The Olympian Quest

Have you ever watched the spotlight pieces during the Olympic games that talk about the athletes’ lives and backgrounds?  Those spotlights are one of my favorite things about the Olympics, especially when they’re about athletes from other parts of the world.  You get to learn a bit about where they come from and the sacrifices they’ve made to reach their goals.  They tell the stories of dreams born in childhood, and nurtured through years of intense training and preparation, until the day they become a reality.  Sometimes the story is a happy one; sometimes it’s bittersweet.  Sometimes the ending is everything the athlete hoped for; sometimes it’s heartbreakingly tragic.

I remember watching the 1992 Summer Olympics as a kid.  My favorite sport was gymnastics, and my favorite gymnasts were from the Romanian team and the Unified Team of the former Soviet Union, as well as some of the American girls, of course.  I remember a particular bit of drama surrounding two of the Unified Team gymnasts, Tatiana Gutsu and Roza Galieva.  Tatiana was the favorite to win the individual all-around gold medal, until a fall from the balance beam in the qualification round took her out of the running.  The next qualifier in line was her teammate Roza, a slightly younger, slightly less experienced gymnast, who had performed beautifully during qualifications.

Image:  Foto Libra

However, on the night of the all-around final, the Unified Team coaches replaced Roza with Tatiana, claiming that she was injured.  Both girls were just 15 years old.  Neither had a choice in the matter.  Their coaches felt the pressure to bring home gold medals for the countries of the now-broken Soviet Union, and Tatiana was their best chance.  So with one crushing decision, Roza’s dream was sacrificed while Tatiana’s received new life.

Have you ever considered what it really means to be serious about something?  Ask any gymnast who competes at the Olympic level, and she (or he) will tell you of sacrifices made and dedication to hours and hours of countless repetitions of awe-inspiring skills.

In Russia, little girls start training at age five or six, sometimes younger. Around age 11, they try out for the junior national team in hopes of being one of the few out of hundreds of other girls to become the next generation of rising Russian gymnastics stars.  Those who make it live at Round Lake, the team’s training base outside of Moscow, for several months out of the year.  They train eight hours a day, except for a shorter training period on Saturdays, and Sundays off.  During their 16th year, gymnasts try out for the senior national team.  Hundreds of girls from across Russia come together to compete for a spot on the senior national team, but only a few can make the cut.  These chosen ones have the opportunity to compete at the highest level on the world stage; and from them the cream of the crop, the top five (and three alternates) will participate in the game of games: the Olympics.

These girls are constantly working towards that goal.  Everything sacrifice they make and everything they do is done with that goal in mind.  They follow a strict diet, abstaining from certain foods and moderating their calorie intake, to maintain their “optimum weight.”  Warm-ups, running, stretches, weight training and conditioning are part of their daily lives. They live with coaches, physical trainers and therapists, choreographers, and teammates most of the time, visiting family members on free weekends or holidays.  These girls will sometimes even compete with pain, if the injury is a minor one.

And why do they do all this?

What is the reward for such dedication and sacrifice?

Image: Unknown

A round gold-plated medallion that says they have conquered the world.

I love the metaphor Paul uses in 1 Corinthians, likening our walk with God to athletes training for a competition.  Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to gymnasts and their stories.  Like them, we as followers of our heavenly Father are striving for a prize.  A prize of more lasting value than a medallion.

Our prize life eternal with Jesus in His country.

How dedicated must we be if we would win our prize, how focused on our goal?  Well, consider what God’s Word says about an athlete’s dedication:

“All athletes practice strict self-control.  They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize.  So I run straight to the goal with purpose in every step.  I am not like a boxer who misses his punches.  I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should.  Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.”  1 Corinthians 9:25-27, NLT

Like athletes, we fight daily our own human tendencies that would disqualify us from the prize.  We are daily training our minds on Jesus, doing everything with Him in view.  It’s a lifestyle.

This summer, thousands of athletes from around the world will take the Olympic stage.  All their dreams, goals, sacrifices, training, and efforts will come down to a few short moments before the London crowd.  For some, the dream will die tragically when it’s barely begun.  Only one can win in each event.

Each day, you and I take the stage before the universe in the race of our lives.  How well have you been training?  How will you perform before the world?  Will they see Jesus in you?  Because that’s why we run this race.  We become more like Jesus, so others can see Him in the way we live and accept Him as their Savior, too.Although in the Olympics only one is crowned the victor and given the gold medal, in this race, all of us can be crowned and receive the prize.So maybe we should take the words of Hebrews 12 more seriously to heart:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.  We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.  Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.  Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up.”

