Content, But Not Complacent

If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.11 But flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 

1 Timothy 6:3-12 (NASB)
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“Godliness with contentment is great gain.” (1 Timothy 6:6) We are entering a season of Thanksgiving and Christmas, and it can be a wonderful time to count one’s blessings and give praise with a humble and thankful heart. But it can also be a season of discontent, envy, overspending, and even depression. Many people are restless. They want “more”– more stuff, more respect, more power, more popularity, better health, a bigger house, trendier clothes…the list can be endless. Advertisers work hard to stir up this kind of discontent in the hope that people will buy their products. Politicians stir up discontent and fear to get more votes. Even religious leaders can stir up discontent in the hope of gaining influence, respect, and money.

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God will not stir up discontent in our hearts. Instead, He wants us to learn to be content and grateful for the blessings we already have, and to trust Him for the things we both need and desire. He will see to it that we get what we need to live a Godly life, even if it seems meager compared to others who boast of their circumstances. Those who trust in their wealth or power will find it is never “enough.” Discontent breeds more discontent– envy gives rise to anger and bitterness. Greed gives way to dishonesty and violence. It is the enemy of Godliness and Humility. It is the enemy of the Christian Walk.

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But there is another danger to the Christian. We should desire to develop a spirit of contentment, but we must be careful not to let contentment become complacency. The Apostle Paul does not stop in his message to Timothy, but reminds him to both “flee” the temptation of greed and discontent, and “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness.” Contentment is not an excuse for complacency. We are to “fight the good fight of Faith.” We are to be content with what we have, but not complacent about where we stand or how we live.

Discontent says– “I don’t have enough. I need more! (Even if I must take it by force or manipulation)”. Complacency says–” I have everything I need. I am an island of self-sufficiency. I don’t need anything (including God!) Both attitudes are conceited and fail to acknowledge God’s provision and His Sovereignty. The discontented, greedy person will be at war with God’s laws. The complacent person may not be fighting against God’s laws, but s/he will ignore God’s will, and refuse to stand up for justice or mercy. The complacent person is complicit in evil, even when they are not the ones doing it. The complacent Christian is ungrateful, and has only half-hearted praise for the Author of the blessings they enjoy.

There are many “Christians” in both categories. Many who claim to follow Christ, but are really following what they think will bring them power, wealth, health, or popularity. Many are being lulled into complacency by their blessings and comfortable circumstances. Both groups have lost their focus. God is to be the center of our lives– not our own comfort or our own pursuit of it.

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This season, may we be content, humble, and willing to give God the Thanks, Praise, and Worship He deserves. And may we not become complacent about doing good, standing firm in the Faith, and helping others.

Flee!

As we bid goodbye to September and enter October, we are entering the season of Halloween and horror movies. I’m not too fond of this cultural phenomenon–I don’t like horror movies, and, while I don’t mind handing out candy to kids dressed up in clever costumes, I’m not thrilled about kids and adults “celebrating” witches, vampires, zombies, etc..

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While I don’t watch horror movies, or read horror novels, I have noted what others have told me about them. One of the strangest phenomena they report is the seeming inability of innocent people to escape the horror stalking them. This is sometimes part of the horror and the plot, but often, the “victim” has many chances of running away– but never does! (Or they wait until it is too late.) In fact, movie-goers often report the audience will sometimes yell at the characters to, “Run!” But they simply stand, fascinated or paralyzed by fear, waiting for their doom to catch up to them. Of course, this adds to the suspense of a fictional scenario, but it sets a terrible example for real life.

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Recently, I heard an interesting and disturbing parallel in reports about real “victims” from a public safety official. He said that in various crime scenes, like those involving a violent confrontation or an active shooter, many people who could reach safety, don’t. This is because they continue to watch the horror unfolding around them. They do nothing to stop it; nothing to avoid it; nothing to protect themselves. In fact, some of them take out their phones and start filming it–creating their own “real-life” horror movie. Instead of taking common sense precautions, they seem more interested in watching the “story” unfold, as if it had no power to touch them. Normally compassionate people will watch someone else being bullied, tortured, harassed, and even killed without calling for help or protecting themselves or others who could be pulled into the violence.

