Stop Looking Back

I have a lot in common with Moses, the hero of God’s people. No, I’ve never parted a sea or made water come from a rock. I’ve never led a nation out of slavery nor floated down the river in a basket as a baby. What I have done that Moses also did was argue with God.

After Moses fled Egypt as a wanted man, he settled down and started working for his father-in-law as a shepherd. Then he saw a burning bush and heard God say, “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt” (Ex 3:10). And he argues with God. Moses starts giving all the reasons why he can’t do what God has called him to do. “They won’t listen to me. They won’t believe me. I’m not an eloquent speaker. I stutter.” Finally, Moses says, “O, Lord, please send someone else to do it!” (Ex 4:1-13).

My version of Moses is: “I’m not good enough. “I’m not smart enough. And then the sure kicker: “I have an ugly, sinful past, God, I’ve done so many shameful things.” Then I pull out my carefully cataloged and categorized list of all my failures so that He can see why I am the absolute wrong person for the job. I was recently struck by what Bob Goff, lawyer, speaker, and New York Times best-selling author said, “We spend a lot of time memorizing failures that God spent a lot of love saying we could forget.”

He’s right. John said that the Father lavishes great love on us and calls us His children (1 John 3:1). Even before we called Him our Father. Paul said, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). God loved you while you were doing the very things that sent His Son to the cross. When you accepted Christ, all your sins went under the blood of Jesus and left nothing but the Father’s love.

You are no longer a sinner in the eyes of God. You have been cleansed and reborn and filled with His Spirit so that you are enabled and empowered to do that thing for which He created you. Oh, Beloved, don’t look back when God calls you to move forward. He knows who you were – and who you are now. You are His child.

Hebrews: Money, Money, Money

I always heard that the Bible says “Money is the root of all evil,” but that’s a misquote, and you know how I hate misquotes of Scripture. Paul actually said, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim 6:10). The writer of Hebrews agreed: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have . . .” (Heb 13:5). The love of money – not money itself – is the problem. I used to believe that I didn’t have an issue with money mostly because I’ve never had any. I thought Jesus was speaking only to the rich – I can’t possibly be materialistic on my pitiful budget. But look again at what Hebrews 13:5 says: “be content with what you have.”

Philippians 4:13 is one of those favorite “pull-out” verses for believers – especially weightlifters and football players, “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.” But do you know this verse in its context?  It really isn’t about physical strength at all.  Check out the verses that come before: “I have learned to be content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want . . .” (Philippians 4:11-12).  Paul was in prison – and 1st-century prisons were nothing like our modern American facilities. There were no cots, no pillows or blankets, medical care, and no meals provided. Prisoners slept on hard floors and were at the mercy of others for their basic needs. This “strength” verse comes as Paul assures them that, despite his situation, he is not in despair.  Rather, Paul is content.  How? Let’s go back to Hebrews 13:5.

“ . . . be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Paul was in prison because of his testimony about Jesus Christ. But listen to this: “The following night the Lord stood near Paul . . .” (Acts 23:11). Jesus was with Paul in a dark, dank, miserable prison cell. He encouraged him and reminded him that He had called His once former enemy to be His greatest witness – and the Lord wasn’t done with him yet. “So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Heb 13: 6). Man threw Paul in prison, but Jesus set Paul’s spirit free.

There are only a handful of wealthy people in the world in terms of material wealth. I am not one of them. I expect you are not either. But money doesn’t buy contentment. The contented heart looks to Jesus at all times for all things – big and small. If He is with you, Beloved – and He promised that He is – you have the greatest treasure in heaven and earth.

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.

Sit Up Straight!

I am wearing a Holter monitor for the next thirty days. It is a mobile telemetry system that works like a continuous EKG. The monitor is stuck to my chest over my heart by a patch with leads that sends signals to a cellphone that records what the monitor detects. When I bend over or sit less than straight, the phone emits a piercing sound that tells me the monitor is out of position. All. The. Time. It just went off again. It’s driving me crazy.

But it’s also doing something else. It’s making me very aware of my posture. If I want to keep this thing quiet – and Lord knows I do – I have to sit very straight. That’s not natural to me. I tend to slump when I’m sitting, especially when I’m studying or working on my laptop, as I am now. I remember my mother constantly telling me to sit up straight as a kid. It clearly didn’t stick with me. Slumping is my norm – and it’s got to change or I will be a basket case when my thirty days are up.

What possible spiritual application can I get from a heart monitor? Simply this – some of us are going through our lives with a spiritual slump, and that’s got to change. One of Paul’s mantras was “once you were” – “but now you are” (Col 1:21-22). He contrasted life before and after Christ. But he said some of us are still behaving by our old nature. Once we were sexually immoral, evil, full of rage and malice, slanderous, idolaters, drunkards, practicing witchcraft. Those are pretty extreme aren’t they, but what about being impure and lustful, greedy, angry, using filthy language, lying, jealous, selfish, and causing disagreements (Col 3:5-9; Gal 5:19-21 adapted)? Did you squirm at a few of those like I did? Some of us are still slumping because it’s an old habit.

