Category: Character

Season of the Son

The period from the first day of Lent through Resurrection Sunday constitutes the most important Christian season of the year. As the Apostle Paul explained, “if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. … If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.” So predictably each year at this time great energy is exerted on behalf of the antagonists of Christ to flood the airwaves with convoluted “the historical Jesus” stories to dilute people’s faith and doctrine.  Just as predictably, Christian TV and movie producers annually counter this onslaught with their own dramatizations of Biblical stories. Unfortunately these more often than not are watered-down versions of the Gospel message – so as to not offend some.

Resurrection Day

 What DID – vs – What WOULD – Jesus do!

 Many years ago, shortly after I made a firm commitment to my Lord, I read a book written at the end of the 19th Century entitled “In His Steps.” The Charles Sheldon book grew out of a series of sermons he delivered in his Congregationalist church in Topeka, Kansas.  The ethos of Sheldon’s approach to the Christian life was expressed in this phrase “What Would Jesus Do”, with Jesus being a moral example as well as a Savior figure. In this popular novel the fictional Rev. Henry Maxwell encounters a homeless man who challenges him to take seriously the imitation of Christ. The homeless man has difficulty understanding why, in his view, so many Christians ignore the poor:

 “I heard some people singing at a church prayer meeting the other night, ‘All for Jesus, all for Jesus, all my being’s ransomed powers, all my thoughts, and all my doings, all my days, and all my hours.’ and I kept wondering as I sat on the steps outside just what they meant by it. It seems to me there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn’t exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out. I suppose I don’t understand. But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following His steps? It seems to me sometimes as if the people in the big churches had good clothes and nice houses to live in, and money to spend for luxuries, and could go away on summer vacations and all that, while the people outside the churches, thousands of them, I mean, die in tenements, and walk the streets for jobs, and never have a piano or a picture in the house, and grow up in misery and drunkenness and sin.”

 This leads many of the novel’s characters to ask, “What would Jesus do?” when faced with decisions of some importance. This has the effect of making the characters embrace Christianity more seriously and to focus on what they see as its core — the life of Christ.

 Many people, Christians and non-Christians alike have embraced this principle of “What would Jesus do.” Some have even made a lot of money designing and selling WWJD bracelets and related paraphernalia. The problem is that it’s become a catch-phrase for justifying one’s own behavior based on personal opinion rather than Kingdom principles. While the goal of Rev. Sheldon’s book was to help people transform their lives into the character of Christ; to many it has become an excuse to conform their view of Christ into their own image.

 Pursuing the real Jesus

 During this season what we really need to pursue is the real Jesus and an understanding of what He did for each of us. The only way to do that is to study the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Then we’ll learn not some hypothetical “what would Jesus do,” but actually “what did Jesus do,” and what did He say.

 When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey on the day we celebrate as “Palm Sunday,” He was exalted by the common people as an arriving King and condemned by the religious leaders as a blasphemer. Yet He let neither the former go to His head, nor the latter to dissuade Him from doing what He had to do a few hours later – namely purify the Temple by driving out the money changers and sellers, and returning it to its intended purpose as a house of prayer, praise and power. He knew that less than a week later both groups would be united to crucify Him – yet He had a job to do: truth to speak, followers to prepare, prophesies to fulfill, a life to lay down and souls to redeem.

 Today those who have committed their lives to Christ are that Temple of God. It’s up to us to assure we keep our house (our body, soul and spirit) just as pure, prayerful, and worshipful as our Lord demanded of those whom His Father had installed as “caretakers” of His house in Jerusalem. Then and only then are we fully equipped to exercise the power and authority so delegated to His people. Then and only then can we fully appreciate this Holy Season of the Son of God.

What ever happened to the Smiths?

Every Sunday afternoon in Christian homes across the globe a game is played.  I call it, “What ever happened to the Smiths?”  This of course is a light take on an issue that frequently becomes agenda item #1 for church board meetings.  Why is it that at times there is a surge in a local church’s growth, and attendance numbers seem to double and triple almost overnight; then for a time things seem to level off and, while new people continue to come in and join themselves to that local body, an equal number (or perhaps even a greater number) of others move on and out?

 I think there’s a tendency for those in church governance to inaccurately attribute every surge in “attractiveness” to the local community as a sign of God’s affirmation that we and our leaders are doing the right thing.  In contrast, many tend to interpret every “no growth period” or falling off of the numbers of congregants as an indication that we must be out of the will of God and need to take dramatic action to reverse the trend.  Neither of these assessments need necessarily be true.

 There are many reasons for people coming and going in a local church

 There are both natural and spiritual reasons that account for changes in the body of believers that make up a local congregation.  Among them are the following:

  • Jesus tells us that the Gospel by its very nature is an offense to some. So when the leadership preach truth it will drive some away who refuse to receive it or comply with the message.
  • Every pastor will occasionally say something that others find offensive or disagree with – just because both the preacher and the hearer are human. Sometimes the pastor is at fault – exposing his personal or political biases about issues in lieu of focusing on what God wants to deal with or reveal to the people. Other times the hearer misinterprets what they hear, because of their own predispositions.  Still other times, neither is “in the wrong” – they just arrive at opposing understandings of a doctrinal position or a key area of scripture.
  • There is also a natural movement in and out of a church congregation as people mature and are called to other ministries, in other locations. God put them in your local church just for a season: to grow, to be trained, to learn to pray or worship, or some other valid purpose.
  • The natural order of change in employment and family situations often necessitates relocations as well.
  • Some people just weren’t supposed to be there in the first place. Perhaps they were initially drawn by outward appearances: the attractiveness of the building, the music or the friendliness of the people.  But if it’s not where God wants them to be planted, they will eventually come to realize that your local body does not provide what they and their family need at this time in their life.

 Pruning of the Body and the Soul of a Church

 I’m convinced though that much of the comings and goings of people is because God is cleansing His Church Body and Soul.  Every gardener understands the benefits of lopping off superfluous branches. This is done to make the tree or bush bear better fruit, grow stronger and to give it a more handsome appearance.  This process is called pruning, and it’s also one of the tools God uses to perfect His Kingdom.

 Spiritual pruning effects changes in Christians individually and as an entire local church body, and the Father expects His kids to submit to it.  As individuals, we’re either going to allow our character, our attitudes, our behavior, and our thoughts to be pruned – or, if we’re rebellious and don’t submit to this transformative tool, we might find ourselves being lopped right off the vine.  Each local church body is likewise defined by its own character, attitudes, behaviors and thought patterns.  These generally are representative of the Pastor; but also to some extent of the entire active congregation.  And if this body of believers refuses to submit to the pruning process, it too risks dying a slow death and remaining fruitless for the rest of its struggling life.

 And who does the pruning?

 The focus in this writing is on the pruning of the local church more-so than the individual congregant, though the response of each individual contributes to the whole.  So it’s critical to understand who does the pruning?  A lot of times the local church leadership thinks it is the pruner – cutting a program here and there, when things don’t seem to be going right based on the numbers.  Slow down! Take a breath!  You may be cutting the wrong things and failing to graft in the right things.  Jesus says that “I am the true vine and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”  So Father God does the pruning – if we allow Him. And the Holy Spirit is His intermediary (the voice between you and the Father) that enables your leadership to serve as His pruning instrument.

 While no two natural trees or bushes are the same, and each requires study before proceeding to lop off twigs and branches, every gardener knows there are pruning guidelines (standards).  You never want to remove extremities that are critical for the lifeflow of the plant, destroying it in the process of trying to improve it.  The same is true for spiritual pruning.  Leadership, in concert with the Spirit of God, must first study the heart of its church to know how to proceed.

