Something Greater than 9/11

photo credit: cliff1066™ via photopin cc
photo credit: cliff1066™ via photopin cc

It happens every year when the anniversary of 9/11 rolls around. I find myself wishing that those violent and horrific terrorist attacks had never happened—not only for the lives lost but because of the negative changes that have come to our world as a result of that fateful day.

It’s not that the world was necessarily a nice place before September 11, 2001, but it has definitely been even less pleasant since. Overall, from my perspective, people are less friendly, more calloused, and more fearful. I know it makes me sound old, but there are definitely times when I wish that we could return to the days of yesteryear.

photo credit: diegofornero (destino2003) via photopin cc
photo credit: diegofornero (destino2003) via photopin cc

Still, I have come to the conclusion that nothing good ever comes from fretting over the negative changes in our world. Nothing. Those who fail to adapt to change will soon find themselves mired in misery. A friend recently told me about a study that found the one common theme between people who lived to a ripe old age was their ability to adapt to change. I haven’t taken the time to verify the study, but it makes sense. Trying to hold on to what once was has a tendency to sap the vitality from even the most vibrant of people.

Isn’t it ironic that the one group of people—Christians—who should be most adept at adjusting to change is usually the first to resist anything of the sort. In part, this is because we’ve seen such a moral decline in our culture over the past 50 years. Still, something deeper is at work. We often resist change due to our shortsightedness; we don’t realize that, in most cases, change equals opportunity.

Consider, for example, the sense of anxiety and security that so many people feel in our day. Can there be a better opportunity to point them toward our Rock, the One who provides peace and security in even the worst circumstances? What about the fact that so many people are unchurched? At least these folks aren’t beset by the religiosity that has plagued the church for so long.

photo credit: faungg's photo via photopin cc
photo credit: faungg’s photo via photopin cc

Greater still, overshadowing every negative change in our world is the reality that the kingdom of God is advancing on this earth, that the time of Christ is drawing near, that each passing day brings us closer to the full revelation of our eternal hope.

There’s something exciting happening that is easily missed by the casual observer. The kingdoms of man are crumbling while the kingdom of God draws near. The kingdom of God! It’s that one and only government that can produce a truly peace-filled society. This is not a time to shrink back in fear, or to fret over things that have been lost. This is a time to lift up our heads and open our eyes to the ripening harvest around us.

If I could rewind the clock and somehow stop the events of 9/11 from happening, I most certainly would. But I can’t. Thus, I am working to accepting the realities of this world while pursuing the greater reality of God’s kingdom. For the person who loves God and seeks good, change equals opportunity. Let’s not allow it to slip through our fingers!

Are You Spiritually Parched?

photo credit: thephotographymuse via photopin cc
photo credit: thephotographymuse via photopin cc

The advent of global warming has resulted in some crazy weather conditions across the globe. Throughout the course of history, famines have not been uncommon, but some geographic areas are now seeing droughts of record proportions. Only a few months back, for example, shippers were fretting over the mighty Mississippi River as it slowed to a near trickle. During this current era, our natural circumstances appear to run concurrently with those that are spiritual—our world is parched!

I am not sure how we arrive at such conclusions, but it is common for Christians to believe that God leads them into spiritually dry seasons. As subtle as the difference may seem, we would do well to make a distinction between traveling through a dry environment, and being dry within our hearts.

Just as God led the nation of Israel through the desert, so He will sometimes guide His children through dry, desolate places. The Bible, however, is absolutely clear: He never wants us to be dry in our hearts! If we are spiritually parched, He is not to blame. The only wise option is to take personal ownership of the issue rather than blaming it on the mystical work of a sovereign God.

We must wonder, then, what causes our spirits to wilt with barren dryness. In most (if not all) cases, I believe that the culprit is misplaced trusta reality much more dangerous than it sounds.

Idolatry—a spiritual condition detestable to God—amounts to putting someone (or something) other than God on the throne of our hearts, either as an act of adoration, or in trust as the source of our provision. Because God is invisible, and idols physically tangible, we are tempted to look to idols to meet our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.

photo credit: Ian Sane via photopin cc
photo credit: Ian Sane via photopin cc

What are the primary idols of our day? It’s difficult to find many that compare with materialism and entertainment. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with a large bank balance, or a good movie for that matter, but those who keep material goods and the need to be entertained at the core of their beings will pay the steep price of spiritual famine.

