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, 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)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Failed Fathers

This week's news reported parents who abominably mistreated their thirteen children by chaining, starving, neglecting, and otherwise abusing them. While this case is extreme, many children struggle with memories of imperfect fathers. Children understand God the Father based on observations of their earthly fathers. As a result, some children who accept God don't consider the relationship special or significant. Others reject God, concluding, "I don't want anything to do with that kind of Father." Here are twenty areas of potential failure by earthly fathers, contrasted with the perfect Heavenly Father.

Not providing for basic needs. Some fathers fail to adequately provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care, time, and personal interaction. Jesus said, "Look at the birds of the air.... Your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? ... Will He not much more clothe you?" (Matthew 6:26,30).

Not being aware of needs. Some fathers are so disconnected, unconcerned, or naive that they don't recognize their children's needs. Even when their children hint at needs or show symptoms of neglect, the fathers remain oblivious. "Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him" (Matthew 6:8).

Not giving gifts. Some fathers never give their children special or appropriate gifts. "How much more will your Father give what is good to those who ask Him!" (Matthew 7:11). "Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights" (James 1:17).

Not expressing love. Some fathers will not hug or hold their children; some refuse to say the words "I love you." God's love is not hidden. "The Father Himself loves you" (John 16:27).  "See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us" (I John 3:1).

Not showing compassion. Some fathers demand that their children be tough, never crying or yielding to pain. "But the fruit of spirit is ...  gentleness" (Galatians 5:22-23). "The LORD has compassion on those who fear Him" (Psalm 103:13).

Not able to comfort. Some fathers avoid their children's tears and close themselves off from their sorrows. "Blessed be ... the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our afflictions" (II Corinthians 1:3-4).

Not showing mercy. Some fathers show no heart toward their children's troubles, leaving them to suffer the consequences or to work out problems for themselves. God has tender pity and compassion. "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36).

Not giving appropriate advice. Instead of giving wise counsel, as patterned in Proverbs, some fathers demand that children learn for themselves or treat them as stupid when they need help. "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach" (James 1:5).

Not giving hope. Some fathers express either openly or by implication that their children are no good and will never amount to anything. "God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope" (II Thessalonians 2:16).

Not being approachable. Some fathers make their children intimidated to ever ask them for anything, whether big or small, needed or desired. "If you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you" (John 16:23).

Not accepting. Some fathers create an atmosphere of fear rather than belonging. "You have not received a spirit ... leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!'" (Romans 8:15).

Not establishing appropriate boundaries. Instead of exercising parental discretion, some fathers show excessive permissiveness. God limits what He gives, based on His wisdom. "You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures" (James 4:3).

Not treating all children fairly. Some fathers show partiality or favoritism to a certain child, regardless of his good or bad actions. "If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one's work" (I Peter 1:17).

Not acknowledging success. Some fathers will not recognize their children's talent, will not concede that their children have surpassed them, and will not praise good work. "My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit" (John 15:8).

Not disciplining properly. Some fathers discipline occasionally, habitually, or exclusively in anger, with no conscious thought of guiding or correcting their children. "But He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness.... Afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness" (Hebrews 12:10-11).

Not giving second chances. Some fathers impose strict censure on children who have deeply disappointed them. God heart shines in the story of the Prodigal Son. "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him" (Luke 15:20).

Not offering long-term welcome. Some fathers impose a time frame on how long their children are welcome, perhaps even kicking them out of the home. "In My Father's house are many dwelling places ... I go to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2).

Not protecting. Through apathy or neglect, some fathers fail to protect their children from danger. "Holy Father, keep them in Your name" (John 17:11).

Not being moral. Some fathers verbally or physically, even sexually, abuse their children. God clearly expresses His response to such mistreatment. "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea" (Mark 9:42).

Not being loyal. Some fathers refuse to acknowledge their children, some even abandoning them completely. "I will be a father to you" (II Corinthians 6:18). "I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5).

Exempt from failure, the Heavenly Father is the ultimate embodiment of every admirable fatherly quality, yielding a gracious, peaceful atmosphere. "Grace to you and peace from God our Father" (Ephesians 1:2).

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Finally - But Wait!

Life doesn't always go according to plan. In fact, sometimes just when plans finally seem to be coming to fruition, painful and disappointing setbacks emerge.

Consider Moses. After the tumultuous interactions with Pharaoh, the dramatic deliverance, and approximately two years of desert travel, (during which Moses faced repeated complaints, demands, and rebellion), Israel finally reached the Promised Land. Moses was ready to lead the people into the land of blessing. But wait! The fearful, unbelieving people refused to go in. Moses had to lead those obstinate people through forty more years of senseless wandering, ultimately losing his own opportunity to enter.

