Come, Listen, Follow

Journeying slowly through the Gospel of Luke I notice two parallel teachings of Jesus that challenge me. In these passages, Scripture comes to life, showing how the heart’s response to the teachings of Jesus must lead to corresponding actions. When it does, it results in our growth in wisdom and represents him well to the world.

The first is the well-known parable of the two types of builders in Luke 6:46-49 (NLT):

“So why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say? I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then follows it.  It is like a person building a house who digs deep and lays the foundation on solid rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against that house, it stands firm because it is well built.  But anyone who hears and doesn’t obey is like a person who builds a house right on the ground, without a foundation. When the floods sweep down against that house, it will collapse into a heap of ruins.” Powerful words!

Notice that the first verb is come. There is nothing to build, and nothing to build upon, until we first come humbly to God to receive his grace in salvation. At this point, the work is on God’s part, because we are incapable of being saved by our own works. He draws us, and when we hear the good news and receive it into our hearts, our part is to trust that it is true. God then positions us upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. There is no other firm foundation (1 Cor. 3:11).

The second action is to listen. After salvation, we enter the training academy of Jesus. He becomes our rabbi and teacher, and we come under the yoke of his teaching. We take it in daily, by reading it, hearing it, speaking it, singing it, meditating on it, memorizing it, praying through it. It truly becomes the air we breathe or our daily bread, as the song says.

But…

If we stop at the point of listening, we do not progress toward wisdom and godliness. Jesus rebuked those who hear his word but don’t obey it. Whatever they think they are building will not stand when a storm comes. I like the paraphrase from The Message, “These words I speak to you are not mere additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundation words, words to build a life on.”

When we receive his teachings, we don’t treat them as a magic method for self-improvement. His words, revealed by the Spirit and word of God are the basis of all our decisions and choices, our work, our play, our coming and going. There is no part of life in which his truth is not considered. The Passion translation adds this emphasis, “…If you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a dumb carpenter who built a house but skipped the foundation.” This is why Jesus says there is no point in calling him Lord if you don’t do what he says!

The second passage is embedded in Luke 7. Jesus responds to messengers sent by John the Baptist seeking assurances that he is the Messiah. He gives them a message for John, pointing to his ministry of healing and preaching: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news” (Lk. 7:22-23).  Jesus claimed that his deeds spoke for themselves. This clues us in on the kind of works he expects us to pursue after we have made him Lord.

Jesus knew that some people would be convinced that he was Messiah, and others would be offended, and so he added, “Blessed is the one who isn’t offended by me.” If we can’t get past being offended, we miss out on the blessing of being permanently attached to the kingdom of Christ.

What follows has always puzzled me, so I looked at it in a dozen translations to get a better understanding. The conventional translation reads, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” Other translations add nuances, such as “The proof of wisdom is in all the kinds of people it produces” (CJB);  “Wisdom is shown to be right by what its followers do” (CEV); “Wisdom is shown to be right by the lives of those who follow it” (NLT); “The wisdom of God will be proven true by the expressions of godliness in everyone who follows me” (TPT); “A man is proved wise by what he has done”(WE). In all these interpretations, it is in doing right and showing godly character that we display what kind of houses we have built, and upon what foundation, rock or sand. The Message has this rather prosaic take on it, “Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

These teachings are confirmed in the epistles. Paul states that after receiving revelation that we are Christ’s image bearers, we move from “glory to glory” as we reflect him in the world (2 Cor 3:18). We are to consistently remember and represent his goodness, compassion, wisdom, and zeal for God. We put truth into motion by doing good.

Peter writes convincingly that our works of righteousness will get the attention of the world, even arousing persecution by people who are offended by Christ and his message (1 Pet. 3). James argues that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). We understand that he is not promoting works-based salvation. He is observing that our works are how our faith becomes developed and evident to others. We become people who look just like Jesus because we do as he does. We become people who have built sturdy, beautiful houses upon solid rock, and nothing in this world can tear them down.

We come to Jesus with humble hearts, listen intently to his words, and diligently, daily put them into practice. Then we are shown to be wise, and can truly call him Lord.

brown building bear body of water
Photo by Enrico Perini on Pexels.com

 

Ethical Fitness and the Overflow of the Heart

Do you consider yourself a good person? I certainly hope so. But, on what basis do any of us make that claim? I have a few answers to consider from Scripture, and from the field of ethics.

I’ve arrived at this topic during the time of quarantine. During this time, whether aware of it or not, we are making many ethical decisions such as, “Is it OK to visit Grandma?” or “Should we reopen our business yet?” or “Should we consider home schooling our kids next year?” What is the thought process involved in making these decisions? How do we become wiser and more confident in our ethical decision making? The answer, like the answer to how we get to Carnegie Hall, is practice, practice, practice.

First, let’s define ethics. A few shades of meaning from Webster’s dictionary include:  a set of moral principles, a theory or system of moral values, the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group, or, a guiding philosophy. Ethics and morality are often confused, understandably, because “moral” or “morality” often appears as part of the definition of ethics. But moral choices and ethical decisions are different from each other in some very important ways.

