In the World but not of the World

“Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:16

Is there any doubt that evil rules the world we live in?  Turn on the television, open a newspaper, log onto the world-wide web and you are face-to-face with the evidence of evil.  You don’t even have to go looking for it anymore.  It’s on billboards as you drive on the highway, flashed in commercials, and reported daily in the news.  Satan rules the world – for now.  So to borrow from Francis Schaeffer- “How Should We Then Live?”

How do we live godly lives in an ungodly world?

Christians tend to have one of two extreme reactions to the world; we either bury our heads in the sand and try to pretend that evil doesn’t exist, or we become radically defensive and try to shout down evil by throwing Bible verses around like grenades.  If you can’t ignore it, try to blow it away.  Time has proven that neither approach works.  To ignore evil just allows it to escalate and become overwhelming.  Taking an aggressive stand has only offended and ostracized the world Jesus died to save.

As in every aspect of life, Jesus has the answer. “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (emphasis added). This is the command He gave to His disciples as He sent them out into the world to be His witnesses.  This is the command we must live by as well.  As I read this verse today, the two contrasting words jumped out at me. That is always my cue to dig a little deeper.  The original Greek definitions for these words shed tremendous light on the command of Jesus.

“Shrewd” is phronimos and means “wise, sensible” and its root meaning is “thinking, understanding.” Jesus was telling them to think and understand and then make a wise and sensible determination.  Do you know that one of Satan’s most effective tools is to dull our minds and then feed us from the world’s banquet table of ideas and philosophies?  Let’s be completely honest – we can become mentally and spiritually lazy – accepting as truth whatever we are told without bothering to examine things for ourselves.  That is one reason I love the story in Acts about the Bereans. “The Bereans…received the message (Paul’s preaching) with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).  We must wake up our dulled minds and think about the messages we are receiving day after day, lay them alongside of the Word of God and see if they are true.  And this is not just for spiritual matters.  The advertising world depends on the fact that we take in their “pitch” without thinking or examining the validity of their message.  Try watching a few commercials sometime with a sharp mind.  We need to be discerning about everything our minds take in.  Because we must live in this world, Jesus tells us to “think and come to a sensible conclusion.”

In contrast to being shrewd, Jesus commands us to be innocent. Akeraios means innocent, pure, not mixed with evil, and has the root meaning “to mix, to be poured.”  His command here is to not allow ourselves to be mixed up with the world’s philosophies and ideas; to not allow them to be poured into our minds and hearts. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were commanded to keep themselves separate from the world around them and not fall into their evil ways nor worship their pagan gods.  They tried to compromise with the Lord and the world, believing that they could dabble in paganism as long as they continued to also follow the sacrificial Law of God.  They “poured” paganism into with their worship of God Almighty, and in their dulled minds, believed they were still being obedient to the Lord.  Has anything changed?  Certainly not God’s command to worship and live for Him and Him only.  The truth is God’s people cannot “coexist” with ungodliness.  It didn’t work for Israel and it won’t work for Christ’s followers today.  Mind you, I’m not advocating separatism; Jesus called us to be His witnesses throughout the world.  We must interact with the lost world to tell them about Jesus.  But we must also keep our hearts purely devoted to Him alone and not allow the world to mix us up.

When I studied this verse, I recalled Jesus prayer in John 15 where He said we are “in the world” (v.11) but “not of the world” (v. 14).  We live alongside of people who do not follow Christ or His Word and that is by God’s good design; but we live for the One who died for the world, and we live by His Word and for His glory.  How else will they know we belong to the one true God if we believe the world’s message and live as if God is just one option among many?

Holy Father, You are not one God among many, You are the God of all, the Creator and Sustainer and the Sovereign Lord.  My heart, my mind, my soul and my all belong to You.  Use me in this world to bring others to Christ and to bring glory to Your Name. Amen.

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Where Are You?

“Where are you?”  “I heard You in the garden and I was afraid. . . so I hid”         Genesis 3:9,10

 “Where are you?”

