August 22nd, 2019

The Freedom of Choices

Deuteronomy 28:2, 15 “All these blessings will come upon you and overtake you if you obey the Lord your God. … But it shall come about, if you do not obey the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statues with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you.”

Observation: This chapter is broadly divided into two parts. The first recounts the blessings God will pour onto those who obey Him and follow His commandments. They are far-reaching, profound, and encompass every aspect of life. The second part, much longer, is a description of the devastation to be loosed upon those who do not obey God and do not follow His commandments.  These, too, are far-reaching and profound, touching every aspect of life. Even more importantly, this devastation and destruction goes beyond this life into all eternity.

Application: As I read of these blessings and curses, the Lord reminded me how redemptive suffering can be. I see it in Luke 15, where the Prodigal Son chose to squander his inheritance and ended up living with pigs. But ultimately, the depth and breadth of his loss drove him back into the arms of his father. 

I think about a man I know, formerly lukewarm in his faith, who found himself in a horrible marriage. Today, the marriage is no better, but his heart is good, having been ignited with love for Jesus. I think of dear loved ones who struggle with unforgiveness in their hearts over past offenses—for one an imagined offense, and for another, an offense against his grandfather. Both men are in deep bondage to their judgment. One struggles, wanting freedom that can only come with a surrendering of pride. The other is consumed by his unforgiveness and appears poised to go into eternity in his lost condition. 

And I think about my wife, Cindy, and me. We struggled over the years to come to grips with the reality that we have a very, very good God who could have healed her of MS but didn’t. He did, however, heal our hearts through lessons learned while waiting on Him. 

God decrees that rebellion, judgment, and pride will necessarily result in the horrible consequences of Deuteronomy 28, but He also gladly offers a way of escape—a way that tears us from the grip of sin in our lives and binds us to the renewing life of Christ.

Prayer: Thank You, Lord, for giving me the ability to make choices. Thank You that I am free to choose You, even ‘til the moment of my death. Lord, cause me to be conscious of each unsurrendered area of my life so I can repent of that sin and bind that part of my heart to the life of Christ in me.

October 30th, 2020

Sequined Elephants

Psalm 94:14 “For the Lord will not reject his people; he will never forsake his inheritance” (NIV).

Observation: Psalm 94 is a plea from the oppressed of Israel to be rescued from their afflictions. There are some who take advantage of the weak; it is to God that the weak now appeal for redress.

Application: See the great confidence Israel’s afflicted have in their relationship with God? They declare themselves to be God’s inheritance. Does it seem odd that the God of all creation might have, much less desire, an inheritance?

What is an inheritance but a free gift? It is not a thing merited, like a paycheck. It is never something owed, like compensation for a hireling’s labor. It is simply largess lovingly granted, extended from the giver to a grateful recipient.

In estate planning there is something unsettling when an adult child views an inheritance as entitlement. Has the child not already received the greatest gift of all, that of life itself? To behave as though entitled to more sullies any further gift. But an inheritance freely given, a gift extended not out of a sense of grim obligation but out of the richness of relationship, such an inheritance is of surpassing value.

God treasures most of all the gift I gladly give Him. Having given me life itself, He deserves all I have. He has every right to demand my all, yet He does not. Instead, He is like the child standing on tiptoe for the best view of the passing parade. His heart is filled with eager anticipation as He contemplates with delight the possibility that I might voluntarily choose to give myself to Him.

Of course, He paid the original price to make my gift possible. Like Mr. Ringling, He owns the whole parade He so delights in watching. He thrills at the jugglers on unicycles and the sequined elephants, the caged lions and the clowns, and says in self-satisfaction, “I made all of these.” But His greatest pleasure isn’t in reflecting upon what He already owns. Instead, it is that I might willingly, gladly, make myself His, not as chattel, but as a son, as His beloved. It is in that moment that I become His inheritance, a price neither coerced nor demanded, but a gift freely given in response to all He has done for me. I then become the inheritance He will never forsake.

Prayer: Father, You see me as a gift of unsurpassed value, not because You have pressed Your claim for me, but because I gladly give myself to You. How I delight in being Your inheritance.

October 29th, 2020

Belayers and Cams

Psalm 94:18 “When I said, ‘My foot is slipping,” your love, O Lord, supported me” (NIV).

Observation: This Psalm embodies a plea from Israel’s oppressed for deliverance and protection. There are taskmasters who take pleasure in wrongdoing; the appeal of the weak is for God to be their protector.

