Right Place, Right Time

Back in the 70s I made a fun but meager living as a professional singer/songwriter/guitarist.  In ’77 I happened to be in a very talented rock & roll band with loads of quality original material in its portfolio.  Wisely, the group relocated to the west coast to pursue a record contract.  We knew there’d be stiff competition out there but we were supremely confident in our abilities.  We worked our shaggy tails off in L.A. for over two years.  Alas, we failed to land a deal.  What we came to realize was that it wouldn’t have mattered if we’d been the most talented group of musicians ever to pound the pavement of southern California.  The fact was we never were in the right place at the right time.  Our brand of music, regardless of how good it was, just wasn’t what was “happening.”  Many of the more tactful record company honchos told us we were simply five years too late arriving on the scene and there was nothing we or they could do about it.  The public’s taste in music had changed.  Our timing?  Lousy.  Looking back, that experience makes me appreciate God’s perfect plan for rescuing souls even more.  The Heavenly Father arranged for His only begotten Son to be born in precisely the right place at precisely the right time.  And it made all the difference.

 

Inside Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher there’s a special location designated as being “the center of the world.”  While that’s questionable in the literal sense, it’s certainly not questionable if one considers the claim a figurative one because the whole region where that church sits is a strong candidate for being the geographical center of the planet.  On a globe it’s easy to identify the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa.  Right in the middle of them, where they merge, there’s a slender land bridge on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.  It’s Israel.  If one was to initiate a movement with the intent of spreading it via word of mouth to all corners of the earth in a relatively short period one couldn’t pick a better spot.  Thus it’s no stretch to deem the Holy Land and its surrounding territories as truly being the 1st century nucleus of civilization.  God, in His omniscient wisdom (and before time began), made Bethlehem, Nazareth and Calvary Hill be the cradle of the Christian faith.  No other area of the planet was more suited to His purpose.  Therefore we can all agree the place was right.  Yet even more importantly, the same was true about the timeBut when the appropriate time had come, God sent out his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we may be adopted as sons with full rights (Galatians 4:4).  When all relevant factors are taken into account it’s obvious that particular timeframe was ideal for God to personally and dramatically intervene in the affairs of mankind.  From every standpoint – in politics, in economics, in moral standards as well as the realm of religious thought – earth was ripe for a new era to dawn.

 

Let’s delve into some of those crucial factors.  Politically and socially speaking, God’s timing was immaculate.  The civilized world was more united than ever before because of Caesar’s Roman Empire.  Frontiers previously closed for ages had been opened.  Bordering countries that had constantly been at war with each other were cooperating.  From the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the Caspian Sea, from Brittan to Egypt and from the Rhine River to the Euphrates, millions of people lived and worked in relative stability.  Brutal as they frequently were in maintaining it, the Romans had nevertheless ushered in an epoch of calm.  It was into this rare period of peace that Jesus was born.  Had He entered history a century earlier His gospel of hope would’ve been severely restricted from being disseminated abroad due to the presence of heavily-guarded, hard-to-penetrate national borders all over the place.  A hundred years later His life-enhancing teachings would’ve had to contend with the ever-increasing threat posed by the barbarian hordes that were invading from northern Europe.  No, Christ came to the right place at the right time when amity was widespread and regular folks could afford the luxury of listening to, absorbing and contemplating the unflinching truth our Lord taught.  One can’t discount the vital part the Empire’s impressive network of roads played, as well.  While Rome thought they were building highways to develop new and profitable trade routes, God was planning on using them to more efficiently and quickly disseminate the Good News.  Because of those thoroughfares the early evangelists of the church were able to travel about freely to preach to tens of thousands about the resurrected King of kings who offered eternal life.

 

Then there’s the proliferation of Greek as the universally-accepted language.  Not since the Tower of Babel had communication obstacles been easier to overcome.  While each region and race continued to retain their own vernacular, the vast majority had acquired a fundamental understanding of the Roman tongue.  I can’t overstate the huge role a common language played in the spread of Christianity.  This has modern connotations, too.  When His disciples peppered Him for signs that’d herald His second coming and the tumultuous end of the current age Jesus listed several for them, including First the gospel must be preached to all nations (Mark 13:10).  When one considers the extensive cultural saturation achieved by television and radio broadcasts, internet access and cellular phones these days it gets more difficult to imagine a sector of terra firma Christ’s message has yet to penetrate.  Is the end near?  I don’t know but what I do know is this: we’re nudging closer to it with each passing hour.  As Curtis Mayfield sang, “People get ready, there’s a train a’ comin’.”

 

We must also take into consideration the unstable and grossly unfair economic conditions of that era.  While the gaudy opulence of the Roman elite’s lifestyles and the ornate buildings they’d constructed for themselves were hard to miss, abject poverty and festering dissatisfaction among the underprivileged masses was forming poisonous gas bubbles under the glossy surface of society.  Two out of every three people were slaves and they resented the hell out of it.  And, in the far-flung provinces (Israel, for example) unrelenting economic oppression was steadily choking the life out of the populace.  The violent takeover and occupation by the cruel Roman army, the demeaning extravagances Herod the Great indulged in while his overtaxed subjects starved in the streets and the unchecked population explosion that was gradually depleting the country’s limited food supply were creating desperate conditions for the Jewish people in particular.  They’d lost hope that better days lay ahead.  Their stiff-necked religion and its out-of-touch leaders had let them down.  James S. Stewart wrote, “It was then at the blackest hour that a Voice of Hope rang out in Galilee; and men’s hearts leapt up and listened, for the fullness of the time had come.”  I ask you, was there ever an audience that would be more receptive to receiving Jesus’ wonderful Beatitudes?  Doubtful.

 

Then there’s the moral angle.  Some are adamant that the ancient world under the rule of Roman domination was characterized for the most part by an atmosphere of general contentment, innocence and artistic freedom that uninterrupted peace had provided on a wide scale.  It’s an unsubstantiated myth, though.  It’s a lie.  For a more authentic description you need only read Paul’s unflinching observations found in Romans 1:18-32.  He doesn’t paint a pretty picture.  The ethical tide had turned and runaway immorality was taking its ugly toll.  The Nobel-winning 19th century Roman historian Christian Mommsen commented, “The world was growing old and not even Caesar could make it young again.”  When a nation loses its way, foolishly adopts the slogan of “anything goes” in the name of progressiveness and systematically removes the word “sacred” from its vocabulary, moral decline results.  It was true back then and it’s true today.  Yet this situation made the teachings of Christ appear radically refreshing in contrast.  I’ll quote Stewart again. “When the experiment of slackening morality and tampering with codes of honor has been carried to a certain point, inevitably there comes a reaction.  Inevitably that something of God which lurks beneath the surface of men’s hearts stands up and records its protest.  The glamor of the sensationalist creed and the lure of the modern gospel of un-control have the living Christ to reckon with.  Men will not be satisfied with the ethics of the dust always.”  Jesus introduced a new way of living to the thoroughly-disgusted common folk who longed for decency to be restored.

 

Religion is yet another arena to look into.  In Rome the persnickety, dysfunctional gods previously on the A-list were either deceased or on their death bed.  The younger generations had tried two solutions to replace them.  The first was importing a collection of exotic gods from the Far East but they proved to be even more immature and outlandish in nature than Zeus’ neurotic clan ever was.  The second idea was to instigate the worship of Caesar, elevating him to being the unrivaled head of the “god chain.”  As expected, that silly notion collapsed under the weight of its own preposterousness.  None of those false deities could comfort them when they grieved, embrace them when their hearts were breaking or forgive them when their sins smashed their life to pieces.  Nothing permanently quenched their thirst for meaning or sated their hunger to possess a clear conscience.  In other words, it wasn’t just the Hebrews who were aching for a Messiah, a deliverer, a redeemer who’d present an inviting spiritual alternative to what was being offered.  Gentiles ached, too.  The God-shaped hole in their gut was an affliction all human beings were bothered by.  However, because of the Old Testament Scriptures, the Jewish race was more anxious for divine relief than any other.  Thus when someone like John the Baptist showed up even vaguely resembling what the prophet had forecast when he wrote, A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness clear a way for the LORD; construct in the desert a road for our God (Isaiah 40:3), he stirred up a palpable air of hope that permeated the entire region.  But this time that hope wasn’t a wispy pipe dream.  The time was right for the Savior of the world to stroll forward onto the world’s stage and change everything.

 

I have a feeling something miraculous yet disruptive is going to happen soon.  Now, I’m no “chicken little” who thinks every news item’s a genuine portent of the apocalypse.  It’s my opinion “we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”  In the political, economic and moral realms uncertainty and lack of direction is running amok.  However, it’s in the sphere of religious thought and trends where the waters seem murkiest.  As it did in the Roman culture, the intense interest in Eastern religion (that so entranced and influenced baby boomers for decades) has ebbed to almost nothing.  Not only that but the inaccurate view of the great I AM as a vindictive score-keeper is on the wane.  Even the phony gods of materialism and secularism are slipping out of favor.  On the other hand, even though it appears it’s flying beneath society’s radar, there’s a healthy Jesus-praising youth movement under way as evidenced by the expanding Hillsong Church out of Australia that has satellite congregations springing up all over the planet.  Christianity continues to grow exponentially in countries where it’s still either discouraged or even outlawed by the government because the people’s craving to know the liberating truth about the real Creator of the Universe is stronger than their fear of persecution.  Mao Zedong, the cruel atheist dictator of China who brutally murdered his own people over three decades, once promised to eliminate all traces of Christianity from the land.  Despite his immense power and iron-fisted tyrannical control he failed miserably.  Even conservative polls estimate the number of born again followers of Jesus in China is currently over 18 million and climbing steadily.  Mao?  He’s dead as a doornail while God Almighty is most assuredly alive and “on the move” in the world today.

