Tag Archives: The Father in heaven

What Are We Making?

One of the last things Jesus told His followers to do was Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…(Matthew 28:19.  Seems like a pretty straightforward directive, right?  Yet seldom do I get the feeling “making disciples” is of supreme importance among Christians or designated a lofty priority in our Savior’s churches.  I just don’t hear much about it.  It’s surely not that we don’t want others to find, accept, embrace and then enjoy the freedom and hope we’ve found by becoming followers of the Lord.  We look at the world’s massive problems and conflicts and feel sorry for those who don’t know that having Christ in one’s heart is the only antidote for despair and depression.  We long for everyone to surrender their life to Jesus and thereby discover the peace and assurance He provides.  So it’s not that we don’t want to “make disciples”.  It’s that we don’t know how.  Since that’s the case I reckon we should spend more time educating and training ourselves in that area of our faith.

 

Logic tells us we must first be disciples of Christ ourselves in order to be effective at turning others into the same.  In previous essays I defined what one is and how best to become one.  I stressed a person doesn’t have to have a Masters in theology to be a disciple, only an overwhelming yearning to spend the rest of their life apprenticing under the guidance of Jesus.  A.W. Tozer wrote, “I would emphasize this one committal, this one great volitional act which establishes the heart’s intention to gaze forever upon Jesus.  God takes this intention for our choice and makes what allowances He must for the thousand distractions which beset us in this evil world.”  Remember, God makes disciples, not human institutions.  Our job is to help and assist Him in any way we can.  We learn the craft of “disciple making” via imitating and utilizing the methods Christ employed to raise up His disciples.  The most obvious tact He used was proclaiming, manifesting and teaching them about the kingdom of God.  He brought it up frequently.  We should do likewise.  When Jesus spoke about it He made the kingdom out to be the most incredible, desirable place and state of mind to exist in.  But how often do we tell non-believers about the wonders of God’s Kingdom?  Or, for that matter, discipleship in general?  And when’s the last time you heard a sermon preached on those subjects?  Dallas Willard opined, “…with the disappearance of Jesus as teacher – replaced by the mere sacrificial Lamb or else the prophet of social and personal ‘liberation’ – the prospects for the making of disciples to Him become very dim indeed.  You cannot have students if you have no teacher.”  In accentuating the glorious advantages of being a citizen of the magnificent Kingdom of God, Christ was offering an alluring incentive for men and women to become disciples.  It seems apparent to me that somewhere along the way the church got distracted and ceased doing foremost what our Lord commanded before He ascended from the Mount of Olives.

 

Has Christianity mistakenly focused its energies on making converts instead of disciples?  I only have to look at myself to answer that question.  When and if I’m asked I normally describe myself as a Christian but not necessarily as a disciple of Jesus.  I was brought up in church and knew all about the disciples.  So at what juncture in my life did I stop striving to be a dedicated student of Christ, constantly stretching my intellect to expand my understanding of and usefulness to my Savior and settle for just being one of the “saved”?  If I’m being totally honest it happened early on, right after I turned 18.  I’m not implying that if I’d met my death at some point afterwards I wouldn’t have awakened in the heavenly realm.  I know for certain my name got written down in the Book of Life with indelible ink because when it comes to forgiveness, our Heavenly Father’s is inexhaustible.  Yet I have no doubt He’ll inquire of me one fine day why I waited so late in life to become a Christ disciple and I won’t have an acceptable excuse to give Him.  It’s reasonable to think discipleship was important to Jesus because it prepares God’s children for what heaven will actually be like.  Had I kicked the bucket even 10 years ago would I have been ready to devote all my love and fealty to Christ?  Sadly, no.  I was satisfied to be a believer, not a disciple, and I don’t think by merely entering the Pearly Gates I would’ve instantly been able to forget myself and worship the King of kings in the manner He deserves.  Having never confronted and worked on my many character defects, it’s probable I would’ve had no clue whatsoever what to do or how to act in His presence.  Finally deciding to become a disciple of Jesus was the wisest choice I’ve ever made – bar none.

 

Therefore, if I’m reading Matthew 28:19 correctly, as a disciple of Jesus it’s imperative I make it my primary mission to make more disciples.  Instead of trying so hard to be “a good man that everyone likes to hang with” I should be more focused on introducing others to the greatest person I’ve ever met – Jesus Christ.  If folks can see that He means everything to me and that I’m happy with that fact, then chances are favorable they’ll want what I found in Christ for themselves.  Don’t get me wrong, though.  That’s an extremely tough row to hoe for life in the “real world” will make it that way.  With his tongue firmly in cheek Henri Nouwen wrote: “We simply go along with the many ‘musts’ and ‘oughts’ that’ve been handed on to us, and we live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord.  People must be motivated to come to church, youth must be entertained, money must be raised, and above all everyone must be happy.  Moreover, we ought to be on good terms with the church and civil authorities; we ought to be liked or at least respected by a fair majority of our parishioners; we ought to move up in the ranks according to schedule; and we ought to have enough vacation and salary to live a comfortable life.”  Little wonder the modern church is guilty of paying such scant attention to facilitating the divine mandate to “make disciples”.

 

Could it be that 21st century Christians fear what would happen if we started concentrating on seeing an increase in the number of Christ disciples over gaining a new influx of “church members”?  I heard T.D. Jakes once preach, “Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good.  He came to bring dead people back to life!”  In today’s PC culture most non-believers will take being called “dead in sin” an uncalled for indictment of their lifestyle but the body of Christ must be bold enough to warn them of the eternal consequences that stem from ignoring Jesus’ atoning blood sacrifice.  Courageous disciples, following the lead of the likes of Paul and Peter, will not be afraid to speak the truth in love.  But disciples won’t just appear out of thin air.  They must be cultivated and nurtured over time by the church itself.  As Willard wrote, “We should intend to make disciples and let converts ‘happen,’ rather than intending to make converts and letting ‘disciples’ happen.”  What a major shift in direction and emphasis that would be!

 

It’s worth noting Jesus didn’t imply there’d be anything easy about “making disciples.”  Needless to say, it’s getting harder and harder to do.  Today’s “information society” has no need for Christ or the Kingdom of God He promoted.  Intentionally or otherwise, the mainstream media has systematically eradicated any and all spiritual concerns from their secularist agenda.  To mislabel what they do a conspiracy is to invite unhelpful paranoia into the issue when what’s really behind it is way more powerful – a somewhat nebulous “authority” that stakes its claim of being truth-holders in what it firmly considers to be rock-solid, science-based knowledge and wisdom.  For instance, I recently came across a show on The Science Channel called “Space’s Deepest Secrets.”  I’ve always been fascinated with stuff having to do with astronomy so I gave the program a gander.  This particular episode was entitled “The Curse of Dark Matter” and it featured a plethora of cool graphics as well as interviews with a number of really smart men and women, most with “Dr.” or “Prof.” in front of their names.  It was all very “up to date.”  The bottom line, however, turned out to be the unavoidable truth that mankind still doesn’t know diddly about how the universe keeps from flying apart, much less how it came into existence at all.  All kinds of theories and conjectures abound but not once during the show did any of the brainiacs venture to surmise God Almighty has anything to do with overseeing and controlling the incredible forces and energies that surround us.  I got the impression that for any of the experts to make even the slightest reference to an omniscient, cosmic Creator/Administrator would be to commit scientific blasphemy.  They dare not mention the elephant in the room.  This is what the Christian community is up against and it’s a formidable adversary, indeed.

 

In other words, if a person grows up being taught in school that the very concept of there being a God is foolishness we Christians have a lot of swift rivers to cross to reach them.  As Willard wrote, “…in any case the point here is not so much about which beliefs must be challenged and changed as it is that to enable people to become disciples we must change whatever it is in their actual belief system that bars confidence in Jesus as Master of the Universe.”  If there’s a flaw in the Celebrate Recovery ministry I’ve been heavily involved in for over 8 years now it’s that we tend to put too much emphasis on getting people to stop doing destructive things to themselves or others and not doing enough to change their fundamental beliefs.  It’s a tricky proposition, though.  Most of the folks that come crawling into their first meeting are desperate to find out if there’s any hope left for them.  Many have never stepped foot inside a church except to attend funerals or weddings so the last thing they want to hear about is discipleship.  At the same time they’re very open to receiving some “Good News” and that’s where the Christ disciples in the room have an opportunity to reveal to them the healing, loving, merciful Jesus that perhaps they’ve never heard about.  If they feel welcome and not judged odds are they’ll come back for more genuine encouragement and, over time, they might come to realize it’s their own misguided belief about what it’s like to be a follower of Christ that’s been the biggest obstacle to finding purpose and fulfillment in their life.  Look, what we believe true about ourselves determines not only our personality and countenance but the whole of our outlook on life.  Back in the 90s I was able to pull myself out of the miserable throes of self-loathing simply by standing in front of a mirror every day and feeding my reflection positive attributes.  I found out I was what I believed I was.  It was all in my head!

 

More often than not it’s the ones who profess to be Christians who are most confused about what they believe.  If they get comfortable with coming to Celebrate Recovery and sharing in the small group gatherings they might take the next step and go through the soul-searching Step Study program.  That’s where they’ll be asked about what they believe in regards to God, repentance, the Bible, salvation, etc. – perhaps for the first time in their lives.  It’s not uncommon that many realize a lot of their core beliefs were based solely on what their peer group believed and that, in the final analysis, they didn’t truly believe what they thought they believed after all!  To avoid them becoming discouraged over what they’ll then be tempted to deem their “anemic faith” the course leaders will gently direct them into God’s Holy Word to obtain the necessary corrections.  The astonishing thing is all that was required to get them back on track was to ask them to express what they believed!  The sheer absurdity of their false assumptions about who Jesus is and what He wants us to do for Him while we’re here on earth suddenly become crystal clear in their minds without anybody having to tell them they were wrong.  This is frequently the breakthrough they’d been waiting for all their lives and they go on to discover the power of prayer, the joy of fellowship with other Christians, the enormous benefits derived from diligent Bible study, etc.  And down the line, due to the patient leading of the indwelling Holy Spirit, they might decide to become a disciple of Christ.

