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Friday, January 25, 2008

No More WWJD!

It’s time for a revolution! It’s time to stop trying to be like Christ. No, it is not heresy. Rather, it is a realization that in our human weakness, we cannot live as Christ lived.

Recently I have been studying Romans chapter 8 while also reading Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines. In so doing, I’ve come to realize something about my ability to be like Christ. I can’t do it. WWJD is a great slogan and an even better sales gimmick, but it is a poor way to try to live your life. It only leads to disappointment and frustration.

You see, there was nothing wrong with the Mosaic law. In fact, Romans 8:4 tells us that its requirements were righteous. The problem with the Mosaic law is that it was powerless to transform lives. The reason it was powerless, according to Romans 8:3 is that it was weakened by our sinful nature. As such, it became a law of “sin and death” (Rom 8:2). Christ came to set us free from the law of sin and death and showed us a new way to live – according to the law of the Spirit of Life (also Rom 8:2). Unfortunately, somewhere down the line we have missed the point. We are no longer living according to the Spirit of Life, but are living according to a new law of frustration and disappointment – the law of WWJD. We have replaced one set of do’s and don’ts that we are powerless to abide by in our sinful nature with a new set of do’s and don’ts that we are equally powerless to abide by in our sinful nature. Turn the other cheek? Control your tongue? I’m too weak for that. Consider your neighbor above yourself? Bear with each others’ weaknesses? I’m too selfish for that. Sure, I can try – I can even eagerly desire to succeed, but I will fail miserably. My sinful nature makes it just as impossible for me to live according to the commands of Jesus as it would be for me to live according to the requirements of the Mosaic law. Therefore, I am just as frustrated in my attempt to live the Christian life as the Jews were in their attempt to keep the law.

What am I to do, for I am a wretched man? What I want to do I cannot do, but rather I do what I do not want to do. (Romans 7)

There is a way out of this mess – Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! The answer is to stop trying to be like Christ… and simply surrender to his Spirit. We have to stop looking at every situation and trying to decide in our own flesh how to respond to it. Jesus Christ did not live the way he did because he came upon a situation and made a choice how to respond to it. Rather, Jesus Christ lived the way he did and his actions were determined by the fact that he is, by nature of being God, holy and righteous. His actions flowed from his righteous character. I am neither holy nor righteous and my character is fairly suspect. Romans chapter 8 tells us, however, that we no longer live (or rather we no longer should live) according to the weakness of our sinful nature, but instead should be living according to the Spirit. My hope of glory is not my ability to live out WWJD. My hope of glory, according to Colossians 1:27, is a great mystery revealed to us through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – namely, Christ living in us – and through us… which also really means it is not my glory at all, but rather the glory of Christ. Nothing in me is worthy of glory except Christ himself. Why are we trying so hard to be like Christ, when Christ himself is living within us? Instead of trying to be an imitation of perfection, why not simply surrender ourselves to his perfect spirit and allow him to live through us? Only then can our lives be transformed. How do we do that? I’m not sure, so I’m simply going to quit trying and let Him do it for me. This is the true meaning of sanctification.

Christianity was never intended to be just another set of shackles.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Praying the Psalms

There are some really great prayers in the bible. We can learn a great deal about prayer just from reading them. Sometimes, we can even pray them ourselves. For example, take a look sometime at Nehemiah’s prayer in Nehemiah chapter nine. It is a wonderful prayer of praise to God.

Nothing, however, compares to the use of the Psalms for prayer material. There is so much “prayer richness” in the Psalms to choose from. No matter what your emotional state or what your circumstance, there is a prayer in psalm to suit you. Are you hurting? Are you remorseful? Are you joyful? There is a Psalm for you to pray.

It used to be that when I read the Psalms, I saw all the “stuff” in there that just seemed to be irrelevant for our society today or perhaps even inappropriate as an attitude for a New Testament believer. After all, does this really seem like an appropriate prayer?

Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take up shield and buckler; arise and come to my aid. Brandish spear and javelina against those who pursue me. Say to my soul, “I am your salvation.” May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay. May they be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them away; may their path be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.

NIV, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984), Ps 35:1-6.

In many parts of the world, this prayer may have direct, personal meaning to persecuted Christians; but even then a New Testament, Christ-like believer ought to be praying for their enemies, not praying against their enemies. As you read through the Psalms, this kind of language is prevalent. Nevertheless, there is a way to pray the Psalms that is both relevant and meaningful. For example, consider this prayer:

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God. To you I call, O Lord my Rock; do not turn a deaf ear to me. I will exalt you, O Lord, for you lifted me out of the depths. I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. My soul will boast in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together. May your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord, even as we put our hope in you. One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.

NIV, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984), Ps 34:1-3; 33:22; 30:1; 28:1; 27:4; 25:1-2.

This is a rich, powerful prayer. As you can see from the copyright notice, though, this prayer is not one Psalm, but various verses put together to make a single, meaningful prayer. I would strongly encourage all Christians to read a portion of the Psalms every day. As you do so, look specifically for those verses that speak directly to your heart, such as Psalm 40:8

I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart. (NIV)

Whenever you find such verses, stop and take a moment. Meditate on that verse. Speak it to God as if it were from you personally. Commend it to Him. If you like, jot it down or even memorize it. Or even if you like, you can do what I have decided to do myself: start making notes of these verses and, on occasion, pull them together into a single prayer like the one above. Then, one day in your private time with God, pull it out and pray it back to Him.

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen. (Ps. 41:13)

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Family Matters

The holidays are officially over and everyone is starting to get back into the swing of the New Year. For me at least it was a good holiday season. Hopefully it was for you as well. The time between Thanksgiving and New Year is traditionally the time when people travel about the country getting reacquainted with close friends and family. You get to see those aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, and out-laws that perhaps you don’t otherwise get to see throughout the course of the rest of the year. It can be very stressful, but hopefully it is (at least overall) a time of love, joy, and reuniting with loved ones. But for now, it is time to get back to work.

On what may appear to be a completely unrelated subject, but not really if you indulge me a second… I was talking with an acquaintance the other day about how difficult it often can be to understand scripture. We ended up in an interesting conversation about the various different translations of the Bible. Out of the blue, then, my friend said that the biggest single scripture with which they had difficulty understanding was the passage where Jesus said we had to hate our parents. They explained that it wasn’t until they heard in a sermon that what Jesus really meant was that we had to love God so much more than our family that is “seems” like hate in comparison. The scripture in question is Luke 14:26-27, which says

"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (NIV)

When studying the gospels, it is often helpful to look for occurrences of the same situation in one or more of the other gospels. In this case, this same situation is recorded a bit differently in Matthew 10:37-39

"Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Now we can tie it back to the original discussion, because what Jesus was really trying to say is a bit broader than just loving God more than we love our families. Rather, Jesus was saying that under no circumstances should our family or our friends stand in the way of our obedience in surrendering to and following Jesus Christ. It really was a great Thanksgiving and Christmas season. However, think back to all the family and friends you may have visited during this past Holiday season. What if, for the sake of Christ, you had to abandon those relationships?

I am so completely fortunate and blessed that my family is in complete support of the fact that I have decided to give myself to Christian ministry in obedience to Jesus’ call on my life. Not everyone could say the same thing. In fact, there are many places in our world today where merely becoming a Christian can literally (from a worldly perspective) ruin your life. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is an extremely eye-opening book about the persecution of the church, but much of it is historical in nature. Here in 21st Century America, we don’t often think about religious persecution, but it does exist in our world. A simple internet search is all you need to see the truth about what is happening throughout the world today. By contrast, many of us have become so content in our “American Dream” lives that we aren’t even willing to give up simple comforts and be inconvenienced for the sake of Christ… much less lose our family – or worse – our own lives.

