approbation by the government to carry on his missionary work. Ultimately, he ended up in a "death prison," from which his survival and release were truly miraculous.

God did bless the labors of this faithful servant. Eventually other missionaries joined the endeavor, and the country of Burma was opened to the gospel. Judson was able to publish multiple writings, including tracts, a dictionary, a grammar, and Scripture portions. Judson was able to translate the entire Bible (the manuscript for which was providentially preserved) and do revisions. The extent to which Judson contributed to gospel outreach in Burma was phenomenal - a testament to God's gracious work through a willing and gifted man.

Judson was not perfect. The biography reveals areas of both struggle and growth. Perhaps most notable in terms of growth were Judson's coming to understand Biblical baptism and his later evaluation of his tainted motives in becoming a missionary.

This book provides inspiration regarding Christian growth, the importance of missions, and dedication to God. It provides wonderful examples of God's providential control and His ability to accomplish His work in seemingly impossible situations. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Ebenezer

I like to plan. When I taught school, I had yearly plans for each class before the school year started, sketching out which units I would cover and how long I would spend on each. When I teach Sunday school, I have each week's topic planned before the course starts. At work I have a planned schedule for each day. At home I follow careful budgets. Each week I write down my grocery list before going to the store. I like to know about activities ahead of time so I can look forward to them and prepare for them.

Life does not always allow for such precise plans.  Sometimes life takes one by surprise, spinning out of expected patterns and leaving the comfortable realm of predictability. Sometimes life doesn't even reveal whether chaos or stability are likely to prevail. For the moment, life holds steady, but it flashes warning signs that upheaval might be coming; whether that upheaval will materialize or not is quite unknown.

I currently find myself in the last of those possibilities. Life might continue on its familiar path, but a strong possibility of significant upheaval also looms. While that upheaval is not guaranteed, and may be only temporary if it does happen, I nevertheless face the reasonable prospect of an uncomfortable and challenging season of life.

Since the warning alarm a few days ago, my mind has processed some unwelcome vocabulary. Overwhelmed. Faint. Drowning. Floundering. Fearful. Tense. Daunting. Helpless. Crushed. Frail. Discouraged. Impossible. At times my thoughts have spun wildly, resisting control. I have tried to come up with solutions and figure out the possibilities. I've gone through denial, ignoring, wishful thinking, and hopes.

This has created chaos - a noisy and busy mind. In the midst of that, I have been aware that it is not where I want to be. I want peace and victory. I want to rest. I want to trust God. I suppose it is natural - human, for sure - to need time to adjust. If a rock is thrown into a pond or a bucket is kicked, the water does not still immediately. I yearn, however, for that stillness to come quickly.

Many things can help to bring peace and calmness. Prayer, God's promises, His Word, knowing my God, the maturity brought through previous storms. All of these things help. Something else has helped to calm me as well. It is my Ebenezer.

In the days of Samuel, the children of Israel were in a time of spiritual renewal. As they came together to confess sins and worship God, the Philistines chose to attack. The children of Israel were afraid. They asked Samuel to pray and ask God to save them. God answered Samuel's prayer in a mighty way. "The Lord thundered with a great thunder on that day against the Philistines and confused them, so that they were routed before Israel" (I Samuel 7:10). A great victory followed, and Samuel marked the victory with a memorial. "Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer, saying, 'Thus far the Lord has helped us'" (I Samuel 7:12). This was just one of many times that Israel set up a visible marker to remind them of something God had done for them.

A number of years ago I created an Ebenezer - a visual testament to God's provision. I had been abruptly let go from my job mid-school year, leading to total upheaval. In addition to losing my job, I lost my ministry, my church family, my friends, important spiritual support, my home, and my familiar life. I moved several states away to the challenge of living with my parents, while remaining unemployed or semi-employed for twenty months. My search for a new ministry led me through multiple possibilities that seemed exciting and definite, but each in turn crashed in disappointment.

It seemed that those months would never end. I didn't see how I could make it through. I made a miniature calendar with a box for each day, lasting until when I thought I would have a new teaching position. Each day I colored in a box, changing colors each month. When my unemployment extended an extra year, I made more cards to track the additional months. Finally, I colored one tiny box in a bold contrasting color - the day I got my new job and my life finally moved on.