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A Lesson From Ancient Israel…

Listen to the audio version here!

Perseverance is a good thing.  It serves you well if it means that you keep working hard to get good grades in school even when things aren’t going well.  Or when you keep trusting in God no matter how difficult things are in your life.

Stubbornness, on the other hand, is negative.  The ancient Israelites were described as stubborn and rebellious (Ps. 78:8; Jer. 5:23; Hos. 4:16).  Just read through the Old Testament if you have any doubt.  God had done amazing things to free them from slavery
in Egypt.  He had performed huge miracles to care for them in the wilderness.  He had done so much to show His love and devotion for them, yet they constantly rebelled against Him, stubbornly refusing to keep His laws.  He warned them of the results of sin.  They even experienced some of them, but still stubbornly held on to their sins, not caring that they were hurting themselves.

For the last few months, I’ve been reading the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  These two prophets lived around the same time, just before the southern half of Israel, the kingdom of Judah, went into captivity to Babylon.  Their calling was to deliver the messages God gave them for Israel.  Most of these messages pointed out the sins of Israel, warned them of the consequences, and called them to repentance.  As I read through their messages to the children of Israel, two things jump out at me:

1.  The children of Israel always seemed to have a problem with idolatry.  And it wasn’t just during the time period before Babylon took over.  All throughout the history of the children of Israel from the time God brought them out Egypt, they kept on going after other gods.  It started with the golden calf.  Later, when they settled in the land of promise, they went through cycles, where for a while they would serve God exclusively, then later they would try to serve Him as well as the gods of the surrounding nations on the side.

And you would think that after experiencing first-hand the power of the true God they would want nothing to do with impotent images made by man’s hands.  But instead they enthusiastically embraced idol worship, even going so far as to sacrifice their children by causing them to pass through the fire in the worship ceremony for the god Moloch (Jer. 32:35; Ez. 16:20, 21).

You would think they’d prefer to serve a God who didn’t claim their dear children as burnt offerings or put them through such torture.  But they stubbornly preferred to bind themselves to gods whose rituals went against everything that was right and true rather than surrendering to the God who delivered them from slavery and obeying His simple commands: don’t kill; don’t bear false witness; don’t steal; honor your parents; don’t have other gods; remember the Sabbath day, etc.  They preferred to serve self, living hedonistic lives instead of serving their Savior by loving Him with all their heart, soul, and might (Deut. 6:5), and their neighbor as themselves (Lev. 19:18).

Today, many of us are not in such great danger of turning to images to worship.  But we do make idols out of other things: possessions, people, relationships, money…even ourselves.  This one is huge in our day, with messages of “It’s all about you and making you happy.”  Everything is geared towards making myself the center of attention, putting myself first, doing whatever it takes to make me happy, even if someone else suffers in the process.

We are just as much in danger of idolatry in our day as the ancient Israelites were in theirs.  We must be watchful and take care where our affections lie.

2.  God’s mercy, love, and justice all mixed together in His warnings to His stubborn, rebellious children.  He consistently warns the Israelites that judgment is coming if they don’t turn from their sins.  One may argue that it is their choice if they want to sin or not.  That is true, and God never removes the element of choice from the equation.  But He does warn that if they continue in their sins, He will have to allow the consequences of sin to fall on them.

Sometimes when we read about God calling the Israelites to repentance, we think of them as a nation of kind people who generally obeyed God’s laws, but just slipped up once in a while.  Not so.  When you read through Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, you find that their loyalty was divided.  While they kept God’s sanctioned feasts and holy days and the Sabbath, they also sacrificed to idols and willingly participated in ceremonies and rites to manmade gods.  They oppressed the poor and needy (Ez. 18:12).  They gave no help to the widows and orphans (Ez. 22:7).  They had turned so far from God and obedience to His laws that they no longer resembled His character.

Yet God did not give up on them.  In mercy and love, He warned them of the results of their course of action.  He pleaded with them through His prophets.  He held back the judgments as long as possible to allow as many as were willing to come to repentance.

But so many chose not to listen.  So many chose to go their own way, continuing in their sins, walking in the footsteps of the Enemy.  So God allowed judgment to come upon them.

However, there is a key point that cannot be missed: just before judgment came, God also gave a promise.  He said that although He would allow judgment to fall on the children of Israel and send them into captivity, He would be with them in the place they would go (Jer. 30:11; Ez. 11:16)!  Even after all their rejection of Him, He still didn’t abandon them!