“But now,” he said, we “live a life worthy of the Lord, pleasing Him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power” (Col 1:22). Because of Jesus and His Spirit in us, now we are full of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). We don’t have to be who we were. We can be who we are now.

This monitor has gone off three more times as I’ve been writing this. I keep forgetting to keep my back straight. By the end of this though, I bet it will be my new normal. I wonder if the Spirit had a monitor on me how many times it would go off in a day. Beloved, let’s become very aware of our spiritual posture and start living like who we are now. “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light” (Eph 5:8).

Hebrews: This is the Gospel

Tupac Shakur said, “Only God can judge me.” Coming from a guy who portrayed a “gansta” life and sang about violence, rape, drugs, and destruction, he was spot on. I don’t know if he ever read the Bible, but he’s paraphrasing Paul: “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court . . . It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:3,4). The writer of Hebrews echoed him saying, “you have come to God the judge of all men . . .” (Heb 12:23). That is part of the gospel story that has fallen out of favor in recent years, but it’s the bad news that makes the good news so good.

I am sure you know John 3:16 well. It reveals the heart of the gospel: God loves sinners. But Jesus also said: “Whoever does not believe [in Him] stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (v. 18).  Here’s the rest of the story (nod to Paul Harvey).  God sent His Son because all of mankind is condemned because of sin.  Not because of our sinful actions, but because sin is the human condition since the fall.  We’re not sinners because we sin – we sin because we’re sinners. It’s not just what we do – it’s who we are. The destiny of all people is eternal condemnation – the wrath of God. Unless we believe in Jesus – and then our destiny is eternal life. That is what Paul means when he says: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Hebrews continues the thought saying, “You have come . . . to the spirits of righteous men made perfect” – just as we will one day be. “You have come to Jesus . . .” Just stop right here and rest in that statement. That changes everything. “You have come to Jesus – the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (v. 24). The new covenant is a covenant of mercy – of a love that saves through holy blood that was shed, not from jealousy and rage, but from divine providence. Abel’s blood brought about a curse on Cain. Jesus’ blood brings freedom from the curse of sin for everyone who believes.

In 279 words I have told you the gospel. Here’s the summary: You are a sinner. God loves you. Jesus died to save you. Beloved, won’t you come to Jesus?

I [Don’t] Got This!

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“You hang in there, girl. God will never give you more than you can handle.” I never wanted to call someone a liar as much as I did the woman who made that statement to me.  But I’m southern and we don’t call our elders liars, so I thanked her and hugged her, and flushed her counsel from my brain. While that may sound full of warm fuzzy faith, there’s not a shred of support for it in Scripture. The Bible is clear that God often gives us more than we can handle.  Paul said, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia.  We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.  Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death” (2 Cor 1:8-9a). Not so warm and fuzzy, is it? Friend, if you’re hanging onto that opening statement as a rock for your life, you are going to be very disappointed.

If you’ve walked with Him for very long you know that God indeed allows situations and hardships that are more than we can handle. He does it so that we will turn to the only One who can. Paul continued, “This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (v. 9b). I almost stopped that verse after the comma but I realized that those last four words are pivotal to the passage. What is harder to handle than death? And who is it that overcame death? If you’ve got a problem that’s bigger than raising a dead man to life, then you may have reason to worry.

Paul goes on to say, “He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us. On Him we have set our hope that He will continue to deliver us” (v. 10). He has. He is. He will continue. He has been faithful. He is still faithful. He will continue to be faithful.  Your circumstances do not define Him. He defines your circumstances. I can’t stress this enough – God WILL give you more than you can handle. But He will never give you more than HE can handle. Stop trying to carry it all yourself, Beloved. Hold tightly to God and He will carry it – and you through. That’s why it’s called FAITH.

Hebrews: A Strong, Healthy Body

In the modern west are individualists. We take great pride in self – too much pride if we’re honest. In fact, we believe that everything revolves around the unholy trinity – me, myself, and I. You can see that clearly in this culture that takes offense at every innocent thing and turns it into a cause for protest. The church is no different. (And again, I’m speaking of the western church, which most of us are.) Our tendency when reading Scripture is to ask “What does this mean to me?”. That’s the wrong question. The Bible was written to God’s people – plural.

When the author of Hebrews declared: “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees” (12:12), our first thought is “I need to work harder at being a strong Christian.” But look at verse 13: “Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” He is speaking to the collective church.

One of the challenges of being a preacher or Bible teacher is bringing the Word of God to a group of people that are all over the spectrum in knowledge, growth, experience, and motivation. Some people are young in their faith – mere babes. Some have grown into full, mature Christians. This has nothing to do with age and even little to do with how long they’ve been in church.

Read this passage with Paul’s “Body” imagery in mind – in fact, stop right here and read 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. We are a Body, not individual parts. Some of our arms and knees and feet are not as strong as our back and thighs. Some of us are immature and need training, some are wounded and hurting, and let’s be honest, a few of us are a bit lazy. The author is calling for the stronger believers to strengthen the weaker ones and clear away any obstacles for those who are struggling. The goal is a healthy church serving Christ together. Strong parts benefit the whole Body.