Consider Joseph. After hatred by his brothers, years as a slave, false accusation, and unjust imprisonment, Joseph finally had a promising encounter. Joseph expected  Pharaoh's grateful cupbearer to intercede to Pharaoh on his behalf, leading to Joseph's vindication and freedom. But wait! The cupbearer forgot, and Joseph languished in prison for two additional years.

Consider Abraham. After God's promise of a son, there followed twenty-five long years of waiting, years that included questions, failure, and self-effort. Finally Isaac was born, and Abraham could rejoice in seeing the beginning of God's plan. But wait! God asked him to sacrifice that very son, the miracle child who could not be replaced.

Consider Paul. After years of persecution for sharing the Gospel, capture in Jerusalem, threat of conspiracy, and two years of imprisonment without resolution of his case, Paul was finally granted the opportunity to appeal to Caesar where he could be vindicated. But wait! This hopeful plan met with additional imprisonment, more hearings, a dangerous sea voyage, shipwreck, delay, and years of house arrest.

The reasons for these disappointments were quite varied. For Moses, it was the unbelief of others. For Joseph, it was another's neglect. For Abraham, it was direct interaction by God. For Paul, it was governmental inefficiency and incompetence.

In each case there was a bigger picture, however. God was always working to accomplish His plan. Through these setbacks, Moses, Joseph, and Abraham each had remarkable roles in preserving the nation of Israel. Paul had tremendous opportunities for spreading the Gospel and writing Scripture.

These disappointing reversals were not easy for any of these men, but the men did not give up. They kept going, kept obeying, and kept following God, even when all human hope had disappeared. This faithful obedience was extremely important. If these men had quit, (God's providence aside), Israel would have wandered without a leader, the nation would have died in a famine, the budding nation of faith would have been squelched in unbelief, the spread of the gospel would have been curtailed, and several books of the Bible would not have been written.

Each man's case also reveals the hand of God. Although the situations were not ideal, these men were never neglected nor forgotten by God. Rather, God continued to work and bless. Moses recounted God's provision for Israel: "These forty years the LORD your God has been with you; you have not lacked a thing" (Deuteronomy 2:7). Joseph could accurately say, "God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Genesis 50:20). God commended Abraham, "For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me" (Genesis 22:12). Paul's treacherous journey resulted in his "preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered" (Acts 28:31), in fulfillment of God's promise (Acts 23:11). God reveals that "without faith it is impossible to please Him" (Hebrews 11:6), but faith pleases Him. Each of these men experienced the pleasure of God because of his faith.

In matters of health, employment, marriage, family, finances, and more, modern Christians also have stories of disappointment, delay, and reversal. Life does not always go according to desire or plan. Like these Bible characters, it may seem that just when things are finally turning around, just when the dark sky is finally brightening, just when life finally starts to present some optimism, everything unexpectedly falls apart. Hope dies, progress ceases, and the direction of life is reversed through means completely outside of one's own control.

Moving faithfully forward is not easy, but it is necessary, just as it was for these Biblical examples. While modern stories may not have the same historic impact as these Biblical examples, there would nevertheless be disastrous negative consequences for leaving God's plan, just as there will be tremendous positive results for continued faithfulness. An individual cannot know what those negative consequences would be nor what the positive results will be, but one or the other will come, depending on the individual's decision. Modern Christians probably won't shape the course of history, but they can impact their own history as well as that of their families, friends, churches, and communities. More importantly, their faith and obedience will bring the pleasure and approval of God.

The types of reassurances that God gives today are also the same. He reassures of His presence, provides needs, does His divine work, expresses His approval, and fulfills His promises. Christians are never abandoned by God in their times of disappointment.

Believers must continue to follow God in spite of unexpected and changing circumstances. They must continue to submit to His plan, repeatedly saying, "Yes, God, I will follow your path. By your grace I will remain faithful until the end." They must trust the God who alone knows every detail of their path and what He plans to accomplish through their lives. Not resisting, not despairing, not wavering, they must express the sentiment of Mac Lynch's song "I Will Follow."