 No two local churches on this earth have exactly the same mission.  Just like each human being is uniquely designed by the Creator, so each local church has a specific purpose and mission crafted by God.  Yet His standards for measuring how closely each is fulfilling that purpose and mission are revealed in His written Word.  Answers to the following questions will go a long way toward revealing the heart of a church:

  • How involved is your church in reaching the local community for Christ?
  • How involved is your church in ministering God’s compassion to your community and would they miss you if you were not there?
  • How much does the local community learn about Jesus and Father God based on the actions, words and attitudes of members of your congregation?
  • How much does your congregation look first to God’s solution to every situation in their personal lives?
  • How much does your congregation give glory to God for their material blessings and successes?
  • How much does your congregation expect the supernatural intervention of God to meet their personal needs?
  • How involved is your church in helping believers of all ages and maturity levels to grow spiritually – then free them to carry on their purpose as God directs?

 If the leadership of a local church with its congregation feel dissatisfied with their answers to the above questions, that is a good sign.  For then they are more likely to submit completely to the cleansing process of God – which the purpose is to draw their congregation individually and corporately closer to the perfect will of God.

When Love becomes an Excuse

I’ve written a lot lately about Love.  My focus has been on the unconditional love that the Bible says we owe to every human being.  There is no question that many of us have difficulty loving some classes of persons, like people who live so-called “alternate lifestyles,” or people who hold different moral beliefs than ourselves, or people who have declared they are our enemies.  But there are just as many of us who use love as an excuse for our silence in some cases, and for our rude or judgmental words in others.

  “Make up your mind!” you might say. “When I see someone involved in bad or dangerous behavior, do you want me to warn them and try to initiate corrective action, or do you want me to remain silent?”  That’s where the godly virtue of wisdom plays such an important part in the Christian walk.  But before we talk about that, let’s explore some of the circumstances “when love becomes an excuse.”

Love as an excuse for Silence

Those of us who use love to excuse our silence usually have good intentions.  We just want to avoid hurting the feelings of one or more persons we’re close to or we don’t want to risk severing the relationship we have with them.  But what does God say about this?  According to the Apostle Paul, one of the most important reasons God gave us a written record of His Word was because it “is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”  So following our Creator’s example, when we have knowledge that another human being is doing or saying something that is going to be harmful to either themselves or others, and/or that is contrary to God’s moral law, we too have an obligation to reprove, correct, instruct and warn both the perpetrator and anyone who is or will be directly affected.  Love must never be used as an excuse for silence in these instances.

 Church leaders often fall into the trap of silence as well.  In many cases it’s because they don’t want to risk offending some in their congregations.  But didn’t Jesus tell His followers to expect people to be offended by our words, as long as our words align with His Word. “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” Agape love always speaks the truth with honor for the person who needs to hear it.  Too often the rebellious behavior that they are engaged in has been approved by our culture and even our civil laws.  While that may make our task of acquainting them with truth more difficult, we must not allow even that to stop us from speaking truth to them.

 I think this is what led one of my Pastors recently to say that God had spoken the following word: “No more nice Church.”  It’s easy to like a “nice” person or follow a “nice” leader who says everything we want them to say, who doesn’t make us feel uncomfortable with our self-centered lives. “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”  The role of the Body of Christ is to accept people as they come to Christ, but to not leave them in that same condition.  We are to help them heal spiritually, emotionally and physically and to help them mature in the things and knowledge of God.  And this can only be done through sharing the truth revealed by God in His written Word and unmasking the lies of the enemy of God that are intended to enslave, steal from and destroy every living soul.

 Love as an excuse for rudeness, judgment, jealousy or gossip

 Contrast the above with those of us who use love as an excuse for our own exhibition of rudeness, judgment, jealousy or gossip.  These are more often driven by self-righteousness as opposed to God’s righteousness.  It’s easily recognizable, for it typically leads off with something like, “I’m sorry I have to tell you this but….”  These are times that silence would be the better choice.

 Before ever expressing righteous indignation at bad behavior, every Christian needs to first assess the condition of his or her own heart.  To know the condition of your heart with respect to the person(s) and the situation at hand you need to ask yourself several questions.

 1. What is my true motive? Am I moved by a desire to see the person’s life and circumstances improved or do I want them to feel humiliated?  Do I desire that God be glorified or that I be made to feel more important?

2. If my words will bring reproof, am I willing to be measured by the same standards that I use to measure others by?

3. How likely is it that my words and follow on actions will yield fruit (value) in another’s life? Will my words be encouraging?  Will they provide a path to improvement or safe haven?  Am I willing to walk beside them on the path that I’ve suggested for them?

 Seek Wisdom to guide your tongue

 Answering these questions honestly will shield you from using love as an excuse to criticize and berate others.  Neither will you be fearful and silent about sharing the knowledge God has given you to help others become the persons they were created to be.  Instead, your focus will be on respecting and blessing others and seeing God’s will done in each person’s life.  All that remains then is to be guided by wisdom in knowing when and how to communicate Truth.

Is Truth overrated?

I’m constantly on a quest for the truth.  Every truth-claim I hear or read, regardless of the source, I investigate until I come to a personal judgment of whether it is based in fact or fiction.  It doesn’t matter whether the source is a politician, a journalist, my pastor or the guy working out next to me at the gym – I have to know if they know what they’re talking about.  As Monk constantly reminded the San Francisco TV detectives he worked with, “It’s a blessing and it’s a curse.”  On more than one occasion I’ve been called a loose cannon – for once I lock-in on the truth, it bounces around on the deck of my head until it eventually breaks out through my lips.  For I have an incessant need to inform others of the truth.  And this personality trait of mine seems to upset a lot of people.

I upset my conservative friends when I remind them that our capitalistic system was founded by financiers without patriotism and, in many cases, without decency, for their sole object was gain; or that God’s command to Adam to have dominion over the earth did not imply we were given free reign to use pesticides and weed-killers.  I upset my liberal friends when I counter their fears of the impending destruction of the planet with facts, such as when the Arctic sea ice recently hit the “normal” line per Aqua satellite measurement for the AMSRE dataset, or when the people of Kaktovik, Alaska, a small town located above the Arctic Circle, were overrun last year by record numbers of polar bears.  I even upset my politically and socially moderate friends when I make statements like, “compromise is the virtue of the man with no convictions,” and back it up with both secular and Biblical references.

As I’m “unfriended” on social media, or am left to watch a friend’s sullen look and occasionally their back as they stomp away angry, I sometimes find myself questioning, “Is Truth overrated?”  But then I remember the words of my Savior, I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.”  I’m no Christ – but I try my best to be Christ-like.  So in my search for Truth, I also pray for more tact.  I’m afraid I have no choice but to continue to relate Truth as God reveals it to me, through His Word or through the sweat of my brow as I diligently investigate the theories propagated by people of all persuasions and research the evidence or lack thereof for each.  I’m the first to acknowledge that my method of communicating Truth with compassion and respect can use refinement.

There will always be a certain subset of the population who see all truth as relative and who will respond like Pilate to Jesus with “What is truth?” especially when faced with the claim that a man born 2000 years ago “came into the world to bear witness to the truth and that everyone who is of the truth hears His voice.”  Those you cannot hold a logical discussion with, except to remind them that their denial of any absolute truth becomes itself a denial of even their denial.  But I’m convinced that most people want to know the truth – even as they tremble at what it might mean to their present belief system and lifestyle.

I recently read a secular article entitled “Why do we fear the truth?” by Robert J. Burrowes.  While Burrowes’ belief system is based on naturalism, I found the following points worth sharing.

