God is delighted in change

The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.

Acts 9

I think it’s both interesting, and actually not authentic, as in corresponding to the truth, and not real when someone seems to think or act as if they have it all together. Change is something which is to occur not only at the outset of our journey of faith, but ongoing, throughout that journey. Scripture bears witness to that again and again, both in precept and in story. We as evangelicals emphasize conversion as being at the point of salvation, and there’s plenty of truth in that. But actually, I think it’s a process which extends from before salvation, and continues on afterward to the very end of one’s life, if I read the pages of scripture correctly.

I believe from scripture and from what I see and experience that God in his grace through Jesus delights in the smallest, real change in us for good in making us more like himself, more like his Son, Jesus. And I’m thinking of change in just any one area, when plenty of other areas in our lives may and will still need some serious work, God’s working of course, along with our active compliance. It’s not like God shakes his head and says something like, “Well, that’s good, but he/she still has a long ways to go.” No. I believe without a doubt in the God who delights in any change in his children, which brings them somehow closer to him, and to his family likeness.

And just as much as that, I also believe that it comes primarily through us praying. Paul’s case (then called Saul), quoted above, is interesting, as he was in the midst of an epic, earthquake-like life changing experience, and in the midst of it, he is praying. I think without a doubt that if we take what is wrong in our lives seriously, and quit excusing it, we will start by confessing it as an actual sin to God, and then begin to pray, seeking him for the needed change, however that should be played out. Certainly a change of heart to begin with, and a change in our lives.

We can’t do this on our own, and we won’t, even if we think somehow that we are. We should take heart that God is bringing us along, and wants our communion with him through prayer, as he continues to make us like his Son, and brings the one family in him more and more into the light of his love and life. In and through Jesus.

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we are in process on a journey

Many bumper stickers I don’t care for, including the one we sometimes used to see, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” or something to that effect. While it did communicate something important, it seemed to let Christians off the hook for behaving less than well. The wonderful writer and teacher Dallas Willard used to call it “bar code Christianity,” when people somehow thought their profession of faith to get to heaven was enough, with little or no life corresponding.

There is no doubt that it is by grace that we are saved through faith, and not be our works, so that no one can boast. But that passage goes on to say practically the key of that thought. We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which he has planned for us (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Faith in Christ, in the gospel gives us assurance of eternal life, for sure. And our sins: past, present and future are taken care of. But it also puts us on a journey in a totally new direction. Faith in scripture is always submissive, and involves repentance. That involves a lifelong renunciation of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and instead, often against the grain of even ourselves, following the Lord through thick and thin, no matter what.

We are essentially those in process. We in Jesus never arrive in this life, but we are on a journey. There is a pursuit that keeps us going, even hungry. The completion of everything is promised only at our Lord’s return. Being in Christ, found by God and finding him, means we are on an entirely new pursuit. One aspect of that Paul describes in his great little letter to the Philippians:

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

see Philippians 3

This is indeed a growth process. We should be becoming more and more like Jesus, over time. This involves an ongoing renewing of our minds which goes against the grain of conformity to the world (Romans 12:1-2).

And so there’s an ongoing tension in the sense that we are on a journey in which we have not yet arrived. Along the way we might mess up, and we will in some way or another. So that an essential part of it is the ongoing confession of sin, forgiveness and corresponding cleansing. And part of that is the necessity that we walk (or live) in the light, as Jesus is in the light (1 John).

And so we never have a sense in this life of having arrived. Yes, we have those moments, seasons, and times, even if they might seem to be rare, when we especially feel close to God, and when all seems well. But it won’t be long in this life, with the presence of the world, the flesh, and the devil, when we will be put both on the defensive, and the offensive, as we take up the word of truth, scripture and the gospel, and by the Spirit seek to follow on with others in Jesus. Someday the journey will be over, and we will arrive to the fulfillment of all things in Jesus. Until then by grace we press on toward and even in the beauty of our Lord.

finding the way of escape from temptation to sin

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

1 Corinthians 10

There is a meme or thought that has been going around on the internet for some time which states that God won’t give us more than we can handle. Years back, our Pastor Jack Brown pointed out the fallacy of that statement, that in fact God does allow us to have more than we can handle ourselves, so that we will learn to trust in him, finding his strength in our weakness, words to that effect.  2 Corinthians is a great book to read with that theme in mind. As someone wisely pointed out recently, the 1 Corinthians 10 passage is not referring to struggles and burdens, but only to temptations.

I think the thought behind the meme might have had the above passage in mind, the truth that God won’t let us be tempted beyond what we are able, since he will provide the way for us to escape the temptation to sin. We need to keep both thoughts in mind. We live in weakness, up against forces and even the circumstances of life in a way in which we can’t navigate, or handle ourselves, so that we need to learn to cast ourselves on the Lord, and in our weakness depend on him and his strength. And we realize that we don’t have to yield to the temptation to sin in a given situation. That there’s a way out for us to escape. Think of Joseph running from Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39).

