Thursday, July 9, 2015

Do not fear

Be strong in the Lord
Be strong, and do not fear

With His mighty hand
Your God will guide you 
In His right hand, 
You will find shelter from the storm

There is no sorrow so deep
His love cannot stand
There is no darkness so black
His light cannot shine
There is no pain so raw
His mercy cannot heal

Though you walk through the valley
You do not walk alone
Your God goes before you
And girds you from all sides

Be strong in the Lord
Be strong, and do not fear

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Obedience and Desire

For it is God who is working in you, 
enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose.
Philippians 2:13

The question I was asked about obedience, which I referenced in my last post, was this: "Is it obedience if you do the right thing for the wrong reasons? Can practicing obedience change a person’s heart?" Closely related to these questions is the phrase "Fake it until you make it." As I considered these over the last few days, I realized they all had a common theme: the difficulty in obedience when it does not match desire.

Without Faith, You Cannot Please God

Hebrews 11:6 teaches a bold truth. "Without faith, it is impossible to please God." Paul takes it a step further in Romans 14:23 (ESV): "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." A related idea is 1 Corinthians 10:31: "Whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory."

These verses together show us that everything unbelievers do is sinful, even acts that the Bible would describe as good. Until God saves us and puts His Holy Spirit in us, we are constantly violating 1 Corinthians 10:31 because our actions are not motivated by a desire for God's glory. That is why God describes our best acts as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

Furthermore, this applies to believers who are holding on to sinfulness as well. Obedience in the Bible is "submission to what is heard." By definition, a believer's heart that is in rebellion in one area of his or her life is not submitting to God. As such, any act of external conformity not driven by an internal submission to the Word and the desire to glorify God is simply that: conformity. It is not obedience.

Does Feeling Follow Action?

I'm sure many of you have heard this phrase before, that feeling follows action. There is some small measure of truth in this. Most of us have either experienced or heard about those producing good or even godly habits by persevering through the "I don't want to"'s.

Ultimately though, the idea that we can produce a spiritual change within ourselves through force of our own will is antithetical to the core message of the gospel. We all start in the same place, as sinful people in need of a Savior. We do not seek God on our own (Romans 3:10-12). In our flesh, we are unable, not just unwilling but unable, to submit to God (Romans 8:7). Our flesh does not suddenly want God just because the Holy Spirit now resides in us. Rather, the remainder of our post-conversion lives is spent at war with our flesh (Romans 7:15-25).

True change only comes when, by the power of the Spirit, we submit our hearts to the authority of God's Word and allow our minds to be renewed and transformed (Romans 12:2). God knows that we do not want to do this on our own. That's why, as Paul tells us in Philippians 2:13, God not only enables us do what He wills, He gives us the desire to obey as well.

There is no action we can perform that can make our sinful flesh desire God. That is not to say that God does not use obedience to further change our hearts. He certainly does. But ultimately, we want to obey and are able to obey because of the work He is doing in us, not because of anything we do by ourselves.

Fake It Until You Make It?

Some of you might then ask the question, "Well then, if I don't feel like obeying, should I just not obey?" We inherently recognize that to not be true, and so this idea of "fake it until you make it" has taken hold.

When Jesus was praying in Gethsemane, Luke 22:44 records that He was in such anguish about experiencing the physical and spiritual torment of the cross that He sweated drops of blood. He did not want to go through that. But He did His Father's will, in His Father's timing, and with a heart submitted to His Father's command (Luke 22:42). That is obedience.

The danger of this "fake it" phrase is thinking that obedience is supposed to be easy. Jesus did not desire to be crucified, but His obedience was not fake. What He did desire was to see His Father glorified. It is in that priority of desires that we find the truth about obedience.