So are you a strong back or a weak knee? Do you need some spiritual training? Then seek out a mature believer. Might you be the mature believer they need? It’s time to look across the aisle, Beloved, and ask “What can I do to make the Body of Christ whole and healthy?

“Lord, I’m Tired”

I looked in the mirror this morning and said, “Who is that tired woman?” And in the same breath, I replied, “It’s me.” I’m not going to lie, we’ve been through some really difficult things in the past several years. I’m worn out. And I know you are too. We’ve all been struggling lately. Between COVID and inflation and our own hard stuff, it’s been a rough time for most of us. This morning a verse from Isaiah came to mind: “ ‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed . . .’” (Isaiah 40:1-2). “Lord,” I asked, “when will my hard service be completed?”

Isaiah was a prophet and in the context of the verse, the people’s “hard service” was the coming Babylonian captivity that would be “payment” for their sin and idolatry (v. 2). But our sin debt has been paid by Jesus on the cross. God will not charge us again for what Jesus has satisfied. Why are we – New Covenant believers – enduring hard things?

James said we “face trials of many kinds” because they develop perseverance which makes us “mature [or perfect] and complete, not lacking anything” (1:3-4). Paul agreed with James adding, “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us” (Romans 5:4-5).

Most importantly, suffering makes us more like Jesus. The writer of Hebrews said that Jesus was perfected through suffering (5:8-9). (That is the completion of His divine work of salvation.) And Paul continues the idea when he said, “In all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” which is “to be conformed to the likeness of His Son” (Romans 8:28-29). All things include suffering.

So back to my question, “When will our hard service be completed?” When the work of suffering is completed and we look more like Jesus than ourselves. Beloved, I know you’re weary, but your trials are not in vain. Let suffering do its perfecting work. You may not see the difference in the mirror, but God will see it in your heart.

Hebrews: Your Cheering Section

When I finally pulled the trigger on college I was blessed with a great support system. My husband was my #1 cheerleader and was so patient with the time I spent on my studies. My best friend covered me in prayer all the way through. But there was one particular friend who was the most helpful because she had just completed the same course of study at the same school. She was a Godsend, full of experience and wise counsel. I called her with a thousand questions and more than a few panic attacks. She knew what I was dealing with and how I could get through it. She shared her wisdom and kept me going when I wanted to quit. I am so grateful to you, Merideth Middleton.

That is the same spirit behind Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” For several weeks we have studied the “greats of the faith” – Enoch, Noah, Moses, Abraham, and even Rahab – a prostitute.  They are all part of the “great cloud of witnesses” who serve as encouragement and inspiration for us today.  Add to that list Peter, James, John, and Paul, plus the martyrs who stood in the face of torture and death and praised the Name above every name. It is indeed a “great cloud” of faithfulness.  They are models and examples to us and they are cheering you and me on in our Christian journey.  They paid the price for being a Christ-follower and they want us to know that it is worth it.

There is another in that great cloud who is particularly watching and encouraging us.  Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  The Scriptures tell us that Jesus is praying for us; He is asking His Father to give us faith that will not fail (Luke 22:31, Romans 8:34).  He is speaking to our hearts through His Spirit.  And when the battle is the hardest and we think we have been forgotten, He who sits at the right hand of the Father stands to bless and encourage us (Acts 7:55, 56).  You have all the saints of the ages cheering you on.  You have brothers and sisters in Christ to support and encourage you.  And you have the very Son of God praying for you. Keep running, Beloved, victory is ahead.

Sing to the Lord!

For many years I sang in church choirs as an alto –in the lower female range. In one choir, I was seated with a soprano to my left, and a tenor and bass directly behind me on either side. Everyone was going in different vocal directions and I had the hardest time staying on my alto notes. Because the soprano was a strong singer, I was constantly being pulled in her direction. The choir director didn’t want to move me (he had us arranged aesthetically by height), but he did give me some advice. He told me to concentrate more on my note – and to lean just a little towards the alto to my right. He said that he could hear me singing the correct notes, but at the same time, he could tell that I was listening to all the other singers around me and losing confidence in myself. I will always remember what he told me, “You’re on the right notes, but you have to stay focused and not back off.”

I think about that often when the world is loud and I’m struggling to stay on the right way. Many different voices are saying many different things, and they are apt to draw me away from what I know is true. The culture wants me to embrace things that God’s Word has clearly forbidden. The scholar wants me to trade truth for worldly philosophies that have no regard for God. The unsaved world wants me to stop singing God’s praises altogether. My choir director’s advice rings loud and clear: stay focused. Concentrate on what you know is right and true; lean into godly wisdom and don’t back off. This world is becoming more evil and more vocal every day. If we are not intentionally listening to God, you and I will be pulled away from what is right and true. I love this word from Paul to his protégé Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of” (2 Timothy 3:14). Stay the course. Focus on the truth. Let God’s Word drown out the voices of the world. The way of righteousness has not changed just because the music around you has. Beloved, don’t let the world change your song.