Hard Things

“He is the God who breaks down walls!” “He is the God who conquers your enemy!” “He is the God who parts the seas and makes the sun stand still and calls the universe into existence!” “Impossible? No not for God! Nothing is impossible for Him!” The speaker was pacing the stage, calling the women in the arena to faith. Hearts were being stirred. “If God is asking the impossible from you, it is because He intends to do the impossible through you! He is the God of the Impossible!” Women were on their feet, hands raised in the air, shouting their agreement. Except for one who sat near me. She wore the face of a weary soul. Sad. Tired. Longing to believe, but too exhausted to hold on. I knew her and I knew her story. I knew about the harsh struggles she faced each day. God pricked my heart for her, so at the break, when everyone ran to the bathrooms and the merchant tables, I walked over and sat beside her.

“Are you enjoying the conference?” I asked her. “Oh, yes!” she said, “It’s all very hopeful and encouraging.” “You don’t look very encouraged,” I gently said. Her hands fell into her lap as she dropped her smiling mask. She sighed. “God hasn’t asked me to do the impossible, just something that’s very hard. Something that requires so much physical and mental energy every single day.” I hugged her and said, “Sweet friend, He is not just the God of the impossible, He’s also the God of this-is-so-hard.”

Some things we face in life are not impossible, but just really difficult. They are the things that wear us down and wear us out. It may be a person – big or small. It may be a demanding job or strained finances. It might be long-standing grief and deafening silence. It may be a physical issue, a nagging disappointment, or an overload of responsibility. It’s not parting the sea or taking down giants. But it’s hard. Every. Single. Day.

Maybe you don’t need the impossible – you just need some strength to get through the next day. God’s got you, Beloved. Genesis 18:14 asks, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” I can assure you, on the authority of God’s Word and personal experience, that the answer is “No.”

More than Live, Love, Laugh

This week in VBS we are learning about the value of life. One night our lesson was about God’s design for us. We were made by a Designer for a wonderful purpose. I asked the 5-6 graders what are the three purposes for which man was designed. One student blurted out “Live, Laugh, Love.” Somebody’s mama loves Hobby Lobby. The correct answer was “to know God, to praise God, and to love God.”

Jeremiah 24:7 says, “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God.” Paul said that everything God does in this world is so that “men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him . . .” (Acts 17:27). Of all the things that God created – which is everything – only man was designed to know his Creator. When we miss getting to know God, we miss the foundational purpose of our lives.

We were also made to praise God. The psalmist said, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6). Praise is the natural response to knowing God. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon, seen the Eiffel Tower, and witnessed both sunrises and sunsets and my reaction is always the same: “Wow!” How much more so when we see even the smallest glimpse of God.

We were made to love God. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Your heart is the foundation and seat of your thoughts, passions, desires, and intelligence. Loving God with all your heart is an emotion driven by reason or conscious thought. The mind is the part of the inner person that thinks and processes information into understanding. Loving God with your mind involves making choices driven by a thoughtful process of information. The soul is the immaterial (and eternal) part of the inner person, Loving God with all your soul involves emotion fueled by desire and affection; a special connection to the beloved (in this case, God).  Strength is a marker of great degree or quantity, something beyond measure. Loving God with all your strength denotes a measure of quantity, abundance, and ability, in other words – obedience. When we know God, praise God, and love God all the rest falls into its proper place. Beloved, do you know your purpose?

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.

Tell Them About Jesus

As I study the Scriptures I see three types of people:

Those who by faith receive Christ and follow Him – the Bible calls these righteous, saints, and children of God.

Those who attempt to live up to a standard of “goodness” but find the load impossible to bear – the Bible calls them lost, burdened, weary souls.

Those who reject all thought of God and every standard of right living. These the Bible calls evil, wicked, lovers of self, and children of the devil.

The first group has found hope in Christ and the promise of eternal life. Their lives are marked by the fruit of the Spirit: “love, Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). They look at life with eternal vision and they live to serve the Kingdom of God. They show their love for Christ by their obedience. They will gladly give their lives for the name and the gospel of Christ (Rev 12:11).

The second group knows there is a God but they do not know Him. There are weighed down under a constant burden of trying to live up to the traditions of men in a vain attempt to gain God’s favor. Their lives are marked with worry and anxiety (Luke 8:14).  To them, Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). Some come and receive His rest. Some do not and never find it.