 

What all Christians must remember is that when Jesus told us to “make disciples” it wasn’t a suggestion, it was a command.  That means it’s not up for discussion.  He said, You are my friends if you do what I command you (John 15:14).  And we’re not to think we’re doing our Savior any favors.  Jesus said, So you too, when you have done everything you were commanded to do, should say, ‘We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what was our duty’ (Luke 17:10).  We who’ve been rescued from the tyranny of our own sinful nature have an obligation to meet whether we like it or not.  James S. Stewart wrote, “It is emphatically not an open question.  The great command settled it once for all.  And the man who still debates and argues it is daring to correct Jesus Christ.  That wrecks his position.  The Master’s ruling has been given, and He means it to be obeyed.”

 

Whether or not the church alters its overriding drive towards making Christianity more palatable and/or compatible with modern mores and ethics and returns to concentrating its efforts on doing what Jesus commanded – making disciples of all nations – isn’t something I can predict.  One thing I do know is that God’s perfect will is going to get done regardless.  Willard said it best: “The purposes of God in human history will eventually be realized, of course.  His divine conspiracy will not be defeated.  But multiple millions of individual human beings will live a futile and failing existence that God never intended.”  How sad and sobering that last statement is!  Makes me cognizant of how much “disciplining work” is left to be done by me and the body of Christ I’m grateful to be part of.

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How Much Does Discipleship Cost?

Salvation, due to God’s amazing grace, is free of charge.  Discipleship, however, can be expensive.  Thus a believer who decides to apprentice under the tutelage of Christ would be wise to examine the price tag before making a commitment.  Jesus didn’t conceal the fact the cost is steep.  At one point in His ministry He’d attracted a sizeable audience that followed Him around.  No doubt many of the folks tagged along because they’d heard about Him picking up the lunch tab for 5,000 and wanted to be around when and if it happened again.  Gratis feedings were as popular then as they are now.  Our Savior knew when it was time to thin the herd and exactly how to do it.  Now large crowds were accompanying Jesus, and turning to them he said, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry his own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:25-27).  I figure at the mere mention of crucifixion hundreds backed away and headed home.  Public execution wasn’t part of what they thought they were signing up for.

 

Jesus continued to preach to those who stuck around: For which of you, wanting to build a tower, doesn’t sit down first and compute the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish the tower, all who see it will begin to make fun of him.  They will say, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish!’  Or what king, going out to confront another king in battle, will not sit down first and determine whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?  If he cannot succeed, he will send a representative while the other is still a long way off and ask for terms of peace.  In the same way therefore not one of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his own possessions (14:28-33).  Needless to say, there’s a lot of misunderstanding and confusion regarding why Christ chose to use the shocking word hate.  God doesn’t desire that His children hate anything other than sin.  Keep in mind Jesus often employed over-the-top exaggerations to snag people’s attention (a camel passing through the eye of a needle, planks of wood sticking out of one’s eye socket, etc.) and that’s the case here.  Dallas Willard wrote, “The entire point of this passage is that as long as one thinks anything may really be more valuable than fellowship with Jesus in His kingdom, one cannot learn from Him.”  Use common sense.  Our Lord didn’t hate His mother and He wasn’t advocating we hate ours, either.  Context is always essential to acquiring full understanding.

 

Yet this raises a legitimate question.  Who in their right mind would willingly accept an often thankless job that demands everything from them?  What’s the upside of taking on such an all-consuming, lifelong task like that?  Obviously a man or woman would have to be so enamored and impressed with Christ’s merciful majesty that no warnings or scare tactics could dissuade them from enlisting in His army of servants.  Jesus described what that profound infatuation is like using two relatable illustrations.  He taught that The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure, hidden in a field, that a person found and hid.  Then because of joy he went and sold all that he had and bought that field.  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls.  When he found a pearl of great value, he went out and sold everything he had and bought it (Matthew 13:44-46).  Frederick Buechner, in discussing these twin tales, remarked: “Almost always when Jesus speaks of the kingdom of Heaven, there is this note of surprise: it’s so much more wonderful than anyone could have dared hope, so much more within reach than anyone could have dreamed.  And there’s the sense too that once we’ve glimpsed this kingdom, tasted this life, we understand that nothing else matters – that all other pearls, next to this one, were only pearls, that every field we ever walked before was only weariness.”  Now, if you have no clue whatsoever what our Lord and Savior was getting at in these vignettes; if you’ve not encountered something or someone so mind-blowingly incredible, beautiful and exhilarating that you’d drop everything in a heartbeat to obtain more then perhaps discipleship isn’t for you.  Not just yet, anyway.

 

Notice that in both scenarios the cost involved didn’t matter because it was inconceivable for the buyer to pass up a bargain so enriching.  The option of not going “all in” was absurd.  It never entered their brain.  That’s the kind of motivation those who want to become a Christ disciple must own to take the plunge.  They must feel no trepidation whatsoever.  As Jesus said, “…No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62).  Through faith the dedicated disciple is convinced the benefits derived from their decision vastly outweigh any and all inconveniences or hardships it may invite.  A.W. Tozer wrote, “Let any man turn to God in earnest, let him begin to exercise himself unto godliness, let him seek to develop his powers of spiritual receptivity by trust and obedience and humility, and the results will exceed anything he may have hoped in his leaner and weaker days.”  The treasure they’ve gotten a partial view of is worth risking ridicule to possess.  Now, non-Christians will tell them they’re ruining any chance they might have to succeed in the secular world.  That to be beholden to anything other than their career, their family or their financial security is sheer insanity.  They’ll roll their eyes, strongly advise that the fee for discipleship to an invisible God is simply too high and then do their level best to talk them out of it “for their own good”.  You will meet with heavy resistance, that’s certain.  But for those who can’t imagine not being a disciple of the Son of God – the most remarkable, extraordinarily unique person to ever trod terra firma – nothing will deter them.  For, as Walter Wink once said, “If Jesus had never lived; we would not have been able to invent Him.”  The impact Christ made on many of us is indelible – permanent – and we can’t fathom following anyone else.

 

It’s why Jesus preached discipleship isn’t to be entered into lightly, that we must “…sit down first and compute the cost as it were.  The early disciples knew their devotion could cost them everything but they nevertheless deemed their mission worth it.  I love what James S. Stewart wrote: “Knowing Jesus as they now knew Him; they couldn’t conceive any lower place for Him than the throne of the whole earth.  Jesus, they saw, must be Master and Lord of life.  So they dedicated themselves to the magnificent, amazing adventure that was to carry the cross in less than 300 years from the ignominy of Golgotha to the throne of the Caesars.  On the face of it, it seemed impossible that these few men, with no weapons to wield save one, the weapon of love, should make any impression on a world that had the weapon of force and was determined to use it.  It seemed impossible that they should stand up against the vested interests of materialism and secularism, the ‘principalities and powers’ of which Paul spoke, and the entrenched selfishness of the world.  When they first set out, with their unheard-of dream looking out of their eyes, the world simply laughed them to scorn.  And when in spite of laughter and scorn they kept going on, marching indomitably from town to town and land to land until they were knocking at the gates of Rome, the world began to take them seriously and tried to bar their way.  But by this time blazing fire and torturing rack and furious insult were all in vain.  The dream prevailed, and the world was at their feet.”  Oh, to be as courageous and determined as the early disciples were!

 

If we’ve carefully weighed the cost of discipleship and found it well worth going into debt over then we must investigate how to become one.  The first thing to do is to get on our knees and ask God for guidance, stamina and fortitude.  Jesus said, Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8).  This doesn’t mean to ask once and then sit back and wait for enlightenment to alight.  On the contrary, we should convey our yearning to be a dynamic follower of Christ several times a day for the rest of our life.  Dr. Larry Crabb wrote, “Approach Him [God] with an awareness of who He is that makes you both tremble and draw close.  Approach Him knowing you’ve got a long way to go in becoming a really good person.  Approach Him in your emptiness and desire.  And that could mean saying something as simple as, ‘I really want You.  I want lots of other things, but I want You most.’”  Timothy Keller’s thoughts also broached the subject of discipleship.  He said, “A Christian is, literally, ‘Christ’s one,’ someone who isn’t just vaguely influenced by Christian teaching, but who has switched his or her most fundamental allegiance to Jesus.  Christians understand the all-or-nothing choice that’s forced upon us by the magnitude of Jesus’ claims.  …If Jesus was not a lunatic, then our only alternative is to accept His claims and center our entire lives around Him.  The one thing we have no right to do is to respond to Him mildly.”

 

It’s vital we utilize any means available to get to know Jesus more intimately, as well.  And no source of truth about Him tops the Holy Bible.  A disciple should consult it daily.  Our Lord confirmed it when He said, If you dwell in my word, you really are my disciples.  And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32).  To dwell in something means “to linger over it in thought or speech”, thereby allowing it to saturate an individual’s mind completely.  Tozer opined, “If you would follow on to know the Lord, come at once to the open Bible expecting it to speak to you.  Do not come with the notion that it’s a thing which you may push around at your convenience.  It’s more than a thing; it is a voice, a word, the very Word of the living God.”  And we mustn’t be only readers of the Scriptures but doers of what it tells us.  In the beginning this will be difficult because the old person with their hurts, habits and hang-ups will demand equal time but we must trust that Jesus will assist us in bringing the urges of the new creation to the forefront.  Willard wrote, “Where His word is, there He is.  He does not leave His words to stand alone in the world.  And His loveliness and strength will certainly be personally revealed to those who’ll simply make the effort to do what His words indicate.”

