God is in the business of reclaiming cultures.

history

History as a subject was made/broke for me throughout school by my teachers.  I know, I know, true academics love their study because of the nature of study, but most of us were inspired to our field of study by a favorite prof or teacher who made the subject come alive.  My European history teacher in High School did that for me.  But in Seminary, getting to study the history of the Church really opened my eyes to things I had never before considered.  We know the church as it is today, and as we have personally experienced it, but tradition and liturgy have taken fascinating forms throughout the last two-thousand years.  For example, did you know that for hundreds of years after Jesus returned to Heaven that the Church, as a whole, had a practice of fasting two days a week?  Epiphanius, a bishop in the fifth century in Cyprus, made this statement:

“Who does not know that the fast of the fourth and sixth days of the week are observed by Christians throughout the world?”

– Epiphanius

Is there a habit or tradition by which you would identify Christians “throughout the world”?  Perhaps that they gather on Sunday mornings for worship?  There was a book called the Didache that was written in the mid to late first century that helped Jewish-Christians outline their beliefs and identity, and taught pastors how to help Gentiles (non-Jews) to best represent Christ in this tricky period of fulfillment of Judaism.  Some call it the first catechism of the faith.  In the section on fasting and prayer, the first verse or instruction reads:

“Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but do you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.”

– Didache, Ch. VIII, V. I

So by the end of the first century there had already been developed a fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but it was a fast of hypocrites – like the Pharisees – fasting for honor among men and not to seek God.  Thus the first century Church set themselves apart to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, to do so differently than those who sought the honor of men, and the tradition was established so deeply that four hundred years later it marked “Christians throughout the world”.

Shortly thereafter, however, Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, and believers were no longer the persecuted minority.  It became political.  Much of the fervor was lost.  Such that by the 15th century, by the time of the reformation, fasting had been lost as a discipline that marked all believers – though it was still present.  With the Church tied to politics, however, there are historical occasions of nation-wide fasting recorded such as in Britain in 1756.  The King called for a day of prayer and fasting regarding the impending invasion by the French, and it is recorded that the churches were full and the nation petitioned God for His protection.  The French did not invade!

What does this matter?  As culture continues to spiral downward into a narcissistic selfish focus, we might forget how dramatically things can and do change.  Specifically, we as a church might become fatalistic in our outlook on the future of the church.  A mere fifteen years ago, many churches had Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening services where faithful members came to learn, to pray, and to serve.  Nowadays we do well to get people in for one service a week.   Does that mean that God cannot and will not revitalize a passion in people and call them to committed service?  Most assuredly not!  He can reclaim His people and their passions.  He can restore Himself on the throne of the Church, on the throne of people’s hearts.  He can replace entertainment because He alone fully satisfies.

So let us consider specifically the discipline of fasting.  Do you fast?  Does your church fast?

Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?”  And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.  But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results.  Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”

– Matt 9.14-17

Fasting has been a discipline of the Jewish people for centuries.  When Jesus came to the Earth as the Messiah, He Himself began His earthly ministry by 40 days of fasting in the wilderness before being tempted by Satan.  But then for a few short years, the bridegroom was present on the Earth.  Israel had been called and identified as the bride of God throughout the Old Testament, and the Jews understood clearly that Jesus was calling Himself God when He declared Himself the bridegroom.  And Jesus’ argument was simple:  Fasting is for mourning and for seeking God’s presence and word, so why would the disciples mourn and seek Jesus when He was with them?  However, once Jesus returned to Heaven and we were left with the Great Commission to make disciples of all the nations, they (and we) would be left to fast until the end of the age – but we would fast with new habits:  new wineskins.

The Church at Antioch fasted when the Holy Spirit set aside Paul and Barnabas for their missionary work (Acts 13.1-3).  Jesus taught the disciples that some demons are only overcome by fasting (Matt 17.21).  And Jesus taught us how to fast – not as an outward show for those around us, but to dress normally and to keep it between ourselves and God (Matt 6.16-17).  This does not mean that we cannot or should not fast corporately, it means that we should not fast for recognition from men.  We both can and should fast corporately, as the church did for hundreds of years.

Have you never fasted?  Do you not have anyone in your community who fasts?  That is just fine because God only needs one willing person to start a movement.  Jesus taught us how to fast and prophesied that we would fast, so let’s get busy about following His example and doing it!

Let us not despair.  God is in the business of redeeming cultures and peoples.  He is in the business of making all things new (Rev 21.5).  And He has given us instructions for how to live, how to worship, and how to spend our time and energy.  Are you the only one you know who is committing yourself to these teachings?  Great!  Be the change that you want to see, and set an example.  God can revitalize the church to commitment.  My guess is that in another one hundred years, we will not recognize the church as it is today, because the health and wealth Gospel, mega-movements and a trendy front do not last.  A life-changing encounter with almighty God lasts.  And that is what will remain throughout the ebbs and flows of culture.  God has always kept for Himself a remnant and He will continue to take His Gospel to every tribe, tongue and nation.  Let us seek to be a part of that body that is known by prayer, by worship, by fasting, by love.