“The most important impediment to understanding and resolving any problem or conflict is our fear of knowing the truth. We spend a lot of our time trying to deal with problems and conflicts by deluding ourselves about the cause and/or the solution necessary… we want to reserve the right to use violence to control or ‘discipline’ our children; we want to pretend that our unhealthy diet is not the cause of our ill-health if we like eating all of those unhealthy foods; we want to be able to consume more than we really need and pretend that the ongoing destruction of the natural environment … are unrelated to our own behavior; and/or we want to buy those cheap consumer goods made by exploited workers (and sometimes even child labor) in those factories in Africa, Asia and Central/South America where the largest corporations are less encumbered by such considerations as a requirement to pay fair wages and taxes, to address health and safety concerns, and to consider other human rights and environmental issues.  And we want to blame other people for our conflicts if looking ourselves deeply in the mirror might tell us something about ourselves that we don’t want to know.  But if we want to deal adequately with any problem or conflict, first of all we need to be courageous enough to acknowledge the truth, including any truth about ourselves.”

 Winston Churchill understood this human frailty as much as anyone in his day.  For in referring to his political adversary Stanley Baldwin (Prime Minister 1935 – 37), he once said: “Occasionally he stumbled over the truth, but hastily picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened.” This quote was later adopted by some large publications as applicable to mankind in general, because it is only natural to retreat from an advocate of a position contrary to one’s own, especially one long held though not securely founded on reason.

 Even some large religious organizations (such as the JWs) which instruct their members to lead inquisitions against all other people’s belief systems supposedly in the name of truth, themselves fear in-depth inquiries into their own organizational structure and core doctrines.  So claiming truth they retreat from Truth.

 Yet it God’s economy, truthfulness is a requisite for advancement.  When Moses was encouraged to delegate some of his duties of judging the millions of people he led, he was given the following guidelines: “Select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens.”

 Too often on public and social media I’ve caught the “well-intentioned” altering scientific and technical data or misrepresenting factual circumstances or mischaracterizing expert opinions and historical documents in misguided attempts to influence the less informed to support their cause.  Belief in a cause, no matter how good is never a valid excuse for deception or error.  All too many people are like sheep and will follow a false shepherd.  So I’ve made it my personal mission to reach out to both the sheep and the shepherd – with the hope of helping each find the true path.

 Truth is never overrated.  Sometimes it may make me feel uncomfortable.  But always it will point to the Way that is right and beneficial.  While some will ignore it to their personal detriment, Truth will always win out in the end.

Why did I save that – that Hurtful Memory

  Sandy and I once lived in the same large ranch-style home in the Shores for 27 years and a massive amount of “stuff” accumulated in our attic, closets and 2 ½ car garage.  When we moved in November 2000, we gave away over half to the Salvation Army and others; but the rest found its way to storage shelves in our new basement.  Around that time I remember hearing a sermon that addressed how some people accumulate so much “stuff” and have such a hard time departing ways with it that they even rent a storage locker for the overflow.  I was determined to never become such a person; so every year since I’ve made a habit of going through my “stuff” and purging the unnecessary and unimportant.  Still, in July of 2013 I came upon an essay I’d written back in high school that I kept hanging onto after every purge – and that became the subject of the first blog I ever wrote entitled “Why did I save that?”

 These days I’m often asked to give spiritual advice to people who are going through some pretty hairy circumstances in their lives.  Based on the limited sample size of the people I’ve counseled, I’ve concluded that most of these hurting people horde memories of the worst of times like others hang onto “stuff.”  It begs the question of why does a person hang onto those hurtful moments for years?  Words thoughtlessly spoken by our friends and family, actions of an abusive or uncaring person that crossed our path sometime in the past, broken and unfaithful relationships that embittered us toward future relationships, and our own stupid behaviors that once embarrassed us and/or our family, or worse, caused harm to another – these memories have no redeeming value.  They just linger and tear us apart inside long after the physical and verbal abuse has ended and long after our own dumb action or failure has been forgotten by everyone else.  Even as we try to move on to a new spiritual home, surrounded by new neighbors and a better environment, we keep asking ourselves, “Why did I save that – that hurtful memory?”

 I observe this human tendency to cling to hurtful memories, even in many who don’t seek my advice.  It’s evident in their social media posts and in their emails.  Sometimes the hurt is camouflaged in humor, a religious message or a political theme, but it’s still there.  Perhaps it’s the emotions and attitudes that are derived from hurtful memories that one becomes all too comfortable with. Though these erode their personal life, their relationships, even their physical and spiritual well-being, they accept the consequences as others accept a dirty and cluttered house.  These emotions and attitudes after all are elements of a person’s very soul.  They become part of a person’s identity. “I am this way because of how that person mistreated me,” is often heard.  “If I let go of the anger and record of wrongs and forgive the person who hurt me, I’ll lose a part of myself, part of my individuality.”

 However, Jesus taught that such fears of loss of identity are unfounded.  I don’t have to hold onto past hurts in order to maintain my identity. I have other options – to allow God’s love and forgiveness to flow from me towards the person who hurt me. And when I do this, instead of anger and the record of past wrongs being part of who I was, Christ’s love and forgiveness become my new identity.  Paul told the Galatians: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

 I was recently reading a message on the subject written by Pastor John Macarthur.  He referred to the process of being set free from past hurts as “the basis of comfort,” or “trusting faith.” “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me,” Jesus is quoted by the Apostle John.   According to Macarthur, if you’re worried or anxious, confused, or upset, the reason is that you don’t trust Him like you should. If you really trust Christ, what do you have to worry about?  And in verse 6 Jesus tells us why we should be comforted: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. I am the way to the Father. I am the truth, whether in this world or the world to come. I am the life that is eternal.”

 Still, I believe it takes a truly courageous person, in concert with the God of the impossible to set aside a large piece of one’s soul – which is what hurtful memories entail.  Yet that’s the only way we’ll ever be truly free.

 God relayed that to His people Israel way back in the Prophet Isaiah’s time: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”  Constantly dwelling on mistakes and problems of the past weighs us down.  But the Lord instructs us to forget those former things and not dwell on them.  He even adds a wonderful promise: letting go releases streams of living water into our life and enables God to do a new work in us.

 When the Apostle Paul wrote his second letter to his Corinthian converts, it’s apparent that many in that community were feeling traumatized by their past.  They had lived in and had partaken of one of the most immoral and perverse societies of the time; yet Paul told them that they were free and clear of that old evil nature.  “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”

 Even some secular people have gotten a partial revelation of this truth.  In the book “Alice in Wonderland” written by Lewis Carroll, Alice says: “I could tell you my adventures – beginning from this morning, but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”  Canadian writer, motivational speaker, and leadership expert Robin Sharma advises his clients: “Stop being a prisoner of your past. Become the architect of your future.”  Indian-American author and public speaker Deepak Chopra wisely says: “I use memories, but I will not allow memories to use me.”  And country singer Johnny Cash, who had many personal challenges in his life came to recognize: “You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.”

 The Apostle Peter who once cowardly denied even knowing Jesus to save his own skin later could tell the followers of Christ: “You are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for He called you out of the darkness into His wonderful light.”

 And Paul, via his letter to the Philippians provided the roadmap for successfully cleaning your spiritual house.

  1. Rejoice in the Lord always.
  2. Be kind and respectful to all men.
  3. Remember that the Lord is at hand.
  4. That will help you to be anxious for nothing,
  5. Let your requests be made known to God, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving,
  6. The peace of God will be in you and will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
  7. Meditate on good things: whatever things are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, of any virtue and praiseworthy.
  8. Do these things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me.

 The following are four points that I’m always inclined to remind those who are dealing with past hurts (of others and even of ourselves).

(1) “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” That’s one of the most difficult scriptures to understand and incorporate into our personal lives – recognizing who the real enemy is (namely the devil) not the supposed friend or family member that’s just hurt you in word or action.  They’ve just become his ignorant accomplices.

(2) “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” For this reason, we don’t have a right to be offended by anyone else.  That truth is what allowed the Apostle James to die with these words on his lips: “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

(3) Perhaps even more important than the previous two – recognize that the person harming you is the one with the big problem, not you. They are ultimately going to have to answer to God Who has promised to defend you.  For this reason, they most need God’s help and your prayers and your forgiveness.