But wait, it gets better: He also promised that He would forgive their sins and, after a time, bring them out of captivity and back to the land of promise (Jer. 29:10; Ez. 11:17-20)!

Now that’s love and mercy mixed with justice right there!  It’s just the way a faithful parent would reach out to a stubborn, erring child: allowing the consequences of wrong actions, while being there for the child through it all and promising a complete restoration to the way things were before, and better.

This is the truth of who God is.

How can we resist such an awesome God?  He is powerful!  His power comes from the fact that He is truth and He is love; He is justice and He is mercy.  He’s unlike anyone we’ve ever known.  Even the best, kindest, most loving, most amazing person we’ve ever met cannot hold a candle to who God is.  He loved us, before we ever cared about Him (1 John 4:19).  He loved us and died for us, even while we hated Him and opposed Him (Rom. 5:6-8).  Such a God is amazing and more than deserves to be revered above everything and everyone else in our lives.  He’s the only one who is never-changing, faithful, compassionate, slow to anger, and full of mercy (Mal. 3:6; 1 Cor. 1:9; Ps. 145:8; Ex. 34:6, 7).

That’s who God is.

And because of who He is, He gives us a simple choice: to serve Him or not to serve Him.  What will you choose?

Pure Milk

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“Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious.” – 1 Peter 2:1-3

“The pure milk of the word.”  Sounds like God is prescribing a healthier diet for His kids.  No more indulging in the unhealthy junk food of ill will, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and evil speaking about others, which includes gossiping.  Instead, only the pure word of God.

Have you ever given any real thought to what “food” we’re feasting on?  Are we feasting on envy, gossip, and deceit?  I’m not just talking about what we read or watch on TV or in movies either.  How about what we talk about with others?

All of us know in our heads that God does not approve of gossip, and we even say we don’t do it.  Maybe we listen to other people gossip, but we don’t pass it on…to anyone unreliable.  We don’t say things to be mean to others; we just say them because we feel someone else really should know…The list of reasons can go on into infinity.  But is it acceptable to God?  Is that the kind of food God wants us to partake of?

Besides repeating gossip, listening to it does nothing to help us grow spiritually.  Both only serve to strengthen ill will, deceit, hypocrisy, and envy.  And that’s what this text in 1 Peter is all about.  What will make us grow?  Will desiring that evil befall another draw me into a closer relationship with Jesus?  Will dishonest statements or misrepresentations of the truth help me to know the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life better?  Does focusing on the hypocrisies of others or even indulging my own make me a more genuine follower of Jesus Christ?  Will coveting another make me more content in all the situations God places me?  And can malicious words, spoken about someone else either by me or in my presence, help me to be more deeply rooted in the Savior?  Is this the kind of food that will root me and ground me in the love of God?

The only food we can safely eat is the word of God.  Feasting on the word of God will take away bitterness, hard feelings, ill will, covetousness, hypocrisy, selfishness, and all gossip and backbiting.

It also helps us discern between truth and error in what we hear in church or read in a book.  In the Bible, God gives us a lot of instruction about knowing the truth, knowing whether what you hear is of God or not.  He tells us to test the spirit behind each person who comes to us in the name of the Lord (1 John 4:1).  He says to examine all things and hold fast to the good (1 Thess. 5:21).  And those are just two examples, but clearly, God wants us to check things out against His word, instead of just buying into everything that comes from the mouth of a fellow human being just because he or she claims Christianity.  The Bereans were commended by Paul for not accepting his preaching without first testing it against the Bible (Acts 17:11).  So we are to know the difference between truth and error, and be willing to counter error with truth (James 5:19-20, Is. 58:1, Jer. 1:7, Ez. 2:3-5, and Ps. 40:10, to name a few).

When we feast on the pure milk of God’s word, we will be able to recognize and avoid hypocrisy, half-truths, and whole lies.  Just as an expert in recognizing counterfeit money studies the true to recognize the counterfeit, we who feast on the true will recognize the error when it comes.  The more we feast on the word of God, the less desire we will have for feasting on the sins, short-comings, and failings of others.  We will grow in Christ-like love, patience, and forgiveness towards others.  And we will clearly know the difference between speaking the truth as God desires and merely spreading gossip as Satan desires.

So the idea is this: get into the word of God.  Make that your food.  Leave behind the junk food and feast on the words of life and truth so you can grow up strong in Christ.

~ What do you think?  Email me at TheNarrowPathway@hotmail.com. ~

Love

“Guilty!”