The third group has no concern for nor belief in God. They don’t need Him nor want Him. They have no thought of eternity. Life ends and that is all there is. They believe themselves wise and think the gospel is for fools. They fail to see that they are deceived by the devil and most to be pitied (Rev 12:9).

Should the first group respond differently to the second and third? No. We respond to everyone in the same way – with the gospel. It is the truth for all mankind. Its message will be a welcome comfort to the lost, but it will be an offense to the wicked. Still, whether it falls on closed ears or receptive hearts, we must tell the world the way to eternal life. Let it land where it may, but never stop proclaiming the beautiful Gospel of Jesus.

Hebrews: How to Bring People to Jesus

I knew a man who believed his mission in life was to point out people’s sins. He would stand outside the local bar and berate people coming out the door and tell them they were sinners and were going to hell. Strangely, he never won a single convert to the Lord. I know a young man who brought many people to Christ when he was in college, but he never pointed a finger at anyone. He just lived his life well.

What does it take to win the world – or just your neighbor – to Christ? While it’s true that we need to tell the whole gospel – that Jesus died to save them from their sins,  is it necessary to berate them for their late-night drinking binges? Should you shame the single woman next door when her boyfriend spends the night? The author of Hebrews pointed to one person who was a witness to God without saying a word to his sinful neighbors. “By his faith [Noah] condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith” (Hebrews 11:7b).

Previously we looked at Noah as a man whose faith was proven by his obedience.  But there is more to Noah’s story – and his testimony – than the ark. Genesis 6:9 says, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” Noah lived like a man of God and his righteous life was enough to convince them that they were sinners in need of grace.

I lived next door to the single woman and most weekend mornings her boyfriend’s truck was in our shared driveway.  I never said anything to her about it, but one Monday morning I saw her name on the visitor’s register for the church I worked at. Later I said, “I hope you enjoyed your visit to church yesterday.” She said, “I expected you to tell me how bad I was for letting him stay on the weekends, but you never did. I saw how you live and I knew I wanted something you have.”  We had many good conversations and when we moved away, she was attending church regularly – with her boyfriend. What you do is just as important as what you say. Maybe more so. Especially in a culture that is seeking authenticity. Beloved, you don’t have to point your finger of shame at anyone to make a gospel impact. A righteous, holy life will speak for you.

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.

When Misery Becomes Ministry

“Lord, why do I have to go through this? It is awful. It is painful. It is scary. Why?” Ever thought that? Yeah, me too. More than once. And recently. I’ve also wiped tears from someone’s face who said much the same. The question looms large in our minds: “Is there a purpose for all this pain?” Let me encourage you friend – I believe there is. Paul put it this way, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Cor 1:3-4).

Alcoholics Anonymous understands that a recovering alcoholic is uniquely qualified to help another find sobriety. Bosom Buddies brings a breast cancer survivor alongside one who is newly diagnosed. I have a dear friend who has a powerful ministry to post-abortive women because she made that same choice years ago. Because of my past experiences, I can sit across the table from a someone dealing with childhood bullying, sexual abuse, divorce, rejection, ridicule, depression, self-esteem issues, financial failure, a wayward child, uncertainty, and the fallout of their own sinful and foolish choices and say, “Been there, done that, and let me tell you how God got me through it.”

Paul continued his thought saying: “For just as the suffering of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows” ( 2 Cor 1:5). It’s like that old game of “Barrel of Monkeys,” where you link the arms of plastic monkeys to see how many you can pull out of the barrel in a conjoined string. All these things I’ve been through make me uniquely qualified to link arms with another and help them out of the barrel. In the end, we hopefully become a long string of survivors pulling more and more people out of despair, depression, and hopelessness.

One thing of which I am certain to the marrow of my bones: God wants to take your misery and turn it into ministry. He wants to use you and your story and your scars to speak hope and life into another suffering soul. You can sit and stew in your pain or you can help Him pull monkeys out of the barrel. Beloved, which will it be?