In the prayer Jesus taught us, we are to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” That certainly is an admission of our weakness, and complete dependence on God to deliver us from evil, spiritual warfare at least hinted at there. In passing, it’s good to note that the classic spiritual warfare passage, Ephesians 6:10-20 while involving armor and a weapon, is also to be accomplished in one simply standing their ground, not either turning back in flight, or advancing in conquest. That doesn’t suggest a passivity, nor is it to be confused with the advance of the light of the gospel even into places of darkness. This is certainly an important thought since our Lord taught us to regularly pray it.

It’s important not only what we do, but also what we don’t do. Temptation in this world through the flesh (James 1:13-15) and from the devil is very real. We had best not minimize it, but be prepared, because it is in fact a part of the present life. We can’t escape from the temptation itself, but we can escape from the sin which we’re tempted to commit. Temptation also includes sins of omission, in that we’re tempted to not do what we ought to do.

God is faithful, but we must take the way of escape. We must be aware of all of this, and instead of being upset because we are tempted, learn to find the way out which God provides. When we do sin, of course there’s always the confession of sin open for us. Although some sins will require much more as well, perhaps restitution, and carry a great cost. We should never trifle with sin of any kind, be it big (Psalm 19:13) or small. But some sin is to be avoided at all costs. There is a road back, no matter what the sin. But not an easy one, nor without serious consequences.

We look forward to the day when temptation to sin will be a thing of the past. Until then we take heed, and remain watchful. Trusting in God’s help and provision for us in and through Jesus.

a meditation on Psalm 51: our need of God’s grace

Psalm 51 is one of the great passages of the Bible. The NIV‘s translation of the superscription gives its alleged and at least possible setting. Scholars aren’t sure if the superscriptions were added later, or written when the psalms were. And even if added later, they could still be considered a part of scripture itself.

For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.

Many times people relegate the Old Covenant to the era of the Law, and fail to see that, while it is indeed preparatory for the fullness of grace (and truth) which came in Jesus, it was actually grace oriented itself. God’s grace, as in undeserved favor and sheer gift is foundational for all human relationships with God, certainly no less true for that time as it is today.

If there is one thing that we need to see when reading Psalm 51 above anything else, we have to see from this psalm the truth of David’s need, and our need today of this grace from God. Of course like the rest of scripture, we need every line, which contributes to the whole toward the understanding God wants to give. But unless we grasp this truth of our need of God’s grace, all the other truth won’t matter, and will be essentially lost, except to condemn us. If we read the psalm carefully and slowly, we will find this to be the case.

Theologians have a term for what I’m getting at here: prevenient grace. We need grace from God even to properly know and have understanding of our sin, and to properly be broken and grieved over it in repentance. The last thing we need to be doing over our sin is to beat ourselves up, and try to make some great sacrifice to God ourselves. Instead we need God’s grace, so that we can properly see and act in the faith which God in that grace gives us in and through Jesus.

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
    you who are God my Savior,
    and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.

May it please you to prosper Zion,
    to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
    in burnt offerings offered whole;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

loving rebuke

I often think  that only God can deliver the correction we occasionally (at least) need. After all, it is God who is love. We are not, but are a mixed bag of good and bad, and left to ourselves, we’re at the center of our existence, or something less than the actual God is, often some combination of that.

And yet Jesus tells us that if our brother or sister sins against us to rebuke them. We have to watch out, because they may not be sinning against us. Only God knows the heart. It is hard to receive and probably even harder to give any kind of rebuke. We need to be on each other’s side, and any possible correcting words may put a wedge between us. That said, somehow by grace, we ought to be open to this practice, as long as it’s not commonplace, I say. Dallas Willard doubted that such can be done today, since people always take it personally and feel condemned. I wonder what it is in our age which makes this so, but it does seem to be the case in my own experience.

Probably giving a rebuke is not without sin when we do so out of our own personal pain, or aggrievement. Certainly prayer ought to accompany it, and preferably much prayer. And if much prayer, than it would seem wise only to offer a word of loving correction after one has at least slept on it. In other words, don’t rush in to correct.

If we do offer that word soon after the incident, we need to be concerned lest the relationship is hurt. We want a growing relationship through God’s love in Jesus by the Spirit. God’s grace in and through Jesus is the sphere in which we live. So we should be open to offer a word of apology and the asking for forgiveness for giving the rebuke in the first place. But probably we shouldn’t be hasty in doing that, either, unless we were clearly out of bounds in our attitide and action. While we likely were not without sin in offering the rebuke, there is also likely some truth in what we offered. If we ask for forgiveness out of our own feeling of fear and condemnation, that in itself isn’t right, either. We need to have enough clarity in the light and love of the Spirit to be able to proceed that direction. It may be wisdom to simply pray. Love does cover over a multitude of sins, so it may end up being something apt to address later, or completely let go. Yet in never mentioning it, it still remains. Maybe that in and of itself is an impetus to continue to pray, which may be needed.