I will follow Thee, my Savior, where-e’er the pathway may go:
Through the storm or through the valley or through great trials so low.
I rest in Thee, trust in Thee, I place my life in Thy hands.
I will follow Thee, my Savior; Lead on, my Shepherd, lead on.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Breaking Refugee Stereotypes

Peter wrote his first epistle to Jewish refugees "who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia" (I Peter 1:1). Because of their conversion to Christianity and stand for Christ, the Jews were scattered north and west from Jerusalem into Asia Minor (Turkey), a region approximately 600 by 400 miles. Interestingly, the word scattered is Diaspora, a term used to define this specific event in history, in which converted Jews were expelled from their homeland and flung throughout the world.

Peter refers to trials faced by these refugees. "You have been distressed by various trials" (I Peter 1:6). He does not immediately identify the trials, though a major one was clearly the Diaspora itself. Peter later identifies a second aspect, which was the unwelcome response of the citizens among whom they resided: "they slander you as evildoers" (I Peter 2:12).

This reaction toward a group of refugees or displaced persons is neither unique nor surprising. While the citizens of those lands very likely did not understand everything about the strangers, they would have been aware that the invading people were there because they were being chased from their own country. They must have speculated about the reason, wondering what those people had done and what kind of people they were. Considering the prejudices that naturally exist regarding foreigners, it would have been easy to assume that these strangers were disreputable and undesirable. In fact, the word evildoers refers to criminals. Because of their biased attitudes, the citizens of those lands were speaking evil against the newly-arriving Christians, who they believed had been chased from their homeland for being criminals or who had fled their homeland to avoid punishment.

In 2:11, Peter had urged these refugees to remember their status as strangers in this world and to avoid the spiritual warfare that is aroused when the distinction is ignored. (See previous post.) In 2:12, Peter gives a second commandment. "Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation."

The believers were to keep their behavior excellent. In the things they did and in the way they lived, these believers were to continually maintain excellence. The word refers to something beautiful, being used figuratively to mean morally or literally good. There is a different Greek word that refers to something intrinsically good; this word, however, refers to excellence, beauty, or goodness in appearance or use. The believers were not perfect, but through their actions they were to present to others lives that were valuable, virtuous, and worthy.

The believers' testimony was at stake. The Christians were dwelling "among the Gentiles," surrounded by them and open to their observation, "as they observe." These Jews had been forcibly placed into a situation in which they were on display. The pagan nations into which the Jews were scattered might not have understood the difference between traditional Jews and converted Jews, but, due to past experience with Jews, they almost certainly knew that Jews were different. Additionally, they probably had some understanding of the political situation - that these particular Jewish refugees had been chased from their own homeland by their own people. All factors considered, the Gentiles would have been curious about these refugees and would have been observing them carefully.

The way in which the Christians were to answer those accusatory observations was with their "good deeds." Good is the same word translated excellent earlier in the verse, referring to beauty, virtue, and value. The Christians were not to show this virtue by their demeanor alone, but through the deliberate and observable actions of their everyday lives. The Gentiles were carefully watching and inspecting the believers. After all, they suspected the Christians of being criminals. When they did not immediately observe evil deeds, the scrutiny may have become even more intense, and suspicion may have grown, suspecting that these tricky criminals were trying to lull the observers into thinking they were okay. The observers would have been cautious, expecting that the true nature would eventually emerge. If the believers lived as God desired, however, the Gentiles would see only continued good works.

As the observers continually saw the exact opposite of what they expected to see, God's purpose would be achieved. The divine plan was for these heathen nations to "glorify God in the day of visitation." These skeptical and depraved people would end up magnifying God and esteeming Him highly. In essence, the Gentiles would observe the life-changing work of God in the lives of the believers. The Gentiles would realize that not only did those Christians not fit their expectation of refugees, they didn't fit the expectation for humans at all. Mankind in his natural state does not live that way, so obviously God had done a divine work in them. These careful observers would see the evidence of God's transforming power and would embrace it for themselves, thereby accepting salvation and glorifying God.

While Christians today may not fall into the category of political refugees, they are nevertheless strangers and pilgrims in this world. Like these Jewish believers, modern Christians are surrounded by lost people who often view them with curiosity and suspicion. The accusations themselves may be different. Instead of calling Christians criminals, today's society might call them weird, hypocrites, judgmental, freaks, weaklings, intolerant, or fanatics.

God's instruction is the same. Believers are to live beautiful lives of integrity and value. Certainly, Christians are imperfect and will sometimes fail, but the overall impact of the life should be that unbelievers see Christ. Just as in the early church, those unbelievers are watching carefully and perhaps suspiciously. They may watch for a long time before they are willing to change their preconceived notions. God's plan is still the same. Christian "refugees" who live godly in this "foreign" world will draw unbelievers to God for His glory.