As previously referenced, Romans 7:15-25 teaches us that we are at war with our flesh. For any given command we are seeking to obey, it is very likely that we will not want to, at least at first. But the fleshly desire to sin that is made to submit to the God-given desire to glorify our Father can result in obedience.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

Why is there so often a disconnect between desire and obedience? Here are some conclusions I have drawn from thinking about these questions:
  1. Some people try to obey God without knowing God. Only you and God know your heart, but if you do not desire God's glory, and if in a general sense you do not desire to obey His Word, then you may not know Him at all.
  2. Some people who know God still try to obey by their own power. Don't try to overcome sin by force of your own will. Rather, heed Paul's exhortation in Romans 12:2 and seek transformation through a change in the way you think. Ask God to grow the desire to obey Him in your specific area of struggle.
  3. Some people believe true obedience will always be easy. Look to the example of Jesus in the garden. Also, understand that as an infinite God expresses His character through finite beings, we will naturally have different gifts and passions. A lack of zeal in a specific area does not absolve disobedience, but it does not cheapen obedience either.
Above all, remember this: there is great joy to be had in obedience. What God wills in any and every situation is always better than what the world or your flesh can offer. Jesus endured the cross because of the joy of bringing glory to God and salvation to His Church (Hebrews 12:2). After nearly 30 years of faith, I can say unequivocally that in every step I take closer to Jesus, I find that He is infinitely more beautiful and satisfying than everything I have left behind.

How happy is the man
who does not follow the advice of the wicked
or take the path of sinners
or join a group of mockers!
Instead, his delight is in the Lord’s instruction,
and he meditates on it day and night.
He is like a tree planted beside streams of water
that bears its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers.
Psalm 1:1-3

Friday, June 26, 2015

Have You Died to Sin?

What should we say then? Should we continue in sin so that grace may multiply? Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 
Romans 6:1-3

Someone asked me recently about the nature of obedience and its relationship to salvation. As I was researching the question, my mind wandered to those who take "by faith alone" to the extreme. There are those who believe that all you have to do is pray a prayer at some point and then you receive your Get Out of Hell Free card for life. They then take this idea as a license to sin, claiming all the while that in their life of sin, God's grace will still save them.

As we see in Romans 6 here, these people have been around from the beginning. Paul's response to them was this: "How can we who have died to sin still live in it?" The simple answer is that we cannot. John makes that abundantly clear:

6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. 8 Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. 1 John 3:6-10 (ESV) (emphasis mine)

The tragedy in all of this is there are people who simply don't know this or refuse to accept it. They believe that a life of a sin is compatible with a saving faith. The Bible tells us in many places that there are people who think they are saved and really are not. Matthew 7:21-23 says there will be those turned away from the very gates of heaven who believed at the time they died they had a saving faith. Jesus says He will tell these people He never knew them.

If we think hard enough, we all know people who fall into that category to varying degrees. There was a contemporary of Billy Graham named Charles Templeton. Both were evangelists in the 1940's. God undoubtedly used Mr. Templeton to save many people. Yet in the end, he died an atheist. 

On a more personal note, I had a friend and mentor in college who had been married for something like 15 years. They were a model of faith, did ministry together, and had moved hundreds of miles from home to plant a church. One day, his wife just went crazy. She turned her back on everything she believed, began having an affair, and eventually divorced her husband. 

It doesn't matter how long you think you've been walking with God or how many good things you have done in His name. None of us are exempt from the need to constantly examine our lives and ask this question: Do I look more like Jesus today than I did last week or last month or last year? Philippians 2:13 says that God gives those that are His both the desire and the ability to obey Him and do His work. If you truly belong to God, if you are truly covered by the blood of Jesus, you have died to sin, and you will be conformed to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29). 

Let no one misunderstand what I am saying. There is absolutely nothing we can do to earn our salvation. The Bible emphatically teaches that we are saved by faith alone. But no one can be saved by a "faith" that is alone apart from the evidence of obedience. There is no such thing as a "carnal" Christian. Either your faith is changing you to look more like Jesus, or it will not save you. There is no middle ground.

Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things I say?
Luke 6:46

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, 
so also faith without works is dead.
James 2:26

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Immediate Obedience

It happened again. I was coming out of Wendy's last week, and a man stopped me to ask for my help. He wanted to know where the nearest DMV office was so he could purchase a license. Up until that point he had been unable to afford one, and he needed to know how to get there by bus. I stopped and talked with him and pulled up the information he requested on my phone. So far, so good.

