Know Thine Enemy

Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher in the early 6th Century wrote the classic, “The Art of War,” From which we have taken the phrase “Know thine enemy.”  Paul cautioned believers with similar words saying that satan will not outwit us if we are aware of his schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11 paraphrased). We need to know our enemy to the degree that we recognize his evil hand in situations we face.

I thought of this yesterday as I was writing out a passage from Job. “God has found fault with me;” Job 33:10. This is one of Job’s detractors summarizing Job’s lament. Yet in the very beginning of his story, God said of him: “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8; 2:3). The truth is, God didn’t find fault with Job. Satan did.

One of Satan’s favorite schemes goes like this: he presents a temptation, dangling the carrot of pleasure or power or wealth before us, enticing us until we bite. And as soon as we do he changes his tactic from temptation to condemnation. “Look at you! You call yourself a Christian? God is disgusted with you! He will never love you after what you’ve done!” Pretty soon we’re crying, “God has found fault with me.”  Sound familiar?

You and I need to know the difference between satan’s guilt trips and the Spirit’s conviction. When the Spirit speaks to us about our sin he does so with the goal of restoration. Conviction from the Holy Spirit brings “godly sorrow [which] brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret. But satan brings “worldly sorrow [that] brings death”  (2 Cor 7:9-10). Satan just wants to tear us down and bury us under a load of shame. Here’s how you can recognize one from the other. Satan’s attacks turn our attention to ourselves and what horrible creatures we are. The Spirit will always turn your attention to God and His mercy, forgiveness, and grace. And love.

In heaven, satan is called “the accuser of [God’s people], who accuses them before our God day and night” (Rev 12:10). But God’s not buying it. And neither should you Beloved. If you are in Christ, God sees His Son when He looks at you. Not your sin. And so should you.

VBS and the Armor of God

Today kicks off our church’s Vacation Bible School week. I am doing the mission lessons for the elementary school students – trying to plant some seeds of sharing the gospel into the minds of wiggly, giggly bodies will be a fun challenge. I am sure I will need therapy by the end of the week. I loved VBS as a kid. The churches in our community scheduled VBS on alternate weeks throughout the summer to give exhausted moms a break. My brothers and I went to all of them.

I am reminded of one summer when a friend and I created a VBS program based on the Armor of God from Ephesians 6:10-18.  We learned about the heroes of the Bible and their great exploits for the kingdom of God. We studied each piece of the armor, created them as craft projects (man, that was a lot of aluminum foil!), and taught the children to “put on” the armor every day by touching their heads to remind them of the helmet of salvation, touching their waist to remind them of the belt of truth, crossing their arms over their chest to remind them of the breastplate of righteousness and so forth. 

The day we studied the shield and the sword we spent hours blowing up hundreds of balloons and writing words like sin, anger, jealousy, disobedience, cursing, unkindness, etc. First, we took away their shields and swords and tossed them to the kids who had no way to protect themselves. Then we handed them back their armor pieces and “attacked” them again as they blocked the balloons with their shields and batted them away with their swords. It was a simplistic way of explaining the armor, but I think the kids got it and I knew it was a powerful visual to me.

So much of ‘putting on the armor” is mental – but still very practical. It is intentionally wrapping ourselves in truth, remembering that our heart is protected by the righteousness of Christ, that satan’s words have no power because of God’s salvation.  It’s building up a store of “swords” to fight the enemy and reminding ourselves to stay safely behind our faith in God. It’s leaving footprints of peace wherever we go.

Beloved, are you fully dressed to face the day in this world? The Armor of God is not just good theology, it’s good practice every day. Because we’re not just battling balloons out there.

Oh, What a Mess!

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Joy loves to play with the box of paper clips on my desk. This morning she grabbed her treasure knocking it off my desk and spilling the paper clips on the floor. “Oh no!” she said dramatically. “It’s okay baby, you just dropped it. Can you pick the paper clips up, please?” All of the sudden my sweet, compliant girl backed away from the mess and shook her head, “No.” I asked her again. She ran to the other corner of the room “No.” She tried to climb in my lap and I said, “Go pick up the paper clips and then you can sit with Nana.” “No, I can’t.” Mommy said, “Joy, pick up the paper clips.” The more we insisted the more she resisted. Instead, she demanded, “I want my cup.” Her sippy cup is her security blanket so I knew that she was getting agitated.