 

A Christ disciple should become familiar with various translations of the Bible in addition to the writings of gifted Christian authors who provide educational and supplemental perspectives and insights.  I try not to be judgmental but I do have a problem with believers who’ve graduated from high school yet still give as a lame excuse, “I’m not a good reader”.  There’s so much wisdom to be gained from respected writers; from C.S. Lewis to Ravi Zacharias, from Billy Graham to Brennan Manning (just to name a few out of the many I admire) and anybody can buy one of their engaging books for less than lunch at Applebee’s!  Don’t let laziness keep you from growing and maturing as a follower of Jesus.  One can’t amass too much wisdom.  J.P. Moreland said, “Wisdom is the application of knowledge gained from studying both God’s written Word and His revealed truth in creation.  If we’re going to be wise, spiritual people prepared to meet the crises of our age, we must be a studying, learning community that values the life of the mind.”  There are also TV and YouTube sermons preached by servants of the Lord (like T.D. Jakes and Joyce Meyers) that’ll inspire and elevate your spirits on a regular basis.  And, of course, there’s your local church that’s indispensable to your ongoing training in discipleship.  You shouldn’t just attend, you should be involved.  What I’m trying to say is this: The more of God we absorb into our life the less this crazy, mixed-up world will be able to infiltrate and corrupt our divinely-ordained purpose for taking another breath.  Discipleship is a full-time job, not a hobby.  But what I found in my own spiritual journey is the better I got to know Jesus the more I wanted to be one of His “fishers of people.”

 

But when it comes right down to it becoming a Christ disciple isn’t something that just happens to us whether we intend to be one or not.  No, it requires a sober, deliberate decision be made of our own volition.  God will indeed call us but He’ll never coerce us.  He respects our free will explicitly and will abide by the choices we make regardless of His preferences for us.  No one achieves disciple status by accident.  Becoming an adherent of our Savior has to be our #1 ambition with everything and everyone else coming in a distant second.  It can’t be kept a secret, either.  Willard wrote, “We should apprentice ourselves to Jesus in a solemn manner, and we should let those around us know that we’ve done so.”  Otherwise we’re spinning our wheels, wasting precious time pretending to be something we ain’t.  Discipleship is the biggest responsibility a saved soul can take on during this mortal phase of existence.  It’s the greatest honor a born again Christian can acquire.  It’s worth every difficulty that comes along.  As Jesus said, Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry (Matthew 11:29-30).  Face it; everybody ends up with a yoke of some kind to shoulder throughout this earthly life.  I’ve found that Christ’s is the lightest of all.  So discipleship?  Where do I sign up?

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What If Nobody Notices How Good I’m Being?

“They haven’t found their rhythm yet” is a phrase used by sportscasters covering a live contest when a player isn’t playing up to their potential; when they can’t seem to “get in the groove.”  In the first segment of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus encouraged us to “sync up” with God’s perfect will.  Until then we’ll struggle to make much difference.  Thus the 5th chapter of Matthew is unquestionably one of the most important in the Bible.  It’s so profound I devoted 13 essays to exploring the life-improving wisdom it contains.  I learned a lot and the study has changed me for the better.  My Savior’s instructions have helped me “find my rhythm” in my Heavenly Father’s master plan.  Dallas Willard wrote, “One is blessed, we now know, if one’s life is based upon acceptance and intimate interactions with what God is doing in human history.  Such people are in the present kingdom of the heavens.”  Christ told us if we’re fixated on spending all our energy making sure we stay in strict compliance with God’s laws we’re most likely missing the point.  Jesus wants us to grasp that, if we’ll relax and allow the indwelling Holy Spirit to transform our “worldly heart” into a “kingdom heart”, then obedience to God’s Commandments will come as naturally as breathing.  For Jesus it’s always about us getting our heart in tune with God.

 

Now, Matthew 6 won’t take nearly as long to cover because, in light of what He’d just been preaching, Jesus then simply needed to warn us about getting carried away with how good we might start thinking we are.  We’re all susceptible to letting our egos run wild; to start expecting folks to esteem us and for God to bless us with an abundance of material wealth – all due to our impressive righteousness.  Pride’s the fly in the ointment of good intentions and that sentiment resounds throughout the entire New Testament.  How can you believe, if you accept praise from one another and don’t seek the praise that comes from the only God? (John 5:44) and Now the Pharisees were lovers of money, and when they heard Jesus’ teachings they scoffed at him.  But he responded: ‘You try to look good in the eyes of men.  But God sees your hearts.  And what men think highly of is a stench before God (Luke 16:14-15) are just two examples.  It wasn’t Jesus’ fault the Pharisees and religious leaders had made themselves easy targets for criticism.  Thus everyone knew instantly who He was referring to when He continued His sermon with, Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people.  Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1).

 

Again, it’s vital to note what our Lord didn’t say.  He didn’t teach we’re to go to extremes making sure our good deeds are completely hidden from sight.  That’s not the core issue at stake.  What He wanted to convey was that we shouldn’t perform good deeds with receiving public praise or even a private “thank you” being the primary motive behind our doing them.  When we do that we’re guilty of preferring human approval over God’s.  The apostle Paul expanded on this theme later on when he advised, “…Whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.  …Whatever you are doing, work at it with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not for people, because you know that you will receive your inheritance from the Lord as the reward.  Serve the Lord Christ (Galatians 3:17 & 23-24).  As usual, our Savior offered several helpful illustrations:

 

He brought up giving to philanthropic organizations.  “…Whenever you do charitable giving, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and on streets so that people will praise them.  I tell you the truth, they have their reward (Matthew 6:2).  It’s difficult to imagine someone paying to have a horn section alert everybody so they’d witness their awesome generosity but the Jewish bigwigs did so regularly.  Interesting to note that Jesus used the descriptive term “hypocrite” 17 times in the Gospel accounts.  In each instance it was to distinguish the mask one displays to the world from one’s real face God sees constantly.  Jesus next told us, But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your gift may be in secret.  And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you (6:3-4).  Taken literally this is impossible so it’s clear Christ was employing a metaphor to get us to probe deeper.  If we have a totally transformed “kingdom heart” we won’t need to be mindful of what our hands are doing because performing good deeds will be as automatic as blinking.  Not only that but He assures us our Heavenly Father does pay attention to what we do.  Then Jesus added, Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them.  Truly I say to you, they have their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.  And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you (6:5-6).  I don’t know about you but I detect a significant pattern emerging from these verses concerning rewards.  God does play fair, it seems.  Christ is also telling us we shouldn’t give a hoot about whether others are aware of our prayer routine or not; that our private time with God should be the most intimate thing we engage in.

 

What Jesus preached next I find immensely informative and enlightening.  He said, When you pray, do not babble repetitiously like the Gentiles, because they think that by their many words they will be heard.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (6:7-8).  (He follows this with what we reverently call the Lord’s Prayer but it deserves its own essay to be presented down the line.)  What Jesus warned against brings to my mind the Islamic congregational prayers known as salaat required to be offered to Allah five times daily by all Muslims.  According to the Muslim-turned-Christian author Nabeel Qureshi, “For the vast majority of Muslims, it is simply an act of duty, not personal or heartfelt expression.”  Look, I’m not condemning that practice any more than Jesus would.  Our Savior never said public prayer was a bad thing at all.  He only said God isn’t impressed by repetition of memorized phrases.  He wants more than that.  He wants us to be real.  Willard wrote, “Kingdom praying and its efficacy is entirely a matter of the innermost heart’s being totally open and honest before God.  …In apprenticeship to Jesus, this is one of the most important things we learn how to do.  He teaches us how to be in prayer what we are in life and how to be in life what we are in prayer.”  Jesus then went on to include fasting alongside charitable giving and praying as things we should refrain from trying to make public spectacles of.  He said, When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting.  I tell you the truth, they have their reward.  When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret.  And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you(6:16-18).  Our Lord’s fundamental message of remaining humble certainly was a consistent one!

 

Jesus was urging all believers to willingly adopt a discipline of subtle discretion in every area of their spiritual life.  However, some critics are too eager to claim that here His inconsistency is showing because of what went down earlier when He preached, “…Let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).  But the underlying context permeating the entire sermon from front to back is the condition of a person’s heart, not whether or not they’re in violation of some kind of divine law.  If our heart’s in the right place everything we do will be done for the glory of God and never for our own glory.  This school of thought also spills over into the somewhat precarious state the modern-day Body of Christ finds itself in.  There’s a genuine danger that churches can become so preoccupied with what the secular world thinks about what they stand for that they neglect to put obeying God first. Willard wrote, “Whatever our position in life, if our lives and works are to be of the kingdom of God, we must not have human approval as a primary or even major aim.  We must lovingly allow people to think whatever they will.  …We can only serve them by serving the Lord only.”

 

Jesus then segues into some frank talk concerning the figurative chains that wealth binds us in.  He preached, Do not accumulate for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.  But accumulate for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (6:19-21).  Yep, there’s that reference to one’s heart condition again.  So how do we go about accumulating treasures in heaven?  By generously investing our time and efforts in diligently nurturing our ever-growing relationship with Christ, that’s how.  It’s correct to say that none of what Jesus challenges each of us to strive to be is attainable without keeping our eyes firmly focused on Him.  As He said, I am the vine; you are the branches.  The one who remains in me – and I in him – bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing (John 15:5).  No matter the translation, nothing means nothing, folks.  What Paul expressed is relevant to Jesus’ “rewards program”, too.  For a person will reap what he sows, because the person who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit.  So we must not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up (Galatians 6:7-9).

