The Little Word that Chokes Me

chokingIt’s easy to be thankful when there’s money in my wallet, food in my belly, and friends by my side. Our hearts tell a different story when terrorism is in the news, immorality is in our faces, and sickness invades our families. When the Bible tells us to be thankful in “all” circumstances—it includes both scenarios.

It’s not hard to make a list of things we’re not thankful for—cancer, broken relationships, anxiety, hate, and sin, to name a few—but the Bible doesn’t instruct us to make that list. It instructs us to be thankful all the time.

  • “…give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
  • “…giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father…” (Ephesians 5:20)
  • “in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6)
  • Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)

The word that chokes me in these verses is “everything.” Everything? Even in that list of things I’m not happy about? Evidently so. If Paul, who was bound in a dungeon because of his faith in Jesus could be moved by the Holy Spirit to say give thanks in all circumstances, maybe we should listen.

Could you be thankful if you were sold into slavery and then falsely imprisoned? If not, you wouldn’t be thankful for how God used Joseph to reunite his family and save many from starvation.

Would you be thankful for a judge who didn’t care about justice and knowingly condemned an innocent man while letting a terrorist go free? If not, you wouldn’t be thankful for the way God arranged our salvation.

Scripture isn’t telling us that we should be happy about pain and suffering, but instead that we trust God enough to be thankful during pain and suffering. You never know what he might be up to!

Above My Pay Grade

abovepaygradeWe have all sorts of names for the same phenomenon: back-seat driving, arm-chair quarterbacking, second-guesser…you get the idea. When Neil Anderson was the editor of the Gospel Advocate, he said that based on the letters, emails, and phone calls he got, he must be the only person in the world who didn’t know how to run his business! All of us have this tendency to question things over which we have no control.

There’s an interesting little line in one of David’s Psalms. Pay attention to the end of it: “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” (Psalm 131:1)

I wonder sometimes if we don’t set our eyes on things “too great” for our finite minds. We question God more than is healthy. We forget that his ways are infinitely higher than ours (Isaiah 55:9). Paul chastised the Corinthians by asking, “Who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” (1 Corinthians 2:16). I imagine after that part of the letter was read, there was silence–kind of like when God showed up and started asking questions at the end of Job.

God needed to humble Jeremiah, so he said to him, “If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?” (Jeremiah 12:5) In other words, “Jeremiah, you are in over your head this time. You can’t keep up with me!” Paul again said, “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” (Romans 12:16)

There are some conversations and questions that we really ought to let pass us by. Sometimes we just need to say, “That’s above my pay grade. I don’t know the answer, but I know the One who does!”

…and I didn’t even know it!

I was reading from Genesis 28 the story where Jacob had a beautiful vision in the middle of the wilderness. Having no place to go, he took a stone and lay it under his head as a pillow. As he slept, he saw a ladder where the angels of God ascended and descended, and God affirmed his promise to be with Jacob and his descendants. His words when he awoke from that dream caught my attention: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28:16)

Jacob isn’t the only one in scripture who had this experience. Much later in Israel’s history in 2 Kings 6, Elisha’s servant was afraid. Israel was vastly outnumbered. The city was surrounded by an army with horses and chariots. He cried out, “What shall we do?” Elisha’s answer was beautiful: “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Elisha prayed, and God opened the eyes of the young man so that he saw that the mountain was overflowing with horses and chariots of fire. God was present, and the servant didn’t even know it.

On the morning of the resurrection, two men were walking to Emmaus from Jerusalem. They kept recounting the story of the weekend’s events—the late-night trials, the arrest, and the death of the beloved rabbi. As the men walked, Jesus joined them and spoke with them about the Messiah and how he had to suffer for them to see glory. After their eyes were opened and they recognized the one with whom they walked, they said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road?” (Luke 24:32) They were literally walking with Jesus, and didn’t know it.

I share these three stories to say this: sometimes you feel alone. Sometimes you don’t think your prayers are making it past the ceiling. Sometimes you’re not sure what future you have at all. When you feel that way, let scripture remind you of this truth: God can be present right there beside you—and you didn’t even know it.

Realer than Real

Each one of us tends to treat our own experiences as the gold standard by which all others are judged. If I’ve my first car was a Ford that broke down a lot, I’ll probably believe that all Fords are junk. Very little will change my mind. No survey, no statistic, and no article in Consumer Reports has the power to unseat my experience.

This fallacy in thinking affects every part of our existence, but it is likely at its most dangerous in the spiritual realm. When we talk about pain and suffering, we have a hard time comprehending why these things happen. We can’t imagine anything that would make it worthy.

I was reading a book about heaven that illustrated this thought. Calvin Miller wrote:

“If I tried to define heaven, I would likely fall into the same trap as people who write serious theological works on the subject. I  have read a few of these books, but I almost always get the feeling that the authors are taking their celestial pictures with weak cameras and cheap film, ultimately producing only vague images of God’s wondrously vast reality. Apart from the glimpses of heaven that one finds in the Bible, how much more can we know for now? I think Isaiah 55:9 says it best for me, in the Lord’s own words: ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’”

The pictures we take from our experiences are vivid images in technicolor, while the images of things not yet experienced are lackluster. In Christianity, we cling to the truth that there are things truer than my feelings, realer than my experiences, and more promising than what I see right in front of me.

