Breaking the “me centered” way of life
1Peter 4: Think of your sufferings as a weaning from that old sinful habit of always expecting to get your own way.
Peter’s target audience is Christians who are isolated and suffering for their faith. He doesn’t suggest to them that suffering in itself is good but he does tell them that their suffering for the right reason gives them reason to rejoice. If the same people who hate Jesus hate us because they see Jesus in our lives their poor treatment of us may be unwelcome but in it we can see a compliment. He also tells his readers that suffering tends to wean us from the idea that we’re always supposed to get our own way. As infants, we all start off there, caring not at all about the needs of those around us, but instead, totally focused on what we want and having it right now. To some extent we never outgrow that. Peter says that suffering (something no one wants) helps break that “me centered” way of life. This, in turn, sets the table for allowing the One who knows and loves us best to have his way in our lives. Again, the suffering isn’t a good thing, but the result can be a good one. My earnest desire is that I’ll learn these lessons early and well as the Lord uses the ups and downs of my life to benefit me and his kingdom.
Take Away: If we’ll allow it the Lord will use both the ups and downs of our lives to our benefit.
Taming the tongue
James 3: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue.
A person can live a good life, honest and sensible, committed to doing good things and yet still have a tendency to say things that aren’t very Christian. One problem is that we see sins of speech as less serious than sins of action. People who would never dream of robbing anyone of anything will thoughtlessly gossip about another, thereby robbing them of their reputation. Sins of words are slippery, hard to pin down. A person might say something that’s absolutely innocent. The listener, though, misunderstands the meaning, hearing something that isn’t there at all. Another person might say the same thing but intend it to be hurtful in some way. In one case it’s just a misunderstanding. In the other case it’s sin. James emphasizes the fact that no one can win the battle of the tongue. Try as I might, in and of myself, my words will betray, humiliate, and condemn me. On the surface, it appears James leaves us in this sorry state of affairs. However, a different picture is painted as I read these words in the context of the passage. James says, “My friends this can’t go on.” A few paragraphs later he describes the Christian community as a place where people are treated “with dignity and honor.” On one hand, I can’t control my tongue (or my thoughts, or, sometimes, my actions). The only hope I have is to surrender my tongue to the Lord. As I give it, and my whole self, to him, making him Lord of my life, he goes to work transforming me into the person he wants me to be. It’s a more than one time surrender. In fact, I may have to bring my tongue back to the Lord on a regular basis. As I do that, he takes control doing for me what I can’t do for myself.
Take Away: “I surrender all” is a song that needs to be sung repeatedly.
Yielding center stage to Jesus
John 3: This is the assigned moment for him to move into the center, while I slip off to the sidelines.
John the Baptist blazed to prominence in the land like a shooting star that, seemingly out of nowhere, lights the sky and draws the attention of everyone. Now, like a shooting star, he’s just as quickly fading from the scene as all attention is focused on a new “Sun” rising, shedding light, not just for a passing moment but for all time. John’s disciples are defensive about this. They believe in and support him and they don’t like it that his role is diminishing as Jesus is drawing more and more attention. For John, though, this is exactly how it should be. As he said when he introduced Jesus, Jesus is vastly superior to himself. As Jesus moves into the limelight John happily stands off on the sidelines cheering him on. I think there’s a spiritual parallel to this in the lives of those on the Christian journey. Once I acknowledge Jesus as the Savior of the world and as my personal Savior, it quickly becomes apparent that this Savior is also King of kings and Lord of lords. I understand that I need to stop being the center of my universe so that he can move to his rightful place as Lord of my life. I must decrease that he might increase.
Take Away: The only proper place for Jesus is sitting on the throne of my life.
Church camp commitment
Matthew 26: I’m ready. Do it your way.