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There is nothing “entertaining” about violence and evil. There may be something instructive about watching evil being defeated, or violence being stopped, but there is greater wisdom in avoiding evil and violence in the first place. Evil should not make us curious– it should repulse us, and make us want to flee. Seeing a rattlesnake coiled and hissing should not cause us to reach out and try to pet it! Watching someone waving a loaded gun around should not cause us to whip out our phone and record it for later viewing.

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As Christians, we are warned to “flee from temptation” in the same way we are urged to flee from danger and horror. When we know something is evil, harmful, unwholesome, corrupt, poisonous, and unholy, we are to have nothing to do with it. This is not because we feel powerless in the face of evil. God is with us in any situation. But we are to stay away from situations and relationships that threaten our ability to do what we know to be honest, compassionate, and “right.” Jesus warned His disciples to “watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41 ESV) And in The Lord’s Prayer, He prayed that we would not be led into temptation, but delivered from evil. (Matthew 6:13) Jesus wasn’t saying that we should live in perpetual fear; rather that we should make it a priority to avoid ANYTHING that would draw us away from the goodness and mercy of God. Even in our prayers, we should ask God to keep us on the path of righteousness and keep us away from temptation and failure. Common sense alone will not keep us from dangerous behaviors like flirting with sin or dabbling in danger. God will provide a way out (1 Corinthians 10:13), but how much better to avoid the need for constant rescue!

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As this season approaches, I pray that God would keep me far from the path of evil. I don’t want to be like the “victim” in a horror film, paralyzed by fear or fascination, while sin and death come stalking. Nor do I want to be the bystander, filming someone else’s pain and torture instead of seeking help and protection. The spirit indeed is willing– willing to fight against evil; willing to grapple with it; willing to learn more about it; willing even to flirt with it. But the flesh is weak and vulnerable to deception, traps, and failure.

We are not to follow after the empty promises of temptation–“thrills and chills,” titillation, “secret” knowledge, “spine tingles,” etc.. Instead, we are to seek the sure promises of a Loving God– His guiding presence, His joy, His eternal Love, and His abundant Life.

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Flee temptation; Run to Jesus!

Holy, Majestic, Awesome God!

5-9 So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others. With these qualities active and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus. Without these qualities you can’t see what’s right before you, oblivious that your old sinful life has been wiped off the books.

2 Peter 1:5-9 (The Message) (emphasis added)
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I think one of the hallmarks of a Christian is not knowledge about God, but personal experience of God. And one of the signs of such experience is a reverent wonder– an overwhelming AWE– of God. Of who He is and how He works, what He has done, and what He has promised to do. As we grow in faith, good character, understanding, discipline, and patience, we are ready to absorb the absolute WONDER of this majestic, mighty, amazing God we serve. We revel in our own personal experience of Salvation, but we also begin to see the magnitude of God’s Grace, His Power, His Wisdom and His Holiness.

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Many of the ancient prophets tried to describe their encounters with God’s presence. Daniel and the Apostle John were paralyzed and prostrate when visited by angels. Paul was blinded by the light. Moses’ face had to be covered after being in God’s presence. because his face was so radiant. Isaiah was struck dumb. The list goes on… We may not experience the presence of angels or receive prophecies like they did, but we can experience a sense of ecstasy in contemplating our marvelous Lord and Savior.

One prophet who had such an experience was Habakkuk. Habakkuk lived in perilous and evil times. His nation was in rebellion toward God’s law, and its citizens, from the leaders and priests to the farmers and townspeople, were paying lip-service to God while prostrating themselves to foreign gods and foreign countries. The leaders lived in splendor, while many of their own people starved, or were sold into slavery. Habakkuk, in frustration, prayed to God, pleading for relief from evil, and judgment for the righteous. He had faith, was of good character, understood the law, had developed discipline, and had a passionate patience– but his patience was mixed with frustration. “How long must I wait to see justice and reform?” “How long will my people keep seeking help from wicked foreigners?” “When will we be free of oppression?”

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Habakkuk was not just whining. He had a heart for his own people, and wanted to see what God would do. God’s answer was not what Habakkuk was expecting. God promised justice and redemption– but only after invasion, more oppression, and exile! God was sending a vast and merciless army to crush not only His own people, but all the wicked nations in whom they had placed their trust. God was going to “pull the rug out” from under the entire region. But then, He would punish the invaders, wiping out their power and restoring His people to their own land.

