Monday, January 30, 2017

Disciples who disappoint

When you’re concerned about a person’s soul and want to see them free and full of the presence of God, your mind’s eye frequently creates a picture of this. You’re able to identify what they’re doing wrong, remember your own experiences and are convinced that you can help them avoid the pitfalls that you had to struggle through. If they’d only listen, they’ll be just fine. But as much as we may try to micromanage someone else’s journey of faith, the fact is, it’s God who saves, and it is they who have to choose the right path.  

When Paul was in prison and close to the end of his life, he remembered a few of his disciples that had abandoned and even betrayed him. Though the power of the Holy Spirit was at work in Paul, and there was plenty of miraculous evidence of God’s presence guiding him, he was unable to keep these men on the path to salvation. He had to accept the fact that they had made their choice to serve the world, and he had to keep on going.  

But there was one young man who Paul did ask for in that passage of 2 Timothy, John Mark (or just Mark). John Mark’s story begins in the book of Acts when Paul reacts in anger because young Mark had given up and gone home on their first missionary journey. Later, when Mark decided he wanted to join Paul and Barnabas again, Paul had some sharp words for him and refused. Paul felt that he was a failed disciple, but God had other plans. Even though angry words caused Barnabas, Paul’s faithful friend during terrible persecution, to side with Mark and split off from Paul, Mark was not a lost cause. Over the years, Mark matured and turned into one of the founders of the early church. This is the same Mark who wrote our second Gospel in the New Testament. And at the end of his life, Paul writes to Timothy asking, “Get Mark, and bring him with you, for he is profitable to me for the ministry.”

We never know the future of the people we’re reaching out to. There are too many unknown factors. Will they persevere? Will they listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit? Will they allow God to work freely in them? And yet, none of that is our responsibility. We can only help to lead them to God to the best of our ability, and then trust that whoever responds to His call will be kept on the right path. Paul may have thought that Mark was a lost cause, but he wasn’t. Paul may have thought that other companions, who eventually turned against the gospel, would stick by him for life – but he was wrong. (At least as far as we know, maybe they repented in the end too!)

Our zeal for evangelism and disciple-making should never fade, especially with disappointments or detours. Perhaps you’ve given all you had to save a soul who seemed so promising, but they gave up on God. Don’t be discouraged, because it isn’t you who saves anyone – it’s God. Just as each of us have had to go through our own struggles and bumps in the road to get to where we are now, God sees the big picture. It may take a few years of “kicking against the goads” before they start to trust in Him again, depending on their state of humility. But as long as we pray for them in faith, He’ll make sure that every pain and every dark moment will be divinely used to call them back to Him. Whether or not they respond, will be their choice. But one thing we know, the more people we reach out to, the more we’ll be able to bring into the Kingdom of God with us, so don’t give up!

At my first defense no one stood with me, but everyone forsook me. May it not be charged against them. But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that through me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear. And I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. The Lord will deliver me from every evil work and will preserve me for His heavenly kingdom, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.  2 Timothy 4:16-18, MEV

Monday, January 23, 2017

Christians looking for loopholes

Christians who look for loopholes in the Bible to allow them to keep sinning have a reasoning that usually goes: “Romans 6 says I’m dead to sin, which means that sin doesn’t stick to me anymore.  So even if I fall in the weakness of my flesh now and then, all I have to do is brush myself off and keep on going because I’ve been baptized into Jesus’ death, and clothed in His righteousness – I’m all good!” They’d never openly say that sinning is a good thing. They say that holiness, self-discipline and self-sacrifice are good, but they think they can get by without them. They’re already washed in the blood, they have “good hearts,” (as if we can judge our own hearts) and they’ve prayed the sinners’ prayer – that’s their criteria for salvation.  

