The Most Excellent Way

“…but have not love…” (1 Corinthians 13:1, 2, 3)

When we read “the Love Chapter” – 1 Corinthians 13 – we tend to go right for the “Love is patient, love is kind . . .” (v. 4f) and it is good to know what love looks like in action – what it does and does not do, because love that stays in the mind and heart has no impact on the beloved.  But in verses 1-3 I find a core truth that I must always keep in focus: the greatest spiritual gift requires the greatest degree of humility.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Jesus was the flesh-and-blood example of perfect, holy, eternal love because Jesus’ motivation was perfect, holy, eternal love.   In contrast to Jesus’ sacrifice, Paul warns us that if we surrender all that we have, including our very lives, but are not motivated by love, our actions gain us nothing of eternal significance.  But oh, how we will be remembered in history.

You and I may be able to impress people with our great words and actions, but God knows the heart where the true motivation lies.  And the heart is what he measures: “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).  That which is done for ego’s sake has no standing before God, only what is done for the sake of love will come out of the fire as gold (Job 23:10).

Paul called this love “the greater [spiritual] gift” and “the most excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31). That’s the kind of love I want to emulate. The only way I can love like Christ is if I allow God’s love to flow through me to those around me.  That’s why anything done for the sake of appearance is “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”  It’s a lot of attention-grabbing noise – but it’s not love.  And if it’s not love, it’s nothing.

Stuff I’ve Learned in My Life

I’ll admit, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed. The running joke in my family was, “Dorcas is so dumb that . . .” and then add a punchline. I believed it for a long time. I’m sixty+ now, and I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. Like, don’t try to sneak off at midnight on a bike with a leaky tire. Don’t get so caught up in an audiobook that you run a red light and T-bone another car. Don’t abuse credit cards. Don’t let your mom brush your hair when’s she mad. Don’t eat junk for forty years and think it won’t come back to haunt you. I’ve learned that true friends are the second rarest gems on earth. Grandchildren are the first. I’ve learned that wisdom usually comes with scars and kindness can change almost every situation. I’ve learned that being fulfilled is more valuable than a fat paycheck. Those are lessons I learned just living my life.

But the Bible has been my greatest teacher. Through Abraham, I learned to trust God even when His promises look impossible (Gen 15). I learned from Joshua’s story that God will never leave me nor forsake me (Josh 1:5) From Gideon – God sees me as the person He created me to be, not the loser I think I am (Jud 6). I found my calling in Ezra: to study the Word, obey the Word, and teach the Word (Ezra 7:10). I’ve learned to not judge others from Job, to confess my sins from David, and Daniel taught me to stand firm in my faith despite the whims of the world. Jonah taught me that I can’t run from God, and Zechariah told me where to look for the return of Christ (Zech 14:4).

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John told me about my greatest love, Jesus, who died to save me. Acts taught me the power of the Holy Spirit and Dorcas taught me the power of helping others (Acts 9). Peter taught me about forgiveness, Paul taught me about righteousness, and Mary taught me about humility. Revelation taught me that God wins.

Of all the things I’ve learned the one I most want to leave you with is this: God loves you. Yes, you. He loves you with an everlasting, never-failing, unshakable,  eternal, perfect, holy love. That, Beloved, is the most important thing you need to know.

The Providence of God

I caught myself the other day thinking, “If I could change one thing about my past…” The problem is I found a lot of things. Choices. People. Places. Priorities. Desires.  I’ll bet you can finish that sentence with a few thoughts of your own. Who hasn’t lamented something in their past? For some, the choices were huge and life-altering. For others, they were moments, that while not quite as monumental, we wish we could do over. I have spent so much time living with regrets, living in the “if only’s,” and wishing I had made wiser decisions, or that circumstances had turned out differently. I have discovered that when I live in constant regret I set myself up for a very sad life.

But I am learning to trust in the sovereign providence of God. Those are words we don’t use much in our contemporary religion, but they are powerful. In the original Hebrew, the word combination has a rich and significant meaning. The word “sovereign” speaks to God’s rightful authority as Creator over nature, nations, mankind, and individual lives. Likewise, the word “providence” is speaking to God’s charge over everything He has made – including you and me.  The root word means “to pay attention, to care for, to be in charge of.” This is His tender, loving oversight as our Good Shepherd and Heavenly Father. God has pledged to pay attention to you, to care for you, and to be in charge of your life – not as a dictator – but as One who seeks always and only what is best for you. Job 10:12 expresses this duality beautifully. “You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in Your providence watched over my spirit.” The combination of terms tells us that God is always looking out on your behalf, knows what you need and He has the authority to move heaven and earth to accomplish all things for you – because He loves you.