When I emerged from that experience, I thought to myself, "After what God has done for me, I never have reason to doubt Him again." I have kept those calendar cards on my refrigerator. I notice them from time to time, but I rarely focus on them. This week, however, I was thankful for them. They have been a reminder that has helped to redirect my thoughts.

Those calendar cards have reminded me of many important truths. God knows what He is doing. He will take care of me. He has amazing power to orchestrate people and events. No situation is out of His control. He can and will do exactly as He has planned. He can give me enough grace. He can give me strength. He can help me do what seems impossible. He can carry me through. He can take things that look really bad, and He can use them to accomplish things that are really good.

I don't know what will happen through the rest of this year, but even if the worst scenario that I can imagine should develop, that will not change who God is. It will not diminish His love, limit His power, nullify His wisdom, or trump His control. God will do what is right, and He will help me. That doesn't mean life will be easy, fun, comfortable, or preferred, but it does mean I can trust Him. He has already proven that to me.

"Your lovingkindness, O Lord, extends to the heavens, Your faithfulness reaches to the skies" (Psalm 36:5).

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Things to Say in a Funk

A funk. The blues. The doldrums. At one time or another, everyone experiences a mood that is simply not pleasant. Low points that extend beyond the normal ups and downs of life can come for a number of reasons: great disappointments, persistent frustration, continuing stress, uncomfortable uncertainty, or ongoing discouragement.

Recently I had another birthday. I wasn't expecting any major celebration, but until almost the last minute, I didn't have even the prospects of plans. There was some disappointment and discouragement in that unwelcome absence of anticipation. As it turns out, some friends spent the evening with me, which redeemed the day, but after I got home and the following day, I found myself extra discouraged.

As I evaluated why, I realized that my despondent mood didn't actually have much to do with the birthday itself. Rather, I was discouraged because I had reached another milestone in life without seeing desired changes. I was another year older and still alone. More disturbing was that I was another year older and my health had still not turned around.

As soon as my mind came to those conclusions, I knew I had discovered the source of my discouragement. I also knew that the needed response was for me to say some things to God. While someone may not immediately recognize it as such, being in a funk is usually closely related to one's thoughts and attitudes toward God. I was unhappy with what He was doing and allowing in my life. Instead of retaining those negative thoughts, I had to say four things.

1. I thank You.
"Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him, bless His name" (Psalm 100:4).
"Always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father" (Ephesians 5:20).
"In everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (I Thessalonians 5:18).

There is never a time when it is not proper to give God thanks. There is never a situation for which it is not proper to give God thanks. God gives to His children only what is for their good and only what will accomplish His good work. Humanly speaking, individuals may not see that good or even be able to imagine it, but everything that God does or fails to do is worthy of thanks.

2. I praise You.
"Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation" (Habakkuk 3:17-18).
"Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name" (Hebrews 13:15).
"Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance" (James 1:2-3).
"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).

There is never a time when it is not proper to praise God. He is always in control. He is always doing His work. He is always good. He is always faithful. He is always working to accomplish His work in the world and in the lives of individuals. His amazing character and works are worthy of praise.

3. I trust You.
"Commit your way to the LORD, trust also in Him, and He will do it" (Psalm 37:5).
"You are good and do good" (Psalm 119:68).
"Therefore I esteem right all Your precepts concerning everything" (Psalm 119:128).
"The LORD of hosts has sworn saying, 'Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand'" (Isaiah 14:24).
"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28).

There is never a time when a believer cannot trust God. God knows exactly what He is doing. God always does what is right. God can orchestrate plans that man cannot comprehend. God can bring to fruition everything that He has planned. With a God so wise, so powerful, and so loving, there is no reason for man not to trust Him.

4. I yield to You.
"And Mary said, 'Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word'" (Luke 1:38).
"On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, 'Why did you make me like this,' will it?" (Romans 9:20).
"Submit therefore to God" (James 4:7).
"Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time" (I Peter 5:6).

There is never a time when it is not necessary to yield to God. Man does not have the wisdom or power of God. Man doesn't know what is right and would make the wrong choices on his own. Instead of stubbornly resisting and insisting on his own way, a Christian must yield to the One who truly knows what is best and who solely can accomplish His plans.