 

It’s impossible to disprove with any credibility that the incarnation of the Son of God occurred on earth in exactly the right place and at exactly the right time.  All Christians know He’s coming back again when the perfect place and time arrives once more.  Is it just around the corner?  Perhaps.  I wouldn’t bet against it.  In 1978 the respected British journalist/satirist Malcom Muggeridge adroitly said, “The world’s way of responding to intimations of decay is to engage equally in idiot hopes and idiot despair.  On the one hand some new policy or discovery is confidently expected to put everything to rights: a new fuel, a new drug, détente, world government.  On the other, some disaster is as confidently expected to prove our undoing.  Capitalism will break down.  Fuel will run out.  Plutonium will lay us low.  Atomic waste will kill us off.  Overpopulation will suffocate us, or alternatively, a declining birth rate will put us more surely at the mercy of our enemies.  In Christian terms, such hopes and fears are equally beside the point.  As Christians we know that here we have no continuing city, that crowns roll in the dust and every earthly kingdom must sometime flounder, whereas we acknowledge a king men did not crown and cannot dethrone, as we are citizens of a city of God they did not build and cannot destroy.  Thus the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, living in a society as depraved and dissolute as ours.  Their games, like our television, specialized in spectacles of violence and eroticism.  Paul exhorted them to be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in God’s work, to concern themselves with the things that are unseen, for the things which are seen are temporal but the things which are not seen are eternal.”  I agree.  We must always revert back to and rely solely on our faith.

 

Stewart summed up this subject succinctly when he wrote, “So the redeemer came.  Somewhere in the mind and heart of God from the very foundation of the earth the Christ had been waiting, hidden in the counsels of eternity until the great bell of the ages should strike; and when at last everything in the world and in the souls of men was ready and prepared, He came, the Word of God made flesh, not a moment early and not a moment late, but exactly on the stroke of the hour.  It was the Day of the Lord.  It is still the Day of the Lord, whenever another soul enthrones Him.  ‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus.’”  I’m ready to meet Christ.  Are you?  There’s no better time for preparing than now.

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The Fascinating Gospels

Over the foreseeable weeks I’ll be writing about my favorite person ever – Jesus Christ.  He’s my Precious Redeemer, my Magnificent Savior.  I’ll spend eternity attempting to pay Him back for what He’s done for me.  Since the day I finally let Him take the wheel He’s been at my side through thick and thin.  When I look back over the decades I recognize I’ve been prone to obsessing over and indulging in various things and activities that always failed to sate my hunger for meaning.  Then, when my fragile world came crashing down on my head, I turned to my Lord for rescue.  He didn’t hesitate to grab my hand and gently pull me out of the rubble.  I felt the least I could do to show my gratitude was to learn all I could about Him and that impetus led me to read the Bible for the first time.  In the Old Testament I discovered everything that happened back then on this fallen planet was a preamble to the coming of the Messiah who’d turn the world upside down.  But it was in the Gospel accounts I encountered the living Christ at last and the joy and contentment He’s instilled in my heart and mind is impossible to put into words so I won’t even try.  I can tell you this, though, His divine influence has seeped into every aspect of my life and He’s planted and nurtured a peace and assuredness in my soul I never thought I’d possess.  I only wish everyone on earth knew what I’m talking about; that they’d have what I know is mine because of Jesus.  If what I write encourages even one person to further investigate the King of Kings then I’m blessed beyond measure.

 

Jesus didn’t compose or dictate an autobiography.  He had bigger fish to multiply.  He let those who were closest to him tackle that important task after He’d ascended to the right hand of the Father.  He knew they’d faithfully convey what needed to be conveyed because their new companion, the indwelling Holy Spirit, would guide them every step of the way.  What the resulting four Gospels accomplished is remarkable in that, relatively short as they are, they’ve proven to be more than sufficient for introducing the immaculate, chain-breaking Christ to every race, creed and color around the globe.  Now, to label the Gospels “biographies” is a misnomer.  For example, we still know next to nothing about the first thirty years of His life.  It’s just as well because we’re told, There are many other things that Jesus did.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written (John 21:25).  What we do have is a quartet of interrelated memoirs; four selected historical reminiscences, if you will.  Their fundamental purpose and function can’t be denied.  But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31).  As a bonus, because the books are so personal, we’re able to derive four distinct portraits of what our Lord was like.

 

One of the core arguments against the Gospels’ veracity and reliability is that they weren’t written until long after Jesus had “left the building.”  Most scholars agree that Mark’s was the earliest, probably transcribed about 35 to 40 years after the fact.  While skeptics are eager to hang their secular hat on that delay, they make the mistake of ignoring several crucial factors.  For one thing, Jesus had instructed the Apostles to “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).  Since the printing press wouldn’t be invented until 1440, immediately taking time out of their busy evangelizing schedules to write books wasn’t a priority.  But it is logical they jotted down notes here and there about what Christ had done and said, knowing they’d come in handy down the line.  It’s also worth mentioning the majority of Christians expected “the end” Jesus had forecast would come at any moment.  Thus writing detailed tomes about the Messiah seemed unnecessary in the short run.  As the decades passed, though, preserving information about the life and teachings of Christ became more expedient.  (The first four verses of Luke 1 explain the reasons better than I ever will.  Check ‘em out.)

 

Don’t forget the Gospels came into existence according to God’s plan and timeline, not ours.  He has His ways.  James S. Stewart wrote, “Inspiration was not God magically transcending human minds and faculties; it was God expressing His will through the dedication of human minds and faculties.  It does not supersede the sacred writer’s own personality and make him God’s machine; it reinforces his personality and makes him God’s living witness.”  In other words, when the time was right the Holy Spirit led the most qualified men to ensure Jesus’ story would be preserved for future generations.  Not only that but thousands of pagan Gentiles were converting to Christianity constantly and it was crucial they become educated about the origination of sacraments like communion and what they signified.  They needed access to eyewitness testimonies concerning what Jesus did and what led to His cruel crucifixion as well as accurate accounts regarding his post-resurrection appearances.  Misconceptions, heresies and wild speculations were a danger to the stability of the early church and those growth-choking weeds needed to be nipped in the bud, as it were.  Thus recording precisely what Jesus had taught was imperative.

 

As I noted, the Gospel according to Mark is generally believed to be the oldest.  Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis, was one of the first Christian writers to verify the identity of the authors of the Gospels.  He documented that, “Mark became the interpreter of Peter” and he “wrote down accurately everything that he remembered” from Peter’s galvanizing sermons.  The implication is young John Mark was a close associate of Saint Peter who accompanied the great apostle on his preaching tours and was therefore a witness to the earth-shaking effect his mentor’s orations had on the lost souls who heard him.  He was no doubt carefully schooled by Peter on how to answer the many questions folks would need answered after the sermons were concluded.  Over the years Mark had amassed a figurative storehouse of stories/anecdotes about Jesus that he was able to compile into a cohesive book after Peter’s murder.  Just knowing Peter (one of the Master’s dearest friends) is the source of Mark’s information makes it difficult to dispute its authenticity.  It’s noteworthy that the title of “The Gospel According to Mark” wasn’t added until later so the author obviously wasn’t out to make a name for himself in literary circles.  This book, in every respect, is Peter’s.  Yet even Peter doesn’t try to overstate the part he played in the saga.  On the contrary, he includes self-deprecating events like Jesus’ sharply-pointed rebuke and his denying even knowing his Master on the night of the Lord’s arrest.  The integrity of this Gospel, like the other three, is beyond reproach.

 

Matthew’s Gospel is different from Mark’s.  Whereas Mark concentrated on what occurred in Jesus’ life, Matthew focused on what He taught.  Papias had this to say about Matthew: “He wrote down the sayings of Jesus in Hebrew, and each interpreted these as best he could.”  What Papias inferred by that comment was that Hebrew had ceased to be a commonly-spoken vernacular, having been displaced by Aramaic centuries earlier.  However, it still served as the official liturgical and literary language of Judaism.  Thus its principal audience was made up of Jewish Christians as evidenced by the frequent references to Old Testament quotations, the prominence of the Mosaic law, the high importance Matthew assigns to the Jewish messianic hopes and, as you’d expect, an extensive explanation of how Jesus was the fulfillment of all the prophecies pertaining to the long-promised deliverer.  Like Mark, Matthew downplays his own importance, only mentioning himself once: As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth.  ‘Follow me’ he said to him.  And he got up and followed him(Matthew 9:9).  He doesn’t attempt to hide the fact he was a despised, socially-ostracized taxman before Christ gave him a new identity, a new life.  In his own way Matthew was testifying to the amazing truth that no one’s a lost cause; that absolutely nobody is beyond the reach of Jesus’ saving grace!