If you have grieved over your past, know that Your sovereign, providential Father has been watching over and caring for you all along. In His hands, the very thing that caused you the most pain can be the seed for a whole new life. Beloved, God loves you too much to waste the struggles of your life. He has a plan. He has a purpose. And He has you in the palm of His great hand.

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.

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.

When Life Ain’t Fair

Life is hard. Whether you’re a Christian or not, life is hard. The truth is, life is often harder for believers. I know it. You know it. So did the writers of the Psalms. Check out Psalm 73. Asaph is devoted to God, but he looks around and sees that the wicked have it so much better. They enjoy prosperity and good health and have no worries about following all the rules while he struggles with ill health, loss, and the burden of the Law. It just wasn’t fair.

Our Sunday School class has been studying Job, and he speaks of that often. The ungodly live a seemingly carefree life while the godly are oppressed, harassed, persecuted, and disparaged. I get it! But I don’t get it. I don’t understand the disparity, do you? We’re God’s people. It should be easier than this. I think Asaph expressed it well: “When I tried to understand this, it was too painful for me (v. 16 HCSB)” The Message says: “When I tried to figure it out, all I got was a splitting headache.” Can you relate? Headaches and heartaches seem to be the believer’s lot in life. “Well,” I hear you thinking, “this is all so cheery and encouraging.” Just wait.

After Asaph takes a BC powder, he gets a new revelation.  Verse 17 is the hinge verse: “till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood . . .” Translation: It’s not about this life, it’s about eternity. It’s about the bigger picture. The days of struggle we experience on planet earth are “momentary” (2 Corinthians 4:17) in light of eternity. Yes, it’s hard here, but it’s glorious there – and the glory lasts forever while this life is just one tick on the clock of forever.

You and I must learn to look at our troubles – all of life in fact – with an eternal mindset. You may live in a tiny rented trailer today, but you will have a mansion for eternity. My husband struggles through debilitating health problems right now, but he will have a perfect body forever. My head (and my heart) hurt a lot these days, but I know I will experience endless Joy. Beloved, take a step back, look at the bigger picture, and be encouraged. This life is not all there is. Eternity is waiting, and it’s going to be perfect. Forever.

Are You Paying Attention?

This morning I very quickly typed in my laptop’s password – maybe a little too quickly because it was wrong. I tried again and still messed it up. I tried a third time, slowly, paying careful attention to the keys I was hitting. And I got it right that time. God has been impressing those two words on my heart a lot in the past several years. “Pay attention.” In so many areas of my life, I need to pay attention. In my job, at home, in my relationships, in my schoolwork, and in my ministry. And with my granddaughter. It’s not enough to sit in the same room with her and watch TV or scroll through my phone while she plays. No – she wants Nana’s full attention. And I give it to her gladly because building a block castle, rolling the ball across the floor, or helping her wrap up her baby doll is better than anything on TV or my phone.

My password debacle made me think of the discipline several of us are doing, writing out small portions of Scripture every day to eventually write through the entire Bible. We’ve all noted how much we’re discovering because writing forces us to pay attention to every word. For instance, as we’re writing through Job we’re seeing little glimpses – and a few bold declarations – about Jesus that we never noticed before. On the surface, Job is a depressing book and we tend to want to get through it as quickly as possible. But it looks so different at a slower pace.

Now I had a different direction in mind for this devotional and the Spirit just completely re-routed it. So here goes. He pointed out just now John’s proclamation that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1) We know that “the Word” was Jesus (v. 14). By paying attention to every word of the Word, I am paying attention to Jesus. I can’t think of anything better to give my attention to. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that you have to take pen to paper and write out every word in the Bible, (but if you want to, I’ll post a link to our group in the comments) – but I am saying that taking the Bible – taking the Word – at a slower pace allows you to see things you’ve never seen before.

Beloved, what are you missing? What do you want to see? How might it change your life if you paid attention to the Word – and the Word made flesh?

When the Heat is On

A woman read in the Bible that God refines His people like silver and gold so she visited a silversmith and asked about the process of refining the precious elements. The smithy said he put the silver in a kettle and exposed it to extremely high heat that caused the dross, or impure elements, to rise to the surface where he could scoop it out. This process took intense heat and so she asked, “how do you keep from burning it?” The man replied, “I lean in very closely to the kettle and watch it carefully, using only as much heat as necessary until it is just as I want it.” She asked, “How do you know when it’s ready to be removed from the heat?” The smithy answered, “When I can see my reflection.”

