Is Suffering Optional?

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps ~1 Peter 2:21

There are many today that teach that being a true Christian, if you do it right, means that God will take care of all your earthly needs. He will heal all your infirmities, bless you with financial prosperity, and grant you an easy and peaceful existence during your long, fulfilled, and happy time here on earth. All you need to do is to have faith, and of course, give to the church, in order to receive all the peace that God desires for your life.

This is certainly an appealing picture but is there any truth to it? There is a time in the eternal state when all of those things will come to pass but God's word paints a very different picture of His expectation of our time here in this world. Every single book of the New Testament discusses the promise and the expectation that followers of Jesus will endure suffering. Most of the apostles were arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for their faith, some multiple times. All of the Apostles, with the lone exception of John, were martyred for their faith in Christ. Each of them, and millions after them, professed their faith boldly to their deaths and they died specifically due to those bold professions of faith.

In the ease and comfort of our western culture it is easy to forget that there are millions of Christians all over the world today that live in fear of persecution and even death. In China, India, Africa, the Middle East, and in many other countries Christians are arrested, tortured, and killed for their faith and yet they press on. In these countries where proclaiming Christ can lead to violent death, there are no casual Christians.

This is not the only form of suffering though. Regardless of where we find ourselves - in the midst of political peace or persecution - we must all deal with suffering in forms both great and small. The loss of a job, the death of a loved one, natural disasters, war, murder, rape, child abuse... suffering surrounds us and permeates this existence. 

This suffering is not pointless and it is not simply a filter to test whose faith is true (though it does that as well), rather it is to strengthen us, to develop our character, to lead us in our spiritual growth, to allow us the opportunity to show true love to others, and to bring us ever closer to a personal relationship of trust and faith in God through Jesus Christ. All of scripture, and our own experience as well, teaches us that this world is not a final place rest but an intermediate place of testing.

There are many who will tell you that this isn't God's plan and that God really wants you to have heaven here on this earth but just as Scripture teaches us to expect many trials and suffering, it also expressly warns us about such teachers: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires” (2 Timothy 4:3)

Are you seeking only those that tickle your ears and tell you what you desire to hear? Remember to test all things with God’s word through scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. ~1 Peter 5:10

All the Answers

When pride comes, disgrace follows, but with humility comes wisdom. ~Proverbs 11:2 

Another of the primary objections that many people have to religion in general and to Christianity in particular is the propensity to claim: 1) to know the truth; and 2) to have all the answers to life's problems and questions. I attempt to address the issues of exclusivity and truth in the blog posts Exclusive Jesus?, The Morality Argument, and Absolute TruthBut what is the difference between knowing the truth and having all of the answers? Is there a difference at all and do Christians even make these claims in the first place?  

There is a very definite distinction between "knowing the truth" in the Christian sense and "having all the answers".  I believe, for example, that the Bible is truth and that it is the living Word of God.  I believe that it provides, as God intended, a sufficient and complete foundation upon which we are to base our understanding of God, the universe, the world, human society, and ourselves. I believe this because I have a personal relationship with the author. I do not claim, however, that the Bible holds the answer to every specific question that could possibly be asked but that it instead provides the framework through which we approach those questions and evaluate the answers. God is the light by which the world is illuminated and the Bible is the lens through which the world comes into focus. The lens is of little worth without the light.

There is a very large difference between knowing the truth of God and claiming to know all truth. While most Christians will be the first to humbly admit that they do not have all the answers, many Christians, I am afraid, do make the claim to know "all truth that matters". There are times that Christians hold their doctrine or their religious teachings above the Word of God. Religion is simply the final stages of man working out what he thinks God has revealed. All religion is of man and not of God. When we hold our interpretations and doctrines above God's Word then we begin to fall into the trap of prideful legalism and human arrogance. (For a further explanation of the differences between doctrine, religion, and relationship see our section on theology here.)

Life on this earth is a journey of constant growth toward a destination that we will never fully realize. The Bible tells us the truth of that destination and also serves as the map and as the signs along the road to point the way. Our true destination is perfection in our relationship with God. Those who know God live with the truth and the hope that they will spend all eternity in a constant state of learning, of exploring the richness of all that God has created. 