 

Then there’s Luke’s Gospel.  It, too, is different in that Luke wasn’t a Jew.  While it appears that Luke generously drew upon both Mark’s and Matthew’s accounts, he still managed to introduce a unique and fresh perspective to the story of Jesus.  The fact that by being born a Gentile he wasn’t an “insider” bestows upon his Gospel a missionary aspect.  What I’m saying is he presents Christ as the Savior of the entire human race, not just the Israelites.  In chapter 1 verse 3 he dedicates the book to Theophilus, a high-ranking figure in the Roman government who had yet to convert to Christianity.  That speaks volumes right there.  And the fact he traces Jesus’ family tree back to Adam (Matthew only takes it back to Abraham) connects Christ to worldwide events, not just to the history of the Hebrew race.  This accounts for his inclusion of parables like that of the good Samaritan and poignant statements such as Then people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their place at the banquet table in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29).  The famous parable of the prodigal is universal in scope and it’s no stretch to understand that, symbolically, the repentant younger son represented the Gentile world while his snooty older brother represented the Jewish hierarchy.  Luke’s being a physician also explains why Jesus’ miraculous healings are emphasized throughout.

 

Last (but certainly not least) we have John’s Gospel.  While the similarities found in the first three earn them the moniker of “the synoptics”, this one stands alone.  Clement of Alexandria commented, “John, perceiving that the bodily facts had been set forth in the other Gospels, composed a spiritual Gospel.”  Written about 60 years after the resurrection, his book belies decades of contemplation and meditation on what he knew, heard, read and absorbed about Jesus.  Being one of the original dozen disciples (identifying himself as the “one whom Jesus loved”) he had the opportunity to rectify any misinformation or errors that might’ve appeared in the other three Gospels but, evidently, corrections weren’t called for.  This in itself lends additional credence to their genuineness.  Many things separate John’s Gospel from the others.  For one thing, it contains no parables at all and it concentrates much more on the Judean ministry of Christ rather than on His Galilean ministry.  He also lets us eavesdrop on private conversations Jesus had with individuals like Nathaniel, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman He encountered at Jacob’s well.  While the other Gospels have a lot to say about the human side of Christ, John highlights the divine aspects of His person and His actions, exemplified by his opening verse: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God (John 1:1).  It’s probable that John, getting well up in his years by then, had enlisted some help in compiling his Gospel from what he’d maintained all along as a journal of sorts.  This is the disciple who testifies about these things and has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true (John 21:24).  However, this doesn’t diminish its immense value one iota.  In conjunction with the other three, it grants us a perfect and complete picture of our Lord and Savior.

 

As a born again Christ-follower I have no reservations whatsoever in trusting that the four Gospels contain everything the Heavenly Father has determined I need know about Jesus’ sojourn on this planet.  Nothing has been left out nor gotten lost in the shuffle of advancing civilization.  They give us a firm and reliable history that’s been upheld repeatedly by firm, substantiated facts.  Moreover, they give us revelation in that, as we peruse/study them, we obtain an unflappable sense it’s the literal voice of God we hear.  But what they give us more than anything else is a challenge to answer serious questions like “Who do I really think Jesus was?” and, more importantly, “What place does He have in my life?”  I find it hard to imagine that any intelligent person could read the Gospels and not be remarkably influenced by its compelling argument for Christ being the promised Messiah who showed Himself to be “…the way, the truth and the lifewho boldly claimed No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you have known me, you will know my Father too.  And from now on you do know him and have seen him (John 14:6-7).  I believe with all my heart that if a person gets exposed to the absolute truth they will be affected.

 

In his intriguing book, The Case for Christ, author Lee Strobel interviewed Dr. Craig Blomberg, an unimpeachable expert on the four Gospels.  Blomberg’s summation was revealing.  He said, “The Bible considers it praiseworthy to have a faith that doesn’t require evidence.  Remember how Jesus replied to doubting Thomas: ‘You believe because you see; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’  And I know evidence can never compel or coerce faith.  We can’t supplant the role of the Holy Spirit, which is often a concern of Christians when they hear discussions of this kind.  But I’ll tell you this: there are plenty of stories of scholars in the New Testament field who have not been Christians, yet through their study of these very issues have come to faith in Christ.  And there have been countless more scholars, already believers, whose faith has been made stronger, more solid, more grounded, because of the evidence – and that’s the category I fall into.”  I can identify with the respected professor’s testimony.  While I’ll never be mistaken for a degreed Biblical scholar, by spending time every day in the Holy Word of God my faith and trust has increased by leaps and bounds.  I have yet to come across a single verse of Scripture that’s caused me to think it’s all just an ancient, superstition-fueled fable manufactured to pacify human curiosities regarding “what this life’s all about.”  I believe in it with every molecule of my being.  Because of it I’ve come to know, on an intimate level, precisely who my Savior is.  I agree 100% with Timothy Keller’s opinion.  He wrote, “…An authoritative Bible isn’t the enemy of a personal relationship with God.  It’s the precondition for it.”

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What Awaits Us in Heaven?

Thankfully the Bible isn’t silent about this subject.  Things will be different, for sure.  Paul says, “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside.  …For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will know fully, just as I have been fully known (1 Corinthians 9-10, 12).  Thus it appears when I die I’ll figuratively step out of a fog into the brightest morning I can possibly imagine.  The best mirrors in Paul’s day were polished and buffed brass so one was better off gazing into a pond’s surface.  Still, neither reflected one’s true image very accurately.  Heaven’s truly beyond words but obviously it’ll be a case of night instantly turning to day.  Our entire perception of reality will change.  Dallas Willard wrote, “When we pass through what we call death, we do not lose the world.  Indeed, we see it for the first time as it really is.”  What we consider normal is in fact a gross distortion of what God intended to be normal.  When Jesus cried out from the cross, Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing (Luke 23:34), He was referring to all of us.  Our vision’s severely limited because of the curse brought upon mankind by Adam & Eve’s sin.

 

So what’s Paul getting at with the “fully known” stuff?  Well, evidently many spiritual entities (“a great cloud of witnesses”, we’re told) know all about us as individuals.  Hebrews 12:22-24 hints at who they are: But you have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the assembly and congregation of the first-born, who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous, who have been made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks of something better than Abel’s does.”  That’s a very impressive list of persons who see everything as it really is; who know at this moment what all God’s adopted children will one day know.  In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul intimates God blessed him with a brief glimpse of heaven; that he was allowed to stand in the visible presence of those beings whereupon he gathered they fully knew him.  God blessed Paul with an insight into the next world so we could find comfort in what he dutifully reported.  For one thing, we have no secrets.  “…No creature is hidden from God, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (Hebrews 4:13).  In other words, the transparency we all should strive for will be ours in heaven.  We won’t drift around in some kind of hazy dreamlike state, either.  We’ll be more “awake” than ever before.  We’ll be anything but asleep.  What we will be is mind-blowing to ponder.  Jesus said of souls in heaven, In fact, they can no longer die, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, since they are sons of the resurrection (Luke 20:36).

 

According to Jesus those who belong to God have nothing whatsoever to fear about death.  He taught, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Instead, fear the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).  Christ also said I tell you the solemn truth, if anyone obeys my teaching, he will never see death (John 8:51).  And, as He informed the distraught Martha before calling forth the deceased Lazarus out of his tomb, “…I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me will never die (John 11:25-26).  (I suspect Jesus wept that day because He knew Lazarus’ loved ones would eventually have to suffer through the painful grieving process all over again down the line.)  Our Savior’s attitude towards His own death tells us much, too.  While He certainly didn’t relish the ghastly torture He’d be forced to endure beforehand, He viewed finally taking His last earth-bound breath as a liberating event.  He told His disciples on the day of His arrest, Do not let your hearts be distressed or lacking in courage.  You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’  If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I am (John 14:27-29).  Those aren’t the words of a man who’s petrified of death!

 

Don’t forget that in the midst of slowly suffocating and bleeding to death our Lord still had the grace to tell one of the thieves dying next to Him, “…I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).  Now, do you know any human being who’d take the time to tell a convicted criminal a bald-faced lie while writhing in excruciating agony?  I don’t.  What Christ told that thief is something all believers can take to the bank.  Paradise is our destination!  The truth of the matter is the New Testament teaches us repeatedly that, in the grand scheme of things, all Christians will be much better off when they’re dead!  Paul wrote, For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain (Philippians 1:21) and “…I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far…” (Philippians 1:23).  Please don’t misunderstand what Paul’s saying.  He’s not advocating suicide or intentionally putting oneself in harm’s way.  He explained in a letter to his associate that Jesus “…has broken the power of death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel!  For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher.  Because of this, in fact, I suffer as I do.  But I am not ashamed, because I know the one in whom my faith is set and I am convinced that he is able to protect what has been entrusted to me until that day (2 Timothy 1:10-12).  As royal ambassadors of our Lord and heralds of the Good News our continued existence on this planet has a purpose.  We’re important.  Ducking out early of our own accord isn’t an option.  We’re to leave when God says it’s our time to go home.

