A Heart Set Free

 IHeart Set Free“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).

I pulled out of the driveway and looked back at the house—there he was sitting in the doorway on the seat of his walker, waving at me as I eased down the road.  I waved back and called out, “I love you Dad!” As I pulled to a stop at the end of his street, I realized I had tears dripping off my face, because I finally knew I meant those words. God had done a remarkable work in my heart.

My Dad and I had a rough time starting in my early teens and for some 20+ years after.   The details are not important, but the pain was very real.  There was a long stretch of time that we did not speak at all and when we did begin to reconnect it was strained and awkward.  To borrow a little from Simon and Garfunkel, there was a very rickety bridge over a lot of troubled water.  And honestly, I was okay with a minimal relationship—that suited me just fine.  I had moved away from my hometown and was busy raising my family, working and making my own life separate from my Dad.

But God was not satisfied with the relationship between us.  Ironically, I was hearing God’s call to ministry even while I had shut myself off from my Dad.  I taught women from the Bible, dug into the Scriptures and shared what God declared, but I steered pretty wide around verses about forgiving others.  Sure, I knew the importance of forgiveness and had told God “I forgive him.”  But God required something deeper from me—and for me.

For a while I had kept a polite demeanor when I was with my Dad, but my attitude was honestly arrogant.  My words were ever so slightly barbed with disrespect.  His birthday was approaching and my brother wanted us to come for a birthday dinner.  I would have just as soon sent him a card and called it a day, but my brother insisted, and so we agreed to go.  A couple of days before we left, God took me to Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 2:7-8 and told me very pointedly this word was for me regarding my Dad.

Now you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.  I urge you therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.

Wait, God wanted me to forgive and comfort and reaffirm my love—for my Dad’s sake?  That seemed a bit unfair, after all I was the injured party here!  I was the one who had lived all these years with “excessive sorrow.” Shouldn’t he be made to comfort and love me? Didn’t he owe me something?  God patiently heard my arguments (read whining), but kept coming back to the same point:  “I am calling you to obedience, not your Dad.”  “Lord,” I answered, “I will do as You have said, but only because You said it, not because I want to.  You’re going to have to help though, because it ain’t in me.”  I’m not sure, but I think I heard God say, “I can work with that.”

That year had presented a lot of health challenges for my Dad, and when I saw him in a motorized chair with his oxygen, it gave my heart such a shock.  My Dad was frail, unable to walk on his own or breathe without a tube in his nose. I felt a piece of ice crack around my heart. Still, we sat on the opposite end of the long table from my Dad.  But my eyes kept drawing back to that frail old man. We enjoyed the meal and the conversation, and prepared to leave the restaurant.  I found myself walking ahead of my Dad, moving chairs and obstacles out of his way.  We decided to take some pictures in the parking lot and my sister-in-law positioned me directly behind my Dad sitting in his chair.  I put my hands on his shoulders, and he reached up, and grabbed my hands so that I was bent over, hugging him, with his hands on my arms.  Another piece of ice broke away.  We all said our goodbyes and I climbed into the back seat of our car.  My phone pinged a message; my sister-in-law sent me a copy of the picture we had taken and suddenly the frozen dam broke and flooded my eyes.  I didn’t see the man that I had been so hurt by or so angry with.  I saw my Dad—frail and old, but with such a glad look on his face with my arms wrapped around him.  The thought came to me: “This is not the same man who hurt me,” Forgiveness rushed into my heart, filling all the places where the bitterness had taken root.  I don’t know where the man I had avoided for so long had gone, because the person in that picture was someone I truly loved.  And there in that backseat, God spoke to my heart:  “You are not the same girl so full of pain and anger anymore either.  I have carried you and I have been your Father all these years and my love for you has washed away your pain and bitterness.  Now you can love your earthly father with the love I have poured into you.”  My heart had been set free.

Forgiveness is a gift that God gives to every person who will receive it.  Forgiveness is a gift that you and I are also called to give, but the truth is, we are often the greatest benefactors.  Forgiveness sets us free, because bitterness is the heaviest burden known to man.

I know that someone is reading these words and thinking, “but you don’t know what this person has done to me!”  Beloved, I chose not to go into detail about all the troubled water under my own rickety bridge, but suffice to say it was deep and painful and affected every aspect of my entire life.  When I forgave my Dad, it was an act of obedience to God, not because of a warm-fuzzy feeling on my part.  But that step of obedience broke the dam of bitterness and God took away that pain and anger.  He changed my heart.   Perhaps God is waiting for you to look up from your tangled emotions and simply say, “I’ll forgive them because you say so.”  That, my friend, is the first step in the direction of true freedom.

Merciful, Holy Father, Thank you for not allowing me to settle for less than a heart set free by forgiveness and love

When God Calls

When God Calls“I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted . . .” (Isaiah 6:1)

What does it mean to “see the Lord” and what affect does a vision of God have on our lives?  In the past few months I have been more committed than ever to go deeper with the Lord, to know Him more and to allow His Word and His Spirit to transform me.  I’ve prayed for a higher vision of who He is and as I met with Him early one recent morning, the Spirit drew my heart to Isaiah 6, the account of Isaiah’s commissioning as the Lord’s messenger.  I see in verses 1-8, five points to this moment when Isaiah’s life was forever changed and they are essentially the same path that every person whom God has called will travel.

