A Work in Progress

If there was ever an extra-biblical word of wisdom that I believe with my whole heart it is this. “Do not think, believer, that your sorrows are out of God’s plan; they are necessary parts of it.” Charles Spurgeon. Like you, I have experienced sadness, sorrow, shock, grief, despair, anguish, and brokenness in my life, and often wondered why God would allow it. What good can possibly come from such pain? But I have learned, and am still learning, that these are the tools He uses to shape me into the image of His Son.

When the great Michelangelo was asked how he could take a block of marble and bring from it his beautiful sculpture of David, he replied, “I took my chisel and removed everything that didn’t look like my vision of David.”  That is God’s purpose for our sufferings and sorrows.  God uses them like a hammer and chisel to remove everything that does not look like the vision before Him – the vision of His Son (Rom 8:29).  It is not always pleasant – in fact, it is very painful – but it is necessary because our hearts are often as hard as a block of marble. 

It reminds me of the work of the ancient craftsmen who made the priestly garments for Aaron. The Scripture says that “they hammered out thin sheets of gold and cut threads from them” to weave into the fabric  (Ex 39:3).  Can you imagine the amount of dedication and intricate work that required? Beloved, that’s nothing compared to how God is working on you And He’s not just weaving the glory of His Son into your life. He is making you into His very image.

You may not welcome it at the moment, but one day, when you stand before your Savior you will be so glad for every blow and every tear that made you into the reflection of your King.  The Bible says that Jesus was made perfect through suffering.  Do you think it will be any less for you?  Oh, Beloved, there is great purpose in your pain. As Paul said, “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death . . .” (Philippians 3:10).

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?

Tell Them About Jesus

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Paul covered over ten thousand miles on his missionary journeys and spoke about Jesus all along the way. One significant place Paul visited was Athens, Greece. What he discovered there could be said about almost any city in the world today.  He found much curiosity about religion, but no commitment to God. The city was full of idols and temples of worship to pagan gods. All of them. To make sure they didn’t miss any of them they had created an altar with the inscription: “To An Unknown God” (Acts 17:23). Luke said Paul was “greatly distressed” (v. 16) and rightly so because satan had established a powerful stronghold in Athens and people were being seduced away from God. Satan’s hold on the world should distress God’s people. We should love people so much that we hate everything that keeps them from God.

The church today has taken a “live and let live” attitude towards the world. “If they don’t want to believe in God, it’s their life. Let them do whatever they want.” Does that sound like the heart of a God who would send His Son to die for lost souls? Charles Spurgeon said, “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for.”

Paul said, “We are Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). The church – that’s you and me – has been called to care about the lost world. No, we can’t save them, but we can share the gospel and pray for them to be saved.

I love serving the Body of Christ but I confess I haven’t been faithful to this ambassadorship. It’s not that I don’t care, but I get caught up in my own life and my own issues, and – honest statement here – I don’t have the sense of urgency that should compel me.  I think that’s true for most of us. So I’m praying for a heart to share Christ with lost souls. Because I once was one, and somebody cared enough about me to tell me about Jesus. Beloved, let’s pass that legacy on.

Hope in the Night

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Several years ago I went to a jewelry party. The hostess promised that I could be the model but the salesperson chose another girl instead. I was wearing a light-colored top and the other girl had on a dark top.  The jewelry showed up better against the dark backdrop.  My light top would have made the pieces appear washed out.  Hope is much like those gems, it shows us best against the dark seasons of our lives. I know this from the Word of God and my life.

Paul said, “Hope that is seen is no hope at all” (Romans 8:24). There is a reason that the stars are only visible against the night sky. They fade away in the bright sunlight.  There’s a reason that hope is most powerful when we are at our weakest. My hope in God grew the most when I needed Him the most – when anxiety was high, when I couldn’t see the road ahead, when it looked like everything was falling apart.  I had to hope in Him to survive.  I had to stay on my knees. I had to remind myself of God’s goodness and faithfulness. Those lessons in the night made my faith more real to me than sunshine ever could.