 

Back to the question I posed initially: “What awaits us in heaven?”  It’s definitely worth asking.  As I’ve aged it’s become blatantly obvious that, little by little, my body’s wearing out.  I used to be able to work outside right through a Texas summer.  Now just being in the heat for an hour saps all my energy.  I know in time parts of my body will let me down.  However, I won’t have to lug those deteriorating limbs and organs into heaven.  Willard wrote, “When we pass through the stage normally called ‘death,’ we’ll not lose anything but the limitations and powers that specifically correspond to our present mastery over our body, and to our availability and vulnerability to and through it  We’ll no longer be able to act and be acted upon by means of it.”  What will remain intact is our personality, our non-material core identity.  Plus we’ll retain our knowledge of (and relationships with) other souls who’ve been a part of our earthly life.  Will I miss family members and friends who never accepted Christ?  Will I be devastated if my two grown, unsaved children don’t join me?  My heart says I will.  God says otherwise.  In heaven “He will wipe away every tear from their [my] eyes, and death will not exist anymore – or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist (Revelation 21:4).  Therefore I must trust God will grant me a level of understanding I can’t fathom at this juncture.  I have more faith in my Heavenly Father than I do in my emotions.  As Abraham said to God, Will not the judge of the whole earth do what is right? (Genesis 18:25).  God did what was right back then and He’ll always do what’s right.  Therefore I’m content to leave the whole issue up to Him.

 

When I’m asked how a merciful God could allow a single soul to languish forever in oblivion my answer is heaven would be hellish for those who never desired to go there in the first place.  In other words, it’s not God’s fault they won’t be with Him in paradise.  Those who aren’t saved don’t think they need saving.  The Holy Word tells us“…He [God] does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).  But many folks abhor the very idea of being under anybody, even God Almighty.  Because they possess the autonomy of free will, God lets them exercise it without Him interfering.  Love can’t work coercively, only persuasively.  Forced love is a contradiction in terms.  If a person despised God before death they’ll most likely hate Him even more afterwards but they’ll be where they chose to be.  As C.S. Lewis opined, “The door of hell is locked on the inside.”

 

As usual, we can learn from Jesus.  In all His post-resurrection appearances He had a body and it was not only publicly observable but interacted with physical realities.  His body was significantly different from before, though, because it wasn’t restricted by time or space.  Walls and doors were no barriers to Christ because His was now a spiritual body.  Paul wrote, If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:44).  Jesus proved that in God’s universe matter is subservient to mind/spirit.  I believe one of the many reasons He lingered on earth after He strolled out of His tomb was to give us a preview of what awaits us on the other side of death.  Christians should derive great comfort from that.  This truly is not where we belong.  But our citizenship is in heaven – and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:20-21).  In heaven we’ll have bodies impervious to illness or injury.  We’ll be able to run like gazelles and never grow tired.  No aches.  No pains.  Nothing to hold us back.  Now, that’s what I call “Good News!”

 

Our Lord modeled for us the “new and improved” body we’ll have in the next life.  And we’ll have lots of things to do.  Laziness will be a thing of the past because we’ll be preoccupied with learning due to there being so much to learn.  The transformation that began when the Holy Spirit came to dwell within us when we got saved will continue in God’s kingdom.  We’ll be in the very presence of our Savior and our goal will be to become more and more like Him in every respect.  While aging down here is a matter of losing abilities, up there it’ll be a matter of constantly accumulating them.  We’ll never cease to grow in knowledge, wisdom and holiness.  Some fear they’ll be confused, discombobulated or even scared when they inhale their first breath of heavenly air.  But their anxiety is unfounded.  Nothing in Scripture indicates we’ll have any cause to be frightened or unsettled.  We won’t be left in the dark.  As Willard wrote, “You wouldn’t do that, if you could help it, to anyone you loved.  And neither will God.”  When the beggar Lazarus died Jesus said he “…was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side (Luke 16:22).  Thus we can expect the same gentle, reassuring treatment.  The many “near-death experiences” that’ve been documented imply our personal identity will continue on sans interruption.  Those who rejected Christ will continue on, too, but they’ll do so without the God they denied.  The Lord will let them have it “their way.”  They’ll be their own God at last.  Yet too late they’ll become cognizant of just how woefully impotent they actually are.

 

Eventually those who belong to Him will be enabled to efficiently and righteously reign with Christ.  Any worries about there not being enough room for us is foolishness.  Astronomers estimate there are ten thousand million galaxies in our section of the universe alone with each harboring billions of planets.  Perhaps we’ll be charged with overseeing/observing some of them.  As Jesus’ parable of the talents reveals, once we’ve demonstrated we can be trusted to take care of a few valuable things we’ll be entrusted with taking care of many valuable things.  Now, I can’t imagine I’m anywhere near capable of being placed in charge of what goes on in a small village, much less an entire planet!  I suspect I’ll first need to gather tons of education and practical experience under my belt before that day arrives.  Yet I must remind myself of the awesome, glorious environment I’ll be living in while I learn.  The greatest joys I’ve known in my life usually happen when I’m being creative.  In heaven I’ll eternally be an apprentice of the ultimate Creator!  Because of what the Bible tells me about Christ, I can surmise with surety that He and I will create amazing, incredible things together.  And I’ll never be abandoned to fend for myself.  The greatest advisor/counselor of all will be close at hand.  The last thing our Savior told us before He ascended to the right hand of the Father was, And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).  He’s with me now.  He’ll be with me then, too.

 

What we should all look forward to experiencing in God’s kingdom is perfect peace.  Peace of any sort on terra firma is rare and fleeting, indeed, so the promise of existing in a place where there’s no strife, no anger, no hostility and no heartbreaking tragedies to disrupt our serenity is an immensely encouraging one.  J.I. Packer wrote, “Christians inherit in fact the destiny which fairy tales envisage in fancy: we (yes, you and I, the silly saved sinners) live, and live happily, and by God’s endless mercy will live happily ever after.”  But nothing beats what our Lord had to say concerning this intriguing subject: Those who overcome will be welcomed to sit with me on my throne, as I too overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.  Those capable of hearing should listen to what the Spirit is saying to my people (Revelation 3:21-22).  All adopted children of God should not only listen to but believe His words.  For it’s in the hope His words provide that our comfort and contentment lie.

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What’s the Point?

To be clear, the point of everything now and forevermore is Jesus Christ.  In Peterson’s modern translation of the Bible, The Message, he interprets God’s prophetic description of His Son thusly: Take a good look at my servant.  I’m backing him to the hilt.  He’s the one I chose, and I couldn’t be more pleased with him.  I’ve bathed him with my spirit, my life.  He’ll set everything right among the nations.  He won’t call attention to what he does with loud speeches or gaudy parades.  He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant, but he’ll steadily and firmly set things right.  He won’t tire out and quit.  He won’t be stopped until he’s finished his work – to set things right on earth.  …Take note: The earlier predictions of judgment have been fulfilled.  I’m announcing the new salvation work.  Before it bursts on the scene, I’m telling you all about it (from Isaiah 42).  Anyone can read the New Testament for themselves to find out what God meant by “the new salvation work” ushered in by Jesus.  The main thing to notice is that the redemption Christ provided wasn’t limited to the members of God’s chosen race.  Because of Jesus no particular group of people has an exclusive corner on God’s blessings.  While the nation of Israel played a pivotal and unique role in God’s plan for thousands of years, once the Messiah arrived on the scene humanity as a whole became God’s focus in this planet’s history.  Remember, God gave His only begotten Son to the world because of His unfathomably deep love for the world.  And His gracious, merciful love is the immovable foundation of our hope.

 

However, when one honestly assesses the sorry shape mankind has gotten itself in these days it’s difficult to imagine how God can possibly turn our sour lemons into sweet lemonade.  The Bible tells us we have a glorious future to look forward to but things do appear pretty bleak right now so how’s God going to pull the proverbial rabbit out of this filthy hat?  For believers the answer’s quite simple.  Nothing is impossible for our God to accomplish.  We must never underestimate His ability.  We’re taught via the Scriptures that the Triune Godhead oversees and controls all of the grand Creation it brought into being.  Not only that, but each and every one of us is treasured beyond measure by our Heavenly Father.  He’s not a kind of God and He’s not some sort of indescribable force.  He’s a person whom we can know and enjoy developing an intimate relationship with.  If someone wants to learn what God’s really like they need look no further than Jesus.  He is Emmanuel, a name that literally means “God with us”.  As our Lord told His disciple Philip, The person who has seen me has seen the Father! (John 14:9).  The death and resurrection of our Savior changed everything.  Dallas Willard wrote, “Human history is then no longer a human affair.  It’s Someone Else’s project.  Similarly for the individual human life: we’re not puppets, either on the group or the individual level.  But what’s really going on is not, after all, what we are doing.  …Instead of being the main show, we are of significance only as a – very important – part of an immense struggle between immense forces of good and evil.”  In other words, a new era dawned in the universe almost 2,000 years ago and it’s still unfolding regardless of how aware we are of it.