First, Isaiah had a vision of God.  Isaiah “saw the Lord,” but notice that he does not attempt to describe the divine presence, but tells us about His robe, the throne, the temple and the seraphs.  The Lord told Moses, “No one may see [my face] and live” (Exodus 33:20), but Isaiah declares that he has indeed seen the Lord.  Undoubtedly, the sight was too marvelous for human words to ever do justice to what the wondrous image before him.  Isaiah saw a throne and a regal robe, evidence of God’s majesty.  He heard evidence of God’s holiness as the seraphs flew about calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; The whole earth is full of His glory” (6:3).

This vision and the words of worship drove Isaiah to the next stage of his appointment.

Isaiah recognized his own sinfulness and repented.  He declared, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”  Why was Isaiah so concerned with his lips?  For one thing, Isaiah’s call as a prophet was to be God’s mouthpiece, to speak for the holy One he saw before him.  To speak such words from unclean lips would be an affront to God and sure destruction for the prophet.  Isaiah also recognized that the words of one’s mouth are indicative of the state of one’s heart.  Jesus would later teach the same truth: “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what come out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’ The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean’” (Matthew 15:11, 18).  Isaiah saw God in verse 1.  He saw himself in verse 5 and the sight of his own sinfulness broke his heart and he threw himself before God in repentance.

After Isaiah’s repentant plea, the Lord provided cleansing.  The Lord sent one of the seraphs to fetch a live coal from the altar and touch Isaiah’s lips.  “‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for’” (6:7).  The old Covenant was all about atonement, about a substitutionary sacrifice to cleanse the people from their sins.  But the old system required repeated sacrifices, year after year after year, innocent lambs bore the punishment for the sins of the people.  When Jesus came to earth, He offered Himself as the one perfect sacrifice for all sins of all people for all time.  He offers us atonement, cleansing from our sins.  1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”  Confession and repentance before God will always lead to cleansing.

Once he was cleansed, Isaiah received the call. A now purified prophet stood ready to receive God’s command, which came in the form of a question from the throne of heaven.

“Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?

The Lord wanted Isaiah to declare His word, but it had to be of his own free will.  Isaiah had to “own” his calling and respond out of his heart, not out of coercion.  And that is exactly what he did.  Notice the prophet’s reply, “And I said, ‘Here am I.  Send me!’” (6:8). Put me in Coach! I’m ready to play!  How different from Moses’ response when God called him to deliver the people of Egypt.  Moses hemmed and hawed and found one excuse after another to wriggle out of God’s call, even to the point of outright refusal.  Isaiah stepped into his calling with a fully obedient and surrendered heart.

From the glorious vision, to his contrite heart, the cleansing he so desperately needed, and finally the call, Isaiah is sent out. There is a lot to the message God wanted Isaiah to deliver, (see vs. 9b-13), but the commission is simply three words:

“Go and tell . . .”

Go and speak my words.  Go and pronounce my judgment.  Go and present my warnings.  Go and declare my love.  That is the heart of God’s call to Isaiah and the culmination of the extraordinary vision and experience for Isaiah.  It is what he was created to do and he did it faithfully, boldly and powerfully.

Isaiah’s experience is the same for you and me today.  We must receive a vision of God, of His holiness and majesty.  We must acknowledge that Jesus is His Son.  We must also see ourselves as the lost and sinful creatures we truly are.  We must recognize that we are a people desperately in need of a Savior.  We must cry out to God for cleansing and accept Jesus’ death on the cross as our atonement.  Then, and only then, will we be able to hear God’s call.  And when we do, we must respond in obedience and surrender.  We must declare our willingness to do whatever the Lord asks of us.  Then we must “go and tell.”  We must put feet to our commitment and open our mouths to deliver the message of Life.

God is calling you and me to be His servants in this generation.  He is inviting us to participate in His Kingdom work here on earth.  He stands ready to make us useful vessels for His glory—a glory that we can only see with a great vision and a surrendered heart.

God you are holy, holy, holy—high and exalted above the earth.  Yet you offer us a glimpse of Your glory and a part in Your redemptive work here.  Lord, give us eyes to see and ears to hear, minds to receive and hearts to obey.  Here I am. Send me!  Amen

Deeper Still

deep water“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me” (Psalm 42:7).

I have to confess my guilty pleasure: I love the T.V. show American Idol.  I love music and I also love to watch people blossom and step up into their gifts and talents.  I’m really going to miss AI after this season.  A comment that one of the judges made recently really stuck with me.    One of the singers had finished a song with a very strong rhythm, and the judge told him that, while he sang it very well, he didn’t dig down into the song’s rhythm as deeply as he could have.  He told the singer that he “floated over the rhythm.”  It wasn’t that he completely messed up his performance, but the song could have been even better—even richer had he settled into the song’s groove.

Within my spirit, I heard the question, “Are you floating over your relationship with Me?”  And I had to admit, “Yes Lord, I am.”  Then another question: “Are you willing to go deeper?”  “Yes Lord, I am.”

