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.

heart to heart honesty

An honest answer
is like a warm hug.

Proverbs 24:26; MSG

An honest answer presupposes a question. More often than not, I would suppose that questions would have to do with problems. Whatever the case, what’s called for here is honesty. And what’s most fully honest is heart to heart.

This is about telling the truth in grace, that is with kindness. And also with wisdom. How we say it is as important as what we say. And just what is said, also. Honesty doesn’t mean dumping all we perceive to be the truth on them. They might not be ready for that. Honesty means the answer at least points them in the right direction.

A truly honest answer also involves humility. We don’t pretend we’re above the fray, beyond the struggle they face. We have our own struggles, and even if it’s not precisely what they face, it will be helpful to them for us to acknowledge such.

Honesty involves not only telling the truth about the problem, possibly gently pointing out a fault. But honesty also truthfully encourages. We point out the good we see in them, give them the praise they deserve, and thank God together for God’s grace in helping them and us in our struggles. Of course sharing how God has and is helping us through our own difficulties.

Yes, an honest answer is what’s needed. That ends up being heart to heart, and like a warm hug as the Scripture says. What we all need to receive and be open to give.

first things first

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. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9

I too often have the experience of getting through one thing or another that troubles me, finding inward peace with the freedom to think beyond troubles, only to be assailed by a new problem. I think there’s some serious wisdom in seeking kind of a monastic existence apart from the cares of this world. In my case it would be a married monastery. Yet in having to go through the extra difficulties one can grow in faith and wisdom. I suppose if I were to choose, unblinkingly I would take the former. But I am stuck in the latter, at least for now.

There’s a good word for us from Paul that relates to this, I think. Paul had plenty of serious concerns, but they were all more or less related directly to the kingdom of God. He filled his mind with good things, which is more than evident in his writings. And remember when he said in what is allegedly his last letter that he wanted the parchments and the scrolls (2 Timothy 4:13). He was a reader, or he had someone read to him due to what seems to have been an eye condition. At any rate, he kept himself occupied with truth, knowledge and beauty both from God’s revelation of Scripture, and from other sources as well, evident in the terms used here.

For me that means I need to major on what is major, do my best to take care of the rest, but not let go of what’s most essential. In fact even in addressing problems, we can do so hopefully through ways which will actually add to our well being, instead of tearing us down. While we don’t let go of what is helpful and edifying, from Scripture, and from other sources, all part of God’s revelation, as we sift though those things.

And we must act. Paul says to look at his life, and do what he does, to follow him as he follows Christ. That is so important. We need people who have learned, or at least are learning to walk the walk. To learn from them over time, just to be around them. Sadly the way it is, church life is hardly church life at all in so many good places. You have to really take initiative in looking for small groups, maybe even a house church, and develop relationships. I’ve gained a lot from that in recent years, even though it has been limited in the numbering of gatherings. Faithfulness to Christ in love for God and for others in God’s grace must be lived out, yes in our imperfect sometimes broken ways. But that must be our priority, indeed passion.

So we need both commitments: To occupy our minds with good things. And to live in the faith God gives us, following the good example of others, that we might in turn be an example. In and through Jesus.

strength from God against opposition

It’s interesting how again and again in Psalm 119, the psalmist appeals to God for strength to stand in the face of opposition. You find it sprinkled throughout that long chapter. And it’s not enough just to note that. One really needs to go through the entire chapter to get the feel of it. It’s real life with all its struggles and our responses to them. It is quite experientially oriented, as well as the emphasis on God’s word and law.

We expect to see that in many of the psalms, but may not expect it in this psalm. But it’s there, meant to help and strengthen us in the midst of opposition. Spiritual opposition of course, but also when others oppose us. We hopefully learn where we might be off. The psalmist was certainly not infallible themselves. We can see attitudes in the psalms, and in this psalm which are likely wrong even in that day, and definitely off track for us today as Jesus followers. So we need to be open to needed correction that may come from those who oppose us.

But we also can expect God to strengthen and help us as we seek to humbly take a stand for Christ, for the gospel, for mercy, justice, righteousness and truth. In and through Jesus.

reflecting a bit on America: shades of gray (no, don’t even think about bringing down the Washington Monument, etc.)

This is the fourth of July, and if you’re going to read only one blog post today, settle in on this one from Brian Zahnd, I Love You, America, But Not Like That.