With moral choices we choose between right and wrong based on legal, religious or social expectations. Families and societies reach consensus about moral and immoral behavior, and individual consciences develop from there. Moral choices don’t usually have gray areas. Morality is not merely aspirational; it is expected that we abide by our agreed upon rules or accept the potential consequences of our wrongdoing. Robbery, adultery, murder, fraud—these are unambiguously immoral choices, not the product of an ethical decision-making process. An active conscience leads us toward good moral choices, whereas a weak or inactive conscience allows for immoral choices.

In contrast, ethics are aspirational. We internalize standards that we aspire to achieve consistently in our conduct toward others. When faced with ethical dilemmas, we must choose between the good and the better, or sometimes between the bad and the less bad. Often there is not a clear path, and we must carefully deliberate before taking action.

This has clear application in the counseling world. Counselors aspire to scrupulously protect their clients’ privacy because it is a crucial aspect of professional ethics. But if a client declares he is going to blow his brains out as soon as he leaves the counselor’s office, the ethic of care overrides the ethic of confidentiality. A wise counselor will call a family member or law enforcement officer to prevent harm to human life. Keeping a promise of privacy is a good thing—it allows for the trust and safety necessary for the therapeutic process. But in the big picture, the privacy is not going to matter if the person ends his life.

Outside of the professional realm, ethical choices can be murkier. When we ask if it’s okay to visit Grandma in the time of pandemic, we consider the state of Grandma’s health, and the relative risk of exposing Grandma to illness. But we also must consider how lonely Grandma is, how much she needs our company and touch and support after weeks in isolation. FaceTime and Zoom are great, but they just don’t cut it sometimes.

If we haven’t flexed our ethical muscles much, these daily questions can be very heavy lifting.  Rushwood Kidder, a well-known secular ethicist took a shot at defining what makes people “good” when he stated,

Good people are good, we say, because they seem to have some conscious sense of vision, some deep core of ethical values, that gives them the courage to stand up to the tough choices. That doesn’t mean they face fewer choices than other people. Quite the opposite: Those who live in close proximity to their basic values are apt to agonize over choices that other people, drifting over the surface of their lives, might never even see as problems…*

In other words, being a highly ethical person doesn’t make life easier. It often becomes more complex, because we become highly sensitized to how our words and actions might impact everyone else.

I have borrowed Kidder’s term “ethical fitness.” This is analogous to physical fitness. If we want to become physically fit, we must put effort into this goal. It won’t just happen. We put increased demand on our muscles, bones, and organs, and they grow stronger and healthier over time. It’s the same with ethical fitness. The more we exercise our minds and hearts to discerning what is good, not only for ourselves, but for others, the more our hearts become ethically strong and healthy. Kidder explains,

Ethical fitness is NOT mentally passive, nor is it blind impartiality, doling out right and wrong according to some stone-cold canon of ancient and immutable law. It’s a warm and supremely human activity that cares enough for others to want right to prevail. And it’s not mere analysis” where “ethics becomes an academic, intense, and essentially irrelevant exercise, marginal to the real problems of the world and disengaged from the goal of changing behavior and building a better future. *

Ethics is for everyone, not just for leaders and professional people. But it’s good to know that ethicists like Kidder, who consult with leaders in multiple fields, have this understanding that ethical fitness is essentially a matter of the heart. And in this, Scripture comes to life through the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, the best ethics consultant who ever lived! Jesus taught us,

A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit; on the other hand, a bad tree doesn’t produce good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs aren’t gathered from thornbushes, or grapes picked from a bramble bush.  A good person produces good out of the good stored up in his heart. An evil person produces evil out of the evil stored up in his heart, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart” (Luke 6:43-45).

I like this imagery of trees and fruit, bramble bushes and thorns. If we haven’t been cultivating good fruit by making right choices, then there will be no fruit, only prickly words and actions that hurt people. But if we cultivate hearts of kindness, goodness, peace, and generosity, the fruit in our lives will be evident. We become a blessing and a source of sustenance for others.

Mixing metaphors, Jesus declares that what has been stored up inside “overflows” into our words and our actions. We become those whose senses have been trained to distinguish between good and evil. (Heb. 5:14). This is ethical fitness.

As we all work together to do good and help one another during difficult circumstances, remember that we are exercising our ethical muscles. We are in training, preparing ourselves to go the distance in life with goodness and integrity.

*Rushwood Kidder, How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living (1995), ISBN 0-688-13442-4.

Tale of Two Doggies: The Final Chapter

Scootie

 

If you have followed my blog for while (thank you!), you may recall that I’ve written a few times about things I’ve learned from my two dogs, insights that have contributed to my walk with the Lord. Now my husband and I are facing the reality that our beloved Scooter is in his final season of life.  He’s blind and nearly deaf and struggling to navigate through his days. You dog parents can empathize, I’m sure. Meanwhile, the other pup, Maggie, who was an emotional wreck when we first rescued her from the streets, has become a calmer, sweeter, more cooperative family member.