Throughout history, God used people who had a deep, abiding relationship with Him to accomplish great things for His Kingdom.  Men like Abraham and Moses, whom God called His friend (James 2:23; Exodus 33:11), and David, of whom the Lord said, “He is a man after my own heart” (Acts 13:22).  He used men like Daniel who “humbled himself before God” (Daniel 10:12).  He used those who believed His words (John 17:8), and who were full of the Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:3).  He chose men who were willing to suffer for His name (Acts 9:16).  Each of these men (and women) were different, with unique abilities and roles in God’s plan.  But they also had some things in common – deeper things that you and I can have as well.

These servants had deep conviction—1 Thessalonians 1:4-5 says that the believers in Thessalonica accepted the gospel with deep conviction.  “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.”  By definition, the Thessalonians accepted the truth of the gospel with “great and full assurance” that Jesus was the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises.  Do you have a deep conviction that Jesus Christ is exactly who He claimed to be?

They also “kept hold of the deep truths of the faith” (1 Timothy 3:5-emphasis added).  The Christian faith was very new and very radical, and often difficult to comprehend.  Many believers were content with just a basic knowledge, much like those whom the writer of Hebrews described as “slow to learn”—which actually meant that they were lazy and undisciplined.  But some sought out and clung to deeper truths.  They searched the Scriptures, talked through the concepts, and wrote to Paul seeking clarification—his replies make up the bulk of the New Testament.   Are you content with a basic understanding of the Bible?  Are you willing to invest yourself in searching out deeper truths in the Scriptures?

The great people of the Bible also allowed the Spirit to reveal to them “the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10).  We’re not talking here about knowing a lot of information about God, we’re talking about knowing God.  All through the Scriptures, God declared that He wanted His people to “know” Him, and the word used in both the Hebrew and the Greek speaks of an intimate relationship, specifically the marital relationship of a husband and wife.  God desires that level of intimacy with us.  Deeply, passionately, knowing one another to the fullest extent.   But here is what sets this apart:  the root word from which the phrase “deep things of God” is taken means: “deep, (as a time of day), very early in the morning.”  Consider this Scripture:

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where He prayed” (Mark 1:35).

How did Jesus maintain an intimate connection with His Father?  He stole away “very early in the morning” to pray, to talk with His Father and to hear what His Father would say to Him.  This is the deeper place God wants to take me—a deeper intimacy through prayer, early in the morning when the world is still and quiet and I’m not already distracted by a thousand other things.  How about you?  Are you seeking the deep things of God through a deep and intimate prayer connection?  Will you join me early in the morning?

From deep conviction, and deep truth, and an intimate connection to the deep things of God, we are then enveloped with a deep love.  This love can’t be generated within us, it has to come from a deeper source.  Paul wrote of his hope that the Ephesian believers would be “rooted and established in love, [and have] power to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you  may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18-19).   God’s love is truly immeasurable, and Paul is not trying to put parameters around His love, but rather to express the immenseness of it.  He is trying to define the indefinable in a way that will hopefully help us better understand its vastness.

Peter presents the second facet of this deep love in two verses:

“Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart”     (1 Peter 1:22).

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

This deep love emanates from God and flows out to others.  It is what we could call “holy love,” a pure, deep, genuine love that is a continuous stream from God to us to one another.  It is the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).

I am no longer content to float over my relationship with God.  I want to go deeper in every way.  I pray you are stirred with a yearning for deep conviction, deep truth, deep intimacy and deep love.  We’ll never scratch the surface of all God has for us in this life, but we can go deeper with Him along the way.

Holy Father, light a fire within our souls to go to the depths with you.  Make us unwilling to settle for a surface faith and knowledge without deep truth and holy love. Take us deeper Lord, till nothing satisfies but You. Amen.

Why I Quit Resisting Temptation

hand-stop“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power.  Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” Ephesians 6:10.

Have you ever resolved to resist temptation?  How’d that work out for you?  Yeah, pretty much the same for me too.  No matter how hard I gritted my teeth or how many times I told myself, “Don’t do this!” the outcome was usually the same.  Humiliation, regret, and failure.  I crept before God with guilt and shame asking for forgiveness—again.  I get so frustrated with myself for this repetitious cycle of determination followed by a side glance at my old faithful “guilty pleasure” and finally defeat at my own hands.

I believe the reason we have so much trouble with temptation is because we’re doing it all wrong.  I grew up like most of you hearing the mantra: “Resist temptation and flee from the devil!”  But a closer look at Scripture reveals that the Bible doesn’t tell us to resist temptation.  Nor does it say we must flee from the devil.  The Bible actually turns the statement around; we are commanded to resist the devil and flee temptation.  No wonder we’ve had such a hard time with temptation!

Consider Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 6:10-20, the Armor of God.  In fact, go grab your Bible and read that passage.  I’ll wait for you right here.  Notice that four times in verses 10-14, Paul tells us to “stand.” For three of those “stands” he uses the Greek word that means to stand firm, to establish— saying we must take a firm stand on the truth.   However, the first “stand in verse 13 is anthistemi, which means to oppose, rebel and withstand.  Paul is saying “when the day of evil comes, you strong stand and actively oppose and rebel against the evil attacks.  And this is the purpose for all the pieces of the Holy Armor.