Thus says the Lord,
“Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind
And makes flesh his strength,
And whose heart turns away from the Lord.
“For he will be like a bush in the desert
And will not see when prosperity comes,
But will live in stony wastes in the wilderness,
A land of salt without inhabitant.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord
And whose trust is the Lord.
“For he will be like a tree planted by the water,
That extends its roots by a stream
And will not fear when the heat comes;
But its leaves will be green,
And it will not be anxious in a year of drought
Nor cease to yield fruit. Jeremiah 17:5-8 (NASB)

The contrast is all too clear. Yes, God may indeed lead us through dry environments, but if we are dry in our souls, the problem is ours and not His. Someway, somehow, we are placing the weight of our trust in someone or something humanly tangible. Our Father promises that those who cultivate faith toward Him will always be “well-watered gardens”, overflowing with abundant life (John 7:37-39).

photo credit: the_tahoe_guy via photopin cc
photo credit: the_tahoe_guy via photopin cc

We are all alike in that we each have the tendency to put our confidence in that which is visible instead of in our invisible God. Thus, in those unpleasant seasons when we find ourselves spiritually parched, the best first step toward a solution is to honestly examine the focus of our trust. This may not be the feel-good answer you are looking for, but I can assure you that it is a highly effective way to get those dry springs flowing!

(This post is based on the content of my new book, Champions in the Wilderness, which will soon be available for sale. Also, when our new SfMe Media website is complete, our blog posts will be switched our new ministry website, searchforme.info and this blog site will be phased out. You can subscribe to by entering your email in the subscribe panel on the right-hand side of the new website.)

Do This in Remembrance of Me?

original photo credit: steakpinball via photopin cc
original photo credit: steakpinball via photopin cc

It’s easy to get confused when trying to understand how the Mosaic Law relates to the New Covenant of grace. I am intrigued by Romans 4:14-15 (NASB):

For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.

Our initial reaction upon reading this verse might be to think that it is impossible to sin now that we are free from the requirements of the Mosaic Law. We would do well to consider the context of this passage. Paul was writing to Jews about both Jews and Gentiles, and how they were to respectively gain their right standing before God. His point was that Jews could not be justified by their age-old reliance upon obedience to the Law. This does not mean, however, that the Christian faith is entirely void of all laws.

The kingdom of God is governed by one primary law—the royal law:

 If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. James 2:8 (NASB)

Jesus raised the bar even higher in John 13:34 (NASB):

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.

City of Brotherly Love
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This is where our second Greek word for love, philia, comes into play. And in case you were wondering, this is where the name Philadelphia finds its roots as the city of brotherly love—although I’m not exactly sure how accurate that description is in our day. I’ll be perfectly honest here—the problem isn’t limited to the city of Philadelphia; I think that very, very few professing Christians pay any serious attention to Christ’s command for us to love our brothers and sisters of the faith with the same measure of love modeled by Jesus.

Why do I feel this way? Well, it may have something to do with the fact that heaping judgment and contempt on other Christians is more of a common practice than a rare exception. What we don’t seem to understand is that Jesus is personally affected by our treatment of His covenant children. (see Matthew 25:31-46). Whenever I look down my nose with contempt at one of my Christian brothers, I might as well have Jesus Himself in my sights. What a scary thought!

What happens when we transgress God’s royal law of love? We heap condemnation upon ourselves—especially when we profess our devotion to the New Covenant in Christ.

photo credit: Evan Courtney via photopin cc
photo credit: Evan Courtney via photopin cc

Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 (NASB)

Does it really matter how we treat the body of Christ–our New Covenant brothers and sisters? Absolutely! Do you truly want to honor God with your life? Let love govern your behavior–all of it.

The topic is worthy of far more time and effort than a single blog post and so I will address it with more detail in my next book. For now, however, these are essential thoughts to ponder. The King of the Universe cares more about our love—or lack thereof—for one another far more than most of us will allow ourselves to believe.

Let’s Believe (Not Grieve) for our Nation!

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I tried to pray on Wednesday morning after the election, but found myself having trouble getting through. Apparently so many angels had been watching campaign ads run by The World Will End If Obama Wins PAC that they were inconsolable when the final election results came in. Angels are a high priority with God, of course, and so He was awake for much of the night doing damage control. When it came time to hear my prayers, the lines were jammed, leaving me without guidance or strength for several hours. Scary times!

Regardless of how any of us voted (or did not vote) on Tuesday, I hope that we realize the importance of putting everything in perspective. One man did not create the problems that we face as a nation and one man will not be able to fix them. I know that many of my friends were deeply grieved by the election results, but it is not like Mitt Romney was going to wave a magic wand and return the U.S. to some romantic yesteryear that never really was.

