The Voice of God

Joy has watched 101 Dalmatians at least 101 times. I’m trying to coax her to branch out so this weekend I introduced her to Meet the Robinsons. She loved it. We were snuggled together enjoying the movie when I recognized one of the voices.  The adult version of the main character was voiced by Tom Selleck. I knew it was him because I had watched every episode of Magnum PI in the 80s. I knew his voice well.

Yesterday the Christian radio station posed a question: “How do you hear God’s voice above the noise?” I thought about how I recognized Tom Selleck’s voice in the movie – it was because I had heard it many, many times before. Even without seeing his face, I knew it was him. I realized that the key to recognizing God’s voice is familiarity.

Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice, I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Listening implies a couple of things: first, to recognize God’s voice we have to spend time in His Word. Studying the Scriptures helps us to know what God does – and does not say. You can trust the voice you’re hearing if it’s saying the things God says in His Word. If what you hear doesn’t sound like the Scriptures, then that voice is likely not God. He will never contradict His Word.

Another important key to listening and recognizing God’s voice is obedience. James said “Do not merely listen to the Word and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says” (1:22). When we tell our granddaughter to pick up her toys and she doesn’t do it, we have to ask her again and again. It’s only when she obeys that we know she heard us. (And, honestly, sometimes she determines to not hear us.) Hearing means “to attend to; to consider what has been said.” Hearing means obeying. And obeying opens up opportunities for further communication. I can’t tell Joy we’re going to the park until she has heard and obeyed and picked up her toys.

When you learn to listen and recognize God’s voice it will be so familiar that your spiritual ears will tune in like a mom picking up on her child’s cry in a noisy room filled with kids. Then, Beloved, you will know without a doubt, “That’s the voice of my Father.”

What You See is What you Want

If you’re of my generation you know whom I’m talking about when I say, “What you see is what you get!”  Flip Wilson created his female character, Geraldine, who uttered that famous catchphrase as “she” danced to show off “her” full figure. Vision is a powerful tool to draw people in. Advertisers depend on it. Beautiful women sell men’s shaving cream.  A buff, handsome man in a flannel shirt sells paper towels. One of the most iconic images in advertising is the Gerber Baby whose face sold countless baby food products. That smile and expression grabbed mothers’ hearts, hoping to bring the same to their babies’ faces. They paraphrased Geraldine, “What you see is what you want.”

Satan counted on that too when he enticed Eve to take the forbidden fruit. And, of course, it worked. “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it” (Gen 3:6).  What Eve saw became what she wanted and she fell – and took the entire human race down with her. (Adam’s role in this is a whole other post.)

The start of sin for all of us happens when “our hearts are led by our eyes” (Job 31:7, paraphrased). Sin happens in much the same way as advertising: “We see it, we want it, and we buy it.” That’s why advertisers – and satan – put it in such appealing packaging. But sin also happens because we are looking for it.  James pointed out that temptation and sin tap into the evil desires in our hearts.  (James 1:14). Perhaps that is why the Psalmist said that he would “set before my eyes no vile thing” (Psalm 101:3). Consider that verse in a world where “vile things” are available at the tap of a finger. If you want vile, you can get it any time of the day.

How do we break that sinful pattern? We “guard our heart” by “letting our eyes look straight ahead and fixing our gaze directly before us” (Prov. 23,25). At what? David knew. “I have set the Lord always before me” (Psalm 16:8). If your eyes are always on the Lord, He will be the desire of your heart. And what you see is what you want.

Pray Like Jesus

Paul said, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).  James counseled, “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2).  And our Lord told us to “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  He assured us: “For everyone who asks received; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). We have God’s approval to “approach the throne of grace with confidence,” (Hebrews 4:16).  And nothing is off-limits – we are encouraged to pray about everything.

So what happens when we pray and the situation goes the other way?  The fact is, prayers don’t always get answered the way we hope.  What do we do with that?