Peter agrees as he says in 1 Peter 5:9 “Resist the devil, standing firm in your faith.” Peter uses similar terminology as Paul; again commanding us to actively resist the devil while we stand firm in our faith in Christ Jesus.

However, when it comes to temptation, we don’t resist, we are told to flee!  The Bible couldn’t be any clearer: run away from temptation.  Don’t stand there trying to stare it down and think you’re going to win, because you won’t.  Paul commands us to “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18), “flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14), “flee from false teaching and from greed” (1 Timothy 6:3-11), and “flee from evil desires” (2 Timothy 2:22).

Why this dual command to resist the devil and flee from temptation?  One reason is because if you are in Jesus Christ, you have already claimed the victory!  The devil is a defeated foe, and he knows it—and you need to know it too.  Remember the word anthistemi?  One of its definitions is to rebel.  You can rebel against him because, as a child of God, the devil has no authority over you. None.  You can stare him down and say, “You’re not the boss of me!” and he can’t argue with you.

The other reason is because temptation taps into what is within us.  Hear James on this: “Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed” (James 1:14).  That temptation reaches in to that sinful nature that lives in every man and battles for control of the believer.  Though we are new creations in Christ, those sinful desires still exert a tremendous amount of influence, and this is where the devil throws those powerful enticements in our face.  He’s playing on our weakest area, our old sinful passions.  So we must flee temptation if we want to walk in the victory Christ won on our behalf.

God has not left us to fight on our own.  He is so faithful to help us in this battle of the flesh.  The Greek word Paul uses for flee means to run away from, elude, to escape.  Now keep this thought in mind as you read 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (RSV).   God provides the way out of temptation.  You don’t have to stand with fists clenched and face it.  Take the escape hatch and run—don’t walk—from the thing that causes those sinful desires that rise up within you.  That may mean shutting off the computer, turning off the television, walking out of the bar, finding other people to hang out with it, or not going someplace where you know temptation lives.  God makes the way of escape, but you must take it.

When you put yourself in God’s hands and follow His commands you will gain the victory over temptation and sin.  Here is a promise from James on which you can firmly stand:  “Submit yourselves, then, to God.  Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7, emphasis added).  Run away from temptation, but take your stand against the devil.  Now we have this in the right order!  Ready to send the devil running?

Mighty Jesus – because of Your blood I have been set free, because of Your resurrection, the devil has no power or authority over me.  Teach me to walk in victory every day as I both run from temptation and stand against the devil.  No power on earth can defeat me because I’ve already won in You!  Amen.

 

By Faith

faith“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1).

Since the day the stone was rolled away from His tomb, many have rejected the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, the foundation of the Christian faith.  The Jewish religious leaders concocted a lie to deny His resurrection, claiming that His disciples stole His body away.  But His followers were certain that He had returned to life because they had seen him with their own eyes, and touched Him with their own hands.  They shared meals with Him, walked with him, and marveled in His presence.  Saul encountered the resurrected Lord on the road to Damascus, and though he did not physically touch Him, he heard his voice with his own ears and saw Him in glory so bright that it blinded his human eyes.  These were the last eyewitnesses of Jesus.

To us, they are specially blessed because they had seen and heard and touched.  They had the advantage of His physical presence to bolster their faith.  Who could doubt after witnessing the resurrected Lord?  (Believe it or not, some did-Matthew 28:17.) But what about you and me?  We have not physically seen Him or touched Him or heard Him, and that makes faith a challenge for us.  We like proof that we can affirm physically.  Isn’t that what our culture has taught us?  Don’t trust anything you can’t prove.  I’ve talked with several people who are firm in their unbelief and they always come back to the same manta:  “When you can prove God scientifically, I’ll believe.”

But hear what Jesus said to one of His disciples: “Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29-italics added).  That’s you and me and every believer since the Day of Pentecost when the Church was born (ref: Acts 2).  Jesus is saying that we are more blessed because we haven’t seen than are those who have.

Why would that be?  Because when we “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7), we show that we believe God is truthful in all He has said and promised.  Our faith is a testament to who God is.  That is why John said “Anyone who believes in the Son of God has [God’s testimony] in his heart” (1 John 5:10).  God’s testimony is twofold: is it the declaration that Jesus is His Son (Matthew 3:17), and it is the promise that God has given us eternal life through His Son (ref. 1 John 5:11).  In other words, we affirm to the world that God is truthful.  It’s not as though God needs our affirmation, but the world needs to be convicted of the truth of God.

By contrast John says, “Anyone who does not believe God has made Him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about His Son” (1 John 5:10).  When men reject Jesus Christ, they are saying that God is not truthful nor trustworthy.

The heart of faith is what we believe about God and about what He has said through His Word, His Son and His Spirit.  We see that in Hebrews 11—the “Hall of Faith”—as saint after saint hears God, believes God and acts on what God has said. God told Noah, build a boat, because a flooding rain is coming.  Until the flood, rain had never fallen on the earth, so Noah had to decide if he was going to believe what he had known all his life, or believe what God told him.  Noah believed and built the ark, and God declared him righteous because of his faith.  Abraham, an old man, married to an old woman heard God say – your wife will bear you a son who will become the seed of the promise I have made to you.  Abraham, though he faltered at first, believed God, and Isaac became their joy and delight.  When God commanded him to sacrifice this same son, Abraham weighed God’s promise against what would be the physical outcome of this action, and he believed God and acted in obedience. God spared Isaac’s life and fulfilled His promise.  The Bible is full of faith-filled people like Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Esther, and many more.