Have you ever asked that question? Perhaps you were looking for your friend in a crowd or frantically searching for your child in the store. I’ve often impatiently asked that question while waiting for someone who is running late. I have an unmarried friend who often cries as she asks that of a future soul-mate. It is sometimes said in frustration or fear or wistfulness. But did you know that the first time those words were spoken, it was God asking the question?

“Where are you?” God called out to Adam and Eve as He was “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8). It was their usual habit to meet every day and fellowship together, but today, they were nowhere to be found. I imagine they had always eagerly met Him in their paradise home, but now the two humans had hidden themselves because they had disobeyed God and done the one thing He had forbidden them to do, eating of the tree from which the Lord God had said, “You must not eat.” From their hiding place, Adam answered God, “I heard You in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (Gen 3:10).

This is a familiar story and as I read the passages today I was thinking, “Yes, I know this story very well.” Until I came to that question and the answer that followed, and the words lit up on the page as if I were reading them under a laser light.

God is asking Adam the question, “Where are you?” Forever after this fateful moment in time, the question turns, and man has been asking God, “Where are You?” When troubles come we ask God, “Where are You?” In the face of bad news, rejection, grief and struggle, we ask the question. When the world turns upside down and violence and disaster and disease seem out of control, we look up, sometimes with a clenched fist and shout, “Where are You!?” When our hearts are breaking we cry out in a whisper “God, where are You?” God asked the question first, but we have been asking the question ever since.

Adam answered the question, “I heard You…so I hid.” Forever after this fateful moment, God has said, “I have heard you” (2 Chron. 34:27) and “I am with you” (Isaiah 41:10). God hears you when you call out His name. He hears your cries. He hears your heart. Hagar named her son Ishmael, which means “God hears,” because He heard her cries in the desert. He heard the grief of His people in bondage in Egypt. He heard their call for help when they faced great armies. He heard David’s pleas for forgiveness. “You heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help” (Ps. 31:22).  He heard the groaning of men’s spirits bound by sin and death. God hears you beloved.

Unlike Adam, when God hears us He does not hide Himself from us. He promises to be with us, and He has kept His Word faithfully to His people. He promised to be with the Israelites as they crossed the wilderness, and as they faced their enemies. He promised to be with them as they settled in Canaan and He promised to be with them even as they were taken away into captivity because of their own sin.   He promised to be with them and redeem them, and He came to be present with His people in flesh and blood; flesh that was torn and blood that was spilled at the cross.   He did this so that we could be with Him forever in eternity.  It is the same promise Jesus made to His disciples and to all who would follow Him, “Surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  He is our Immanuel, God with us.

God first asked the question, and Adam’s answer broke God’s heart. Now our broken hearts ask the question, and God’s answer gives us hope and comfort and peace.

“Where are you God?”

“Right here with you my child.”

“I love you Lord, for You heard my voice; You heard my cry for mercy. Because You turned Your ear to me, I will call on You as long as I live” (Psalm 116:1; para).

Related posts: Hope in the darkness

 

Rescued

“The Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed and afflicted them.”  Judges 2:18b

Do you remember the old saying: “You made your bed, now you have to lay down in it.”? In essence it’s saying that the hard situation I am in is the result of my own choices and I have to live with the consequences. We’ve all experienced it in some form in our lives. It’s a principle that plays out from time-outs in childhood, being grounded as a teenager, and dealing with all sorts of struggles and issues as an adult that are the direct result of our own decisions and actions. Sometimes the consequences are simple, like my son having to replace a window he broke, or me having to stay up late to finish a paper because I put it off too long. But some consequences are far more difficult and painful; just ask any prisoner. Sorrow and suffering is magnified when the offense against us is our own.

The people of Israel found themselves in just such a situation.