These four statements help to put life in perspective. They help someone to put himself in correct relation to God. They help a Christian to focus on proper, stabilizing thoughts instead of improper, variable feelings. Even if future birthdays go completely unnoticed, even if I am always alone, and even if my health never improves, I must deal with those disappointments by telling God, "I thank You, I praise You, I trust You, and I yield to You."

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Under His Wings

William Cushing wrote a wonderful hymn, "Under His Wings," which centers around a precious picture that God Himself revealed in the Bible. God compares Himself to a mother bird who gently holds her chicks close, providing them with protection, comfort, stability, and undying love.

Under His wings, God provides protection.
Under His wings, I am safely abiding,
Tho' the night deepens and tempests are wild;
Still I can trust Him - I know He will keep me,
He has redeemed me and I am His child.

"Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me, for my soul takes refuge in You; and in the shadow of Your wings I will take refuge until destruction passes by (Psalm 57:1).

"He will cover you with His pinions, and under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark" (Psalm 91:4).

God's protection knows no boundaries. Consider some of the situations under which He affirms His ability to protect.

·         the ends of the earth and the farthest sea (Psalm 65:5)
·         terror, arrows, pestilence, destruction (Psalm 91:5-6)
·         night and day, coming and going, now and forever (Psalm 121:6&8)
·         raging waters (Psalm 124:4-5)
·         the remotest part of the sea (Psalm 139:9)
·         the overwhelming darkness of night (Psalm 139:12)
·         waters, rivers, fire, and flame (Isaiah 43:2)

Under His wings, God provides comfort.
Under His wings, what a refuge in sorrow!
How the heart yearningly turns to His rest!
Often when earth has no balm for my healing,
There I find comfort and there I am blest.

"For You have been my help, and in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy" (Psalm 63:7).

"But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall" (Malachi 4:2).

God can help and comfort and heal like no one else can. He often describes this comforting quality.

·         as a solicitous shepherd (Psalm 23:4)
·         like a compassionate father (Psalm 103:13)
·         like the mother of a newborn (Isaiah 49:15)
·         as the Great Physician (Mark 2:17)
·         as the Father of mercies and God of all comfort (II Corinthians 1:3-4)
·         as One who gives peace beyond human comprehension (Philippians 4:7)
·         as a sympathizing High Priest (Hebrews 4:15)

Under His wings, God provides stability.
Under His wings, O what precious enjoyment!
There will I hide till life's trials are o'er;
Sheltered, protected, no evil can harm me,
Resting in Jesus I'm safe evermore.

"May the LORD reward your work, and your wages be full from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge" (Ruth 2:12).

"Keep me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of Your wings" (Psalm 17:8).

God is the only one with power to hold people throughout their entire lives, and He is certainly the only one who can keep them for eternity.

·         He keeps His children before they are born (Psalm 139:15-16)
·         He keeps His children from birth (Psalm 71:6)
·         He keeps His children from their youth (Psalm 71:5)
·         He keeps His children in the trials of life (Psalm 25:20)
·         He keeps beyond the limited capacity of man (Psalm 127:1)
·         He keeps His children when they are old (Psalm 71:18)
·         He keeps His children for eternity (John 10:28-29)

Under His wings, God provides undying love.
Under His wings, under His wings,
Who from His love can sever?
Under His wings my soul shall abide,
Safely abide forever.

"How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of Your wings" (Psalm 36:7).

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling" (Matthew 23:27).

God's love is unmatched to a degree that man cannot comprehend. His love is incredible.

·         God defines Himself as being love (I John 4:7-8)
·         There is no greater love than self-sacrifice (John 15:13)
·         Jesus died for those who were His enemies (Romans 5:8)
·         God's love is not based on any human merit (Titus 3:4-5)
·         God openly declares His love (John 14:21&23 and 16:27)
·         God's love is beyond comprehension (Ephesians 3:17-19)
·         Nothing can separate believers from God's love (Romans 8:35-39)
·         God loved first (I John 4:19)
·         God's love is everlasting (Jeremiah 31:3)
·         God wants believers to abide constantly in His love (John 15:9-10)

When one realizes the tremendous blessing of abiding under the protecting, comforting, stabilizing, loving wings of God, his heart should respond by earnestly desiring to remain in that position. There is no better place!

"Let me dwell in Your tent forever; let me take refuge in the shelter of Your wings" (Psalm 61:4).

