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?

Danger Signals

What if you learned that nothing you trusted was quite what it seemed?

What if you came across an old, dusty book that unmasked a close-knit web of intricate, cleverly masked lies.  What if it revealed to you that the people you trusted to guide you were misguided at best, and some, downright sinister.  What if it showed you that everything you believed in was 99% truth + 1% lie = 100% dangerous?

What if?

What if this is the reality right now?

Jesus gave His disciples a multitude of warnings throughout the Gospels, but there are certain ones that stick out like giant neon danger signs:

  1. “Take heed that no one deceives you.  For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many.” – Matt. 24:4, 5.
  2. “Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many.” – Matt. 24:11.
  3. “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it.  For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.  See, I have told you beforehand.  Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it.  For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.” – Matt. 24:23-27.

The first passage warns against deception from those who claim to be Christ.  The second is a warning against false teachers who will come claiming divine inspiration and lead many away from the truth.

The third is the one that should put us on the highest level of alert to security threats.  First it warns against false christs and false prophets using signs and miracles to deceive, and claiming that Jesus has come in secret places.  However the Bible is clear.  Everyone will see Jesus’ second coming (Matt. 24:27; Rev. 1:7).

But the strongest warning to be on your guard comes from verse 24: “For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.”  In other words, the deceptions will be so close to the truth that they would almost deceive God’s children who have been walking with Him and prayerfully studying His word.  These deceptions will be perpetrated by people we would trust.  They will use signs and miracles that cannot be ignored.  But they will not be from God.

All of this may sound rather frightening when you think about it, but God has not left us without hope.  Those who truly belong to God will not be led astray by these deceptions because they have obeyed His word and are actively watching and praying.  They will be able to recognize the 1% of error mixed in with the truth.  This is why He urgently calls us to beware, to watch and pray (Mark 14:38; Luke 21:36).  He warns us not to place our trust in people, but in Him alone (Psalm 146:3; John 14:1).  He admonishes us to study His word for ourselves and examine the influences surrounding us, so we may know if they are from God or not (2 Timothy 2:15; 1 John 4:1, Acts 17:11).

What a loving, merciful God!  He never leaves us floundering about hopelessly in the unknown, especially in such a dark and dismal world.  He makes sure we know the danger and seriousness of our situation, and then He promises His presence, His guidance, His protection, and hope for the future.

So let’s heed the warning.  Let’s make God’s word our guide, the standard by which all things are measured.  And let’s faithfully observe the words of His prophet:

“To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” Isaiah 8:20.

True Religion

It’s more than a brand of jeans.  More than a social cause.  It’s a lifestyle.

These days many of us are very familiar with what the Bible says in James 1:27 about the essence of true religion.  It has been the preface to many a sermon, worship talk, or speech to rouse us from our self-absorbed slumber into action for the good of those who are hurting around the globe.

Yet in all the swarm of activity around our social causes, some of us have lost something.  Before I go any further, let me say that social causes are good.  God encourages, even requires us to take care of those who need help.  But there’s something else that’s good.  It is the balancing side to a scale that is growing fearfully unbalanced.

It’s the Mary perspective.

Jesus once visited his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany (Luke 10:38-42).  While Martha was busy doing the good thing of preparing a meal to serve Jesus, Mary was doing the good thing of sitting at His feet, listening to the words of truth.  Both were good things.  But one was commended as better: listening to the words of Jesus.

That practice of taking time to study and learn from Jesus is often neglected in favor of active service projects.  Neither side should be neglected.  Take a closer look at James 1:27:

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

That last part often goes unmentioned.  But God puts the two together: service for others and remaining spiritually pure.  It’s the same thing in the great commandment: love for God first, with everything you are, and then a responsibility to love others as you love yourself.  One can never be separated from the other.  This concept is all throughout the Bible:

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice,
 correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” – Isaiah 1:16, 17, ESV.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” – Matthew 25:34-40, NLT.

There it is.  Care for others and love for God, shown in obedience to all His commands.  This is true religion.  It is not an unbalanced thing.  It does not take from one side only and believe that is enough.  It does not cloister itself away in a shack in the mountains, studying the Bible 24/7.  It does not overfill its plate with projects and causes until there’s no time for anything else and burnout sets in.

It balances actively seeking God in His word with serving Him by serving others.  Jesus Himself gave us the example.  He spent time teaching, healing, and preaching, but He also took time out for deep seasons of communion with His Father.  We’re definitely billions of light years from being on the same level as Jesus, so how much more do we need deep seasons of communion with God and time to study His word?

Notice Matthew 7:21-13:

“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’”

My good works cannot save me.  But they will be important.  Through them, my obedience to God’s command to love my neighbor as I love myself will be shown.  Similarly, a pure life, washed clean from sin through His blood and kept unspotted by following His words, shows my love for Him above all others.  Both sides working together show whether or not I have truly done the will of my Father.  Love for God with everything in us first, and then love for others as for ourselves.  This is the essence of true religion.

