Pointing Fingers

“I know that nothing good lives in me, that is in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do good, but I cannot carry it out” Romans 7:18
One of the biggest challenges of being a Bible teacher is the tension between expressing what the Bible says about sin and recognizing my own sinful nature. How can I stand before a class or post something I’ve written that tells others “how to live” when I fail so often in my own walk? Who do I think I am?
That’s why I find great comfort in Paul’s letters. Paul addresses every kind of sin we can imagine – sexual sin, lying, stealing, hate, laziness, idolatry, marital unfaithfulness, abuse, self-centeredness, drunkenness, and yes even gluttony (Ouch!). He is very outspoken about sin and points a finger wherever he sees it. But he also points a finger back at himself. Paul frequently admits his own human failure to walk the walk of which he talks. In Romans 7, he laments this all too common push-and-pull of righteousness vs. sin. “What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (v. 15). “The evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (v. 19). From Paul’s words, we realize that the sinful nature we inherited from Adam constantly “wages war” against our new nature in Christ (v. 23).
So what do we – as those called to share the gospel and the truth of righteousness – do with that conflict? First, we stop focusing on ourselves. That’s a guarantee to keep failing. Instead, we follow Paul’s example and shift our focus upward. He wrapped up his lament, by recognizing his failure: “What a wretched man I am!” He admitted his need for a savior: “Who will rescue me from the body of death?” Then he rejoiced in the goodness and faithfulness of God: “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv. 24-25).
You and I are part of the fallen human race, and even though we have trusted in Christ as our Savior, we still fall to our sinful nature. Satan would have us languish there in self-hatred. But we are no longer under the sentence of condemnation (Romans 8:1). We have been rescued and redeemed. When we focus on Jesus we live more in the freedom of our new nature and less in the bondage of our sin. Yes, Beloved, you will still fail – but thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord – you don’t have to stay there!

Hebrews: Jesus – The Forever High Priest

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I used to be so star-struck when I was younger. I bought every magazine that would tell me all about my favorite singers and actors. I watched every award show and marveled at the beautiful people. Then I grew up. I began to see how egotistical these stars were. I lost interest in the glory-hogs of the entertainment world. Those who seek fame and notice will gladly sell their soul to get it.  I wish we could say that preachers and people in ministry are immune to the lure of fame, but we know that’s not the case.

In our last Hebrews devotional, we discussed the calling of the priestly line of Levi and especially of the high priest. The author said, “No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God” (5:4). The office of the high priest became increasingly political as foreign rulers appointed high priests who would best serve their purposes. But Jesus was called to the position.  “So Christ did not take upon Himself the glory of becoming a high priest” (v. 5). Jesus didn’t go after the position of the high priest out of ego or political ideology, but, in keeping with the nature of the role, out of humility and obedience. The author quoted a verse from the Psalms: “You are my Son, today I have become your Father” (v. 5b; also Psalm 2:7). This is a reference to the resurrection of Jesus which authenticated His claim to be the Son of God. He also identified Jesus as “a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (v. 6; also Psalm 110:4). Melchizedek was an Old Testament king and priest who appeared in the account of Abraham in Genesis 14:18-20. We’ll dig into his story in chapter 7, but the point is that Jesus, like Melchizedek, was appointed to the priesthood – and in Jesus’ case anointed as a high priest by God Himself. The high priest served until his death – but Jesus is alive forever so His priesthood lives on eternally. That means in His role as high priest He forever advocates for us before the Father (1 John 2:1). I find a lot of comfort in that because I am very human in my weaknesses and failures.

Beloved, you are never without your great high priest. When you fall, Jesus leans over to the Father, shows Him the scars on His hands, and says, “She’s covered by my blood.” I believe that makes the Father smile.

Shameless

It never really bothered me if my Mom got angry with me, if she spanked me (she did not spare the rod, and I am better for it), grounded me (she once grounded me for the rest of my life), took away privileges, added chores, or even yelled at me. I was sort of immune to her anger. But oh, let her say she was ashamed of me, and my heart would break. Just writing about it, I can still feel the weight of it.