(4) Unconditional love and forgiveness are the two most powerful forces in the universe.

Who really knows a heart?

 The nature of man is to judge the hearts of others, (i.e.: their actions, their thoughts and their motives.)  The self-righteous judges the heart of everyone he views to be ungodly as lost and unworthy of blessing; while the worldly one judges the hearts of those trying to live righteously as prudish and hypocritical.  The conservative judges the heart of the liberal as morally bankrupt; while the liberal judges the heart of the conservative as uncaring and mean-spirited.  Labor judges the hearts of management as selfish and egotistical; all the while management judges the stewards of labor as slothful and shifty.  We each judge the representatives of the media and declare them to be biased against whatever cause we advocate.  And we all tend to judge the motives of our leaders, particularly those whom we didn’t vote for.

 The fact of the matter is, we can never fully know the heart of any other person; even those we have a very close relationship with, such as our spouse and our children.  Only two persons in a room ever really know an individual’s heart: the person him or herself, and the Spirit of God.

 Why then do we tend to judge other people so much? If we could change a heart it might be a worthwhile venture to judge them.  But none of us has that power.  Only the individual and God have a direct say in the matter of their heart.  Still we try all the time – to act like a god over others.

 Not long after Adam’s exile from the Garden, even to the present day, mankind has tried to control the hearts of people and redirect the thoughts and wills of those who were of a different mindset; but they’ve consistently failed.  Men and women of all persuasions have chosen to follow what their hearts dictated was right over any outside influence, even when faced with threats or the reality of persecution, torture, or martyrdom.  History books are replete with examples of people who stood firm with their heart’s leading against either Islamic Jihadists or the Church’s hierarchy, each of which persecuted and executed non-believers and “heretics.”  More recently many 20th century secular governments such as Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Communist China and Cambodian tried and failed to force their people to conform.  And we continue to see such unsuccessful attempts in totalitarian and Islamic nations around the world today.

 In the 20th century instances, though faced with severe and deadly persecution, the Church went underground and prospered; while the governments themselves floundered.  And in the 21st century, facing demonically influenced threats to freedom and to life and limb, followers of Christ have grown, quantitatively as well as qualitatively.

 Nevertheless, sometimes we ignore the lessons of history.  Like these governmental regimes of past and present, sometimes Christians themselves revert to this failed strategy of using threats and fear, namely judgmental assessments of a person’s behavior and warnings of eternal wrath to try and change their hearts.  Even when such statements are true, fear is rarely an effective tool to change a heart, nor is it a deterrent to bad behavior.  A disapproving facial expression, a condescending quotation of scripture, or a hell-fire message is more likely to be a turn-off than a mind-changer.

 The Apostle Paul explained it best when he declared, “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?”  And God knows that human heart even more than we know ourselves – each human heart – and He knows what will impact our heart.  That’s why the Gospels and the New Testament letters of the disciples focus significantly more on love than on judgment.  He wants a person’s heart – but He wants them to give it willingly.  The true follower of Christ loves Him because He first loved us and because He redeemed us from ourselves and our goofy lives.

 

Melting a hardened heart

 Recently my pastor spoke on the parable of the four soils (or what others may more familiarly recognize as the parable of the sower), found in three Gospels: Matthew 13, Mark 4 and Luke 8.  The four types of soil that receive the seed, (1) a trampled down path, (2) stony places, (3) among thorns, and (4) good soil each speak to a pre-condition of the heart of the hearer and its openness to receive and be impacted by God’s Word.  Jesus actually told his disciples this was the most important parable and the one that would unlock their spiritual understanding of all other parables.

 It’s interesting, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the spiritual heart of mankind and such complex conditions spoken of in Scripture as hardness of heart, and offenses of the heart and how these contrast with love and compassion.  We all know that similar experiences impact people differently.  One person will face a difficult circumstance and it will soften them and help them conform to God’s will.  Another will face the same circumstance and it will harden them with bitterness and anger. One becomes either more appreciative of God or more hostile to Him.  One either draws closer to God or becomes more distant.

 In the Book of Exodus, as Moses engaged Pharaoh on several occasions with challenges to let God’s people go, the Word states over and over again that “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” so that He might “lay My hand on Egypt and bring My armies and My people, the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great judgments.”  Likewise, on the way to the Promised Land, when Moses asked Sihon King of Heshbon to let the Israelites pass through his land, we are told “the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that He might deliver him into your hand, as it is this day.”  And in the Book of Samuel we read how, when King Saul rebelled from God and disobeyed Him, the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a distressing spirit from the Lord troubled him and David was hand-picked and anointed by God to replace him.  Saul subsequently spent years chasing and trying to kill the young man and was punished for his evil acts.  And we also learn of King Nebuchadnezzar who God chose to chastise the Kingdom of Judah by conquering it.  The King brought Daniel and many other young, bright Jewish men to Babylon to serve him.  His hardened heart led him to threaten and even carry out executions of people who refused to worship an idol of himself.  But when Nebuchadnezzar became so prideful as to claim all credit for the power and wealth God had allowed him to accumulate, God humbled the king with temporary insanity that took his kingdom from him for seven years, while he lived with the beasts of the field, even eating grass like oxen.

 To us it sounds cruel that God might harden a heart or send an evil spirit, then punish the recipient for their subsequent actions.  But even Old Covenant relationships and justice are best understood in the light of New Covenant revelation.   For Jesus spoke much on the subject of the heart of mankind and his tendency to be too easily offended.

 Hardness of heart is a voluntary state of mind. It is a state of choice – a will committed to some form of selfishness.  The term hardness is appropriately used, because when the heart is in this state, it is stubborn, and will not yield to the truth, and prevents the intelligence and sensibility from perceiving, and being duly impressed by the truth.

 John 6 reveals how even many of Christ’s followers were offended by His teachings.  To some, especially the religious leaders, His teachings were too difficult to grasp, too harsh, and too disagreeable with their traditions. These were only following their own belief of who the Messiah should be and what they thought He should do and say.

 Jesus knew that this was a major topic of discussion among His closest followers and He brought their concerns to the forefront. “Does this offend you?” He asked.  He made it clear that it didn’t matter to Him what outsiders were saying about Him. He wanted to know if they were personally offended by the message. Even some of His hometown buddies and members of His own family suggested He tone things down.  But Jesus would not soften His words nor make His message more palatable to His followers, and many walked away.

 Finally Jesus turned to the twelve whom he had selected and asked if they would also leave. Judas Iscariot said nothing – though it later became clear that he was one who rejected His master’s teachings.  But Peter, who represented the other eleven said that there was no one else to follow, because only Jesus had the words of eternal life. Peter grasped at least part of what Jesus was teaching. Two divergent reactions to the same challenge from God.  One reaction was hardness of heart and taking offense to Jesus’ teachings.  The other reaction was of acceptance and submission to the Son of God.

 Is it possible to be predisposed to a hardened heart?

 In a sermon entitled “The Lesson of the Almond Tree,” (April 7, 1881) Charles Spurgeon reminded his congregation that “The same sun which melts wax, hardens clay, and the same Gospel which melts some persons to repentance, hardens others in their sins.”  Back to Pharaoh and the kings Sihon, Saul and Nebuchadnezzar – these men were rebellious in their spirit and therefore their reactions to God’s commands reflected a hardened heart.  Each in his own way, for whatever reason, was predisposed toward being offended, or fearful, or prideful or selfish, rather than toward being trusting and compassionate.  The effect was to open the door to evil spirits to guide their thoughts, attitudes and actions.  Did the Lord cause their hearts to be hardened?  Was Saul’s evil spirit actually sent to him by the Lord?  Only in the sense that Rev. Spurgeon speaks of above.  Each man was offended by a word delivered by a servant of God and their predisposition toward a hardened heart led each one to turn their backs on Him.