People, both inside the church and outside, tend to forget the journey and instead look at this current existence as all there is. We begin to define ourselves by what we achieve and by what we know here and now instead of what we are called to learn next. We become blinded to the fact that, no matter how smart we think we are or what answers we imagine we might have, our current understanding and knowledge pales in comparison to what we will always have left to learn. 

While our beliefs are foundational and important, and while it is vital that we have a very good understanding of why we believe what we believe, we must be careful not to place the knowledge itself on the throne of God. Instead of allowing ourselves to become distracted and consumed by our rules, our doctrine, or our religion, we need to constantly remind ourselves instead to focus on our relationship with God, constantly taking the next step that He sets before us on our journey toward Him. The more we focus on listening to God throughout each day, the less susceptible we become to falling into the ditch of arrogant legalism or prideful superiority.

As a Christian, I don't claim to have all the answers. I do, however, know the God who does and I invite you to join me on my journey toward Him. If you don't know Jesus please take a moment today to stop and simply ask Him to show you the truth then listen to what He speaks to your heart. If you do know Jesus then remember that until He returns or calls you home your journey is never complete and there is always a next step that He is calling you to take. No matter where we are in our spiritual journey in this life, whether we are just starting out or have been on the path for a long time, God is calling us all to a next step toward Him and toward the relationship that we were created to experience. 

Human pride will be humbled, and the loftiness of men will be brought low; the Lord alone will be exalted on that day.  ~Isaiah 2:11

Reintroduced to God

Prepare to meet your God, O Israel! For behold He who forms mountains, and creates the wind, who declares to man what his thought is, and makes the morning darkness, who treads the high places of the earth - the LORD God of hosts is His name. ~Amos 4:12-13

The prophet Amos was reintroducing God to a people who had turned to worshiping God as an afterthought, as a way to 'cover their bases'. They had lost the knowledge of who God really is; God is not an idol of wood or stone without the ability to hear or move or talk, He is not a God created by man in order to pander to our needs and to meet our expectations. He is living and real and His presence is so powerful that when we truly encounter it we realize that it is He that must be worshiped and we that must be humbled. It is only when we are distant from God that we can forget this about Him. I can imagine God's incredulity as He asks through Isaiah (45:9) “Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, 'What are you making?' or 'Your work has no handles'”? The same metaphor is used in Jeremiah 18:6 “Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand”. We are the created ones, we are the lesser ones. We will one day stand before God and He will need no further introduction. “Every knee will bow” (Philippians 2:10-11) in recognition of who He is; at that moment, even the people who never knew God in life will acknowledge and worship Him.

If we stay close to God now, our worship will flow sincerely and spontaneously. It reminds me of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in which a sailor falls under a curse, all his shipmates die and as the man nears death himself, he looks at the creatures of the sea and marvels at God's creation. “And I blessed them unaware” he claims, which lifted the curse and freed him to pray. The breathtaking beauty of nature often stirs us to think of God. Nearness with God necessitates worship, its just what happens.

Sometimes I need to be reintroduced to God - reminded again of his sovereignty. Whether these moments come through poetry, nature, or the fellowship of church family, it is a blessing to recognize that I have been minimizing God by worshiping on my terms and in my time. I fall into the trap of trying to bring God to me instead of presenting myself to God. It is ironic that we need God in the Holy Spirit in order to worship God fully. Ironic, weird, and beautiful. That's how our God works. We cannot control, predict, or understand Him. Instead we walk with Him, learn from Him, and praise Him.

God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend. ~Job 37:5

Be Not Conformed

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. ~Romans 12:2
One of the most shocking revelations of Jesus - both to His hearers then and to those who read and hear His words today - is his teaching that sin is not simply the physical act of doing something against the will of God but that it actually begins within our heart. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. ~Matthew 5:27-28  
Here Jesus raises the bar from the physical act of committing adultery to even entertaining lustful thoughts about a woman. A few verses earlier He taught that harboring hatred toward your brother or sister is equated with murder. Our world and culture bombards us with images of sexuality and of violence and teaches us that it is natural and normal to think about these things. Scripture however, tells us not be conformed to this world and its teachings but rather to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Why? So that we may prove what the will of God is, that which is good, acceptable, and perfect.