I know some of your stories – you’ve talked with me or private messaged me and asked for prayer for your situation, which I am honored to do.  Most of you I do not know personally, but I know that when the night seems to go on forever, you need hope.  Beloved, hope shines brightest in the dark. And hope is our assurance that the night will eventually give way to the morning.

I love these words from Charles Spurgeon, the great preacher and writer of the nineteenth century who knew a lot about hope in the darkness.

“Hope itself is like a star–not to be seen in the sunshine of prosperity, and only to be discovered in the night of adversity. Afflictions are often the black foils in which God sets the jewels of His children’s graces, to make them shine brighter. How can you know that you have faith until your faith is exercised?”

Trials make the promise sweet;

Trials give new life to prayer;

Trials bring me to His feet,

Lay me low, and keep me there.

What do a bunch of old laws have to do with me; or why should I read Leviticus?

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I am doing a slow dig through the book of Leviticus – yes Leviticus – the book where most New Year’s resolutions come to die. Why would I spend months studying a hard-to-understand bunch of antiquated laws that don’t apply to me as a New Testament Christian? Because Jesus is found in Leviticus more than any other Old Testament book. He is the fulfillment of every law therein. Three verses into the first chapter and there He is: “If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he is to bring an unblemished male” (Lev. 1:3). That’s Jesus. Unblemished. Perfect. Sinless. Innocent. Pure. The only sacrifice that could atone for your sin and mine – making us acceptable to a holy God.
I look into the next verse and I see, not only Jesus this time but also me. “He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering so it can be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him” (Lev. 1:4) In the ancient sacrificial system, the person placed his hand on the animal’s head symbolically transferring all of his sins onto it. This innocent animal now bore the guilt for the sinful person; the animal – not the man – died for those sins.
I am the one with my hand on the head of Jesus. Those sins are mine. The guilt is mine. I am shaken by Charles Spurgeon’s comment on this verse: “If the worshipper was a right-minded person and not a mere formalist, he stood with tears in his eyes and felt in his heart, ‘That death is mine.’” Oh, God let me never look at the cross and forget – “That death is mine.”
Beloved, that is your hand on the head of Jesus too. That death is yours. Those sins are yours. The guilt belongs to you. But so does the atonement. The sinless, innocent Son of God graciously received your sins and bore your punishment so that you would be accepted by His Father. May you and I never forget the price that Jesus paid to set us free.

Proven Faith

Image: Melted gold flows out of a smelter into a mould of a bar at a plant of gold refiner and bar manufacturer Argor-Heraeus SA in the southern Swiss town of Mendrisio

Charles Spurgeon wrote: “The most precious [metals] are tested in the fire . . . ” The Psalmist said, “For You, O God tested us; You refined us like silver” (Psalm 66:10). Peter said, “These [trials] have come so that your faith – of great worth than gold . . . may be proved genuine” (1 Peter 1:7)
A “proving ground” is a military term. It is “an environment that serves to demonstrate whether something, such as a theory or product, really works.” Say a company has created something they want to market to the United States military. Do you think Uncle Sam is just going to take their word for it, buy this thing and put it into a soldier’s hands. No – they are going to take it into situations and places in which it will be used and they will put it through rigorous tests. They may discover a weakness and will work on that area to strengthen it. And they’ll test it again. Only after it stands up in the proving grounds will it be put into use.
When God wants to “prove” the faith of His child He uses the fires of adversity, struggle, trial, heartache, disappointment, discouragement . . . I think you understand. When you and I ask God, “What are You doing?” The answer will always be, “I am proving your faith. I am finding the weak places so that I can strengthen you. I am making sure you are fit for the good work I have for you.” God is not out to destroy you beloved, He is working to build your faith. The proving ground is the place where your faith takes root so you can produce fruit – fruit that will last. Fruit that will glorify the one who brought you all the way through the fire.

