secondary matters

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

Matthew 23:23-24

Jesus’s words here remind me of my own life and even the life of the church if I were to cite concerns. We easily get caught up in secondary matters, things necessary in their place which need to be attended to. And we often are focused on issues which distract us from what’s most important.

Our theological concerns can be far too narrow, and that becomes evident in what we are thinking about and what we do as a result. Is our view becoming more and more expansive like God’s? Or are we concerned about only the things which most directly affect ourselves both for this life and the next?

Jesus makes it clear that justice, mercy and faithfulness are to take priority over other matters. A key tactic of the devil, or so it seems to me is to get us sidetracked into obsessions which seem so important, but cause us to lose out over what is of first importance.

We need to take care of what we might call nuisance questions and problems. And in this life we’re beset by them, no doubt. But we must not let what is of primary importance be crowded out. Loving others, loving our neighbor as ourselves, loving even our enemies, certainly not neglecting those near and dear to us, all of this in our love for God must take priority. As we seek to follow Jesus in everything. In and through Jesus.

an important priority for us

News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

Acts 11:22-24

I myself am convinced, my brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with knowledge and competent to instruct one another.

Romans 15:14

Goodness is inherent in God. God is good as we read over and over again in the psalms. And humans are made in God’s image. What goodness resides in humans is indeed fragile and broken, but existent due to this special work of creation and relationship to their Creator.

Goodness takes on new meaning for followers of Christ. Our goodness is tied to Christ, Christ’s goodness, and God’s goodness given to us through Christ. The Spirit has changed us from people whose goodness is present but mixed with much that is not good into people who have the same kind of goodness as Christ: intent on loving God and loving others as ourselves. And that demonstrated in good works.

It is a gift from God, a part of who we are meant to be as humans, and who we actually are in Christ. That doesn’t mean that there still might be a number of things about us that are not good because that will surely be the case. But goodness should be the dominant desire and drive in us, helping us to confess and renounce and repent of all that is not good.

Ironically the enemy can play on this strength causing us to have unrealistic expectations. We should want pure good in every situation, at the same time realizing that only God can help all the good we desire be realized.

We in Christ and as Christ followers are made good by the Spirit. God’s children with something of the heart of God. In and through Jesus.

ignoring the devil?

Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

James 4:7b

There’s no specific Scripture passage I can come up with that tells us to ignore the devil. So I was rather taken back not a few years ago when a respected pastor told us that he prefers to ignore the devil. I’m sure given his tradition that wouldn’t mean he would skip Scriptural passages or teaching about the devil. Just what he meant, I can’t be sure. I remember C.S. Lewis’s thought that Christians either pay too much attention to Satan, or prefer to carry on as if Satan did not exist at all. There has to be a balance. We have to be aware, but not giving more place to Satan and its activities, the demons, etc., than what Scripture gives them.

There is the newer understanding to deal with, the reality that the Satanic powers are at work in human systems. There is no way we can nor should ignore that. That’s another, but important matter. But we’re dealing here with our own struggles. Hopefully from that we can begin to see the struggles of others around us, including society at large in its implicit as well as explicit systemic evil.

I think one of the devil’s main tactics at least from my own experience is to get us distracted, our mind focused on something seemingly important that can’t wait, accompanied by numerous concerns and fears, maybe only one such, but consuming our thoughts, time and day. For each of us, it will be something different, but the main point is the same. It’s something which hits us out of nowhere at any time to the point that if you’re like me, especially in year’s past, I would dread its coming. I think during such times it is probably more than likely that simply ignoring this ploy might be just what we need.

We can’t do that by trying to ignore the thought. It’s in our head and there’s no way we can get rid of it ourselves. I would suggest that of course we can and should immediately ask God for help. But also we can resolutely set our attention on something else. Paul’s word can help us here:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 4:8

When something is overwhelming us, just demanding our attention, putting us in a near panic, that’s a sure sign it’s not from God, but from the devil. Or maybe we’re so used to reacting to situations in that way, that’s it’s simply become a part of who we are. Instead we need to discipline ourselves to focus on something else. We might look into our concern a bit, but then we quit, after we’ve committed the matter to God in prayer. And we proceed with something else, something good for us and for others. And fill our minds with that.

I think this is one important way to resist the devil and its schemes. In and through Jesus.

recognizing what is happening and refusing the bait

 

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.

Ephesians 6:10-11

in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.

2 Corinthians 2:11

We don’t want to give Satan more credit and place than is due. The spiritual enemy is after all a defeated foe. At the same time, we need to try to have something of the same awareness that Scripture gives us. 

We need to learn how the spiritual enemy, call it Satan or the demonic works in our lives. And it won’t be one size fits all. While there are general categories in which the enemy works in our lives: fear, condemnation, despair, or maybe certain temptations such as lust, greed, avarice, whatever, we all have certain issues particularly troubling to us as individuals.

When we see a pattern in our lives in how this comes to us in whatever package it’s in, we need to take note and begin to call the bluff. I say call the bluff because in actuality the enemy is defeated through Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection. But that will do us little good in actual life unless we take the needed stand based on that victory against all the schemes of the enemy.