In Part 1 I shared that when we first brought Maggie home, it seemed like Scooter (who was in late but still robust middle age at the time) rolled his eyes but tolerated Maggie’s silly immaturity and reactivity. Now the tables have turned. Maggie seems to understand and tolerate that her big brother needs extra love and care. She doesn’t object so much at having to share our attention. She accompanies him when he is wandering blindly around the yard.

Watching Maggie reminds me of my mother’s last year of life, when my kids just knew, without being told, that we would be showing up to visit this dear, demented old woman as often as we could. They understood that this is what we do when family members need us. I’ve never been prouder of them, and I feel a new pride and appreciation for Maggie, too.

I’ve called this the final chapter in the “Two Doggies” series because we will probably be a one-dog family for a while after Scooter passes. All of us will have to mourn the loss of such a wonderful friend for a time. And even then, Maggie deserves the chance to experience being an only dog–our greeter-watcher-cuddler-in-chief.  In the meantime, this season with Scooter has caused me to reflect more deeply upon the brevity and preciousness of life.

This is not a depressive kind of reflection. There is sadness, of course, but it is balanced by love, tenderness, vulnerability, and above all, thankfulness. I’m learning to be more patient and loving (and less selfish!) about caring for my geriatric dog. I pray that I’ll care well for other loved ones who might need me in the future. I’m moved with tender memories of how much Scooter has added to our family, with his show-dog gait, his glorious eyebrows, his spontaneous posing for photo portraits, his singing when we are singing, his quiet company when we are quiet. I’ve always felt that dogs are one of God’s finest gifts to us, and this one has been an irreplaceable treasure.

But my tender, thankful thoughts travel far beyond. I’m so thankful to God for the life he has given me. I’m thankful to be part of his great big spiritual family. Babies are being born, kids are being raised, adults are working hard, old folks are leaving, entering into their reward. All of us are sojourners here, endeavoring to make the most of whatever number of days God has ordained for each of us. We are here to support one another through good times and hard times.

Of course, Scripture comes to life in this train of thought.

Ecclesiastes, which expresses a very dim view of the human propensity for “chasing after the wind,” also very simply expresses the ultimate priority in being human. Here is a portion of Ecclesiastes 12 from the Passion translation:

Honor and enjoy your Creator while you’re still young, Before the years take their toll and your vigor wanes, before your vision dims and the world blurs and the winter years keep you close to the fire. In old age, your body no longer serves you so well.
Muscles slacken, grip weakens, joints stiffen. The shades are pulled down on the world.
You can’t come and go at will. Things grind to a halt.
The hum of the household fades away. You are wakened now by bird-song. Hikes to the mountains are a thing of the past. Even a stroll down the road has its terrors.
Your hair turns apple-blossom white, adorning a fragile and impotent matchstick body.
Yes, you’re well on your way to eternal rest, while your friends make plans for your funeral.

 Life, lovely while it lasts, is soon over. Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.
The body is put back in the same ground it came from. The spirit returns to God, who first breathed it.

Jolly fellow, this Teacher. He doesn’t pull any punches about the losses that come when our bodies start to wear out. But look at the first sentence, the main point. Honor and enjoy your Creator while you’re still young.

We dare not wait until we have career and family all figured out, or have achieved whatever else we striving to achieve, or have a certain amount of money in the bank. If we acknowledge, honor, and enjoy our Creator while still young, whatever happens from there is a bonus. I write this from my own experience.

When we reach a point of incapacity, we need not feel fear or regret. God has been with us throughout the journey and will carry us through the experience of old age and death as well.

I would add to this biblical truth that we ought to honor and enjoy God’s creation also, as he does. We ought to enjoy a great meal with friends, or a walk through the forest, or watching the sunrise from a mountain top or a sunset from the seashore. We are made to respond in excited awe at a baby’s first cry or her first steps. We are created to cry at the sound of a violin played beautifully, when we are overcome with the glory of the Holy Spirit, or when we witness a fellow traveler perform a heroic act of love.

When we bear children, we know that they will break our hearts many times and then leave us, but we have children anyway. And we continue to allow ourselves to love our pets, knowing that we will probably outlive them and have to say goodbye. All these experiences, painful and joyous, demonstrate that we are created in God’s image. After all, he is the one who loves completely and sacrificially, knowing that we’ll all break his heart at some point. He tells us that we are still worth it. Life is still worth it.

Thank you Scooter and Maggie, and all the other great pups that have been part of our story.  You have taught me much.

 

Risk, Superstition, and Trusting God in the Time of Corona

mona lisa with face mask

When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer; Superstition ain’t the way.”—Stevie Wonder, “Superstition”

The earth-shaking shift caused by the Corona virus has us all questioning anew how we manage risk as individuals, businesses and social groups. For many of us, risk management is not usually at the forefront of our decisions and thought processes. Maybe we generally feel that we are safe enough, and we take a certain amount of risk for granted.

For instance, we all know that driving a car is one of the most dangerous things we can do, statistically speaking. But we put on our seat belts, say a prayer, and dodge the ever-present hazards on the road because we have places to go and things to do. We push the risks out of our conscious minds.