How to be Perfect

“Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48

I never thought of myself as a perfectionist. The truth is, I knew “perfect” was so far out of my league, I didn’t expect it. I was just pleased if my mistakes were few and not too glaring. When I worked as a church secretary I used to say “If there wasn’t a mistake in the bulletin, people would think someone else did it.” I didn’t expect perfection from myself – that is until I started back to school, and perfection became the goal. Not for my sake mind you, for my grades became my expression of gratitude to God for the opportunity to go to seminary. But my friends noticed how discouraged I became when I didn’t get an A on an assignment or missed even one question on a test. I wanted to be perfect – after all, isn’t that what God expects of me? Isn’t that what Jesus said?

Let’s get this right out on the table. God is perfect, and we are not. The Bible is replete with God’s perfection: His works are perfect (Deut. 32:4), His knowledge is perfect (Job 37:16), His ways are perfect (2 Sam. 22:31; Ps. 18:30), His law is perfect (Ps. 19:7; James 1:25), His beauty is perfect (Ps. 50:2), His faithfulness is perfect (Is. 25:1), His peace is perfect (Is. 26:3), His will is perfect (Rom. 12:2), His power is perfect (2 Cor. 12:9); and we can give thanks that He gives perfect gifts (Jas. 1:17), and that His love is perfect (1Joh n 4:18).

But you and I? We are from perfection with no ladder tall enough to reach it. We are flawed, we are weak, we have tempers and attitudes and prejudices; we are selfish and self-centered. We are human, with all that our humanness entails. And we are sinful. God knows all this. So why, then does Jesus tell us “Be perfect.”? Why throw out a command He knows we will never achieve?

There are two points we need to consider in this impossible quest for perfection.

In the Greek, the word “perfect” means “perfect, complete, mature, finished.” Jesus is using both meanings to speak of our lives here on earth – and our lives in heaven. First, He is expressing what James echoes with the same Greek word, teleios, when he says “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4-emphasis added). Modern translators have Jesus saying “perfect” and James saying “mature,” but the word in the Greek is exactly the same. And both are saying that we are to work towards maturity in our Christian lives. Listen to Paul’s words, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” This “perfection” is the life-long process of growing and becoming mature believers, and it doesn’t happen overnight. It is a day-by-day, choice-by-choice walk – the walk of faith. It is also the perfecting work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, as He leads and guides us on to this maturity. Knowing that I am “a work in progress” frees me from the burden of perfectionism.

Jesus also uses the word to express our future state, when we are complete – in Him. You see, the root word for “perfect” and “mature” is telos, which means “end result, outcome, goal. This is the work of Christ that achieves the end result of perfection.  The writer of Hebrews expresses it beautifully: “By one sacrifice He (Christ) has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14).   Christ has made us perfect before the Father through His sacrifice on the cross.  This verse also encompasses both expressions of perfection in heaven and the perfecting work in this life.  Want to dig a little deeper? Look again at James 1:4. We examined the word “mature,” but let’s look at the word “complete.” The combined root definitions of “complete” mean “whole, entire” with “share, place, inheritance.” Oh, this is so exciting! We will be made perfect, as Christ is perfect, when we have come into the entirety of our inheritance, our share of eternity – HEAVEN! The perfect place for perfect people!

Jesus is giving us both the perfect way to walk in this life as His followers and the promise of a perfect eternal home as His perfected saints.

So why does Jesus command us to “Be perfect, therefore as your Father in heaven is perfect.”? I think Charles Spurgeon expresses it very well: “The youthful artist as he grasps his newly sharpened pencil can hardly hope to equal Raphael or Michelangelo; but still, if he did not have a noble ideal before his mind, he would only attain to something very mean and ordinary.”

Perfection is the aim, it is the picture God paints in our minds, not as an unrealistic goal, but as a promise and a vision. Certainly we will stumble and fail, and for that He sent us a Savior – a Savior who makes us perfect in every way.

Holy Father, I cannot achieve perfect grades, be a perfect parent or live a perfect life; but I can look to my perfect Savior and know that I am perfect in Him. Amen.