 

How easy it is to regard terra firma and what goes on here as being all that’s relevant to our lives!  We get seduced by our own scientific discoveries and breakthroughs into thinking we’ve got it all figured out.  Take quantum physics, for example.  Once we detected the existence of quarks we assumed we’d found the building block of all matter.  Maybe so.  Yet nothing about a quark indicates it’s dependent only upon itself.  It’s not sentient.  It doesn’t make decisions.  It doesn’t govern, it’s governed and that governor will forever be God.  There’s no alternative.  God is the sole instigator.  Einstein spent most of his life pursuing what he called a “unified field theory” in vain because there likely isn’t one to be discovered.  Somewhat akin to what I said about quarks, the laws of science can’t thoroughly explain anything in and of itself because those laws don’t have a rock solid “starting point” from which they can move forward.  Physical laws don’t explain the raw basics of what motivates matter.  Much less what existence actually is.  Therefore existence is essentially the fat rhino in the kitchen, so to speak.  It won’t budge so secular scientists have to do their best to work around it.  It makes for close quarters.

 

Here’s a related quotation from Geisler and Turek’s thought-provoking book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist:  “…While the age of the universe is certainly an interesting theological question, the more important point isn’t when the universe was created but that it was created.  …The universe exploded into being out of nothing, and it’s been precisely tweaked to support life on earth.  Since this universe had a beginning – including the entire time-space continuum – it required a Beginner no matter how long ago that beginning was.  Likewise, since this universe is designed, it required a Designer no matter how long ago it was designed.  We can debate how long the days in Genesis were but when we do, we must be sure not to obscure the larger point that this creation requires a Creator.”  While most intelligent people concede that behind every effect there has to be a cause, some refuse to apply that indisputable fact to the origin of the universe.

 

Belief in a Trinitarian-run universe answers a lot of questions because it contains the requisite logic needed.  The conclusion that everything was conceived and created by a coordinated, cooperative trio of divine persons isn’t only sensible but entirely sane.  And to accept that God is also personal isn’t too much of a stretch because we’re made in His image and we’re obviously personal beings.  We see in the Bible that God repeatedly revealed Himself to humankind by personally approaching various men and women and getting involved in their lives.  It’s right there in black and white for all to read but some folks just flat out refuse to do that.  They’ll bow down to and worship almost anything except the God of Abraham and go so far as to revere their fake idols (money, prestige, etc.) as the ultimate reference points for their lives and actions.  Little wonder hope’s in such short supply within their ranks.  In fact, they feel emboldened to label Christians as the ones who are most hopeless of all because they opine we trust in nothing more than an elaborate fairy tale.  But Paul addressed our situation exactly as it is.  He wrote, For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us.  For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly but because of God who subjected it – in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children.  For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now (Romans 8:18-22).  Christ-followers aren’t a bunch of starry-eyed, “let’s pretend everything’s hunky dory” dreamers.  What we are is a spiritual collective that believes God’s plan will prevail simply because He is, in every aspect, the one true God.  There is no other.

 

Willard once made a remarkable statement.  He said God is really knowable only through the redeemed community.  And what better way is there for the unified body of Christ to present our Father God to the world than by our maintaining a steadfast, unwavering belief that He is unfailingly good all the time and that what He pronounces good He’ll bring to pass?  Few things are as vital for the church to do as to honestly display God’s eternal goodness to the world.  The sanctuary doors are open to all who seek refuge from this cruel world.  Listen to what Paul explained to the Gentiles (the folks the snooty Jewish religious leaders considered “deplorables”): So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).  Nobody is barred from entering God’s kingdom!  God’s intent seems to be to bring out of the mass of humankind a sanctified community of souls that were formerly viewed by high society as being of no consequence; as just a bunch of “run-of-the-mill Joes and Janes.”  An atheist will ask “Okay, but why?  What’s the point?”  At that juncture a Christian can only answer with “Because God loves us.  We’re what He desires most.”  It’s doubtful that response will satisfy them but nevertheless it’s the unavoidable truth of the matter.  And God’s immeasurable love was made manifest when He “…gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16).

 

For much of my life I was constantly engaged in a futile search for meaning.  (I’m positive I wasn’t alone in that quest.  Lots of us “boomers” did the same.)  Fact is, if we find meaning at all it’s after particular happenings have taken place, not necessarily while we’re in the midst of going through them.  This is true not only in our own life but, on a much larger scale, with events that significantly affect the whole wide world.  Needless to say I was somewhat frustrated most of the time.  But then eight years ago I rededicated my life to Jesus and He provided me with the ultimate point – God and His glorious kingdom – both of which give meaning not only to our lives but the entire history of our planet which we are an irreplaceable part of.  Willard wrote, “We’re greatly strengthened for life in the kingdom now by an understanding of what our future holds, and especially of how that future relates to our present experience.  For only then do we really understand what our current life is and are we able to make choices that agree with reality.”  Sadly and somewhat inexplicably I rarely, if ever, hear sermons about how individual Christians fit into the present and coming kingdom of God and what our function/role is and will be in it.  But, thanks to God’s Holy Word, I’ve gained some insights.

 

First, it’s evident our souls survive their mortal phase.  John Hick wrote, “If we trust what Jesus said out of His own direct consciousness of God, we’ll share His belief in the future life.  This belief is supported by the reasoning that a God of infinite love wouldn’t create finite persons and then drop them out of existence when the potentialities of their nature, including their awareness of Himself, have only just begun to be realized.”  We’re also informed we’re of undeniable, intrinsic worth to God.  He’s invested eons of time and energy in seeing to it mankind doesn’t render itself extinct so He obviously thinks we’re “to die for.”  As I stated earlier, we’ll continue to exist because it pleases God we do so.  Our souls are much more than simply a random conglomeration of matter.  We’ll outlast the universe.  By the way, God isn’t dependent on matter.  Matter depends on Him.  He was the great I AM before there was a physical universe.  He is spirit.  Thus God doesn’t need a brain for He’s the absolute epitome of unimpeded, omniscient consciousness.  So, since we’re formed in His image, we’ll continue to exist sans body and brain.  We’ll be spiritual beings, freed from the restraints of the flesh.

 

Those who summarily dismiss even the idea of an afterlife are to be pitied.  Some of them claim they think that way because they don’t want to be disappointed but that’s pure foolishness.  If they fail to survive mortal death they surely won’t be disappointed.  They’ll be gone with the wind.  However, if they do survive they’ll find themselves totally unprepared.  Thus the only way they could possibly feel disappointment is if they do awaken on “the other side.”  In other words, if death’s comparable to a lightbulb burning out they won’t know anything anyway.  I hesitate to say it but that’s the coward’s way of thinking.  It takes courage to live with eternity in mind.  The most depressing thing I can imagine is to think that all of this amounts to nothing whatsoever; that our planet and its inhabitants are no more than a cosmic anomaly.  On the contrary, the Bible stresses that each one of us will never cease to exist and that our timelessness is beyond our ability to do anything about.  I suspect many weary souls ache for what the poet Swinburne called “the sleep eternal in eternal night”.  Sadly, they’re destined to find unconscious sleep won’t come no matter how many sheep they count.  I shudder at the thought of a soul discovering they’re separated from the source of all that’s good, all that’s lovely, all that’s wondrous – God – forevermore.  Me?  I yearn to be in His presence.  I look forward to heaven.

 

So the answer to the question of “What’s the point?” always directs us like a compass needle to Jesus.  He is the answer.  Hick wrote, “Jesus used symbols pointing to eternal life as limitlessly enhanced life, as a state of being more intensely alive in an existence which is both perfect fulfillment and yet also endless activity and newness.  If death leads eventually to that, then although we’ll still think of it with trembling awe and apprehension, it will not evoke terror or despair; for beyond death we will not be less alive but more alive than we are now.”  Christ never gave any indication otherwise.  He implied those who believe in Him in this life won’t find their eternal existence in the heavenly kingdom of God to be anything short of absolutely amazing.  To envision it’ll be anything less than spectacular, invigorating and enjoyable is to limit our Father’s unconditional love for us, the love Jesus gave His own life to make known to all.  When it comes to what eternity’s going to be like, no other religion comes close to what Christianity says is ours for the taking.  All we have to do is believe in Jesus.  He’s the point.

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What Lies Ahead?

Curiosity about the future has been around since Adam & Eve.  No matter if someone is wealthy or poor, healthy or ill, young or old, the question of what lies ahead has never been far from their mind.  It’s spawned all sorts of belief systems from astrology to tea leaf readings, palmistry to numerology, Tarot cards to crystal balls and so forth.  Not knowing what lurks around the corner has always been a major contributor to many folks’ angst and anxiety.  However, a Christ disciple should be immune from such worries because of the unbreakable promises God’s made over the last 5,000 years.  No matter how bleak and dark things may be in this fallen world an adopted child of God has divine assurance that things work out perfectly in the end.  There will come a day when trials, hardships and uncertainty about what tomorrow’s gonna bring will disappear.  “…And they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads.  Night will be no more, and they will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, because the Lord God will shine on them, and they will reign forever and ever(Revelation 22:4-5).  To a humanist those are empty words but to Christians they tell us all we need know regarding what’s to become of us.  James S. Stewart wrote, “The man who is in Christ is right with God.  He may be far from perfection yet, but that union is the seed which contains within itself all the promise of the future.  In the face and in the soul of Christ, God sees what the man yet may be; and He asks nothing more.”