We go to the garden with Jesus.  Just before his betrayal and death, Jesus prayed with deep earnestness for this cup of suffering to pass from Him.  He knew His Father had the power to take it away.  He said, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for You.”  Everything – curing cancer, healing broken bodies, taking away suffering.  But he came to the one prayer that God will always answer: “Not my will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  This has become my prayer too.  It is not a prayer of resignation – it is a prayer of trust and of confidence that God’s will, whether it agrees with my desire or not, is “good, pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

Sometimes we pray and God miraculously answers.  But sometimes we pray, and God says, “No.” which, by the way, is still an answer.  I don’t know why some prayers are fulfilled and some are not.  What I do know beyond any shadow of a doubt is that I will continue to bring every petition to God, I will ask, and seek, and knock, and then I will put it all in His hands and surrender it to His will.  And I will trust that He is good.  Beloved, I encourage you to make Jesus’ prayer the prayer of your heart – may the Father’s will be done.

Jesus and John Lennon

The Beatles sang it in the mid-’60s and it is the mantra of our culture today: “All you need is love, love, love.” In a world of mass shootings, child abuse, hatred, racism, and war, love is the only antidote. And the Bible agrees. The problem is our definitions of love. John Lennon’s lyrics are empty. He called for love but said nothing about how to love. The culture deems love as permissiveness and approval to indulge in every kind of earthly attraction. But is that truly love?

In a sense the Beatles and the culture are right. Jesus said that the second most important commandment, after loving God, is to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). But what does that look like? Whose meaning is right?  I believe the Author of love is the best one to define it.

“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.  Honor one another above yourselves” (Rom 12:10).

“Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature, rather, serve one another in love” (Gal 5:13).

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2).

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ, God forgave you” (Eph 4:32).

“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19).

“Bear with each other, and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another (Col 5:13).

 “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16)

“Love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).

Does that look like the kind of love the culture is touting? Do you see that in Lennon’s lyrics? No and no. But can you imagine how this love would change the world? How about just your family? Love is much more than an ethereal notion. It is practical. It has substance. It has hands and feet. It has a voice. Your hands and feet. Your voice. And mine. Truly, all we need is love – love for God and love for one another. Yes, John, you were right – love is all we need.

How to Calm a Restless Life

I almost did it. I almost gave you a devotional with a verse taken out of context. I’ve taught the importance of context, context, context for years and I was about to break the rule. Let me explain. James 1:6 says, “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” This verse, plucked out of the surrounding passage, sits nicely on a platter of “pray and believe and you will receive.” But wait. What is that “but” all about?

James was writing to encourage Jewish believers who were under great oppression and persecution for their faith in Christ. He said their trials were God’s tools to make them “mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (v. 4). Then he adds, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (v. 5). Put all the pieces together and James is saying that wisdom is the mark of a mature, complete Christian and that God will give wisdom to anyone who asks.

But there’s the “but” and that’s where verse 6 above comes in. By now you know that believing = obedience. The wisdom God gives is not just a head full of theology, it is practical action He expects you to take. God doesn’t speak just to be heard, He speaks to be obeyed. The opposite of believing is doubt, so the corollary to our equation is doubt = disobedience. “Doubt” means to make a judgment and thus to hesitate. When we doubt God’s Word, when we hesitate to obey we are judging His wisdom – or more to the point, judging Him – and deciding to reject His Word – and His authority. Hesitance is disobedience.

James calls that being “double-minded” and “unstable” (v. 8 ). A double-minded mind is a divided mind – a mind with two opposite opinions. A double-minded heart is a divided heart – a heart with two opposite affections. Being unstable means being inconsistent – acting first one way and then another. It’s a restless life. It’s no wonder the person who doubts God’s wisdom is “blown and tossed by the wind like a wave of the sea.” 

Beloved, if you’ve been tossed around by life lately, maybe it’s time to take God’s Word – all of God’s Word – to heart. Obedience is a sturdy foundation.

Wisdom

Humans have desired wisdom since the beginning of creation.  Eve was tempted by the serpent with the lure of wisdom (Genesis 3:5-6). She succumbed to the “wisdom” that James warned about:  “If you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.  Such ‘wisdom’ does not come from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. (James 3:14-15)”  The wisdom that the devil and the world offer to us is a selfish, self-seeking, prideful, deceptive wisdom that will always lead us away from God and into the darkness of worldliness and sin.