Each moment of each day, through every situation in which we find ourselves, we are presented with the opportunity to either choose to follow God or to choose to go our own way and submit to our own thoughts and passions. This choice - this battle - is made and fought in our hearts and in our minds. Moment by moment, we choose what to allow into our thoughts and what to focus our internal resources on. In the book of 2nd Corinthians Paul writes:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. ~2 Corinthians 10:3-5
Choosing to allow only those things that are true and worthy into our thoughts is a mighty battle. Here we must wage war against, not only the world and its messages, but against our own flesh and against Satan himself. We must never forget, however, that we do not wage this war on our own pitiful strength but we have the Spirit of the living God that raised Christ from the dead within us that strengthens and guides us. It is through His power that we gain the strength to take captive every thought to Christ.

I like to picture it this way. Imagine that you have a light inside of you - a physical light bulb - that shines the light of God's love. Above that light bulb is a water spout controlled by two spigots - one representing things holy and one representing things of the world. Whenever you think of things that are holy and good then it is like turning on the holy spigot and pure and clean water runs and washes the light bulb keeping it clean and shining brightly. Whenever you entertain thoughts of the world then it is like turning on the other spigot and the water changes to a dark and thick sludge that cakes the light bulb, baking onto it, and darkening its light making you look just like everybody else. 

It only takes a little sludge to darken the bulb and it takes a lot of water to get the bulb clean. Jesus tells us to be the light of the world, to be like a town built on a hill for others to see.  In the same way, Jesus says, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). Guard your thoughts and let your light shine brightly!

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things ~Philippians 4:8

Who Do You Love?

...that they may learn the difference between serving me and serving the kingdoms of other lands. ~2 Chronicles 12:8

George Thorogood and the Destroyers once asked "who do you love?" I doubt they had in mind a question so weighty as "do you love yourself and the things of this life, or do you love God and the things that come after this life?" I read the lyrics of the song and I still don't know what they love - perhaps snakes? There is a lot of talk about snakes in that song, but I digress...

It is hard not to love life on this earth at times. There is so much that tastes good, looks good, and feels good. Many of these things are gifts from God, given with the full intention that we should enjoy them. Consider the gifts, though. Seeing the Milky Way stretched out across the sky is a gift from God. Seeing movies on a deluxe home theater system with a projector and a surround sound system is an indulgence, but it could be used for God's purposes. A charismatic personality is a gift from God, but James warns that the tongue is "a restless evil and full of deadly poison" (James 3:8), yet a gift of charisma can be used for God's purposes. Wealth can be used indulgently or for God's purposes. Likewise time, a large house, multiple vehicles, etc.

If we use God's gifts only for ourselves then we are storing up for ourselves treasures on earth, temporary and fickle things, where moths and rust destroy (Matthew 6:20). Using our gifts for God's purposes is a sacrifice, it has a cost, but only in this world. Where our treasure is, there our heart will be also (Matthew 6:21).

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. ~Matthew 16:24

Who Then is Greatest?

It's All About Me! by: Randy Willis PhotosAt that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." ~Matthew 18:1-4

This wasn't the only time that the disciples thought about who was greatest. In fact, they argued about it among themselves and vied for the positions that they imagined for themselves once Jesus took His place as King. This is an odd tendency that we all seem to have to one degree or another: the need to advance our position or to be recognized by our peers in order to feel any worth.

Jesus condemned this tendency harshly when speaking to the Pharisees: "How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?" (John 5:44) Jesus here speaks to those who are more worried about impressing each other and gaining the accolades of their peers than they are about the approval of God. The point of His rebuke is that they are so blinded by their own pride in their knowledge of the Scriptures and of their religiosity that they have missed everything that their Scriptures and that their religion point them to, namely Jesus Himself. (John 5:39-47

Even within our own service to Christ we can easily fall into the tendency to do our duty in order to earn accolades and recognition for ourselves. We seek the approval of men instead of God and seek to get glory for ourselves instead of working to give all glory to the only one who truly deserves it. Taking a hard objective look at our lives can be a difficult thing to do. It is easier, however, to recognize that pride is an issue in our lives than it is to submit to God to allow Him to remove it. As a wise woman said in our church fellowship "You can't just decide one day 'okay, today I am going to become humble!'"