But the virus, and the decisions made externally to respond to it, have made personal risk management a very complex and conscious preoccupation. There are many variables to consider, but we lack a proven formula to evaluate them. Many of us don’t know on what basis to balance risks to our physical health against risks to our financial, spiritual, psychological, and relational health. And then there is the whole issue of surrendering our rights and freedoms in the cause of supposedly staying safe.

In this troubling predicament there is a danger of turning to superstition as a misguided way of dealing with the unknown. There are many ways of falling into this trap. Even putting full trust in the guidance of the “experts” can verge on the superstitious.

We are supposedly looking to science for answers. But as I heard a commentator observe recently, science doesn’t speak. Scientists speak, and they can only deliver tentative conclusions resulting from their scientific inquiries. Unfortunately, these have been proven far from reliable. There is no science, action, or avoidance, or magic charm that can guarantee our safety.

One dictionary definition of superstition is this: “A widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief.” Superstition is a conditioning process in which people make irrational and inaccurate assumptions about the causes of events as a way of coping with life’s difficulties.

This is characteristic of many religions. People who look upon the Christian faith with skepticism or contempt might believe that Christianity fits the definition of a superstition also. But they would be wrong.

Christianity is a very justified belief in a benevolent, personal, and sovereign God. It holds that God is the author of life, and he still interacts with his creation in ways that are partiality understandable and partially clothed in mystery. The understandable parts rest upon the historically verifiable realities that Jesus Christ lived, died on a cross as an atoning sacrifice, and was raised to life again. The mysterious parts relate to how our faith joins us to his plan of salvation, and how his grace confers eternal life.

Believing in these things does not increase suffering; rather, it relieves us from the fear of sin, sickness, and death. It anchors our trust in a holy and good Father whose faithfulness has been documented in every generation. As another beloved song states, “Many things about tomorrow I don’t seem to understand…but I know who holds tomorrow and I know who holds my hand.” This is a faith confirmed by our experience.

In our present dilemma, as in all others, there is solace in knowing that Scripture comes to life. The psalmist sings, “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.” (Psalm. 4:8, NIV). He alone makes us dwell in safety. Our lives are daily at risk, and yet we live.

We should respect the recommendations and requirements of our leaders, because that is the biblically right thing to do as citizens. In our own risk management, we should use common sense and take reasonable preventative measures based on the data we know.  But we should never make a superstitious belief system out of them.  These measures alone will not keep death from the door.

God has numbered our days and asks us to trust him through each one, one at a time. This is not superstition. This is the gospel truth.

We Shall Be Like Him

Humans have this little habit of taking over God’s job. The original influence for this perpetual error in judgment was Satan, the serpent Eve encountered in that lovely garden so long ago. He is the one who subverts and corrupts every good intention of Creator God by deception. He tells us that we’d better take over control, because God can’t be trusted. The accuser attempts to spoil God’s reputation, and in weak moments we buy into his nonsense.

God had said, on the sixth day, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Gen. 1:26)

This is the truth: we were made to be like God, not to be gods ourselves.

Lucifer knows the difference and has known it since he was “cut down to the ground” from his high place as “son of the morning,” star of God’s worship choir. He crossed the line when he said in his heart, “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God…I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High (Isaiah 14:12-15).  It was not his privilege as a created being to declare himself on par with the Lord of all created beings.

Worse still, he made Adam and Eve accessories to the same type of crime. His slimy, lying tongue urged them to eat the forbidden fruit, saying, “You will not surely die.  For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:4-5).

Whether you take a literal or figurative view of the story, the underlying reality persists. Human beings are easily tempted to sin, become haughty and rebellious when sin overcomes them, and forget their rightful place in God’s created order. This is why the human world looks and feels so broken. Because it is.

But God has a plan of restoration he is working out.

How fortunate we are as God’s human creatures to have been rescued and redeemed from our first ancestors’ fall from honor and grace. The Apostle John celebrated the good Father-heart of God when he wrote,

Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!… Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:1-2).

 Most of us have a longing within us to bring children into this world. We want to produce little people who look and act like us in some way. Our children share pieces of our DNA; often we can recognize characteristics that resemble Mom or Dad. But no matter how great the resemblances might be, each child can only be said to be like us, not to be us, or take on our role in life. Every person is unique, and uniquely responsible for becoming the best version of her human self. This is obvious on the human level.

In the spiritual arena, however, humanity’s folly shows up when we start to believe we can become enough like God that we no longer need him. Like Lucifer, we believe we deserve the best seat at the table. We seek the attention and acclamation of people, when we ought to be simply reflecting and pointing people toward the Shining, Glorious Lord of the Banquet. We ought to look more and more like our God as we pass through all of the seasons of life, yet still remain fascinated by his “otherness.”

This is what Moses “the servant of God” expressed when confronting the hardhearted Pharaoh’s refusal to release the Hebrews from slavery. Pharaoh seemed to be relenting, and begged Moses to remove the plague of frogs from the land of Egypt. Moses agreed, saying, “Let it be according to your word, that you may know that there is no one like the Lord our God” (Ex. 8:10).

