The Gift of Certainty

Certainty

“All my life I’ve had doubts about who I am, where I belonged. Now I’m like the arrow that springs from the bow. No hesitation, no doubts. The path is clear.” –Commander Jeffrey Sinclair

Can we be certain about the purpose of our lives? What has God put us here to do?

When I think about these questions, I have moments of crystal clarity. Sometimes, I feel like “the arrow that springs from the bow” — a moment of remembrance for Commander Jeffrey Sinclair; I’ll never forget the first time I heard him say that — no hesitation, no fear, no looking around to make sure I really want to go to the center of the target. Other times, I’m not at all certain about my calling. It feels like it’s awfully easy to get sucked into the vortex of “What does God really wants from me?”, and I’m not a fan. I suppose this is in fact closely related to the idea of resting in Christ. I think it’s because I find myself evaluating my calling based on my perception of my own ability to fulfill that calling, so I end up muddle-headed and afraid.

But God is faithful; he will surely do it!

In the closing words of his first letter to the Thessalonican church, Paul quick-hits a laundry list of exhortations to admonish, encourage, rejoice, pray, be thankful, respond to God’s prompting, be discerning, and a host of others – wrapping up with a crescendo to “be good and don’t be bad” in 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22. It must be one of the most densely packed sections in the New Testament in terms of commands to God’s people. Even though it’s only a few verses, I don’t make it all the way through before my earn-your-way-to-heaven upbringing starts to chafe. Not cool. Doesn’t feel like the gospel. But keep reading. Paul reminds them of what I too need to hear as well in the next few verses:

“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thess 5:23-24, emphasis added).

  • It’s not “sanctify yourself”, it’s “may God sanctify you”. He doesn’t even delegate it. He does it Himself!
  • It’s not “keep yourself blameless”, it’s “may God keep you blameless”. And at that, all the way to the end … when Christ returns.
  • It’s not “be faithful”, it’s “He who calls you is faithful”. Not only is the story about God (not about me), but God Himself wrote the story and God Himself is faithful to unfold it. Truly, He is the Alpha and the Omega (Rev 22:13), and the Sustainer all the way through (Col 1:17). Safety and rest are in Him (Isa 41:10), not in some false sense of control I conjure up in my mind from inside the story.
  • And finally, it’s not “make sure you do it”, it’s “He will surely do it”. I have the responsibility of availability, not the responsibility of capability. It’s the strength of God’s arm that is on trial, not mine. (2 Chron 20:1-24; one of my favorite stories in the bible)

So, what God starts, He finishes (Phil 1:6). If He says to it, then He’ll do it in you. God is not weak and He’s not slow. I’m both. But I trust the Lord, and I’ll listen to Him. And what He says — I know — He will surely do it!

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The Gift of Rest

I delight myself in You, captivated by Your beauty God, I run into Your arms, unashamed because of mercy I’m overwhelmed, I’m overwhelmed by You

I delight myself in You, captivated by Your beauty
God, I run into Your arms, unashamed because of mercy
I’m overwhelmed, I’m overwhelmed by You

I don’t know about you, but I wrestle with the concept of “resting” in Christ. God makes it extremely clear in His Word that we are called to “rest”.

  • God models rest in His resting from the work of creation (Genesis 2:1-3). The omnipotent God wasn’t tired, He’s just really good at foreshadowing. Creation is the first time God rests. The second is recreation. Here, God demonstrates the reality that rest follows work, as it will after the cross … for us (which we’ll get to). Not only that, but His love for us extends even to modeling the “rest” principle for us. He isn’t weak, we are … also pointing to Christ.
  • God commands rest as part of His “Top 10″ commandments (Exodus 20:8-11) . Again, this command is given to us out of love. God never intended us to believe we could actually live up to the standard of His perfection, but gives us these commandments so that we would recognize His unattainable perfection compared to our extreme weakness. Exodus 20 is an early chapter in God’s redemptive love story.
  • God leads us to rest, both from Egypt in the Old Testament (laid out succinctly, but in the negative, in Psalm 95:8-11) and (in a brilliant, intentional parallel) from the Law in the New Testament (Hebrews 3-4). God promises Moses to provide the people rest in His presence (Exodus 33:12-23), but the people have no faith, and in tragic judgment they are denied rest and condemned to die in the wilderness (Numbers 14:21-25). In both cases, the Bible juxtaposes “slavery” and the land of God’s “rest”.