Jesus said that John the Baptist was the greatest of those born of women yet the least in the kingdom of heaven was greater than he (Matthew 11:11). The quality that marked John the Baptist was his recognition of who Jesus was and his submission to the superiority of Jesus and His ministry. John said Jesus must become greater and John must become less (John 3:30). 

This is my prayer for myself and for all Christians: that in every aspect of our lives, in all our service, that we would seek for Jesus to continually become greater and for us to continually become less. That we would submit fully to the Holy Spirit and allow His fruit to grow in us so fully that any care for our own recognition or control simply falls away as Christ alone rises as master over all.

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. ~Mark 10:43-45  

The Crafty Beast

Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” ~Genesis 3:1-5 

Since the creation of the world, Satan has not altered his tactics in leading people away from the Word of God. His formula is simple and almost always has these three points: Doubt, Deny, and Exalt. He leads us to doubt what God has said, to deny the truth of His word, and ultimately to exalt ourselves to the level of God. 

Satan led Eve to question what God had said, refuted God's promised consequence of disobedience, and led her astray with promises of being like God. The fact is that, regardless of what Satan would have them believe, Adam and Eve did die that very day. The moment they chose to go their own way and listen to Satan, they died a spiritual death that ultimately removed them from them very presence of God. This single sin introduced something unnatural and foreign into God's perfect creation: death.

By twisting the truth and playing to human pride, Satan was able to separate man from the garden and from God's presence and place himself as head and ruler over the now fallen world (2 Corinthians 4:4). At least, that is what he believes. Satan's suffers from the same delusions that he attempts to inflict upon all of us. He wants to exalt himself over God (Isaiah 14:12-14). Nevertheless, there will come a day when we will all see Satan for what he really is and wonder that this poor creature was the cause of so much trouble (Isaiah 14:15-19). All the world's sin, all the world's death, all the world's depravity, all the world's evil came into God's creation through man by means of deception and a single bite of fruit. The fact is that we do not grasp the seriousness of sin nor the holiness of God.

In what aspect of your life or your faith are you entertaining doubts about what God has said to you? Are you allowing the serpent to whisper lies and deceits in your ear denying the truth of God's Word? Are you placing yourself and your own judgement on the throne of your life, exalting yourself to the position of the Most High and overruling the Word of God in some area of your life? 

Pray that God might reveal those areas of your life where you are doubting or denying the truth of His Word. Ask Him to humble you in any area where you are placing yourself or your own judgement above His. While we may fool ourselves into thinking we know best, the truth is always that we only find true rest, peace, and fulfillment by resting in Him.

Come unto Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. ~Matthew 11:28-30

He is Seeking

Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me. ~Revelation 3:20

Jesus is seeking you. He wants to know you and to be the very most important thing in your life. The outside world sees Christianity as rigid - as a list of don'ts, can'ts, and shouldn'ts. C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:
There is a story about a schoolboy who was asked what he thought God was like. He replied that, as far as he could tell God was 'the sort of person that was always snooping around to see if anyone is enjoying himself and then trying to stop it.'
This sort of sums up the preconceived notion of Christianity. There is good news though, and lots of it. God loves you and wants a relationship with you so much that He sent His only begotten son, Jesus, to redeem all of mankind from our squalor, selfishness, and ignorance. Jesus loved us so much that He was willing to come to earth and sacrifice His life in one of the most humiliating and painful forms of execution known in order to take the price of our sins onto Himself. This, however, still isn't the best of the good news.

There are several stories in the Bible that tell us of regular people that had died but had been raised back to life. These people, however, still had to face mortality. Sometimes I'm not even sure that it was a kindness that they had to die twice. Jesus, on the other hand, returned to life never to face death again. He is still alive today and He has forever defeated that ugly banner of our shame - death. Not only this, but we have been promised an everlasting life as well - either with Jesus, if you allow yourself to be found by Him or without, if that is what you choose.