 But what of the “targets” of these four hard-hearted rulers?  Were the lives of Moses, David and Daniel so free of hardship that they didn’t face the same temptation to form a hardened heart?  Moses’ first forty years were spent in the same court as the Pharaohs and the next forty as a lowly sheep herder.  David was undervalued by his own father who not only failed to recognize that his youngest son would amount to much, relegating him to watching the sheep, but when the Prophet Samuel came along to anoint one of Jesse’s boys to be king of the nation, he didn’t even consider the kid in the field.  A few years later, David’s adopted father (Saul) did everything in his power to keep the young man from becoming the person God created him to be.  Daniel and all the other young men forced into service in Babylon, had everything of their past stolen from them: their families, their traditions, even their Jewish names.  Yet each of these men were predisposed to trust in God and toward love and compassion for the people they came into contact with – even those who treated them harshly.

 A hardened heart – why?

 In the context of feelings and attitudes, the dictionary defines hardened as cold, insensitive, pitiless, unfeeling, unlikely to change, rigid or unyielding.  I believe a “hardened heart” is actually a defense mechanism that a person turns on to shut out unwanted external influences, or turns off to permit these same things to impact their minds, emotions and attitudes.  I believe God gave us this defense mechanism for a purpose. You can and should become “hardened” (maybe “steeled” is a better word) against the influences of the world, the flesh and the devil.  You have the power to determine what your heart accepts or rejects.  There’s even a Messianic scripture from Isaiah 50 that says: “I gave My back to those who strike Me, And My cheeks to those who pluck out the beard; I did not cover My face from humiliation and spitting. For the Lord God helps Me.  Therefore, I am not disgraced.  Therefore, I have set My face like flint, And I know that I will not be ashamed. He who vindicates Me is near; Who will contend with Me? Let us stand up to each other. Who has a case against Me? Let him draw near to Me.”  But, like every good characteristic (including defense mechanisms) that God instilled in the human frame, the devil has developed an evil counterfeit to this as well.

 So I began noticing several instances in the Gospels where Jesus pointed out the characteristics of a hard heart, even among His disciples, and each involved either the inability to perceive or see or hear as God does, or to understand or to remember what God had already done in the past for them and for others.  For example, in Mark 6, a few hours after Jesus multiplied the loaves to miraculously feed thousands, the apostles found themselves in the midst of a violent storm as they crossed the Sea of Galilee, and they feared for their lives.  It then says that they were “amazed beyond measure” when Jesus walked upon the waters to them, got into the boat and calmed the seas.  The story concludes with the words, “For they considered not the miracle of the loaves, for their heart was hardened.”  They had already forgotten the wonderful miracle which was performed before their eyes just a few hours before.  They should have remembered that Christ would, of course, have power to walk on the water if He possessed sufficient creative power to feed five thousand. Instead of being surprised at the event, they should have looked upon it as a thing to be expected.

 Two chapters later we read about their misunderstanding of Jesus’ warning “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees,” supposing that He alluded to the fact that they had come on the journey without bread.  His real intent was to put them on their guard against the Pharisees’ doctrines which were liable to prejudice their minds against the truth of His teachings.  Jesus inferred that their missing His point by a mile was proof that their hearts were hard.

 Then in Mark 16, after His crucifixion and resurrection, when Jesus appeared to the eleven as they sat eating dinner, He scolded them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, “because they believed not them which had seen Him after He was risen.”  The minds of the disciples were such that they could even doubt the testimony of those who had actually seen their risen Lord.

 Hardness of heart and spiritual blindness

 It wasn’t sin that caused the disciples’ hearts to be hard – it was their focus on things other than the miracles and signs they’d been witness to and the words Jesus had spoken.  They were occupied with trying to save their lives in the midst of the storm or with thinking only about what was naturally possible, ignoring the possibility of supernatural intervention.  Rather than looking outward toward how God wanted to use them to reach others, they were looking inward.  Every time hard-heartedness surfaces, so does fear, pride, self-preservation and other selfish interests.

 Even the great evangelist-to-the-Gentile’s heart was hard and Paul was under the delusion that he was doing God a service when he hunted the followers of Christ and delivered them over to judgment and death. Likewise persecutors in every age have thought that they were doing God service. Their hearts were so hard that they really believed that they were called and taught of God to do their work of death and blood upon those they regarded as heretics.

 Time and again we see the blinding effect of hardness of heart on the intelligence. Persons whose hearts are hard, will often embrace the grossest errors, and be very zealous in defending them. No scientific or religious error has ever been proclaimed which has not found some zealous and even self-denying advocates.  Such was the state of the hearts of the Jews generally.  No evidence which Christ could give them could convince them Jesus was the Messiah.  They failed to see the providence of God in anything Jesus did; even the miracles didn’t produce much impression on their minds because their hearts were hard. They placed their traditions above compassion for those who were in need of Christ’s healing power.  The man born blind, the man with the deformed arm, none of the evidences of miracles made much of an impression upon them.  These “signs” did not fasten conviction on their unbelieving minds nor break down their stubborn wills.

 When Jesus was standing before the judgment seat of Pilate, the murderers of Christ cried out with one accord, “His blood be on us and on our children.”  They were so certain that Christ was an impostor that they were ready to take the responsibility of his murder on their own shoulders and that of their descendants for generations to come. What greater proof is there of their deep self-deception?  They ignored all the evidence and signs of the truths He was speaking, and they pursued their course of wickedness, buried in the darkness of ignorance and self-delusion.

 That’s true of careless sinners everywhere.  Hardness of heart influences a person’s intellect and sensibility; for if his heart was not hard, he would be full of agony over his sorry state, instead of coldness and indifference with respect to spiritual truth.  Persons in a hard-hearted state will justify the most palpable wrong doing; they will have some excuse for their misdeeds; they will rationalize the need to perform the evil deed. Some will even imagine that they are doing God service, when in fact they are committing the most flagrant acts of wickedness. That’s why Pharaoh’s heart could be hardened again and again, even in the face of ten supernatural events that significantly impacted his people.

 Even people within the church often form hard hearts.  Under the influence of selfish motives, controversies develop and fester to the hurt of the Body.  Each person sees the facts in a different light and each thinks the other to be at fault.  Nothing seems to convince either of the parties of his fault or responsibility.

 The Key to avoiding a hardened heart – seeing as God sees

 In the Charles Spurgeon sermon cited above, the great preacher’s lead scripture was Jeremiah 1:11, 12, “Moreover the word of the Lord came unto me, saying, Jeremiah, what do you see? And I said, I see a branch of an almond tree. Then said the Lord unto me, you have seen well: for I am ready to perform My word.”  And he began with these words: “Observe, before Jeremiah becomes a speaker for God, he must be a seer. The name for a Prophet in the olden time, was a ‘seer’—a man who could see—one who could see with his mind’s eye, one who could also see with spiritual insight, so as vividly to realize the Truth of God which he had to deliver in the name of the Lord.  Learn that simple lesson well, O you who try to speak for God! You must be seers before you can be speakers.”

 The Key to avoiding a hardened heart is seeing every person you come in contact with as God sees them.  It’s human nature to regard others from a worldly point of view.  Only with God’s help can we train our hearts to alter that.  Only a softened heart sees others and themselves as God sees them.  Only when earnest, effectual prayer has been offered for brethren and sinners alike, and the Holy Spirit has been allowed to intercede to soften their hearts, is the difficulty between adversaries resolved.  When the heart is melted, each sees the subject in dispute in the same light as the other.  It’s not uncommon for each to admit blame and confess more than he or she has been charged with.

 Only God can melt a hardened heart.  Only God can give spiritual sight to the blind.  It may take a “breaking” – such as when Nebuchadnezzar, the greatest king of ancient Babylon, had to be thrown off his throne for a time and cast out to live among the livestock and wild beasts.  Or when the deeply religious, but murderous Saul of Tarsus was thrown off his donkey to the ground and blinded, so he could hear and receive the message of His Savior.

