You Better Believe It

I was in the 5th grade and was doing my math homework one night (and anyone who knows me knows how much I hate math) and I kept asking my mom, “What’s so-and-so times so-and-so?”, over and over until she lost her patience with me and snapped, “Figure it out!” So, I did. I added and added and added until I got the answer. I know for certain that 7×8=56 and you can bet it will remain with me for the rest of my life.

So, here’s a question for you: Why do you believe what you believe? Because your childhood Sunday School teacher told you a Bible story? Because your pastor preached about a passage on Sunday? Because you read something profound in a book by a smiling author? There’s a malady in the church called biblical illiteracy. It simply means most people in the church don’t know the Bible very well. We know Bible story sound bites. We know a few verses (mostly taken out of context). And we know what the culture tell us – that God is all and only love and doesn’t want us ever to be unhappy or deny our “true selves.”

What we believe is too often just what we’ve been told – but not what we know. And there is a difference. What you’ve heard just sits in your ears, but what you know takes deep root in your heart and, like your circulating blood, affects every part of you. If your faith is built on others’ thoughts and opinions, how can you be sure you are building on solid truth? When someone challenges your belief, you can’t make a good defense and it all starts to crumble. But if your belief is built on what you have mined from the Scriptures and chewed on and have wrestled your heart and mind into submission then your faith will stand up against the questions of the world. Like my math equation, what you invest in stays with you.

Paul said, “I know whom I have believed and am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him for that day” (2 Timothy 1:12). Are you convinced that what you believe will hold you up? As Christians come under fire, it’s more important than ever that you know what you believe – and why you believe it. And it’s eternally important that what you believe is the truth. Beloved, you don’t just need to know about religious-sounding stuff. You need to know the truth.

Solid Faith

Waking up on Easter morning when I was a kid meant a new dress and new shoes and an Easter basket at the foot of my bed, a smiling chocolate Easter bunny who stared at me with his little frosting eyes and beckoned me to nibble on his ears. Oh, I could not resist his charms. One year I pulled my chocolate friend out of his cellophane home and bit down on his ear and got a shock. The chocolate caved in and broke apart because the bunny was hollow inside! Mom didn’t realize the bunnies she bought for us were not solid. My brothers and I felt cheated. We had counted on solid milk chocolate that we could gnaw on for several days. We got a thin veneer of chocolate that was gone before bedtime that day. There was no substance to our chocolate Easter bunnies, they were just a shell.

Paul warned believers to be on guard against “hollow and deceptive philosophies” (Colossians 2:8) of this world that will try to fool us and draw us away from the solid truth of Christ Jesus. They are a very real and present danger to Christians. Unlike Christ, in whom is “all the fullness of [God]” (v. 9), they are empty and foolish and they crumble under the bite of real life. Unlike Christ, who is eternal, these philosophies have no substance and no staying power, they are founded on the shifting values and priorities of the world. And unlike Christ who is the Truth, they are rooted in lies and deception. At their core, they deny the reality of God and His authority and put humanity on the throne of existence (Romans 1:18-25). Sadly, they are not limited to the world; they are prevalent in the church as well. In Paul’s day, it was the “higher knowledge” gospel and the “Mosaic-law” gospel. Today we have the “prosperity” gospel, the “social” gospel, the “humanitarian” gospel, the “political” gospel, and on and on. All of these are hollow shells of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Beloved, when the winds of hardship howl and the heat of spiritual battle rages, you need something more than a hollow, Easter-bunny faith. You need something you can depend on, something that will last. You need the truth of God, His Son, and His Word. You need a faith that will not crumble. You need the solid rock that is Jesus.

Ruts, Routines, and Early Rising

It’s Friday – my day off. I did not set my alarm last night as I do on workdays. Yet I woke up this morning at 4:31. I’ve been getting up at 4:30 for so long that I wake up even without my alarm. It’s an ingrained habit I can’t shake – even when I want to.

Some habits are bad – smoking, vaping, playing on the phone for hours, and negative self-talk. But some habits are good – daily Bible study and prayer, exercise, and speaking kindly to yourself. The key to making or breaking a habit is consistency. Doing (or not doing) the same thing every day sets the pattern your body or your psyche accepts as your default. Those habits become like well-worn ruts in a road that you just naturally “fall into.” Some of us need to pack some dirt into a few ruts and break our bad habits.

Paul was not a psychologist, but he understood this principle. He said, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2). Peter agreed saying, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance” (1 Pet 1:14).  The word “conform” means “to fashion oneself after” and these two verses are the only times it’s used in Scripture.

Do you get what this means? You and I have control of these patterns and habits and ruts. We set the default and shape our lives by our choices and routines. Just as my sleep cycle is used to an early wake-up time, our minds and bodies get used to the habits we create. I grew up with a pattern of pessimism in my family. We just didn’t gravitate to warm, happy thoughts. A few years ago I recognized that negativity had become a rut. I asked the Lord to help me and has been teaching me to renew my mind by filling the negative ruts with thoughts that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8). I’m seeing progress as my default is slowly becoming more positive and life-affirming, even amid a very trying season.

Now, I’m not just talking about “The Power of Positive Thinking,” but the power of God’s Word and Spirit to transform us from the inside out. If you choose that path. Get out of the ruts, Beloved, and take the high road.

Advent 2022: There’s a Place for You

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7).

Several years ago, while living in a Florida university town, my family was blessed to serve in college ministry. We helped prepare Thanksgiving dinner at the Baptist Student Center. We brought them with us into Shoebox ministry and I taught the College Sunday School class for a season. But the best part of that time was just having them all around my house. We came to love so many of those precious students, their feet were often under my kitchen table and it was not uncommon for them to crash on my couch for the night. One night we hosted a bonfire and had 45 young men and women in our backyard, from 9 different countries! It is one of my sweetest memories. These kids were—and are—dear to us and many still call us “Mom and Dad.” Through that time, I came to understand Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us” (2:8). Like Paul, we made room for others out of love.

Love opens doors to the lonely. Love puts one more plate on the table. Love slides over to share the seat with a weary soul. Love pours a cup of coffee. Love labors in prayer. Love sleeps on the couch so the visitor can have the bed. Love opens the circle of friendship to add one more person. Love doesn’t shut others out; love welcomes people in.

In the town of Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago, a baby was born in a dark, damp, smelly stable—little more than a cave hewn out of a hillside—because there was no room for His little family in the inn. His father and very pregnant mother were turned away because there was no love there. Now—think about what Jesus told His disciples just before His death: “In my Father’s house are many rooms . . . I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). Why?

Because love makes room.

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.