 

J.I. Packer wrote, “New Testament Christianity is a religion of hope, a faith that looks forward.  For the Christian, the best is always yet to be.  But how can we form any notion of that which awaits us at the end of the road?  Here the doctrine of adoption comes to our help.  To start with, it teaches us to think of our hope not as a possibility, not yet as a likelihood, but as a guaranteed certainty, because it is a promised inheritance.  The reason for adopting, in the first-century world, was specifically to have an heir to whom one could bequeath one’s goods.  So, too, God’s adoption of us makes us His heirs, and so guarantees to us, as our right (we might say) the inheritance that He has in store for us.”  Few things in the Bible are made as clear as what lies ahead.  We’re told repeatedly the damage Lucifer’s rebellion has wreaked will be a thing of the past.  Everything will be restored, including usWhen Christ (who is your life) appears, then you too will be revealed in glory with him(Colossians 3:4).  See what sort of love the Father has given to us: that we should be called God’s children – and indeed we are!  For this reason the world does not know us: because it did not know Him.  Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed.  We know that whenever it is revealed we will be like Him, because we will see him just as He is (1 John 3:1-2).  We know our Redeemer not only defeated death but lives and is going to return.  His second coming is not a matter of “if” but of “when”.  “…Our citizenship is in heaven – and we also await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of His glorious body by means of that power by which He is able to subject all things to Himself (Philippians 3:20-21).

 

If a man or woman has surrendered their life to Jesus, yet still frets over what might happen to them this side of heaven, they must come to understand they’re letting that useless fear steal their joy.  As a Christ disciple what one’s future is going to be like should be a settled issue.  It shouldn’t be a mystery.  It should make good sense.  God’s kingdom should be something we can always look forward to, no matter our circumstance.  We’re held securely in our Father’s hands and He’ll never let go of us.  As a leader in the Celebrate Recovery ministry I come in contact with many believers who, despite having the Holy Spirit residing in them, are severely disappointed over how their lives have turned out.  For some life’s been a cruel journey.  Some are getting up in years and have decided they have no future.  Others are depressed over unfulfilled dreams that’ve drained them of all ambition.  They wonder how God could’ve let them fail or they’re afraid they haven’t been “good enough” to receive His blessings.  What they all have in common is spiritual blindness.  What they don’t see is that what they manage to get done during their brief existence “in the flesh” is relatively insignificant in comparison to the kind of person they became while on earth.  Our character is what we’ll carry into eternity.  Everything else stays behind.  As Don Henley sang, “You don’t see no hearses with luggage racks.”  Speaking of eternal life, allow me to share some wisdom from the great Frederick Buechner: “We think of Eternal Life, if we think of it at all, as what happens when life ends.  We would do better to think of it as what happens when life begins.”

 

Now, I’m not trying to downplay the fact that trepidation about what lies ahead is built into our basic DNA.  It is.  Christians know their forever is a lock but tomorrow is another thing altogether.  It’s natural to wonder what our planet and the universe in general is spinning towards.  Will the human race survive the bitter harvest of its evil biases and hatred?  Will some idiot “push the button” and annihilate everything that breathes?  Is there a city-sized asteroid on its way to destroy us in a flash?  Rarely does one find a science-based TV show regarding future events that holds out even a shred of hope mankind will survive in the long run (short of relocating to another compatible celestial orb).  While it’s no sin to contemplate such things it’s a crying shame if we let them dominate our thoughts and rob us of happiness.  The biggest mistake we can make is to think that we as individuals or as part of a collective have any modicum of control over what’s to take place.  God is, has been and always will be in complete control.  His will cannot be usurped.  And, because we know He’s loving, merciful and forgiving, we can relax and enjoy being a part of His plan.  As always, it’s a matter of trust.

 

We must stand firm on the fact the cosmos isn’t a “somehow-it-just-came-into-being” material entity that’s wholly self-sustaining.  Its present and future course is determined by personal factors – sources of energy and direction – that can’t be detected by physical senses or by physical sciences.  Those personal factors are the prerogatives of the three personalities of the Godhead we worship.  A person is free to reject that proposition and side with the secularists who seem rather unconcerned they don’t have any concrete answers to why anything exists at all.  Or that person can accept that In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1) and take comfort in knowing God knows what He’s doing.  The Holy Word indicates that this world serves a vital purpose.  Therefore simple logic will tell us anything that has a purpose in God’s creation will continue to exist come hell or high water until such a time it no longer serves that purpose.  Dallas Willard wrote, “This present universe is only one element in the kingdom of God.  But it is a very wonderful and important one.”

 

Jesus told His disciples, Do not let your hearts be distressed.  You believe in God, believe also in me.  There are many dwelling places in my Father’s house.  Otherwise, I would have told you, because I am going away to make ready a place for you.  And if I go and make ready a place for you, I will come again and take you to be with me, so that where I am you may be too (John 14:1-3).  Now, why would the Son of God promise to come back if He knew there wouldn’t be an earth to return to?  But the most exciting thing we can glean from those verses is that not only will we end up where He is but we’ll actively participate in the future government of the universe with Him!  To envision we’ll hang around the throne of God endlessly strumming harps and warbling “How Great is our God” isn’t Scriptural.  That’s the angels’ job.  We were made for so much more than that!  We’ll reign with Christ.  “…You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).  The Bible also says, You [the Lamb of God] have appointed them [believers] as a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth (Revelation 5:10).

 

The point is our faithfulness over a “few things” in the here and now counts because it develops in us the kind of character that God can entrust us with “many things.”  After decades of trusting in Him, just imagine what an immense privilege it’ll be for God to place His trust in us.  Willard wrote, “A place in God’s creative order has been reserved for each one of us from before the beginnings of cosmic existence.  His plan is for us to develop, as apprentices to Jesus, to the point where we can take our place in the ongoing creativity of the universe.”  Wow!  Think of it this way, if you will: God intends for us to mature into Christ-like persons whom He’ll be confident He can not only set free in His universe but He’ll then empower us to do what we want to do on His behalf!  I don’t know about you but that’s astounding.  Now, while grace and salvation are not acquired by our works, God’s trust most definitely is.  Thus we must become disciplined, determined students of Jesus Christ and what He taught us.  Our Lord alluded back to Daniel 12:3 when He told His disciples “…The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Matthew 13:43).  Righteousness is a state of being that must be merited so we’d best get busy meriting, right?

 

These promises of better days ahead are nothing new.  God’s been telling us about it for ages.  For look, I create the heavens and the earth all over again.  Be glad and rejoice forever in what I create.  I create my city, Jerusalem.  It is joy, and her people are gladness.  No longer will be heard the sound of crying.  No longer babies dying, or mature people who do not live to the end of a full life.  When they build houses they will get to live in them.  When they plant vineyards they, not others, will be the ones who eat the fruit.  They shall not labor in vain or bear children to be destroyed.  Before they call on me I will answer.  Animals, even, will stop killing one another, and in my new world every kind of evil will be eliminated (Isaiah 65:17-25).  To clarify, “Jerusalem” is synonymous with “the peace of God.”  Near the end of the book of Isaiah God implies all races and nations will come together to praise Him in His glory.  At last peace will be the rule, not the exception.  When I consider the horrible atrocities taking place all over the globe today world peace seems like an impossibility.  But, as Jesus explained to His disciples, “…With God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

 

Many of this planet’s inhabitants’ troubles have come about due to human beings trying to manufacture their own version of Jerusalem.  Mankind has a tendency to think, because we can do some things well, we surely can do everything well.  Yet one thing civilization will never be able to do is to transform the heart and mind of a human being.  Only God can.  Of course, that hasn’t stopped us from trying.  In every case it’s either the tyranny of a dictator, lawless anarchy or massive inefficiencies stemming from the unrestricted expansion of a bloated bureaucracy that prevents true change from occurring.  Only God has the power to fix what’s broken down here.  My grown son (who, sadly, is a non-believer) recently inquired, “Dad, what’s wrong with people?”  The only rational answer I can give him is to quote Jeremiah 17:9, The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?  Since he doesn’t care to hear anything even remotely “religious” I’ll have to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide me when I email him back and hope something I say will draw him closer to the truth that is Jesus Christ.

 

I like what Willard had to say about the future: “God’s way of moving toward the future is, with gentle persistence in unfailing purpose, to bring about the transformation of the human heart by speaking with human beings and living with and in them.  He finds an Abraham, a Moses, a Paul – a you.”  Obviously, we have our work cut out for us but it’s not in vain we labor.  Jesus is coming back.  And when He does all evil will be eradicated.  The government He’ll put us in charge of won’t have to deal with inherent corruption, injustice, brutality or meanness any longer.  Goodness and harmony will prevail.  Nearly a half millennium before Jesus was born in a lowly manger, mankind was told by a prophet of God: Your true king is coming to you, vindicated and triumphant, humble, mounted on a donkey.  His word will bring peace to the nations, and his supervision will take in all lands, from where his presence is centered on the farthest reaches of the earth (Zechariah 9:9).  God made good on the first half of that promise so there’s no reason to doubt He’ll come through on the second half of it, too.  Therefore Christians should walk confidently through this world with their heads held high.  The future isn’t frightening to those who belong to the Lord.  As Paul expressed so elegantly, For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).  Tomorrow?  I say bring it on because “I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).

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So What’s The Plan?