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Serious Communication

Recently I have been reading the devotional book I authored for people with chronic illnesses. I do profit from reviewing those truths that were driven into my heart at an earlier time; I have a tendency, however, to read my writings through the eyes of another reader. That is, I wonder how others will be helped by the truth or anticipate that someone else would be challenged by it. One day this week, I was particularly challenged by the appropriateness of the truth for me personally. I read a couple of selections that were especially pertinent and required my consideration. This led me to talk to God about my heart and about my desired response before Him.

Communication is important in every relationship. Sometimes we conveniently assume the other person knows what we are thinking and feeling. We forget that reinforcement and reminders are needed. If we haven't said something in a while, it is easy for the other person to forget it, wonder if it is still true, or question whether it is still true to the same extent and fervency.

Sometimes it is uncomfortable to verbalize certain things aloud. The very things that are hardest to say, however, are often what most need to be said. The verbalization provides reassurance, comfort, confirmation, or clarity for the hearer. Formulating the thought enhances lucidity for the speaker, and actually stating the words reveals his level of seriousness. There is value in common, ordinary conversation about the details of life, but there is much more value in deeper, more personal conversation. Shallow conversation helps the relationship to function practically, but serious conversation deepens and strengthens the relationship. It demonstrates that something significant and meaningful exists.

We need to talk to God about our struggles and difficulty in the challenges of life. We need to express our frustration, discouragement, confusion, and desperation. We need to ask Him for His strength, guidance, and encouragement. We need to tell Him that we are looking to Him for the answers.
"Save me, O God, for the waters have threatened my life. I have sunk in deep mire, and there is no foothold" (Psalm 69:1). "O LORD, lead me in Your righteousness because of my foes; make Your way straight before me" (Psalm 5:8).

We need to talk to God about what we want Him to do in us. We cannot accomplish spiritual growth on our own, so we need God's help. We need to talk to Him about our desires and ambitions, about what we want to be true in us although it has not happened yet. We need to recognize the areas in which we are weak and specifically ask God for help.
"Oh that my ways may be established to keep Your statues!" (Psalm 119:5). "Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law" (Psalm 119:18).

We need to talk to God about the dark shadows of our hearts. We need to talk to Him about our pitfalls and besetting sins. We need to tell Him about the areas where we regularly struggle. We need to decry our wickedness, confess our sins, and ask Him for forgiveness, renewal, and restoration.
"Create in me a clean heart, O God and renew a steadfast spirit within me" (Psalm 51:10). "I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide" (Psalm 32:5).

We need to talk to God about our submission to Him. If we are at all discerning spiritually, we realize that there are frequently areas in which we are not quite in line with God's desires for us. There are times that we focus on our own desires and stubbornly cling to our own preferences. We need to tell God that we are yielding to Him. When God convicts us, we have to talk to Him about our decision and even about the struggle to reach that right decision.
"Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You? I lay my hand on my mouth" (Job 40:4). "I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted" (Job 42:2).

We need to talk to God about our attitude toward Him. God is not insecure and is not dependent on our expressions of love and high regard, but of all people, He is most deserving of such statements. We need to tell God of our love for Him. We need to tell Him of our admiration for His attributes. We need to praise His goodness and His character.
"For You are my hope; O Lord GOD, You are my confidence from my youth" (Psalm 71:5). "I will tell of all Your wonders. I will be glad and exult in You" (Psalm 9:1-2).

The Bible is filled with prayers and statements like those above from godly believers of the past, and such prayers should be a regular part of our lives as well. God is omniscient. He knows our heart and our thoughts better than we do. Nevertheless, God still wants to hear from us. He wants communication. The value is not so much for God as it is for us. We need to strengthen our side of the relationship by serious communication with God. We need the benefit that comes from clearly considering and actively verbalizing what is in our hearts. We need the grace that comes when we humble ourselves before God and say the things that God ought to hear from us.

Such communication cannot be scripted; it cannot consist of standard phrases that we habitually and mindlessly parrot. Rather, it must be fresh and regularly prompted anew. While reading the Bible or other devotional material, while singing or listening to music, and while listening to sermons, our hearts must respond, and we must deliberately verbalize that response. There are no secrets from God, but deep communication can strengthen and build the relationship, developing a special sweetness that comes when barriers and formality are removed.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Looking Where?