It seems all my life I’ve carried a heavy load of guilt and shame. I know well the words King David cried out to God, “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear” (Psalm 38:4). From being abused and rejected, making countless foolish mistakes, hurting others, jumping into the pit of sin, and feeling responsible for the actions of my child – every failure left me with eyes cast down so as not to see on the face of God the sorrow my sin has caused Him. Rather than “approach the throne of grace with confidence,” I slink back into the cave of despair because I can’t bear to know that God is ashamed of me. Something tells me that you can relate.

Jesus came into this sinful world to set us free from guilt and shame and the evil that caused it. Listen to His words to Nicodemus, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him” (John 3:17). Jesus came, not to point to you and me with all our bags and say “I AM ASHAMED OF YOU!” He came to say, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Rest from the weight. Rest from the shame. Rest from the guilt.

Do you come to God this morning with a load of guilt and shame? Are you expecting chastisement and rejection? Look up, Beloved. Jesus has stretched out His nail-scarred hand to take your heavy bags of misery. He bids you rise and face the day, forgiven, freed, and radiant in His love.

Hebrews: The King’s Kid

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I  have often envisioned myself standing outside the doors of God’s throne room, my heart hammering in my chest, dressed, not in royal robes, but the filth of my sinfulness and my inadequate attempts to cover up with torn, tattered rags of homemade “righteousness.” I come with a heavy burden and a desperate need that is almost always the result of my own sin and foolishness. Do I dare push open that door and approach the holy and pure God of heaven and earth?

According to Hebrews 4:16, that is exactly what I am invited to do, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” When do I most need help? What is your greatest time of need? When we have failed God in our sin. How do we dare approach the throne of the Holy One at all, much less with confidence in our sinful state? Because of our great high priest, Jesus Christ. Remember that the work of the high priest is to intercede for sinful people before a holy God. The high priest approaches God with the blood of the sacrifice to cleanse the people. Jesus both presents the blood and provides it. The priest and the sacrificial lamb. Paul said, “In Him and through faith in Him we may approach God with freedom and confidence” (Ephesians 3:12). That confidence is not an arrogant swagger; it is trust in the faithfulness of Christ to accomplish what He promised – to make us acceptable to God. In Jesus – in His blood, and through Jesus – through His atoning work, you and I are able to come to God, not as sinners, but as His beloved children. Timothy Keller said: “The only person that dares wake up the king at 3:00 a.m. for a glass of water is his child. We have that kind of access.”

What do you need today, Beloved? Encouragement? Hope? Provision? Healing? Help? Forgiveness? Peace? Joy? Your broken heart mended?  Lift up your head and step into your Father’s presence. He will not only receive you but He will throw open His arms wide to you. That’s His promise. That’s your confidence. That’s your place as a child of God.

The Never-Get-Out-of-Debt Payment Plan

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The American economy seems to run on spending more than we earn. The average credit card debt per household in the U.S. is $5,700 – $9,333 with a total outstanding U.S. consumer debt of $4 trillion. Being in debt is one of the most discouraging struggles. I know this struggle well as we have been under the self-made burden of financial debt. The Bible has a great deal to say about financial stewardship, but even more about relational stewardship. The apostle Paul says that we should only have one debt on our balance sheet: “Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another” (Romans 13:8).

Financial advisors can help you devise a plan to pay off your credit debt, but the Bible says that love for one another is a “continuing debt,” that can never be finished. It is a life-long obligation. Love is more than a “warm fuzzy feeling,” love is a choice we make every day. 1 Corinthians 13 offers us a practical example of choosing to love. You may be very familiar with it, but I want to challenge you to read this passage a little differently. Instead of the word “love,” put your own name in the verse and read it aloud:

_______________ is patient, _____________ is kind. ____________ does not envy, ______________does not boast, _______________ is not proud. ______________ is not rude, ______________ is not self-seeking, _______________ is not easily angered. ______________ keeps no record of wrongs. ______________ does not delight in evil, but ______________ rejoices with the truth. _____________ always protects, _______________ always trusts, _____________ always hopes, _______________ always perseveres (v. 4-7).

So how did you do? I don’t know about you but I started to get uncomfortable early in.