By the plan I mean your plan.  What are you going to contribute to the process of transforming your mind into one more harmonious with Christ’s?  We can all agree the Holy Spirit will oversee the foundational changes that need to take place inside of us but we must be cooperative participants in the work to be done or nothing noticeable is gonna happen.  When we surrender ourselves to Christ and make the decision to follow Him the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us immediately.  He then acts within our being to constantly usher the person of Jesus and the reality of the kingdom of God into our consciousness as we consult the Holy Word daily for guidance.  Therefore the value of His divine work can’t be overstated.  However, there’s an all-too-common mistake made today by believers who think that as long as they show up for church services and tithe regularly they’ve done all that’s requested of them.  Wrong.  As Dallas Willard wrote, “Reliance upon what the Spirit does to us or in us, as indispensable as it truly is, will not by itself transform character in its depths.  The action of the Spirit must be accompanied by our response, which cannot be carried out by anyone other than ourselves.”  In other words, when we choose to be a Christ disciple our work’s just beginning.  Thus we must develop a personal action plan for seeing to it that our part gets done.

 

Understand that just because we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior doesn’t mean our external circumstances will change at all.  The problems and difficulties that beat us down the day before will still be there post-conversion.  The Bible refers to them as temptations and they won’t stop roaring down the pike due to the Holy Spirit residing inside us.  What should be completely different, though, is how we perceive them.  We’re taught we should actually welcome them as confirmations of God’s glorious, never-ending goodness!  Is that hard to do?  You bet.  Yet James wrote, My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything (James 1:2-4).  Paul said as much, too: Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory.  Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us(Romans 5:1-5).  Both saints advocate we meet troubles head on and without trepidation.  Obviously, possessing a fearless attitude of that magnitude requires quite a bit of discipline on our part.  And, as most of us know, discipline don’t come easy.  So we need a plan.

 

The largest stumbling block confronting us is that nowhere in the Bible are we told precisely how to do our part.  There’s no formulaic ABCs to adhere to because our particular path to salvation is as unique as our personality.  Now, what we’re to do and how we’re to behave as adopted children of God is made crystal clear throughout the Holy Word.  The Psalms and Proverbs are especially helpful and Paul’s letter to the Colossians (because he’d never preached to them in person) offers what’s probably the finest overview regarding spiritual formation in the New Testament.  Yet specific details on how I as an individual am to go about growing as a Christian aren’t available.  There must be a reason.  I think it’s that we’re to imitate Jesus to the best of our ability 24/7 and the only way to do that is to get to know Him as intimately as He knew His Heavenly Father.  And we get to know Jesus by studying how He lived His life, how He treated others, how He structured His entire human existence around maintaining His close relationship with His Father and how later on His disciples conducted themselves as they strove to pattern every aspect of their life after their Master’s.  So, really, how to put together our plan is no secret.  It’s simply a matter of approaching everything we do or say as if Jesus Himself were doing or saying it.  And, again, that takes discipline.  And discipline requires sacrifice.  Paul wrote, Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God – which is your reasonable service.  Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God – what is good and well-pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).

 

Seems to me the only way to become a disciplined disciple is to devise a plan and stick with it.  There could be a hundred things I needed to put on my own list, but a roster so lengthy could’ve proved to be too intimidating and caused me to get discouraged in no time at all.  Thus, at least at the outset, it was wisest to focus on the areas of my Christianity I know I’m weakest in.  Being the kind of person who often craves physical satisfaction and who also tends to become bored easily it only made sense that abstinence should be a priority in my plan.  Under that heading I penciled in a need for solitude and silence.  I must go where I’m left completely alone for a while, whereupon I turn off all the noisemakers (TV, radio, idle chit-chat, etc.) and allow silence to prevail.  Why are these two things crucial to my spiritual growth?  Simply because they were very important to my Lord Jesus Christ, that’s why.  (Being an introvert since childhood and someone who doesn’t mind being alone you’d think solitude’s something I didn’t really need to work on.  The problem was that the time spent by myself wasn’t spent contemplating God or His glory.  Oh, no.  I spent all that time pursuing selfish desires whether it was watching porn, aimlessly surfing the internet or sedating myself with drugs and alcohol.  So what I needed to work on in my plan was to figure out how to maximize the beneficial aspects of solitude by using that time in a spiritually productive way.)

 

Willard wrote, “One of the greatest of spiritual attainments is the capacity to do nothing” and the Christian philosopher Pascal once remarked, “I’ve discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they’re unable to stay quietly in their own room.”  The very folks who complain they never hear anything from God are usually the ones who refuse to sit still for more than a minute.  The Father in heaven won’t make time for those who won’t make time for Him.  Others gripe they can’t stop their brains from letting one thought after another rumble into and through their consciousness like boxcars on a train track.  But that’s what thoughts do!  What we’re to make a concentrated effort to accomplish via silence is to mentally force our “thought parade” to grind to a halt for a while.  Now, I’m not advocating putting oneself into some sort of “altered state” via kundalini yoga or breathing techniques.  Both have their place but nowhere in the Gospel accounts are we told Jesus assumed a certain position or chanted or anything like that when He stepped away from His disciples to indulge in a few minutes of prayer-filled serenity.  On the contrary, He’d disciplined Himself to be able to find solitude and silence whenever He felt it advantageous for carrying out God’s will.  You and I should do the same.

 

Another priority in my plan was to start engaging in enlightening study and worship activities.  By that I mean I needed to make it my obsession to accumulate and learn as much knowledge about Jesus Christ as possible.  Face it; the majority of people are, to some extent, obsessed with something or somebody.  For some it’s a football team.  For some it’s politics.  For some it’s a branch of science.  But a Christ disciple should ultimately be fascinated foremost with Jesus and what He taught us over everything else.  It’s a matter of continually directing our thoughts down constructive roads.  Paul’s advice still holds lots of water: Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things(Philippians 4:8).  Christians should keep in mind it’s implied many times in the Scriptures that the more of ourselves we give to God the more He gives to us.  Jesus Himself said of the sheep in the flock He tenderly shepherds, “…I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly (John 10:10).  I realize that few verses have been as misconstrued as that one but the bottom line is God will provide for His children.  My plan included reading my Bible every day, attending Bible classes at church, listening to gifted preachers on TV and reading the books of great Christian writers whom God is using to inspire and educate those like me who “yearn to learn.”  What I discovered was that I still had ample time to enjoy the things and people I’d always enjoyed before.  God doesn’t limit our horizon when we make Him #1 (as one would guess), He expands it exponentially.  Amazing.  It’s miraculous to behold.

 

As far as worship goes, I found by devoting more of my energy towards studying and absorbing the priceless treasures that awaited me in God’s Word the easier and more effortlessly wholehearted praise for God came gushing out.  For most of my life I’d never been one to openly demonstrate any kind of emotion (for fear of being made fun of) so for me to sing hymns and shout out a few “amens” in Sunday morning church services or during Celebrate Recovery meetings is not something I ever expected.  Yet the majestic greatness of God that’s been revealed to me over and over again during these last eight years of my “new life” draws worship out of me spontaneously, without my even giving it a thought beforehand.  I’m a huge fan of author Fredrick Buechner and the keen sense of humor he often presents with his tongue firmly imbedded in his cheek.  Regarding the subject of worship he wrote, “Phrases like Worship Service or Service of Worship are tautologies.  To worship god means to serve Him.  Basically there are two ways to do it.  One way is to do things for Him that He needs to have done – run errands for Him, carry messages for Him, fight on His side, feed His lambs, and so on.  The other way is to do things for Him that you need to do – sing songs for Him, create beautiful things for Him, give things up for Him, tell Him what’s on your mind and in your heart, in general rejoice in Him and make a fool of yourself for Him the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love.  A Quaker meeting, a Pontifical High Mass, the Family Service at First Presbyterian, a Holy Roller Happening – unless there is an element of joy and foolishness in the proceedings, the time would be better spent doing something useful.”

 

Clearing out some space in my life for God-centered solitude, silence, study and worship made a significant difference in my growth and maturity as a Christ-follower.  But those things would still be dormant if I hadn’t put them in my plan.  No doubt you’ll put other areas of deficiency ahead of the ones I listed for myself.  That’s okay.  The main thing is that you’re going to work with the Holy Spirit living inside you, not sit back and wait for Him to do it all.  (Doing it that way could take an eternity.)  As Willard wrote, “The important insight to guide us at this point is that to build our house upon the rock, putting off the old person and putting on the new, we must have a definite plan for doing so.”  In my own experience, after years of trudging through countless up and down cycles trying to stay faithful to my disciplines, at some point I realized my plan had turned into my pattern.  My starting every day with a cup of coffee and an open Bible began to pay off in that God’s Word influenced every thought and act that followed.  My involvement with my church family and the Celebrate Recovery ministry was finally affecting my attitude towards others.  The works I read by great Christian writers helped me understand Scriptural concepts I was having a hard time wrapping my head around.  Mainly, there was a lot more room for Christ in my life and a lot less room for me and my self-gratifying habits.  I know for certain I’m not the frustrated, unhappy man I was eight years ago.  The difference is Jesus.