 When the heart is softened by the love of Christ, everything appears differently.  Our views on every subject are changed greatly. This change extends to almost every duty, relation, and act of life.  When the heart is softened the intellect is placed in an attitude of attention.  A truth which has been heard a hundred times without any conscious effect, all of a sudden infects the whole soul.

 I was listening to a minister the other day who made a profound statement that is worthy of adopting into each and every Christian’s life: “When I face a difficult person, I constantly remind myself, he’s my friend – he just doesn’t know it yet.  I make a special effort through my actions and words to communicate to him that he’s my friend.  I’m giving him permission to become the person I see.”

Human affliction – Why? What Purpose?

 Recently my understanding of the terms “good” and “evil” in the light of the afflictions we face every day have been challenged by statements and teachings of Christian leaders (past and present) that I deeply respect.  When I say something like this I know the knee-jerk reaction by many full Gospel believers is to respond “Just go to the Word and put the teachings of man on the shelf.”  The problem is, if the Bible always provided incontrovertible guidance regarding every human condition or issue, would there be so many denominational and non-denominational churches?  I think not.  I think most doctrinal divisions resulted from the circumstances men and women faced over the centuries and their attempts to glean from Holy Scripture God’s purpose in allowing them to face those challenges and what their response to each challenge should be.

 So that you know where I’m coming from, let me take you to July 2010.  That’s when a doctor diagnosed me with severe arterial blockage and told me I needed triple by-pass surgery immediately.  The surgery went very well – so well in fact that I had only a miniscule degree of physical pain afterward, and healed and recovered my strength amazingly quickly.  Within sixteen days I was attending my company’s office picnic at the zoo and walking a mile a day.  I attribute that strictly to God’s grace.  Though I prayed for physical healing before the surgery, I have little doubt why I had to endure the surgery – for I had neglected my health (diet and exercise) for a couple years previously.

 A friend of mine has had similar physical challenges, some more serious than my own.  On one occasion medical professionals diagnosed a similar arterial blockage and scheduled by-pass surgery.  Another time he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his lung, and received a prognosis that he’d require chemo, radiation and/or surgery.  In both situations he turned to God’s promises of healing, faithfully speaking healing scriptures hour after hour, day after day between doctor’s appointments.  When he went back to the physician he received a clean bill of health.  Clearly God had intervened miraculously on his behalf.  Yet that friend has had other challenges in life, in personal and work relationships and in financial situations, challenges which God has left him to patiently endure over the years.  In contrast, I have been “graced” with freedom from the likes of these.

 Why does God “allow” human affliction of multiple sorts to affect nearly every one of His followers?  What conceivable purpose could there be for such trials and tribulations?  I know the scriptures that say “Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens.”  If something is not good, then it obviously doesn’t come from Him.  Others argue that since there is no physical or emotional pain, or relational issues or financial problems in heaven, then it must not be God’s will that His people endure such on earth.

 But man’s view of God and His Kingdom is so limited.  It’s like we’re looking at Him and the supernatural realm in which He resides through a periscope.  We persist in defining what is “good” and what is “evil” – and we do so from our own limited perspective.  But who’s to say that every human affliction, every trial, every tribulation is evil.  This is where my “understanding” has been deeply challenged recently.

 Can a human affliction, a trial, a tribulation be “Good”?

 At this past weekend’s People for Jesus meeting, Reverend Kathy spoke much along the same line.  Kathy is one of the strongest “faith” people that I’ve ever known.  She (and her husband who is now with the Lord) prayed for literally thousands of people: for healing, for salvation, for deliverance from addictions and demonic attack, for freedom from bad behaviors, even for the raising of the dead.  And she’s often been privileged to witness God’s signs and wonders when she’s prayed.  Yet she spoke of a recent physical attack upon her person that her prayers, and even medical help failed to alleviate the pain – to the point that the constant pain threatened even her sanity.  Following a lengthy period, the pain was lifted – after which she noted a degree of compassion for others who suffer physically or emotionally that she’d never experienced before.  Could one of the purposes of affliction be to make us more sensitive to the needs and hurts of others?

 It’s interesting that just this morning I read on FaceBook a quote from the well-known author and preacher John Piper that addresses his opinion as to the purpose of affliction: “God intends for the afflictions of Christ to be presented to the world through the afflictions of his people.”  I always like to get the proper and complete context of a statement before I decide if I agree or disagree with it. I found his original quote in an on-line devotional: http://solidjoys.desiringgod.org/en/devotionals/christ-s-sufferings-in-us .  It was based on Paul’s declaration in Colossians 1:24: Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.  There’s that word “afflictions” again.  Piper went on to explain that God’s answer to this ‘lack’ is to call the people of Christ (people like Paul and you and I) to make a personal presentation of the afflictions of Christ to the world. In doing this, we “fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” We “finish” what Christ’s afflictions were designed for, namely, a personal presentation to the people who do not know about their infinite worth.  In other words: by the church experiencing some of the suffering Jesus experienced, when we proclaim the Cross as the way to life, people will see the marks of the Cross in us and feel the love of the Cross from us.

 C. S. Lewis spoke similarly on the purpose of affliction. He had watched his wife endure years of tremendous pain before her death. He acknowledged that this heartbreaking experience, in concert with his study of Holy Scripture formulated much of his beliefs on the goodness of affliction. “What matters in life, is not what you achieve, but rather what you willingly endure.  We will all achieve various heights of achievement in life. In a very real sense it is irrelevant to God how much we achieve.  This is vitally important to remember.  We are saved purely by grace.  There is nothing we can do to gain more favor with God.  No, the more interesting thing to God is our willingness to submit and to endure hard times. Just as we will all achieve different successes in life, we will all be handed different degrees of trials in life.  It is not helpful or useful to compare what others are given to endure.  Rather, what we each need to do is to submit our will, even when it means walking through a dark period in life.  What matters is our willingness to endure.”  Lewis has said much more on this topic, but this quote I found the most profound.”

 The great 19th Century English minister and evangelist Charles Spurgeon experienced severe pain and recurring depression all his life.  Yet listen to what he says about his trials: “I am afraid that all the grace that I have got of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable … Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister’s library.”

 The great minister believed in the healing power of God.  He prayed often to be relieved of his physical pain, and sometimes was.  Yet, he often quoted James 1:2-4, for he recognized that each Christian must go through some form of trial if he is to mature in the faith.  “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith works patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that you may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.”  He stated it is “our duty to see that none of our brethren despond, much less despair” (when faced with affliction).  He cites four purposes of affliction: (1) it “proves” to the enemy that we are believers when we trust God in the face of trials the devil thrusts upon us; (2) it “proves” to ourselves that we truly trust God [e.g.: the way to try whether a ship is well built is to send her to sea and face a storm;] (3) it produces patience, [enabling one to submit to the will of the Lord, to bear ill-treatment without resentment, and to act without undue haste;] and (4) it leads to spiritual completeness.

 Things to remember in facing Affliction

 As an outline for Reverend Kathy’s message, she used some extracts from the writings of Charles Spurgeon and interwove them with the written Word.  These are points we all need to remember as we face various afflictions, trials, and tribulations.

  1. God cares about me and will move mountains for me. His is an immortal and unchanging love for me.
  2. The enemy wants us to see a trial as our fault. He puts so much effort in condemning us because of the power God has given each of His followers.  We each can put 1,000 to flight. and two 10,000.
  3. While I only see the immediate problem, God sees the end. He sees me completely fulfilled.
  4. It’s never just about me. God is moved by the broken-hearted.  Jesus was tempted in all things – therefore He (and His Father with Him) has empathy for everyone.  You have a part in this too.  As a believer, you are called to meet the need at the level of the need of whoever God puts in front of you.  Affliction makes you more sensitive to those needs.
  5. We are constrained by a time dimension. We want things to improve “now.”  God’s viewpoint is outside of time.  He looks at everything.  If He acted too quickly (as we tend to demand) we would miss out on some of His blessings.
  6. God is always faithful. He will provide comfort in proportion to your trial.  God looks at trials as benefits for us for tomorrow.  Good will come out of the trial that we submit to and turn to God for help with.  Great trials always bring great promises.
  7. Don’t give up.