Photo by Mikamatto — CC BY 2.0

I am not saying that certain current trends are not disturbing. It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that the sense of animosity that divides us as a nation continues to intensify. We were all put off by the caustic nature of the recent campaigns, but if our government is representative of our people, it says something about what drives the average person. We are not dealing, however, with hatred for hatred’s sake, but rather an animosity driven by fear. If there is anything that was woven into the fabric of every negative campaign ad, it was fear. Even with the election over, the residue of that fear will continue to linger for a very long time. Fear is the fourth and final trap that I want to highlight in relationship to Christians and the political arena.

I have always been intrigued by the Parable of the Sower, now seeing it as one of the pillars of Christ’s teaching ministry.

And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world [age] and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. Matthew 13:22 (NASB)

Photo by jenny drowning — CC BY 2.0

The seed suppressed by thorny weeds refers to those who have willingly received the message of the kingdom. Unfortunately, not all who embrace Christ will produce the necessary fruit of His kingdom.

The worry of the age is that collective sense of anxiety that accompanies the large scale problems of any era. As Christians, we are especially susceptible because we care. But if we allow a sense of worry to build a nest in our hearts, it will choke the vitality of our lives, rendering us fruitless.

I have the privilege of interacting with Christians from a variety of spheres in the universal Body of Christ and a common thread I see running through most of their lives is an underlying sense of discouragement due to the collective worry of the age. But I don’t believe that God wants us to grieve for our nation and our world as much as He wants us to believe for our nation and our world. It is our faith-filled prayers and not a foreboding sense of fear that will move mountains.

Photo by Lincolnian (Brian) — CC BY 2.0

If there is anything that is going to turn the tide of unrighteousness in our world, it is a vibrant Church. But if the people of God are mired in fear and worry, what platform do we have to make any real and viable impact on our culture?

The key in all of this is not to remove ourselves from the political arena, or to simply ignore the issues around us. The key is learning to take the things that burden us to Christ and to prayerfully roll our concerns onto His more than capable shoulders. You and I were never meant to carry the weight of the world. Let’s not allow campaign induced fear to build a comfortable nest in our hearts.

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;

And the government will rest on His shoulders;

And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.

There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace,

On the throne of David and over his kingdom,

To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness

From then on and forevermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.

Isaiah 9:6-7 (NASB)

Is God Really In Control?

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Heartbreaking is probably the best word I can use to describe the aftermath of superstorm Sandy that ravaged the eastern coast of the U.S. this week. But the use of this word is by no means limited to recent events. We could also speak of what seems like a relentless assault of hurricanes, monsoons, tornados, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. that continue to extract a heavy toll of human suffering.

Heartbreaking could also refer to the pain and emotional distress that humans inflict on each other. The sex-slave trade prospers, as does that of forced labor. Even in civilized countries, the word injustice can be used with increasing frequency. And then there are the wars. O the wars! How many untold millions have suffered and died over the past 100 years? The toll of war is staggering—especially when innocent children are caught in the crossfire, or displaced into refugee camps.

I understand that the phrase “God is in Control” is comforting for some, but not for me. When I think of control, I envision God pushing the buttons and pulling the strings to make all that happens, happen. I do not believe that this is an accurate (or Biblical) way to describe the source of all that is heartbreaking. Ours is not a world in which God is in control in this sense of the word. If He is, then the Creator of our Universe would be uncaring at best, and mercilessly cruel at worst.

Psalm 24 describes God as the King of glory. As the sovereign ruler of the Universe, God reigns as the highest possible authority. No one can tell Him what to do or question His actions with any authority. Every created being is ultimately accountable to the King; and the Bible makes it quite clear that all words and actions will one day be judged.

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Sovereignty does not mean, however, that our Creator somehow incites or guides all child molesters, for example, to do their dastardly deeds. God certainly possesses the ability to influence human decisions, but He has willingly chosen to limit Himself in this area.

I am not saying that our world is completely out of control, however. Any limitations on God’s part are entirely self-imposed, and evil does have its boundaries. This is all very difficult to grasp, but our inability to thoroughly understand these things does not make them any less real. God is somehow able to take our choices and work them toward His sovereign purposes. That is what makes Him God.

God reigns as the sovereign King of glory! Every Christian can stand on the promises that He is indeed the ultimate authority, that every evil deed will be accounted for, and that God will work all that hell throws at us to our benefit. He can do that. He is God.