It is very important where a Christian looks as he goes throughout life. In the midst of difficulty, the importance of a Christ-ward look is heightened. I have friends who use this reminder: "Keep the Son in your eyes." Looking at Jesus has many benefits.

1. The Christian can look to Jesus for an example.
"For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps" (I Peter 2:21).

The book of First Peter speaks much about suffering, and in that context the believer's eyes are directed toward Jesus as an example. Jesus suffered, and He did so with all the right responses. While it is clearly a tremendous challenge for any Christian to remotely approach the divine character of Jesus, each believer does find in Christ a pattern to follow.

This pattern is not given primarily for encouragement, but for instruction. The example of Jesus shows a believer what to do. In the context of suffering, often the correct responses are actually failures to respond. A Christ-imitating believer does not respond by reviling or threatening those who are mistreating him. Instead, he simply trusts himself to the righteous oversight of God, knowing that God will do right by him (v. 23). Studying Jesus' life on earth provides an example for many other areas of life and service.

2. The Christian can look to Jesus for help.
"Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession" (Hebrews 3:1).

The believer is encouraged to look to Jesus based on truth that had been shared in the preceding verses. Hebrews 3:1 directs the gaze toward the High Priest, and Hebrews 2:14-18 tell what the High Priest has done and what He continues to do. This High Priest has already won the victory over death, freeing believers from the bondage to sin. His help does not stop with that past victory, but continues into the present.

Jesus, the High Priest, learned about the frailty and temptation of mankind, and He is therefore a "merciful and faithful high priest" on behalf of believers (2:17). Because of Jesus' experience, knowledge, and power, He is able to render effective help to believers when they are tested. Specifically, He provides "mercy and . . . grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16).

3. The Christian can look to Jesus for peace.
"The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, because he trusts in You" (Isaiah 26:3).

In the midst of trouble, thoughts and emotions can rage out of control, and man can be powerless to control them. A focus on Jesus provides help in the quest for peace. When a believer's thoughts are resolutely fixed on God, he naturally begins to trust the amazing God he is pondering. Reflection on God's character and past actions stabilizes a believer and leads him to peace.

One man who followed this pattern was Asaph in Psalm 77. "In the day of trouble," when his "soul refused to be comforted," when he was "disturbed" and sighing with a faint spirit (vs. 2-3), Asaph chose to "remember the deeds of the LORD" (v. 11). As he meditated on God's works and character, he came to this peaceful conclusion: "Your way, O God, is holy; what god is great like our God?" (v. 13).

4. The Christian can look to Jesus for encouragement.
"Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2).

Christians are engaged in the marathon of life, a great race that demands faith in the midst of the challenges and obstacles. That race is not easy and requires great endurance. Looking at Jesus is intended to bring encouragement in the midst of this demanding race. Jesus has already laid the foundation for faith. He has already successfully lived it out. Jesus looked past the pain to achieve the joy of redemption. He has completed the job.

A look at this successful conqueror of death and provider of eternal life brings encouragement. "He endured such hostility," far greater than any man can face, and He made it through victoriously. Seeing the One who suffered far more, and who did so victoriously and joyfully, helps the believer not to "grow weary and lose heart" (v. 3).

5. The Christian can look to Jesus for hope.
"Looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus" (Titus 2:13).

No matter how bad life gets, and sometimes it is pretty bad, the Christian can find great hope in knowing that better days are coming. This life is temporary. Its trials and troubles will one day be swallowed up, and every believer will enjoy the blessings of heaven for all eternity. Yes, this life is hard and discouraging, but it is not the end. The believer can look for the return of Jesus, the Savior who is coming back to "receive" him so he can be forever with Him (John 14:3).

Someday "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" (I Thessalonians 4:16-17).

O soul are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There's light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace. (Helen Lemmel)

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Humble When It Hurts

Life can hurt deeply, due either to a major event or to accumulated injuries. Contributing factors can include the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, misunderstanding by others, stressful challenges, broken health, persistent loneliness, or significant disappointment.

The Psalms repeatedly record the pain of hurting people, as men describe relentless grief, intense sorrow, crushing pain, lack of strength, ceaseless tears, lost appetite, and deep wounds. These men knew what it was like to have breaking hearts in seemingly hopeless situations.