Somewhere in that process, I heard the Holy Spirit plain as day tell me, "You need to give him a ride to the DMV." But, I had just bought a frosty as part of my lunch and didn't want it to melt. I needed to get back to work. He reeked of cigarette smoke. Blah, blah, blah. As I was getting back in my car, I remembered that I had an outreach Bible, and I thought something like, "Well, at least I can give him a Bible," like it was some sort of acceptable compromise to not obeying. But as I got back out to do that, he was already on his way to the bus stop. Another missed opportunity.

But it didn't stop there. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, God gave me another chance. I saw this man at the bus stop and I heard God again, "Go give him a ride." But I kept driving. Like the biscuit story, God convicted me to the point of submission, and I turned around to go back to pick him up. But this time, God decided to teach me a lesson, as the man was no longer there waiting. In a three minute span, the bus must have come and picked him up.

God showed me something in that. My mom used to tell me growing up that obedience is "doing what you are told when you are told to do it." I would later learn that there is a third element, doing so with the right heart attitude (Philippians 2:14). But it is the immediacy of obedience that God pressed on me.

My 3 1/2 year old son has a frustrating habit. At the end of each day, before he goes to bed, we have him clean up his toys. It is always a battle. Sometimes it is outright tears and meltdown. But sometimes he shifts into bargaining mode. "But I don't have to pick up these blocks. I will just pick up my cars." (Declarative statements like that are his way of asking.) And when I tell him no, you really do have to do what I told you to do, the meltdown eventually follows.

One word the Bible used for "obedience" is hupakoƩ. It means "submission to what is heard." Do you dig in, whine and complain when God tells you to do something? Do you try to bargain with Him? From the moment you hear God tell you to do something, you have about 3 nanoseconds to submit to what you heard. If you don't, you are in a state of disobedience.

There are a lot of things my son does that bring a smile to my face. One of the chief among those is when I ask him to do something and he immediately says, "OK, Daddy", gets up, and obeys. In that obedience, that immediate submission to what he heard, I know he is learning a valuable lesson that will serve him well later on in life: When your Father says, "Go," your best response is an immediate "OK, Daddy."

You are not guaranteed multiple opportunities to obey. Like Peter's denial of Jesus, I disobeyed God multiple times in this encounter. When I finally did relent and sought to comply (compliance and obedience are not the same), God showed me that in my disobedience I missed an opportunity to be used by Him. I urge you not to make my mistake.

Today, if you hear His voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.
Hebrews 3:15

This is how we know that we love God’s children 
when we love God and obey His commands. 
For this is what love for God is: to keep His commands.
1 John 5:2-3

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Don't You Eat That Man's Biscuit

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. 
James 4:17 (ESV)

A couple of Sundays ago we opted not to try and visit a new church as we had just moved into our new house the day before. If you've ever made a big move in a short period of time, you know how long it can take to recover. The last time we did it six years ago, we didn't start driving until like 3pm on a Friday for what ended up being a 13 hour drive. We never went to sleep that night, and spent all day Saturday unpacking. Come Sunday, we woke up, ate breakfast and then had church in our living room before going promptly back to sleep. Good times.

This time around, it was our second Sunday in town, the first being the tail end of about 26 hours of driving over two days. We spent almost a week in a hotel and then moved into the house we rented on Saturday. We were exhausted, and rather than trying to face the additional stress of visiting a new church, we opted to postpone that a week. I got out to get us some breakfast, and that's when an interesting encounter started.

After buying a couple of biscuit sandwiches for myself and a burrito for my wife, I noticed a homeless guy on the street corner. I distinctly heard the Holy Spirit prompting me, "You have two sausage, egg and cheese biscuits; you need to give him one." As is so easy to do, I decided to ignore the prompting and continue driving on. Of course, God didn't leave it alone there, and I was feeling some serious conviction all the way back to the house. At one point I heard the Holy Spirit say something to the effect of, "I didn't buy that biscuit for you. Don't you eat that man's biscuit."

But it wasn't until He reminded me of James 4:17 that I finally relented. As I entered a roundabout close to my house, I heard that verse plain as day, and I kept circling around until I drove out the same point I came in. Another 4 minutes or so later, I delivered his breakfast to him and told him, "God told me to share my breakfast with you this morning."