Advertisements

Should Christians Stop Eating Sea Food?

crab legs

As the topic of homosexuality continues to be a hot topic for Christians in the United States, many are lashing out saying that it is hypocritical to follow some laws and not others from the Bible (and more pointedly, the Old Testament).  The Mosaic Law handed down from the mouth of God at Mount Sinai included dietary restrictions, methods for making clothes and even the amount of work one was allowed to preform on the Sabbath (the day kept as Holy for God, the weekly day of worship) alongside the sexual laws and condemnation of murder.  Many have, in this mindset, run to the Law to claim that if Christians want to call homosexuality a sin, then they need to stop eating sea food and bacon and wearing clothing comprised of mixed fabrics:

“You shall not wear a material mixed of wool and linen together.”

– Deut 22.11

“…and the pig, for though it divides the hoof, thus making a split hoof, it does not chew cud, it is unclean to you.”

– Lev 11.7

“But whatever is in the seas and in the rivers that does not have fins and scales among all the teeming life of the water, and among all the living creatures that are in the water, they are detestable things to you, and they shall be abhorrent to you; you may not eat of their flesh, and their carcasses you shall detest.”

– Lev 11.10-11

Now, we as Christians, must be humble when we hear accusations like this.  Do you know why the Church considers parts of the Mosaic Law binding, but not others?  Some accusers claim this logic to tear us down, but many within the Church will actually question and fall prey to this line of reasoning if we do not clearly examine the whole of Scripture and it’s expectations for us today.  We must be informed, and we must teach it clearly to keep ourselves from stumbling.

There are two major factors that we should embrace when approaching this conversation.  Firstly, we must always remember that God has called us to be holy as He is holy (Lev 11.44, 1 Peter 1.16).  This is the foundation on which the entire Bible is written, both Old Testament Law and New Testament Grace.  The Law and Grace both have their end and fulfillment in our righteousness (which we learn is only attained through Christ – 2 Cor 5.21).  Therefore, we must not and cannot ever justify one sin by another.  We also cannot forbid someone to point out a sin in our lives because they have a sin (either the same or different) in their own lives.

What I mean is this:  Many Christians walk around in the sin of pride.  And when the day is over, they pat themselves on the back to say, “I did not sin today”, and sit in their lazy boys judging homosexuals and murderers while they watch the evening news.  This person is guilty.

“For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.”

– James 2.10

This passage of Scripture is often misunderstood.  If one is guilty of the sin of pride, he is not guilty of the sin of murder, before God, too.  But he is indeed guilty of breaking the law, and all who have broken the law are guilty before God and unworthy to enter the Kingdom of God eternally.  If you have broken the law in any point, you are guilty of breaking the law.  Speeding ticked or arson.  You are condemned.  God hates pride, and the proud will not enter into the kingdom of God.  God also hates murder, and the murderer will not enter into the kingdom of God (Prov 6.17, 1 Cor 6.10-11).

This person must learn humility and be able to hear someone speak truth into their lives.  He must be willing to repent.  And this person cannot justify himself by saying, “well at least I never [fill in the blank]”.  He might be better than some, but the standard is Jesus not Hitler.  If we are not as righteous as Jesus, we are not good enough.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, one who has made peace with a major sin cannot justify himself by pointing out a lesser sin of another.  The thief cannot say to the over weight man, “Do not point out my sin, you are a glutton!  You’re not perfect.”  We all need humility.  And we all need to remember that the point is to be holy, to fight for the standard that is Jesus, and to submit to the Word of God.  One sin does not make another permissible.

The second factor in this conversation is the full picture and teaching of the Scriptures.  Tim Keller points out clearly that the Old Testament has two types of laws:  those regarding ceremonial purification and sacrifices (to atone for sin) and those regarding morality as defined by the character and heart of God.  The Old Testament was written to the Jewish people who were waiting for a Savior.  They were Spiritually unclean and in order to approach a holy God they were required to eat certain things (and not eat other things), they were to wear certain things and they were to keep themselves separate from other nations.  God was unapproachable by unclean people and the whole of the ceremonial law was looking forward to the coming Messiah.

When Jesus came, He fulfilled that Law.

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

– Matt 5.17-19

This is why the curtain was torn in the temple when Jesus died.  God no longer resides in the physical temple in Jerusalem.  He is no longer separate from the people and only approachable once a year by the High Priest.  Jesus has taken our guilt and given us His righteousness so that every believer can approach God without fear.  We are now holy, by nature of being covered by the blood of Christ.  We were given a new heart (Ez 36.26).  The Spirit resides within us (1 Cor 3.16).  The method of approaching God has changed.  And God Himself removed these ceremonial laws, declaring all foods clean and commanding Jews to reach out to people of all nations:

“Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy…And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.”