I feel like I keep choosing slavery. At its core, at least for me, it’s essentially a battle with insecurity. I continually look for other people and circumstances to validate me. When others think well of me, I think well of myself. When I perceive myself to have failed or disappointed others, I feel like a failure. And when I feel I haven’t been enough for God, I feel the most acute sense of this failure. My fundamental problem… That I mistakenly believe God is grading me the way the world is grading me. Rather than resting on Christ — who loved me so much He would rather die than see me a slave and condemned to death — I stir restlessly on the hot coals formed by my projection of the fallen world system onto the Kingdom of Heaven. My heart is far more attuned to winning approval than it is to God’s unwavering and certain love for me. Did Christ’s death and victory and offer of new life not demonstrate that love clearly enough for me?

Whether I see it or not, Jesus did the work. It is finished, and, as it did in creation, rest follows work.

Paul admonished the Philippians, “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh…. [Whatever this world has to offer, I count] as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection.” (Phil 3:2-10a)

On too many days, I’m the “dog” Paul is talking about. I agonize over my performance. Was my work good enough? For all I desire is to complete my work, so I can rest, hearing that I did well. But God’s circumcision is of the heart. I cannot get it right, so there’s no point in the agonizing labor. My flesh is assured to fail me (refer to the Law in general), so confidence (or fear) in it is foolish and dangerous. That same uncertainty led to the failure of the Israelites to enter rest in the land God promised them, and threatens to prevent my rest in a far greater land God has promised me.

But my great hope is in the finished work of Christ. On my good days, I realize it. Jesus’ work is completely done, so His rest is freely available to me. And He bids me to enter … to “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9). Found in Him… Oh, I want that! Everything else fades away, and we realize that we’re just His … overwhelmed by and fixated on who He is. Not on me. By myself, I started out a failure and will end a failure. All of Adam’s race the same… careening to destruction. But in Christ, we are renewed. Dead, but now alive. Satisfied. Complete. Finally whole. Fully loved. Enough to be a son (or daughter) of the Living God.

  • And so, for our good, God commands rest. The only work left is the work of stillness; to “cease striving and know that [He is] God.” (Psalm 46:10 NASB) And that, regardless of circumstance, is enough. God’s command too is loving … to rest and let it be enough.
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Am I enough?

My Strength

Not enough…

Part of the process we’re going through in my preaching methodology and theology class this semester is to ask questions of ourselves about our preparedness to teach God’s Word. Last week, one of the questions we had to tackle in our journals was “In what ways do you find it difficult to trust God?” Such a great question! After some pondering, I came up with a few thoughts, and I thought I’d share some of them.

The first thing God brought to me is that I wrestle with the question of “enough”. Sometimes I find it difficult to trust God to be enough, when I’m not enough. Enough for what, exactly? Well, specifically, to do what God has called me to do. When the rubber meets the road, will I have the … strength? smarts? savvy? simoleons? whatever I imagine it’s going to take to actualize God’s plans and purposes?

You probably caught it just from the way I asked the question… I don’t really think it’s the right question. What we’re really asking when we ask a question like that is… Does God have the resources to achieve His purposes? Is HE enough?

In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Paul explains to the Corinthian church — who are struggling with trying to decide which teacher among them is the greatest — that it is in fact God’s strength that matters, and that God’s strength in fact radiates in our weakness…

First, God made Paul weak on purpose, ostensibly to draw Paul to Christ. Paul formerly viewed himself as strong, but has now realized that strength was an illusion … even a delusion (see the preceding verses back into chapter 11).