Application: Specifically, Psalm 94:18 admits to slipping feet saved by God’s support. It is the simile of the rock climber on unsafe terrain, peering into the abyss as tired fingers cling to precarious handholds. Suddenly loose rock gives way under foot. At the very moment that destruction seems certain, the supporting rope tightens against the harness, preventing sure disaster.

The climber’s rope is his lifeline. When wielded by a belayer who has the climber’s best interests at heart, it provides the assurance of safety in which risk- taking becomes more reasonable. Another critical piece of safety equipment is a cam, a kind of anchor driven into the cleft of a rock then expanded to wedge securely in place. It was just such a cam that the writer of Hebrews 6:19 had in mind, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” Our hope, of course, is the Lord Jesus Christ.

One other piece of rock-climbing equipment bears mentioning as a simile for a life lived in Christ: a hanger. Hangers are permanently bolted into the rock face, often by one who has already climbed the route and helpfully left his hangers for others to follow. A climber clips his rope into well-anchored hangers so if he falls, he won’t fall far. In this is an echo of 1 John 2:1, which says, “But if anybody does sin [fall], we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”

So, who is Jesus to me? He is my belayer, my friend who holds my rope secure. He is that welcome cleft in a rock where I can drive a cam down deep as a sure anchor in the storms of life. He is my hanger, bolted permanently to catch me if I fall. He lifts me and delivers me from all my enemies. When my foot is slipping, it is His everlasting, unchanging love that supports me. I can say with the psalmist, “When anxiety was great within me, Your consolation brought joy to my soul” (Ps. 94:19).

Prayer: Father, thank You for Your strong arms able to rescue me from every trouble. Thank You for loving me with a love so strong that nothing can tear me from You.

October 28th, 2020

Paper Cuts and Lemon Juice

Ecclesiastes 7:3 “Sorrow is better than laughter because a sad face is good for the heart.”

Ecclesiastes 9:12 “Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.”

Observation: These passages are a reminder of the usefulness of trouble to the man or woman wise enough to learn its lessons.

Application: Upon first reading, these verses seem akin to the Princess Bride wizard who remarks that he may as well be given a nice paper cut and have lemon juice poured on it. Acerbic? Undeniably. Truthful? Uncomfortably so.

How can sorrow be better than laughter or a sad face good for the heart? It is precisely because, for the wise, there is much to be learned from hard times. When things are going swimmingly, when relationships blossom and the business plan seems wonderfully prescient, I enjoy a wonderful season of reaping. But those are not the times I have my greatest growth in Christ. Let a relationship turn suddenly cold or the business stumble, and I am quickly thrust back to dependence upon God.

I intuitively know the truth of this, yet my natural inclination is to linger at ease a bit longer. And if evil times must indeed fall unexpectedly, I would rather they come as a sharpened rapier than as a slashing, dull machete. I would much prefer discovering a leaking water pipe to being found sunning in the path of a tsunami. Alas, mine is not to choose. The very nature of evil times falling unexpectedly is that they are both evil and they are unexpected.

I must be ever mindful that God is sovereign. Nothing comes against me except by His permission. His disciplines are unfailingly for my good, that I might emerge from them profoundly changed. But here is a sobering thought: His purpose behind my experiencing that profound change is not so I would be sharp enough to avoid future such problems. Go back and reread today’s verses. His goal is not simply that I would sun on higher ground in tsunami-prone areas. Rather, He intends to make me more like Christ, conformed to His image, identifying with the fellowship of His sufferings as well as with the power of His resurrection.

Prayer: Father, I don’t like unexpected evil, nor do I willingly volunteer for those things that produce a sad face. But I love You Lord, and I accept that Your purposes for me are better than I could ever imagine. Cause me to learn more of You from all that befalls me.

October 27th, 2020

Library Maintenance

Psalm 18:20 “The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me” (NIV).

Observation: David exulted in God’s deliverance from all his enemies. He earlier likened such oppression to being entangled by cords of death and overwhelmed by torrents of destruction (see Ps. 18:4), yet a merciful God responded to his cry for help. Not only did God defeat David’s enemies but He “drew me out of deep waters” (v. 16) according to David’s righteousness and the cleanness of his hands.

Application: What thoughts occur as we read David’s writing of being dealt with according to his righteousness and clean hands? In isolation from surrounding verses, could the assumption be that God’s wrath would be against David rather than for him? Isn’t David the one whose reservoir of righteousness was on empty when he had Uriah killed to mask his affair with Bathsheba? Aren’t his supposedly clean hands the ones that caressed another man’s wife in adultery’s passion?