– Acts 10.15, 28

Because we have been made holy by the fulfillment of the Law in Christ, we do not need to purify ourselves by our clothing and food.  God has declared it permissible.  And because of the work of Christ, we would be making a mockery of Him if we sought to make animal sacrifices to atone for our sins and to keep the ceremonial laws.  Why?  Because Jesus was the final and the perfect sacrifice, and to seek to add to it declares Him as insufficient.  That is why Jesus declared, from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19.30).

The moral laws of God, however, exhibit the heart of God and are fully upheld by the New Testament.  Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, not only declared murder a sin, He examined the heart of man and said that one who is angry with his brother is guilty of breaking the law (the moral law) of God (Matt 5.21-22).  Jesus upheld the law and said with unminced words that unless we are as holy and righteous as He was, we cannot enter the kingdom of God.

“For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

– Matt 5.20

We are not made righteous by the food we eat, we are made righteous by obeying the moral laws of God.  Paul and the apostles understood this teaching clearly, and that is why we have sections of the moral law quoted throughout the entire New Testament:

“Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.  For this, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, YOU SHALL NOT STEAL, YOU SHALL NOT COVET,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

– Rom 13.8-10

We are regularly taught to die to the deeds of the flesh – remembering that we formerly walked in those ways so as to remain humble – but to continually fight those temptations and desires:

“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

– Gal 5.19-21

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.  Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

– 1 Cor 6.9-11

And we ultimately remember that we are not earning our salvation by keeping these laws, but rather we were given the righteousness of Christ when He took our guilt and therefore we obey out of love and desire to honor the sacrifice that He made.  When we willfully choose to go on sinning against the moral law, we put Him right back on the cross.  But those who have been forgiven would never want to see Christ defamed because they understand the weight of the price He paid.

“…since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.”

– Heb 6.6

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?  May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?  Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?”

– Rom 6.1-3

So in short, we can summarize everything by this simple truth:

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

– 2 Cor 5.21

We have been made righteous at the heart level (and are being sanctified as we grow and mature), and therefore we should desire to obey the moral law of God which defines His character in order to glorify and make much of Him.  The ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant were fulfilled in Christ, and to seek to reinstate them is to negate the Gospel.  It is to say, “Jesus was not enough and I have to add to His work on the cross”.

So the next time someone accuses you of picking and choosing which laws you want to obey, first of all step back and humbly examine your heart to see if your accuser is right.  What are the sins that need to be fought in your heart and in your life?  Even if your accuser would seek to shame you and comes with the wrong motive, you are accountable to God, and if someone points out a weakness in your life – even with the wrong motives – take that as a teachable moment.  But we should also be informed of the Gospel and the full story of redemption taught throughout Scripture.  If someone condemns your crab legs or poly-blend jeans by virtue of the book of Leviticus, proclaim to them boldly that your food and clothes do not make you righteous before God, but the blood of Jesus alone does!  God has declared His ceremonial laws fulfilled and what He has made clean we must no longer call unclean!  Wear your jeans boldly while you preach the Gospel humbly.  And be prepared to give an answer, God is not mocked.

“…but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.”

– 1 Peter 3.15-16

Don’t go without His presence.

wilderness

How do you go about making your daily plans?  How does your church go about reaching out to the community?  Missions and evangelism have gone through waves of trends and whenever a church sees a large response, many others try to jump on the bandwagon and reproduce what the church did in order to attain the same results.  The same can be said for third world missions, for community development, and even for daily, individual decision making.  We think that if it worked for so-and-so, I am going to give it a try to see if it works for me.  We turn to God as our magic genie instead of the sovereign creator who has a purpose and a plan for history and our lives.

Moses had a tricky situation.  Pharaoh had commanded that all of the baby boys be killed who were two years old and younger in order to keep the Hebrew slave population under control, but his mother saved him and hid him.  He was providentially rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter who raised him as her own son.  Imagine that.  Pharaoh was trying to minimize the number of Hebrews and here one is raised in his own household.  Moses knew his heritage (he was not confused as the recent movie suggested) and even from his position in Pharaoh’s household attempted to help his brothers out by killing an Egyptian who was mistreating them (Ex 2.11-14).  But, as is human nature, Moses’ good intentions were misunderstood and reviled by the Hebrew men.  The Hebrew men were jealous of Moses’ position and lashed out at him.  The story got back to Pharaoh and Pharaoh tried to kill Moses for what he did, so Moses ran for his life.  He settled in a nearby country, married a priest’s daughter and began working as a shepherd.

But then God called.  God wanted to use Moses to free the entire nation of Israel from slavery and Moses was a coward.  He did not want to go.  God spoke to him verbally, told him the plan, showed him miracles, and still Moses whined.  He pushed back so hard that it provoked God to anger, in fact (Ex 4.14).  Ultimately, however, God used Moses and he became the most well known and revered patriarch of the people.  Moses was the only person with whom God spoke face-to-face, as a friend, and was the man to whom God gave the entire Law.  God transformed a murderer and a coward into a dynamic leader.

As God was leading the people to freedom into the wilderness, they questioned every step of the way.  God became so frustrated with them that He said,

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Depart, go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’  I will send an angel before you and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite.  Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, and I might destroy you on the way.”