Second, even though Paul begs, God refuses to take away Paul’s weakness and replace it with a self-sufficient strength. God desires the dependence born out of Paul’s weakness. He knows it’s better for Paul to be weak and depend on Him than to be strong himself, even if the strength were provided by God.

Lastly, God graciously revealed His plan to Paul (and to us) that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)

In the end, Paul boasts in his weakness, knowing that therein the power of God is manifested and displayed to the Corinthians and throughout history. God Himself achieves His purposes. Our roles are more in acknowledging (boasting in!) our weakness, and running to Him. God is most clearly at work in His weak, incapable, humble, dependent children. The truth is that it’s better to be weak in the lap of God than strong anywhere else!

God's Strength

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

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The Bottleneck of Little Faith

Leap of Faith

The faith to trust what we cannot see

It’s my second semester in seminary (at TEDS), and I’m taking a very interesting class designed to prepare us to preach God’s Word. It’s both a methodology and a theology class, so it focuses both on skills / technique and the reasons behind it — what to do, why to do it, how, etc. But most of all, we’re focused on humbling ourselves before God, and yielding to His authority. His ministry, His calling in our lives, His Word, His approach, His results, His transforming power in the lives of the one who preaches and the one who hears.

To that end, our professor is walking us through a number of “bottlenecks” to (what would get in the way of) effective preaching, which I see as really being bottlenecks to effective ministry … in many cases, to Christian living in general. I don’t know how many of these will be “shareable” or interesting in this context, per se, but what impacts me and seems appropriate, I will share.

The first bottleneck is “little faith”. It is the idea that, if we do not really trust the Lord or His Word, then it will be very difficult to proclaim it powerfully and effectively to others. As an exercise during this section, we were asked to search the Scriptures for truths about God and His Word, and to build a list of “convictions” from them. The following is what I came up with. It is in no way exhaustive — a list like this of what’s true about God and His redemptive work in our lives could fill every scroll we could find — but it is representative and meaningful (at least to me), so I thought I’d share.

I debated writing a mini-commentary on each of these, but I thought instead that if you’re reading this and interested, click through some of the links and read what God Himself said about these things. May reading these Scriptures and meditating on these truths be to you as much of a blessing as it was for me in creating the list. And very importantly, where you feel you cannot confidently say any of these statements about yourself, ask God to show you why. Perhaps He is desiring a deeper relationship with you than you are with Him. Perhaps something is in the way (which by definition would be on your end). And if you want to chat, comment below. I’d love to hear that this list of truths was provocative in someone else’s life as well.

  1. God loves me (John 3:16; Rom 5:8, 8:35-39; 1 John 4:10)
  2. God has chosen me (2 Tim 1:9; Col 3:12a; 1 Pet 2:4-10)
  3. God has forgiven me, redeemed me (Eph 1:7, 2:8; Isa 44:22; Ps 49:15)
  4. God has given me a new life in Christ (1 Pet 2:4-5; 2 Cor 5:17)
  5. God is faithful to me (1 Cor 1:9; Deut 7:9; Lam 3:22-23; 2 Tim 2:13)
  6. God is enough for me (2 Cor 12:9; Ps 62:7, 73:26)
  7. God empowers me to do the good works He ordained for me, and both commands and empowers me to faithfully discharge them (Eph 2:10; 1 Tim 6:12; 1 Pet 5:10; Luke 9:23; John 15:5; Isa 41:8-16; 1 Cor 4:2, 10:13)
  8. God relies on His own capabilities, not mine, to perform His work and purpose (2 Cor 4:7; Isa 41:8-16)
  9. God’s Word is alive and powerful, and will accomplish everything it sets out to do (Heb 4:12; Isa 55:10-11)
  10. God gives me everything I need for the life He’s called me to (2 Pet 1:3-4)
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The Love of God… Is With Us

Merry Christmas

In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

As a sinful and fallen people, darkness is our lot in life. Darkness is wherever light is absent. But light conquers darkness, and darkness is powerless to withstand it. Darkness never overcomes light; light can either shine forth and push darkness away, or it can retreat and darkness fills in the vacuum where the light once was.