Love, as Paul outlined it in these verses, doesn’t require any money, but it is costly. It will cost you time and attention and patience and ego, but it brings amazing dividends. Every day you and I have the opportunity to share the love of God in this world. When we are patient, kind, humble, considerate, forgiving, honest, and compassionate we are making installments on our never-ending debt of love. Beloved, what would your home, workplace, church, and community look like if you followed the Bible’s payment plan?

The Good Shepherd

The Lost Sheep, Painted by Alfred Usher Soord (1868-1915), Oil on canvas, Painted in 1898, © Alfred Usher Soord

My favorite “I Am” statement of Jesus is “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11). It always reminds me of a painting that hung in the vestibule of a church I worked at thirty years ago depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd. He is reaching from the side of a cliff to rescue one of His little lambs. Sheep are notoriously clueless and helpless. They start grazing and fail to notice when they wander too far from the fold or too close to the edge of a cliff. They love to graze at the edge of the water because the grass is abundant and lush. But they step on the slippery rocks and tumble into the water. Their wool becomes so heavy they cannot right themselves or climb out. If the shepherd doesn’t hear their bleating, they will soon drown. Sound familiar? It sure does to me. I have often wandered from the safety of my shepherd’s side following the lush and tempting things of the world. But Jesus never fails to rescue me when I cry out.

I love how, in this painting, Jesus has put Himself in a precarious position to bring His wandering one to safety. What struck me the most about the painting though was the look on the little lamb’s face – absolute confidence in the Shepherd. There is no worry or doubt that the Shepherd will rescue her. She isn’t trying to pull herself up the rocky wall of the cliff but waits for Him to reach her and bring her to safety. There is no fear of anger from the Shepherd. Just trust. This little lamb knows the Shepherd, knows that He is able to rescue her, and knows that He loves her.

I don’t know what danger you may have wandered into. You may be trying to get yourself to safety, too ashamed to call out for help. You wonder if Jesus will come and if He will be angry with you. Beloved, stop trying to rescue yourself. Cry out to Jesus – there’s no need to be ashamed. He will come and He is not angry. The Lord is your Shepherd – whether you are safe in the fold or hanging on the side of a cliff. You are His beloved lamb.

Muddy Child of God

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Do you remember the old saying: “You made your bed, now you have to lay down in it.”? In essence, I have to live with the consequences of my own foolish choices. Sometimes the consequences cost us money like my son having to replace a window he broke, or rest – like losing sleep finishing an assignment I put off too long. But some consequences are painful. Ask any prisoner in a cell or my cousin who cut his foot off playing around with a chain saw. Sorrow and suffering are magnified when the offense against us is our own.

The people of Israel found themselves in just such a situation. Against God’s direct command, Israel allowed the pagan Canaanites to remain in the Promised Land. The Canaanites worshiped Baal and Ashtoreth, and their worship was largely sexual and perverse. Their evil practices spread throughout Israel. In their lust, they forgot the Lord who rescued them and broke their covenant agreement to worship only Yahweh. 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.

What misery is greater than witnessing our own fingerprints in our suffering? I’ve been there several times. I expect you have too. Perhaps you’re sitting right now 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 trouble. “Sorry child, this is your problem, I’m stepping out on this one.” But that is not Him at all.

Even after the Israelites rebellion, “The Lord was moved to pity by their groaning” (Judges 2:18) When His children are suffering, God hears, He sees and He rescues. His 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). That’s good news if you’re struggling with the consequences of your own decisions and actions. Beloved, God has not and will not abandon you – even in your self-made misery. He 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.

Life Lessons

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I hate to shake whatever fine image you have of me, but I’m not a model of wisdom. I tend to learn life lessons the hard way. My Mom used to say “Bought lessons stay with you longer than taught lessons,” and I have paid a high price for many lessons. Still am. Mom’s words remind me of a couple of lessons from Psalm 119:67: “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. The Bible is 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. He was talking about obedience to His Word. While a house and a life built on sand can be brought down by the wind and rain, no storm could destroy the house built on the rock, and no storm can destroy the person who builds their life on knowing and obeying the Word of God.