In the words of Jesus, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

Peter wrote, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9)

May we be the people who rejoice in the things that are more real than the reality in front of our eyes.

You Wear It Well

the-crossThe following is adapted and excerpted from Ravi Zacharias’ Can Man Live Without God? I think you’ll find it powerful.

For background: the state church in Yugoslavia was corrupt beyond comparison. What had been done in the name of Christianity was a terrible affront to decency.

One day an evangelist by the name of Jakov arrived in a Yugoslavian village. He commiserated with an elderly man named Cimmerman on the tragedies he had experienced and talked to him of the love of Christ.

Cimmerman abruptly interrupted Jakov and told him that he wished to have nothing to do with Christianity.He reminded Jakov of the dreadful history of the church in his town, a history replete with plundering, exploiting, and indeed with killing innocent people. “My own nephew was killed by them,” he said and angrily rebuffed any effort on Jakov’s part to talk about Christ. “They wear those elaborate coats and caps and crosses,” he said, “signifying a heavenly commission, but their evil designs and lives I cannot ignore.”

Jakov, looking for an occasion to get Cimmerman to change his line of thinking, said, “Cimmerman, can I ask you a question? Suppose I were to steal your coat, put it on, and break into a bank. Suppose further that the police sighted me running in the distance but could not catch up with me. One clue, however, put them onto your track; they recognized your coat. What would you say to them if they came to your house and accused you of breaking into the bank?”

“I would deny it,” said Cimmerman.

“ ‘Ah, but we saw your coat,’ they would say,” retorted Jakov.

This analogy quite annoyed Cimmerman, who ordered Jakov to leave his home. Jakov continued to return to the village periodically just to befriend Cimmerman, encourage him, and share the love of Christ with him.

Finally one day Cimmerman asked, “How does one become a Christian?” and Jakov taught him the simple steps of repentance for sin and of trust in the work of Jesus Christ and gently pointed him to the Shepherd of his soul.

Cimmerman surrendered his life to Christ. As he rose to his feet, wiping his tears, he embraced Jakov and said, “Thank you for being in my life.”

And then he pointed to the heavens and whispered, “You wear His coat very well.”

Trustworthy God

trustworthyCons, cheats, and crooks have made cynics of us all. What’s the old joke? “How can you tell if a politician is lying?” “His lips are moving!” The joke isn’t that funny; it is a sad commentary on the unfortunate state of things.

A researcher conducted a survey of Canadian teenagers a few years ago. His team asked a really interesting question: “What do you wish for most in your life?”

How do you think the average teen would answer? Money? A girlfriend? To graduate and get out of mom and dad’s house? The number one answer revealed more about society than it revealed in the teens. Their biggest desire was “someone we can trust.”

God is trustworthy.

“He is the Rock. His work is perfect, for all his ways are law and justice. A God of faithfulness without breach or deviation, just and right is he.” (Deuteronomy 32:4)

“And those who know your name will put their trust in you; for you, Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.” (Psalm 9:10)

“The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.” (Psalm 111:7)

We don’t understand everything that God does. How could our finite minds fully comprehend the infinite? When we have doubts and fears or worries or questions that we’re having trouble getting answered, we ought to anchor our hearts with this truth: God is trustworthy. Put another way: God is good all the time, and all the time, God is good!

Ashley Madison Suicides

ashleymadison-hacked-500x311Three weeks ago, a seminary professor and Baptist pastor committed suicide. Very rarely do we find out what leads a person to such a rash act, but in his case, the answer was clear.

Six days prior to his death, it was revealed that his name was on the list of customers of Ashley Madison, a website whose tagline is, “Life is Short; Have an affair!” This site was a dating service designed for people who were looking to commit adultery. Hackers targeted the site, stole a list of potential customers, and told the company to shut down or they would release the names. The company refused, and the hackers made good on their promise.

Despite the fact that many of the names on the list were fake or not actual customers, the release of these names has had tragic results. Ed Stetzer, Lifeway’s head of research, expected up to four hundred church leaders to resign as a result. Police have connected at least two suicides to the list.

The story is heartbreaking. So many homes have disintegrated after a husband or wife was revealed to be on the list. The ripple effects continue to spread.

Think for a moment about all of the brokenness that went into this story:

  • Someone decided that it would be profitable to launch a service to facilitate affairs.
  • Enough people were interested in affairs that it became profitable with over 25 million users.
  • People who despised the premise of the site took matters into their own hands and illegally compromised their data after attempting to extort the company.
  • Others have targeted those who are on this list in attempts to blackmail and extort the individuals.
  • An educated minister who has taught of grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation, couldn’t imagine being the recipient of those things and believed suicide was his only option.

Friends, our world is broken. Sin affects us at all levels. Maybe news likes this helps break us out of our delusion that everything is as it should be. It is not! This is precisely the reason that Jesus came—for our sickness, brokenness, and sin.