In our sinful, broken states, we humans no doubt have “walked in darkness”. But the light of God’s love for us will not permit those He loves to walk in that darkness forever …

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone….
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
And the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
On the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2,6-7)

Lighthouse

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

This was God’s plan from the very beginning. Before the foundations of the earth were laid… In the heart of God before “In the beginning…” (Genesis 1:1)… God knew how He would fix our sin problem. And make no mistake, sin is an enormous problem. Not a minor bump-in-the-road kind of problem, but a debt that is unpayable … a burden that is unbearable … the type and magnitude of problem that deceives people into gleefully racing into hell “laughing all the way”. The horrors of sin are the ultimate darkness, but God’s plan from the beginning was that His only begotten Son, the Bright Morning Star, the very Creator God, would take on human flesh and walk among us … and conquer our sin problem. His light would overtake the darkness of our sin…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John [the Baptist]. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:1-9)

And so, in the ultimate act of humility and love, Jesus came to us, for us, to be among us, to save us…

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5b-8)

Cemetery

Once you were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh…

No matter how many times I hear this story, it never gets old. Very aptly titled “The Greatest Story Ever Told”, the most amazing tale in history is TRUE. We were helplessly and hopelessly dead in our sin. No matter what we did, we could never get to God. So God, in His great mercy, His great love for us, came to us instead.

The Eternal God clothed Himself in flesh. Born in poverty and obscurity, in a dingy cave in a tiny corner of nowhere on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, God crashed into human history … the ultimate light to shine into our ultimate darkness …

The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” … And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 1:26-2:14)

Presents under the Tree

… But God made you alive in Christ!  (Col 2:13)

This is our God… Immanuel. God with us. The Word of God, the Light that shines in the darkness, walks among us. Even lives within us — if we will surrender to Him. So, we are no longer slaves to sin, but our freedom was purchased at the great price of the blood of the very Son of God. God is with us … IF we choose Him over everything else, God’s way over mine, God’s original plan of submission as sons to our loving and all-wise Father …

[Jesus came to our world], and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:10-18)

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

The greatest gift you have or will ever receive is God’s love clothed in flesh, Jesus the Christ, the Son of the Living God, our Savior. Not just the Savior of the world, but (I hope) your personal Savior … and mine … the only hope we have to walk with God in the garden in the cool of the day.

God’s gift to you wasn’t under a tree, it was ON a tree — the blood of Christ, shed for you, for the remission of sins. This Christmas, remember Jesus, whom we celebrate. God’s love for you couldn’t be more clear.

Merry Christmas!

The Cross

God’s greatest gift to us was on a tree not under it

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Stay awake!

A Vigilant Soldier

Called to be vigilant

“Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. Therefore stay awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning — lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”   — Mark 13:33-37

Toward the end of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and His disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus has made clear to them that, when they get there, He will be tortured and killed for the sins of mankind, and will then be resurrected three days later victorious over death. The disciples are understandably a little freaked out — focusing more on the fact that Jesus is going to die than that He will rise again. Pretty hard stuff for them to get their heads around, to be sure, so we can’t be too hard on them.

Even when Jesus is resurrected, He’s not sticking around. The eternally-existing plan is for Jesus to hang out for a few days in resurrected form, “prove” the resurrection, give us a glimpse of what we’ll be like someday (1 John 3:2), and then return to the Father. At that point, the disciples will all be tortured and killed (martyred for their faith) as well, and thousands of additional years of history will go by, but someday Jesus will return again. This time, there’s no “lowly and riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9) or “emptied himself to become a servant” (Philippians 2:7). The next time Jesus appears in human history, justice is going to flow like a river (Amos 5:24). God’s patients will only last so long, and someday, Jesus is coming back to set every wrong right. And on that day, every clever 21st century we’re-smarter-than-God-now-because-we-think-we-know-what-a-quark-is idol will be torn down, every knee will bow, and there will be absolutely no doubt of any kind about who’s running the universe.