You and I are called to be the reflection of Jesus Christ to the world and that image must be pure. God uses all sorts of “heat” – financial struggles, relational heartache, health problems, emotions, culture, rejection, persecution, consequences, and yes, often spiritual heat to bring the impurities in us to the surface where they can be removed. How do I know this? He’s been cooking some junk out of me for a while. Why would He do that to me? Because, like His friend Peter, some things in me need to be removed before God can use me for His Kingdom and His glory. Remember in Luke 22:31-32 how Jesus allowed His friend to be sifted by satan? He let His disciple go through the crucible of intense suffering to remove what was marring His image in Peter (Luke 22:54-62). Afterward, Peter became a mighty Apostle and preached the first Gospel message after Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2:14-41. The Lord used a humble Peter mightily in the birth and growth of His church.

None of us welcome the seasons of suffering and pain in our lives but know that God is at work, purifying your faith and refining you to be His witness to the world. And you can be assured that in this time of intense heat, He is leaning in close and carefully watching over you, allowing just enough heat to accomplish His purpose – to see His Son reflected in you. And don’t forget that Jesus is praying for you (Luke 22:32). In the end you, Beloved, will come forth a beautiful vessel for His glory.

Only Words?

How can we rate our faith in God? Listen to your words when your guard is down. Our truest selves come tumbling out of our mouths in our private moments, when life is hard or when we’re weary, anxious, in pain, or taken by surprise. Our unguarded words reveal a lot about us. Let me give you two examples from the Bible. Raw emotions often speak the truth from the deepest part of our hearts.

God had rescued Israel from Egyptian slavery and was leading them toward the Promised Land. Moses sent out twelve spies to investigate the area. Their report was both encouraging and frightening. The land was very fruitful but it was also inhabited by fierce giants. The people began to grumble asking, “Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword . . . [and] our wives and children [be] taken as plunder?” (Num 14:3). Wait. Did they not just walk through the sea on dry ground!? But their words expressed the fear and lack of faith in their hearts. And God was listening. He said “I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. So tell then, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very things I heard you say.’” (Num 14:27-28). That’s a terrifying statement.

Contrast their words with the words of Job, who suffered more in one day than you and I will suffer in a lifetime. He lost his wealth, his children, and his health. Oh, he was very upset with God and was not shy about expressing it. But despite it all, Job said: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. He said that a day is coming when “I myself will see Him with my own eyes” (Job 19:25,27). Do you hear the heart behind those words? That is faith speaking.

Listen to Jesus’ words about words: “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). What you say in those unguarded moments says volumes about what you believe in your heart. And God is listening.  If he did to you the very things He heard you say how would that turn out for you? Beloved, make sure that the “words of [your] mouth and the meditation of [your] heart are pleasing in God’s ears (Ps 19:14).

Pointing Fingers

I’m studying Job in two groups right now – I am sure by God’s provident timing. In the first two chapters of Job, satan comes before the Lord twice to give an account of what he’s been up to. I have a note jotted beside satan’s second appearance before God: “last mention of satan.” This is the last time that ugly face is seen in this book. But it’s not the last time satan himself shows up. You can bet he is the impetus behind what comes next in Job’s story.

You know the story. God gives satan permission to take all that Job has – his wealth, his children, and his health – to prove that Job will never curse the Lord. Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to “sympathize with him and comfort him” (v. 11). When they see him sitting on the trash heap, covered in sores and misery, “they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights” and “No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (v. 13). If only they had kept their mouths shut.

I said that satan’s last mention was in chapter two, but he shows up in Job’s “friends” every time they speak. They all condemn Job for what must be grievous sin in his life. Why else would God bring such harsh punishment on him? But they don’t know what God has said about Job: “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (1:8; 2:3). Satan didn’t have to show his face, he just let E, B, and Z do his dirty work. If Job’s friends truly wanted to comfort him, they should have reminded him of God’s faithfulness and love. They should have sang songs of hope, not blasted him with condemnation. Rather than comforting their friend, they added to his suffering.

Here’s my takeaway: Never assume you know a person’s heart before God and God’s reason for their situation. We are called to a ministry of “encouraging, comforting, and urging [one another] to live lives worthy of God” (1 Thess 2:12). We are not called to “straighten one another out.” I don’t want to ever be satan’s tool of misery in someone’s life, no matter how “righteous” my reasoning. Beloved, make sure you are God’s messenger of grace, not satan’s sledgehammer.