– Ex 33.1-3

This is a strange omen.  God had promised the people the land of Canaan, and we know that by the next generation Joshua would lead the people into the land.  But God intended for this generation to live out their lives in the wilderness.  He was so tired of their foolishness that He told them to go up to the land, that He would send an angel before them, but He promised to not accompany them and to destroy them on the way.  The people mourned and Moses pleaded with God:

“Then he said to Him, ‘If Your presence does not go with us,do not lead us up from here’.”

– Ex 33.15

Moses had been transformed and wanted only to be in God’s presence and under His provision.  God had proven Himself faithful and powerful, and Moses wanted to remain there.  Moses was not concerned about how other nations were seeing victory and settling the land.  Moses was not concerned about anything except remaining in God’s presence and in His will.  Therefore, His plea was simple.  “Go with us”.

When was the last time you were approaching a decision, a conversation, an event, a mission or outreach and stopped to say, “God, where do you want us to go?  What do you want us to do?  We do not want to do anything unless you go with us!”?  Just because First Baptist down the street saw a huge response to Vacation Bible School does not mean that we should have a Vacation Bible School.  Just because we have always had a youth camp at the end of June does not mean that we should have another youth camp at the end of June.  Just because so-and-so planted and entire church in any-city, USA using such-and-such evangelism method does not mean we should polish and perfect such-and-such evangelism method.

God is not a God of systems and methods.  God is a God of those who love Him.  We will not force His hand to move.  We can only seek His will and ask Him what it is that He would have us to do.  So let’s slow down.  Let’s evaluate our day-to-days, and let’s consider our regular decision making processes.  Do we stop and wait for God and His presence?  Or do we judge barge forward and ask Him to bless our activities?

Notice that Moses acknowledges that God can lead the Hebrew people without accompanying them.  He is sovereignly in control of everything that happens.  He is not shocked when we try to mimic other people and churches’ successes.  He might even lead us to that failure in order to open our eyes to our need of His presence.  So submit to Him.  Slow down.  Remember that it is in fact better to stay in the wilderness with His presence than to barge into the land of milk and honey without it.

Don’t go without His presence.

Does it really make you stronger [if it doesn’t kill you]?

stronger

When I was a child and a teenager, I had a concept of adulthood that assumed everyone who was a grown up physically was mature and responsible.  Children were characterized by their levels of youth-li-ness (terrible two’s, irresponsible adolescents, etc), and often times I would hear testimonies and accounts of people who had “finally grown up” or who, through a series of terrible circumstances, “had to grow up too soon”.  Being “grown up” meant, to me, being mature, responsible, having polished social skills, and good interpersonal relationship skills.  Somewhere along my path of maturation, however, I realized that not everyone is guaranteed to grow in every aspect.  Sometimes obnoxious children turn into obnoxious adults.  Sometimes irresponsible teens turn into irresponsible middle-aged people.  And sometimes the burden of life and mid-life crises turn what appeared to be responsible adults into fools or senile old people.

But while all of these things are glaringly true, we as a culture live by the motto,

“What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”

In essence we cheer ourselves through hardships and struggles by chanting the mantra that we will grow and be stronger because of our current life situation.  Have you found this to be true in your life?  If you step back and make an honest assessment of your most difficult moments, did you grow?  Or did you become hardened?  Did you mature?  Or did you set up walls to protect yourself from the world?  Did you press into God and the Church?  Or did you learn how to make it on your own because “people will always let you down”?

It has been said that the same boiling water that hardens an egg softens potatoes.  And we, as Christians, should be the potato.

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.  And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

 – Rom 5.1-5

God has sovereignly and purposefully given us lives full of trials and tribulation so that our faith can be tested and through perseverance we can obtain good character and ultimately hope. We do not by nature enjoy and rejoice in trials, we want life to be smooth, easy and comfortable.  But God desires to make us people of deep and solid faith, and He does that by causing us to be more holy through the purification fire of suffering (James 1.2-4).

God also uses suffering and persecution to weed out false believers:

“The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up.  Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture.  Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out.  Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.” As He said these things, He would call out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

 – Luke 8.5-8

The Gospel falls on all kinds of ears.  Some people do not respond at all – the birds eat the seed away before it can take any root.  Some people respond quickly and with joy, but as soon as persecution arises they die and wither away because they have no depth, no conviction, no hope.  Some people respond quickly and spring up, but when the temptations and pleasures of the world come around, they take over and their faith withers away.  They choose the world instead of God.  And the others hear the Gospel, believe it, and when trials come they persevere and die to themselves.  When the pleasures of sin tempt them, they turn away and choose the pleasures of God.  These are those who persevere and develop character and hope.  These are those who are softened by the boiling water.  These are those who are saved.