There is no one who compares. Christ’s death and resurrection restored the possibility of carrying God’s likeness. But we are not God, don’t sit in his place, and don’t do his job. We are his people, commissioned to occupy the earth awaiting his return. While on the planet, our job is to live in faith and humble trust, boasting about God, and allowing him to use us as instruments of His mighty works.

mountain photography
Photo by Chris Czermak on Pexels.com

Daniel’s Tests and Ours: Part 2

Last week I shared some of the ways Daniel and his associates were tested as captives in Babylon. This week I ask how these tests parallel those that we face currently as disciples of Jesus Christ in America.

We are under siege by an invisible virus at the moment, but the fact is that the values of Christ-followers have been under siege by myriad ungodly cultural elements for several decades. Our tests are not new. They’re just promoted in our generation by new characters with updated plot lines.

Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were tested in six areas: spiritual knowledge, worship, speaking truth, integrity, and discipline (see April 18 blog to revisit this analysis). Let’s look at how we experience similar types of tests.

Purity. Many people inside and outside the church have very strong ideas about food, what we should and should not eat, and why. While I believe that diet is a crucial aspect of the stewardship of our bodies, I don’t believe that this is the primary test of our purity as it was for Daniel. As New Testament believers, we are not bound by dietary restrictions. Jesus (and later Peter and Paul) confirmed that purity is a matter of the heart, and not what we eat.

What are the elements of contemporary Western culture that compromise and interfere with our purity before God? Mostly they are what we take in through our eyes and ears that is blatantly immoral, corrupt, or perverse. We can become so desensitized to profanity, barbarity, violence, and pornographic imagery that we don’t even realize we are being defiled by it.

When we experience spiritual conviction to turn away from this kind of content, are we not being tested in our desire for purity? After all, it seems like everyone watches and listens to these things. Are we willing to face being left out of parts of the cultural conversation? Daniel didn’t care about that. His priority was to stand before God with no shame.

Spiritual knowledge. We saw how Daniel had extraordinary spiritual discernment, put to use dramatically by the kings he served. He trusted God under pressure to give him revelation that would save many lives. He prayed and asked others to pray, and he received the knowledge he needed.

We often look to the wrong sources of information. We trust worldly voices and sources who have greedy motives, people who covet power more than truth. When under pressure, we must turn to the Spirit of God and the Word of God for wisdom and knowledge. Trusting God to give us the revelation we need may not be the easy way, but it is the right way. That’s why it is a test.

Worship. Temptation and testing in this area are ubiquitous but can be subtle enough that even mature believers are deceived. We may not worship statues, but doesn’t God have to share our affections with so many other loves in our lives–possessions, activities, ministries, relationships, entertainments? Doesn’t he often get a paltry share of our time and devotion? Aren’t we tested daily to choose worshiping God when surrounded by an array of other colorful, shiny options.

Those Jewish boys trusted that God would rescue them from the flames if they reserved their worship only for him. They went even further, declaring that even if he chose not to rescue them, they weren’t going to bow down to any idol. This is a courageous choice that God honors.

Speaking truth. In our very hostile political environment, this is a tough one. Christians are told that private worship is allowable, but political correctness disallows us to speak openly about the exclusivity of Christ, or the reality of sin, or the sacredness of life from God’s perspective. We run the risk of being outcasts, being persecuted, being shouted down and insulted.

Jesus told us this would happen. His people rejected him and executed him on a tree without a proper trial. He told his disciples (and they passed it on to us), that his followers will be hated as he was hated. Our test is that in spite of this we continue to speak very clearly on matters of justice, righteousness, and mercy. We represent his kingdom and his gospel and accept whatever consequences may come. We use our voices have courage, knowing that the truth and power of Jesus is working through us.

Integrity. Daniel steered clear of the temptation to accept material reward for his service to God. He required nothing but to know that he was faithfully executing God’s assignment. This is a very personal test; it goes right to the heart of who we are in Christ.

We follow the ways of Christ whether anyone is watching or rewarding us for it. To pass the many tests of integrity that come, we must never look for moral shortcuts, intentionally deceive or cheat, or make excuses when we fall short of God’s standards. We don’t exploit others for our own gain. This testing happens nearly every day, throughout our entire lives.

Discipline. There are as many ways to practice spiritual disciplines as there are worshipers. The test here is to be consistent and diligent in whatever personal convictions we hold. Daniel was diligent to pray and fast. We ask ourselves what is important to me in our devotion to Christ? What will cause us to grow and bear fruit?

For some, it may be very simple and unstructured. Others are stricter and more regimented. We aren’t to judge one another’s choices regarding these disciplines. But we are to honor God daily with our own.

I hope my analysis of Daniel’s tests and ours is useful and relevant to you as you examine your walk with God during these turbulent days of testin

girl in yellow dress covering her face with her hands
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

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Daniel’s Tests and Ours: Part 1

The stories of the early chapters of Daniel are captivating in plot, character, action, and scope. Lovers of God over the centuries have taken encouragement from the example set by Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. In my recent reading I observed six tests put to these Hebrew youth that proved they were true and blameless followers of the one true God. In this blog I will outline these tests, and in Part 2 will consider applications to our time of testing related to the health crisis we are experiencing around the world.