 

We all know what happens if we attempt to do something noble and our heart just ain’t in it.  The results are predictably far from spectacular.  In fact, they can be downright deadly.  Say what?  Hey, that’s what Christ was alluding to (via exaggeration, of course) when He preached, The eye is the lamp of the body.  If then your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eye is diseased, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (6:22-23).   It was His way of saying if our heart’s wholly infatuated with amassing material things that belong exclusively to this fallen world we’ll have nothing  of value to offer to God or to our fellow man.  Our soul will darken and we’ll eventually lose our way.  Some don’t believe it.  They insist they can adroitly balance their worldly and heavenly treasures, thank you very much.  Jesus disagrees.  He announced, No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and money (6:24).  Recall that our God is jealous of our allegiance.  Test Him at your own peril.

 

Jesus then takes on something we all have in common – the burdensome “worry virus.”  Some are plagued by it more than others but we all must deal with it to a certain degree.  We often get so wrapped up in mentally projecting all the “what ifs” that can happen to us or our loved ones we can turn into paranoid mice.  Christ said, Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  Isn’t there more to life than food and more to the body than clothing? (6:25). He then directed the crowd’s attention to the beautiful birds and gorgeous wild flowers that thrive without humans having to do anything for them whatsoever.  Notice He didn’t say God’s some kind of cosmic butler who’ll wait on us hand and foot.  In fact if you’ve ever observed bird behavior you’ve seen they always stay hard at work performing one task or another.  They’re anything but lazy.  So what Jesus was trying to get across to us is that our Father in heaven is in no way a codependent enabler.  He is a reliable safety net, though, because, after all, we’re a lot more important to Him than any bird will ever be.  Jesus then tosses in a big dose of logic with “…Which of you by worrying can add even one hour to his life? (6:27). It was true then and true today.  It’s a matter of trust.  If a Christian has it and reinforces it by letting the Holy Spirit continue to transform their heart and mind daily they’ll know for certain that God will see to their basic needs without fail.  Faith is the antidote that kills worry.

 

Those who think Jesus didn’t have a sense of humor have overlooked how he summed up this middle portion of His Sermon on the Mount.  He probably grinned and winked as He preached, So then, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Today has enough trouble of its own (6:34).  If a person lives long enough they’ll realize harboring unfounded anxiety over “what might happen” is a huge waste of time.  Worry doesn’t prevent anything.  What Christ wanted us to savvy regarding this phase of His discourse was that when we trust in shallow things (like human approval or material wealth) we’re bound to be disappointed.  Therefore we must jettison worry the second it shows up and instead look toward the future with unwavering confidence and on the past behind with sincere gratitude.  Paul “got it” better than most.  He wrote, Do not be anxious about anything.  Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God.  And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).  i.e., when in doubt, give it to God.

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What about Divorce, Swearing and Retribution?

It wasn’t coincidence that, in the course of delivering His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus waited until after establishing His views concerning anger, contempt and sexual lust before taking on the sticky issue of divorce.  Chances are if those three destructive factors were kept in check divorce would be a rarity but we know that’s not the case.  Most baby boomers (me included) grew up in an era when divorce was the exception.  The majority of moms and dads stayed together.  The terms “stepmom” or “stepdad” were seldom heard.  But stats tell a sad tale.  In 1960 even though one out of four marriages eventually ended up on the rocks they did tend to last longer.  Since then the divorce percentage has nearly doubled.  Even worse, the failure rate for second marriages is around 60%.  For one thing, there’s no stigma or shame associated with divorce nowadays so it doesn’t take more than a spouse deciding they just aren’t happy to justify filing for legal dissolution.  While the “give up” rate has come down a tad in the 21st century it’s obvious that, without a miraculous nationwide spiritual revival taking place, we’ll never return to that former era when a couple’s vows were a lot more unbreakable.

 

Yet we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking marriages were a lot more permanent 2,000 years ago.  They weren’t.  In that male-dominated, chauvinistic culture a husband could divorce his wife just for accidentally burning the flapjacks or for the simple reason he’d spotted a lady he desired more.  The wife wouldn’t have any say in the matter.  The man would be considered a righteous dude by his peers if he went to the trouble of scribbling out a hand-written (albeit unauthorized) divorce note to take with her out the door!  Thus it was important to Jesus that He set everyone straight about how God felt about such deplorable shenanigans.  This unjust practice was widespread despite the set-in-stone, centuries-old law of Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.”  Jesus recited that decree and added, But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matthew 5:32).  As you can guess, that didn’t go over well with the menfolk.  Later on when Jesus repeated this for a bunch of offended Pharisees even His disciples sarcastically commented, If this is the case of a husband with a wife, it is better not to marry! (Matthew 19:10).  Evidently every man in the region was content to ignore Malachi 2:16 that reads, ’I hate divorce,’ says the LORD god of Israel…”  Jesus didn’t beat around the bush.  He reminded all who’d listen, For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh (Genesis 2:24) before teaching them the inescapable truth of, So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate (Matthew 19:6).

 

Notice He didn’t say divorce was never warranted.  He acknowledged that immorality was a legitimate reason for it but He refrained from labeling it the underlying cause.  He pointed out that Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts…” (Matthew 19:8).  In other words, a man’s resolute, non-negotiable refusal to forgive his wife’s indiscretion was often the real obstacle preventing reconciliation.  Remember, Jesus was a pragmatist.  He knew, given a particular scenario, divorce was a moral and ethical solution.  (I must inject that sometimes the person owning the “hard heart” is the unfaithful one who now wants to “be free.”)  Still, as Christ stressed in the verses previously cited, divorce wasn’t what God prefers because it always leaves scars on all parties involved.  Some are deep, some are shallow but they’re scars nonetheless.  As for what Jesus said in verse 5:32, one must take into consideration that in that age divorce was particularly devastating for the wife.  None of her remaining options were good.  She could move in with a relative as a handmaiden or maybe marry again (but be considered “damaged goods”) or turn to prostitution to survive.  The husband, on the other hand, would suffer no serious consequences.  Jesus knew changing the cultural mindset would take more time than He had left on earth.  Thus He hoisted the onus onto the man’s shoulders by stating he was, in essence, forcing his former wife to commit the sin of adultery.

 

We all know making a marriage last is hard work.  Perhaps nothing’s more difficult so there are instances when, having exhausted all attempts to reconcile differences, divorce is inevitable.  As in everything in life, Jesus urges His followers to approach every setback or disappointment with an attitude of uncompromised graciousness.  Dallas Willard wrote, “Divorce, if it were rightly done, would be done as an act of love.  It would be dictated by love and done for the honest good of the people involved.  Such divorce, though rare, remains nonetheless possible and may be necessary.  If it were truly done on this basis, it would be rightly done, in spite of the heartbreak and loss it’s sure to involve.”  My first marriage ended in divorce and it hurt.  As much as I want to place all the blame on my ex I know my failure to consult God’s Word for guidance played a big part.  I was selfish, prideful.  What Larry Crabb wrote applied to me: “If you’re looking for a quick boost to your self-esteem, the Bible isn’t a good book to read.  You might especially want to skip the first three chapters of Romans.  They reveal us as hopelessly arrogant, foolish enough to think that we’re the point of things, that our happiness, our sense of well-being, matters more than anything else.  …We want it our own way.  In His justice, God lets us have it.  As Dorothy Sayers put it, hell is the enjoyment of our own way forever.”

 

Next our Savior took on the all-too-commonplace practice of swearing.  He preached, Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’  But I say to you, do not take oaths at all – not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, not by earth, because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King.  Do not take an oath by your head, because you are not able to make one hair white or black.  Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one (Matthew 5:33-37).  All one need do these days to become aware of how frequently the average Joe or Jane uses profanity is tune into the average cable TV drama for five minutes.  The characters cuss and bark out the words “God” or “Jeeezus” more often than a street evangelist.  We all know the third Commandment forbids taking the Lord’s name in vain so Christ took it further to the crux of the matter.  He was telling us spewing out curses is no way for a godly person to behave.  Period.  I’ll refrain from belaboring the wrongness of allowing anything other than courteous, kind language to escape our pie holes but, as a rule, Christians shouldn’t use profanity and should wince when others use it.  Alistair Begg wrote, “Flippancy is a cousin of profanity.  It’s often a companion to fluency.  Proverbs reminds us that when words are many, sin is not absent.  The old chestnut hits the mark: ‘An unbridled tongue is the chariot of the devil.’  …Too often in Christian circles we say things just to be heard saying them.”

 

One thing to keep in mind about the Sermon on the Mount is this: Jesus was laying out a new way of living wherein we possess what can rightly be called a “kingdom heart.”  It’s a radical departure from the “normal” way of living.  For instance, He said we’re not to retaliate for harm done.  According to the Mosaic Law, it’s okay to inflict the same amount of damage on the offender that he/she caused us.  But that rarely ends the hostilities.  Instead it usually instigates an ongoing “tit for tat” exchange that only gets worse.  Therefore Jesus invites us to rise above our natural, animalistic instincts and see things from God’s perspective.  This lets us view our injurer through His eyes, allowing us to see them as the troubled human being they are.  We’ll then have pity on them just as Jesus, dying on the cross, looked down on His tormentors and said, Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing (Luke 23:24).  We should ask ourselves: Are we to do less if somebody dares step on our delicate feelings?  The answer should be obvious.