“To this end also we pray for you always, that our God will count you worthy of your calling, and fulfill every desire for goodness and the work of faith with power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

 – 2 Thess 1.11-12

It is God who is at work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil 2.13).  Trials and suffering will make us stronger in a worldly sense if we do not have the Holy Spirit at work within us:  we will rely less on people, be more independent, we will be hardened and calloused.  Strong like a rock.  But if the Holy Spirit is at work within us, we will gradually be softened by trials.  We will be humbled and die to ourselves.  We will put one another first and seek to serve one another and God.  When the Spirit is in us, He is doing the mighty work of making us worthy of our calling.  Not that we would deserve our calling of salvation, but that He is continually making us more holy and Christlike.  He is making us into what our calling demands of us.  He helps us set resolves for holiness and then empowers us to fulfill those desires, and that all to the glory of Jesus Christ.

Our trials do not develop perseverance, character and hope so that we can have a better reputation.  They do all of things to make much of and to glorify God.  If Jesus has paid the penalty for your sin, He will also fight your sinful nature within you and make you more like Him in the process.  He will not pay the penalty for your sins and leave you to act like the world.  He will transform us to be representative of the glorious calling to righteousness and holiness.

So what does that mean, practically?  Step back and look at your current trial or hardship.  How are you responding?  Are you pressing into God?  Or are you ignoring Him?  Are you putting your desires and emotions to the side and considering the other person involved?  Or are you harboring bitterness and anger?  Are you training yourself in “street smarts” for how to not be taken advantage of again?  Or are you asking God to show you how to bring Him glory by your loss?  Are you content in whatever life situation you are currently residing, giving glory to God and finding every opportunity to praise Him?

“Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.  I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

 – Phil 4.11-13

Let us be aware that trials and difficulty to not produce strength by their very nature.  Many people revert, become hardened, or simply choose to play the victim and never mature.  You must be an active participant and choose to grow through trials, and we do that by relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to obey the Scriptures and to become more Christlike.  Be purposeful and intentional in your self-awareness and Spiritual growth.  Growing up physically does not mean that you will mature Spiritually.

Keeping It Sharp

use it

We all know the colloquialism (and profound truth), “If you don’t use it you will lose it”.  It is true about knowledge, about languages, about a skill, and even about passions.  When I was in the eighth grade, my English class was required to memorize Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Traveled”.  It was intended to inspire us to think outside of the box and do something unique with our lives as we started into High School and making major life decisions.  I have always had a knack for rote memorization and could put things to memory quickly, but I had a tendency of learning for the test and not retaining much of the material because of that so-called ability.  So in the eighth grade I memorized and quickly thereafter forgot “The Road Less Traveled”.  A few years later in High School, my English teacher again required the memorization of this poem.  I vividly remember being impressed by some people who could still quote the prose from memory, and then some of us had to begin anew.  But after the second memorization and the shocking reality of my poor study habits – and consequential adjustments, I set it to memory fully.  Now, fifteen years later, I can still quote “The Road Less Traveled”.

Our Spiritual walk, disciplines, and maturity are developed and maintained in a variety of ways, and sometimes we do ourselves a disservice by claiming the trendy mantra, “It is a relationship not a religion”.  Now, let me be perfectly clear, I believe with all of my heart that God created us in His image to know, love and worship Him, and we have the beautiful relationship of child and bride to Him.  When we are saved we abide in Him:  meaning we remain in Him.  We talk to Him.  We have a relationship with Him.  But God is also our Lord and our King.  He has authority over us, He will judge us at eternity’s gate, and He desires and deserves to be worshipped.  He does not worship us.

So what do I mean that we do ourselves a disservice?  By making our religion so informal to the point that we call it merely a relationship, we open ourselves up to the potential of forgetting and losing those things that we once knew and cherished.  If we do not use it, we will lose it.

How can a young man keep his way pure?
By keeping it according to Your word.
With all my heart I have sought You;
Do not let me wander from Your commandments.
Your word I have treasured in my heart,
That I may not sin against You.
Blessed are You, O LORD;
Teach me Your statutes.
With my lips I have told of
All the ordinances of Your mouth.
I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies,
As much as in all riches.
I will meditate on Your precepts
And regard Your ways.
I shall delight in Your statutes;
I shall not forget Your word.

– Ps 119.9-16

The book of Psalms is a collection of songs that are wrought with emotion.  David had a relationship with the Lord.  But he also understood God’s position and desired to discipline his life to know God and to honor him.  Yes, he failed – terribly at times – but songs such as Ps 119 teach us wonderful habits to emulate in our relationship with God, in our discipline of mind, and in our worship of Him.  David says that he had sought God with all of his heart.  All of his affections and desires were focused on God, and the result was a desire to keep God’s commandments.  When you turn your affections towards God, does that make you want to obey?  It should!  For by obeying Him you please Him and the relationship is enhanced – because our role is as child, subject, servant, and worshiper.

He continues to say that he had hidden God’s word in his heart in order that he might not sin.  God is so glorious and beautiful to him that David memorized God’s instructions and commands.  He meditated on the law because he loved God so much that he did not want to break even one commandment (even though we all know he did).  But then he asks God to teach him His statutes, to keep him from sinning, and he will tell everyone.  He will take delight and pleasure in God’s statutes and commandments and he will not forget the word.