Daniel and his three friends were among those exiled to Babylon when King Nebuchadnezzar seized control of Jerusalem. They had been members of the Israelite royal court, the cream of the crop, “young men without any physical defect, good-looking, suitable for instruction in all wisdom, knowledgeable, perceptive, and capable of serving in the king’s palace” (1:4).  Upon arrival in this strange new land they were trained for three years in all aspects of Babylonian language and culture to prepare them for service. What no one realized at that point was that the God they served was about to guide them through several significant tests. Their responses to these tests under severe pressure and persecution would confirm their qualification to be more than mere bureaucrats in Nebuchadnezzar’s empire. They were refined like pure gold, fit for the noblest uses in the kingdom of Almighty God. These are the tests:

  1. Purity. Nebuchadnezzar expected the Hebrew immigrants to conform to his “exalted” Babylonian culture, included their diet. But Daniel, in his heart,“determined that he would not defile himself with the king’s food or with the wine he drank” (1:8). After ten days of consuming a plainer diet of vegetables and water, the king’s servants found no noticeable difference in the boys’ health in comparison with those who ate the king’s food. In fact, Daniel and his friends looked hearty enough after ten days to be granted permission to keep to this regimen. The text doesn’t reveal the reason for their self-imposed dietary restrictions, so we can’t know exactly. But we do know that Daniel believed that this was essential to protect him from defilement, and that is enough. He trusted that God would help him to maintain his purity, and he did.

 

  1. Spiritual knowledge. King Nebuchadnezzar had a complex dream he wanted interpreted. He demanded that the magicians and wise men not only interpret the dream, but tell the dream itself, which they deemed impossible. When Nebuchadnezzar didn’t get his way, he got very angry, threatening to starting killing his advisors if they couldn’t give him an answer. Daniel heard of this, and implored his three friends to pray with him, asking “the God of the heavens for mercy concerning this mystery” (2:18) so their lives would be spared. Daniel received revelation of both the dream and its interpretation. Daniel passed the test, trusting Almighty God to give the knowledge and understanding necessary to accomplish an “impossible” assignment.

 

  1. Worship. The king set up a gargantuan likeness of himself and commanded that whenever music was heard in the land, all citizens must bow down and worship the statue. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego adamantly refused. Their civil disobedience got them thrown into a furnace so hot that it burned up the soldiers throwing them in. Strangely, they were completely unharmed. They passed the test of rejecting idolatry and worshipping only Almighty God, and their devotion was rewarded.

 

  1. Speaking truth. Nebuchadnezzar had another troubling dream, and this time he knew to call Daniel immediately. To Daniel’s dismay, the interpretation God gave him was extremely unfavorable to the king, prophesying his losing his mind and wandering in the wilderness like a beast. This tyrant was known to kill servants for any reason or no reason. Daniel could have left things out or watered it down. But with respect and humility, Daniel shared God’s revelation fully and clearly. Daniel passed the test of the prophet, at the risk of his life. Daniel’s words came true precisely, and once Nebuchadnezzar’s sanity was restored, he too praised Almighty God.

 

  1. Integrity. Belshazzar was in some ways more perverse and despicable than his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar. He was drunkenly feasting when a disembodied hand appeared and wrote an indecipherable message on the palace wall. He called Daniel and spoke flattering words, promising that he would be “clothed in purple, have a gold chain around his neck, and have the third highest position in the kingdom” (5:7) if Daniel could read the message. Daniel again spoke truth to power and declined the king’s gifts, saying, “You may keep your gifts and give your rewards to someone else” (5:17). Daniel passed the test, the temptation to seek wealth, power, or fame at the cost of his integrity. A person speaking for God must not have a price.

 

  1. Discipline. Daniel kept the holy habit of praying to God three times a day. Knowing this, jealous rivals on the king’s staff convinced the king to forbid prayer to anyone but himself. The consequence for disobeying this order was to be thrown to the lions. Daniel, hearing this, went to his room and prayed as usual. When he was thrown into the lions’ den, they did him no harm. He testified, “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths; and they haven’t harmed me, for I was found innocent before him” (6:22). Daniel passed the test, keeping his spiritual disciplines in place even under threat of death.

 

If you’ve made it this far, perhaps you’ve already begun applying these stories and the truths in them to your own life. Part 2 is coming soon. In the meantime, please share your thoughts.

 

Safety in Rough Waters

We are all contending in our own ways with the surreal state of affairs suddenly brought on by a vicious, invisible virus. Medical experts use the best of the science available to project likely outcomes in different locations. Meanwhile, government officials at all levels scramble to do the right thing to protect their people, with little confidence of what that right thing is.

Businesspeople, workers and investors watch helplessly as their financial security slips away. Families, colleagues, church members, and friends learn new ways of staying connected while keeping their distance. And of course, career politicians scout for ways to exploit our collective misfortune for the advancement of their own agendas.