It is like a light come on to recognize this, and that will do for that moment, but it’s not enough. It’s then that we need to stand in the victory of God in Jesus. And that’s done by persistent specific prayer, asking for no less than God’s help and peace, yes God’s intervention, what God alone can do.

Both passages quoted above need to be studied in context. But pulling out the thought that the enemy has specific devices fitted for each person is the necessary point here. May God help us begin to recognize such, and see it for what it is. And then take the stand necessary through God’s strength and what is given to us in and through Christ. Tomorrow, possibly a post on the strategic importance of ignoring the devil as part of what we do in response to its schemes.

don’t forget this

And that about wraps it up. God is strong, and he wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. This is no weekend war that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.

Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.

Ephesians 6:10-18; MSG

I find Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this Scripture helpful on a number of points. You get a sense of how this spiritual battle we’re in is ongoing and frankly, horrific. I wish it were not so. It would be quite a different experience. For those whose life is a walk in the park, and an ongoing happy time, I think something like: “Wow. Great!” But then it makes me wonder if they know this aspect of life. All who are “in Christ” do, even if somehow that realization is hidden from them.

And then the idea that we can’t do this on our own. That we are dependent on God and on all God gives us in Christ. Especially helpful is the point that we’re to apply truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation to our lives, as taught to us in Scripture. And God’s Word expressed as a weapon, perhaps referring to God breaking through to us as we read Scripture, that word coming home to us. And the need for ongoing prayer. I find that when I feel up against it, I am often pressed to pray, and end up praying more persistently, sadly, then I would otherwise. On the other hand when I have a break from this spiritual warfare, I can be encouraged to pray, at times having a sense of God’s presence and peace. But by and large I keep at it more faithfully when I feel pressed for one reason or another. It’s not hard for me to realize the need for this.

And how we’re to pray for each other. Having been within the evangelical tradition most of my Christian life, I’ve been well taught on the need to apply Scripture to my own life, but not as well taught in how we’re all in this together, and the responsibility which comes with that.

To apply truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation both for our own lives, and for the world, into the lives of others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ. And for everyone else as well. But Paul here seemed to particularly mean it for the believers at large, I would say especially individually, and then collectively, together. Definitely an ongoing personal application. In and through Jesus.

what John “the elder” and beloved apostle of our Lord might say to us now from 1 John 2:12-14

I am writing to you, dear children,
because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young men,
because you have overcome the evil one.

I write to you, dear children,
because you know the Father.
I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men,
because you are strong,
and the word of God lives in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.

1 John 2:12-14

I remind you, my dear children: Your sins are forgiven in Jesus’ name. You veterans were in on the ground floor, and know the One who started all this; you newcomers have won a big victory over the Evil One.

And a second reminder, dear children: You know the Father from personal experience. You veterans know the One who started it all; and you newcomers—such vitality and strength! God’s word is so steady in you. Your fellowship with God enables you to gain a victory over the Evil One.

1 John 2:12-14; MSG

John might just tell us here something like we’re equipped by God for the time, to meet the demands before us. A lot of that is just the continuing on in every day life, in the necessary work we have to do. Another essential part of this is the love we’re to show to others, particularly our own family.

But then we also have to address the difficult times in which we live. What God wants us to be and do now. From this letter we can say it is the life of Christ in our midst that makes all the difference. John specifies certain things here: having our sins forgiven in Jesus’s name, knowing God, having God’s word in us: in our hearts, bones, lives. And thus standing in the victory of God in Christ over the evil one.

John would tell us that God gives us all we need for the present time. It’s up to us to live it out individually and together. We’re beholden to nothing more or nothing less. In and through Jesus.

accept the reality we’re in: Christian spiritual warfare

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Ephesians 6:10-20

And that about wraps it up. God is strong, and he wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. This is no weekend war that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.

Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.

And don’t forget to pray for me. Pray that I’ll know what to say and have the courage to say it at the right time, telling the mystery to one and all, the Message that I, jailbird preacher that I am, am responsible for getting out.

Ephesians 6:10-20; MSG

I think there’s truth and wisdom in what I heard years and years ago from a servant of the Lord. We as followers of Christ are children, servants and soldiers. He then likened that I think to the old stools people used to sit on to milk their cows. Three legs, so that if one of them is gone, the stool is gone we could say, as well. For different reasons I think we either want to avoid the soldier analogy, or we misapply it, pushing it into “the culture war,” or even into what is some ways is worse, actual military or paramilitary activity. Not what Christ taught, nor what Paul is teaching here.

We are not in a physical battle, but spiritual, and we’d better face that and get used to it, and act accordingly. It’s not just something we do and get it over with. We have to be ready and engaged day after day. It’s a kind of mentality, but also something beyond that. It is we can say spiritual in the sense that we are looking to God for God’s strength and help, no less, in all that God has provided for us in Christ. As The Message puts it: “Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation” along with “God’s Word” and “prayer.”