So what does this all mean?  How does this apply to me?  God has created us for relationship.  He loves us and desires for us to draw near to Him with confidence and openness.  He also created us to serve and worship Him as God and king.  He wants us to know Him.  And He gave us an entire book so that we could know Him.  So we must take that book and learn it.  Love it.  Meditate on it and commit it to memory.  And then sing it back to God.  Praise His attributes, commandments and desires back to Him.  Make much of what He has to say about Himself and us and our relationship in that book.  This is how we know God, this is how we build relationship with Him.  And if you do not remain in it, you will forget it it.  If you only memorize it for academia’s sake, you will forget it – or be able to recite it from memory but without passion.

Hide it in your heart, and refresh it by praising it back to God.   The more you refresh it by praising Him, meditating on Him, making much of Him, the more deeply it will be established in your heart.

How can I be sure that I am A Christian?

Am-I-A-Christian

The United States is arguably emerging from the days of cultural Christianity.  Surveys report that nearly 80% of American still say that they are Christians, but Church attendance, individualism and secularism paint a different story.  As we move more into a European-like post Christian culture, there are many who would still label themselves as “christian”, while attempting to define their own personal belief system and having never met Jesus Christ, been born spiritually, or submitting to Jesus as Lord over their lives.

“Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?”

– 2 Cor 3.5

How, then, can we know if we are Christian?  If we are saved?  If our salvation is a settled issue in Heaven?  The Bible is our guide in knowing God and coming to salvation, and it teaches us the foundations by which we can test ourselves and work out our salvation.  Here are some helpful questions by which we can test ourselves and work out our salvation to be confident that we are ready for judgment day.

“So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

– Phil 2.12-13  

1.  Were you born again?
This might seem like a silly or elementary question, but it is the first and most important one.  Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3.3).  What does it mean to be born again?  It means to be born of the Spirit.  Everyone who is alive or who has ever lived was born physically (of the water), but not everyone is born Spiritually.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

– John 3.5-6

And before we are born Spiritually, we are dead – dead in our sins.

“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.”

– Eph 2.1-2

How do you know if you were born again?  Do you remember a time when you recognized your sinfulness, the weight of that sin and the consequence of that sin being damnation?  Do you remember hearing the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, desiring His forgiveness and repenting of your sins?  Do you remember confessing Jesus as Lord, and the old man dying – being made new?

“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”

– 2 Cor 5.17

It is difficult, if not impossible, to be made a new creature and not know it.  There are situations, like my own, when children come to faith at a very young age, and having the Spiritual awareness of life and death might be difficult.  I remember my conversion moment, but I have very little (possibly no) memories of my life before salvation and life of Spiritual death.  For people in those kinds of situations, there are more steps to test!

2.  Am I growing in my love for Jesus and the Gospel?
John teaches us plainly and clearly,

“We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him…We love, because He first loved us.”

– 1 John 4.16, 19

We cannot love God unless we abide in God and God abides in us.  The more we learn about Him, as He works through us, as we grow, we realize how great the gift of salvation is and we are blown away by it.  He creates in us the capacity to love, and our affection for Him increases. Do you like spending time with Jesus?  How is your prayer life?  Scripture instructs us to “pray without ceasing”, to make all of our requests made known to God, and pray in private with God (1 Thess 5.17, Phil 4, Matt 6.6).  Do you speak to Him?  Do you spend time with Him?  Do you enjoy Him?  Or is he just your heavenly genie to whom you go with wishes?

3.  Am I exemplifying the fruit of the Spirit?
Jesus also said plainly and clearly,

“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.”

– John 15.4

When we are in Christ, when we are saved, we will bear fruit.  What is the fruit?  It is the fruit of the Spirit:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

– Gal 5.22-23

The term “fruit” here is a singular term.  You cannot pick and choose your favorites, when Christ is living and active within your heart, all of these attributes will be growing and evident.  Now, we are all fighting against our flesh, we will all stumble and give in to the fruit of the flesh: “immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (Gal 5.20-21).  We will not be perfect until we are perfected in our new bodies.  But we cannot be marked by the deeds of the flesh, when we are Christians we are marked by the fruit of the Spirit.

4.  Does the Holy Spirit Convict you?
Jesus promised as He was leaving the disciples that the Holy Spirit was coming and would be our helper to walk this Christian road.  The Spirit’s role is simple:

“And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment…”

– John 16.8

If the Holy Spirit is living and active within your heart, He will convict you of sin, righteousness and judgment.  To put it in layman’s terms, when you are tempted and when you choose to sin, He will make you feel rotten.  If you are not exemplifying the fruit of the Spirit, you will feel rotten.  The Spirit will be pounding on your chest, “This does not glorify God, this is not OK!”  My husband came to faith at a young age after moving out on his own turned away from the Lord for no less than six years.  During that time, and through all of his bad decisions, he can remember vividly the Spirit convicting him and even sensing the Lord asking him, “When are you going to come back to me?”  He would respond by turning up the music louder to drown the conviction, but it was always there and the Spirit ultimately won – bringing him into a healthy and strong walk with the Lord.