Jesus is seeking you. Reading this now is one way He is calling you. Just stop for a moment and open yourself to the possibility that the Bible really is true. What would that mean to you? I promise that it does not mean you have to embrace an ancient checklist of do's and don'ts. It does not mean that God isn't happy until you are miserable. There are times as a Christian that you grit your teeth and practice humble obedience and do something that you don't want to do, but more usually the things you sacrifice are given happily out of love. If you read the Bible you learn how God wants us to behave and it brings out the best in you to follow that code of behavior. It is not weak wills nor fear of death that brings people to accept Christ. How much easier do you suppose it is to make your choices based on social norms and to always take the best care of yourself?

The hope of Heaven doesn't rescue us from death, but it definitely puts a new light on it. It is impossible to know the absolute reality of Heaven, but I can believe it will be unimaginably awesome. As a person who endured more trials than most wrote: "For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison" ~2 Corinthians 4:16

You are loved by a God that will never give up on you. It is never too late to seek Him and there is no sin in your past or present that is too big for Jesus to accept on your behalf. God is calling you right now to think, question, and search for the only everlasting source of joy -Himself.

When you search for me, you will find me. ~Jeremiah 29:13 

Exclusive Jesus?

Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. ~John 14:9

One of the primary objections to the Christian faith is the objection of exclusivity. I recently received an email that summed up the objection perfectly:
Christianity posits that there is one and only one path to God. What that means to me is that Christians are saying "We're right and the rest of you are wrong and going to Hell." I reject that notion with every fiber of my being.
This is an extremely common point of view in our modern popular culture that values tolerance above all other things. The only viewpoints and opinions that are not at all tolerated in our society are those that it regards as intolerant. The claim that there is such a thing as absolute and objective truth and the claim that truth can be known and understood are both rejected as arrogance. For more on truth, morality, and self-defeating arguments see the posts on Absolute Truth and The Morality Argument.

The objection of Christian exclusivity is common but is it true that Christianity makes the exclusive claim in the first place? Well, yes and no. The objection is not true in the sense that it usually comes with either the implicit suggestion or the blatant accusation that Christians think that they are better than everybody else because only they are good enough to make it to heaven. This could not be farther from the truth. Christianity is, in fact, the most inclusive of the world's religions in that all people regardless of who they are, what they look like, or what they have done are welcomed and actively called to come and know God personally. All are welcome and none who truly seek God and surrender to Him are turned away.

The claim of exclusivity is true, however, in that God has, through His own sacrifice, made a path - a single path - to Himself through Jesus Christ. It is not the followers of Christ that make the claim that Jesus is the only way to God. It is Jesus Himself that makes that perfectly clear. Jesus says: 
"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)
 “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8: 12)
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25-26)
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and who ever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
Many people today, when they think of Jesus, picture Him as a simple prophet or a good teacher no different from any other wise man that had come before. C.S. Lewis addresses this in his book Mere Christianity:
TrilemmaI am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
This is the point of the whole matter. Jesus does not simply claim to be the only path to God. Jesus IS God Himself. God made Himself flesh in order to personally make the payment for our sin that we are incapable of making. God Himself, in the person of Jesus, chose to wrap Himself in human form, be beaten, tortured, and brutally killed in order to pay the penalty for all the world's sins. He then literally and physically rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to take His place on His eternal throne. In so doing, He defeated death for all time and built a path - a single path - to Him for all humanity.

Jesus said "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) Jesus calls you to walk the path that He gave His life to make for you. He is the only way to God. Ask God today to show you His path. Ask Him to light your way and lead you into all repentance and into all truth and into personal and intimate relationship with Him. 

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. ~Matthew 7:13-14

For more on the one way to God and on His massive desire that you seek and find Him see our posts One Bridge and He is Seeking.

Do Not Fear

With the LORD on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me? ~Psalm 118:6

Mortals can do a lot of harm to each other. It always surprises me that this line was written by David when his life was anything but tranquil. As a warrior, David knew better than most just what mortals could do to each other. The tragic stories that we see on the news every day of those kidnapped, raped, and murdered remind us that we mortals can be pretty terrible to each other. In countries that see famine, war, and genocide, the brutal realities that David experienced are still very real and, in some cases, even magnified. It is part of our human nature to fear what mortals can do to us. We worry about home invasions, bullies, predators on the internet, being laughed at, etc.