Judges 2 is the story of the Israelites’ rebellion and idolatry against God. As we noted in the previous post, Israel had allowed the pagan Canaanites to remain in the Promised Land, in opposition to the Lord’s command, and the Israelite men were seduced into pagan worship by the Canaanite women. The Canaanites worshiped Baal and Ashtoreth, and their worship was largely sexual and perverse. Their evil practices spread throughout Israel, and the Lord God who had delivered them out of Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land was now forgotten in their lust. They broke their covenant agreement to worship only Yahweh, and now He was angry. Judges 2:14 says “In His anger against Israel the Lord handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around.” They had danced to the devil’s tune, and now it was time to pay the piper.

The result of their sin was tragic. They were enslaved and oppressed, in constant peril from their enemies and unable to defend themselves because God had removed His protective hand from them. Their property was taken, their children were ripped from their arms and pressed into slave labor. All because of their own actions. What misery is greater than knowing your suffering has your own fingerprints all over it? I’ve been there several times, grieving the consequences that were the result of my own foolishness. I expect you have too. Perhaps you are there right now, sitting in a mud pit of your own making, wondering how you could have been so foolish and how will you ever get out of it. I used to believe that God was unwilling to help me when I got myself into a mess. Oh I knew He was faithful to help me when I was suffering for any other reason, but I figured He would make me deal with my own messes. And I made plenty of messes. “Sorry child, this is your problem, I’m stepping out on this one.” After all, don’t we learn best from our mistakes?

I am so grateful God doesn’t think like me.

Our key verse tells us that God heard His people’s cries and was moved in His great heart for them. He “raised up judges who saved them out of the hands of these raiders” (Jud 2:16). This pattern of sin, misery and rescue in the lives of the Israelites repeats itself over and over in the nation’s history. And over and over God hears, He sees and He rescues. God’s compassion is boundless. “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail, they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Lam 3:22).   His mercy never fails because His love never fails. His love never fails because it is the essence of who He is. God takes no pleasure in our pain and suffering, even when we are the only ones to blame.  He will allow us to feel the sting of our sin, but He will never abandon us to our self-made misery when we cry out to Him. The Bible is a record of God’s great compassion and mercy. From the cycles of sin and rescue in Israel’s history, to His salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ, God has been actively rescuing His people from the misery of their own sin.

If you are struggling with the consequences of your own decisions and actions, know that God hears your cries. He sees your tears. His heart is moved on your behalf. He rescued His people, He rescued me, and He will rescue you.

Holy Father, Thank you for not leaving me in the pit of my own messes. Thank you for your great mercy and grace. I echo David’s words, “out of the goodness of Your love, deliver me” (Ps 109:21).  Amen

Related posts: While; The Wonderful Love of God

 

“What Not To Do”

 

But they put God to the test and rebelled against the Most High. Psalm 78:56

The nation of Israel had endured four-hundred years of slavery in Egypt, a dangerous escape, and forty years of wilderness wandering; but now, they were finally setting foot in the Promised Land, the place the Lord had promised to Abraham for his descendants so long ago. This was “a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:8). It was everything God had promised.

So why then, by Judges 2, do we find the Israelites caught up in the first of many cycles of sin and bondage? Why did the nation’s spiritual temperature grow cold? There are many reasons, but two stand out most vividly in the first chapter of Judges.

• The people didn’t listen to and obey the Lord’s word. God had instructed Israel to drive out the evil, pagan Canaanites from the land He was giving them, but they did not completely obey. Many communities inhabited by the Canaanites were allowed to remain. From the text in Joshua 1, it appeared that some of the tribes of Israel simply gave up on claiming the land that God had given to them. A few settled in with the pagan Canaanites, and one tribe of Israel abandoned their God-given territory altogether and sought property elsewhere.

• They compromised with the sinfulness around them. Since they were unable (or unwilling?) to drive out the Canaanites, they instead “pressed [them] into forced labor, but did not drive them out completely” (Jud 1:28). God had warned, “If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live” (Numbers 33:55). And this is exactly what happened, as men were drawn into pagan worship by the seduction of the Canaanite women. The book of Judges is a continual story of the Israelites being led into sin by a godless people who should not have remained in the Promised Land.

