Thursday, March 7, 2013

Becoming a lover

What is the hardest thing God asks us to do and the surest sign that we have been born again by his Spirit?  I do not think there is any question that the hardest command God has given is to love him with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40) and obedience to these commands is the surest sign we have been given divine life (1 John 4:7-21).  This is especially obvious when we recognize that love is not simply doing good for God and others but love is a true affection in the heart for God, for others which results in doing good (1 Corinthians 13:1-4).  Love delights in the beloved and delights in doing good for and for the sake of the one loved.

So how do we become loving people?  How does a church "make loving people?  Paul tells us how this happens in 1 Timothy 1:5 (ESV), "The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith."  First notice the logic of Paul in this verse.  Paul and Timothy as leaders of the church have a charge and the goal of that charge is to create people who love God and man.  However the fulfilling of that charge does not directly cause love but rather creates people who have pure hearts, good consciences and a sincere faith which then produces love for God and men.  The big question here is to what does "our charge" refer?

Two verses earlier Paul used the verbal form of this noun when he tells Timothy, "...charge certain persons to not teach any different doctrine..."  Later in 4:11 Paul uses this word to tell Timothy to teach the word of God to God's people.  Then in 1:18 Paul uses the noun to tell him that he has entrusted "this charge" to Timothy because of God's call on his life to be a pastor/elder in the church.  Thus the charge which has as its goal the creation of loving people is the teaching of the word of God in the church and the corresponding work of preventing false teaching to get a foothold in the church.  Paul expects that as pastors/elders, parents and other teachers in the church clearly communicate the true gospel, the true word of God and prevent false teaching from prevailing in the church that people will have "pure hearts, good consciences and sincere faith" which will in turn lead to these people loving God and other humans.

To have a pure heart is to have a heart that wants one thing; it is to be person who believes that Christ has done everything to make me right with God and thus he alone is worthy of all my trust and loyalty.  It is to be able to say with the apostle Paul, "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ...that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death..." (Philippians 3:8 & 10).

To have a good conscience is to be free from the guilt of sin which plagued me because I know that all my sins are forgiven because of Christ.  It is to be free from the demand that I prove myself worthy of God's love by my performance.  It is to have a conscience that no longer accuses me of my failures because it is at rest in Christ's finished work.

A sincere faith is trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins and for being made right with God not so that he will give me a happy life on planet earth.  It is to trust in Jesus to do what he came to do, bring me to God, not to trust him to bring me into a life of health and prosperity.  I am trusting Jesus to do for me what he wants to do for me not what I want him to do for me.  I am not using him to get what I want but trusting him to give me what I need, a relationship to God.

I think we can begin to see how it is that if by the gospel I am made into a person who has this sort of interior life than I become a person who truly does love God for his sake and not for what he can do for me and I am free to love others without concern for myself or my own needs but out of joy in doing good for those I love.  I do not need other people to treat me well in order for me to treat them well because I have been given so much which I did not deserve through Christ.  I am safe and secure and thus free to take risks in loving God and others.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A prayer to be happy

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal writes, "All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves."  Do you not find this to be true for yourself?  All that you do, if you think carefully about it, you do because you believe it will, in the long run, make you happy.  Even things you do not "want" to do, like going to work or having a hard conversation, you do because you are convinced your happiness depends upon it.  There is no question, we want to be happy.

But, does God want you to be happy?  The Bible answers that question with a resounding Yes!  However, God does not want us to be happy in any way we want but to be happy in him.  It is his will that we "delight in the Lord", Psalm 37:4.  God's will that we find our joy in him is expressed in many ways.  Today I want to consider a prayer we are taught to pray by God to be happy.  Psalm 90:14 says, "Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days."

God wants us to be satisfied with his unfailing love because he tells us to ask for it in this psalm.  To be satisfied is to be content, to want nothing more.  It is to say, I have all I want and need.  For people like us who live in a consumerist culture, satisfaction is a rare experience.  We have been trained since childhood to be dissatisfied with everything so that we will buy new.  There is a way to always be content people and that is to have God himself satisfy you with his unfailing love.  This love is the love which God has for us is secured by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; that is why it is a steadfast, unfailing love.

Notice that when God answers our prayer to satisfy us with his love, then we rejoice and are glad all our days.  There is no want in our lives any longer, no lack because we have everything when we are satisfied with the love of God in Christ.  When we have all we want we cannot help but be glad, to show forth our joy in rejoicing.