All of this has coincided with my journey through the book of Acts. The Spirit shows me how Scripture comes to life in these peculiar circumstances.

The last chapters of Acts document Paul’s emotionally challenging journey to Jerusalem, against the wishes of just about everyone who knew and loved him. The Holy Spirit warned him repeatedly of the “chains and afflictions” that awaited him there (Acts 20:23). His response? “I am ready not only to be bound but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (21:13). Never has mortal man been more determined to finish his course and ministry, whatever the cost.

Sure enough, he did not experience a warm welcome from the Jews at Jerusalem. They plotted day and night to ambush and kill him. Nevertheless, he resolutely testified about Jesus to Jews in the temple, to the mob outside, and to the Sanhedrin.

For his safety Paul was whisked away by night to Caesarea, where he witnessed to two governors. Neither of these governors found probable cause to arrest Paul, but they imprisoned him anyway, “to do the Jews a favor” (24:27). There are purely political animals in every place and generation, I guess.

Eventually, because the Jews would not cease harassing and threatening him, Paul appealed to Caesar.  Once that happened, it was like it is on cop shows when a suspect asks for a lawyer. All the questioning stops. Governor Festus declared, “You have appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you will go” (25:12).

You may already detect some parallels to the political dynamic in America. But here is where the application to our current dilemma gets most interesting. Paul was to be transported to Rome on a cargo ship under armed guard, surrounded by pagan crewmen. Though the centurion in command treated Paul kindly, Paul was not among brothers and sisters in the Lord. Also, winter was coming on, so the weather was unpredictable. No one could insure safe passage all the way to Rome.

Analysis of the rest of the story could be a dissertation for a student of sailing. The commander and the sailors ignored Paul’s advice to wait in safe harbor and sailed headlong into a ferocious storm. They tried every sailing technique in the book to save the ship from sinking or wrecking. They girded the ship with ropes, pulled anchors, dropped anchors, trimmed sails, loosened sails, jettisoned cargo, threw tackle overboard, and tried to escape on lifeboats. Finally, they just figured they’d die, and stopped eating.

I am far from knowledgeable about sailing technique, but I do know something about human behavior, with and without the influence of the Holy Spirit. Isn’t it strange that when we are ignorant of or disobedient toward the will of God, we will try every natural means to solve our problems, but they rarely succeed?

Paul was an apostle who had learned to hear from the Spirit very clearly. Luke often mentions the Spirit’s intervention in Paul’s itinerary by an angel, a dream, or direct revelation. Often his plans were changed without notice.

But on this miserable boat ride, what Paul knew without a doubt was that he was going to make it to Rome to appear before Caesar. Therefore, he could say definitively that all who were with him would also survive the trip. They just needed to stay with the ship and listen to the Lord’s counsel through him.

Paul’s demeanor is calm, gracious, and confident throughout the trip. He’s quite like Jesus sleeping on the back of a different ship before being awakened to calm a different storm.

This is how Paul brought comfort to the distraught seamen:

After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’  So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me.  Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island” (27:21-26).

It did happen exactly as God told Paul. They landed safely on Malta and were greeted very warmly. The crewmen watched as Paul was unharmed by a viper’s bite and while he healed many sick islanders by the miraculous power of God.

Here’s the gist. Can you or I say, “I have faith in God” that whatever he has willed for us will come to pass? Because if we can, whatever “nevertheless” might follow, we can keep our peace. We are likely to face financial loss before this is over. People we know may get sick. Most will recover, but we will hear of those who don’t. Will this shake our confidence in the goodness of God? Or will it serve to confirm it?

Paul had pagan unbelievers watching him, and though the text doesn’t confirm it, I’ll bet some of them came to the Lord because of what they saw in him. Paul maintained his faith in God’s providence and protection in the face of great fear and uncertainty all around him.

Who is watching me and you, and what will they see in us as we weather this storm?

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The Power of “So”

So…I have come upon a theme in Acts that should bring strong motivation and encouragement to those engaged in Christ’s mission to make disciples.

It is the little word “so.” This word, when used as a conjunction, is defined “for this reason.”  For example, “We were running out of toilet paper, so I went to the store. But the shelves were empty, so I couldn’t get any.” So expresses a causative or explanatory relationship between two clauses.

I’ve observed in recent blogs that the early disciples, so convinced of what they’d seen and heard, proclaimed the good news of Christ and his resurrection at great risk to their safety. The more opposition they faced, the more determined they became.

Consider Philip, for example:

“…Great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.  Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there.  When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said.  For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:1,4-8).

Though we usually see persecution against Christians as a negative event, God used it to sow gospel seed in Samaria (and then the rest of the known world, the uttermost parts-Acts 1:8). If we leave out some of the details, we can causally link these realities:

Great persecution broke out in Jerusalem, SO Philip went to Samaria and preached the gospel there, SO many were saved, healed, and delivered, SO there was great joy in that city.

Consider Paul and Barnabas in the same way:

“At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.  But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.  So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders” (Acts 14:1-3).

