On Second Thought…

I’ve noticed that, the older I get, the more I give second thought to aspects of life that I once upon some time ago accepted as fact.  I think about some of the “truths” I have accepted over the years and think, “Wow… I didn’t even feel the hook set in my mouth!”  Maybe it’s because I am gaining the sage wisdom of middle age (or just the simple fact that I am finally starting to grow up).  But I am beginning to truly realize just how little control I have over my life.

It can be a little nerve-wracking for a control freak like myself to realize just how little control I truly have.  I can choose how I react.  I can choose how I perceive life (to an extent – but even perception has it’s influences).  But, ultimately, I cannot force my will on every area of my life.  I have to accept that I am not master of my own domain, nor can I be anyone I want to be in life.  Despite what we were taught in school, that simply isn’t the case.

Don’t believe me?  Ask someone who has been sidelined by a tragedy.  Talk to someone whose dreams have inexplicably vaporized before their very eyes.  Watch someone who keeps trying to shove open a locked door. 

Do not misunderstand me.  I am not saying we should not dream.  I am not saying we should not strive.  I am not saying to roll over and let life roll all over you.  Before anyone picks up on that particular negative vibe, I’d best get to the point. 

The point: we put our hope in so many things – so many desires and wishes and hopes for a bright future brimming with meaning and joy and promise.  But we tend to skew our priorities.  As I’ve been going over Malachi 1 the past couple of days, I understand that the cause of most misery is the flip-flop of our life goals toward self (self-achievement, self-worth, self-gratification, self-this, self-that…) and away from God.  I see it in myself and feel, quite frankly, like a hypocrite writing about it.  (I hope people understand that, when I am writing about a particular topic, I have most likely faced it at some point or am still dealing with it.  Either way, God is speaking to me as much as anyone else.)

There is nothing of deep profundity here.  The message I’m being so wordy at sharing really boils down to this: if you want to be filled with joy, follow God,  What you do is not nearly as important as why.  If Jesus is at the center of your life, circumstances will matter far less.  Life is going to have it’s pains and disappointments and hardships and trials, right along with it’s joys and happiness and good times. 

But don’t bank on your abilities in life.  Don’t expect what God doesn’t promise.  Because the only surety we have in life is God and Him alone.  And that’s good news!  Sure takes away a lot of the burden of trying to run everything.

God Does Not Deserve Pink Goo

Today’s reading: Malachi 1

I have begun doing a bit of early morning Bible hopping.  This is not the suggested method of Bible study for most folks, but I’m doing it just to mix things up a bit.  So… the window is open, the sun is rising, the birds are singing, the world is revolving…

If I were a betting man (I am not), I’d be willing to wager up to a nickel – even a dime if I really got out of control – that when you mention Malachi to your average, Sunday morning church going Christian, one word comes to mind: tithe.  And, if that is your perception of the last book of the Christian Old Testament canon, you are missing so much.  In many ways, Malachi really sets the scene for the New Testament.  Chapter one alone gives us a feel for why (perhaps) God was silent for four hundred years before the arrival Jesus. 

Read Malachi 1 and you will see that the LORD is not talking in legalistic terms.  His people are technically – technically – fulfilling what they see as their legal obligation.  They are bringing animals for sacrifice.  But, the animals being offered are of low quality.  They are the worst of the fields, the meat they themselves wouldn’t eat or offer to any other person.  This meat makes those hamburger patties with the pink goo in them seem like grade A beef.

What we are seeing is the same old cyclical behavioral pattern that keeps playing out, time and again, throughout the OT and throughout humanity’s history: 

1. God’s children are faithful.

2. Their focus begins to move away from the LORD.

3. Pretty soon the sin hits the fan and they find themselves facing unpleasant consequences.

4. God, Who is faithful throughout, corrects and ultimately rescues his children.

5. Back to step one, where the cycle begins anew.

Sound familiar?  Bear in mind that, within that cycle, every “they” is “we.”  We do the same things – individually and corporately.  We get distracted – work, spouse, kids, ball games, this thing and that… We get to a point where we go to church on Sunday.  But, really, it’s just another obligation.  Now, do not misunderstand me.  I am not saying, “Don’t let your kids play hockey.”  Enjoy life!  But, whatever you do, do it with the right priorities.

In other words, put God first.  Not in a legalistic manner.  But, rather, in your heart.  Don’t give God the scraps of your life.  He is our Father.  He is GOD.  He deserves better.  Do what you do with Godly purpose.  If what you do hinders your walk with Christ, cut back or stop.  Make sure God is not just on your list.  If Jesus is truly Lord of your life – which means you willingly let Him call the shots.  As Jesus said, seek first the kingdom of God – His will, His ways, His Word.

Now Would Be a Good Time to Make Sure Our GPS is Set Toward Jesus

Scripture: Isaiah 30.  Yes, the whole chapter.  Take a few minutes and read it.

We all know the feeling.  The weariness.  The dread.  The anxiety.  The niggling doubt.  We cling to Scriptures and prayer, looking for God to move in our situations.  Yet, He seems stone silent, unmoving. We cry out, “Why?  Why me?  Why this?  Why now?”  We question what we have done to turn God against us.  We wonder if the Lord is unhappy with us, or does He love us, or does He even hear our cries and prayers.  We look for direction, for answers, for relief.  And it simply does not materialize.