So we find “good Christians” with “good hearts” hanging out in bars, cheating on their spouses, letting profanities slip every now and then, unable to kick a cigarette habit, or a weed habit, or a gambling habit, a porn habit or whatever. They’re the nicest, friendliest, churchgoing people who sing worship songs with gusto, who have settled for a life on par with their unbelieving neighbors with no fear that they may not even be saved at all. That’s the scary part. They rely so heavily on this safety net of God’s grace and mercy, that they stifle their consciences – the inner voice of the Holy Spirit convicting them of sin.  

Demonic activity usually hovers around them. Marriages are full of strife and some collapse completely. Their teenagers have contempt for their parents’ faith, some becoming rebellious and some developing serious emotional problems. These Christians get mired in gossip and grudges, even within their own churches, and can’t see their own fault in all the drama. They see the mess of their lives, shrug their shoulders and blame others. Since everyone’s saved and everyone’s a sinner clothed in righteousness, they figure that’s life. It’s as good as it gets.

Imagine a kind shepherd, trying to guide his flock uphill to pure water, when his lazy sheep ignore his voice and prefer to drink from an open sewer. That’s a picture of Christians who settle for mediocre. James says that the Holy Spirit “yearns jealously” for us. He grieves over sheep who disregard Him and think they know better. God calls out to us every day through His word, through nature, through our circumstances, proclaiming that there is so much more for us! So much joy, abundance and peace. But the path to find it looks dull and painful. “Pick up your cross daily and follow me,” and “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” are the words of our Good Shepherd calling us uphill to where the pure water is.  

Tolerating sin has terrible consequences, but the root of it all is a refusal to have a real relationship with God. It’s treating faith as a formula, a scheme to get what we want for the least amount of effort. That’s no relationship – that’s a business deal. God yearns for children, a relationship, a family, and dying to sin is what allows us to join His family. When we love our spouse or children, we naturally seek out ways to strengthen our bonds, to express our love and appreciation. Putting effort into a loving relationship is work, but it’s also great fun with great rewards and worth every bit of effort. Every happily married couple knows that. Why don’t Christians find joy in the effort to build bonds of love with God? Why do they prefer looking for loopholes for sin, to get salvation at a bargain? They want to live in a way that hurts Him, and say that they love Him in the same breath.

Stop and think about the motives for your prayers, why you think God should let you into heaven, and why sin is still so easily entangling you. Maybe it’s because you’ve never sought a true relationship with Him. You may not even see God as a real person, but as a mystical being who thinks your “good heart” is just fine. Sorry to say, you don’t yet have salvation because Jesus is not yet your Lord. Make sure to change that today.

But when people keep on sinning, it shows that they belong to the devil, who has been sinning since the beginning. But the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born into God’s family do not make a practice of sinning, because God’s life is in them. So they can’t keep on sinning, because they are children of God. So now we can tell who are children of God and who are children of the devil. Anyone who does not live righteously and does not love other believers does not belong to God. (1 John 3:8-10 NLT)

Monday, January 16, 2017

God and the devil… 2 equal but opposite forces?

One big mistake Christians can make, is to imagine God and the devil in a struggle for power, two equal and opposite forces battling with all their might against each other. There is nothing further from the truth! The devil is a mere pest compared to the power of our God, who the Bible says is, “far above all principalities, and power, and might, and dominion.” Yes, there is a spiritual battle that is going on, but it’s not an equal battle at all.

So why does it feel like evil is growing in the world? Why does it seem that there are so many more cases of murders, rapes, kidnappings, and horrific child abuse in the news? Not only that, global tensions and threats of international war are growing as well. But as shocking as headlines may be, the scariest thing on earth is the absence of godly men and women who are teaching the truth about salvation, hell, the power of God, of living in victory, and the reality of our authority over demonic forces that are all around us today. All of these issues are linked together, because they all encompass what Jesus has taught us to practice until the day He returns. Without warriors who pray, warriors who teach and warriors who disciple with a burning hatred against evil and a burning love for God, Satan will always be able to push forward. God has handed His Church the authority to tear down strongholds, but wimpy Christians have done practically nothing with those weapons.