The dreaded sentence has been pronounced against His beloved.  Now she must face the consequences of all her bad choices.

The things she’s done are repulsive to Him.  Even so, He knows in His heart that He still loves her deeply.  He can’t bear to think of her suffering.

So He insists on taking her sentence that she may go free and have a chance at a better life.

The idea proves far easier than the action.  The sentence is excruciating!  Yet all through the agonizing punishment, the cruel, blasphemous taunting and mockery, the torturous beatings, and the inhuman crucifixion, thoughts of only one person fill His mind.

Her.

I’m so glad she doesn’t have to go through this, He says to Himself.  I’m so glad I could do this for her.

It won’t be much longer nowHe reminds Himself as the pain intensifies.  Soon we can be together again.  Forever.  I will gladly bear scars for all eternity if it means that she is spared! I love her so much!

He suffers in silence as the hours drag by like eons.

Just a little while longer, He repeats, and we can be together forever.

Father, He prays in the midst of His agony and humiliation, help Me make it through this for her sake.  Just a little while longer. Just a little… while… longer…

***

He saw her coming from afar.  Finally!  The reunion He longed for was about to be a reality!  The one thing that kept Him going through the most unbearable moments of His ordeal was the thought of her.  He had done it all for her.  So that beautiful smile He loved could always illuminate her face.  To think, they would soon be married!  And then nothing would ever separate them again.

Now, as she drew near, He had eyes only for her.  The smile was on her face as she scanned the tiny garden, their special meeting place, looking for Him.

He stepped out of the shadows of the trees into the sunlight, all the love He had for her written on His face.  The she saw Him…

And gasped, drawing back in horror.

“What is it?” He asked, His own smile replaced by a look of bewilderment.   Looking down, He checked His appearance, really noticing the huge, hideous scars on His hands and feet for the first time.  He nodded, understandingly.  “I know, the scars are ugly and quite shocking, but in time, we will hardly even notice they’re there.”

But she was shaking her head, backing away slowly.

“Darling, what is it?”  He asked again, taking a step towards her.

She stumbled five steps backwards.  “I’m sorry, I can’t…”

“Can’t what?”

“I can’t….marry you!”

“But…why not?  I love you, and you love Me.  You said yes to My proposal.”

“I know, but…  How can I explain…”  She couldn’t finish the thought or bear to look Him in His eyes.  “It’s just…Your scars disgust me,” she finally whispered.  “How will I explain them to anyone?  Everyone would stare at us, whispering, wondering.  It would be so…”  She again averted her eyes, her face heating with shame.

“But I went through all that for you. Because I love you,” He pleaded with her to understand.  “Who cares what people think, as long as we’re together?”

“It’s more than that, I mean…What You did for me was nice, but…”  For a long moment, she stared at the ground, as a tear slipped from her eye and slid down her cheek.  Finally, eyes still on the ground, she whispered, “I just…can’t do ‘forever.’  That’s my whole life!  There’s so much I want to do, so much I want to experience.”  She slowly backed away, shaking her head.  “I…I love You.  I really do, but…not enough for forever.  I’m sorry!”

Then she turned and fled down the hillside path.

“Wait!  Please!” He called, starting after her.  “I love you and everything I’ve promised you will more than make up for anything you may miss out on here.”

She halted and turned to look back, her conflicting desires playing across her face like a movie.

“Please, please,” He pleaded, “come to Me.  Stay with Me.  Marry Me. “

She hesitated, frozen in indecision while tears streamed down her face.  She took a step towards Him.

His heart gave a tiny leap of joy.  The next instant His blood ran cold within Him as a hooded figure stepped out from behind a tree and grabbed hold of her hand.  It was His enemy!  Even in the shadows of the hood he still recognized that ominously attractive face, and the mocking smile.  It sent a fresh slice of agony through His heart.

“Come, my love,” the enemy said to her as he pulled her around to face him.  “We have so much to do!  There is so much I want to show you!”  He started back down the path, coaxing her along gently yet insistently.

He had her full attention, so captivated was she.  She only hesitated one second more to look back over her shoulder at Him.  Then she followed the hooded enemy.

The choice was hers.  There was nothing more He could do.  He would not force her; for then, she would be unhappy.  Still, it cut His tender heart in two to watch her ride off into the sunset with His enemy.

Betrayed.

By one He loved so dearly.

And with His deepest enemy!

It was late when He finally made His way down the hill, His heart breaking with a pain greater than all He had felt before.