I said, “I think she’s overwhelmed.” Mommy said, “How about we pick the paper clips up together, I’ll help you.”  Immediately her face brightened, she set her cup down and chirped, “Okay!” and the paper clips were picked up in less than a minute. I thought about how many times I’ve told her to pick up her toys and she will lay on the couch and bury her face. Big light bulb moment: the bigger the mess she’s faced with, the more resistant she becomes to cleaning it up. Not because she’s defiant, but because she’s overwhelmed. And then I realized that she is just like me. And probably you too. Big messes make us want to run and hide.

Israel was in a big mess. After a long rebellious state, Isaiah prophesied the judgment of God. He said the Lord was going to send Assyria and Babylon to destroy their cities and take them captive. That’s a huge, overwhelming mess that they could never manage on their own. But then God said, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you . . .” (Is 41:10). God promised to help them out of their mess.

Beloved, I don’t know what kind of mess you are in or how you got there, but I know that you don’t face it alone. “‘Don’t be afraid,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I myself will help you’” (41:14). Until the work is done.

Hebrews: Everything Old is New Again

New Testament writers often referred back to the Scriptures – what we know as the Old Testament to confirm the fulfillment of prophecy. The writer of Hebrews is one of them. One key I learned in hermeneutics (how to study the scriptures) is to go back to the OT reference to gain the writer’s context.

In Hebrews 10:38 the author loosely borrowed from one of the OT prophets when he wrote, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.”  Verses 19-39 are a call to persevere in Christ. The promise of Jesus’ return was given in verse 37 and is followed by this “gentle” warning. So what was happening in the OT that influenced this NT verse?

Habakkuk prophesied to Judah in the final days before Jerusalem fell. He lamented the injustice, violence, strife, lawlessness, and wickedness in the land. Does that sound familiar? God’s answer was to announce judgment – the nation would be destroyed and taken captive by the Babylonians, a “ruthless and impetuous people . . . bent on violence . . . guilty men, whose own strength is their god” (1:6,9, 11). Habakkuk questions God’s plan and the Lord responds by contrasting the evil Babylonians with “the just” – the one who remains righteous despite the circumstances. The one who perseveres.

This was the author’s theme throughout Hebrews. The Babylonians would take the Jews that survived the onslaught and either enslave them or indoctrinate them into their culture and completely erase their way of life in God. Just as the enemies of the believing Jewish community were trying to do. Just as the world, satan, the culture, and our own sinful nature are trying to do today.

“But,” said the author, “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved” (v. 39). He expressed his confidence in their faith and their ability to persevere in it under the most dire circumstances. Our enemies may look different today, but they all spring from the same root – satan, the devil, the enemy of God and God’s people.  The call to persevere is as important today as it was thousands of years ago. Only those who stand firm in their faith please God and inherit eternal life. I want that.  And I want that for you, Beloved. Let’s hang on to Jesus together.

What Has Happened to the Church?

Charles Spurgeon said, “If we cannot be torn in pieces by the roaring lion, we may be hugged to death by the bear.”

(I hope you’re ready for a history lesson)

In the earliest centuries of the Church, Christians faced unfathomable persecution. Their property was confiscated, their jobs taken away, and they were subject to physical attacks. Steven, the first martyr was stoned to death for the name of Jesus. James was beheaded for His commitment to Christ. Paul wrote of “troubles, hardships and distresses, beatings, imprisonments and riots, hard work, sleepless nights and hunger” (2 Cor 6:4-5). He was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19), shipwrecked three times (2 Cor 11:25), and in constant danger everywhere he went (2 Cor 11:26). We’re all familiar with the stories of Christians facing lions in a public arena for the amusement of the Romans. These men and women gladly surrendered their lives rather than deny the name of their Lord, Jesus Christ. The faith of the martyrs shone brilliantly and boldly against the dark backdrop of persecution.

But in later years, when Emperor Constantine of Rome (272-337) declared Christianity as the state religion, persecution in the west ended and every citizen became a “Christian”–whether they believed or not. Being a Christian was all about nationality, not grace as Christianity was fully embraced by the civilized world. It could be considered the worst thing to ever happen to the church. The standards for Christians became more and more lax over the centuries, and by the twentieth century “Christianity” looked nothing like the faith that men and women once died for.  It had been smothered in a bear hug of cheap grace as the church preached a “light” version of sin and salvation.