There is no doubt to me that another part of the reckoning due to the enslavement and mistreatment of Africans has come for America. We are in a day when  some would see the dismantling of all of America’s cultural landmarks. Almost the entire tent coming down to be replaced with something else.

There’s no doubt that great evil was done, and that the founding father’s blindness or acceptance of slavery is plain downright wrong. There is no gray in that. And as George Will pointed out in his most recent (outstanding) book, The Conservative Sensibility, there would be no United States apart from the slavery which under girded it, and gave founding fathers the time to hammer out the foundation of this nation.

What we need to keep in mind is the whole. Not excusing any part that is wrong and actually downright evil. But remembering what was good. I shouldn’t neglect to mention the other part of what’s called America’s original sin: the stealing and killing of native Americans, “Indians.” Both African-Americans and native Americans suffer to this day.

Without trying to cover everything that should be, I just want to point out here that we need to see life as it truly is. I love biographies that are not hagiographies, but try to tell it, warts and all. That’s one thing among many others that I love about the Bible. It doesn’t try to hide the blemishes, blotches, and indeed complete failures of characters. A great case in point is David, said to be a man after God’s own heart no less. But his actions when you read the account we’re not altogether good. And what he did in the case of Bathsheba and Uriah were downright evil. But do we dismiss and diss David? No we don’t. It’s not like the bad part is forgotten, because it’s not, and shouldn’t be.

Looking at American history, I can still respect men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Instead of just seeing their flaws, I can acknowledge their good points, and greatness in some respects. Ironically holding to ideals on paper, not lived out entirely in their lives.

Again, this is not to excuse what’s wrong, or say what’s past is past while failing to see the many ramifications and realities which live on to this day.

So let’s not bring down the Washington Monument, or the Jefferson Memorial, etc. If anything is idolatrous then yes, that ought to come down. But let’s leave memorials like what I just mentioned intact. We should not even be considering removing them. I’m not referring to monuments that honor those who rebelled against the United States, the Confederacy, etc. They ought to be moved into museums, no longer to be honored in public squares. We can set up with our iconic memorials, new works that remember what Africans had to endure, and the great contributions African-Americans have made to this nation. As well as memorialize the good native Americans have done.

God have mercy if any of our lives are looked at strictly in terms of good and evil. For some there is great evil, other’s great good, but for all, there’s some mixture, so that there’s a certain shade of gray. As we Christians look to the one light of the world, Jesus, to expose our own spiritual darkness, and all the spiritual darkness around us, for the good of all. In and through Jesus.

character versus giftedness

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

The fruit of the Spirit (“love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”) are not in competition against the gifts of the Spirit. But this passage from Paul makes it clear that without love, the operation of the gifts means nothing, at least not in God’s estimation of the person who practices them.

What I would like to tell any young, budding preacher would be something like what Paul is saying here. I would say, the gift part will come. That is important. But major on character. Make sure your life is in line with God’s call to love which includes living in and according to the truth.

Give me any day and every day someone who is faithfully plodding along with what might be considered a nothing out of the ordinary gift, but consistently and faithfully loves others, and loves God, their lives marked by obedience to God’s will. I’ll take that any day over a person who has an amazing gift, but is a bit fast and loose when it comes to character. The fruit of the Spirit is the goal in our lives toward Christ-likeness. The gifts of the Spirit are meant to help us move that direction. In and through Jesus.

against full knowledge in this world or even in the word

Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:12b

Sadly, too many Christians nowadays seem to think they have some sort of inside scoop on what’s going on in the world. Or that they unlike most other Christians possess some superior knowledge of God’s word and the gospel. Either thought is dangerous.

The older I get, the more I realize how much I don’t know. I believe any idea of some inside scoop or full knowledge of anything should be dismissed, or at least viewed with profound suspicion.

Yes, God does give us revelation of Christ and the gospel by the Spirit, and helps us through the word, no doubt. But we have to be humble, especially when it comes to what we think we understand about what is going on in the world. We need to stick to what God plainly tells us in the word, and refuse to get sidetracked on what too often become tangents that get us sidetracked from God’s will for us.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t push hard for truth and what is right, just and good. It does mean that we do so believing that only God understands and knows and works in God’s own sovereign way, as he sees fit.

We do so in full confidence of nothing other than God and God’s work through the word in the world. In and through Jesus.