Much, not all, of our sorrow is due to the fact that we do not look to God to satisfy us with his steadfast love but we look to our spouses to satisfy us with their kindness or our children to satisfy us with their respect and admiration or our jobs to satisfy us with meaningful work or our retirement accounts to satisfy us with security or our friends to satisfy us with their admiration.  However, none of these finite hings can satisfy us and thus make us glad "all our days" because they all are temporary and changeable.  However, the love of God in Christ is unfailing, steadfast, unchangeable and eternal and thus can never fail to fill us up.

So today begin asking God to satisfy you with his unfailing love so that you can be glad (happy) all your days.  Ask his forgiveness for all the ways you seek to be satisfied in other things and people and thank him that Jesus died so you can be forgiven for you treating his love with contempt as you seek happiness in other things.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A prayer for sufferers

I remain cancer free at this time.  I had blood work done on December 18 and a colonoscopy on January 30th, both showed no sign of cancer for which I am grateful.  I will have my blood tested every three months.  My next one will be March 18.  My hands and feet continue to experience a profound neuropathy.  I've gotten used to it, though it still does impede my typing somewhat.  It is my goal to write one post each week, reflecting on some aspect of the glory of Christ and his saving work from God's word.

I recently was struck by one of Paul's prayers for the Christians in the church located at Thessalonica.  In 2 Thess. 3:5 he expresses his prayer: "May the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ." Paul often reports his prayers for the people to whom he writes.  He does this not simply to encourage his friends with the knowledge that he prays for them and certainly he does not do it to show what a super spiritual person he is.  Rather his prayers are meant to teach us what only God can do and thus to teach us what we ought to be asking him to do.

What is Paul asking the Lord to do?  First, the verb "direct" is a very strong verb.  It means to guide or direct a person or thing to his or its final destination.  Paul uses the verb in his first letter tot he Thessalonians when he says, "may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you."  Clearly here he means for God to overcome every obstacle and clear the way and impel he and Timothy to travel to Thessalonica.  So in our verse Paul is asking God to do all that is necessary to make sure our hearts arrive into the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ.

When he mentions our hearts he is thinking of that part of us which determines all that we think, feel, say and do.  It is my affections, what I love, trust in, fear, desire, value.  Thus Paul is asking God to bring their hearts into a full knowledge and experience of the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ.  He aims for these Christians to value and trust and rejoice in and desire these two things.

What is the "love of God" and "the steadfastness of Christ"?  The love of God is God's love for us in Christ.  Paul wants these believers to be fully aware of and consumed with the wonder and glory of being loved by the great Triune God who shows his love for  his people by giving his son to die for us.  Second he wants Christians to be overcome with the wonder of Christ's patient endurance of all the sufferings he went through.  We are to be amazed by and desire and value the patient endurance of Christ; his settled determination to pay whatever cost in order to save us and glorify his Father.

The Thessalonians were in the midst of profound suffering.  Paul knows that what they need are hearts taken up with God's love and Christ's steadfast suffering to accomplish God's will.  When we know and trust and love the love of God for us we can endure all things because we know nothing can separate us from this amazing love.  When we see Christ's joyful endurance of suffering beyond our comprehension it strengthens us to also remain steadfast in the midst of our troubles.  In my own experience it is as my heart has rested and rejoiced in these two things that I have found strength to press on, to not give up.  Especially as I sat by my son's bed in the early days after his accident I was helped by considering the steadfastness of Christ in his sufferings.

May the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and the steadfastness of Christ.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Strengthened by Grace

It has been over a month since my last post.  Typing is so difficult and I do so much of it in ministry that it is difficult to motivate myself to do more voluntarily :-).  The numbness in my hands and feet remains the same.  I am riding my bike about 18 miles three times per week but running is not possible.  I am back to full strength except for the neuropathy.  I had a CT scan earlier in September and I remain cancer free at this time.  I will be getting blood work done every three months to watch for some sort of cancer marker.  Pray that I will not complain about my numb hands and feet ( Philippians 2:14) but that I will "boast all the more gladly" of this weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Here is a verse I have been thinking about over the past month: "You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus." (2 Timothy 2:1)  There are two questions to be answered.  For what does Timothy need strength ?  How does a person "be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus?"

If you keep reading in 2 Timothy you will discover for what Timothy needs strength .  First he needs strength to do the work of ministry, particularly for the work of faithfully passing on the gospel he was taught by Paul to "faithful men who will be able to teach others also."  The successful development of faithful teachers of the gospel requires strength that no person naturally possesses.  Second, Timothy needs strength to "suffer hardship as a good soldier of Christ Jesus."  Because he is a soldier of Jesus there are things which other Christians can do and enjoy but which he must voluntarily deny to himself because they do not fit the lifestyle of a soldier who aims to please the one who enlisted him.  He must embrace a life of hard work and self-denial like that of the athlete who aims to win the prize and the farmer who wants an abundant harvest.  Third, he needs strength to accept the risks entailed in faithfully preaching the gospel in the midst of a hostile culture, like his mentor Paul who was in prison for his faithfulness.  All these things require strength which he does not naturally possess.