So why did it take so long for me obey? It's not as if I wasn't really listening the first time or two. I knew what I was supposed to do. I just didn't want to. It's times like this that I can really appreciate Paul's struggle in Romans 7:

15 For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree with the law that it is good. 17 So now I am no longer the one doing it, but it is sin living in me.

Sometimes we can forget that we face a real spiritual battle inside of us. The person God is making us to be by the power of His Spirit is at war with the person we used to be. Every temptation and every conviction is an opportunity to engage in battle against our flesh. We must always be prepared to fight, and we must always be prepared to listen. If through sin and laziness we do not have the Word in our hand and our hearts, our only offensive weapon (Ephesians 6:17) is useless. On the other hand, if we fill our minds and hearts with the things of this world, then the battle can be over before we are even aware of the need to fight. I almost missed this battle because I was too concerned with satisfying my flesh.

We must strive for a state of active peacefulness before God, both ready to fight and ready to listen. Only then will we be able to slay the biscuit when it dares to oppose a soldier of God.

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humanity.
God is faithful, and He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able,
but with the temptation He will also provide a way of escape
so that you are able to bear it.
1 Corinthians 10:13

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sent But Not Yet Received

12 “Don’t be afraid, Daniel,” he said to me, “for from the first day that you purposed to understand and to humble yourself before your God, your prayers were heard. I have come because of your prayers. 13 But the prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me for 21 days. Daniel 10:12-13

This is an interesting verse, even for a prophecy passage. The context is that Daniel is seeking to understand a revelation he received. He fasted and prayed for three weeks trying to understand the revelation, after such time an angel appeared to him in a vision and spoke these words to him. The messenger goes on to say that he could not defeat the opposition on his own; he was detained until Michael the arch-angel showed up to provide backup. It's crazy to think about spiritual battles getting in the way of timely delivery of prayer answers.

Even so, I don't want to speculate about angels and spiritual warfare and the like. It's best not to try to read too much into such an obscure passage. I have heard some make the claim in a message on being persistent in prayer that had Daniel stopped praying on day 20, he would not have received his answer. That's a big leap from what the passage actually says, especially considering the angel said he was dispatched with an answer on day one. However, there is an interesting parallel here with a recent event in my life.

As I wrote in my last post, God told us we were moving, just not where. Well, three weeks after that post, He provided the answer, and nearly a month after that, I am writing this post from a completely different state having started a brand new job. During the time before the move, as I was coordinating things with my new team lead, I found out that though I was not offered the job by HR until December 29th, he had wanted them to tell me before Christmas. I spent the last half of Christmas week in a bit of a funk because I hadn't heard anything yet, only to find out later that my offer had been "sent but not yet received" more than a week earlier!

Again, I won't speculate on whether or not Daniel's three weeks of fasting was unnecessary, but here's the parallel I see: Daniel was making himself miserable and weak (if you've ever fasted for more than a day, you know what I mean) for days and days after his answer was already on its way. In the same way, I was making myself miserable emotionally for more than a week not knowing that I had already been chosen for my new job. But whereas Daniel's self-imposed affliction was in pursuit of understanding a God-given message, mine was nothing more than an expression of doubt and fear.

Even for those of us with the spiritual gift of faith, understanding and trusting a promise from God that is not black and white in scripture can be difficult. In hindsight, it is so very clear what God was doing, but in the midst of things, doubt can set in. Is He really leading me there? Did I really understand Him correctly? Looking back, while I don't know about Daniel's suffering, mine was certainly unnecessary.

I have no great insight to share, but I have learned that no matter how much faith you have, there's always room for more. And just like so many other characteristics of Christ-likeness, growing takes pain. You can't grow in self-control without temptation. You can't grow in patience without external frustrations. And you can't grow in faith without those situations that leave you no other choice but to hold on to God with all that is in you. Just remember that while you wait for God to come through in those situations, how you wait is just as important as how long you wait.

33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, 
and all these things will be provided for you. 
34 Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. 
Each day has enough trouble of its own. 
Matthew 6:33-34