But I believe we’re coming back full circle to the days of persecution for true believers. Once again, Christians – Bible-believing, Christ-following Christians are persona-non-grata. Christianity has become the enemy once again. Even in the church.  As churches embrace every sin that the culture can dream up, they also reject the truth and those who live by it. Subtly, degree by degree, hatred for true believers is growing and they are being forced out. It’s happening in churches right now in your own community. The days of the bear hug are coming to an end – and it may be the best thing for the church. It’s certainly following in the footprints of Jesus who said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matt 16:25). The lion is stirring again. Beloved, are you ready to stand firm?

Hebrews: The Disgrace of being a Christian

I became a Christian at nine years of age. I still remember sitting in the pew after I was baptized and feeling the water dripping from my hair and down my back. I remember standing in front of the church and receiving “the right hand of Christian fellowship.” One of my teachers hugged me in class on Monday and congratulated me on my decision for Christ. But for first-century believers, being a Christian was vastly different.

The writer of Hebrews said, “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publically exposed to insult and persecution, at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated” (Hebrews 10:32-33). For a Jew to make a public profession of faith in Jesus was, at best, to open yourself to public ridicule and often worse. Many lost their employment or the community would cease doing business with them. Sons were disowned by their fathers and wives faced severe repercussions from their husbands, including beatings. They were stripped of their possessions, even their homes, and many were imprisoned just for taking hold of new life in Christ.

How did these early believers respond to such awful treatment? Better than I would have. “You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property . . .” (v. 34a). They found Joy in the persecution they faced. Why on earth? Because they weren’t thinking about earth. “You knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions” (34b). They were thinking about heaven and eternity. They were thinking about what Peter called, “an inheritance that can never perish spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet 1:4).

They remind me of the apostles who, after being beaten by the Sanhedrin for preaching the name of Jesus, rejoiced “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).

I live in the US where the cost of being a Christ-follower is mild compared to the early Christians and to believers today in places where faith in Jesus is tantamount to a death sentence. We might get insulted on social media, and some factions are working through the liberal courts to shut down Christian businesses, but on the whole, being a Christian here is not a hardship. And maybe that’s the problem. But I am certain it’s coming. The cultural winds are shifting to the left and blowing in real hatred for God and His people. You and I need to be ready. It takes a firm faith and an eye to eternity to rejoice in the face of persecution. Beloved, are you willing to suffer disgrace for the Name?

Burning Ropes

In yesterday’s post, we talked about the refiner’s fire. Today is another hot devotional. Daniel’s three companions, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow and worship the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had erected in his image. They declared their allegiance to the God of Israel and said, “The God we serve is able to save us . . . but even if he does not we will not worship your golden image” (Dan 3:17-18, para). That infuriated the king, and he ordered the men to be bound and thrown into a fiery furnace that had been stoked to seven times its normal heat. It was so hot it instantly killed the soldiers who tossed them in.

But the king saw something unexpected in that fire. “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods” (3:25). When the men came out of the fire they were unharmed, “not a hair of their heads [was] singed, their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them” (3:27). How’s that for a miracle!

What stands out to me isn’t just that they survived but that the only thing that was destroyed by the fire were the ropes that were used to bind them. Just as we learned in Peter’s story, God often uses fire to free us from the very things that bind us and hinder our usefulness to the Kingdom. God’s enemy – Nebuchadnezzar – tied up the three Hebrew men. God’s enemy – satan – is still binding up the Lord’s people to destroy them and exalt himself as King over heaven and earth. But God uses the very flames that are intended to devastate us to instead free us.

I don’t know what ropes the enemy has used to try to tie you up (or down). It may be an addiction to alcohol, drugs, or pornography (or something “innocent” like eating, shopping, or gaming). It may be pride, habitual lying, shoplifting, or gossiping. It may be a hard, painful past or an overload of responsibilities that are crushing the life out of you. Whatever it is, it will take the fires of heaven to set you free. But don’t fear the furnace of affliction Beloved. Jesus will be in the fire with you and only the ropes will be burned. You will walk away without one hair singed and not even a trace of smoke.

How to Make the Devil Run

Is there anything more precious than the “Cherub Choir” – those little preschoolers singing “Jesus Loves Me,” and “This Little Light of Mine” (won’t let Satan blow it out-whoosh!)? Precious to you and me, but a sight and sound that makes satan tremble. That’s why I love these words from the quill of King David: “From the lips of children and infants, you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger” (Psalm 8:2).

It is a sweet image with a powerful truth: Praise silences the enemy!

What is the devil’s most powerful weapon against us? Verbal abuse. He throws a constant barrage of words, thoughts, doubts, fear, condemnation, lies, lies, and more lies at us. Jesus said that lies are satan’s “native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44) This verse gives us the secret to disarming the devil and shutting down his lies: Praise the Lord! Praising God puts Satan in his place by reminding him that he is a defeated foe and that Jesus will soon return to complete his destruction.