When I say I am a Christian, I am not making a statement about my assent to the truths of Christianity; I am making a statement about the truthfulness of what God has said about Jesus Christ: “This is my Son” and “Eternal life is through Him.”  I believe these words are true.  When I say that I believe in Jesus, I am putting all my hope and confidence is God’s power to save me as He has promised.  That is why “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 13:1).  I cannot see Jesus with my own eyes, nor have I ever seen heaven.  But I believe that He is the risen Lord and that His sacrifice is sufficient to save me and give me eternal life.

If you believe in Jesus Christ, you are blessed in every way; for this life and life eternal.  You are blessed because you stand on the confidence of God’s testimony, not on the traditions of men.  You are blessed because

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepare for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:10).

But for us who believe, “we will see the glory of God” (John 11:40).  Our faith will be made sight and our hope in Christ will be confirmed.  In the chronicles of heaven our names will be recorded among the great saints of human history, and we will be commended with who pleased God by their faith.  What a blessing it is to believe!

Holy Father, I believe, not because I can see, but because You have said, and I know Your words are true.  My faith is in Your Son, Jesus Christ, who was and is and is to come.  In Him is all my hope and trust.  Amen.

Good and Evil

good-vs-evil-two-way-street-sign-thumb17689704“God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).

Do you believe that evil exists?  Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know it does.   While there are still many who insist that “evil” is a make-believe construct of religion, the evidence is all around us.  Mass murders, sexual exploitation of children, terrorism, rampant crime, cities racked by hatred and violence in every form—and you don’t have to look across the globe or in big cities to find it.  Evil is happening right where you live.

What is “evil”? Merriam-Webster defines evil as that which is: “morally reprehensible; arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct; causing harm or repulsion.”  Pretty straight forward until you ask about the standards of morality or bad character.  There you will find a wide margin of disagreement.   However, when the Bible speaks of evil, it uses one root definition: “whatever is disagreeable or opposed to God.”  Who else is qualified to define evil but One who is perfectly good?

Genesis details for us God’s creation of the world, and when all His work was done, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31), including the two humans.  It is important to know that Adam and Eve were good in God’s eyes at this point—there was no trace of evil in them.  They were not created with a bent for evil, their hearts and minds were pure and innocent, and that is the key to understanding good and evil.

When the Lord God created the Garden in which the first humans would live, He told them that they were free to take from any tree in the Garden, except the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:17).  But why?  After all, as the serpent (the Devil) pointed out, “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5).  He was appealing to Eve on the basis of wisdom.  But wouldn’t that be a good thing?  Proverbs is full of passages extolling the benefits of wisdom and urging the pursuit of wisdom at all costs.  But that is not how the serpent presented it.  The serpent implied that God was trying to keep Adam and Eve in the dark about something they should know.  Or as we might say today, “God is holding out on you.”

The wisdom that the serpent held up like a luscious piece of fruit is a vain wisdom, a self-serving, worldly wisdom; the kind of wisdom that James warns against. “Such ‘wisdom’ does not come from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. . . [bringing] envy, selfish ambition, disorder and every evil practice.” (James 3:15-16).   It is the complete opposite of the wisdom we are told to pursue which is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, sincere and righteous (see James 3:17-18).

Did you catch those two words in the contrasts of “wisdom”—evil and pure?  Remember when I said that the key to understanding good and evil was knowing that Adam and Eve’s minds and hearts were pure and innocent?  The reason God told them not to take the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was because, at this point, they were pure.  In their innocence, they were free from the harmful effects of the knowledge of evil, a knowledge they—and we—are unable to bear.  Corrie ten Boom, the Holocaust survivor and author recalled asking her father about a particular sin.  The wise man replied to his young daughter, “Some knowledge is too heavy for children.”  Yes, God knew that Adam and Eve would have knowledge of things they did not yet know, but it was knowledge that was too heavy for their innocent minds and hearts.  The serpent led them to believe they would be as wise and knowledgeable as God, but he failed to tell them that they did not have the moral capacity to bear that knowledge without disastrous repercussions.  When they were exposed to the knowledge of evil, evil overtook them and buried their innocence under impurity and selfishness and hate.  They had the “knowledge of evil,” but not the power to resist it.

When we witness young children at play, we wistfully comment on how “innocent” they are.  They are oblivious to the evil in the world around them, unencumbered by the heavy weight of horrible things that humans do to each other  How we wish we could keep them in that sweet, untouched state.  That is how Adam and Eve were before the serpent, before the lies, before the sin.  They were not burdened with the knowledge of evil and were free to enjoy every good thing God had provided in their perfect home.

Many who are bound up in addiction of any kind will often say, “I wish I had never taken that first hit, that first drink, or looked at that first website. “  That first taste or glimpse of sin led them into a pit from which they can never recover without the power of Christ.  And even Christians will tell you they continue to battle the images and desires of their sinful past.  Paul expresses it well: “I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Romans 7:21).  Sin will continue to knock at your door.