A Healthy Heart

The man had been experiencing shortness of breath, lack of energy, and eventually, chest pain. Tests revealed blockages in several vessels of his heart, blockages that had slowly and quietly built up over years. The symptoms were minimal at first, easily dismissed in the middle of his busy days. But they became more and more severe until he could not ignore them any longer. He wisely sought medical help and found himself lying on a table counting backward from 100…99…98…97…
His symptoms are similar to spiritual heart problems – shortness of Holy Spirit breath, lack of spiritual energy, and unresolved heart pain. Hardened hearts also happen slowly, and over time, can lead to a very serious problem. The man’s condition was called “hardening of the arteries.” God calls our heart condition “a heart of stone.” How does our heart get so hard? It almost always happens with small seemingly insignificant steps away from God, that, one by one, don’t seem to be that threatening. Like hitting the snooze button and sleeping through our morning quiet time, once, then another morning, and another morning, until we just reset the alarm altogether. It happens when we spend so much time reading our emails that there is no time to read the Bible. Our prayer life suffers as we look to the world for advice, rather than seeking God’s counsel for our needs. The choices we make in entertainment, online usage, conversations, and relationships can cause us to become numb to sin and one more brick is added to our hearts. Hearts can also grow hard and bitter when we let wounds fester and refuse to forgive.

Thankfully, God offers us spiritual heart surgery: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” Ezekiel 36:26. God can take your cold, brittle heart, and give you a new heart that responds to His love and grace. What do you see when you look honestly at your heart? Has it become hard? Have you become bitter and cold toward God? The Master Cardiologist is always willing to do a “heart transplant,” if you will surrender your heart into His hands. Beloved, does your heart need God’s healing touch today?

Real-Life Wisdom

What do we do with the failures of our past? Now that we have survived some of the trials and struggles of life, now that we have lived through the results of our own mistakes, now that we have found that sowing wild oats doesn’t bring much of a harvest—what do we do with all that hard-earned wisdom?  Paul offers the best advice: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).  We reach back and help someone else who is struggling in the same manner.  Why is AA so powerful? Because it is built on experience and a shared struggle.  It is one person who has found freedom from addiction walking alongside someone who is trying to break free. The best counselors (either formal or informal) are the one who have “been there, done that, and have the T-shirt to prove it.” 

I have a lifetime of experience with the consequences of my own foolishness. But I also have a lifetime of experience with God’s faithfulness and mercy. The Lord has rescued me many, many times and now I am able to offer a hand up and a bit of wisdom and encouragement to someone else in the same kind of pit.  When God rescues us and we in turn lead others to Him for freedom, we have turned the devil’s handiwork against him.  We can say with Joseph, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). 

Dear friends, this is how we redeem our foolish past—we take our experiences, our failures, and our sins to the table and say to another struggling soul, “I know where you are, I understand what you’re feeling and I will take you to the One who rescued me. I will walk the whole way with you until you are free.”  Beloved, don’t let the enemy bury you in shame.  Let God use you and your scars to turn mistakes into ministry and heartbreak into hope.

Holy Father

When I pray, whether written or spoken, I use my favorite name for God: “Holy Father” (John 17:11).  It comes from Jesus’ prayer just before his arrest. I love that name because it is expressing the two most important aspects of who God is. Taken separately, each word speaks volumes.

“Holy” describes the highest moral quality, something or Someone set apart and sacred. I think of the Most Holy place in the Tabernacle where God dwelled among His people. It was a sacred space and entry by man was forbidden – except once a year and then only by the high priest who came to make sacrifices for the sins of the nation. A holy thing would never be used for common purposes by common people. The angels in Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne room constantly called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty” (Is 6:3). Not just holy, but thrice holy.

“Father” is, of course, a male parent or significant leader to a family, a nation, or an individual. It is a title of honor and reverence. It is also a title of endearment – at least for some. My Dad and I didn’t have the best relationship when I was growing up and we were estranged for much of my adult life. (We did reconcile a few years before his death.) “Father” was not a warm fuzzy thought for me. But coming from the lips of Jesus, the affection was deep and sincere. Most Jews would not dare refer to God in such familiar ways. Remember He is holy – set apart from common, sinful people. But after His resurrection, Jesus told the disciples, “I am returning to my Father and your Father . . . (John 20:17). And He is our Father.

But together “Holy Father” serves as bookends with all the wonder and awe and majesty of God in between.  And together they are the complete picture of this God who is both holy and dear, who both demands perfection and makes us perfect through the blood of His own Son. The words speak to my heart of a Father who will never wrong me, never leave me, never hurt me or shame me but will always love me with the holiest of love. With perfect love (1 John 4:18). Because He is a perfect Father (Matt 5:48). Yes, “Holy Father” says it all.