 

Jesus instructed His followers about how we’re to respond to personal affronts, injuries and disrespect with a “kingdom heart.”  He says we’re to remain vulnerable and turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39).  In other words, don’t run away like a coward yet don’t vengefully strike back.  Next He said to let them have your shirt (5:40).  By doing this we show them their needs are more important than our own.  He then suggested if they coerce us to walk one mile, go with him two (5:41).  To do so is to display one’s inner strength in a non-violent manner.  And finally Jesus tells us Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you (5:42).  We’re to surrender what’s requested of us without demanding qualification.

 

Okay, let’s get real for a moment.  There aren’t four other statements in the Sermon that could’ve made us or those in the crowd more uncomfortable.  If the stuff regarding murder and adultery didn’t run a sizeable number of them off, these bold statements surely did.  Jesus was telling them and us to go far beyond what the Ten Commandments required.  Now, He didn’t say we’re not to dodge bullets.  He didn’t advise letting ourselves be taken absurd advantage of by evil-minded jerks.  He didn’t label legitimate self-defense sinful.  He didn’t say not to use common sense or not to do what’s rationally appropriate in each situation.  What He was presenting is a kind of behavior that characterizes a man or woman who harbors a Spiritualized “kingdom heart.”  One who displays (via positive acts) the countenance of the new creature the purifying blood of Christ has transformed them into.  It boils down to always returning good for evil, doing much more than the minimum in order to serve others, and giving what’s asked for without hesitation solely because we want to emulate our Savior.  Willard opined, “…We aren’t talking about things one must do to ‘be Christian’ or ‘go to heaven when we die,’ we’re looking at how people live who stand in the flow of God’s life now.  We see the interior rightness of those who are living – as a matter of course, not just in exceptional moments – beyond the rightness of the scribe and Pharisee.”  In other words, if I’m full of the Holy Spirit there’s no occasion where “getting even” enters my mind.

 

What’s most surprising is what happens when we actually do “turn the other cheek.”  It’s not what we expect.  Nor is it what our attacker planned on.  It usually disarms them and makes them reevaluate what kind of dysfunctional creeps they really are.  Suddenly they’re not in control and anyone witnessing the encounter will invariably brand them a despicable bully.  However, if their physical assault continues unabated then prudence should kick in and goad us into taking evasive action.  But, as ambassadors of God’s kingdom, we must always seek to reveal to aggressors patience and the same unconditional love Christ showed us on Calvary.

 

It’s predictable that, if we live long enough, we’ll accumulate a list of acquaintances who wouldn’t bat an eye if we got hit by a bus.  Not only that but simply by being born in a certain country we can become targeted for destruction by other nations/organizations that’ve designated us subhuman “infidels” worthy of genocide.  Our knee-jerk reaction is to hate them back.  But Jesus preached, You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? (Matthew 5:43-46).  Loving only folks we share common interests with is something radical Islamic terrorists, Mafia hitmen and drug cartel thugs find easy to do, right?  So how can showing love only to those we deem loveable distinguish us as followers of Christ?  Heck, even atheists find somebody to love!  Jesus challenges us to raise our standards as high as His.  He said, “So, then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (5:48).  Is the Lord asking a lot of us?  Um, does the pope wear cool hats?

 

The infamous secularist Bertrand Russell once stated, “The Christian principle, ‘Love your enemies’ is good…  There’s nothing to be said against it except that it’s too difficult for most of us to practice sincerely.”  And, as concerns those who’ve not been born again, he was right as rain.  Willard wrote, “It’s very hard indeed if you’ve not been substantially transformed in the depths of your being, in the intricacies of your thoughts, feelings, assurances, and dispositions, in such a way that you’re permeated with love.  Once that happens, then it’s not hard.  What would be hard is to act the way you acted before.”

 

It’s significant to note these Sermonized teachings came from the Son of God, not some ancient philosopher who couldn’t have lived in full compliance with these lofty admonitions if their family’s life had depended on it.  Mankind learns the hard way (and then quickly forgets) the only way peace can be a palpable reality is through everyone imitating Jesus Christ, the unrivaled master of human life.  Only by surrendering to Him alone can we become the loving, generous, charitable, forgiving, merciful souls God Almighty had in mind when He created us.  Did Jesus give His disciples goals that are unattainable?  No way.  Philip Yancey confessed: “For years I’d thought of the Sermon on the Mount as a blueprint for human behavior that no one could possibly follow.  Reading it again, I found that Jesus gave these words not to cumber us, but to tell us what God is like.”  To alter Yancey’s book title a bit, Christ revealed to us the God we never knew and implied believers should aspire to be like Him.

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What’s Wrong with “Just Looking”?

Things were going splendidly for the folks in the crowd.  The weather was decent and everyone could see and hear the renowned rabbi clearly.  The bowl-shaped area Jesus had chosen to deliver His sermon in couldn’t have been more suitable.  His opening words, wherein He assured them they were blessed no matter how troubled/oppressed they might feel, put everybody at ease.  But then He shocked them by preaching that hating somebody was equal to murdering them!  “Say what?”  But Jesus was just getting started.  He then informed them that intentionally fantasizing about having sex with someone other than their spouse was the same as doing the deed in the flesh.  Jaws dropped right and left as He announced, You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart(Matthew 5:27-28).  No doubt the majority thought, “You gotta be kidding!  You mean I’m not even allowed to partake in a little taste of sin within the privacy of my own brain?  Maybe I didn’t hear you right.  What the…?”  Sadly, too many of us still want to pretend He didn’t say what He said on that hillside.

 

Of course, for Jesus to bring up sex at all was a surprise.  One just didn’t go there in those days.  But Christ knew the content of His Sermon would be relevant in every future era and that illicit sex would continue to be a huge problem in society.  He was teaching we must treat adultery in the same way we’re to treat murder.  The fact that we don’t literally act out the sin doesn’t let us off the hook with God.  We’ll be held accountable for every thought we choose to entertain.  Whether we like it or not, we are what we think.  Jesus was demolishing the false notion that we can remain righteous in the eyes of God as long as we successfully hide our sinful inclinations in the shadowy corners of our craniums; that those who sincerely regard themselves as being super fine people are fooling themselves if they think they can mentally undress a coworker or someone attractive they spot in Walmart, imagine doing whatever they want to them and technically still be considered pure as the driven snow.  Christ said it don’t work that way and there’s not one of us who doesn’t get what the Master was on about.  Dallas Willard wrote, “Jesus’ teaching here is that a person who cultivates lusting in this manner is not the kind of person who is at home in the goodness of God’s kingdom.”

 

Then as now, those who protest what Jesus said about sexual lust don’t have a leg to stand on because the concept is nothing new.  Many scholars deem the book of Job to be the oldest in the Bible so the principle of exercising self-control over one’s thoughts is well-established.  Job vindicated himself by claiming, I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I entertain thoughts against a virgin?  What then would be one’s lot from God above, one’s heritage from the Almighty on high? (Job 31:1-2).  He knew the omniscient God was aware of everything that went on inside his skull and he knew intuitively that the lame excuse of “I was just looking” wasn’t going to cut the mustard.  He said, “If my heart has been enticed by a woman, and I have lain in wait at my neighbor’s door, then let my wife turn the millstone for another man, and may other men have sexual relations with her.  For I would have committed a shameful act, an iniquity to be judged (Job 31:9-11).  Did he set his moral bar incredibly high?  Yes.  Does God expect us to follow Job’s example?  Yes.  We must accept the profound truth that our Father in heaven wants all we are to be holy.  That includes our thoughts, whims, daydreams, wishes, etc.  A Christian’s focus should be aimed solely on imitating our Savior’s unblemished purity.  Is it difficult to do that, especially when it comes to reining in sexual urges?  Is the sun hot?  In today’s “anything goes” world nothing’s harder.  Jesus wants us to be ever mindful of our “heart condition.”  He taught in Matthew 5:28 that men who intentionally ogle a woman for the primary purpose of lusting after her are guilty of committing adultery; that they’re no different from a thief who won’t hesitate to snatch a purse if the right situation presents itself.  They’re not concerned about the harm they’ll be causing the victim (or themselves, for that matter).  Their only worry is getting caught.  In the case of a “leerer”, they don’t realize the damage unrestrained lust does to one’s soul.

 

The widespread acceptance of graphic pornography is a tragedy.  Mankind has released into circulation the most insidious of morality-corroding viruses we’ve ever encountered.  Somehow the secularists persuaded the masses to believe that unadulterated freedom of speech renders the classic term obscene overly restrictive; that unfettered liberty means everybody should be able to view anything they darn well please as long as they’re not hurting anyone; that the stigma of adultery in general is a passé concept because there’s nothing fundamentally wrong about any two (or more) consenting adults deciding to “get jiggy with it.”  The devil couldn’t be happier with how things are going in the sex arena.  The free availability of all varieties of pornography via the internet and the total lack of organized resistance by the Christian community to halt obscenity’s decriminalization in the courts has made Satan’s job a cinch.  He doesn’t have to lift a finger in order to infect impressionable minds with the most spirit-killing filth human beings are capable of producing.  The irony is we’ve brought this destructive plague upon ourselves.  Even as recently as 50 years ago a publisher could be sent to prison for distributing photos featuring frontal nudity.  Nowadays the very idea of being punished for that sounds ludicrous.