When she plucked that piece of tainted fruit Eve got “knowledge” all right, but she also got much more than she bargained for.  She opened herself and the whole of humanity up to the powerful influence of evil.  And as this world races toward the end of time, evil has exploded with an alarming increase.  Evil is the reason there are almost weekly mass shootings.  Evil is behind the perpetrators of sex trafficking.   Evil is the face of immoral laws and leaders who reject the truth.  Evil is real.  But it was not intended to be part of the human equation.  We were created for a good world with our good Creator.

Is that even possible anymore?  I will not leave you without hope:  Jesus Christ is the cure for evil.  Jesus defeated evil when He died for the sins of all mankind.  He defeated the devil when He rose from the dead three days later.   He died for your sins.  He rose again that you might live eternally in a good place with your good Creator—as it was always meant to be.

Beloved, will you allow Jesus Christ to break the power of evil over your life?  Will you receive His good gift of eternal life?  If so, pray this prayer and find the good life you were created for.

Dear God, You created me for a good life with You, but evil and sin took over instead.  I believe that Jesus Christ came to break the power of evil and to set me free from m sin.  I receive Your good gift of eternal life and choose to walk with you for the rest of my days on earth.  Thank you for saving me Lord.  Amen.

Am I a Child of God?

Cross-and-BIble2“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13).

In a recent devotional on Matthew 25, I presented Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins, where the Lord’s message is clear: there is an eternal difference between those who know about Me and those who know Me.    It is vitally important that we know that difference for our own lives.  Thankfully the Bible gives us a very clear-cut way to examine ourselves and know the truth.  I encourage you to grab your Bible and follow along as we read in 1 John (almost at the end of the Bible).

The book of 1 John was written by one of Jesus’ disciples, the same John who wrote the gospel of John and the book of Revelation.  1 John is part of three letters written to the church in Ephesus, which was under attack by false teachers.  A group of philosophers, known as Gnostics had infiltrated the church, claiming a “higher, secret truth” that set them apart from the common Christian.  They deemed themselves above the teachings of the Scriptures and the Church with a superior holiness that excused their sinful behaviors, yet they still called themselves “Christians”.  (Hmmm, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)  So the old apostle takes pen in hand and says, there is only one God, only one truth, and this is how you can know where you stand.  Ready? Let’s dig in!

John says that those who belong to God “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7) “as Jesus did” (2:6).  The child of God choses to live in the light, where their deeds are visible.  By contrast, those who do not belong to God “walk in the darkness” (1:6, 11) where their deeds are hidden, they think, from God and men.  The child of God “does not love the world” (2:15), meaning the twisted and evil value system of the world.  But those who do not belong to God “love the world” (2:15).  Their hearts are drawn to what the world values: sex, power, money, deception . . .

The heart of the child of God “is at peace with God” (3:21) because he “listens to God” (4:6). He “obeys [Jesus’] commands” (2:3), “does what is right” (2:29; 3:10), and “does not continue to live in sin” (3:16).  When he does falter, which is the exception rather than the rule (2:1), he is quick to “confess [his] sins” (1:9) and be forgiven and purified.  The heart of the one who does not belong to God “condemns him before God” (3:21) because he listens to the world.  He “does not do what is right” (3:10) and “does not obey [Jesus’] commands” (2:4).  He “continues to [live in] sin” (3:6, 10) and then “denies his sin” (1:8).  Those who do not belong to God have convinced themselves that their actions are not sinful because they “speak the world’s viewpoint” and “the world listens to them” (4:5-6).  Just let that statement sink in for a minute.

Those who belong to God enjoy “fellowship with one another” (1:7), and “love their brother/sister [in Christ]” (2:10 and multiple verses). They love the company of believers, love to gather with the church, and love one another sacrificially (3:16-19) “in action and truth” (3:18).  The one who does not belong to God hates those who are in Christ (2:9 and multiple verses); they “do not love” (3:14, 4:8), and certainly do not love sacrificially.  “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has not pity on him, how can the love of God be in him” (3:17)?

Those who belong to God “believe that Jesus is the Christ . . . the Son of God” (2:20-23; 5:5), because they “know the truth” (2:20).  They “love the Father” (5:1-2) and “do not fear punishment” (4:18) because they have “Christ’s Spirit within them” (3:24).  Those who do not belong to God are “liars” who “deny that Jesus is the Christ . . . the Son of God” (2:22-23; 5:10) because they “do not know the truth” (2:20).  They “do not love the Father” (5:1) and “fear God’s punishment” (4:18) because they do not have Christ’s Spirit (3:24).

One of the most telling and public ways of discerning the difference in God’s people and those with a pseudo-faith is how they respond to persecution.  In John’s day the claim of Christianity was often a death sentence.  Many who enjoyed the church’s benefits, when pressed with the decision to deny Christ or die, chose to “turn away” (2:19) rather than suffer for the name of Jesus.  Those who stood fast in their love and devotion to Christ did so at the risk of severe punishment and death.  In other parts of the world today, Christians are being murdered for their faith.  In the West, the risks are more subtle—for now—but it is clear that the tide is quickly turning and those who love Jesus will be faced with greater oppression.  John says that those who belong to God will remain faithful to their confession of Jesus as their Lord (2:21). The time is coming—soon—when our true relationship with God will be a public, and possibly deadly matter.  The evidence of the true child of God shows up in our conduct, our love, and our willingness to stand firm and persevere when being a Christian isn’t popular anymore.