So, what do we do?

We take matters into our own hands.  God isn’t working fast enough.  He isn’t responding to our prayers.  This pain has to stop.  This trouble has to go away.  This situation needs resolving now.  We begin seeking answers on our own.  We start wandering away from God.  We reach a fork in the road and, without reading the signs, we turn toward Egypt.

Now, I have no doubt that Egypt is a fascinating place to visit.  All that history.  Besides, I like fish, leeks, melons, onions and cucumbers as much as the next guy.  But – and here is where we get ourselves into trouble – if God says, “Don’t go back to Egypt,” then don’t go back to Egypt!  You’ve been there before.  God has rescued you from that prison of hopelessness.  Why do you want to go back?

The words used in the NIV rendering of Isaiah 30:1 are “obstinate children.”  We are stubborn.  We think know what we need.  Moreover, we think we know what we want., when we want it, where we want it, and how we want it served.   And we get restless when life doesn’t go our way.  But, as Christians, Paul points out the reality of our (assumed) independence:

17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. – 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 (ESV)

“I thought we had freedom in Christ…”  We do.  Freedom from sin.  Freedom from hell.  Freedom from worry and doubt and fear.  Freedom to do what God has called us to do (which is really not as complicated as we often make it, but that’s another article).  Freedom to be claim every promise of God and cling to every word of Jesus Christ with great confidence.  Freedom to know that, whatever our current circumstances, they are not our permanent circumstances, because we are now God’s children, we are saved and cleansed by the work of Jesus Christ, completed on the cross for all of us.  So, do not confuse “freedom” from “independence.” While we are free, we are not independent.

So… what do we do?  What is the answer to our dilemma?  How do we find rest from our trials, relief from our burdens?  “This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength…’” (Isaiah 30:15a, NIV).  The answer is faith.  With God, everything has purpose.  Even our circumstances.  There is no situation so lousy, no pain so intense, no trouble so uncomfortable, that the Lord cannot use it to bring Him glory.  Maybe God has you at that lousy job because of the positive influence you have on a co-worker.  Maybe you haven’t been healed because someone else has the same disease and needs you to inspire them through Christ.  Maybe you were meant to meet the tow truck driver who is hooking up the car you just wrecked.  Who knows what God’s purposes are?  Often we figure it out later, so have faith.

Whatever you are facing today, have faith in Jesus.  Let God be your hope.  Your situation is not hopeless.  You are not hopeless.  If in debt, don’t go to the casino.  If in doubt, don’t go to another “god.”  If in pain, don’t go to the bar or the dealer or the medicine cabinet.  If afraid, don’t run to the comforts of your past.  "Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion.  For the LORD is a God of justice.  Blessed are all who wait for him!” (Isaiah 30:18, NIV).

Whatever you do, don’t go back to Egypt.  The momentary “relief” isn’t worth the eternal price.  When feeling weary or tired or unsure or confused or tempted or hurting, don’t run for the nearest pleasure to narcotize the pain.  Run to your prayer closet.  Run to the Word of God.  Run to Jesus.  KNOW that He hears you.  KNOW He has a plan for you.  You may not feel it, but don’t rely on fickle feelings.  You may not hear Him, but don’t rely on faulty self.  KNOW that God is with you, and you are eternally safe and secure in His capable and willing arms.  And, in Christ, find your peace, your direction, your equipping, your comfort, your joy.

Carried Out to Sea (or Don’t Be Chum)

It is a danger that can snare a person in an instant, when they least expect it.  One moment you’re swimming along just fine.  The next, you find yourself flailing and drowning.  Ask anyone who’s ever been caught unexpectedly in a rip current – they are no fun.  Makes “Jaws” look like a picnic (which, in the eyes of the shark, I guess it was a picnic…)

Rip currents form when the tide erodes a portion of sand bar near the shore.  Water pours through the gap at speeds of up to eight feet per second, swiftly pulling the swimmer out to sea and far away from the safety of the shoreline.  It all happens so fast that the swimmer often panics and, in a vain attempt to save himself, turns and begins swimming back the way they came – against the swirling rip tide.  The swimmer becomes the victim when he exhausts himself of his strength, fighting the losing battle alone, and drowns. 

Many beaches post signs warning people to stay out of the water due to dangerous rip currents.  But not everybody heeds the warnings.  Some folks jump in anyway, and end up paying the ultimate price for their folly.

Sadly, those who drown do not understand that salvation from the rip current is fairly simple.  Just turn away from it.  Do not swim against it or into it.  Turn and swim out of the speeding current’s stream.  Once you are free of the rip tide’s pull, you will find the waters are calmer.  You can then swim back to the safety of the shoreline, avoiding the rip current so as not to get pulled back in.

Sin works in much the same way as a rip current.  It can snare you in an instant, and hurriedly hurl you into the depths before you know what hit you.  Try to swim against in on your own power and you will drown.