 

What the fan of porn conveniently refuses to even ponder for a moment is what they’re actually gleaning pleasure from indulging in.  Do they comprehend they’re witnessing a barely-legal girl or boy possibly being coerced into doing something horribly demeaning?  That the participants might be doing what they’re doing because they’re desperate to feed their drug habit?  That they could be disillusioned souls with no self-worth, being callously used by degenerates because there’s easy money to be made?  Does the porn viewer rationalize all this by deeming them deserving of disgust because “nobody made them do those things”?  The disassociation factor involved in smut-viewing is one of its premier attractions.  One doesn’t have to feel anything whatsoever about the persons involved because somehow they’re not really real.  They’re just a means to a self-gratifying end.  Willard wrote, “Pornography lives in the hostile and degraded imagination along with ‘adultery in the heart.’  Jesus’ teaching here reaches the depths of the human soul and body and makes us aware of dimensions of real or possible darkness within us that, like Job, we must simply stay away from.”

 

Now, having said all that we mustn’t take what Jesus was teaching to erroneous extremes.  He didn’t say sexual desire is, in and of itself, any more sinful than anger is.  Our Creator God didn’t make a mistake inserting those components into our basic DNA strands.  When they fulfill their intended function they’re actually good things.  Therefore to merely consider someone sexy or alluring or even to be tempted to fantasize about them isn’t the same as committing adultery.  Those are natural instincts designed to keep the human species going.  No, sin happens when we give in and willingly go where they’ll lead us.  Jesus wasn’t saying committing adultery in one’s heart is unavoidable, either.  He Himself experienced temptations in the wilderness yet didn’t succumb to sin.  What Christ was warning us against was the desire to desire.  He was talking about the slobbering lechers we can turn into if we don’t keep a tight lid on our libidos.  Sadly, we all have the potential to become men or women who, with “…their eyes, full of adultery, never stop sinning (2 Peter 2:14).  I know it’s hard for some to fathom but sex addiction is a serious problem.  It’s every bit as crippling and debilitating as an addiction to drugs or alcohol.  Yet, like most compulsive habits, it’s something a person invites into their life.  They discover a fondness for how certain behaviors or things make them feel and, over time, the pursuit of that feeling becomes an insatiable obsession.

 

But, again, we mustn’t overlook what Jesus was really trying to get us to savvy in His startling statement about adultery.  It’s entirely possible to force ourselves to abstain from ever looking at a woman to desire her, then act like we’re holier than thou and still not eradicate the sin we’re allowing to maintain a presence in our heart.  I know of what I speak because for decades I was enslaved to my severe lack of sexual integrity.  I was raised in a Christian home and learned right from wrong but when I hit my teens I found the guilty pleasure skin magazines enhanced irresistible.  My hankering for “dirty pictures” expanded exponentially from there.  I became so fixated on concealing my fascination with that forbidden fruit I allowed it to become a lifelong secret hobby.  I was smug about it, too.  I figured I had it under wraps so I reasoned Jesus’s admonition about looking at a woman to desire her didn’t apply to me since I wasn’t harming anyone around me.  Wrong.

 

Long story short, in 2009 my wife discovered my covert pastime and it nearly destroyed our marriage.  That’s when I finally stepped out of denial and began attending Celebrate Recovery meetings.  Eight years later – even though I’m definitely a “work in progress” – I’m no longer bound and chained to that sin.  Breaking the habit was actually the easiest part of the process.  Thanks to the CR ministry I’ve developed an instinct to detect temptation before it attacks and I’m thus able to ward it off – most of the time.  The real challenge is to rid myself of the persistent “want to” that continues to haunt the hallways of my heart.  Some of my small group friends who suffer from the same affliction have found relief by effectively blocking all access to adult sites on their devices.  But, being gifted with a vivid imagination that loves to fantasize, that tactic won’t work for me.  No, what I must strive to do – one day at a time – is to become more like Job, a man who knew that only through self-imposed discipline and the power of God could he overcome his weakness for the flesh.

 

In his excellent book, At the Altar of Sexual Idolatry, Steve Gallagher described what happens to those who get ensnared by porn: “As time progresses, many things begin to happen in the sex addict’s life.  His sense of confidence and self-worth continually diminish, and the emptiness inside of him is magnified.  As a result, he begins an intense and desperate search to fill this void in his life.  Since sex has been his personal elixir to which he’s turned during previous times of despair, just as a drunk turns to his liquor bottle, the sex addict will pursue the object(s) of his desire.  Unfortunately, after fleeing to sex to find comfort or simply a ‘quick fix,’ he only manages to heap more shame and despair upon himself – the pit becomes deeper, the darkness even blacker.  …He starts building up walls around himself, alienating himself from others.  …The sex addict will also become very critical and judgmental of those around him.  Inside he knows that what he is doing is wrong so he lashes out at others with criticism.”  I’m ashamed to admit that’s who I used to be.

 

As I mentioned in my previous essay (re: what Jesus had to say in the Sermon on the Mount about anger and contempt) Christ wasn’t trying to establish new laws.  Instead He emphasized that even though the Pharisees were downright fanatical when it came to religiously following all the commandments, their hearts remained clogged with selfishness and greed.  It was normal in that age for public speakers to employ wild exaggerations to either drive a poignant point home or to inject a dose of humor.  (i.e. Jesus’ wooden plank jutting from one’s eye socket, a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle, etc.)  So when Christ proclaimed, If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away!  It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell.  If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away!  It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into hell (Matthew 5:29-30), He was most likely illustrating the drastic measures one may need to employ in order to get rid of unbridled lusting.  Since this is a mental defect more than a physical one He obviously wasn’t encouraging those plagued by it to chop their head off but He did want them to understand how serious they should take the matter.

 

It comes down to who you are on the inside and what you’d do if God were to look away for a little while.  Jesus knew full well gouging out eyes and amputating hands won’t fix what’s broken in us.  As He told His disciples, For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride and folly.  All these evils come from within and defile a person (Mark 7:21-23).  Willard wrote, “The goodness of the kingdom heart, by contrast, is the positive love of God and of those around us that fills it and crowds out the many forms of evil.  From that goodness come deeds of respect and purity that characterize a sexuality as it was meant by God to be.”

 

I’ve learned from experience in dealing with myself and through counseling others that only by surrendering one’s sinful heart to Christ can a person be cleansed of iniquity.  But hard core, persistent patience is required.  Gallagher wrote, “God can change a man in an instant, but it takes time to build character.”  William Barclay opined, “Grace is not only a gift; it’s a grave responsibility.  A man can’t go on living the life he lived before he met Jesus.  He must be clothed in a new purity and a new holiness and a new goodness.  The door is open, but the door isn’t open to the sinner to come and remain a sinner, but for the sinner to come and become a saint.”  Amen to that.

4

What’s Your Core Passion?

There are basically two types of folks: The ones who strain like all get out to make life a smooth ride and the ones who’ve learned (usually the hard way) that knowing Jesus better is the only goal worth pursuing.  The former’s the old way and the latter’s the new way.  The old way is fueled by pride – the conviction that we have the power, ability and wherewithal to cause what we deem the “good life” to become ours to possess and treasure.  The new way runs on humility – the acceptance that, without Christ, we have no hope for genuine happiness.  Jesus says, “…Apart from me you can accomplish nothing (John 15:5).  What makes the new way so much easier is we don’t have to change anything about ourselves before we start jogging the path our awesome Savior paved for us.  All we have to do is believe in Him.  The Holy Spirit takes it from there.  We come to the Lord as we are, broken and hobbling along, leaning heavily on our material crutches.  Jesus throws away our props and, by His strength alone, lifts us up so we can begin traveling the road to holiness with Him by our side.  We find the difference living for Christ makes is astonishing.  We comprehend we have nothing to fear; that being a follower of Jesus is not restricting – it’s liberating.  Whatever it was we thought we wanted loses its luster.  Our sole desire becomes doing what pleases God.  Nothing else makes sense to us anymore.

 

No matter which of the two types an individual is, they’re motivated by a core passion.  It’s not complicated.  It’s what they want most and their existence revolves around discovering how to get it.  I’m not saying it’s their only passion but it’s the main one that gets them out of bed each morning.  For a non-believer it can be anything they choose to pursue, be it wealth, prestige, adoration, sexual gratification, authority over others, etc.  Anything this fallen world offers.  But if you’re a saved-by-grace member of the Body of Christ, serving God is your core passion.  Otherwise you haven’t quite “gotten it.”  You haven’t done what the Bible says you’re supposed to do.  Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship (Romans 12:1).  You might be saying, “Hang on.  How’d worship get into this thing?  I sing as loudly as anyone in church!”  Ponder for a moment that perhaps worship is more than chortling praise music.  Frederick Buechner wrote, “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.”  Worshiping God should be the essence of a Christian’s core passion.

 

If you’re a believer but your core passion is achieving a material “good life” in the here and now then it’s time you made a direction correction because what you’re chasing will never fulfill you even if you catch it because it’s an illusion.  What your heart was made to yearn for is the God who created it.  Nothing and nobody else will fill it up.  Wrap your brain around this: you are God’s core passion!  Brennan Manning wrote, “I believe His desire for you and me can best be described as a furious longing.”  God not only loves us madly, His will is for us to come to Him and allow our souls to be enveloped inside His warm, forgiving and wholly accepting embrace forevermore.  When we live the new way our prayers are for peace and healing.  We make consulting the Holy Word part of our daily routine and deem being used by God the principal source of our joy and excitement.  When and if God’s blessings arrive it’s okay to rejoice in them but we should never let receiving them become a requirement for our loyalty and obedience.  That’d only lead us back to living the old way.  We need to stay on the trail of the new way where our core passion is to grow closer to God, surrender to His perfect will, be content with His provisions, introduce Him to those who don’t know Him and to act more like Him every day.