We often substitute our own present inconsequential fears for those things that should truly be of concern to us. My son, for example, had the opportunity to go on a bike ride over the fourth of July with his uncle. This is something that he had been looking forward to for weeks because it meant that he and his cousin got to ride down a seven mile stretch of road from his grandparent's farm to the little gas station store on the highway in order to get ice cream. If he was able to handle this short stretch well then he would get to continue the journey several miles down the highway to the next town. He was eight years old at the time.

The time came for the trip and he realized that we really were going to make him wear his bike helmet. He was convinced that this would make him "look stupid" so he got upset and said that he would rather not go, then got even more upset because he didn't get to go (it doesn't make any sense to me either. I still haven't mastered child logic). After much talking and time we finally convinced him that the fun outweighed any potential of looking foolish (it's a very nice helmet by the way) and he was able to go, but by this time there wasn't enough time for the full trip and they only got to go down a mile and a half the other way to the end of the road and back with no ice cream and no long adventure.

My son placed his imagined and trivial fear of "looking stupid" over what should have been the real fear of the possibility of cracking his head open on the pavement. In the mean time, as he fussed over what we see as his trivial fear, he missed a huge blessing that was planned for him. The thing is, from his perspective the idea of "looking stupid" isn't trivial at all. The concept of cracking his head open is just some weird adult theory that, to him, pales in comparison to what he saw as the immediate issue.

It goes against our nature and becomes an article of faith to say and to mean "what can mortals do to me?" While it may be normal for us to fear what others can do to us, no matter how bad those things might seem, from God's perspective they are just as trivial in light of eternity as wearing a silly looking helmet that distract us from His ultimate truth and, in many cases, from the blessings that He has planned for us. Where in your life are you paying so much attention to worrying about the small stuff that you are missing what God would have you do?

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in Hell. ~Matthew 10:28

The Bricks Have Fallen

“The bricks have fallen down, but we will rebuild with dressed stone; the fig trees have been felled, but we will replace them with cedars.” ~Isaiah 9:10

This was the Bible verse quoted by Tom Daschle in his speech to Congress on September 12th, 2001 as part of his official response to the attack of 9/11. Mr. Daschle, in his attempt to make sense of a tragedy and to uplift and encourage others, went to the Bible on the floor of the Senate. You can watch the speech here. This is a practice that has been losing favor over the last couple of generations as our nation steadily moves away from God. 

It is important that we take time to count our many blessings, to think of our nation, and to reflect on the amazing providence that brought her forth onto this planet. It is vital that we also remember the spirit and the focus of that foundation. Our first president said: 
“It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.” -George Washington
Our nation was founded on the knowledge and understanding that we are placed here to serve God's purposes and to honor and give glory to Him. Sadly, this is not the attitude that our nation is governed with today. Many politicians use God's Word when it suits them but in a nation where we argue about whether or not the laws of God should be allowed to be displayed in our courtrooms, or whether the birth of our Lord Jesus can be allowed to be celebrated on our public grounds, or if we can even mention the existence of God to children in our schools, it becomes clear that we are no longer living in a nation that truly honors God.  

There are many that read these words and celebrate our "enlightened progress" and rejoice that we are no longer so limited in our thinking as to require a dependence on some mythical "higher being". There are many others that, though the profess to believe in God, focus their entire being on their own material wealth, security, and prosperity, accepting or ignoring the moral decay and the outright rejection of God that they see all around them. It is these prevailing attitudes of our society that proves the point that we are in danger of no longer being able to claim ourselves as a Godly nation. I wonder to myself and ponder the question of exactly what it is those that reject or ignore God celebrate on Independence Day. 

When I was an atheist, on the 4th of July I celebrated freedom. I remembered those who through their own strength and courage fought to provide me with the ability to freely gain the material blessings that I had. I marveled at what man can accomplish if he is just freed from the bonds oppression. I celebrated my family, my country, my job, and my stuff. Sure those great men that put it all together, our founding fathers, had some backwards ideas of some God controlling all things but they were to be forgiven that considering all that they had accomplished. I was thankful that I lived in a more enlightened era where we could be certain that we gain all things through our own power, our own perseverance, and our own hard work.   