5.  Are you growing in your awareness of sin and holiness?
This point ties in intimately with the last.  If the Holy Spirit is convicting you of sin and righteousness, then you are growing.  I made this a separate point however, because in the progress of our Spiritual maturation we can plateau or grow complacent with where we are.  Many people erroneously think that becoming a Christian means cleaning up your act, so they walk the aisle, say a prayer and then begin the terrible task of shallow morality.  They quit cursing, they quit drinking, they quit stealing, etc.  They deal with the outward and gross sins that even culture understands to be less than savory.  But the fight never reaches the heart level, because sin is considered to be action-based and not heart-based.  While many passages of Scripture do address the gross sins, they also address the sins of the heart:

“For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.”

– Mark 7.21-22

Envy.  Gossip.  Pride.  Foolishness.  These things are heart issues that will be convicting to an extent at the beginning of the Christian walk, but will be a great source of Spiritual conviction later on down the path of maturity.  The more we get to know the goodness and holiness of God, the more we will see the depth of our wickedness, and we should be broken over our arrogance, over our discontentment and envy, and even over our foolishness.  Is God helping you fight the sins of the heart?

6.  Are you growing in your love for and knowledge of the Scripture?
God has revealed a vast database of information about Himself:  who He is, how He thinks and functions, what He wants, etc.  And all of this is wrapped up neatly in a book for us to access.  If you love God, you must love His word!  You cannot know God unless you know his Word.  Is the Bible boring to you?  It should not be, it should be alive:

“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

– Heb 4.12

If the Word of God is boring and dull to you, if you do not find daily application and conviction within its pages, you should be very concerned about your Spiritual state.  Boldly ask God to bring it to life to you, and reveal Himself to you through it.

So what if I am not experiencing one or some of these things?
First of all, we must remember that Spiritual growth is not a science.  We will all go through seasons of growth and drought.  If you are experiencing weakness in one of these fronts, it does not mean that you were never saved.  If you remember your moment of conversion, know that you have been born again and made into a new creation, and if the Holy Spirit is convicting you, then you can have assurance of your salvation, even if you feel Spiritually dry for a season.  If these things do not mark your life, however, turn to Jesus.  There is a beautiful tension that we must remember when considering our Spirituality, and that is this:

“So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

– Phil 2.12-13  

We must be diligent to consider and work out our salvation.  All of eternity is at stake here, and we should not let is be a side issue.  It deserves our hearts and our attention.  But while we are diligent to consider and work diligently at our Spirituality, we must also remember that it is God who is working within us.  When He makes us a new creature, He places His Holy Spirit within us, and it is no longer us who live but Him living through us.

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

– Gal 2.20

Also remember that,

“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out…This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.”

– John 6.37, 39

Jesus will not lose one who has come to Him for salvation.  Not one.  So if you have been born again, then God will complete in you the good work that He Himself began.  You cannot lose it, you cannot add to it.  But the mutual responsibility here is exemplified in our diligence to push on in our Spirituality and growth.  The proof of God’s transforming work in our lives is our perseverance.  Thus we can be confident, so long as we persevere.  So push on in confidence.  And if you have never been reborn, but you desire to be, simply ask Jesus.  Confess your sins, ask Him for salvation and new life, and pour into the Scriptures – getting to know our glorious Savior.  And then find a church where you can be taught and nurtured and where you can serve the body!

When life gets messy.

High speed image of splashing milk

When God calls us to salvation, He places us perfectly within His body:  the Church.  We are all given strengths and abilities to help the church thrive, to maintain health, to reach the world and to make disciples.  The Church needs every member and every member needs the Church.

“But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.  For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.  For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  For the body is not one member, but many.  If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body.  And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?  But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired.  If they were all one member, where would the body be?  But now there are many members, but one body.”

– 1 Cor 12.12-20

This is the beautiful and unique form of community with which God has blessed the Church.  In short, we get in each other’s lives and we “do life” together.  But do you know what happens when you get in other people’s lives?  It gets messy.  No Christian has attained perfection and the fullest maturity until he is freed from his earthly body, and that means that people are going to be misunderstood, people are going to be offended, and there will be conflict.  Even within the Church.  ::gasp::  If you’re not getting messy, you are not doing it right.

But let us not despair about this fact.  This is actually our opportunity to first of all glorify God in how we respond.  If Jesus is our example, let us remember that He was the only person to walk the face of this Earth without sin, and He was despised, mocked, tortured and murdered.  He endured all of this without lashing out, but with forgiveness and grace, even praying for God to show forgiveness to those who were in the act of murdering Him.  Can you imagine?  We often times need space and time to cool our emotions, but Jesus, in the midst of His own murder, was able to show selflessness and mercy.  In the same way that He loved and forgave us, we must love and forgive one another.  Otherwise we elevate ourselves and our offense above what Jesus endured on the cross.