God’s solution to discord in the family

 King Solomon once wrote “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord.”  He must have known, because he had hundreds of wives.  It was obviously a different age!  But have men’s and women’s physical and emotional needs and issues changed all that much over the centuries?  Modern culture would have us believe they have, as it tries to confuse and scramble those needs and issues to the point that many throw their hands up in frustration and surrender to the recommendations of the world.

 Recently a friend of mine asked me to pray for his marriage, because he and his wife were dealing with serious relational issues, and, in fact, had been for a number of years.  They were even questioning whether they should remain in covenant together.  As I sought the Lord for guidance on their behalf, oddly enough, at least I thought so at the time, He took me to the chapters in Genesis that deal with Abraham and Sarah.   My focus (as I suppose is the case for most Christians) has always been on their faith in God’s promises concerning their future descendants – what doctrinally is called the Abrahamic Covenant.  Throughout the New Testament, and particularly in Hebrews 11, the faith of Abraham is spoken about lavishly.  And Sarah’s faith is likewise expounded on in verse 11: “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised.”

 What God seemed to tell me that day is: that is not the complete story of their relationship

 The Bible is not a soap opera.  Though it tells stories, it generally doesn’t delve into the personal relationships and feelings of its characters, because its focus is on the nature and plans of our Creator and Savior.  Yet, there is enough information provided that we can often read between the lines and get a pretty accurate picture of what must have been going through the minds and behind the tent walls of some of its leading players, such as Abram and his family.

 Abram’s and Sarai’s marriage was probably arranged, since that was the custom of the day.  Arranged marriages are foreign to most Americans – so I turned to a modern musical, Fiddler on the Roof, to get a better appreciation for such.  After more than twenty years of marriage, the Jewish dairyman Tevia asks his wife, “Do you love me?”  She responds by reminding him that she’s bore him three daughters, cooked his meals, cleaned his house and darned his socks.  Going back and forth to pinpoint their true feelings, they both conclude that they love each other.

 Modern romance stories and psychoblabble infer that the only good marriage is one in which the partners are “soul mates.”  While it would be nice for marriage partners to be “soul-mates,” I haven’t met too many of them – at least not honest ones.  People get married for a lot of different reasons, some even for love.  Some people get married because it’s the thing to do, and their friends and family encourage them to do so ASAP.  Some get married because they feel sorry for a person and think they can help them get better, or at least get through life.  I know of a number of friends and relatives who entered into marriage for that reason.  In some cases the marriage evolved into an excellent relationship of unconditional love; in other cases it ended after a few children and lots of tragedy.  Most non-arranged marriages are the logical step for a man and a woman who are physically attracted to each other.  Unfortunately, as attraction and sexual desire become too familiar and the everyday challenges of life arise, too many of those have the same outcome as the previous.

 I heard a three minute discussion recently addressing the question: Is marriage about love?  I’ve attached the site here: http://www.str.org/videos/is-marriage-about-love#.VD09zPldWSo Although the question was initiated in relation to the same-sex marriage issue, it raises some interesting points about marriage in general that are worthy of consideration.

 But back to Abraham and Sarah.  It was the husband, Abram who heard directly from God – not his wife Sarai.  God spoke to him and told him he was going to be a great nation; in him all the families of the earth would be blessed. His descendants were going to be as the stars in the sky.

 I’m sure Sarai received that same information – but she received it second-hand from her husband.  She may have believed him at first.  But as the years passed, and she saw one after another of her female servants and the wives of her relatives all have children while she remained childless, it would have only been natural to question the veracity of her husband’s story that he’d actually spoken to God.  I picture Abram coming home every evening after a hard day in the fields, to a sullen look and sarcastic words from his wife.  As the complaints got louder and louder, perhaps he stayed out with his work crew longer and longer each day – hoping Sarai would be in bed by the time he got home.

 I’m sure it didn’t help that Abram didn’t seem to be the bravest man around the campfire.  As they entered Egypt, he covered up the fact that Sarai and he were married.  And Sarai and all his family had to participate in his deception.  He was afraid Pharaoh would kill him for his beautiful wife.  He didn’t even speak up when the man took her into his own household – putting her at risk of being ravished.  How degrading that must have been for Sarai!  And she probably reminded him of that whenever they were alone.

 Over the intervening years, Abram had all kinds of material blessings from God to feed his ego and keep him going.  He was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold.  God even promised to give him all of the land of Canaan.  He gained the admiration and respect of the other kings of the land after he chased down the men who had kidnapped his nephew Lot, his family and servants.  And he was even blessed by Melchizedek king of Salem, the priest of God Most High.  Abram had several face-to-face meetings with God; probably the most dramatic being when God made a covenant with him – when a smoking oven and a burning torch miraculously passed between the pieces of the offering on the altar.  At that time God even let Abram know that his descendants would one day have to endure 400 years of slavery in Egypt.  Abram had a close relationship and an on-going communication with God to lift his spirits and give him the confidence to endure the hardships of life.

 But what did Sarai have to keep her spirits up?  Not much!  She had to keep following in her husband’s footsteps, a man who would pull up stakes and move every time there was a property or waterhole dispute between tribes or even within his own family.  This would be a hardship for any woman – and I expect she made her displeasure known to her husband quite often.

 Eleven years after the first promise of a son, Sarai continued to feel left out, enduring the shame of her barrenness.  You get a good sense of Sarai’s frustration when she made the outlandish suggestion that Abram have relations with her maid, just so Sarai could have a “legal” son to raise.  She had to be feeling really despondent to suggest something that extreme.  And when her suggestion worked, it only depressed and made her more upset, and she blamed both her husband and God for all her troubles.  And when she saw that Hagar had conceived,… Sarai said to Abram, “My wrong be upon you! I gave my maid into your embrace; and when she saw that she had conceived, I became despised in her eyes. The Lord judge between you and me.”

 And it would be another 13 years of bickering in their family before Isaac was conceived.  The events leading up to this would be the first time Sarai actually received some formal recognition.  It was then that God gave both Abram and Sarai new names: “As for Sarai your wife, … Sarah shall be her name.  And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her.”   Shortly after that the Lord visited Abraham’s household in the form of a man and said within Sarah’s hearing, “I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.”  (Sarah was listening in the tent door which was behind him.)  Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”  And the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I surely bear a child, since I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

 But over the next nine months the family relational situation didn’t seem to change all that much.  Abraham continued to be the one in the limelight.  During that time God came down and told him that He intended to destroy Sodom, and allowed him to intercede for the evil city.  Then, even with Sarah pregnant, again Abraham pulled the “sister” act, this time with King Abimelech.  To save Abimelech and his family from His wrath, God allowed Abraham to pray for their healing.

 Even after Isaac was born, Sarah’s bitterness and unforgiveness continued.  She demanded that Abraham cast his first son and his mother out into the wilderness.  She had to know they both would die if God did not intervene on their behalf.  Yet Abraham followed his wife’s demand because God directed him to: “Listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called.  Yet I will also make a nation of the son of the bondwoman, because he is your seed.”