Paul and Barnabas preached effectively in the synagogue, SO many Jews and Greeks believed, SO those who were jealous and refused to believe stirred up lots of opposition, SO Paul and Barnabas decided to hang around for a while, SO God protected them and confirmed their ministry with signs and wonders.  

When used properly, “so” can be a powerful little word. How about this:

There was a new virus that began to infect people around the world, SO lots of people became very afraid, SO their leaders ordered them to change their way of living to slow the spread of disease, SO the people of God began praying night and day, SO they heard from God how they could be a force for help and hope and change, SO many people were touched and blessed by the LORD, SO great numbers of disciples were added to the church, SO God changed the world!

This is only one of many ways this idea can be framed, but I trust you get the idea. Persecution, suffering, opposition, sickness, restrictions, fear—none of these things changed the impetus of the disciples to represent Christ boldly, however they could, wherever God sent them. All the problems that could have stopped them drove them forward instead. And God rewarded them in amazing ways.

What opportunities are being offered to God’s people during this calamity? How can we answer and live out our own so’s as individuals, families, churches? I’m excited to see.

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Watch!

I’m reading the book of Acts these days, amazed and impressed once again by the intensity, boldness, and courage of those first disciples. What if they had not answered the call of God?

Thankfully they did, and we have a worldwide church because of their faithful obedience to the Spirit of God. The church, with all its flaws and failures is still the carrier of the hope of the world. Jesus chose his workers well and he still does. You are the ones I think about when I write these blogs.

My desire today is to dig into the commandment to watch, which was spoken frequently by Jesus and the Apostles. Repeatedly disciples are instructed in Scripture to have our attention fixed in the right direction, to look upon the right things. What we attend to determines our fruitfulness for the kingdom of God. Fixing attention upon God was the key to Daniel’s wisdom and godliness, and to Joseph’s, and Paul’s, and many others.

If we are carefully watching, we will be prepared to receive the Lord when he comes. We will keep ourselves out of enslavement to the world’s troubles. If we are continually looking toward heaven, our countenance will remain peaceful and sane in a world so given to distraction and derangement. This will be of great benefit to those around us.

Jesus tells his disciples to be watching for his return, which will be unmistakably dramatic and sudden. While people are going about their normal routines or work and play, he will blast through the eastern sky, and it will be too late at that point to make any corrections to our lives and hearts. “Keep watch,” he said, “because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Matt. 24:4, see also 25:13; Mark 13:34-37)

Using a parable, Jesus outlined the qualifications for servants in Luke 12:35-40. Servanthood was one of the many metaphors he employed to describe our identity in him. While the master is in a far country, his servants are to be awake and vigilant, listening for his knock on the door, ready to open it for him. There is no ambiguity here; it will be “good for those servants whose master finds them watching” (Lk 12:43). By implication, it will be not good to be found sleeping at one’s post! God have mercy.

Jesus, in agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, finds his slumbering disciples and pleads with them, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” (Mt 26:40). Our spirits are willing, but oh how weak our flesh can be!

Secondly, while we are searching the horizon for his appearing, we are to keep a watch over ourselves. Paul admonished Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). Even leaders with many years of experience handling the word of God can be lured away from the pure doctrines of the gospel of Christ.

Daily self-examination (not self-obsession) is a very necessary discipline. It is stunning how quickly a believer can turn from the right way and become immoral, unethical, caught in the snares of wickedness. We must be daily engaged with the word of God, and the God of the word, and allowing the Lord to continue his work of refinement.

In Jesus’ meticulously detailed prophesies about the end times, he warned, “Watch that no one deceives you” (Matt. 24:4). He knew that no matter how patiently or earnestly we watch, there will be demon-inspired individuals who will try to subvert and derail our faith. Or perhaps lull us into a trance of complacency, like the talking snake in the garden (or in Jungle Book). Paul taught that such people are recognizable by the way they “cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching…” (Rom. 16:17).

Thirdly, we are to watch out for each other. As Paul gave his final, tearful speech to the disciples in Ephesus, he exhorted, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

Jesus does not take lightly the proper care of his sheep. When we see another believer slipping into sin, we are to warn, restore, and rescue him, watching that we don’t succumb to the same temptations ourselves (Gal. 6:1). Peter instructed leaders, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve” (1 Pet. 5:2).

Lord, make us willing, eager to serve!

Perhaps the simplest, most powerful statement about watching is found in Colossians 4:2: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.”

Watchful and thankful. Looking for him each day because we long for his appearing (2 Tim. 4:8). Fervent and effectual in our prayers without ceasing.

In my effort to keep my mind renewed and transformed by God’s truth, I’ve often thought, “If Jesus were to appear today, what would I want him to find me doing?” The answer is found here: watching for him, persevering in the doctrine, watching out for the welfare of my brothers and sisters, and remaining fervent in prayer.

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How are you being challenged recently to keep your attention on the goodness of God and your trust in him? Does it encourage you to remember that the Messiah is returning to gather his church, and we are to watch as we long for that day?

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