What was Habakkuk’s reaction to such news? At first, he was stunned; then confused. But in a very short time, his horror turned to worship. He resolved to stand at his watch; to station himself on the ramparts to see God at work. And as he waited, his perspective changed. God DID see the injustice and wickedness; the violence, lies, and betrayal. God had a plan– a plan so much grander and glorious in scope– a plan that had been in place from long before Habakkuk was born; long before his complaint. It was a plan that would not leave wickedness unpunished, but would bring justice in its proper time, and allow for redemption, restoration and renewal.

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Habakkuk’s prayer (chapter 3) is a marvel of praise and worship:
“His glory covered the heavens, and his praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand where his power was hidden…” (v. 3b-4)
“You split the earth with rivers; the mountains saw you and writhed. Torrents of water swept by; the deep roared and lifted its waves on high. Sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear… (v.9b-11)
“I heard and my heart pounded; my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vines; though the olive crop fails, and the fields produce no food; though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to go on the heights.” (v. 16-19a NIV)

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How often does my heart pound and my lips quiver as I contemplate our Awesome God? How often am I joyful in God my Savior– especially in the midst of expected hardship and continuing evil around me? How often do I limit my sight to what is immediately before my eyes, instead of looking up at the one who holds every moment of the past and future; who controls the vastness of millions of galaxies, yet also sees each individual hair on 7 billions human heads, knows every grain of sand in the desert, and every drop of water in all the oceans; who tracks every molecule in the universe, but knows me by name?!

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May today be a day filled with reverent wonder, as we consider the Holy, Majestic, and Awesome God who has the power to redeem, inspire, and strengthen us for whatever lies ahead.

Suing God

I have a friend who wants to sue God. She’s not entirely serious, but she has a lot of anger toward God. She feels that God “owes” her an explanation for her life circumstances, as well as a general justification for war, famine, and other evils that she reads about in the paper or sees on the news. She believes He (or She or S/he or It– my friend isn’t sure that God exists, but cavils at the idea of calling God “Father” or “He”–she finds it sexist) is being unfair in a thousand different ways.

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My friend doesn’t read the Bible, and is only vaguely familiar with the story of Job. Job wanted to take God to court. His life had crumbled around him, and he wanted God to explain why, especially as he didn’t “deserve” the circumstances he faced. Amazingly, in the Biblical account, we learn that Job was “right.” He didn’t deserve to lose his family, wealth, and health. He had done nothing “wrong.” That doesn’t mean that he was sinless. But he confessed any sins, made atonement– he even sacrificed to make atonement for any sins his children might have committed. Job was a “righteous dude!” My friend– not so much. Like most of us, she would probably be ready to admit that she’s made some mistakes here and there, though she doesn’t feel that they are particularly heinous. She’s more than willing to “let bygones by bygones” for herself and others– shouldn’t God do the same, without making us confess and humble ourselves? Who does God think He is, anyway?!

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But this is the point. God is GOD–He is not a man, or even a superman, that He is compelled to explain Himself to us; to seek our approval or accommodate our whims, wishes, or plans. In the story of Job, God never gives Job the explanation he’s looking for (again, amazingly, WE the readers are given a “behind the scenes” look and told exactly why Job is being tested and allowed to suffer). Nor does God justify Job’s circumstances or spell out his list his “rights.” Instead, He presents Job with a few keen questions to remind Job (and us!) of who God is, and who Job is not!

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Like my friend, I am often disturbed, puzzled, and saddened by some of life’s circumstances, and by the evils I see around me. But when I begin to question why, the Bible reminds me to ask a few keen questions: Did I create the world? Do I have the power or authority to re-create or re-order the world around me? Can I change my own circumstances, or those of others? Can I change nature, weather, geography, biology? Can I make times and seasons obey my instructions? Can I see a thousand years into the future, or remember a thousand years in the past? Am I immortal? Omniscient? Omnipotent? Holy?

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But more than that, I have to ask: If God never gives me answers or explanations for what has happened or is happening, or will happen– what will change? If God answers all my questions– what can I say or do about it? Can I teach God how to oversee the Universe? Can I explain to God what He already knows better than I do? Job’s ultimate response was worship. I have a choice to rage against my creator, or I can trust Him with my past, present, and future. I can worship God right now, in my “not-knowing,” or I can rebel against the one who gives me life and breath– the one who created everything around me, before me, behind me, under and over me– the one who is sovereign over the entire universe.