God’s Kids

This is the preface to a book I’ve been working on for some time.  Let me know what you think. – R.

God had children.

A lot of them actually.  But they were lost.

Some knew they were lost, and were trying desperately to find their way back to Him.  These were the easiest to find.  Others didn’t know they were lost, and, frankly, they didn’t care.  But God did.  While they could see no further than satisfying their present wants and desires, He saw the senseless pain, loneliness, and despair that were certain to result from their present course.

So He went out in search of all His kids.  Some eagerly ran out to meet Him when they heard Him calling.  Others ran and hid, or tried to disguise themselves when they heard He was in town.  They didn’t care to be found, and did their best to make sure it didn’t happen, but He always turned up at their door, lovingly inviting them to come home with Him.  Then there were those who felt so ashamed and embarrassed to be found in the state they were in that He had to gently reassure them of His love and coax them to come to Him.

Every time He found one of His kids, He would bring him (or her) home, clean him up, heal his wounds, care for him, set him on the right path, and shower him with love.  Then, together, they would go out in search of the others.

You are one of His kids.  He’s been searching for you all your life.  Can you hear Him calling your name with the deepest love?  He wants you to be His child again.

Ain’t That Good News!

I’ve got a home up in that kingdom, yeah, yeah!

I’ve got a home up in that kingdom, yeah, yeah!

Lay down this world

Shoulder up my cross

Take it home to my Jesus

Ain’t that…good news!

The first time I heard that song was at a convocation service as a kid.

Reading the last few verses in the book of Mark recently brought the words back to mind.  To me, they fit so well with Jesus’ last words to His disciples before ascending to heaven:

“Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Mark 16:15, 16.

Jesus commissioned His 11 friends to take the good news to the entire world.  What is the good news?  Quite simply, it’s the cross.  But more than just the cross, it’s the news of what Jesus did on the cross, the news that a Savior was born, lived, died, and rose again. It’s the story of everything it took (and will take) to reunite us with God, from Genesis right down to Revelation.  It’s the news that we have a home in His kingdom.  It’s hope.

The gospel, the good news, is for all of us.  It is applicable no matter what your station in life, no matter what your story or where you come from.  It has power.  The power is Jesus.

He changes lives.

He is love.  He takes you, wherever you are, whatever you’re like and He transforms your life.  The gospel is new life in Jesus.

The gospel according to Mark 16 requires two things of us: believe and be baptized.

You may have heard the idea that all you need to do is believe and you’re set; no change of life is necessary.  Jesus knows we’re sinners, so just believe, do what you want, and ask forgiveness.  This idea mixes a truth with a lie.  Jesus does accept us as we are.  But He doesn’t leave us as we are.  He knows we have no power to change ourselves.  So He changes us.

When Jesus asks us to believe, He’s asking us to accept all that has been revealed about Him in His word.

This belief is not a weak, empty, thing.

It’s powerful!

We believe He is who He said He is, and that we can trust His compassionate leading in our lives.

He transforms us through our faith in Him.  Not by forcing us to now do the right things.  Instead, He gets to the root of our issues: He deals with our hearts.  He deals with our desires and feelings, and helps us see the world and our daily situations as they really are.  He shows us His way, and asks us to trust Him.  And most importantly, He grants us the freedom to choose to follow His way or our own.

The second thing the gospel requires of us is baptism.  What is baptism?  Read through Romans (especially chapter 6) and you’ll quickly find that it symbolizes death and resurrection in the Water of life.  You go down into the water (Jesus is the water of life), and you’re buried.  The old you dies to sin, just as Jesus died on the cross for our sins.  Then you are raised up out of the water.  The new you is raised to life, inhabiting the same body as the old.  But this you is alive to Christ.

In other words, when opportunity for sin arises, the new you is no longer a slave to those sins.  Instead, your first thought is to your Savior, because you’re alive to Him now.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that after baptism, no one ever sins again.  The baptism ceremony is symbolic of what God is doing in your life.  He’s bringing you to the place where those temptations you struggled with before are no longer enslaving you.  You may as well be dead where they are concerned, because they just don’t have power over you the way they used to.  Whereas before, you would have mindlessly followed them without any struggle, it now requires a conscious thought process and choice to give in to them.  Because you are alive to Christ, you think of His desires, His will, His way first, not your own.

But don’t miss a key point in this symbol: immersion in water.  Jesus is the water of life.  The death of the old me, and the resurrection of the new me only happens when I’m immersed in the Water of life.