Others often attempt to do what God can do, but their methods are very different. There was a time long ago when Lucifer and one third of the angels staged a coup in a futile attempt to ascend to the throne of glory (Isaiah 14:12-14). Their plot was easily defeated, and having been thrown to the Earth, they then ensnared the entire human race in their quest to establish their own kingdom of supremacy. But humans and demons do not have the power and authority to reign in the same manner as God. Thus, they are compelled to resort to methods of control, manipulation, and intimidation.

This is where Christians too often fall prey to the tactics of our fallen world. In seeking what we think is right—or simply what we want—we are prone to employ the same political arm twisting tactics of the demonic kingdom. In essence, this involves a continuous quest to wrestle dominion from God, seeking to rule our world independently of our Creator. In the long run, such methods serve only to further promote the heart-wrenching suffering of the human condition.

What is the answer? The advance of the kingdom of God—that domain where the sovereign King of the Universe reigns over His willing subjects. Far from possessing the passive, apathetic mindset which embodies much of our world, those who fully participate in God’s kingdom are motivated by extreme measures of faith and love to do amazing deeds, as the advance of His kingdom always brings with it healing, wholeness, and hope.

photo credit: Mataparda via photopin cc

The line between seeking to control people (and circumstances) and facilitating the coming of God’s kingdom may at times appear to be very fine, but it is a well-defined line nonetheless, and not simply a matter of semantics.

The human condition is indeed heartbreaking, but we can take comfort in knowing that our God reigns (Revelation 19:1-6)! And if our God reigns, we can act and pray with the authority of His kingdom to make a very real difference in this broken world. Let us seek to influence the world of politics through faith and love without falling prey to its controlling methods.

Battered by the Sea (of Humanity)

The other day I happened to catch a short television interview with Robert Ballard, the man primarily responsible for discovering the wreckage of the Titanic in 1985. I was struck by Ballard’s opinion that the ocean is becoming increasingly unfriendly.

Photo by Wonderlane — CC BY 2.0

His comments quickly brought to mind the experience of a co-worker several years back. Herb and his family were vacationing along the coast, as many families in the eastern U.S. are wont to do. He waded out a short distance into the water and turned to face the beach. Herb just stood there for a while, soaking in the sunshine and enjoying the rhythmic splash of waves against his legs. Without warning, a massive rogue wave engulfed Herb, knocking him upside down and driving him into the sand. The result was a severely damaged shoulder which necessitated surgery, followed by a long and painful recovery. The sea was not so friendly on that particular day.

The Bible sometimes uses the imagery of the sea to describe humanity. I think we can all agree that the human sea is not becoming any friendlier as time progresses. There are many things we could discuss in this regard; violence in entertainment, the proliferation of drugs, and the widespread embrace of corporate greed would be just a few examples. Living in the world of media like we do, another rising trend is the demonization of those we are trying to defeat in the political arena. The result is that all Democrats promote immorality, Republicans hate the poor, conservative Christians are full of hate, and homosexuals are militants who march in parades wearing nothing but their underwear.

Photo by Dave_B_ — CC BY 2.0

Just as an angry sea will over time wear down just about any sea wall, so too the cumulative effect of an angry, cold-hearted society is the increased hardness of a culture.

Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold.” Matthew 24:12 (NASB)

Christians are by no means immune from being battered by the sea. In fact, we will often experience more ferocious attacks than the non-believers around us. Jesus repeatedly warned that all who desire to live for Him will be persecuted. We need to understand, however, that when people attack and accuse us, they are but pawns of the spiritual forces of wickedness ever at work our world. Whether we want to admit their existence or not, demonic forces ever seek to zap our faith, harden our hearts and blind our eyes to the kingdom of God advancing around us. And trust me, unbelief, hardness of heart, and spiritual blindness are all intricately interconnected.

As Christians we are left with a very real choice in deciding how we will respond when battered by the sea. By simply being ourselves, we choose the default response which is to become hardened, cynical, and jaded. Walking in love, on the other hand, involves (at least at first) a conscious effort. This is because the depth of love required is not naturally human. We must learn to draw upon God’s life-giving grace if we are to honor our God, preserve our families, and bless Christ’s Church through chaotic times.

How do we draw upon His grace in such circumstances? I could write a book about the topic, but for the sake of space I’ll just mention three helpful thoughts.

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1. Cultivate honesty – Be brutally honest with yourself and with God about any hardness or lack of love in your heart. Spend some focused time in prayer, asking Him to do a healing and cleansing work in your heart.