There is without doubt enough sin in David’s past to merit the fires of eternal hell. Yet here we see him not cowering from enemies justly unleashed by a vengeful God, but confidently expecting deliverance based upon his righteousness and cleanness.

My view of today’s verse is a clear reflection of what I really believe about forgiveness. David’s confidence in God’s rescue gives rise to an inner sense of undeservedness and perfectly mirrors my stunted ability to revel in my own forgiveness.

David had repented and had paid a horrible price for his sin. But while he surely had memory of those dark events for the rest of his days, they no longer had a hold on him. He was freed from the talons of unremitting guilt over something God had said was once and for all finished.

What is it within me that so enjoys reruns of old tapes of sin forgiven as though its grip is retained on me? It is arrogance and pride, thinking that my sin was so much more awful than most, that I must grovel in it yet a while longer. “You wait over there on the bleachers for another inning, Lord, while I mire myself in old mud again.” But hear God’s response, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart…will receive blessing from the Lord” (Ps. 24:4–5). I must accept what David knew: in Him, all things are made new.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, forgive me for continued maintenance of my library of old tapes. Cause me to daily rejoice in Your forgiveness purchased on a Roman cross from which You said, “It is finished.”

October 26th, 2020

Shepherding Memories

Ecclesiastes 1:11 “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow” (NIV).

Observation: Most of Ecclesiastes is a commentary on life’s futility. The author’s range of vision was necessarily limited to what he could see. His experience told him that all we strive to accomplish, indeed our very existence, will be little remembered by those who follow.

Application: Something deep within resists this core message. To think my accomplishments will not be remembered leaves me frustrated and troubled. Even the Titanic’s builder is remembered, though his labor rusts at the bottom of the Atlantic.

But surely there are other grand accomplishments at the hand of impactful men and women: vast cities, mighty buildings, wealthy corporations, helpful ministries. Indeed there are. But for every great city today there was a Pompeii; for every mighty building there was a Twin Tower. For each wealthy corporation there existed an Enron, and for even the most anointed ministry there is today a YMCA or a Harvard. The writer’s point is sobering enough to give pause to anyone seeking to build something lasting here on earth. Things wind down. They break. Purposes change, hardly ever for the better.

It is true that “even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.” Think of it this way: after a loved one’s death we apply vast energy and emotion to shepherding memories of the deceased. Things they touched take on reverential meaning. We preserve their handwriting, voice recordings, and photos. Gradually though, those things are released to the ages and the reality of his or her life assumes our view of the third or fourth generation previous—we know they existed but no matter how intently we gaze into the eyes on the faded daguerreotype, we cannot conjure actual life.

Yet hope remains. Their life is in me. That is certain, because I have passed it on to future generations. Life is a permanent condition, surviving the death of great cities, ministries, and even my body. In Christ, whose life I now live, life had no beginning and will have no end. In Him is the only permanence, the only prominence I can ever achieve. “Prominence in Christ,” you say? Surely not. Yet Jesus says to me, “You have stolen my heart …my bride; you have stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes” (Song of Songs 4:9, NIV). In that glance there is unending remembrance, prominence enough for all eternity.

Prayer: Jesus, give me a heart that is fixed on pleasing You above all. Give me a desire to move my focus from temporal to eternal things.

October 25th, 2020

The Best Stuff

Romans 16:3–13 “Greet (fill in the blank)…

– fellow workers in Christ [who] risked their lives for me…

– who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia…

– my relatives who have been in prison with me…

– whom I love in the Lord…

– tested and approved in Christ…

– those women who work hard in the Lord…

– another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord…

– chosen in the Lord…

– who has been like a mother to me.”

Observation: Paul begins the concluding chapter of his letter to the Romans by investing fully sixteen verses in personal greetings, of which the above extractions are but a sampling.

Application: These are the kinds of verses it is easy to scan quickly in my quest for the good stuff, but they may turn out to be the best stuff of all. Like interminable genealogies or myriad details of temple dimensions, I may vaguely suspect God probably had His reasons for including such minutiae in the Bible, yet the mind loses its concentration as I encounter such passages.

But in reading too quickly, I miss part of the depth and richness of God’s Word. Think of it this way: Hebrews 11 is called the “faith” chapter as forefathers and foremothers took heroic strides in advancing God’s kingdom on earth. “By faith Abraham” did this; “by faith Moses” did that, and so on.