What is the grace that is in Christ Jesus and how are we strengthened by it?  The grace that is in Christ are all the undeserved and unearned benefits which we receive because of what Christ has done for us.  To mention but a few of these gracious benefits:  forgiveness of all my sins, eternal life, being declared not guilty but perfectly righteous, adopted as God's child, an heir of God and co-heir with Christ, having Christ as my friend, my brother and my Lord, the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the promise that God is working all things for my good. the certain resurrection from the dead...and many more.

All of this grace strengthens us by means of or through faith.  I believe that all these benefits are surely mine on the basis of Christ's person and work and so I believe that I have nothing to fear. There is no loss, no pain, no suffering that can compare with all I have in Christ.  I can forgo legitimate earthly pleasures in order to obey Christ's call on my life because all denials will be more than made up for in the new heavens and the new earth.  I am able to teach this gospel with complete confidence and passion to others because of all that is mine by it.  I am weak and helpless to do and be all that God calls me to be and to do.  However all the grace I have in Christ will provide me with all the strength I need to be and do his will for me.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Disciplined but not dead

We just returned from our annual 2 week vacation in Door County.  We normally go in mid July but last year there were so many dead fish on the beach where we stay that it was unusable.  So we moved our vacation to late in August to make sure we did not encounter rotting fish again.  This worked out perfectly with my chemotherapy as my last treatment was Aug 6 and we left for Door County on Aug 11.  Thanks be to God for his arranging this for us.  It was a very refreshing time spent with my children and grandchildren, mainly hanging out on the beach.  It was also the most spiritually refreshing vacation I've ever had.  I was able to do a lot of reading of good books and the Bible.  I was strongly encouraged as a Christian and as a pastor by the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as I read a new biography written by Eric Mataxas.  I would strongly encourage everyone to read it.

Although I am no longer sick and weak the neuropathy in my hands and feet have gotten worse.  They are very numb.  I cannot button my buttons or untie knots and typing is very difficult as I do not feel the keys with my finger tips.  The doc tells me that it should gradually get better and be gone in 6-8 months.  I would appreciate your prayers for God to heal this numbness as I do a lot of writing on the computer.

A passage which the Lord used to encourage me is Psalm 118:18 which reads: "The Lord has disciplined me severely but he has not given me over to death."  The psalm is about Jesus as v.22 is quoted numerous times in the NT in reference to Jesus.  Thus v.18 is a description of how God the Father treated his Son.  He disciplined him severely by subjecting him to the miseries of this life and ultimately to his suffering and death on the cross.  However, even though he was severely disciplined by the Father, even to death on the cross, yet the Father did not give him over to the power of death but raised him from the dead.  Thus, I am to see my cancer and the hardships associated with its treatment as God's discipline, just like my Savior.  And, because of Jesus' living and dying and rising for me I also can say with Jesus that the Father has not given me over to death either.  I too will be raised to life, victorious over death by the grace of God.

As I have said before, when we read of God's discipline of his children, including his only Son, we must not think in terms of punishment but of training, instruction.  It is the love of God expressed in hardship to train us to prefer Christ and obedience to him above all else.  In fact, Hebrews 5:8 says exactly this about Jesus, "Although he was a son he learned obedience through what he suffered."  So once again we find this fact stated in the Scripture that all of our hardships are God's loving discipline of us and a sharing with Christ in his sufferings so that we learn that the love of God for us and our love for God, our obedience to God is better than everything this life offers.  No matter how severe the discipline God sends it can never compare to the severity of that discipline that our Lord suffered.  No matter how severe the suffering God sends to his children he will never give them over to death but will raise us to life with Christ at his return.  This is our hope and our confidence in the midst of the trouble.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Rejoice in hope

I've been meeting with a group of men every Tuesday in the late afternoon for the last 10 years.  We gather together to "shoot the breeze", pray and study the Bible together.  We've been working our way slowly through Paul's letter to the Romans.  By slow I mean we've been in Romans for at least 7 of those 10 years.  Personally, I've been helped in my own walk with Jesus enormously by meeting and praying and talking with these men.

As an example, last week we spent 40 minutes reflecting on Paul's command in Romans 12:10, "Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer."  Our current facilitator, leader began our discussion by asking this question: "Does God want you to be happy?"  After some spirited discussion we turned our attention to the fact that in this verse God commands us to be happy, to commands that we be full of joy.  Therefore, it is not simply a desire that God has for us to be happy but he actually requires that we be happy, full joy.