Three Components of Apologetics

apologetifc“Apologetics” isn’t the same as apologizing. “Apologetic” comes from a Greek word that means to make a defense or a response. It is a legal term, so imagine that you are the accused in a courtroom. The prosecutor lays out the case against you. After the prosecution rests, your attorney stands to make your defense—your apologetic. The word is used in the legal sense several times in scripture in Acts 22:1, 25:16, 1 Corinthians 9:6, and 2 Timothy 4:16.

When we talk about apologetics, we are talking about making the defense case for Christianity. How do you respond when someone asks you one of the hard questions about Christianity?

First Peter 3:13-17 describes a time when believers were persecuted for their faith. Peter instructs them, “Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.” He offers comfort for those difficult and changing times. Couched in the words of comfort are some simple instructions: “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness, and respect, having a good conscience…”

Our defense of Christianity has these main components:

FIRST – Living a Christ-honoring life. Righteous living in adverse circumstances is what caused outsiders to ask the hard questions in Peter’s day. Good living in our world should stimulate many conversations still today. Our lives should cause people to ask “WHY?”

SECOND – Having a reason for hope. Can you articulate why you have hope? Can you put your faith into words? They don’t have to be perfect or eloquent words, but you can say, “I live the way I live because Jesus rose from the grave!” When the world asks “WHY?” we answer “WHO!”

THIRD – Maintaining the right attitude. Peter made clear, give this answer with gentleness, respect, and a good conscience. When we respond to those who don’t yet believe in Jesus, we must answer with genuine kindness and confident humility.  We have to be careful “HOW” we tell them about “WHO!”

Why, Who, and How are the three great questions of apologetics. Which one needs more attention in your life? All three will be part of our upcoming quarter of Sunday School at Burns Church of Christ on Sundays at 9. We’ve got special guest speakers Doug Couch, James Hinkle, and Joe Deweese helping with the class. I hope you’ll plan to join us!

Wisdom overlooked

gods-wisdom-02Harriett Hinkle has rubbed off on me. When I look at hymns for worship, one of the first things I do is notice the date when the words were composed. It’s interesting to correlate the songs we sing and the times in which they were written. For example, many of our songs about Heaven come from the Great Depression era. It’s not hard to see the connection. Many of our favorite songs were written between 1850 and 1950.

As we were preparing this Sunday’s song service, we were searching for songs that talk of God’s wisdom, I noticed something in those dates that caught my attention. Very few hymns written in the 1800s or 1900s mentioned the wisdom of God. Generally speaking, only very old songs and very new songs mentioned God’s wisdom. This gap made me wonder—why have we neglected this attribute of God? Hymnals overflow with songs of his love, power, and holiness—but not his wisdom. Why?

Perhaps in the last two centuries, our technological achievements and scientific breakthroughs led us to believe that our wisdom approached God’s? Maybe we no longer felt as acute a need for his wisdom? It could even be that we have come to neglect wisdom as a virtue at all.

Whatever the reason, I’m grateful that scripture reminds us to praise God for his wisdom. Our pride needs the reminder. God is not the cosmic valedictorian and we the salutatorians. He alone is wise. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.  His wisdom is beautiful and powerful. It draws us to it as we see our own simplicity. We are not his advisors; we are fools who desperately need guidance. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33 ESV)

Try this paraphrase: “Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It’s way over our heads. We’ll never figure it out. Is there anyone around who can explain God? Anyone smart enough to tell him what to do? Anyone who has done him such a huge favor that God has to ask his advice? Everything comes from him; everything happens through him; everything ends up in him. Always glory! Always praise!” (Romans 11:33-36 MSG) Praise God for his wisdom!

Don’t be a lone wolf…

IsolationWe prize individuality over community. Nobody likes to be lonely, but we all like to be independent. We think that we don’t need anyone—but their company is nice! We idealize the Lone Ranger—who, if you remember, wasn’t alone.

As we’ve been studying through the book of Acts on Wednesday nights, I’ve been struck by the importance of community in following Jesus. Here are just a few things I’ve noted as we’ve studied:

  • When Judas betrayed Jesus, the disciples replaced him at the first opportunity. Each one mattered.
  • The miracle of Pentecost arrived when they were all together in one place. It would have been no more difficult for God to reveal himself to every individual, wherever he or she was, but instead he moved on the community.
  • Nobody practices “self-baptism.” Every convert was baptized by another convert.
  • They intentionally spent time in each other’s homes and shared with each other.
  • When the Ethiopian was reading scripture, God chose to miraculously direct Philip to help him, rather than miraculously answer his question.
  • God appeared individually to Saul, but he depended on his friends who led him to Damascus, Ananias who taught and baptized him, and Barnabas who vouched for him.

I could go on, but I’ll stop here. God has always called a people, not just a person. It’s a real shame that many of us get frustrated with the church or a little bit prideful and decide that we can go at it on our own.

Yes, we need to read and study scripture individually and privately. It’s important that we have that faith-building experience, but it is equally important that we read it communally and interactively. Studying with others causes us to see things we miss, corrects for our biases, and holds us accountable when we would be hypocrites.

Perhaps that’s why Paul charged Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim 4:13). If you’re not in a small group study or Sunday School class, you’re missing out—and you’re holding back a blessing from others.