For someone like me, this is exciting news!  I was baptized when I was ten years old.  I made the choice that I wanted to follow my Savior with my whole life, and I was baptized.  That was a long time ago.  I don’t have to tell you that a lot has happened in my life since then, and unfortunately, I haven’t always lived up to my commitment to Jesus.  But there’s still hope.  It’s not a three-strikes-you’re-out thing with Jesus.  I can still turn back to Him and start over.

Spiritually, baptism is a daily occurrence.  As I daily immerse myself in Jesus through spending time in His word and talking to Him, the old me dies when it would rear its ugly head, and the new me lives to honor the One I love.

This is all the gospel requires of us: to believe it and to be transformed by immersion in the One it speaks of, until the old person is dead and the new person is raised up in Christ.  That’s all.  Yet it encompasses everything.

This is what Jesus came to give us.  This is His message for the world.

New life in Him.

Now ain’t that good news!

Listening With Armor On

I had sort of an epiphany a few weeks ago as I sat in church.  It was completely unrelated to the speaker’s message, but it was extremely important for me.  In case you haven’t caught on yet, I’m very interested in balanced Christianity.  There are extremes in nearly every issue, and I believe very strongly that a Christian must be wary of falling into extremes, since they’re usually not in agreement with God’s word.

Anyway, here was the epiphany: as I sat in church, it suddenly hit me that no matter who is speaking, I’m supposed to listen to everyone with my spiritual armor on.

What, you may ask, does it mean to listen with armor on?  I’ll tell you.  It basically means listening with a mindset of checking everything you hear against the Word of God, the Bible, before accepting or rejecting it.  It’s like filtering everything through the armor of God as described in Ephesians 6:14-18:

“Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness.  For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared.  In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil.  Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.”

That was it.  That was the epiphany.  Such a simple thing that I guess I’ve always known, but never given real, conscious thought.  The Bible says, “Test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, NLT)

No matter who speaks, writes, or leads, I shouldn’t drink in their every word without first making sure it’s in agreement with God’s word.  If it lines up with that, then great: I can incorporate it into my life.  If not, then I should respectfully leave it and move on.  After all, Jesus comes first.  He’s the One I’m living my life for.  He’s the One who gave His life to save me.  He’s the only One who actually knows what’s best.  Why not check everything with Him before accepting or rejecting it?

I don’t know about you, but I find that freeing.  I’m not obligated to accept everything that’s said, no matter how persuasively stated.  I don’t have to live my life by every word of a human.  I have a standard I can look to, and when a human goes against that standard or adds to it, I can respectfully refuse to follow him or her, and remain on the path my Redeemer laid out in His word.

That’s what listening with armor on means to me.  What do you think?

Sovereignty and Faith

Sovereignty.

A noun, defined as “supreme power or authority.”

The Bible is loaded with texts describing God’s sovereignty.  The following are just a small sampling:

“You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created.” Revelation 4:11.

“All the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; He does according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth.  No one can restrain His hand or say to Him, “What have You done?”  Daniel 4:35.

“The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours; the world and all its fullness, You have founded them.” Psalm 89:11.

God’s supreme power and authority were recognized by the apostles:

“That I may come to you with joy by the will of God, and may be refreshed together with you.” Romans 15:32.

“Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’” James 4:15.

Clearly, the Bible teaches us that God’s power is above all.  His authority is over all.  God is sovereign.

This reality should make us feel safer, more secure, more confident in the loving, merciful, holy God we’ve come to know.  Yet all too often, in spite of it, we allow Satan’s niggling seeds of doubt to slip in through one of his infamous “if…why” questions, like, “If God is sovereign, why is there so much pain, suffering, and disease in the world?”

Many others have given solid Biblical answers to that question, so I’m not going to focus on that.  What I am going to focus on is our response to God’s sovereignty.

Is it faith or feeling?

If asked whether or not God is sovereign, I believe most Christians would say yes, He is.  But then something bad happens.  You lose your job, and your bills start mounting up as you search week after week, month after month for a new job.  You’re forced to downsize to one vehicle and move into a tiny apartment before finally finding employment and getting back on your feet.  Maybe years go by without you ever getting back to where you previously were financially.

Do you still believe God is sovereign?  Was He still in complete control as you struggled to provide for yourself and maybe your family?

How about illness?  Do we accept God’s sovereignty in the death of a cherished family member or friend?  It’s not so hard when the loved one has lived a full life.  But how about when it’s a child, or a young person my own age, whose life is suddenly taken in some freak accident or by a painful illness?  Is God still sovereign?  Do I still trust Him even as I watch a dear friend suffering from a disease that I know He can heal?  Is my response to His sovereignty one of faith or feeling?