Consider Judas Iscariot.  He is the poster child for rip current sin.  Think about it: John goes to great lengths to make sure we know exactly which Judas this guy was: “During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him…” (John 13:2, ESV).  Just as Christ was not Jesus’ last name, nor was Iscariot Judas’ last name.  It probably means simply that he is from Kerioth.  In other words, John is telling us that it was Judas, the one from Kerioth, the one who was Simon’s son.  “Oh… that Judas!”  Truly that is one case of mistaken identity one would not wish to be the victim thereof.

Judas had a weakness for money, and that weakness got the best of him.  Satan used it to tempt him into doing the unthinkable (betraying Jesus, whom he had followed closely for three years).  This is how the devil “put it into the heart of Judas” to do such a heinous thing.  All for a bag of silver coins.  The bait is taken.  Jesus even gives Judas one last out in offering up the morsel of wine-soaked bread to be eaten by the one who would betray Christ.  Note that John once more carefully identifies the betrayer: “So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot.  Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him.  Jesus said to him, ‘What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 13:26b-27, ESV).

Bait swallowed.  Hook set.  Reel him in. 

Judas did not learn the lesson Peter had when walking on the water.  Take your eyes off Christ, and you will drown.  Judas had let Satan tempt him to a horrible fate.  Before he knew it, he was in the rip current, violently pulled away from the safety of the shoreline, unable to fight against the current and never quite turning away and swimming out to the safety of salvation in Christ.

He fell for the enemy’s lie.

He did not heed the warnings.  He jumped in anyway.  And he paid the ultimate price.

He was chum.

My five-year-old loves to sing a song he learned at Sunday School: “Be careful little eyes what you see… be careful little ears what you hear…”  I think that, for we adults, that might be a good song to sing as well.  All are tempted.  Jesus endured for 40 days and nights.  Likewise, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, ESV).  None of us has hit the mark.  And God knows it.  That’s why He sent His Son Jesus to die for our sins, that we may be saved.  However, we need to make sure we are focused on Jesus.  Perhaps these words of wisdom from Proverbs will help us set our gaze where it ought to be:

1 My son, do not forget my teaching,
but let your heart keep my commandments,
2 for length of days and years of life
and peace they will add to you.

3 Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them around your neck;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
4 So you will find favor and good success
in the sight of God and man.

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
6 In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
7 Be not wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.
8 It will be healing to your flesh
and refreshment to your bones. – Proverbs 3:1-8 (ESV).

God’s ways are always perfect and right.  Seek first His kingdom.  Follow the LORD, pursue peace and wisdom and love.  Do not take your eyes off Him.  The temptations of life of many.  Just remember this: it’s the second look that sets the hook. 

The next time you want to go for a swim, if you see a sign warning against rip currents, do yourself a favor: heed the warning.  Don’t be tempted to swim out in dangerous waters.  And, if ever you find yourself being swept away by the rip tide, remember that you can get out by crying out to Jesus, repenting of your sin and swimming out of the current and into the calm safety of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

It Isn’t The Clay Pot That Matters…

Got up this morning, grabbed my trusty old NIV Study Bible (which I have studied infrequently since becoming an ESV convert) and found my bookmark pressed between the pages of 2 Corinthians 3 and 4.  So, I read chapter 4.  If you ever feel the need to consider your purpose for ministry – or just need some encouragement to carry on in the Lord’s work – this is the place to go.

What did I glean from 2 Cor 4?  In a nutshell:

– Ministry is not a job.  It is not a chore.  It is a gift, given only through “God’s mercy.”  The work of the Lord should be a joy, even when it is arduous or difficult or doesn’t make sense. (v.1)

– For the sake of integrity in ministry – an uprightness the world does not provide, but only comes through God, the author of morality – we are to speak the Truth, and let the Truth do the speaking.  We do not “distort” the Word to fit our ministry ideals.  We let the Lord do the forming.  The Truth will prevail, for it is the Word of God Who “hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” [1 Cor 1:27, KJV].  It is God Who illuminates.  While light can extinguish the dark, dark cannot snuff of the light.  As ministers of the gospel, we are to set aside all darkness and let the light of Christ shine through us. (v.2-6)

– We humans are frail and flawed.  Anything great that we do comes not from us, but the “all-surpassing power” of God working through us.  We are but vessels of the Lord.  And, since is within us and working through us, we are alive in Christ.  There is no suffering on this earth that will overcome us.  There is no trouble too great for God to bear.  It is for us to continue to run the race the Lord has set before us, firm in our faith, knowing that ultimately the victory is ours through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Maintain a servant’s heart – toward God and toward others.  Keep your eyes on the prize. (v.7-15)

– “Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”  It is a process, a lifelong series of daily changes, that brings forth our sanctification. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”  Serving God wholeheartedly is worth the price.  Count the cost, but be sure to consider the return on investment in the Kingdom of God. (v.16-17).

We are jars of clay, pottery that easily chips, cracks, crumbles and breaks into shards. If we do not live this life with eternal purpose, we do no more than waste time.  If we invest in the eternal, the dividends are incalculable.  So, in the end, what really matters?  Not the troubles we face.  Not the promotion at work or the shiny new car or the amazing vacation.  What matters is Christ – and Him alone.

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (v.18).