Jesus knows all this, but the disciples don’t. So, Jesus is teaching them what to expect after He’s gone, and what to teach to their children, and their children’s children. Reading recently in Mark 13, I noticed something that I hadn’t really thought deeply about before. In Jesus’ teaching that “no one knows that day or hour” (where He explains that His return will be sudden and unexpected), I noticed with fresh eyes His emphasis on “Stay awake!” That has such broad sweeping implication for life; I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before.

yawn1

Project deadline looming…

The clear implication of God’s command and Jesus’ teaching in this passage is to be prepared for Christ’s return. We don’t know when that’s coming, so we can’t schluff around (technical term) until a couple days before, then quickly clean the house, wash the dog, and pretend things were always clean. When I’m out of town on business, my wife feels the freedom not to worry about the dishes or do the laundry, but she jumps on those things the night before I get home because she likes to have the house clean when I walk in the front door (which I think is super sweet and loving). But that only works because she knows my travel itinerary. If I could come home at any random time, she’d have to keep on top of the dishes every day if she wanted the kitchen to be spick and span when I got there. So is it with our lives.

Level 1

yawn3

Long weekend…

What does that really mean, in practice? Well, first, “while He’s away”, God has given us work to do – work He considers important. Not things to check off a list, so much as ways to be. God has called us to worship Him only, to pray for others, to serve them, to be together as a family of believers, to live generously, to bear each others’ burdens, etc. You know, to love God with all our hearts and love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:29-31). We only have a brief few moments on this earth, and then it’ll be over – on a day we won’t expect it to be. And on that day, God will require an explanation … first as to how we responded to Jesus, and second as to how we invested the time, talent and treasure He gave us. What return have we reaped for God out of the vast resources (money being only one of them) that He left in our care? Part of staying awake (we could call it “paying attention”) is diligently being about the Master’s business with what He has entrusted to us.

Level 2

yawn2

I had to work late…

More than doing the things that God wants us to do, God wants us to be with Him. The Lord created us to walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day … to tend the garden for Him, yes, but also to enjoy it with Him. In every small group I’ve ever been a part of, the #1 thing anyone ever talks about is wanting to become consistent in their “quiet times” with God. This basically translates to an all-out war to squeeze 15 minutes a day – with Bibles open and prayer lists in front of us – into our busy lives on a semi-regular basis. But I’ve come to understand that this involves a significant dose of wrong thinking … which takes us another level deeper to what I think might be the heart of the issue …

Level 3

yawn4

So many squirrels, so little time…

I really don’t think God is not interested in our leftovers. He’s been clear with me that He’s not interested in mine, and in this way, we’re all the same. God wants all of us. Our whole hearts. The Pearl of Great Price costs a lot more than squeezing in a few minutes a day of “quiet time”. In fact, I can’t imagine God is all too keen on the idea of “squeezing” Him into our lives in any sense. It’s clear to me that God wants to rule on the very throne of my life. Every decision. Every desire. Every thought. All for Him. God has been teaching me that he wants me to slow down and bring even the most trivial things to Him. I think He intended for our lives to be done entirely together with Him the way Jesus did life entirely together with His Father (John 17:20-26).

That cannot be done after we’ve exhausted ourselves on every other conceivable desire, but it can be done. The cost is a bunch of stuff we don’t really need and shouldn’t really want, but there is a cost. I want the picture of my life to a soldier at attention in the pouring rain, not some guy in a commercial asleep at the wheel.

Asleep at the Wheel

God deserves more than a few droopy-eyed minutes of Bible reading after we collapse exhausted into bed at the end of a long day. He expects more than our inability to concentrate in prayer because we worked late the night before or are totally distracted by the many tasks in the day ahead. There’s no way to have the life God intended for us by checking “quiet time” off the list before racing to get to something more important.

Whatever it takes, we must start saying “no” to lesser things, build the necessary margin into our lives, go to sleep on time, get up early, and stay awake!