Romans 16 is the same kind of thing, with one distinction: it’s personal. This is Paul’s personal pantheon of the faithful among his family and his circle of friends. It is an intimate list of some with whom he has walked and celebrated and suffered and grown as his life in Christ has deepened.

I have such a pantheon. Were I to construct my own Wall of Remembrance, countless names would be engraved of people who are mostly obscure in the world’s eyes, yet have been profoundly used of God to awaken my heart and mind to the Lord Jesus Christ. From those who have suffered much I have learned grace. Others have demonstrated great faithfulness to friendship through my seasons of unsteadiness. There have been teachers and friends, relatives and co-workers, each having helped to deliver me securely into the arms of Christ. I savor and delight in their remembrance.

Prayer: Father, I see now why such verses are in Your Word. Thank You for the treasure of each relationship I have in Christ. They have lifted me to You on their shoulders. I speak blessing and peace upon each of them today.

October 24th, 2020

Tripped Up Again

Romans 15:7 “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant” (NIV).

Observation: In Romans 15, Paul continued his persuasive arguments to the effect that the Gospel is the great leveler. The strong should serve the weak, and we should let personal offense fall upon Christ Himself so we can live in a spirit of unity.

Application: Paul told the Roman Christians to accept one another, which seems a principle so obvious as to cause me to rush by it with hardly a second glance. Even the modifying phrase, to accept “just as Christ accepted you” may cause only a furtive glance over the shoulder to see if He’s watching. But to accept others as Christ accepts me is such an obviously appropriate thing to do that my day’s agenda need not be seriously interrupted.

Ah, tripped up again! How I would love to keep Scripture’s deeper meanings at arm’s length, as in “everyone knows the proper color for a house is white, but to purchase peace in the neighborhood, I will accept your preference for blue.” But this call to acceptance is so much profounder than that.

Imagine Mother Theresa sitting in a sewage-strewn street of Calcutta, cradling the emaciated body of a dying child. Flies crawl over wounds oozing life itself as a sickening stench rises like a gathering storm from the permanently unwashed. Hers is the acceptance of Christ.

I gained perspective of my own old cold heart as my wife lay dying for a number of years. Her paralysis led to an ever-increasing need for me to shift roles from husband to caregiver, doing what I could to meet physical needs she could no longer attend to. Dutiful and determined, I became a good “surface” picture of Paul’s admonition to be accepting.

But poverty filled my heart, an encroaching dullness unrecognized by me at first but gradually exploding in a mocking litany of loss. It was then that Paul’s next sentence exposed my lack: “Christ has become a servant.” As the truth of that gradually burst over my heart, everything changed. I became eager to rise to serve her, and sought new ways to meet her needs. Accepting our circumstances by serving her became not just rote duty but my highest calling. In this, we experienced a dimension of love fresh and new for us both and profoundly Christlike.

Prayer: Father, it wasn’t necessary for my wife to die for me to learn to love as Christ loves, but it was critical that I die, wasn’t it? Use this lesson to prick me afresh when I tend to again read these verses too casually. Thank You for Your light in the darkest places of my life.

October 23rd, 2020

Thin Ice

Romans 14:4(a) “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” (NIV).

Observation: Paul’s question is intended to build harmony within the body by pointing out that all believers are fellow servants of the same Lord, Jesus Christ. The examples upon which Paul builds his argument include dietary laws wherein a strong, self-confident Christian understands that what is eaten or drunk carries no spiritual significance, while a weaker believer may find greater comfort and safety by moving within familiar structures, not transgressing predetermined boundaries.

Application: Using such terminology as “weaker” or “stronger” may seem itself to be inflammatory or judgmental; these are value-laden terms to us. But Paul goes on to say that our judge is God, not man, that each of us will stand or fall by the decision of our master, “and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Rom. 14:4b).

In other words, who am I to judge? This business of assuming I am among the stronger (surely that would be right, wouldn’t it Lord?) puts me on thin ice indeed. I run the risk of an arrogant skater who believes his great skill and speed will allow him to swiftly skirt dangers that would ensnare lesser skaters, only to find myself dunked in an icy wake-up call. I have no position from which to judge another, no standing from which to assess another’s heart condition. Most of the time I cannot accurately assess my own!

God’s path to righteousness is refreshingly unique for each of His children. Because of that, Paul’s command in verse 13 is essential to obey: “stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block…in your brother’s way.” That’s more than good advice; it’s a good command.