Lesson #2: It’s not over just because I messed up. Aren’t you glad that our merciful and gracious God gives multiple second chances? The mistakes we make, our failures, and our missteps are not the end. God doesn’t write us off, wash His hands of us or give up on us because we stumble. 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 muck of my own choices. Jesus died so you can be forgiven, so you 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, Beloved, God has not given up on you. Lay it all before your loving Heavenly Father. Then take that hard-won wisdom and start walking in the right direction.

Love One Another

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As long as I’ve studied the Bible, many verses still make me pause and wonder – what does this mean? 1 Peter 4:8 is one of those: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” The first part of this verse seems pretty clear – love one another. Paul said, “you have been taught by God to love each other” (1 Thessalonians 4:9). Jesus is our Teacher and He taught by example. John said that Jesus “showed [the disciples] the full extent of His love” when He knelt before them with a washbasin and a towel (John 13:1-17). Love drove Him to wash their nasty feet. Then He said, “Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Humbly. Sacrificially. Graciously.

But it’s the second part of the verse that I want to understand better: “Love covers over a multitude of sins.”  Peter may be borrowing from Solomon who said, “Love covers over all wrongs” (Proverbs 10:9). Certainly, we know that the love of God “covered over” our sins with the blood of Jesus. But Peter is speaking about loving one another, so this must have practical application for you and me.

Let’s first talk about what “covering over” doesn’t mean. It absolutely does not mean taking abuse. If you are in an abusive relationship, please seek safety and help now.  It doesn’t mean sweeping someone’s wrong actions under a rug and pretending nothing has happened. And it doesn’t mean not seeking wise counsel for difficult relationships.

Here’s what I am convinced it means: Love forgives wrongs and does not dwell on them or broadcast them. Here’s where I’m squirming with conviction. I want to talk about it. I want someone to know what this person has done to me. I want them to be just as offended as I am. That isn’t love. That’s ugly human nature.

Yes, we can certainly ask our brothers and sisters for prayer, but we must take care that our prayer requests don’t become a gripe session. Because that isn’t love. This is deeply personal for me and I’m asking the Lord to help me love more and complain less.

Because people need love. A love that is patient, kind, humble, peaceful, forgiving, honest, protective, trusting, hopeful, and enduring (1 Corinthians 13, paraphrased). Beloved, let’s commit to love like Jesus – I believe it will change the world.

I’m Sorry

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We’re trying to teach Joy to apologize when she does something wrong, especially when she hurts someone. She’s picking up that lesson pretty well. Tonight during her bath she was playing with finger paints again (it’s a bribe to get her in the tub) and she started to stick her paint-covered finger in her mouth. I said, “No Joy! Don’t put the paint in your mouth!” She looked up at me and said “Sorry, Nana.” “It’s okay,” I said, “You didn’t do anything wrong. Just don’t put the paint in your mouth – it’s yucky.” That was different from the other night when she got mad at me for taking something away from her that she was misusing. She lashed out – literally – and scratched me with her fingernails (that need trimming). Let me tell you – it hurt! Her mommy took her to time out in the other room and told her she had to tell Nana she was sorry. After a few minutes, I came into the room, and she lifted her tear-streaked face and said, “I sorry Nana.” I scooped her up in my arms and this time I said, “Thank you for saying ‘Sorry’ Joy. Nana loves you.” I didn’t tell her it was okay because what she had done was definitely not okay. It was wrong, and she needed to know it was wrong. But she also needed to know that saying “Sorry” was the right thing to do – and that Nana would always love her no matter what.

You and I have done wrong – we have sinned against God (Romans 3:23). We have broken His laws and offended His holiness. What we have done is not okay. Our actions deserve punishment – much more than a time-out. According to the Bible, we deserve death (Romans 6:23).  But God is gracious to us sinners (Romans 3:24) and that grace cost Him everything – “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed . . . but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18, 19).

Beloved, of Jesus, when you and I sin, we can look to God and say “I’m sorry,” and know that, while our actions are not okay, our relationship with God is. Because Jesus paid the highest price to make us okay. Because God loves you – no matter what.