 None of us is perfect in our own eyes – but God sees us as eventually perfected

 Like every other marriage, Abraham’s and Sarah’s had its share of challenges.  God did not choose “already perfected” people to establish the covenant that every Christian still partakes of to this day.  There were days, maybe too many to mention, when they got on each other’s nerves.  If they had lived in our modern American society, I’m positive that they would have been deluged with many voices (each other, friends, family, news articles, TV shows) advising them why it would be better and less stressful if they went their separate ways.  Fortunately they gutted it out for the simple reason that it was the will and plan of God.  They had only God’s Word that it would be for the best.  Jesus said it this way: “Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

 That’s the case for most of us when we gut out a difficult situation (including a stressful marriage) and don’t give up.  We can’t see the end today – we just have to trust the Lord that our obedience will result in something good.  Fortunately a Christian doesn’t have to “gut it out” on his or her own.  We have the Holy Spirit.  We have each other’s words of encouragement and advice.

 We need to get the following truth deep into our spirits.  Jesus didn’t call on angels to free Him from the high priest’s and Pilate’s strong men when things got really bad.  He loved us unconditionally.  He didn’t see his verbal and physical abusers as the enemy.  He saw them (as He does us) as people who were hurting inside, and needing God’s love and forgiveness – and He literally cried for them (and us) rather than got offended by what they were doing.  That’s a lesson we all need to learn.  We never have the right to be offended by anyone.  I’m not saying that’s easy to put into practice – but it is God’s will.

Persevering in the face of life’s challenges

Everyone goes through difficulties in this life.  It’s a part of our human experience.  But if a person is going to give another advice about the importance of persevering in those times of trial and tribulation, they’d better be speaking from experience, or their words will fall on empty ears.  So when the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans proclaiming that “tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope,” he was speaking as one who had been “put in prison often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again; who had been publicly beaten with rods and whips multiple times and was once stoned and left for dead.  Three times he’d been shipwrecked, once spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea.  He’d traveled on many long journeys, facing danger from rivers and from robbers in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas, including from men who falsely claimed to be believers. He’d worked hard and endured many sleepless nights, frequently going without food or drink, and without enough clothing to keep him warm from the cold.”

 When Reverend Pat spoke at our People for Jesus meeting this past Saturday on the same subject of perseverance, she too was speaking from experience and trust in the One who had taken her through more than her share of trials.  She is a cancer survivor and has endured other medical and family stresses and heartaches, including being widowed at too young of an age from a man revered not only by his family, but by every one of the thousands of people who knew him.  And the message she delivered deserves to be heard by more than our little group.

 What does it mean “to persevere?”  The dictionary defines it as “to continue in a course of action even in the face of difficulty or with little or no prospect of success.”  I find it “interesting” the way the world considers situations that have “little or no prospect of success,” whereas God says “all things are possible to him who believes.”  The believer has a promise that whenever we persevere in an act intending to put the Kingdom of God first, then we shall have whatsoever we ask of the Father.

 After writing a very strong and impassioned letter to his Ephesian converts about the Christian life, addressing everything from faith and grace and love, even to spiritual gifts and marriage, the Apostle Paul concludes with the following: “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil… being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.”  There’s that word “perseverance” again.  He concludes his first letter to the young pastor Timothy, in like manner encouraging him to “fight the good fight of faith” to the end.

 Neither Jesus nor Paul nor any of the Lord’s other apostles were ones to mince words, and they constantly remind us that we have an enemy, the devil, who first brings occasions of adversity, then tries to get us to give up when adversity comes.  He is after our faith – to instill fear and doubt.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.  

 But even greater are God’s promises that the believer has everything made available to him and her to overcome that enemy and anything he throws at us.  Jesus said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.”  Then he delegated that authority to His followers: “I can assure you that whoever believes in me will do the same things I have done. And they will do even greater things than I have done, because I am going to the Father.  And if you ask for anything in my name, I will do it for you. Then the Father’s glory will be shown through the Son.  If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.”

 The key to persevering in the face of life’s challenges is strengthening yourself in the Lord

 So how do you strengthen yourself in the Lord?  Let’s look at some examples from the life and words of the man God called “a man after his own heart.”  David was far from perfect; but it seemed every time he faced a situation “with little or no prospect of success,” he knew what to do.  Now it happened, when David and his men came to Ziklag, on the third day, that the Amalekites had invaded the South and Ziklag, attacked Ziklag and burned it with fire, and had taken captive the women and those who were there, from small to great; they did not kill anyone, but carried them away and went their way….Now David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because the soul of all the people was grieved, every man for his sons and his daughters. But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.

Ten Steps to Strengthen yourself in the Lord

 1. In Psalm 119 David reminded God: “Your Word I have hidden in my heart that I might not sin against You.”  In the Book of Jeremiah the Lord expands on this by telling us, “Is not My word like a fire?’ says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”  In other words, it’s not enough to hide His Word in your heart – you need to use it – speak it and put it into action.  Then it becomes like a hammer that, little-by-little whittles away at that problem until it’s barely a pebble that you face.

2. David also constantly communicated with God – talked to Him, relating his problems, his love and adoration – then he waited and listened for God’s answer and direction.  So Pray.

3. The Psalms and the two Books of Samuel recite many of David’s songs of praise and worship and describe how he even danced and played musical instruments before the Lord.  It’s hard to hear the Spirit’s voice when you’re consumed with worry.  Worship music will always lift up the head and heart that is down-trodden.  It will ease and often completely remove sadness, grieving and depression, and free the mind to receive and hear God’s solution to your problems.

4. David recalled how God helped him kill wild animals that attacked the sheep he was watching over.  Remembering his victories over the lion and the bear prepared him to face and defeat Goliath.  So always remember your past victories.

5. David didn’t wait until the difficulty arose in his life before he established a relationship with the One who could help him.  We need to lay that strong foundation ahead of time.  Regardless of where each of us stands in our relationship with God today, we can do better.  If this is brand-new to you today – it’s not too late.  God is a God of restoration.  Begin covenant living today and see how He’ll move on your behalf.

6. David was neither embarrassed nor too proud to rehearse his victories.  He let both his friends and his enemies know where he stood with God.  Rehearse your victories when you face those mountains.  It’ll “scare the hell” out of the enemy.

7. David ran at Goliath, his slingshot and stones in hand.  He even had four additional stones prepared to use against Goliath’s other family members, should they join the fight.  Attack the giant!  Don’t wait for him to make the first move.  God has given us all kinds of offensive and defensive weapons for spiritual warfare – use them.  Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.  Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit,

8. David called his enemy by his first name, he called him a foreigner and he called him “this uncircumcised Philistine.”  But he never called him a giant, because he wasn’t a real threat in his eyes.  David saw him through God’s eyes.  This is in sharp contrast to what happened when the twelve spies returned from checking out the land that God was giving to the people of Israel after their exodus from Egypt.  Ten of the spies saw the Canaanite people in the land as giants and a spirit of fear took them over.  Only Joshua and Caleb saw them through God’s eyes.  Don’t call the “giants in your life” Giants.  They’re just enemies of God that are waiting to be overcome.

9. Speak to your mountains and believe.  Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.  This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you and take your head from you. And this day I will give the carcasses of the camp of the Philistines to the birds of the air and the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.  Then all this assembly shall know that the Lord does not save with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands.”

10. Don’t ever give up.  There were many times when, in the natural, it appeared David was going to lose his life and/or his throne.  But God had promised that wouldn’t happen – so David didn’t give in to fear and doubt.  He never gave up, regardless of the circumstances.

God is faithful – He’s not going to let go of you.

 Don’t listen to the voice of circumstances.  Always, remember – if it’s not good, it’s not God.  Keep holding onto God’s promises.  Intimacy and trust in your relationship with God is key.  Fortunately, our future is guided by God’s promises and faithfulness, not restricted by our past failures.  When the nation of Israel frequently fell from grace, the Lord never forgot them or gave up on them.  Listen to what God spoke through His prophet Micah concerning the future of His formerly rebellious people. “Do not rejoice over me, my enemy; when I fall, I will arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.”

 

Likewise, God is never going to give up on you.  Persevere and “guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge – by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith.”