As you come to the end of this devotional, there are two ways to consider this message.  You are either assured of your standing as a child of God, or you are convicted by what is true of your life and beliefs.  I pray you do not walk away without settling the matter.  Beloved, how is it with you and God today?

Holy Father, we stand before You in the light of Your Word. The truth is clear and we cannot deny it.  Help us to be honest in our answers.  Help us to open our hearts to You.  Amen.

Why I am a Christian

broken chains“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” 1 Timothy 1:15

Several years ago a Sunday School teacher said: “The only reason I’m a Christian is because Jesus offered me a better deal.  If someone had offered something better I would’ve taken it.”  That statement bothered me greatly, to the point that I stopped attending that class.  But it also led me to examine my own heart and ask myself why I am a Christian.  In the process, I’ve learned some things about myself and about my relationship with God.

I grew up in a Christian home, my mom took us to Sunday School, church, Sunbeams, Vacation Bible School, and so on.  I don’t recall a time when I didn’t know about the God who created the whole world and the sun, moon and stars.  I always knew that Jesus loved me.  I knew about the cross and the empty tomb. I knew that I wanted to go to heaven, so I asked Jesus into my heart when I was nine years old and was baptized.  All through my growing up years, I was in church.  I attended the Teen Bible Study group and told my friends that they had to accept Jesus if they wanted to go to heaven.  Like the rich young man who asked the Lord, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17), my young faith was all about what was necessary on my part to end up in heaven.  Not exactly the type of fertile soil that allows deep roots to grow.

But church and faith took a backseat to work and fun and relationships.  I became less concerned with heaven and more focused on the things of earth.  I married, and then my world came crashing down when my marriage failed.  I went back home to my parents and returned to the church of my childhood.  Only this time, it was different.  Rather than learning Bible stories, I began to learn Bible truth, and I started to see things in Scripture I had never seen before.

As I read the Old Testament story of the Israelites, I saw my own life.  The Israelites were less concerned with knowing the Lord and just wanted to get to the Promised Land.  Like them, I didn’t seek God, I only sought heaven—the final destination of this long journey of life.  And just as they cycled through centuries of falling away from God into bondage and then crying out for rescue, I “did my own thing” until my thing proved unstable and I ran back to church.

What I had was a shaky connection to church, not a relationship with God.  What I had wasn’t faith that withstands the struggles of life and the temptations of the world.  It was “faith” built on sweet Bible stories, but it was not saving faith.

The Israelites wanted to be freed from the power of their enemies, the Philistines, Edomites, Midianites, Amorites, etc.  Even in the New Testament, the Jewish people only wanted to be free of Roman rule.  But they failed to recognize that their enemy wasn’t another nation.  Their enemy, my enemy and your enemy is our own sinful nature.

Like the Israelites, my greatest need was not for God to sweep in and fix the problem of the day.  My greatest need was to recognize that I was a wretch, bound as a slave to sin and helpless to free myself.  In truth, I didn’t even realize that I was in bondage.  I didn’t yearn to be free from slavery to sin because it was just a normal, natural part of my life and the life of most everyone around me.  But God saw me as the slave I was, bound and shackled by the sinful nature of all mankind, and He determined to set me free.

There was only one way—a perfect sacrifice had to take on all my sin and shame and die in my place.  That is when God sent His own Son in the person of Jesus, to die on the cross in my place.  My freedom was bought at the highest possible price – the life of the Son of God.

Still I would not have chosen to receive Jesus’ sacrifice had God not revealed the truth of my bondage—and the truth of His redeeming love.  He moved my heart to believe and receive His gift of salvation.  My faith is no longer in the church—my faith is in Jesus, who is my Lord and my Savior.  And now I am certain that heaven is my forever home.

Biblical scholar Dr. Irwin Lutzer says that true faith is three-fold. “First it involves knowledge, the fact of Jesus’ death for sinners.  Second it means we assent to the truths of salvation; finally, it involves trust, the transferring of all of our confidence to Christ alone.”[1]  We recognize our own need for a Savior, confess that Jesus’ death secured our salvation, and believe that through God’s grace we are forever redeemed and set free.

I am a Christian because God saved me through the death of His Son, Jesus Christ.  I have eternal life in heaven because of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  I am not bound as a slave to my sins any longer, I am now bound up in the freedom of Christ.  Every day I remember both who I was as a slave to sin, and who I am now, a freed daughter of God.

Can you say the same?  Do you know the freedom that only comes through Jesus Christ?  Do not remain in the chains of sin for one more minute—right now tell God you want to be set free.  The chains will fall and you can walk away as a freed child of God.

Holy Father, thank You for opening my eyes to the truth of my slavery to sin.  Thank You for revealing the redemptive power of Your love through the cross of Jesus Christ.  Thank You for setting me free.  I am forever Your child.