There will not always be a tomorrow. We have no idea when the Lord will return. In a matter of moments, this life will be over. And when our King does come back, He will be taken VERY seriously … by everyone. For those of us who claim to love Him… Will He find us faithfully about His business? Will He recognize us from the quality time we’ve spent together? Will it be obvious that our lives have been increasingly about Him? Or will He find us proclaiming victory because we succeeded most days in squeezing Him in?

I don’t know about you, but no matter the cost, that’s just no longer going to work for me.

Standing Watch

Therefore, be on guard. Stay awake!

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Airbrushed to Death

There, but for the grace of God, go all of us...

There, but for the grace of God, go all of us…

For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.

– Revelation 3:17-18

I spent last weekend in lockdown … literally. I joined a group of men (largely from my church) in conducting a “Dad’s Seminar” at a nearby state prison (check out New Life Corrections Ministry, part of Wayside Cross). The goal of the program is to help incarcerated dads break the cycle of fatherlessness and crime.

In ministry, it’s easy to think you’re bringing something to someone — somehow riding into someone’s life or a difficult situation on a white horse with the gospel as your sidearm. But more often than not, you end up realizing that God used them to minister to you at least as much as you were there for them. God is always at work. Nobody ever takes God anywhere. And God’s work always starts with me. So it was with this trip. I didn’t take God to the prison. The question was wether or not I would join God in the work He was already doing there.

This was my first experience in a prison or working with the incarcerated. I don’t know what I was expecting really. I didn’t go down there with much of a clear picture in my head of what I would find, what the inmates would be like, etc. It was guys only. They were all fathers, but only some were married. And they all realized that they had severely messed up their lives (knew what they’d done to earn a prison sentence was wrong). Many were Christians, and many were — to be honest — not that different from me. I found myself repeatedly thinking, alongside 16th century preacher John Bradford, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

Some were there for things I’ve never done and never considered doing, but others were there for things I’ve definitely thought about and could easily have done (but didn’t). Still others did things I’ve done too, but they got caught and I didn’t. Now that’s sobering. And almost all of them could testify to a condition I thankfully could not: having an absent father. The stats about how much more likely a kid is, without a father, to get into every conceivable trouble are incredible and almost unbelievable:

  • Fatherhood67x more likely to be arrested by age 12
  • 32x more likely to run away
  • 14x more likely to commit rape
  • 10x more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol
  • 5x more likely to commit suicide
  • And so on

But there they were — guys who might easily have traded places with me if our fathers had traded places a generation before. It was uncomfortable, but I think good for me … to feel a little too much like them, so to speak. And God used that feeling to show me, in an extremely potent and profound way, the deceitfulness of sin.

Somewhere on Saturday afternoon, it hit me. The enemy of our souls got himself an airbrush kit for Halloween one year, and has been hard at work ever sense making the devastating consequences of sin look as sparkly and shiny as demonically possible. Satan’s days are spent making steaming piles of crap sparkle like gold.

We covered a sizable array of topics with the inmates who attended the seminar, and over and over again this was the testimony… That glittered, but it wasn’t gold. That seemed like it would satisfy me, but it turned to poison in my hand. That promised me life, but instead brought pain and suffering and death. And not just for me, but for my family, especially my kids … for whom, frankly, it will take a miracle to avoid ending up in the same cell someday. Scary stuff!

Our goal was to try to disrupt that cycle, and topics during the two-day, eight-part seminar mostly centered on right relationships with God and family. The session on God-honoring sexuality perhaps made the clearest, most vivid point on this topic. There was a lot of blunt, straight talk among the men (awesome!), including the topic of pornography. Of all the places where sin is (in this case quite literally) airbrushed to falsely turn it into something attractive and appealing, this is a great example. And so many men are snared by it. I’m ashamed to say that I have been. If they’re honest, most men (and [sadly] a growing number of women) will say it’s a constant temptation.