 

Understand that even if our core passion is centered on God there may be days when it’ll feel like He’s not around.  Larry Crabb wrote, “We may want God, but experiencing God is not a predictable reality.  We can arrange conditions favorable to encountering God, but we aren’t in charge of whether He shows up.”  Our faith will get challenged.  No one likes to be tested but the Bible confirms that sometimes we will be.  There’s a line in the Casting Crowns song, “Oh My Soul,” that goes “Oh my soul/you are not alone/there’s a place where fear/has to face the God you know.”  Re: There are moments when we need to preach to ourselves.  Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “I say that we must talk to ourselves instead of allowing ‘ourselves’ to talk to us!  Do you realize what that means?  I suggest that the main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self.  Am I trying to be deliberately paradoxical?  Far from it.  This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter.”  In the Psalms, David did it all the time.  He pleaded, Why, LORD, do you stand far off?  Why do you pay no attention during times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1).  He cried out, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?  I groan in prayer, but help seems far away (Psalm 22:1).  Yet in every case David later got around to reminding himself how great and mighty God is.  He preached the truth he knew to his self.  We should follow his example.

 

Okay, so we’ve established the old way doesn’t work.  Roger that.  But new way Christians must come to terms with the fact we can’t know everything.  At the onset of our journey we’ll know we’re on the right path but, as we used to tag newbies in the Boy Scouts, we’re tenderfoots.  We’ve still got a lot to learn.  Thank God we have the finest teacher living inside us, though – The Holy Spirit.  We may not know all that much but we’re eager, determined students who can see that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t an oncoming train but Jesus Christ, the light of the world.  Yet, as any of us who’ve gotten through high school found out, accumulating knowledge is a process and it has its ups and downs.  There are times when we catch a glimpse of Jesus’ majesty or we sense He’s speaking to us and we dance and leap from cloud to cloud for weeks on end.  But then the excitement fades and it’s back to the grind.  Our rowdy peers get on our nerves.  Some of the courses are a pain to pass.  We develop migraines.  We manage to complete one semester only to discover the next one’s even harder.  But we press on because we have an iron-clad, signed-in-blood promise that one day we’ll graduate with honors and the victory party will be heavenly.

 

New way Christians develop a closer, more intimate relationship with God because He’s their core passion.  The Cross and the one who gave His life for us on it is our irrevocable guarantee that our sometimes happy, sometimes sad trek through this mortal phase of existence will be more than worth it.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong in desiring to have joy-enhancing children, health and glistening teeth, honest/loyal friends who have our back, a rock-solid marriage and an engaging career as long as they remain in the category of secondary to knowing God.  The Apostle Paul was a new way Christian and he had his priorities straight.  “…I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things – indeed, I regard them as dung! – that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness.  My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:8-11).  Paul’s core passion was to know Jesus a little more each day.  It should be ours, too.

 

When the publicly-crucified, officially-declared-deceased Jesus rose and walked out of the tomb on Easter morning very much alive again a line of demarcation was drawn between the old way and the new way.  Along with His atonement for all our sins, His subsequent resurrection is the single most significant event that’s ever occurred in the history of the universe.  It changed everything from the macro level to the micro.  Now every man and woman has a choice to make.  They either believe the same Jesus of Nazareth that strolled the earth 2,000 years ago is alive today and for all eternity to come or they don’t.  No fence-straddling allowed.  They must pick a side.  For new way Christians the resurrection isn’t some remote, isolated incident stuck in the past.  Manning wrote, “On the other hand, if the central saving act of Christian faith is relegated to the future with the fervent hope that Christ’s resurrection is the pledge of our own and that one day we shall reign with Him in glory, then the risen One is pushed safely out of the present.  Limiting the resurrection either to the past or the future makes the present risenness of Jesus largely irrelevant, safeguards us from interference with the ordinary rounds and daily routine of our lives, and preempts communion now with Jesus as a living person.  In other words, the resurrection needs to be experienced as present risenness.  If we take seriously the word of the risen Christ, ‘Know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time’ (Matthew 28:20), we should expect that He will be actively present in our lives.”  That’s why the new way implies we renew our hearts and minds daily!

 

Dr. Crabb insists there are two lessons all followers of Jesus have to learn.  He wrote, “The first is this: The Spirit of Christ is always nudging us toward the New Way if we’re not on it and always nudging us farther along if we are.”  Because the Holy Spirit dwells in us we’re making progress whether we feel like it or not.  God doesn’t sleep or take coffee breaks.  He’s working on us 24/7, helping us to fan the fire of our core passion – knowing Christ better and consciously attempting to imitate Him in every area of our life.  I don’t want to think where or who I’d be if not for the Holy Spirit abiding in me.  If I had to rely on my own strength I’d be stranded like a leaky bass boat adrift in a sea of doubt.  At the mere hint of an approaching storm I’d go scrambling back to living my life the old way.  Faith would be tossed overboard and I’d start frantically rowing, convinced it was up to me alone to save my own skin.  And before long my boat and I would be at the bottom of the ocean.  Why?  Because only God can lead me through the tempests that are bound to smash into my life.  The old way is trusting in ourselves.  The new way is trusting completely upon the Holy Spirit for divine guidance.  He’ll never steer us wrong.

 

Crabb continued with, “That’s the first lesson.  The second is this: My passion to know Christ often seems weaker than my desire for blessings.”  If that’s the situation you find yourself in it’ll be impossible to stay on the new way with any amount of consistency.  I’ll be honest with y’all.  I’m still having to learn the second lesson over and over again.  Here’s an illustration.  I need to lose about 10 pounds.  I know I’d feel better physically.  Plus a lot of my nicer shirts wouldn’t fit so snugly.  I’ve made “eating less” a resolution many times.  Yet at night, while taking in a few TV shows, I’ll get hungry.  I know I have a choice between gnawing on some celery sticks or chowing down on rocky road ice cream.  My resolve usually goes out the window because the latter is a lot tastier than the former.  I want instant gratification.  Symbolically, I opt for the old way even though I know it won’t benefit me in the long run.  I opt to do things my way because satisfying my in-the-moment core desire is what I want most at that juncture.  My decision has consequences.

 

How frequently do I do the same thing in my spiritual life?  Every dang day.  Look, I sincerely feel like I’m on fire for Jesus 99% of the time.  I love reading my Bible every day.  I love going to church.  I love reading books by J. I. Packer, Norman Geisler, Philip Yancey, etc.  I love that God allows me to lead a Celebrate Recovery meeting several times a month.  I love talking to others about what a fantastic renovation Jesus has underway in my life.  But then there’s that 1% of the time when I take my eyes off of my Savior and my core desire switches in an instant to pleasure, recognition or feeding a self-centered habit.  The “thorn in my side” itches and I scratch it.

 

Paul wrote about the same tendency I have.  “…So that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me – so that I would not become arrogant.  I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).  Paul could’ve done as I do and griped to the Lord, “Say what?  That makes absolutely no sense to me at all!  How can my weakness be of any use to you or anybody else?  That’s nuts!”  But Paul didn’t.  He was incredibly trusting of God’s will and he remained focused on his calling.  He immediately forced his core desire back onto knowing Jesus better no matter how much that infuriating thorn nagged for his attention.  Thus Paul’s a mentor to all of us who struggle.  He responded to his request being turned down by God with, So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).  Paul wasn’t superhuman.  He wasn’t made of iron.  He was just like us.  Yet he didn’t question God about the ongoing presence/irritation of the thorn.  He accepted that God knows best and never brought up his thorn again.  I want a faith like Paul’s.

 

There are two guarantees for Christians.  If we live the old way (do A, get B) we might do okay for a while but eventually we’ll be disappointed.  Guaranteed.  If we live the new way (do A and let God determine whether we need B or not) we’ll still likely stagger through seasons of discouragement but there will come a day when we won’t know anything but fulfillment, elation and wide-eyed wonder.  Guaranteed.  Paul wrote, For a person will reap what he sows, because the person who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit (Galatians 6:7-8).  May knowing Christ be our core passion.

3

The Monster with Three Heads

It lives near each of us.  One head is the world we’re in, one’s the devil who hates us and the third is the weak flesh we’re made of.  If the monster’s faces were hideous we’d do everything feasible to steer clear.  But more often than not the monster appears as a harmless acquaintance that’s dropped by for a friendly chat.  It’s happy to offer advice on how to make your life run smoother and it’s not averse to bringing up Christianity.  It’ll strongly suggest that if you accept Jesus into your heart (and then flawlessly toe the line of His Laws) everything you feel you’re entitled to but not receiving in the here and now will be delivered to your doorstep on a silver platter.  Pronto.  It’ll insist that God’s promised His children a hassle-free existence and back up that claim quoting selected Old Testament Scriptures.  It’ll conveniently avoid bringing up what the New Testament writers taught.  Paul in particular because he was astonishingly transparent about the pain and hardship he gladly endured for the sake of Christ.

 

What’s even more amazing is that Paul didn’t gripe about his less-than-ideal circumstances.  Rather he used them to remind us the “Good Life” that comes from following Jesus is our freedom to draw near Him in the midst of our worst trials, not an invitation to dance with the angels through a rose garden.  In his letter to the church in Corinth he didn’t withhold the sobering truth about being a Christian.  We are experiencing trouble on every side, but are not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are knocked down, but not destroyed…” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).  Does that sound like a walk in the park to you?  Larry Crabb wrote of this passage, “Paul’s life was not a pleasant experience.  By admitting it and by abandoning all hope that it ever would be pleasant, the pressure was off to figure out some way to make life work.  Paul lived to know God, not to use Him.”  The old way of “do this – get that” didn’t appeal to Paul in the least.  He wrote, For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone (1 Corinthians 15:19).  The material things of this world will pass away.  Don’t waste precious time coveting or hoarding them.  He’s telling us to face the fact this is a messed up, fallen world and to think we can fix it is a foolish pipedream.  Because he could so easily relate to them, Paul was fond of referring to the Psalms where one finds a lot of dismay, confusion, and anguish being expressed.  Not to justify complaining but to point out the old way didn’t and never had worked like we wished it would.  Yet in the same Psalms we find a lot of unbridled praise for God’s goodness, as well.  Obviously the praise isn’t because God had blessed the writers with an earth-based “Good Life.”  It was because they’d been freed from the “pressure to perform” that never paid earthly dividends, anyway.