The knowledge that God is sovereign (omnipotent) must be accompanied by two things:

1) the knowledge that He is all-knowing (omniscient) and present everywhere (omnipresent), and

2) a surrender to and faith in Him as the all-knowing, ever-present, all-powerful authority.

And that can be really difficult for us.  As humans, we like to know why.  We have to understand why things happen this way or that way.  If we don’t know the reasons behind an action or inaction, we consider it “stupid,” or “dumb.”  Don’t believe me?  Try telling someone to do something unusual without giving them any reasons, and see how they respond.

We want to know why.  But God doesn’t always tell us why.  Just as a good parent knows how much is appropriate to share with a small child, God knows how much is in our best interests to know about why things happen the way they do.

On this ground, our relationship with God is tested.  If we have formed a relationship with Him through trust in His Word, the Bible, we know that He is love (1 John 4:8; John 3:16); that He is self-sacrificing (1 John 4:9, 10); that His heart is moved with compassion by our pain and suffering (Matthew 20:34; Mark 1:41); that His number one priority is to save all who want to be saved (2 Peter 3:9, Ezekiel 33:11); that He welcomes humble, sincere questions (Psalm 10, 74), but does not accept doubt (Luke 12:29; 1 Timothy 2:8; James 1:6); that He is merciful and gracious (Exodus 34:6); that He is forgiving (Exodus 34:7; 1 John 1:9); that He is both the source of truth and truth itself (John 1:14, 17; John 14:6; John 17:17; Ephesians 4:20-23)…and the list can go on and on.  His Word reveals who He is and what He’s like.  We read it, study it, and through faith accept it (Romans 10:17).  In other words, we choose to believe and trust that this is the way He is; just like we believe and trust that our friends are the way we’ve observed them to be. So if we’ve come to know and trust God through His Word, we will know what we can expect from Him.

For example, if I know He is love, and He is touched by our suffering, it will change the way I view the death of a loved one.  I still may not understand why He didn’t heal my friend, but I will trust that He is all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present, and the embodiment of love.  I will know that He is sovereign, even though I don’t understand, and that His will is perfect (Psalm 18:30, Romans 12:2).

Sometimes this is really hard.  Especially in those moments when I think I know the best way for things to happen and then find all my plans thwarted.  But I must make a choice, once and for all.  Do I believe Christ’s Word when it teaches me that He is sovereign, and am I going to trust His sovereignty no matter what?  Like Job, do I trust Him enough to accept good and bad, knowing He showers me with the good, and doesn’t allow more bad than I can handle?

I’ve made my choice.  I believe.  I trust Him.

How about you?

The Gift

This post is more or less a continuation of the thoughts expressed in the previous post.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this delicate balance between faith and works.  It’s such a fine line between working for your salvation and working it out in your daily life.  So fine that we are easily led astray into one extreme or the other if we are not focused on the One leading us.

When I woke up this morning, this verse came to mind:

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Philippians 2:12

In the past I’ve had a hard time understanding it because the Bible clearly tells us that salvation is a free gift (Ephesians 2:8, 9).  I knew this wasn’t contradicting that, but I couldn’t quite articulate how it fit.  My current understanding is still a work in progress, but I wanted to share what I’m learning so far.

The best way I can explain it is through a story, and since I’m a girl, my story is rather feminine in nature. (Sorry, guys!)

Imagine that a girl receives the gift of the most exquisitely beautiful wedding dress she’s ever seen.  In fact, it’s the dress of her dreams.  And it’s hers to keep, free of charge, no strings attached.  But it’s a size 6, and she’s a size 16.  She knows her own efforts to get to a size 6 in the past have been complete failures, and just when she’s despairing of ever being able to wear the dress, the Gift Giver offers to be her personal trainer.  He promises that if she will just be willing to follow his exercise regimen and instructions, she’ll be wearing that dress in no time.

Once she agrees, the hard work begins.  Not only does he have her doing regular exercise routines, he’s teaching her to break the bad habits that lead to unhealthy weight gain.  He shows her how to eat healthfully, how to exercise moderation and discipline.

It’s a lot of hard work, and some days she feels like giving up, but he’s with her through it all, encouraging her.  In fact, he puts in so much effort to help her achieve her dream.  He doesn’t just sit on the sidelines, watching her work out, telling her what to do.  He’s right there beside her, doing every exercise.  First he shows her how it’s done, then he does it with her.  He never leaves her side.  He’s with her all the way, putting an arm around her and pulling her along that last half-mile when she feels she can’t run a step further.