It is this very attitude of our society and of our government that is portrayed by the verse of the bible that Mr. Daschle chose to use to encourage people on September 12, 2001. The irony is that the context of this verse from Isaiah is not one of encouragement but is rather one of God's condemnation against Israel who turned away from Him, ignored His warnings, and instead of repenting and turning back to God when they were shaken they said:
...with pride and arrogance of heart, “The bricks have fallen down, but we will rebuild with dressed stone; the fig trees have been felled, but we will replace them with cedars.”  But the Lord has strengthened their foes against them and has spurred their enemies on... Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised. But the people have not returned to him who struck them, nor have they sought the Lord Almighty. ~Isaiah 9:9-13
The context makes all the difference. Far from being encouraging, Mr. Daschle unknowingly read a verse that speaks of God's mighty judgement against a nation that has turned from Him and with pride and arrogance claimed its own destiny apart from Him. Given the current state of our society, it seems an eerily appropriate verse to choose. 

It is right and good to celebrate those things that God has blessed us with and to celebrate this country and the freedom that God has provided for us. We must remember that we in America have the privilege of living in a free country only because God has a plan and a purpose for us here. As we contemplate our freedoms, let us focus on how we can act through our examples of love, charity, fellowship, community, and steadfast devotion to God to bring this nation and her people back to a full and intimate relationship with God who has so richly blessed us. Let us purpose to set this nation that God has gifted us with back on the path to His glory. This goal cannot be accomplished through the political spectrum but must be done through loving those who are lost and introducing them to the truth and the saving grace of our blessed Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Let us repent and return to God and may God again bless America!

When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it. ~Jonah 3:10

The Abiding Graces

And now these three remain: faith hope and love. ~1 Corinthians 13:13

1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most well known chapters in the bible that most people associate with its inspiring definition of love.  It is often used at weddings and many people, including our family, have it as a plaque on a wall. It is beautiful in its ideals and in its poetry. Perhaps that is why it always escaped my attention that in this chapter Paul tells us that faith, hope, and love will last beyond this life and into the eternal kingdom. That love would exist throughout eternity seems perfectly natural, but faith and hope?!  Not so much.

The ramifications of what Paul was saying never occurred to me until I was reading Gifts of the Spirit by J.W. MacGorman which inspired me to do a little more research on the matter of why we would still need faith and hope while living in paradise with God in person. I'm flattered to be joined in my puzzlement on this issue by John Calvin and Matthew Henry. Both of these theological giants however, dismiss the notion that faith and hope will remain forever yet the apostle Paul seems pretty clear that they will persist. In fact he builds up to this declaration in 1 Corinthians 13:8-12.  Paul says that prophesy, tongues, and knowledge will all pass away. He illustrated that when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.  When you are an adult, you put away childish things and that now we see dimly as if viewing ourselves in a dirty and cracked mirror, but then we will see as clearly as if face to face with ourselves.  Now we know in part but then we shall understand fully.  It seems clear that many of the gifts of the Spirit are to help us in this troubled world, but the gifts of faith, hope, and love abide forever.

I've heard faith described as belief in what we can't see. The author of the book of Hebrews defines faith this way: "Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1At this present time we exercise our faith to claim the existence and active working of God. In Heaven that will be indisputable! We will walk, talk, and eat with Jesus. The glory of God the Father will shine so brightly that we will have constant daylight. Our faith will no longer be tied to belief in the power of God, or the fulfillment of his promises to his children but will be based in physical relationship with God in person.

Faith is strongly tied to trust.  We have faith that we are important to God. We trust that He has a plan that will work out for the good of those who believe in Him. In Heaven we will not be omniscient and therefore we will still have to trust God. He will always be in control in ways that are beyond our comprehension. The focus of our faith will change, but I can see that there will be a call for faith throughout eternity.

What role can hope play in paradise?  This one seems rather counter-intuitive. Hope implies a desire for a better future and is, in some ways, the antithesis of contentment. When Paul said in Philippians 4:11 "I have learned to be content with whatever I have" it was clear that his contentment was on Earth and his hope was for Heaven. At the end of all things; after the resurrection of our glorified bodies, death and sickness are no more and, best of all, we are freed from the burden of sin, what do we hope for then? The answer, I think, is that for all eternity we will never stop growing, learning, and stretching the limits of our capabilities. Even in our glorified bodies we will still be finite and will never lose our God-given desire, drive, and need to improve ourselves.