 

Paul was affirming that, yes, life’s a dimly-lit road filled with potholes yet we who are saved will persevere.  We do so because we know that the one who raised up Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence (2 Corinthians 4:14).  There’s a warm, eternal light at the end of every believer’s tunnel!  In reading Paul’s letters you begin to understand that making his life work to his personal advantage wasn’t a priority to him.  If it was, he would’ve turned his back on evangelism, gone back to Jerusalem, made convincing apologies to the Jewish leaders, testified publicly to being one who’d seen the error of his ways, made the necessary reparations and likely been rewarded with a cushy position in the religious hierarchy.  But Paul had a firm grasp on what being a dedicated ambassador of Christ entailed and the hardships involved didn’t deter him one bit.  He was content with what God provided.  He knew his dangerous mission and that the scars he incurred along the way would be admired in heaven For all these things are for your sake, so that the grace that is including more and more people may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:15).

 

After his shocking encounter with the risen Christ, Paul never went back to living life the old way.  The new way was much better.  Crabb wrote, “The Old Way identifies real desires in the human heart, desires for meaning and love and fulfillment and freedom, then goes no deeper.  It fails to discover our pure, consuming, relentless desire to be in the presence of a perfect person, to gaze at the beauty of absolute holiness the way a beginning artist stares at a Rembrandt masterpiece.  The Old Way sees only desires that point inward, to the self, and assumes that Christianity is centrally concerned to satisfy these desires through whatever does the job.”  The three-headed monster is a rabid fan of the old way.  It’ll make what’ll sound like reasonable suggestions on how to have your cake and eat it, too.  It’ll whisper, “God doesn’t want you to live paycheck to paycheck.  He wants you ‘livin’ large.’  Just show God you’re doing everything right.  Attend more spiritual conferences.  Teach a Sunday school class.  Buy and read that slick TV preacher’s new book about how to “realize your potential.”  Pray harder.  Maybe see a therapist about your depression.  That helps lotsa folks, you know.  Whatever.  God ain’t gonna just hand success to you!”  The monster can gussy itself up to look like a haloed saint.  But its aim is to set us up for disappointment when the inevitable setbacks and problems arise.  At that juncture sinful pleasures will start looking better and better and, before you know it, the monster will have won another battle.

 

The new way is all about Christ.  The old way is all about me.  About my emotional state of mind.  About being satisfied with my religiosity.  About how upbeat I’m feeling today.  About whether or not my grown children respect me as I think they should.  The old way teaches me (via trial and error) how to efficiently manipulate my surroundings so I always come out on top.  If I don’t I’ll do a thorough analysis, identify my mistake and fix it myself so it won’t happen again.  God becomes nothing more than a safety net.  I speak from experience.  The old way is a beckoning siren on the reefs.  I got baptized when I was nine but in the fifty years that followed the Bible became just another dust-covered book on my shelf I’d read once upon a time.  I had the Ten Commandments down pat and assumed that as long as I obeyed them I’d get what I wanted out of life.  Hey, God owed me that much.  But nearly eight years ago I suddenly found myself staring into an abyss.  My well-paying job left town without me.  My wife found out nasty things about me she’d never suspected.  My marriage was in jeopardy.  I’d alienated all my friends.  The old way had failed me.  I finally turned to God.  He asked, “You done?”  I nodded.  He said, “About time.  Come near.  Let me show you how to live the 2,000-year-old new way.”

 

The overseer of the new way is the Holy Spirit.  He’s the third person in the Trinity.  He knows the Heavenly Father.  He emanates from Him.  He knows the Son.  He’s literally “Christ’s Spirit.”  The Scriptures tell us the Spirit is God.  Thus He’s holy and perfect in His righteousness.  He is, in every sense of the word, love.  When He speaks it’s to direct us onto the Holy Path that’ll lead us into the presence of the Great I AM.  I chuckle when I hear folks rant about how we’re losing our “right to privacy” because there’s technically no such thing and there never has been.  The Holy Spirit hacks into not only all our emails and best-kept secrets but every single thought that passes through our tiny brain.  We can put up a good Christian front but He peers right through our masks and knows we yearn for God’s blessings more than we yearn for God.  Yet it’s not His job to judge us; it’s to fill us with hope.  To reignite our passion to live and love like Jesus.  To fix our eyes on the resurrected Christ who’s “overcome the world.”  To rehabilitate our selfish hearts and transform us into useful heralds of the kingdom of God.  To reassure us that, contrary to how things seem, God’s in control.  That He hasn’t failed one of His adopted children yet and neither you nor I will be the exception.  That condescending voice we sometimes hear that tells us we’re missing out on the fun stuff; that we should be at the front of the line instead of bringing up the rear; that trusting wholly in God is just an excuse to settle for being a lazy panhandler isn’t the voice of the Holy Spirit.  It’s the voice of the three-headed monster.  Tell it to stick a sock in it.

 

The old way was a disaster.  God had a solution.  ’Indeed, a time is coming,’ says the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah.  It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt.  For they violated that covenant even though I was like a faithful husband to them,’ says the LORD.  ‘But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,’ says the LORD.  ‘I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds.  I will be their God and they will be my people.  People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me.  For all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,’ says the LORD.  ‘For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done.’” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).  Only the Holy Spirit can put the law in us and write it on our hearts and He couldn’t do that until the Lamb of God had defeated death.  Jesus said to His disciples, I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.  For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come.  He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you (John 16:12-14).  That’s the voice we must listen to.  It’s not a magic trick.  It’s the real deal.  Crabb wrote of the Holy Spirit, “What I thought was spiritually elitist and suspiciously mystical, I now see as available to everyone and intensely practical.”

 

If this sounds too “out there” for you, think again.  The Bible assures us it’s the truth.  Christ and the Holy Spirit ushered in the new way thousands of years ago.  On the one hand a former command is set aside because it is weak and useless, for the law made nothing perfect.  On the other hand a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God (Hebrews 7:18-19).  That means we don’t have to consider ourselves a “finished product” before we can receive genuine love from God and pass it on to others.  We don’t have to make our lives run like fancy Swiss watches before we can worship the Heavenly Father and be of use to Him in the outworking of His master plan.  I recently noticed a stunning headline that read “Astronomers have discovered there are ten times more galaxies in the universe than previously postulated.”  A big problem too many of us have is that we just can’t come to grips with the fact the same God that caused such an unfathomably immense creation to come into being can possibly love us and see to our individual needs.

 

When we confront our true selves we’re usually disgusted with what we find.  Simon Tugwell wrote, “And so, like runaway slaves, we either flee our own reality or manufacture a false self which is mostly admirable, mildly prepossessing, and superficially happy.  We hide what we know or feel ourselves to be (which we assume to be unacceptable and unlovable) behind some kind of appearance which we hope will be more pleasing.  We hide behind pretty faces which we put on for the benefit of our public.  And in time we may even come to forget we’re hiding, and think that our assumed pretty face is what we really look like.”  In other words, we begin to deem the indwelling Holy Spirit and the new way a made-up fairy tale and revert back to thinking we have to heed the advice of the three-headed monster because it just makes more sense to us.  We don our mask, scurry back into the mine, grab a pickaxe and start chipping away again, looking for gold.

 

Henry Nouwen wrote, “Over the years I’ve come to realize that the greatest trap in our lives is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection.  Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they’re part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection.  When we’ve come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions.  Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’  Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”

 

One detestable habit I have is going the opposite way and rationalizing that, if God loves me so much, my sin won’t be all that reprehensible to Him as long as I keep it on a tight leash in the shaded shadows of my being.  I don’t truly repent; I just hide my “unattractive traits.”  I have a hard time accepting that in my weakness I am strong.  Brennan Manning wrote, “Christians who remain in hiding continue to live the lie.  We deny the reality of our sins.  In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift.  If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others.  We cling to our bad feelings and beat ourselves with the past when what we should do is let go.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘guilt is an idol.’  But when we dare to live as forgiven men and women, we join the wounded healers and draw closer to Jesus.”  And drawing closer to Jesus is the very essence of the new way!

 

Understand the monster isn’t going to shut up.  It’ll continue to tell you if you encounter tribulations and heartaches in this life it must be due to your failure to do everything correctly; that you’re not performing up to snuff; that God only helps those who help themselves.  Don’t listen to its false teachings.  They’re founded on the defunct old way.  Paul’s a great example of a person living the new way.  He pleaded with God to remove the painful “thorn in his side” but God didn’t.  Instead, He told Paul, My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Paul didn’t pout or go into hiding.  He turned lemons into lemonade, proclaiming, So then I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).  The monster ridicules Paul’s response and insists copping his attitude will get Christians nowhere.  But the proof’s in the pudding.  Read your Bible.  The old way never did work.  It only brought unproductive pressure to bear down upon God’s children and kept them from enjoying life to its fullest.  The monster despises the new way because it negates its ability to shackle us with the Law of Linearity’s chains and to encourage us to question God’s sovereignty.  Only by trusting in and listening to the Holy Spirit are we truly free.

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