However, then the obvious question follows: in what way does God require us to be happy?  In what are we to rejoice?  Clearly God does not want us to rejoice in doing evil.  In this verse he commands that we be full of joy in hope.  What is hope and what is our hope in that is supposed to be the ground of our joy?  In the Bible the word hope is never used the way we normally use it in our conversations when we say things like "I hope it rains today" or "I hope the Brewers win today"  We use the word as a synonym for "wish".  However, the Bible uses the word to mean, "a confident expectation of future good."  Biblical hope is a certainty.  I know that this is going to happen, without a doubt.  The reason biblical hope is not a wish but a certainty is because it is rooted in the finished work of Christ and all that promises that he has secured for all of his people forever.

Paul talks a lot about hope in his letter to the Romans prior to this command.  In Romans 5:1-2 we are told: "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God."  Here Paul tells us that every person who is trusting in Jesus and thus declared not guilty but perfectly righteous is right now already rejoicing in or being happy in "the hope of the glory of God."  What does that mean?  All Christians have a confident expectation that one day we will fully experience, in an immediate, present, ongoing way, the wonder and beauty and majesty of the great Tribune God in all of his glory that is able to be perceived by finite creatures like us.  We will know his love and grace and holiness and justice and power and creativity and mercy and kindness and every aspect of his glorious being revealed to us in the person of the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus by the mighty work of the Holy Spirit.

But Paul also says that the hope which we have is right now causing us to rejoice.  So then, if we are already experiencing it, why does he command us to rejoice in it in 12:10?  Before we answer that question let's think for a moment about the relationship between a future hope and present joy.  All of us have experienced this connection in our normal lives.  Our family takes a two week vacation each summer to Door County.  At any point during the year prior to our going all I have to do is think about being in Door County with my family and my heart  feels happy.  In fact, it is a regular occurrence throughout the year but especially as the vacation approaches that one of our children will remind us that we going to Door County in X number of days and then will say, "I can't wait to go."  Thus expressing their hope and the joy they find in that hope.  We are not in Door County but we have joy now as we anticipate being there.  However, are we always full of joy in the hope of Door County?  No because of the reality of sin and suffering in our lives.

It is the same reason for why Paul says we already have joy in the hope of the glory of God and also commands us to rejoice in the hope.  He talks like this because of the fact of sin and suffering in this world.  Sin is, at its core, putting our faith and hope in created things and the promises of pleasure that created things give us, rather then putting our faith and hope in God and his promises.  Thus, the process of Christian growth is the fight to turn away from placing my hope for future good in money or relationships or success or vacations or a new car or sex or health or drugs or successful children or whatever and instead fixing my hope on this one certain thing: one day, by God's grace, I am going to fully experience the glory of God.  Thus the experience of present joy is directly related to my consciously and intentionally fixing my mind and heart on that future glory and turning away from the unreliable promises of glory in created things.

However, not only does sin interfere with our hope inspired joy but also the sufferings of this life interfere with it as well.  This world is full of trouble and misery that comes to us not as the result or our sin but simply by virtue of the fact that we still live in this world that is under God's curse.  Suffering now is always painful and distracting.  It is difficult when in the throes of some great trial to look beyond the trouble to our final destiny and find our joy in it.  It is difficult to feel the joy when we feel the pain so strongly. 

This is why it is so important to recognize how it is that Jesus endured the greatest trouble any human has ever experienced: he a completely perfect and righteous man suffered unjustly at the hands of men and endured the wrath due to us.  Yet we are told in Hebrews 12:2 that he endured this greatest of all suffering in joy.  This is exactly what Peter says is the experience of the believer when in some trial in 1 Peter 1:3-6, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.  In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials."

The experience of the Christian in the midst of some trial is one of grief in the trial and, at the same time, joy in the hope of that coming salvation.  This is the normal Christian life.  Grief and joy in the same heart at the same time.  Weeping and rejoicing is our condition until that final day when Christ returns and then it will be only joy forever.  Revelation 21:1-4, "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.'"

Friday, July 27, 2012

Men of dust; eternal God

I have not written for the past two weeks as I've either been too sick to think or too busy working when well to take time to write.  I did not get the worst of the two chemicals this past Monday and so I was not as sick on Wednesday and Thursday as the previous 10 times but I was not as well as I had hoped.  However, today, Friday, I am much stronger than during any previous "chemo" week.  I thank the Lord for this mercy and look forward to taking the final treatment on August 6.  After that I will be tested for cancer in February of 2013.