Listen to the contrast James offers: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure, then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:13, 17).  The wisdom from God is life-giving wisdom.  It fills us with the character of Christ and is the opposite of the false wisdom of the world.  Look at all that this godly wisdom offers to us.  James says we will have understanding – the kind of understanding that will enable us to stand firm in what is right.  Wisdom will be proven by the good life we lead, which means turning ourselves away from sin and wickedness and turning towards what is right, beautiful, and excellent.  Humility is always the hallmark of godly wisdom – this humility is shown through the gentleness, kindness, and consideration we show to others in Jesus’ name.  Godly wisdom is peace-loving which, in the original Greek, is a personal sense of harmony, tranquility, safety, and a lack of strife; it is having freedom from emotional worry and frustration.

When godly wisdom is the rule in our lives, we are more apt to make decisions that ensure freedom from worry and frustration.  A gentle, kind, considerate nature and a submissive and compliant attitude will also mark us as people who have been blessed with the wisdom of heaven.  James encourages us to seek wisdom, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). This was the wisdom that Eve could have enjoyed if she had trusted and obeyed God rather than taking the wisdom the serpent offered.  Beloved, do you need wisdom – real, godly wisdom? All you have to do is ask.

Adam and Eve and the Hall of Faith

I was up very late trying to finish my last assignment for school. I am so tired. I don’t have the brainpower to think very hard. I’m going to share an observation as we work through the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11. School is over until Fall for me. More profound things will come later. Anyway, just read this while I go get more coffee.

Think about all the people listed in this chapter. You know what strikes me. Adam and Eve aren’t here. The first two people – the Lord God’s hand-made human beings are not in the Hall of Faith. Why? Because they sinned? Yes, but not entirely.  This chapter is all about faith and their sin showed they had none. Faith = obedience. That’s what James was pointing out: “Faith by itself if it is not accompanied by action [aka obedience] is dead” (2:17). The corollary then is disobedience = no faith. Yet Adam and Eve had the most intimate knowledge of God of any human being in history. They walked with Him in the Garden every evening ((Gen 3:8). They saw His face. Their eardrums vibrated to the sound of His voice. Don’t you imagine He put His hand on Adam’s shoulder as He pointed out the animals?

Do you know what that tells me (the seminary grad student and Bible teacher)? Knowledge of God doesn’t equal faith. Remember that the writer of Hebrews said “the message [the Israelites] heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith” (4:2). You can know all about God and still not know God. You can even believe that He is real and not believe Him. James also said, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder. You can even memorize every word in the Bible and still not have faith. Jesus talked about the religious leaders who “diligently study the Scriptures” but did not believe Him (John 5:39-40). Beloved, with all my heart I plead, don’t let Jesus say that of you. If all you want is a head full of knowledge, go study philosophy. But if you want Jesus and eternal life, apply your mind and heart to the Scriptures and bend your knee to the Word.

Do You Believe?

No other event on the stage of world history is as important as the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Skeptics have long sought to discredit Christianity’s claims with attacks on the foundational veracity of the gospel.  So is it really true? Let’s take a look at the facts that are recorded in the secular history of the time.

The Jewish and Roman historical records note that a man named Jesus from Nazareth was crucified at Golgotha and buried in a garden tomb.  The grave was sealed and Roman guards were posted to prevent the theft of the body.  History records that the condemned man’s tomb was found empty three days later, despite the extreme measures the Romans took to secure the grave.  Jewish records note the claims of Jesus’ followers that their Lord had been resurrected.  Historical writers of the time frequently mention eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus, just as Paul spoke of Peter, the Apostles, more than five hundred brothers, James (Jesus’ own doubting brother), and finally Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).  In these verses, Paul reminds the believers of the gospel message “that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and he was raised on the third day according to the Scripture” (v. 3-4).  These verses are almost certainly a creed that was well established in the ancient church and based on the testimonies of the very ones who firmly and emphatically believed they saw the literal resurrected Lord.  These are men who had been transformed from terrified, despondent fellows cowering behind locked doors (John 20:19) to bold witnesses willing to die for their faith, confident in what they saw (Acts 4:1-20).