What is our application here? I think it is pretty obvious.

• Read and obey God’s Word. Though the Bible is the best-selling book of all time, and there are multiple Bible apps and websites available, this generation is largely Bible-illiterate. How can you obey what you do not know? How can I know it unless I read it? It’s not brain surgery, it is picking up the book and letting the Word of God teach us the ways of God, and obeying what we read. James put it very plainly: “Do not merely listen to (or read) the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says (Jas 1:22-emphasis added). Where God has said “do…” go and do. Where He has said “don’t…” stop doing it.

• Do not allow the sin of the world to invade your life. We cannot live a monastic life, tucked away on a mountain far from the evil of this world, (although, that’s looking pretty good these days), but we can chose to intentionally separate ourselves from the world’s sinful influences. What T.V. shows and movies am I watching? What websites are you viewing? What magazines and books are we reading? What trash have you grown comfortable with? Maybe it’s time for some spiritual – and literal – house-cleaning.

The Israelites left a legacy of disobedience and idolatry, but they also left us a primer on “what not to do” to live a lift that pleases God. There are many more lessons from the Book of Judges, and we will investigate them over the coming weeks in these devotional posts. Today, make the decision to be a student of God’s Word, to be obedient to Him, and to examine your life and “take out the trash. Let’s be the people who know and obey the Word of the Lord and live purposefully for Him.

Holy Father, I have a choice: to know and obey You or to become comfortable with the world’s sin. “Earth has nothing I desire besides You” (Ps 73:25). Help me Lord to walk faithfully before You. Amen.

CPR for Your Dreams

“How long will you put off entering to take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you?” Joshua 18:3

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer. When I was very little, I would draw crayon scribbles on paper and call them my “stories.” I wrote with real words as I grew up, and placed well in writing and poetry competitions in high school. Writing gave me an avenue to express my feelings and order my thoughts and emotions. As an adult, I wrote in journals and developed the habit of journaling my prayers. Yet I kept those writings tucked away in boxes, never letting my words go any further as life and responsibilities pushed those dreams down deeper and deeper inside.

Ten years ago, God began to lay on my heart the desire to attend seminary, to write and to teach, another of my long held passions. He reached out and started plucking the strings of my heart to stir up old songs and old dreams; but once again I let life and the needs of my family and job take over. The more I pressed those dreams down the more discouraged I became. After an extremely difficult season, believing those dreams were dead, I took all those boxes of journals and notebooks and pitched them into the fireplace and shut those dreams out for good.

But God didn’t. He knew the plans He had for my life, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). Two years ago, I heard the soft, faint sounds of the song again. This time I picked up the melody and began once again to put the words in my heart on paper. God made a used laptop computer available to me and a dear friend became my “editor,” giving me counsel and guidance in my writing. A sweet friend (a high-school student, no less!) helped me create this blog-site and I took a deep breath and finally put the words God placed in my heart out there for the world to see. Last fall, I began my first classes in seminary, and the Lord has opened doors for me to teach multiple weekly Bible studies in and around my community.

We often let our dreams and passions fade in the demands of work and family and the pull of responsibility. Sometimes we find ourselves chasing the world’s desires for us instead of God’s. When we push those God-given dreams aside, we can fall into depression and hopelessness, as I did while feeding the fire with my writings. But God has always had a plan for you, and He hasn’t let that plan die. Philippians 1:6 tells us that “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” God sets His purpose for your life and He works in and around you to fulfill that purpose, as David testified in Psalm 138:8- “The Lord will fulfill His purpose for me.” God works out His plans for His children. He knows everything about you, because He created you. He knows the desires and dreams in your heart, because He put them there. He has a plan to bring those dreams to reality. Listen to Philippians 2:13: “God works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.”

What dream has God planted in your heart? What dreams have you buried under the responsibilities of your life? What dreams have you walked away from? My friend, if God has given you a dream or a passion, He has not given up on it – or on you. Ask Him to restore that desire and show you how He wants to fulfill His plan and purpose for your life. Listen carefully- do you hear the sounds of an old familiar song?