When I was growing up a high point of my summers was attending church camp. I loved playing ball and taking hikes and all the other things associated with camp. The ministry at children’s camp focused on the plan of salvation. Many children first gave their hearts to Jesus at camp. At teen camp, though, the focus was more on full surrender, sanctification, accepting a call to the ministry. Teens, more than any other group, grasp the idea of radical commitment. Still, there was a sort of insider’s secret shared by “old timers” like me who had been going to camp through our childhood years. It worked something like this: the Lord will ask you if you’re willing to be a missionary or a pastor but it’s just a test. Once you say “yes” and mean it with all your heart, he won’t actually call you. With that tidbit of information buried in one’s mind, even a sincere seeker had a little bit easier time making a full surrender. When I work with teens I still see in them a willingness to go all out in their commitment to the Lord. Adults carry baggage (jobs, bills to pay, family responsibilities) that has to be sorted through so it’s a more thoughtful process for them. However, adults also have a more realistic attitude concerning what it means to sign on the dotted line. If I commit myself to making monthly mortgage payments I’m really going to have to pay them; there’s nothing theoretical about it! When I see Jesus praying in the Garden I hear him making a full commitment to do his Father’s will. No doubt, Jesus is emotional at this point but there’s more. He knows that this “yes” is the real deal. With his eyes wide open Jesus commits to go to the cross. His full commitment to do the Father’s will both challenges and instructs me as I live the Christian life.
Take Away: The call to full surrender is a real call and needs to be taken seriously.
One hundred percent
Matthew 7: The way to life – to God! – is vigorous and requires total attention.
A hitter in baseball might love the cheers of the fans and all the perks of being a star but when he’s in the batter’s box he’d better pay attention to business. Hitting a 95 mph fastball requires one’s full attention. Jesus calls people to radical commitment. Fishermen abandon the tools of their trade to follow him. Tax collectors pay back, with interest, padded tax collections. Rich people are told to give it all away and follow. How can we read this kind of stuff in the Bible and come away thinking that all God wants from us is a lukewarm, half-hearted relationship? If I’m going to be a disciple of Jesus I have to focus and commit. Living the Sermon on the Mount takes a lot more than an hour of church attendance each week. How in the world could anyone ever think otherwise? The payoff is wonderful, but the payout is huge: all of me for all of God. I’m the winner in that deal, but it’s still a deal I have to be willing to make.
Take Away: When it comes to living the Christian life it’s all or nothing.
Sorting out a passage and finding at its core: grace
Haggai 2: From now on you can count on a blessing.
“Temple fever” is sweeping the nation as governor Zerubbabel and his people give themselves to the rebuilding project. One group that’s especially energized is the priests who’ve served without a Temple. They’re sure things are going to be much better once the Temple is restored. Haggai comes teach them a core spiritual truth and he does so by asking two questions. Question number one has to do with imparted holiness. If meat from a sacrifice is put into some priest’s pocket, it will make his robe holy, but what about other foods then touched by the robe? The priests respond that there’s no ripple effect concerning what other foods the robe might touch. Therefore, those foods remain unholy. The second question concerns the flip side of things. If a person touches a corpse, becoming ceremonially unclean and then touches various foods, do they also become unclean? The answer is “yes” – the “uncleanness” is imparted to whatever that person touches. Haggai then tells them that the sacrifices they’ve been making haven’t been proper because of their spiritual failure. The sin of not rebuilding the Temple has impacted all they’ve done, making them all worthless. Even as a person who touches a corpse makes all they touch unclean, so has their disobedience concerning the rebuilding of the Temple had a negative impact on all their religious practices. The flip side, which I wish Haggai had more clearly stated, is just as disturbing. Just offering proper sacrifices in the rebuilt Temple isn’t going to have the hoped for ripple effect of making the entire nation holy. It’s like the robe touched by the sanctified meat. It’s made holy but that’s as far as it goes. Touching other things with that robe won’t make them also holy. In other words, rebuilding the Temple isn’t a cure-all. Still, the prophet has some wonderful, and educational, news. From the moment they returned to God he began to bless them. His blessings weren’t a result of their making the right kind of sacrifices; in fact, they weren’t the right kind. Rather the blessings were the result of his grace. As I read this especially confusing little passage I come away with a better grasp of this truth: sin has contaminated our entire lives, making us exempt from any hope of self-manufactured holiness. Even when I return to God, my renewed commitment to him will still come up short because of the contamination of sin that has ruled my life. However, I’m not without hope because of God’s grace. He blesses me, not because I’ve managed to restore all that was broken but because he chooses to respond to my surrender to him with wonderful grace.