The gospel message – the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus – is strongly supported by men and women who had an encounter that transformed their lives and the landscape of world history.  The evidence is clearly shown in their testimonies and the traditions that are built on the foundation of their testimonies.  The eyewitness accounts of Peter, James, John and Paul, and hundreds of others, combined with the early creedal statements of the church provide good support for the claims of the resurrection of Jesus. 

Still, facts alone cannot convince anyone of the reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Generations of believers who have also experienced this life-changing Jesus provide the greatest proof that the claims of Christianity are true. People like me. I was a sinner, lost and bound for hell, but I heard the good news that God loves me and send His Son to die for my sins and rose to life three days later. I believed in Jesus. His Spirit lives in me and I have been changed. Forever.

Beloved, this same Jesus died for you too. He can change your life and your eternal destiny. Will you believe today?

Hebrews: This May Make You Mad

According to Scripture, my job as a Bible teacher is to make you mad. My brothers will tell you I’ve been practicing for this my whole life. The writer of Hebrews said, “Let us spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (10:24). The word “spur” means “to incite, irritate, or provoke” and it comes from a root word that suggests a sharp disagreement. “But wait a minute,” you say, “I thought we were supposed to always get along and be at peace with one another.”  We are. But sometimes peace requires confrontation. The church suffers greatly because we are not willing to confront uncomfortable issues. Like what a Christian should look like. The writer pointed to two specific things: Love and good deeds. 

Jesus said that love would be the distinguishing mark of His followers (John 13:35) and you may recall that the only directive Jesus gave was when He commanded us to love one another (John 15:17). John went a step further (on someone’s toes) and said if you don’t love believers in Christ, that’s a good indication that you are not in Christ (1 John 2:9-11). Love is non-negotiable for the Christian.

We are also called to do good deeds. Paul said that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). But James said that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Who’s right here? Both. Salvation comes by faith in the grace of God and is evidenced by good works. No, you don’t have to go to Calcutta and join Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity to prove that you are a Christian. Simple acts of love, kindness, gentleness, and compassion are good fruit in the believer’s life. Hate, harshness, rudeness, and indifference are evidence that one is not a Christ-follower. If there’s no good fruit there is no root in Christ.

Love and good deeds are the identifying marks of the Christian. If neither is present, then Christ is not present. If that makes you mad then take it up with God – He’s the one who said it first, not me. Also you might need to re-examine your relationship with Him.

The writer of wisdom said, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Prov 27:17). Sharpening iron involves rubbing it with an abrasive stone to grind the edge. Sometimes we need kind words and other times we need a gritty whetstone. I’m called to give you both. I love you too much to not tell you the whole truth, even if it makes you mad.

What the Heart Wants

Why do we sin? Of course, we sin because our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, sinned and passed that sin nature down to us. But James revealed another reason you and I sin, “Each one is tempted when by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:14-15). At the heart of all sin is our innate sinful nature and our own sinful desires.  Paul explained it in Romans 8:5 saying, “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires.”

And satan goes right for those desires, which are often our weaknesses.  Money, sex, and power are the usual enticements into sin and death, but there are more than we can conceivably count.  Every person has their own desire, their own personal lure, and be assured Satan knows it.  He has devised a scheme tailor-made to match that craving.  We answer to the temptation that calls out to our innate desires. If your desire is for material possessions, he will pull you into the mall, or entice you with advertisements for the newest shiny thing.  If your desire is lust, every TV commercial for lingerie will catch your attention and he will make certain you get plenty of pop-ups for sexual sites on your I-phone.  Want power, prestige, fame, a high?  He’s got just what you’re looking for.

Our only way of escaping his trap is to have but one desire: God.

One of the church’s favorite verses is Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desire of your heart.”  But we don’t take the whole verse, we just hone in on “He will give you the desire of your heart,” and rush past the requirement expressed just before it: “Delight yourself in the Lord.” If you and I are serious about living pure and holy lives, especially in this culture, we must adopt the attitude of Asaph who proclaimed: “Earth has nothing I desire besides you…God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25, 26).  When God is your heart’s desire Beloved, He will make sure you have the desire of your heart.