Friendship nowadays seems to be about buddy, buddy times, in which there is no accountability. Maybe a better way to apply any needed rebuke is by example in love, and letting go of the perceived wrong done against us. After all, that is to be our heart attitude. And too often rebukes are done harshly. It might be best to approach someone with questions, and listen, trying to put the best construction on their answer. That could leave the window open to help them understand how their actions or words might have come across to us, or someone else.

We certainly do need to trust God in all of this. What wisdom might any reader like to offer on this? 

embracing the hard places

With a here we go again attitutde, we can shortchange the changes God wants to make in our lives. There are problems, places, and let’s admit it, people, who at times along with us can be challenging, disappointing, and downright irritating. And it doesn’t help when we might be tired, and a bit battered and bruised from what life has brought our way to begin with. While it is true that we as humans are made in no less than the image of God, it is also true that we are dust.

In all of this, of course, we need grace. We need to wait on God so to speak, even in the midst of the flow of life. We should have a sense of expectation in waiting on God to work everything out according to his purpose for us and for others, as well as just his purpose in general, in Jesus. That takes both time and faith. We need to hold on, as it were.

And by faith, we should learn to embrace the hard places with outstretched arms as a kind of sign of the cross as part of a cruciform, cross-shaped life. We do this, not because we want to, or because that is the place we would ever go, but because we do want to follow Jesus in all of life, the one who taught us a good number of hard sayings and teachings (see Matthew 5-7, and read the rest of the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

Of course we will and do fail along the way. We have forgiveness already in terms of salvation, but we do need to continue to confess our sins to God, and when appropriate at times to others, and walk in the light God gives us to maintain fellowship and communion with God and with each other through Jesus’s blood cleansing us from all sin (1 John).

Embracing the hard places is most certainly an act of faith. We do so believing that good will come out of it from God, as well as to avoid the evil and the problems which come out of our refusal to accept such things. A part of the maturing process which is ours together in Jesus.

a commitment not to worry

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4

A good number (thankfully) of years back I called in to a radio program in which a wise pastor and writer was taking phone calls and answering questions. I was sick of whatever it was I was struggling with, likely worry, and I asked whether one could simply make the commitment not to sin, and be able to follow through on that. I probably and hopefully knew better from my own reading of scripture and theology, though had been influenced in the past by a holiness group which aspired to “a second work of grace” which was supposed to “eradicate the sin nature.” I certainly considered anxiety or worry a sin, not trusting in God, having a wife who made that clear, that to worry meant that I wasn’t trusting the heavenly Father. And it was coming to a head for me, so that I wanted to get rid of an exacerbating problem, once and for all. Enough was enough.

I like to see the commands in scripture as loving directives of the Father, who doesn’t come down hard on us when we fail, and we inevitably do at times. And I know that some of us have more of a propensity toward worry than others, some suffering with anxiety attacks who might benefit much from medication and counseling. I get that. And it might be true to some extent that I fit in that category, although worry is not something I wrestle with every day, and I don’t think I’ve ever had an anxiety attack. Just the same, I am beset with worry and anxiety probably more than any other weakness. Amy Simpson, by the way wrote a most helpful book on the subject, which I would do well to reread: Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry.

We most certainly need to read the entire book of Philippians (quote above), and keep reading the entire Bible to get everything in context, so that we see the bigger picture. It’s certainly not about us and our agendas, but about God’s good will in Jesus, and the gospel, and from that living the life of love in God. But I have found a bit of a freedom in viewing, in the hard places, God’s commands as something of God’s enablings by grace and through Jesus, to help us do better. I certainly like the idea of simply deciding not to worry.

As Amy Simpson adeptly points out in her book, the emotion of anxiety is not something we can deal with; if we’re anxious, we’re anxious. Worry is our own preoccupation with one thing or another, maybe even a number of things, usually one at a time, in which we are afraid of this or that, what might happen. It actually does expose the reality that we’re failing to trust the heavenly Father, as Jesus reminds us in the Sermon on the Mount.

And so, by grace, and endeavoring to do what we’re told to do in Philippians 4:6-7 (see above), I want to once again commit myself to trusting in God’s provision and care for our needs, and that whatever happens, the Lord will be present with us, and never forsake us. And for me it seems like a good focus point is the refusal not to worry, or be anxious in the sense of worrying. Instead I will once again be endeavoring to trust in God. While not abandoning my own responsibility for this or that, which can make this tricky, since the problem isn’t necessarily out of the picutre (it can be in and out, for sure). I will be seeking through meditation on the word and prayer, to find God’s peace, and live well with it. Something I’m sure I’ll have to do again and again. While hoping I’m growing more in a maturity which makes worry less and less a problem, as I learn to trust.