 

Christian disciplines can only be achieved by willfully obeying what Paul urged us all to do concerning what he termed “presenting your bodies as living sacrifices” in the opening verses of Romans 12.  We must go “all in”, as it were.  William Law wrote, “If you’ll stop and ask yourself why you’re not as [holy] as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you it’s neither through ignorance, nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it… This doctrine does not suppose we have no need of divine grace, or that it’s in our own power to make ourselves perfect.  It only supposes that through the [lack] of a sincere intention of pleasing God in all our actions, we fall into such irregularities of life, as by the ordinary means of grace, we should have power to avoid.”   Jerry Bridges got real when he wrote: “God wants us to train ourselves in the right direction… to make the right choices.  This is where the going gets tough.  We’ll agree with the teaching of Scripture about some particular sin and even [commit] to put it out of our lives.  But then the temptation to indulge that sin comes again and we’re unwilling to say no… to make those tough choices.  We’d like to be rid of that sin, and even pray to God to take it away, but are we willing to say no to it?”  That’s the question, is it not?  Yep, we need a plan.

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Why Do We Do What We Shouldn’t?

This’ll probably come as no shock but, despite my intent to be a Christ disciple, I still sin.  I don’t want to, but I do.  The influence my long-established patterns of rebellion and selfishness I allowed to exert immense power over me has proven extremely hard to overcome.  I’m constantly tempted by the lures of this fallen world that so despises the Creator who made it.  Jesus has helped me tremendously to be more like Him but if I said sinful thoughts never enter my mind I’d be lying through my teeth.  One of the many great things about Celebrate Recovery is that it helps folks like me expose our destructive behavior routines and offers a systematic way of heading them off at the pass before they come galloping in like a band of outlaws hell-bent on shooting up the town.  If you’ve studied your Bible at all you’re probably familiar with what Paul, perhaps the most respected disciple of Christ ever, wrote about his own battle with iniquity.

 

For we know that the law is spiritual – but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin.  For I don’t understand what I am doing.  For I do not do what I want – instead, I do what I hate.  But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good.  But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me, that is, in my flesh.  For I want to do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want!  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.  So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me.  For I delight in the law of God in my inner being.  But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members.  Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!  So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Romans 8:15-25).  Wow!  Any notion Paul was a conceited, holier-than-thou egomaniac goes flying out the window in that revealing passage.  Now, if Paul had let that statement stand alone without clarification we’d be tempted to think the apostle was the devil’s puppet, doing bad things all the time.

 

But that’s not the case.  Earlier, he made it known sins aren’t something we have to commit.  He wrote, Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires, and do not present your members to sin as instruments to be used for true unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who are alive from the dead and your members to God as instruments to be used as righteousness.  For sin will have no mastery over you, because you are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:12-14).  Too many Christians consider sin no more than a gnat in the stew but they vastly underestimate its power to poison the soul of the offender.  Simply being “saved” doesn’t keep one from sinning as much as they ever did before.  They’re still captive to the law of sin, enslaved by fear, greed, impatience, narcissism and sexual lust because they have yet to surrender their entire life to Christ and the kingdom of God.

 

On the other hand, there are many who think of Satan as a genuine god who can force us to sin.  Back in the early 70s there was a popular comedian named Flip Wilson.  One of his characters was a woman named Geraldine Jones who’d claim when she got caught doing something wrong, “The devil made me do it!”  The reason so many found it hilarious was because it’s an excuse all of us are tempted to use when caught red-handed.  We want to pretend there’s an invincible, overpowering cosmic force that compels us to do what we shouldn’t.  But that’s not true.  It’s a cop out.  Dallas Willard wrote, “…If we think we’re facing an irresistible cosmic force of evil, it’ll invariably lead to giving in and giving up – usually with very little resistance.  If you can convince yourself that you’re helpless, you can then stop struggling and just ‘let it happen.’”  Nothing’s worse than resignation.  Satan is an angel but he ain’t all-powerful.  God’s got him on a leash and he can’t do anything God doesn’t allow him to do.  So blaming the devil is lame.  The real culprit is the person we see in the mirror.  If we reflect on any of our sins or trespasses we usually see we committed the deed because we acted without thinking.  We did it impulsively, entirely out of habit.  Then we end up having to deal with what we’ve already done, which leads to our relying on self-defense mechanisms like denial, outright lying and making petty rationalizations.  That’s why identifying destructive behavior patterns is such an important part of the CR curriculum.  Only then can a person begin the process of replacing them with the kind of responses a Christ disciple would choose.

 

If we rule out Satan then the only other “outside” entity to blame for our sin is God.  But the Bible is specific about that not being an option.  Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one.  But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires.  Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death (James 1:13-15).  Face it; we’re all creatures of habit.  We drive our cars mostly by rote.  We trod the grocery aisle without having to deliberately put one foot in front of the other.  Sadly, we have a sin nature that has a routine of its own, too.  Once again, though, it’s Jesus who showed us how to deal with temptation.  In the upper room He told His disciples He’d soon have no time to talk with them.  He knew the ruler of this world was on his way to attempt to thwart God’s will.  The devil threw everything plus the kitchen sink at Christ, trying to get Him to abandon His faith in His Heavenly Father.  The attack was so severe mentally that Jesus almost died of anguish in Gethsemane.  But our Lord had assured the disciples earlier that He [Satan] has no power over me, but I am doing just what the Father commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father (John 14:30-31).

 

Willard nailed it with this poignant statement: “This is the true situation: nothing has power to tempt me or move me to wrong action that I have not given power by what I permit to be in me.  And the most spiritually dangerous things in me are the little habits of thought, feeling, and action that I regard as ‘normal’ because ‘everyone is like that’ and it’s ‘only human.’”  He’s describing yours truly right there.  Thus, by his reckoning, Christ-like behavior is not “normal” behavior in any sense of the word.  That’s what our Master was implying when He said, “…If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it (Mark 8:34-35).  We Christians must daily straddle the fine line between being in the world and being of the world.  No easy task.  But that’s why ministries like Celebrate Recovery are so helpful to those who want to be Christ disciples.  The power of habit can be broken.  Compulsive, dysfunctional behaviors can be changed.  And you don’t do it alone.  God and those He’s already healing take the journey with you.  Now, having said that, nobody’s been able to recover from their hurts, hang-ups or habits without first making the critical decision to do whatever it takes to change.  No one ever got “healed” just by showing up.

 

One of the most encouraging passages in the New Testament is found in Ephesians 2:2-10.  Paul wrote, And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest…  But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved! – and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God: it is not from works, so that no one can boast.  For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them.”  There are many things to glean from those verses but one thing that sticks out to me is that the changes in our thought processes, emotional responses and knee-jerk reactions will not be done for us, nor are they something we can do by ourselves.  Jesus said “…apart from me you can accomplish nothing (John 15:5) so it only goes to figure that if we do nothing at all it’ll certainly be without Him.  In other words, without Christ we’ll be stuck with our sinful selves forevermore.

 

The bottom line is that whatever program or ministry outreach we go to to help us “get transformed” isn’t going to be successful unless we come to grips with the fact it’s going to be hard.  We have to make a full commitment to act wisely and consistently over a long period of time – most likely the rest of our earthly life.  And we’ll be looked upon by others as being one of those people who seem to take some kind of perverse joy through serving others in a humble manner.  They won’t understand the kind of person you’re turning into, especially if they knew you before you met Christ.  Paul tells us to not be bothered by what others may think.  His recommendations are priceless: So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God.  Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without blemish though you live in a crooked and perverse society, in which you shine like lights in the world by holding on to the word of life so that on the day of Christ I will have a reason to boast that I did not run in vain nor labor in vain.  But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice together with all of you.  And in the same way you also should be glad and rejoice together with me (Philippians 2:12-18).

 

Notice that in the Scriptures I cited from Ephesians 2 Paul is reassuring us we’ve received, as a free gift, the life of the kingdom through the word of the gospel and the person of Jesus.  We did nothing to deserve such a generous and, frankly, costly present being given to us.  Yet now that we’ve been granted forgiveness, mercy and redemption we have something major to do.  Yes, we do have the awesome Holy Spirit living inside us and the Holy Word to guide us but we must now reach out and connect with other children of God who want the same thing.  We can’t do it alone.  It’s too big a job!  Paul wrote, Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God – which is your reasonable service.  Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God – what is good and well-pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).

 

Becoming a strict legalist won’t do the job, either.  James S. Stewart wrote: “The soul of man, setting out gallantly enough on the crusade to conquer besetting sin and weakness and to establish personal righteousness, has found the road too hard and the foes too stubborn; and gallantry has given way to disillusionment, and aspiration to a sense of downright futility.  No man can save himself: this was Paul’s great discovery.  A drowning man does not want a lecture on the art of swimming: he wants a rope to cling to.  Nor does a lame man ask for a guidepost to point him out the way: he asks for an arm to lean upon.  But the very weariness of those unavailing efforts to achieve its own salvation may prepare the soul of man to hear the cry, ‘Stand still, and see the salvation of God’” (Exodus 14:13).

 

In his superb best-selling book, Inside Out, Dr. Larry Crabb presents three specific ideas about how an individual, with God’s help, can change.  He wrote, “First, awareness of all that’s within us is more important to changing than a set of instructions about what to believe and do.  Second, the actual process of change can never be fully explained; the work of God’s Spirit cannot be packaged into our neat categories.  We must expect neither precision in our understanding of change nor confidence that we’re saying all that needs to be said.  Third, no one is fully changed.  It should comfort us to know that everyone has ample room to grow.  Even Paul admitted, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it (Philippians 3:13), referring to the richness of all Christ has provided.”  We can all become better at following Jesus.

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