I've given very little thought to the fact that I have/had cancer during these treatments.  Mostly I've been trying to survive the treatments.  However, as I have been contemplating the fact that, at least for the next five years, I will be living with the reality that a tumor could appear at any time, my thoughts have turned to my mortality which led me to a favorite psalm, Psalm 90.  As with so many psalms, the first half is not really good news.  The psalm is written by Moses and it has the flavor of the wilderness journey waiting for all the people who were 20 years old and up at the rebellion at Kadesh Barnea to die.

The first line asserts two realities: First, all humans, in all generations live in God, that is, we would not exist if God did not exist.  He is our dwelling place.  In him alone is life to be found.  Second, he is eternal; he has no beginning and he has no end.  He always is.  The mountains and the earth itself are but as babes compared to the eternal God.  Then comes the bad news and lots of it.  The eternal God is the one who turns humans back to dust when he declares to us: "Return, O children of man."  That last phrase is  literally, in the Hebrew, "sons of Adam."  Clearly Moses is thinking of God's curse given to Adam as a result of his disobedience and which is now our curse as well.  Genesis 3:19, "By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return." 

God is in charge of death.  He it is who determines each person's days on this earth.  He decrees when we each return to the dust from which we were taken.  It is by his word that each human dies and returns to the elements from which we were created.  Thus our time on this earth is finite, limited, it has a definite end.  However, as v. 4 declares, there is no limit to God's time.  15 lifetimes of men may pass and for God it was if yesterday had passed or the night was gone.  There are no limits to this God whereas for us, we are very limited.  God sweeps us away as a flood of water wipes all things from its path.  We are no more permanent than dreams partially remembered and quickly forgotten.  We are like grass that is fresh in the morning but after cut down by the sickle, dried up at night.  There is such a great difference between us and the eternal God.  Sons of dust, inconsequential and finite beings we are while he is eternal creator and Lord of all.

As if the news is not bad enough, Moses goes on.  Our dying is the fruit of God's anger with our sin.  As Paul says it so succinctly, "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23).  God's wrath against us which is exhibited in our dying is the cause of much dismay.  All our plans and work and ambitions are crushed under this fruit of God's wrath: death.  There is no escape from God's gaze.  He sees all our sins.  He has placed all our iniquities before his face.  All of our days are lived under the threat of death, the just curse of God's perfect anger against sin.  The span of our life is but trouble and sorrow, these days are soon gone and we fly away like sparks from a campfire that quickly burn out as they float into the night sky.

What shall we do in the face of these awful realities?  First, Moses recognizes that most of us pay no attention to the awful reality that we inhabit.  Few take serious the power of God's anger or fear God in proportion to his wrath.  We live as if our lives will not end, as if tomorrow will be like today, as if wrath will never have to be face.  So we should each one ask God to us wise hearts that "number our days", that is, that take serious the fact that God could justly, at any time say "Return to dust".  We should live as if we are going to die and we are going to have to face this God who is full of anger due to our sins.

Ah, but also, not only must we take serious who we are dealing with and how brief is our life but we must remember that this eternal God is a gracious God to whom we can go for relief.  So before God tells you to return you should tell him to return.  Do you see that in v. 13?  "Return, O Yahweh!  How long?  Have pity on your servants." " O promise making God of Israel return to us before we return to dust.  Do not wait any longer.  Take pity upon poor miserable sinners like us."

What is it that Moses most desperately desires?  What would the Lord do if her were to take pity?  "Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love that we may rejoice and be glad all our days."  This is the greatest need of every human heart: to be satisfied with the great, unfailing love of God for sinners made known in the person and the work of Jesus Christ.  The only way to find true, everlasting joy is to have God graciously, contrary to what we deserve satisfy our hearts with his unfailing love made known in Jesus.  There is no love of God for the sinner apart from Christ because Christ alone has taken up the wrath and anger that all who trust in him deserve.  Thus we need God to show us this wonderful love and then satisfy our hearts with this love alone.  Nothing can satisfy because all else is temporary pleasure.  But with Jesus is eternal pleasures at God's right hand.

Moses continues: Make us glad with this unfailing love for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble.  We ask the God who sends the trouble to also, graciously, satisfy our hearts with his love for as long as he has troubled us so that the trouble becomes but a dim memory and forgotten in the pleasures of his love for us.  Here is a psalm and a prayer for one like me who will be living with more sense, I hope, of the imminence of my death.  Might God use this knowledge to give me a heart of wisdom which seeks all the more to be satisfied in the love of God for a miserable sinner like me.