"I am weary with my sighing ... My eye has wasted away with grief" (6:6-7).
"Having sorrow in my heart all the day" (13:2).
"I am benumbed and badly crushed; I groan because of the agitation of my heart" (38:8).
"Evils beyond number have surrounded me ... and my heart has failed me" (40:12).
"My tears have been my food day and night" (42:2).
"My heart has been smitten like grass and has withered away, indeed, I forget to eat my bread" (102:4).
"For I am afflicted and needy, and my heart is wounded within me" (109:22).

Man, in his natural state, displays various responses to such situations.

Anger and bitterness. Man may not even identify an object of his anger, lashing out in all directions. His eyes constantly shoot daggers, and his words overflow with attacks and assertions of unfairness. While family, friends, or other associates may suffer from these outbursts, God is the ultimate target. The angry person is upset that God did this to him.

Rebellion and hardness. When life is out of control, man tries to regain control by choosing to reject boundaries and restrictions. He may engage in uncharacteristic and unwise activities. This can be as simple as ignoring diet or need for sleep and as serious as reckless driving or substance abuse. When directed toward God, this attitude carries the danger of desertion. The rebellious person wants to turn his back on God.

Self-pity and depression. Someone who suffers can think he is the only person to go through such intensity or combination of challenges. The current crisis seems only added to a lifetime of similar events. It is easy for the person to lose himself in negative thoughts and feelings. The depressed person often doubts God's love for him.

Seclusion and isolation. The hurting person often believes that no one understands his pain. Whether actual or perceived, people's responses seem at times inappropriate or hurtful. Even worse, sometimes others offer no compassion or acknowledgment of the pain. It can be tempting to withdraw from these potential hurts as well as from the uncomfortable vulnerability that easily arises in public. The isolated person sometimes withdraws even from God.

Repression and denial. Sometimes the pain is too hard to process. Some people prefer to avoid emotion or sensitivity. They push down the pain, pretending it didn't happen and doesn't affect them. With no acknowledgement of the pain, the process of healing is hindered. Those who repress the pain are at risk of failing to grow as God intends.

Each negative response has a positive counterpart that God desires to see.

Acceptance and trust. God wants His child to trust Him, accepting everything that comes from His hand and that is approved by His will. Someone may not understand the reasons for the events, but he can know that God is superintending it all. The accepting person acknowledges that no matter how much something hurts, he will follow God anyway, even if more pain comes. "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (Psalm 73:26).

Humility and submission. God wants His child to give up his own control and yield to Him. Instead of the chaos and conflict that come from fighting God, man can have the peace and grace that come from surrendering to God. The humble person submits to God, embracing His choices, just as Jesus surrendered His will to the Father's. "Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time" (I Peter 5:6).

Thankfulness and rejoicing. God wants His child to give thanks in all things (I Thessalonians 5:18) and to rejoice always (Philippians 4:4). Such thankfulness and rejoicing are based on what the believer knows about God and His purposes. The Christian can gratefully rejoice in the hope of heaven and in knowing that God is doing a good work in him. Such a response requires someone to purposefully control his thoughts. "I will remember my song in the night; I will meditate with my heart" (Psalm 77:6).

Communication and growth. A believer's most beneficial communication is with God. God invites His child to pour out his heart to Him (Psalm 61:8). The Bible is filled with God's messages of truth, hope, and love. Such communication can bring spiritual growth, as a hurting Christian expresses to God his tenderness in wanting to grow and learn, and as he seeks the Bible for the guidance he needs. "Search me, O God, and know my heart ... Lead me in the everlasting way" (Psalm 139:23-24).

Healing and ministry. Healing is always God's desire and part of His plan in the process of hurt (Job 5:18). When God heals, He mends so thoroughly that the hurting person finds himself capable of helping others who are hurting (II Corinthians 1:4). "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds" (Psalm 147:3).

In my experience, the negative responses are categorically expressed by anger, while the positive responses often result in tears. Each positive response requires a tender heart, which can contribute additional emotion to someone who is already vulnerable. Tears are not comfortable, especially in public settings, but a humble, hurting heart is far better than an angry, self-protecting heart. There is no shame in tears that reflect a tender heart.

"Wait for the LORD; be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the LORD" (Psalm 27:14).