We have to live in constant awareness that what happens in the spiritual realm is reality, affecting everything in our physical world. But if Christians treat prayer as a tiresome religious formality, they aimlessly wander in a haze of passive faith. And who do you think has created this very comfortable haze? Demonic principalities who are wise enough not to confront us head-on with accusations that God doesn’t exist, but who subtly lure us into a state of complacency to patiently wait for things just to “work out on their own” – to feel uncomfortable with aggressive faith, with fighting prayers, with sacrificial living. The more the Church sleeps in this haze, the easier it is for Satan to do his work unhindered.  

We have been given both the authority and the command to pull down strongholds and principalities, and when Christians en masse take that command seriously, the world around us can radically change. We could impact how many murders and rapes and cases of abuse happen. We could stem the tide of wars and violence. But if Christians can’t even tie up the simple stuff of sin and doubt and selfishness in their personal lives, how can they impact a hurting world?  

If we could just see how powerful our prayers were, we’d be calling out to God constantly, as well as tirelessly rebuking demonic forces. It wouldn’t be a burden, a ritual or an act of superstition, because we’d know that we are impacting the world for God’s Kingdom. Our personal lives would change. We’d know that God’s Spirit was gladly working in tandem with our faith – not because we are anyone special, but because God has ordained it this way. He asks us to act in faith in our small human way, so that He can do the rest in “the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.” My prayer is that this practice becomes more deeply rooted in me, and becomes a way of life among all of you. If prayer and spiritual warfare has become tiresome for you, stop everything and start fighting against that demonic haze that wants to keep you passive and ineffective. The weapons are at your disposal – pick them up and use them!   

…and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power,  which He performed in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principalities, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.  And He put all things in subjection under His feet and made Him the head over all things for the church,  which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all things in all ways. Ephesians 1:19-23. MEV

Friday, January 6, 2017

A good dose of healthy, biblical grace

How can you be generous when you can’t even make ends meet? It’s a lot easier to give when you have a rich supply of whatever it is you’re going to give – money, time, love, knowledge, understanding, forgiveness, grace…  When your account is full, you have little to worry about when you need to share with others.  

It makes sense with money, but how about the giving of your soul and spirit? If a couple marries with emotional deficits – chaos on her side of the family, neglect on his – they join two unhealthy souls with unrealistic expectations for each spouse to fill the other’s gaping void. It’s a recipe for disaster. They can love each other immensely, but become cruelly defensive because of unresolved pasts. On the other hand, when each has an emotional bank account rich with goodwill, trust and a stable sense of self-worth, their marriage can weather any storm and grow even stronger.

How can someone who has been emotionally bankrupt by a horrible past alter their damaged self-worth? Does he have to find someone to love and nurture him enough to compensate for years of rejection? How long would that take? The poor giver would have to keep giving and receive nothing back, and in the end become a victim of neglect as well.  

But many Christians with painful pasts feel that they have no choice but to be negative and mistreat the people who love them, because of their emotional deficits. They expect their family to fill the void, to ignore their outbursts, to love them unconditionally, and to endure whatever tantrums they throw because they just can’t stop themselves. But they are looking to the wrong place for a solution. 

The disciples were afraid of being left by Jesus, but He wasn’t going to leave them in a vacuum. In fact, it was going to be even better that He leave, because the Father would send the Spirit to live inside of them and fill the void. The Spirit would teach them everything they needed, but even more than that, God would make His home inside of them. Jesus’ peace would be their gift, and the only requirement for all of this was obedience (John 14:7).

This is what true grace is. Worthless sinners being filled to overflowing with the God of the Universe, bringing all His love, joy, peace, power, goodness and healing to live and work inside of us, just because we’ve repented and live in obedience. God provides that rich bank account of stability and goodwill that can overflow to others, because we’re connected to the source. So, if we have this wealth of joy offered to us by our loving God, why are we still trying to live out our Christian lives by the force of our own strength? Why are we dry, unhappy and frustrated that we never seem to be “good enough”?