2. Cultivate faith – One of the reasons our hearts become hardened and our love cold is that we don’t honestly believe that God is at work—or will work favorably—through our circumstances. We can begin to turn that tide by standing on His promises and praying for Him to open our blind eyes to who He is, and to what He is doing in and around us. It is all much more than any of us realize.

3. Cultivate love – We can choose not to speak critically of others. We can choose to lift up a compassionate prayer of faith for a person when our hearts demand that we judge. We can make a deliberate choice to forgive those who have hurt us.

Photo by downhilldom1984 — CC BY 2.0

All of this takes time to come to full fruition and so the need for repeated cultivation becomes clear. Over time the hard ground willingly gives way to the plow, the stones are removed and the harvest of love is increased.

The often relentless battering of the sea will either harden or polish us, with the end product being determined by our response. If we can learn to stay connected with God, abiding in His grace as a way of life, then no amount of battering can extinguish the love of God growing within our hearts.

The Manifest Presence of God

Steve, a student who occasionally attended our campus ministry meetings, found himself in the midst of a year and half long struggle with depression. On one particular evening I spoke about the importance of Christians seeking the presence of God. Steve seemed a little skeptical, but proved determined nonetheless. He knew he needed something more from God. Later that evening Steve spent 2-3 hours in prayer doing nothing more than crying out for God to reveal Himself. That night our heavenly Father touched Steve in such a real way that his depression completely lifted! An instant in God’s manifest presence can do more than a lifetime of human effort.

Even though He dwells within us, even though our spiritual senses have been brought to life, experiencing God’s manifest presence is not automatic. (Many of us have actually been taught that God no longer relates to humans in tangible ways.) This is where I believe it is essential for us to seek Him by faith. God wants to have a dynamic relationship with His children in this life. But do we really believe that?

Photo by Sam Hakes

Recently I received a gospel tract that included this sinner’s prayer:

“Dear God, I admit I am a sinner on my way to Hell. I believe that you died for me. Please save me from my sin and take me to Heaven when I die. Thank you for saving me. Amen.”

There was nothing of a personal relationship with a living God, only a distant hope for a blissful eternity. Any gospel that seeks to proclaim a message of salvation apart from a very real relationship with God in this life, certainly isn’t the full Gospel.

But even when we do present the Gospel in light of a personal relationship with God, do we give any indication of what that means? How do we have a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe? Does He stop by for an evening stroll like He did with Adam & Eve? Does His presence overtake us and we fall to the ground as with Abraham or Daniel? Do we see Him high and lifted up on His throne as Isaiah did? Does He speak to us audibly the way He did to Saul (Paul) on the road to Damascus? While all of these are possible, it’s safe to say that they don’t represent the everyday norm for a New Covenant believer.

The Apostle John recorded some fascinating words spoken by the Christ prior to His crucifixion:

“But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” John 16:7 (NASB)

Photo by Sam Hakes

Wow! Could He really mean that? What Christian wouldn’t give an arm and a leg to walk with the incarnate Christ for three and a half years? But if the words of Jesus are to be trusted, and we supposedly believe they are, there is a path of life even better than seeing and walking and talking with Him in the flesh.

Is this a relationship we have by faith, believing that He’s there, but not really having any type of interaction? While faith is always integral to walking with God, it seems to me that this wouldn’t be a relationship at all. Prayerful communication going only in one direction is more of a monologue than anything else. No, there’s something more that God has for us. It’s the very real manifestation of His presence by which He makes Himself known to His children in ways that we are able to perceive.

When we are born from above, our spiritual senses are brought to life; meaning we can learn to hear His voice, at times feel His presence in a very tangible way, and in a spiritual sense, see His face.

Photo by Clarita – morgueFile

I suppose this is where the Gospel begins to move from comforting to scary for some people. The idea that God will always be with me comforts me greatly. But to think that I can hear His voice, well that changes things. I mean, how do I know when it’s actually Him speaking? Will I end up like the crazy guy who shot people in the mall because “God told him to do it”?

Let’s be bluntly honest; many of us prefer a form of religion over a relationship with God. Religious form is neat and tidy, like a basket tied up with ribbons and decorated with pretty bows. Relationships are unpredictable—especially a relationship with God.

The importance of God’s written Word cannot be overestimated when it comes to learning to accurately hear God’s voice, but we also need to understand that there is more to the indwelling presence of God than simply believing by faith that He is there. Our loving Lord wants to manifest His presence to us in so many ways. But do we want Him to?