Saturday, February 3, 2018

No Time - No Money

People commonly bemoan their shortage of time and money. Not enough time to spend with their spouse, enjoy their children, help others, read their Bible, pray, attend church, or serve God. Not enough money to put their children in Christian school, meet needs of others, give to special projects, support missionaries, or tithe. Most adults work all week to meet their family's needs, and much of the salary goes for basics like rent and food. Some time and money is discretionary, however; people spend this portion as they choose and on what they love.

Perhaps spending habits would change if Christians more carefully considered Mark 12:30. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." The Bible conversely instructs, "Do not love the world nor the things in the world" (I John 2:15).

God challenges man about his time. "The world is passing away" (I John 2:17). Like the world itself, each individual's time is limited. "As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, or if due to strength, eighty years, yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; for soon it is gone" (Psalm 90:10). The brief years disappear quickly. One who loves God with his whole heart will pray, "So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90:12). If someone loves the world, it will show in the way he spends his time. "Demas, having loved this present world," stopped giving his time to God's service. He deserted (II Timothy 4:10).

God challenges man about his money. "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19-21). If someone loves the world, it will show in the way he spends his money. Some, "longing for [money] have wandered away from the faith" (I Timothy 6:10).

Time and money must go to certain things. God instructs man to provide for his family and to serve Him. Beyond these basics, how man chooses to use his discretionary time and money reveals his heart.

With the greatest tact possible, I suggest the possibility that Christians' choices sometimes reveal love for the world and for self. Each person must judge his own motives and influence, giving careful thought to what he may be conveying intentionally or unintentionally. With that premise, I present some areas for consideration, areas to which people devote significant time and money.

Entertainment. How many hours a week are spent in diversions? Sports? Movies and television? Clubs or groups? Social media? Does the benefit in mental health or family time justify the hours spent? Is any good purpose achieved? Does the time interfere with church activities? How much money is spent on the events and related materials? Tickets? Electronics? Equipment? Boats? Recreational vehicles? Vacations? Are there large expenditures for a minimum of time used? These modern-world challenges can indicate a love of the world and of self.

Hobbies. How much time is spent on favorite activities? Restorations? Collections? Scrapbooking? Card-making? Sewing? Crafting? Are these purely selfish escape mechanisms? Do they build relationships with or minister to others? How much money is spent? Is an entire room, basement, or garage devoted to this activity? Does a one-time expense allow for hours of activity, or are fresh purchases constantly needed? Are the supplies pricey or relatively inexpensive? Is there any long-term value to the collection? Can things be passed on for the use or enjoyment of others? This is another modern-day challenge that can communicate an emphasis on self, perhaps to the painful exclusion of other people.

Home and car. Both are necessities, but size and style are discretionary. Is the house larger than needed? Extra rooms? Does the location, size, or presentation add an undue burden to what could be a more manageable mortgage? How much time and money are spent in upkeep? Meticulous landscaping? Abundance of flowers, bushes, and trees? Matching decor in every room? How many cars are needed? How many extras and flashy accessories? How long are cars kept before getting a new model? Does each successive purchase become more expensive? Are there vehicles for specialized but rarely used purposes? Extravagance in these areas can hint at a love for the world or a sense of pride.

Dress and beauty. How much time is spent each day on grooming? Does the morning routine prevent time with God? How much time is spent shopping? How much money is spent? Are there more clothes than fit in the closet? Dozens of pairs of shoes? Is the world's idea of beauty being adopted or pursued? Is outer beauty more the focus than inner beauty? Are dress, makeup, and hair style communicating a desire to be looked at and admired? This area can easily fall into the snare of pride and self-exaltation.

It would be hard to argue that any of the above are inherently wrong, especially without considering each situation and without knowing motives. The questions are sobering, however, even for the most conservative believers. The fact that so much time and money could potentially go to each area should prompt thoughts of whether one is doing what is best and of how much more he could be doing for God.

In Acts 2, believers sold their houses and possessions to provide for the needs of others; in Exodus 35 the people donated their jewelry  and other treasures to provide for the tabernacle. When it came down to it, these people considered fellowship and worship to be more important than houses and beauty.

"If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content" (I Timothy 6:8).