If you have truly repented and make an effort to live in obedience every day, then His abundant grace is available to you. The best way to experience this grace, is to start giving to others, with no fear of being left emotionally bankrupt. You have the eternal source flowing through you, so you will never run out. Instead of demanding that your family love you perfectly, be gracious and flexible with them when they fail. Instead of taking offense at every little comment, give to others because you’re already so greatly loved. Instead of living in a state of guilt, wanting to please everyone, serve others with joy, and with the discernment to serve only as He leads, not as others want or impose. Remember, He’s placed a treasure inside your “earthen vessels.” He wants you to experience the surpassing greatness of His power, and He means for you to enjoy it!

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and He raised us up and seated us together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one should boast.  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, so that we should walk in them.  Ephesians 2:4-10 MEV

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Living upside down for God

To receive, you need to give. To be the first, you need to be last. To become the master, you need to serve. To be exalted, you need to be humbled. To be free from injustice, you need to forgive. Submit to authorities, and submit to one another, turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, love your enemies, bless those who persecute you… and the list goes on. 

People will agree it’s a list of lofty and noble attitudes, and virtually impossible to do. Maybe because they’ve known others who ended up as doormats for abusers and manipulators, so they dismiss these noble attitudes as impractical. Jesus was probably just exaggerating and being “poetic” to get a point across, they think. And of course, He wasn’t.

But attempting to live out these attitudes in our own strength, doesn’t work. Turning the other cheek out of weakness or fear, just creates pain and humiliation. Showing compassion to aggressors without the faith to bind up their demons of violence, is just emotionalism and an invitation to get hurt. When fleshly spirituality goes wrong, as it always does, the devil laughs at our defeat to make his point that obeying God is for fools – and too many weak Christians believe him.

But God’s upside down ways are not weakness. They are acts of confidence – a defiance of the devil. They are actions of courage and warfare that work. Every one of them releases supernatural power when done in true faith, which is why they’re so important to live by, and why they are mocked by the world. The world doesn’t mind when we’re just “good people,” but it hates us when we tear down demonic strongholds by living out His principles. 

Why do we always have to live so contrary to the world? Simply because the world has become so contrary to God. News headlines argue that God’s opinions are somehow “evil,” and pastors of leading denominations preach we shouldn’t take His word so seriously. It’s nothing new – even Jesus was called the prince of demons by the religious leaders of His time. That’s just one more upside down way we need to embrace: to see ourselves as “aliens in a foreign land,” and to be completely content with it. 

But once living upside down becomes our way of life, it all makes complete sense. We participate in His power. We begin to reverse the work of the devil, just as Jesus did. He touched lepers, and instead of contagious diseases spreading from them to Him, the life of the Creator flowed from Him into them. As violent persecution bore down on the disciples, the fire of the Holy Spirit just exploded through them with miracles and transformed lives. As hatred tried to stamp out the Early Church, a pure love for their enemies allowed Christians to spread the gospel, even to the soldiers who imprisoned them, and their radical, upside down faith continues to impact us.

But many Christians refuse to live upside down for God. They don’t want to surrender control or feel vulnerable. They don’t want to give first, serve first, love their enemies or forgive. They hate the word submission, and will even argue loudly against it as if God was unfair. And by refusing God’s principles, they are refusing God. It’s nonsense to call Jesus Lord, if you won’t obey Him. Don’t you want to see His power flowing through you, undoing evil? Don’t you want the life of the Creator removing death and destruction? Don’t you want to see the Holy Spirit explode through you to transform lives, beginning with you? Living upside down is the only way that makes sense. Maybe you’ve never learned how to live out these principles the right way – maybe today’s the day to make that change.

But He, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is made desolate. And a house divided against itself falls.  If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons through Beelzebub. Now if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges.  But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, no doubt the kingdom of God has come upon you. “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are peacefully kept.  But when a stronger man than he attacks and overpowers him, he seizes all the armor in which the man trusted and divides his spoils. “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters.  Luke 11:17-23, MEV