All who are in Christ will sooner or later realize that they are in a spiritual battle. I remember a successful and loving pastor who seemed to suggest that we should ignore Satan. I may have well misunderstood him. Perhaps he was making the point that our focus shouldn’t be on Satan or spiritual warfare, the spiritual battle we’re in, but on Christ. And that is a good and important point. We succeed in resisting the onslaught of the enemy by getting our strength from God, and applying what God has given us in Scripture, in Christ.

There’s nothing fancy here. All we’re supposed to do is stand firm, holding our ground. It may not look pretty, and may not get us any style points. It’s not about us. We accept this difficult, heavy reality, after all, there’s really no escape from it. And we want to take it head on, not at all in our own strength, but only in the Lord’s mighty strength, the strength of his might. Again, living out all Christ has given us, all we are. Holding on. Not trying to overcome ourselves, but knowing we will overcome by standing firm through Christ. Along with others. In and through Jesus.

in these times and any time just pray

Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’

“He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice—otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.’”

Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?”

Luke 18:1-8; MSG

We have “Christian” militants today, some who stormed the US Capitol, and some of them seemingly bent on more violence to come. Then we have people like me who decry and reject all of that as being not of the Spirit of Christ. We both act and react. What if we all took the words of Jesus here seriously, and simply prayed? Instead we either think we have to take matters in our own hands to win a “culture war.” Or we shake our heads. What if we as God’s people, whatever our political persuasion or thoughts about democracy and what is now happening in the United States would just pray and love and be known for our good deeds and keep praying?

For me, aside from the mess in the world, it’s much more personal and close to home. I can fritter away too much time on good things which are important in their place, but miss what is better, what is best, what is most important. If we’re not spending time in prayer and making it the ongoing priority of our lives, then we’re missing out on what God is doing and wants to do, and us being a part of that. And perhaps the most important part of prayer is listening. We bring our requests, our cries for justice to God, and we listen and keep on listening. I believe listening is a part of true prayer. We keep listening. As we do, God will give us what we need.

Jesus ties the need to always pray with faith and his return. Some Christians are making much of Jesus coming back, and that is indeed an important part of our faith. But is prayer the priority as we anticipate that? While I don’t at all share their view of the Second Coming, at the same time I want to be in prayer, with heart awake, ears listening, eyes open. But much of the time we’ll find this all a struggle, that we have the sense of failing, that indeed it’s an uphill battle. And we must not forget the spiritual warfare side of this (Ephesians 6:10-20). God’s grace is always present for us in Christ. We need not despair, and we must not give up. Let’s all learn to pray, pray, and keep on praying. Remembering that listening is a major part of that. In and through Jesus.

when beaten up, bloodied, and bruised

Please, God, no more yelling,
no more trips to the woodshed.
Treat me nice for a change;
I’m so starved for affection.

Can’t you see I’m black-and-blue,
beaten up badly in bones and soul?
God, how long will it take
for you to let up?

Break in, God, and break up this fight;
if you love me at all, get me out of here.
I’m no good to you dead, am I?
I can’t sing in your choir if I’m buried in some tomb!

I’m tired of all this—so tired. My bed
has been floating forty days and nights
On the flood of my tears.
My mattress is soaked, soggy with tears.
The sockets of my eyes are black holes;
nearly blind, I squint and grope.

Get out of here, you Devil’s crew:
at last God has heard my sobs.
My requests have all been granted,
my prayers are answered.

Cowards, my enemies disappear.
Disgraced, they turn tail and run.

Psalm 6; MSG

There are times when it’s all one can do to keep going. Just putting one foot in front of the next. Actual physical opposition is still experienced by many Christ-followers in the world. Where we live we face the same in subtle ways through spiritual opposition, and sometimes it’s just the latter. But just the wear and tear of actual life, and all the troubles and problems it brings is enough to weigh us down.

And then what do we do? What the psalmist did. We simply pour out our honest thoughts, fears, and groans to God. And we keep doing that. The answer will come. Sometimes it’s just best for us to bide our time, knowing good will come, because God is good and does good. So we wait in prayer on God. And when the answer comes, we go on, praising and thanking God. As we see evil recede and good happening. In and through Jesus.

love and pray, pray and love

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it….

Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder.

Romans 12:9a,12b; MSG

There are days when everything seems uphill. It can seem we’re running on less than empty, and what’s filling us, or at least inside us is not good. And that at least so much is against us, even seemingly so, the whole world. And that we’re just hanging on for dear life. Like being hit hard where it hurts, in a spiritual battle, and not breathing all that well.

Those are the times especially when we need to pray and love, love and pray. It doesn’t matter where we begin. We pray because we want to love, and we love, so we pray. But like Paul says above, we don’t quit in the hard times, but pray all the harder. We focus on praying to God, asking for help, praying for someone who may be bothering us. Whatever the needs, we lift them up to God in prayer.

The answer will come, yes it will. As we pray we’ll likely sooner than later see the cloud begin to lift. What gradually will replace our troubled minds are better, good thoughts, God-given thoughts. That will begin the cycle of real love and more prayer, more prayer and more love. These go together. What is essential for us. In and through Jesus.