It seems too easy to be real, but it works. Just open your mouth and pour forth praise. Search the scriptures, especially the Psalms where expressions of praise abound. Write them out so they will be handy. Better yet, commit them to memory. Let your praises drown out the lies of Satan. And surround yourself with songs of praise and worship. I know this works because I’ve experienced it in my own life. Several years ago during a deep and serious bout with depression, “After All/Holy” by Crowder came on the radio. I tried to sing, but all I could do was sob until the 2nd verse and slowly words began to replace my cries, and by the end of that song I was singing with full voice and a face full of tears. It was the turning point in my depression. 

When the enemy of your soul is berating you, when he’s pouring condemnation and doubt into your mind,  resist him with songs and words of praise. Not only does it stab at satan’s evil heart, but it refocuses your mind and lifts your own heart.  And the best reason of all to praise God? Because He is worthy. Beloved it’s time to stand on the Name and the Praise of God Almighty and make the devil run!

Optical Illusions

“Things are not always what they seem,” the magician said. He launched into several tricks that amazed the children at the park. They were all simple – done by sleight of hand and most of the adults – myself included – could see through them. But the kids were mesmerized. My son talked about them for several weeks afterward. But the illusionist’s words stuck with me: “Things are not always what they seem.”

The Bible is filled with stories when things seemed bad, difficult, even impossible. The Israelites seemed to be stuck in a death trap – between an impassible body of water and an angry Egyptian army. But things are not always what they seem. The sea parted and they crossed over on the dry ground (Ex. 14). Three Hebrew youths were thrown in a fiery furnace for refusing to bow before the king’s statue of gold. Daniel defied a royal order not to pray to his God and was thrown into a pit with hungry lions. But things are not always what they seem. A fourth Man kept the flames away from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – the only thing that burned was the ropes they were bound with. God’s angels shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel emerged from the pit without a scratch on him (Daniel 3, 6). A young girl lies dead and her family grieves. Jesus knows that things are not always what they seem. He tells the mourners: “She is not dead, only sleeping” then takes her by the hands and raises her back to life (Mark 5:21-43). Their lord and teacher was dead and his body was missing – ah, but things are not always what they seem. You know the rest of this story.

Beloved, things may seem bleak right now. Hard times are upon you. Life is difficult and it doesn’t seem like it will ever get better. You’re facing an impossible situation, a mountain you can’t climb, a pit you can’t get out of, a roadblock you can’t get around. But things are not always what they seem – especially when God is with you. Trust Him to get you over that mountain, out of that pit, and past that roadblock. He is light in the darkness. He is hope when life seems hopeless. He is the God of the impossible-made-possible. When God is in the picture, things are not always what they seem.

Saints and Sinners

How should the church respond to the lost world? We seem to go to the extremes of either approving of worldliness and sin or pointing fingers and railing at those who do what we would never do. There’s a better way. Jesus was called “a friend of sinners,” and I believe He bore that title with delight rather than shame. That doesn’t mean that He joined them in their sin, but He loved them out of it. He was tender with wounded souls, gentle with the ones who didn’t understand, and kind to those who had been harassed by the enemy. And He saved His harshest words for the religious crowd who rejected the lost, the poor, the lonely, and the wounded – and Him. They were the self-righteous scholars who diligently studied the Scriptures, but missed the whole point of God’s plan. 

Paul said, “The Lord’s servant must . . . be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful,” (2 Timothy 2:24).  The goal of such kindness – that God will grant the lost repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:25-26). As believers, our character should be the same as Jesus: kind, gentle, helpful, and sympathetic.  Why?  Because unbelievers have been taken captive by the devil.  They have been deceived, led astray, fooled, and fed lies to the point that they can’t recognize the truth.  They are under the influence of satan, and they deserve our compassion rather than our hate.

Christian, you have a call to be “salt and light” in the world.  Salt to make people thirsty for God and light to lead the way to the cross and redemption. Finger-pointing, harsh words, and belittling attitudes will never win anyone to Christ.  But a kind and gentle spirit can.

If you are not a Christian, let me assure you that Jesus does not look at you with hatred or disgust; He does not see you as His enemy – He died so that you could be His friend for eternity.  He loves you with an everlasting love that will never turn you away.  Please come and see for yourself that He is a gentle King and a kind Savior.