Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Father's Discipline

Which of you will listen to this or pay close attention in time to come? Who handed Jacob over to become loot, and Israel to the plunderers? Was it not the Lord, against whom we have sinned? For they would not follow his ways; they did not obey his law. So he poured out on them his burning anger, the violence of war. It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand; it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart.
Isaiah 42:23-25

Christians today often shy away from pointing to difficult circumstances or situations in our lives and considering them to be God's punishment. I think this is partly because we don't like to think of God punishing us. "Sure we find passages like the one above in the Old Testament" we think, "but not in the New Testament." Actually, the New Testament has some pretty specific examples of God punishing His children for their sin. (See for example the story of Ananias and Sapphira.) We don't much like this though. We prefer to think of God as loving Father more than righteous judge. But the truth is, when God punishes us, He acts as both our Father and Judge. Let me explain...

In the above passage, Isaiah prophesies over the people of Judah who will one day be taken into Babylonian captivity. The Lord, speaking through Isaiah, makes it perfectly clear that He will be responsible for their exile. He will send them into captivity as a punishment because of their continued disobedience. But the passage also makes clear that God's punishment is an opportunity for correction. God wants them to "listen" and "pay close attention." He wants them to "take it to heart" so that they will change their ways and live in accordance with His commands. We must always consider God's discipline in our lives as Proverbs 3:11-12 would have us. "My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent His rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those He loves, as a father the son He delights in." God punishes us as a Father so that we may avoid later judgment. 

When we refuse to even consider that the difficult circumstances and situations in our life may be the Lord's discipline, then we miss out on important warnings from our Heavenly Father. Now, I don't advocate constantly chalking up your difficulties as an assault from the Lord, but it does make good Christian sense to stop and ask yourself a few questions when you encounter a season of uncommon difficulty. 
  1. Is there persistent sin in my life that God may be disciplining me for? 
  2. Is the difficulty I am experiencing tied to or the result of sin in my life? 
  3. Is this simply normal suffering as a result of the fallen nature of this world? We all suffer. Sometimes we suffer greatly at no fault of our own. The fact that we are suffering does not necessarily mean we are being punished.
  4. Could this be an attack of the devil? Am I following the Lord closely enough to warrant an attack from the Devil?
Don't be quick to rush to judgment when it comes to difficulty in your life. Suffering is common to all mankind. Only through prayer and self-examination can you determine if your difficult circumstances are really the Lord's correction, but I urge you not to skip over considering this possibility. Ignoring the Lord's discipline comes at a very high cost.

For further reading...
  • Acts 5:1-10- Read the story of Ananias & Sapphira.
  • Acts 8:9-24- Peter has some choice words for Simon the sorcerer after he tries to buy the Holy Spirit.
  • I Corinthians 11:17-32- Paul talks clearly about God's judgment on those who misuse the Lord's Supper.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Last Letter

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.

“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
Luke 14:25-35

It used to be the case that missionaries who were called to the field would write a last letter to their family and friends before they left. This letter was a manifesto of sorts. It was an attempt to explain to their families why they were leaving to go to the mission field, why they were willing to die for the cause of Christ. This was necessary because at that time a call to the mission field was a call to die. The missionaries would literally pack their belongings in a coffin and load them on a boat to sail to their mission field, because they knew they wouldn't be back. One way or another, either very soon or possibly in the distant future, these missionaries would die in a foreign country. Often they never even made it to the field because of the hazards of sea travel. So these letters were an effort to explain their strange commitment to Jesus to their families and to say anything they wanted or needed to say to them before they died. 

The simple truth is that American culture values security and safety. We buy insurance to protect ourselves and our families from all types of potential disasters: fires, floods, disability, car wrecks, even death. (This last one we call life insurance because death insurance just sounds too morbid.) So it shouldn't surprise us that our culture struggles to understand why believers are willing to follow the call of Jesus to take the gospel to the nations when we know that persecutions and potential death await them. Often their families, even the Christian ones unfortunately, still find it odd when they choose to follow Jesus into risky areas or situations. 

Jesus warned us about this though. He tells us that our families will not always support us in following Him, and we must choose our priorities (Luke 12:49-53). Jesus demands the number one spot in our lives. We must be willing to follow Him above all else, even our families. Jesus makes this explicit because He knows that sometimes even our families will stand between us and faithful service.