Beyond the obvious wrongness and adulterous nature of pornography (yes, it’s cheating on your spouse), our topic of the false promises of sin forms an insidious undercurrent. Men get into porn as a carnal urge-satisfier or an escape, and end up thinking (even if subconsciously) that this is somehow how real life is supposed to be. Women were not created to be men’s sexual fantasy vending machines; that’s a horribly twisted way to look at sexuality (which God created for our good) and the marriage relationship. In the Bible, marriage and sex are synonymous — never one without the other, and exclusively together. But even beyond that, here’s a news flash… nobody really looks like that.

Before-and-After-Airbrushing

The truth is that many of the women glitzed up to look appealing to men in porn pictures or videos are actually, literally someone’s slave — kept in a box somewhere when they’re not “working”, and airbrushed on film so that you can’t see the malnourishment or the bruises when they are. Men — especially men of God — have to come to the point where porn makes us sick. Because it should. Even setting aside for a moment the intrinsic value of the people in these videos, the damage this “industry” causes them, and the horrible betrayal that is adultery, another important reality (and a point we made with the inmates) is that no real woman (aka your wife) can or should be compared to a comic strip. What porn sells men as “pleasing” or some kind of “standard”, isn’t in the least bit real. And if a man feeds himself the disgusting and unrealistic filth of pornography, he will be decreasingly satisfied with his marriage (you know, real life), and sin crouches at the door ready to utterly destroy anyone it can get its hands on.

Likewise, but less dramatically, the car in the showroom is under just the right lighting so that you have to have it. But the truth is that a shiny, new, super-fast car cannot make you happy or give your life meaning in any sense.

Lexus_Automobile_Lineup_2007

The model home has every bell and whistle imaginable. But the truth is that the more you own, the more your stuff owns you.

Mansion

The toy on TV is shown in maximum unsustainable fun mode, not made-in-china, broken-in-a-week mode. The truth is a new toy is never as great as the anticipation of receiving it.

Toy Story

Even lunch never looks like the advertisement when your order comes up.

perfect-cheeseburgersad-cheeseburger

And the apple in the Garden of Eden looked really great too, but sampling it led to death. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6). And through that door, ever disease and deadly consequence imaginable entered human experience like a run-away freight train. It glittered, but it wasn’t gold!

There’s a war raging in this world. Nobody wants to be in a war, but we don’t get to opt out. We do, however, get to choose… a life of power lived in the Spirit, or a life of slavery and impotency lived for myself. That concept isn’t new to me, but I feel like I saw it with new eyes in prison this past weekend. To the one who doesn’t know Christ, there is no choice. It’s sin, sin, sin … until you choke to death on it and wake up in hell. But the invitation goes out to anyone who will listen…  “Repent [turn around!], for the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near!” (Matthew 3:2)

The sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ has made new life possible to anyone who wants it. Not just someday, but right now! But you can’t want it in addition to some other form of “life” you really love or want to hold on to or think is gratifying you. You have to want it instead of your old life (which is in fact death — it’s just airbrushed to look like life). You can’t have fake gold and real gold too. Real gold … life that amazing … costs everything. All fake gold must be exchanged … left for dead. That’s your stuff, your desires, your goals … your very life. Does it belong to you or God? If it belongs to you, God will take it away. If it belongs to Him, God will pour into it riches you literally cannot imagine. (Matthew 16:25)

God desires for me, you, and every prisoner I met last weekend to have this new life. If you are in Christ, you are no longer a slave to sin. It tells you it has power over you; it doesn’t. Sin tells you it’s your friend; it is not. Sin can not and will not deliver on its promises. It looks good, but it’s a lie.

Sin is like a pet tiger; it’s fluffy and beautiful and purrs when you pet it … until it suddenly turns on you and rips your face off.

God, on the other hand, always delivers on His promises. You may not understand them or His answers when you ask your many questions, but you can trust Him. God will keep His promises. What God calls gold you can take to the bank. And God has clearly promised you power to live for Him (Acts 1:8, Galatians 5:16-23). You can chose life! And when you do, His blessing will extend not just to you, but to 1,000 generations of those who love Him and keep His commandments. (Deuteronomy 5:9-10)

I counsel you to buy gold refined by fire...

I counsel you to buy gold refined by fire…

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