Holy Father, life has gotten in the way of the dreams You placed within my heart. Please stir those dreams back to life and fulfill the wonderful plans You have for me. Amen.

Paying for Wisdom with Pain

“It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.”  Psalm 119:71

I am somewhat hard-headed and tend to believe that my way is the best way. I don’t always think things all the way through and then I wind up scratching my head, wondering what went wrong. I tend to learn life lessons the hard way. Know anybody else like that? Could it be that you and I are classmates in the “School of Hard Knocks?” As I read the Bible, I see that we are in a pretty large class, because God has had to deal with a lot of hard-headed people, from Adam and Eve to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the entire nation of Israel, King David, Jesus’ disciple Peter, Saul…and the list goes on and on.

Often, the most effective teacher in life is consequence. When he was little, I told my son many times, “don’t touch the stove, it’s hot, it will burn you,” but it wasn’t my words that convinced him – it was his own little red and painful hand that made him understand. Needless to say, he didn’t go near that stove again. Of course we then moved on to other hard lessons like not playing in an ant hill, not leaving your bike in the driveway, not driving over the speed limit – I think you get the idea. He is still learning difficult lessons, and truthfully, so am I.

My Mom used to say “Bought lessons stay with you longer than taught lessons,” and I have paid dearly for some lessons. I learned to choose my friends more carefully by sitting in a police station on prom night. I learned the value of money when I found myself deep in debt. I learned to pay attention to my driving when I ran a red light and t-boned a car. But the most important lessons I have learned came from the Word of God as we read in our key verse, and in verse 67: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey Your Word.”

Lesson #1: When I disregard the Word of God I will wind up in trouble. God’s Word is chock-full of wisdom for life. It is written by our Creator, who knows best how life should work, and we are wise to read and study it and put its principles and teachings into action. Jesus told the parable of the wise and foolish builders in Matthew 7:24-27. He said the wise man built his house on the rock and the foolish man built on the sand. The wise builder illustrated a person who built his life on obedience to Jesus’ words. No storm could destroy the house built on the rock, and no storm can destroy the person who builds their life on – not just reading the Bible – but putting its teachings and principles into practice. The Psalmist said, “Oh that my way were steadfast in obeying your decrees! Then I would not be put to shame” (Psalm119:5-6a). Knowing and obeying the Bible can save us so much trouble and heartache in life.

Lesson #2: It’s not over just because I messed up.

I didn’t banish my son from the kitchen, the police didn’t lock me up for good (however, now that I think about it, my Dad did say I was grounded for the rest of my life), I paid off my bills and got my finances under control, and the DMV allowed me to drive again. How much greater is our merciful and gracious God to give us second and third and tenth changes? Look back at verse 67 and see my favorite words: “but now.” But now – after I have suffered the consequences of my actions and am a little wiser for it, God forgives me and says, “Try again child, I know you can get it right.” The mistakes we make, our failures and missteps are not the end. God doesn’t write us off, wash His hands of us or give up on us because we are hard-headed. If that were so, mankind would have never made it past Adam and Eve, much less to you and me. All through the Bible God tells us that He is patient, forgiving, compassionate, merciful and full of grace. He loves you, even when your knees are bloody because you fell. He loves me, even when I am covered in the mud of my own choosing. Jesus died so you can be forgiven; He died so I could have a second chance at life. Do you really believe that He would give up on you so quickly?

Have you made a mistake somewhere along the way? Have you run in the wrong direction, played with the wrong people, touched something that left you in pain? Take heart friend, God has not given up on you. Take this affliction, this difficulty and place it before your loving Heavenly Father. Put your blistered hand in the nail-scarred hands of Jesus and start walking, a little wiser, in the right direction.

Holy Father, God of second chances, I have made some mistakes and the consequences are painful. Please take this mess I have made and teach me to walk in the wisdom of Your ways. Amen.