I imagine that we will live each day with the knowledge and hope that the next day will be even better. We will have billions of people to get to know, to teach, and to learn from. We will have the ability to explore and to learn about every aspect of all art, science, philosophy, and music without the hindrance of our current minds weakened by sin. We will be able to explore sports and physical activities without the hindrance of our current bodies weakened by sin. We will be able to explore the vastness of an unending universe and explore the richness of all that our infinite and unending God has created with He Himself as our personal guide and teacher all to the richness of His glory. With each day and with each new thing that we experience, our hopeful expectation for the future will only increase as we joyfully praise and worship God for all that He has done.

As for the details of how faith and hope will play out in eternity, now we can only speculate, then we will know for sure.  In the meantime, as Paul exhorts us:

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  ~Romans 12:12

A Tale of Two Peters

Peter said to Him, "Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You." Jesus answered, "Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times." ~John 13:37-38

Peter had walked with Christ in person for three years. He had lived with Him, ate with Him, and learned from Him personally. The Author of all Creation walked the earth and Peter knew Him intimately. He was absolutely devoted to Jesus and I believe he very much meant what he said when he declared that he would lay down his life for Jesus' sake. He was absolutely sincere yet, when the time came and Jesus was being led away to be tortured and killed, Peter panicked. Exactly as Jesus had predicted, Peter denied even knowing Jesus three times.

This story invites us to examine ourselves and to question our own convictions. Many of us say that we are committed to Christ, even to death, and we are sincere when we say it. But is it actually true? Peter after all, arguably Jesus' closest disciple, lost heart when the chips were down. In fact, it wasn't just Peter - all the disciples fled - but it was Peter that specifically claimed the he would stay true even to death. If they who walked with Jesus couldn't remain faithful when times got tough then what makes us think we're so different? Well, Peter's story doesn't end there.

Just prior to His arrest and crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples that it was actually better for them that He go away so that He could send the the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower the church (John 14:16-17 & John 16:5-11). Get ahold of that concept for a minute. It is better to be apart from Jesus but have the Holy Spirit than to live with Jesus personally. That is a difficult concept for most of us. I personally feel a little jealous of the disciples and their ability to learn from Jesus, to ask Him questions, and to just sit and listen to Him teach. How could it possibly be better for Him to go away? The answer can be found in Peter, or rather in the tale of two Peters.

Up to this point in the story Peter was a lovable and loyal yet often bumbling follower. He was dedicated and his heart was in the right place but he often engaged his mouth before he engaged his brain. He fluctuated from  being grandly praised by Jesus for his insight one minute to being harshly rebuked for his presumption the next minute (Matthew 16:13-23). He made heartfelt and bold proclamations of faith when in the safety of Jesus' presence yet cowered and hid when the heat was applied.

Yet then, after Jesus ascended to heaven, something dramatic happened to Peter and to all the disciples. Suddenly they were no longer cowering in houses hiding from the Jews and from the Romans. They were no longer questioning and doubting. They began to go out into the streets and boldly proclaim the message of salvation. Peter - the very same Peter that ran and hid denying Christ - stood in the center of Jerusalem before the very people that crucified Jesus and loudly proclaimed Jesus to the crowds with such power that 3000 people were saved (Acts 2:14-47). After that event Peter was never the old bumbling Peter again. While he did still make some mistakes (Galatians 2:11-21) he was forever changed and enlightened from the moment that he received and was filled by the Holy Spirit. He lived the rest of his life with a power and a conviction that he even took to his own death on his own cross still loudly and boldly proclaiming the name of Jesus.

As you look at your own life, which Peter do you resemble most? Does your life most resemble the Peter following after Jesus with good intentions but never seeming to fully grasp the truth or does your life resemble the Peter filled with the Holy Spirit and shining with the power of the living God inside him?  Would you risk your job, your friends, relationship with your family, your possessions, or even your very life to boldly proclaim the truth of Jesus? If you answered yes, then does your life show any evidence of that conviction? Too often when I look at my own life I see much more of the first Peter than the second one in me. Let us pray together that we would allow ourselves to be so filled with the Holy Spirit that we would boldly go wherever He would lead us no matter the cost.

For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. ~1 Thessalonians 1:5

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