[1] Erwin Lutzer, The Doctrines That Divide: A Fresh Look at the Historic Doctrines That Separate Christians, (Grand Rapids, Kregel, 1998), 99.

Don’t Be a Fool

oil_lamp“The foolish virgins said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’” Matthew 25:8

Please Read: Matthew 25:1-13

This passage always puzzled me. Jesus often spoke of the importance of generosity on the part of believers, so why would He offer a parable about selfish women who won’t share their oil? It seemed a contradiction to me. But as I’ve learned to study the Bible, and especially Jesus’ parables, I’m learning to look for the deeper meanings and truths behind His words.

This parable is about so much more than sharing. It speaks of the church and of the return of Christ. It is part of a bigger series, called the Olivet Discourse that begins in Matthew 24 and continues through the end of chapter 25 where Jesus is teaching about His return. The disciples had asked “What will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (24:3). Jesus had a great deal to say about “false prophets” and the falling away of people who claimed to be His followers. He also spoke about the coming time of tribulation, which will weed out the false and reveal the true followers. (I firmly believe we are seeing the early stages of this “weeding out” process even now.) But the heart of all He said in Matthew 24 and 25 is simple: “Jesus is coming, and we must be ready.”

The skeptic demands to know when, but Jesus said “The Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will” (24:44), and that is an important point in the passage we are discussing. But to understand this parable better, we need a little “back story.” A wedding story to be precise.

A Jewish wedding in the time of Jesus was different from weddings today. No plans were set on the calendar, no invitations sent out, little to no advanced notice was given, even for the bride, the wedding party and guests. For that matter, even the groom had to wait until his father told him to go fetch his bride.  (This is another wonderful study that we’ll look at soon.)  The groom got the nod from his father and messengers went mere hours before him to tell the bride and the expected guests that the wedding was on – now! Being prepared was essential for everyone involved.

In this parable, the word had been spread that the bridegroom was on his way to claim his bride, but for an unknown reason, he was delayed. As the ten virgins waited, they continued to burn their lamps, and in the process, burned their oil. Jesus said five of those virgins were wise enough to bring extra oil, but five did not. But Jesus is not speaking specifically about oil – He is speaking about faith – that is faith in Him as Savior. And He is confronting those who are part of the crowd, but have not received the grace that God offers. They are the foolish virgins who first try to “borrow” from the wise virgins and then run to the market to attempt to buy what only Jesus offers. They are the ones who are left standing outside the door, denied entry because Jesus does not recognize His Spirit in them. They are foolish – but they have only fooled themselves.

We are talking here about salvation through Jesus Christ, for only those who have received Christ have the Spirit of Christ, and only those with the Spirit of Christ are received into eternal life. Paul expressed it very plainly in Romans 8:9: “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” John makes it even clearer: “This is how we know He (Christ) lives in us; we know it by the Spirit He gave us” (I John 3:24).

Our churches are filled with wise and foolish people, some who have taken hold of the life that Jesus Christ offers and some who have not. Those who have are ready for the return of the Bridegroom have “lamps” that are full of the never-ending life of Christ, and when He returns, Jesus will welcome them to the wedding banquet. According to Matthew 25:46 “The righteous [will go] to eternal life.” Those who have not, no matter how much they plead on that day, have a different and terrifying destination – “They will go away to eternal punishment.”

My pastor/mentor says “The message of the virgins is that there are people who know about his Lordship, yet do nothing to obey the words of their Lord. They know ABOUT him, but have not considered him worthy of their obedience. Their condition is the height of foolishness. Their intentional ignorance (or perhaps ignorance born of apathy) has condemned them. So the bridegroom rightly answers with that terrifying reply – “I don’t know you”. This answer is consistent with Jesus words in Matthew 7:21-22 “Not all who say to me Lord, Lord shall enter…but only they who do the will of my Father…”[1]

We must, in this life, prepare for the next life. We must receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior by faith; we must accept the grace that is offered through the cross. Only then will we be prepared for Jesus’ return. Those who refuse Christ, and even those who are part of the “church crowd” but have never received Christ, are not prepared. When Jesus returns there is no more opportunity to make that decision. It will be too late.

Will you stop for a moment and ask yourself “Does the Spirit of Christ live in me?” “Is my mind set on the things the Spirit desires?” (Romans 8:5). “Is my mind controlled by the life and peace of the Spirit?” (Romans 8:6). “Do I put to death the misdeeds of the body and live by the Spirit?” (Romans 8:13). “Does the Spirit testify to my spirit that I am a child of God?” (Romans 8:16). If you cannot answer “yes” to these questions – questions that come straight out of the Word of God – please don’t wait until it is too late to prepare for the Day that is coming. Please receive Jesus Christ today and be right with God while there is time. I speak to you in Paul’s words: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” 2 Corinthians 5:20.

If you want to pray to receive Jesus, use this prayer as your own or as an example for your own words: “Dear Jesus, I know that I am not prepared for Your return. But right now, by faith, I receive your gift of salvation and eternal life. I receive You, Jesus as my Savior. Fill me and teach me to live according to Your Spirit. Thank you for dying to save me and give me life.  Amen.

[1] Personal comments by Rev. M. D. Shockley, Pastor, St. Paul’s UMC, Jacksonville, Florida.