The Basics ~ Adoption: Step 2

Step 2: Repent and Be Changed

What is repentance?  It is more than just saying you’re sorry for the things you’ve done wrong.  It is a conscious choice to turn away from doing those things.  This step is very important.  Repentance is where change begins.  Without it, your sins will bring you down to eternal death.  (Luke 13:3, 5.)  You see, sin is a fatal disease.  The only cure is found in Jesus.  He lived on Earth as a human, among humans.  He endured the same weaknesses and challenges we all endure, and He was tempted by Satan the enemy to give in to sin.  In fact, Jesus has been tempted in all the same ways you have been tempted, without failing even once! So He knows exactly how you feel when you are tempted to sin.  The Father didn’t give Him any extra special help that is not available to you.  (Hebrews 4:15.)  Jesus remained sinless, because the sacrifice for sin had to be completely pure and spotless.  If He hadn’t been, He couldn’t have died for our sins and you and I would be doomed to eternal death from this disease.

Jesus bought us back from the enemy at the price of His life.  When we accept this gift, we must leave behind the old life of sin and be changed by His power into His likeness.  This is very important!  He can’t bring us home unless this whole process is completed, because if we could bring even one sin with us into our heavenly home, it would become just as bad as or worse than this crazy world we live in right now.

If you have never asked Jesus to forgive your sins, let me give you the simple version of how this works:

You have sinned.  You realize that you have sinned and you are sorry that you did.  So you go to Jesus in prayer and confess your sins.  Maybe you don’t remember them all by name, but you know you’ve sinned and you tell Him so.  Then you apologize and ask Him to forgive you.

In heaven, there is a record in a book of all the things you’ve ever done, good and bad.  It is from this book that God will judge all people.  (Revelation 20:12.)  When you ask forgiveness of your sins, He erases them all from this book and writes your name in another book, the Book of Life.  Everyone whose name is in this Book is a candidate for heaven.  (Revelation 21:10, 27.)  
So when the Father forgives you of your sins, He doesn’t remember them anymore.  (Isaiah 43:25.)  Yes, you will still feel bad for what you’ve done, but don’t cling to the guilt.  You are forgiven, and He looks at you as if you hadnever sinned before!  And if you sin again, He is just waiting for you to repent and come back to Him, and He is more than happy to forgive you again and help you change.  But you mustn’t think you can just do whatever you want because He’ll always forgive you.  He can only take to heaven those who repent of their sins, are baptized, and are converted.

Where does baptism fit into all of this?  It is a public symbol of your commitment to God.  It shows that you accept Jesus’ sacrifice for you, and you want to follow in His footsteps, giving up your life to Him.  The act of baptism symbolizes your death to sin when you go under the water.  When you are raised up out of the water, it signifies the birth of a new you, a new creation in Christ.  The old you has died and a new you is resurrected the same way Jesus was resurrected.  (Romans 6:4; Ephesians 2:4-6; Colossians 2:12, 13; Galatians 3:26, 27.)  You are reborn, given a new chance to live your life differently than before.

Conversion means a changed life.  It involves turning to the worship of the one true God with your whole life and returning to loving and obeying Him.  This conversion takes place as you spend more and more time with God.

You may ask how you can spend time together with Him when you can’t see Him.  Let me explain.  Many years ago, God inspired some of His prophets, apostles, and others to write a guide book or text book of sorts to direct you through life (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16).  You guessed!  It’s called the Holy Bible, sometimes referred to as the scriptures or God’s Word.  Every word in it is God-inspired.  It has everything you need to know to pass the final test before the great Home-going.  Read and study God’s Book.  He’s put so much information in there to help you.  Read wisely and you will learn from the mistakes and experiences of some of His other children who’ve been adopted before you.  You will also learn all about Jesus, and how He lived so that you can follow in His footsteps.

God’s word speaks directly to you and your daily situations.  There are principles to direct you in every area of your life.  Your responsibility is to look for them.  They will change your life!  You will become more and more like Jesus, and more and more ready to live with Him in heaven.  But don’t just read God’s word; study it carefully every day.  As you do this, ask yourself, “What does this tell me about what my Father and Savior are like?” In this way, you’ll get to know the Father and the Son very well.

Also, talk to Him!  Continuously.  God never gets tired of hearing from you! In fact, He longsto hear from you.  There’s so much He can tell you, so much help He wants to offer!  Just ask Him for anything you need.  Anything.  True, He doesn’t give you everything you ask Him for.  Not everything you ask for is in your best interest.  Sometimes you ask for things that would do you more harm than good.  However, if it’s in your best interest, He is more than happy to supply it (1 John 5:14)!

When you talk to God, you can tell Him your deepest thoughts, desires, and secrets.  He cares about every single thing that has anything to do with you.

Another way you can learn about Him is by studying nature.  God’s creation gives you a view of His personality and character.  They show you how He feels about you.  You see, He thought of you when He created nature.  It’s not perfect as it was when He first made it, but some of its original beauty still shines through.  So when you take time to enjoy the glory of a sunrise or the tranquil beauty of a mountain stream, you can know that He made it with you in mind because He loves you.

Yet another way to learn about God is through the various experiences He permits in your life.  He knows that some of your experiences were difficult and even painful, and you wonder how He could allow them to happen to you if He loves you so much.  But all your experiences, the good and the bad, are meant to prepare you for Home.  Your experiences show you the differences in character between that of your Savior and that of the enemy, Satan.

It is important that you realize that Satan only seeks your destruction, no matter how “good” the things he offers seem to be.  God wants you to have life, and to have it abundantly (John 10:10).  Remember:  not one taint of sin can enter God’s Home, so your loyalty must lie with Him alone.