Upon honest reflection, I realize that the stumbling block in another’s way has too often been me. This is my own icy wake-up call to remember that my journey into Christ will never end this side of eternity. I have not arrived. I have stumbled and will stumble again. In this reality, the Lord calls me to don a spirit of compassion and encouragement for my fellow sojourners; after all, am I not desperately in need of the same from those who observe my own unsteady gait?

Prayer: Father, thank You for this reminder to not judge my brothers and sisters. I am in need of Your mercy and grace each day of my life. Forgive me, Lord, for any thought of being in Your eyes better than another.

October 22nd, 2020

Snagged by God’s Judgments

Romans 13:1–2 “The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment upon themselves” (NIV).

Observation: Paul’s treatise on our relationship to authority establishes how we who are under authority are to conduct ourselves. Paul assured us that such positions as kings, princes, governors, and magistrates are established by God’s decision. Those who occupy those positions are intended to be “God’s servant to do [us] good” (Rom. 13:4).

Application: Does Paul sound naïve here, perhaps out of touch with reality? Upon reading these verses my mind seeks to somehow set them aside as I remember unrighteous authorities just in my lifetime. Paul had never met Pol Pot or Stalin, Hitler or Mao, darkened luminaries all, so perhaps he should be excused for such inflexibilities. 

As I read Paul’s words I want to run to my reservoir of excuses justifying rebellion. But think a minute. In Paul’s day, wasn’t all authority vested in pagans?  History since then has indeed given us a string of demonic rulers, but the Caesars of Paul’s day were no slouches in that regard. Yet it was to Caesar that Paul appealed to gain a fair hearing of the charges against him.

God created all authority structures, from the drooling idiot king to the alcoholic father and the cunningly evil shift foreman. While I certainly am free to seek employment elsewhere or to move to another land, there is nowhere to apply for new parentage. If rebellion and judgment rule my heart in response to unrighteous authority, I must see that as sin against God Himself.

Flesh screams for justice, but only until flesh has died. My heart cries out for righteous administration of authority from human vessels who are themselves broken. I long for justice from those who are themselves not just. But the Gospel is always about my heart, not someone else’s. It always comes down to a question of how fully I have laid down my rights. I am called to have a heart of compassion toward those who have brought great wrong that I mightn’t be snagged by God’s judgments. God always calls me first to be concerned with my heart motivation.

Prayer: Lord, as You call me to work for the good, cause me to take care to maintain a clean heart. Wash out of me every motive that would separate me from You.

October 21st, 2020

Deliverance from Ice Cream

Romans 10:3 “Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (NIV).

Observation: Paul continued to express ardent hope that all might be saved, including his beloved fellow Jews. In this regard he affirmed their zealousness, but said they zealously pursued the wrong thing. Their zealotry was wrongly based in placing high value upon attempts to live so as to fulfill the law’s requirements rather than upon God’s righteousness.

Application: I am arrested by the phrase, “sought to establish their own.” How does that happen? How is it that a people zealous for God would seek to establish their own righteousness in a vain attempt to gain His fulness?

They gave assent to being God’s children simply because they were offspring of Abraham’s flesh. As such, they dug deep into man’s wisdom to develop complex rules intended to assure that observance of the law’s letter would be complete. Yet consistent failure was the result.

The Jews found themselves in a familiar pickle. They are like the overweight person who shamefully assesses his condition and, filled with self-loathing, pledges to never again eat ice cream. Then, remembering there is a quart of the damnable stuff in the freezer, he decides to begin the commitment once this is gone. Because of zeal to lose weight quickly, it would be best to be rid of the stuff as soon as possible; it should be eaten this very minute, thus hastening fulfillment of the commitment to weight loss.

Paul was saying that no pledge to the law can ever be fulfilled absent Christ’s righteousness. I must fill my heart and mind with a greater pursuit than law in order to fulfill the law. I can never by dint of hard work and good intention achieve a satisfying result. Ridding the house of ice cream by eating it is no more satisfying to the flesh than is the attempt to follow man-made rules to please God satisfying to the spirit.

Only by substitution comes victory. Substitution for the flesh may lead to the treadmill or to more wholesome foods. Substitution for the spirit is the man Christ Jesus who by experiencing death on my behalf has made it possible at last for me to be His forever.

Prayer: Father, thank You for the unfathomable substitution of Your Son on a Roman cross for my well-deserved death. Cause me today to so pursue Him that temptations to lesser pleasures simply fade away.