Count the cost. Even if Jesus doesn't call you to missionary service, He still expects the same level of surrender out of you. Are you willing to make Him your first priority? Are you willing to follow Him in risky propositions? Maybe you have committed your life to Christ but today you realize that you are like the salt who has begun to lose its saltiness. Repent and return to Christ! Sometimes God takes our all. Sometimes He requires the ultimate sacrifice. We choose to trust Him anyway. We trust that even if He asks for our lives in His service, that He will use it for His glory and our good. Because of this we can say with Paul, "I know whom I have believed and am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day" (2 Timothy 1:12). Like Stephen, we gladly lay down our lives when called to do so, in the hopes that somewhere in the crowd of a persecutors, there is a Saul waiting to be called to salvation and service by our God.

For further reading...
  • Check out this website. It has a good video and some other stuff on it. Think about writing your own last letter. What would it say? What are you willing to die for?
  • Acts 6-8:1- Read the story of Stephen.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Desolate Places

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
Mark 1:35

By this time in His life Jesus seems to have learned* that desolate places can be great conduits for nearness to God. Though I cannot prove this is the case, I think Christ might have learned this during His time of temptation in the wilderness. The desolate places and difficult times in our lives can be extremely effective at drawing us nearer to God... if we let them. If we humble ourselves under God's hand like Job who said, "The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. May the name of the LORD be praised," then these difficult times in our lives can actually become times of sweet fellowship with our Father (Job 1:21).

These difficult and desolate times test our resolve to persevere in service to God. When everyone else is driven away from us because of our circumstances, when everyone is proven incapable of soothing or comforting us, then only one person remains- our Heavenly Father. Christians who draw near to Him in these times, and who "trust in the LORD with all their heart and lean not on their own understanding" often enjoy new levels of relational intimacy with the Father because of it (Proverbs 3:5). Though these times are often low points in our earthly lives, they can become high points in our heavenly relationship. I have found that I often come back again and again to these high points for continued strength and encouragement. It is possible that this is exactly what we see Jesus doing here. Perhaps, by retreating to a desolate area again He is reminding Himself of the intimacy with God and the sustaining hand He felt during His temptation in the wilderness. Perhaps His time in the wilderness taught Him that lonely places can often be the best places to pray. 

So let me ask you, what difficult test or desolate situation are you going through in your life right now? Continue to trust God in the midst of it! Don't lean on your own understanding. Draw near to the Father and He will draw near to you (James 4:8). Remember that His timing is not our timing, and His ways are not our ways (II Peter 3:8Isaiah 55:8-9). So be patient and above all have faith. Take a moment to reflect on and return to some of the high points in your relationship with the Lord. How many of them took place in the midst of difficult and desolate circumstances?

For further reading...
  • Check out the book of Job. In the end God brings his nearness but not necessarily an explanation.

*Because Jesus was 100% human as well as 100% God, it is appropriate for us to speak of Him learning things as awkward as that may seem. C.f. Luke 2:52.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Please God!

So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
2 Corinthians 5:9-10

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.
Colossians 1:9-10

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.
Ephesians 5:8-10

These verses present a simple truth of the Christian faith: we can please God. Because of His love for us, God has given us the power, by our choices, actions and attitude, to bring a smile to His divine face. What a precious truth! After all that God has done for us by sending His Son, how wonderful it is to know that through faithful service and sincere worship we can be a blessing to Him. We can please Him! How effectively this motivates me to serve Him.

To many believers this sounds too much like legalism; but these verses don't speak of trying to earn God's favor, or His love, or our salvation. We are helpless sinners. There is no way that we could ever be good enough to deserve God's love or favor or anything else from Him. And yet, miracle of miracles, in Jesus He has given us the ability to be a blessing to Him and to please Him. This does not earn us anything before the Lord, for we know that "it is God who works in us to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose," (Philippians 2:13).

The flip side of this is also true, however. You also have the ability to cause God displeasure. Scripture tells us that God is a jealous God and it makes it very clear that He is unhappy when His children go astray (Exodus 34:14). It also makes clear that although we cannot harm the all-powerful God in any way, we can certainly grieve Him (Ephesians 4:30). So remember, the choices you make today matter to God. Choose wisely.

For further reading...
  • Hebrews 11- Check out the "Hall of Faith," especially verse six which discusses how vital faith is to pleasing God. If a person is not in Christ, his actions do not please the Lord.