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Unexpected Grace

Throughout time God has chosen to save unlikely people, including individuals who were fighting and running from Him. Salvation stemmed not from the individual's pursuit of God, but from God's fervent love and unexpected grace.

Example #1: Saul
Devoutly mired in false religion, Saul was a declared enemy of the early Christian church. He witnessed and approved their martyrdom. He led in active persecution. "Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison" (Acts 8:3). "Breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord," Saul sought permission "so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem" (Acts 9:1-2). As Saul went on his journey of hatred, God dramatically confronted him with a blinding light and a voice from heaven. Saul was converted, and the one who "used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it" became a devoted minister of God to "preach Him among the Gentiles"(Galatians 1:13,16). Renamed Paul, this man endured persecution to carry the gospel to many parts of the known world and authored half the books of the New Testament.

Example #2: John Newton
John Newton's life at sea began at age eleven. Newton went on numerous voyages and developed habits of profanity, drinking, and gambling. Newton himself admitted, "I sinned with a high hand, and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others." During his naval service, he attempted desertion and considered murdering the captain who punished him. To escape the navy, Newton joined a slave ship and spent several rough years in the slave trade, where he was ruthless and abusive. On one voyage, he was caught in a fierce and lengthy storm; his ship seemed doomed. This man, whose early childhood instruction about God had long ago vanished, found himself praying in desperation. While his words did not come from a heart that sought God, he later contemplated his prayer. He believed that God had intervened in his life; this incident, followed by further thought during a severe illness, led to his conversion. Newton went on to become a well-known preacher and hymn writer for several decades. His self-composed epitaph reads: "John Newton, clerk. Once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the Gospel which he had long laboured to destroy. He ministered, near sixteen years in Olney, in Bucks, and twenty years in this Church."

Example #3: Adoniram Judson
Adoniram Judson's father was a pastor whose devotion to truth continually brought conflict with weak churches. Extraordinarily intelligent, Adoniram was strongly encouraged to serve God. As a child he preached to his friends, and he entered college with thoughts of becoming a pastor. Ambitious for fame, Judson's free time was given more to social activity than religious practice. Judson befriended Jacob Eames, an outspoken unbeliever, and Judson's "Christianity" collapsed. Shortly after graduation, Judson left home, planning to associate with the theater in New York City. He hid the most unacceptable aspects of his plans from his parents, while revealing he no longer believed in God or the Bible. His trip to New York was disappointing. For a time he traveled with a group of actors who habitually left towns without paying their debts. Discouraged and disappointed, Judson left the group. Arriving at a small village inn, Judson took the only room available, next door to a dying man. Throughout the night Adoniram heard the tortured moaning; he wondered if the man was ready for death, sparking his own personal doubts. In the morning Judson learned that the young man, now deceased, was Jacob Eames. Tormented, Judson enrolled in seminary as a seeker of truth. He was soon converted and before long became the first American foreign missionary. His life was spent opening the country of Burma to the gospel; he faithfully taught and translated the Bible. It was ultimately stated, "Today, there are 6 million Christians in Myanmar [Burma], and every one of us traces our spiritual heritage to one man - the Reverend Adoniram Judson."

Example #4: every Christian
While individuals may not consider their own stories as dramatic as those listed above, every single salvation is an act of God's grace. Every person, no matter how moral he may seem, no matter what good deeds he may do, is an enemy of God by nature. "You were formerly alienated and hostile" (Colossians 1:21). Aside from his undeserving state, no one was saved because his heart was seeking God. "There is none who seeks for God" (Romans 3:11). It is God's grace that draws and invites sinners. "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him" (John 6:44). Every salvation is a divine act, brought about in spite of man's animosity and wandering. "But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us even when we were dead in our transgressions ... For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:4-5,8).

Before salvation, individual lives fall on a broad spectrum including prolific service, outward conformity, desire for acceptance, empty claims, curious questioning, spiritual disinterest, teenaged rebellion, wandering rejection, vicious attacks, and outright hatred. Whether one's background is false religion like Saul, limited Biblical training like Newton, or rich opportunity like Judson, the solution is always salvation by God's grace. This truth should fill every Christian with humility, gratitude, and amazement. The truth should encourage the unsaved; these testimonies answer the probing question "Is there ANYONE that God cannot save?" with a resounding "Absolutely not!"

"Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see." (John Newton)