Eventually, the day comes when all the pain and struggle is rewarded as she walks down the aisle in her beautiful wedding dress, and pledges her life to her beloved trainer.

This is the best way I can explain it.  Salvation is a free gift, but it doesn’t end with receiving the gift.  Someone can give me a free ticket to Brazil, but unless I get my passport and visa, I probably won’t see anything more than that little room the immigration authorities put you in when they want to make sure you won’t escape before being sent back to your own country.

It reminds me of the parable Jesus told of the wedding guest who refused to wear the wedding garment (Matthew 22:1-14).  The invitation was freely given, but the guests needed to put on the provided wedding garment, which represents Christ’s character.

While the gift is free, something is required of us, and that part is the “work” we do.  It’s the faith with which we accept Jesus’ gift and the help He provides to get our characters into shape so we can be fit for heaven.  Our “work” is holding on to Him, as He leads us down the path, and pulls us up the hilly parts.  Our “work” is obedience, which we can’t even take credit for, because He gives us the power to do it.  Our “work” is submission to His way.

“While it is true that our busy activities will not in themselves ensure salvation, it is also true that faith which unites us to Christ will stir the soul to activity.” Ellen White, Our High Calling, p. 121.

A Vibrant Life

What’s the essence of Christianity?  Think about your answer to that question for a moment.  What does it mean for you and me to be Christians?  Think of your answer to that too.  What does Christianity look like lived out?  Really consider that one.

After thinking about it, I’d describe Christianity as belonging to one person: the One who bought us back from death.  Real Christianity is not the result of a series of outward actions: the clothes you wear, the music you listen to, the activities you do, the food you eat, the things you watch, etc.  The Christ-life starts inside, when you give Jesus your heart.  But it doesn’t remain there.  It moves out.  It changes every aspect of your life.  Yes, the clothes you wear, the music you listen to, the activities you do, the food you eat, the things you watch, etc.  And it touches the people around you.

Remember Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed?  He said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” (Matt. 13:31, 32, NKJV)

A mustard seed is really tiny.  Yet for starting out too small to provide even a decent bite for a bird, it becomes home to many birds.  This is how our Savior works.  Jesus starts inside our hearts, forgiving us, changing us, transforming us, nurturing us from newborn babies until we’ve grown up into men and women fit for heaven.

Jesus told another parable along the same lines.  “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.” (Matt. 13:33)  That little bit of leaven, mixed in with the bread dough can’t be removed.  It permeates the entire loaf.  The same with Jesus once we surrender our lives to Him.  He’s no longer a bystander on the edge of our lives, or a once-a-week visit to a steepled structure.  He’s real, living, present, active in every part of our lives.

This is what the Christian life looks like.  It’s dynamic, not static.

Now consider that in terms of the relationship between faith and works.

Faith is important, nay vital (I couldn’t resist!)  But it doesn’t stand alone.  Jesus intended it to be mixed with works, yet never with the idea that your works are earning you a spot in heaven.  Check out these two contrasting yet complimenting passages:

“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?  If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?  Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!  But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?  Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?  Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?  And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”  And he was called the friend of God.  You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.  Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” (James 2:14-26)

“Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith.  Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.  Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.  Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.” (Romans 3:27-31)

“We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.

“But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not!  For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.  For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.  I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.  I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” (Galatians 2:15-21)

To make it even more interesting, add love into the mix.  Just reading 1 Corinthians 13 alone makes it clear that even the best works without love are empty.  Yet check out what Jesus said about the connection between love and obedience to His law: “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” (John 14:15)  And He didn’t stop there; He repeated it again in verses 21 and 23.

Obedience is the outflow of love, not the other way around.  Obedience shows that we know God.  “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.  He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.  But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him.  He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.” (1 John 2:3-6)

These passages are important because they help us understand how to live the Christian life as we prepare for life with our coming King.  Satan doesn’t want us to understand.  He doesn’t want us to be ready.  He wants us to be like the unfaithful servant in Matthew 24:48-51.  But God has made His truth known in His word.  So prayerfully take a look at these verses again and hear what God is saying to you.

My point is simple: by faith, the seed was planted in my heart and began to grow; the leaven was added to the lump of bread dough and mixed in.  The end result is a life of obedience to His will, the lifestyle of the King’s daughter in a foreign land.