As we begin the New Year, let us thank God for the blessings of our families, but let us also be reminded that our true calling is to surrender our all – even those we love - to Christ.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Remember Me, O God, For Good

God is omniscient, right? He knows everything. As his adopted son and faithful servant, surely he knows who I am, remembers my deeds, and couldn’t possibly forget that I exist. And yet, throughout the Old Testament, saints often pleaded with Almighty God for him to remember them and their deeds. Samson pleaded with God to remember him and his deeds and to grant him one last feat of strength to honor God. David prayed in Psalm 25 that God forget the sins of his youth and remember him “for goodness sake”. The most notable occurrence, though, is probably Nehemiah, who made this odd plea to God on four separate occasions.

Remember me, O my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people. (Neh 5:19)

Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out my loyal deeds which I have performed for the house of my God and its services. (Neh 13:14)

For this also remember me, O my God, and have compassion on me according to the greatness of Your loving kindness. (Neh 13:22)

Remember me, O my God, for good. (Neh 13:31)

For whatever reason, Nehemiah was adamant that God remember his actions and deeds, which he had done for God and for His people Israel. Nehemiah was a great leader, but when you read the book of Nehemiah, you will find that he made some difficult decisions and did things that were not always popular. He was charged with a nearly impossible task and faced great opposition to that task. Yet, he remained faithful to his calling until it was complete. It is evident from his actions that he was more concerned that he be found faithful in God’s eyes than to be remembered or acknowledged by man. As such, his intentions and motives were pure.

I often wonder how pure my motives really are. I wonder how often Christians do good deeds solely because we want to be noticed by man. By nature, I would suspect that many of us are somewhat selfish. Recently, I had a realization in my own spiritual life. I realized that I still needed man’s approval regarding the works that I was doing for God. That is not to say that I was only doing them for human recognition, but rather to say that I still sought out human confirmation that my efforts were satisfactory. It’s only natural, right? We want people to be happy with out work. We appreciate and often thrive on the accolades. Such things are not completely wrong. After all, worldly feedback is one means that God uses to confirm that we are on the right track. However, we shouldn’t be actively seeking out that confirmation as a means of making ourselves feel better. When we do that, we have crossed some imaginary line into an area where we are seeking to be man-pleasers rather than God-pleasers. I can’t help but recall the lyrics to an old Petra song I used to listen to when I was a teenager (yes, more CCM theology):

“Don't wanna be a manpleaser - I wanna be a Godpleaser
I just want to have the wisdom to discern the two apart
Don't wanna be a manpleaser - I wanna be a Godpleaser
I just want to do the things that please the Father's heart”

Here’s a test as to whether or not your actions and motivations are pure. Ask yourself this question: How would you feel if no one on earth ever remembered a single thing you ever did for God or, for that matter, for anyone else. Ecclesiastes 9:15 records an instance in which a poor man saved an entire city through his wisdom, and yet no one remembered who he was or how he had done what he did. In the 18th Century, Thomas Grey wrote a poem titled “Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard”. Within it are some familiar words that say:

“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”

What if that were the calling for our lives? What if our lot in life were to toil in nameless, faceless, monotony? Would we still be willing to follow him in obedience? Thomas Grey’s poem ends by quoting a grave epitaph that reads as follows:

“Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and Fame unknown.
Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy marked him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heaven did a recompense as largely send.
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heaven (‘twas all he wish’d) a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode
(There they alike in trembling hope repose),
The bosom of his Father and his God.”

God sees, and notices, every flower that blossoms. How wonderful it is to know that he also sees, and remembers the deeds that we do in His name. Too often we forget that. Perhaps it was not for God’s sake that Nehemiah asked to be so remembered. Perhaps it was to remind himself for whom he was toiling – to remind him that, despite the hardship, his efforts were not in vain.

Remember me, O God, for the good that I do in your name.