Take Away: The blessings of the Lord are the result of his grace.
Letting God be Lord
Jeremiah 10: Mere mortals can’t run their own lives.
Years ago there was a TV commercial in which a stressed homemaker rudely said to her well-meaning mother, “Mother please, I’d rather do it myself.” According to the ad, she needed to take a pill, and not just any pill: their pill. However, her desire to “do it herself” could never be fixed by her taking a pill. It’s a part of the human condition. Specifically, it’s what we say to our Creator. We’re made to live in fellowship with the Lord, to be partners with him in his purposes in our world. Instead, we turn our backs on God, insisting “I’d rather do it myself.” The result is, well, it’s what I see on the evening news every day. Pain and suffering, hating and killing: it’s all the result of our doing it ourselves. The fact is that as long as we make the most basic of mistakes: the exclusion of God from our lives, everything else is just putting band aids on life-threatening wounds. On the largest scale, the only hope of humanity is surrender to God. On the personal scale, it’s the same. Jeremiah says, “Men and women don’t have what it takes to take charge of life.” His solution is to do what God designed us to do in the first place: connect to God and let him be Lord of all that we are.
Take Away: We’re designed to live in fellowship with the Lord and nothing else will do.
God’s response to my need
Isaiah 6: Gone your guilt, your sins wiped out.
Isaiah’s vision of God’s holiness breaks his heart. In light of that vision any claims to righteousness are blown away. His brokenness brings him to the place of honest confession which is just what the Lord’s waiting for. Immediately, the Lord takes action to cleanse him of his sin. Since this is a vision, there’s a lot of symbolism here. We have an altar of sacrifice with fire, which speaks to us of surrender and purification. There’s Isaiah’s direct reference to his “unclean lips” which refer to, not just a tendency to say the wrong thing, but his whole life, which he sees as speaking in ways that reflect a deep level of spiritual need. The thrilling thing is how the Lord responds to Isaiah’s cry of repentance. A heavenly being touches his lips with the burning coal from the altar declaring the wonderful truth that his sin is “wiped out” and his guilt is gone. Listen, I don’t have to pull some surprising insight out of this passage. In fact, it’s surprising enough just as it is. When I realize the purity of God and see my own deep failure…when I confess it, throwing myself on the mercy God…when I do that, I place myself in the only place where the Lord can help me. I can’t forgive my own sin and I can’t purify my own life, but when I “repent and turn” he immediately does for me what I can never do for myself. There’s no better word from the Lord than “gone your guilt, your sins wiped out.”
Take Away: As I confess my need the Lord does for me what I can never do for myself.
Purifying the land
Numbers 33: Everyone you let stay there will become a cinder in your eye and a splinter in your foot.
In preparation for entering the Promised Land the Lord gives Moses instructions on how to divide the land between the tribes. He also tells Moses that the current inhabitants are to be driven out. No one currently living there is to remain. One way or another, they have to go. If the people of Israel fail in this mission the Canaanites will become thorns in their sides; the source of downfall and destruction. I wonder if the spiritual failures I sometimes see in people’s lives parallel this. The Lord calls me to full surrender to himself. I’m to give him my past, present, and future placing it all in his hands. My habits and wants, my plans and dreams must be handed over to the Lord. As long as I hold things in reserve, I haven’t yet purified the “Canaan” of my heart. If I keep some things locked away in some dark corner of my life the day will come when they will become a “cinder” in my eye and a “splinter” in my foot. The old hymn of invitation that’s actually a prayer beautifully speaks to this: “All to Jesus I surrender, I surrender all.”
Take Away: I surrender my all and in return, the Lord fills me with himself – it’s a very good deal for me.