 

beyond fear

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

1 John 4:16b-18

I remember years, now decades ago when I think the Dean of Men where I went to school opened his Bible as we sat in his office, turning to this passage. And with an emphasis on perfect love casting out fear, and spoke some on that. I can remember his tone of voice, and etched concern on his face, even if I can’t remember much if anything at all of what he precisely said. But I returned in my thoughts to that from time to time.

And now, relatively late in life, I do so again. Yes, I’ve believed this is truth, that it applies to me, but I often still struggle in regard to it. I think I understand much of the answer in my mind, but I’m afraid it hasn’t made much inroad into my heart. But even with that, I still have made sure progress in holding on longer what I believe in my head, so that I’ve experienced more of God’s breakthroughs of peace amidst the storm.

One way of approaching this which might be helpful is to seek to land and stand on truth. If we believe that the God who is love has made that love known through the sacrificial death of Christ, then we need to stand by faith on that truth, whatever emotions to the contrary we might be experiencing, including crippling fear. Our judgment has been taken care of through Christ, who took that judgment on himself at the cross.

The faith which is involved is not only about grasping and holding on to something: God’s word to us in Christ. But it’s also about letting go of what has bound and crippled, or at least to some extent has hampered us over the years.

Come what may, whatever we face, we need to stand firmly in this one place, that of God’s love for us in Christ. When we do so, we’re standing in the one true perfect love. And by and by we’ll begin to know something of the experience of that, something in itself that never depends on our own feelings, but where God wants us to learn to live. Away from any feeling of panic or dread. In the reality of God’s love, the God who is love. In and through Jesus.

stress points

Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

Psalm 4:1

It’s interesting to note the 22 places the NIV translates “distress” in the Psalms. And if there has ever been a more stressful time in my life, I’m unaware of it. One has to think in terms of event, length, and ramifications. The world has had stress points right along, but this Covid-19 pandemic, with both its health and economic issues, coupled with the political division where I live in the United States, certainly brings stress to a new level.

Over and over again in most of the passages related to distress in the Psalms, enemies are involved. And it seems that way today. Almost worse than the problem itself, is the response to it. And I think people would largely more or less agree with that, whatever their position is.

What the Psalms reminds me is in line with what the first Psalm with this translation quoted above tells us: Our appeal is to God in prayer for relief from our distress. That is now with reference to both the virus, and perhaps more acutely, people’s response to it. There’s no question that some will be pushed to the brink economically. And there is undeniably plenty of fear of catching the virus itself. Not to mention the illnesses which have occurred, along with the deaths. What I find the most challenging is how people are so fiercely divided over it. And fear abounds.

What is needed from us as God’s people? Regardless of where we might stand on this issue, we need to find God’s peace from our distress. We need to be a steadying influence of God’s love and truth in Jesus to the world. That is what we need to trust God for, right in the midst of the stress. That God’s light and peace would break on us, so that others too might see, and come to or be strengthened in faith, themselves.

Does that mean I think our position on the pandemic and its effects is unimportant? Not at all. But in the midst of everything, we as God’s people as a first priority should want to put our trust in God. And the first step often needed, especially during a time like this is to find the relief we need from our own distress. In and through Jesus.

no truth apart from love

The wise in heart are called discerning,
and gracious words promote instruction.

Gracious words are a honeycomb,
sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.

Proverbs 16:21,24

Some people seem to think that truth is telling it like it is, no holds barred. But truth in God’s world is always joined with love; you can’t separate them. Love is not love apart from truth; truth is not truth apart from love.

This should be an important baseline on how I judge my own speech and the speech of others. How well I receive a sermon, message or as it’s often called nowadays a conversation around and in God’s word. Is it imbued with grace and truth? If not, it will be lacking.

None of us has it altogether. And we might tend more either toward grace, or truth. People who are known to be blunt are often admired as “telling it like it is,” or “being real.” And others who can never say anything that might be displeasing to others will likely not be taken seriously, or will be seen as flatterers.

What we need is a combination of grace and truth. We speak truth, but we do so gently, with love. In fact we would want to consider and ponder how to make truth as attractive as possible, rather than quite the opposite. What will help us a long way in that direction is humility, the realization of how much we ourselves are in need of grace. That should help us put a curb on our harshness, and hopefully find in time that it no longer characterizes us.

When we understand our own great need for God’s mercy and grace, we won’t look down on others. But instead will want to help them with the help God gives us. In and through Jesus.