Secondly, this gives us an opportunity to grow in maturity.

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.”

– James 1.2-3

I particularly love this passage out of James because he speaks directly to “various trials”, not simply persecution for the Gospel’s sake.  Various trials can be our cars breaking down, a difficult child, a tension at the church or persevering through an illness.  All of these various trials are tests of our faith.  How do we respond?  Do we get angry and selfish?  Or do we turn to God and die to ourselves?  Are we humble or are we proud?  When we persevere through the testing of our faith we achieve endurance.  And Romans tells us that,

“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

– Rom 5.3-5

We will not have proven character until we persevere through the mess of relationships and come out victorious on the other side.  We will not have true, Biblical hope until we persevere through trials that test our faith.  If we do not persevere and glorify God by dying to ourselves and following Christ’s example in day-to-day trials, we will be tossed around like the waves of the sea and depend on our circumstances for happiness (James 1.6).

Thirdly, these situations give us an opportunity to express the Gospel to others in the Church and to a lost world.  We will all have conflict.  But consider this:  we are all familiar with the terrible and ongoing “worship war” that is present in many churches.  Everyone wants his own style of music.  For some the music is too loud, for some it is too soft, for some it is not played skillfully enough, and for some the style is just unbearable.  Consider a person who has never come to the church before and who has never heard hymns, contemporary praise, quartet or even Christian rock music.  Everything, to him, is new.  He can have two polar opposite experiences determined by the church-goer by whom he sits.  The church goer can have a bad attitude, choose not to sing, choose to be grumpy – or even wait in the foyer until the music is over before coming in.  The unsaved man will see nothing different from the world here.  What he knows and expects.  Nothing attractive.  And he will probably examine the music with the same mindset.  Now, imagine he sits next to someone who does not necessarily care for the style of music being played, but this person says in his heart, “I want God to be glorified by the music and in my heart.  I am going to sing whatever they choose to sing and praise God!”  He considers his neighbor who loves this music and can best express his heart to God through this style, and he prays, “God help my neighbor meet with you today, and I praise you that these songs are fostering his heart to praise you!”  The lost person will see this as a selfless and humble person who loves God and loves his neighbor, and will see something different.

If the world sees conflict between two believers, if the believers act like the world, then our witness is lost.  But if the believers humble themselves, put one another’s desires and needs above themselves, respect one another and forgive lavishly, then we demonstrate the love and forgiveness that we have been showed in Jesus.  Scripture teaches us that we only love because He loved us first (1 John 4.19).  And Scripture teaches us that we should love and forgive in the same degree by which we are loved and forgiven.

“So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.”

– Col 3.12-13

Paul teaches us that our attitude towards one another should be, at the foundation, one of humility.  And based on that humility we bear with one another and forgive in the same manner that we have been forgiven.  What does that mean?  If you have come to Jesus for salvation, He has forgiven you of every offense you have ever committed and will ever commit.  In short, there is nothing that another person can do to you that would be worse than your offense against a holy God.  Therefore, if Jesus has forgiven you of everything, then we, by His example, must forgive every offense confessed towards us.

Paul knows, however, that this is not easy and that it goes against our sinful nature.  That is why every single letter that He wrote addressed the topic to some extent.

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.  Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.  Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.  “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

– Rom 12.9-21

So much as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.  This does not mean that you have to be buddy-buddy with everyone in the Church.  This also does not mean that you excuse and overlook sin.  Jesus gave us very clear instructions for how to handle a church member who is sinning (Matt 18.15-17), and Paul teaches us that when someone is in sin, we should lovingly restore him and help him fight the sin (Gal 6.1).  We should never overlook sin, but bring it to light and squash it before it takes a foothold in anyone’s life.  This is the truly loving thing to do, to push one another on to maturity and hope.

But humility follows the example of Christ and dies to one’s self.  Humility seeks to glorify God and His gospel by forgiving in the way that He forgave.  Humility serves the body and individuals in the likeness and manner of Christ (Phil 2.3-8).

Life will get messy.  It is in these moments that we must choose to put away our pride, we must choose to seek to glorify God by loving and forgiving as He has loved and forgiven.  We must long for the unity of the body by lifting one another up and resolving conflict, and this will show the world that we are Christians:  by our love (John 13.35).  It is easy to do service projects and humanitarian aid.  It is easy to look happy on Sunday mornings, but a dynamic witness to the world is Christians loving one another when they do not necessarily want to.

“For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly.  For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.  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, WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”

– 1 Peter 2.19-24

So let us approach community with a realist mindset, knowing that pouring into one another’s lives will bring conflict eventually.  People are people, they will let you down.  But let us embrace those opportunities to press into God, to press into one another, to grow in maturity, and to be a dynamic witness to a lost world.  Let us die to ourselves, put one another first, help one another fight sin in our lives, and thus sharpen one another and be what God intended the church to be:  a body.