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My friend wants to sue God– or at least demand answers from Him. I hope she will consider pur-suing Him, instead. He is big enough to meet our anger and our questions, and He is big enough to handle all the things we don’t know or understand.

Intelligent Fools

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
    there is none who does good.

Psalm 14:1 (ESV)

Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
not one of them does good!

Psalm 53:1 (NLT)
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One thing that seems to surprise many intellectuals is the discovery that other intellectuals are Christians! There is a certain class of thinkers who believe that only ignorant people “need” to believe in God. Many of them posit that the concept of “god” is outdated and primitive, steeped in superstition, and unnecessary for anyone. Others claim that any belief in a supreme deity, a Sovereign God who has authority over all humankind, and all of nature, is actually dangerous

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If God could be discovered by intellect alone, this might be disturbing for those of us who are not certified “geniuses.” If mere knowledge about God could save us, we could trust intellectuals to be our “saviors” and spiritual guides. But just because someone is intelligent and learned doesn’t mean that they have attained wisdom. Wisdom is a gift of God, and it begins with acknowledging a simple fact– God exists. This does not come automatically with knowledge about God–such knowledge can be dismissed, twisted, and even lost. If God exists– not just as a concept or a long-lost myth–certain other truths must be acknowledged. Chief among these is the truth that I am NOT God.

Fools come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and intellects. There are people of limited intellectual capacity who are very wise. There are intelligent people who live as fools. Foolishness comes when we deny God– whether we deny His very existence, or His authority over our lives– and live as though we are the supreme authority in our own lives.

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“The Fool says in his HEART, ‘There is no God.'” Foolishness doesn’t begin in the brain. It begins in the heart. The more I believe that I KNOW better than others–including God–the less I will listen to instruction, advice, and wisdom. The more I will do what I want– and justify it, even if others get hurt. The Apostle Paul–no intellectual slouch himself– warns us in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that “Knowledge puffs up..” Not all intellectuals are snobs, but it is easy to become hardened to others if they believe they know more or better than everyone they meet. And Paul’s warning is to believers! Just because we believe that God exists, we can be foolishly puffed up by our very knowledge of scripture, and ignore God’s sovereign call to love our neighbors! We can be foolish “Christians” who acknowledge that Christ exists, but deny His Lordship in our lives.

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There are many intelligent Atheists. Some of them lead moral lives, and do many things that we might see as “good.” They give to charities, advocate for healthful living, a clean environment, and world peace. So why does the Bible use such strong language to denounce them as fools, who are corrupt and even abominable? Doesn’t God see their good works? Doesn’t God give them “credit” for doing the “right” things (sometimes more than their Christian neighbors!)?

God sees us from a different perspective– He looks on the heart. The heart of someone who denies God is the heart of someone in rebellion. It may be a quiet rebellion; it may be vocal and even violent. But once a person denies the very one who created her/him, their heart is corrupted and opposed to giving God His proper place. Even “good” deeds done in defiance of the God of all goodness will become twisted by the selfishness and pride of the doers. The smartest among us may have many great ideas for achieving world peace, but they do not have the power to control all of humanity, nor the authority to force others to accept their “brilliant” ideas. In the end, they will either face disillusionment and despair, or they will become tyrannical in their efforts to “fix” the world’s problems according to their own plans.

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God asks us, first and foremost, to trust Him. Second, we are to obey Him. Third, we are to live with, and love, others– to share the love and wisdom He gives! Fools may know about God, but they stop short of trusting Him, obeying Him, and learning to serve others. They deny His wisdom; they deny His Grace, and their need for it. They deny themselves the joy of relationship with the God of Love. There is nothing wrong with learning and intelligence– they, too, are gifts from God–but when we depend on them ahead of leaning on God’s wisdom, we become fools.

Father, I don’t want to be a fool. Help me to acknowledge You in everything I say and do. Help me to recognize Your wisdom, and cling to it. And help me to appreciate the wisdom of Your Word in guiding my intellect and learning.

The Lord Does Not See Us..

In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, the hand of the Sovereign Lord came on me there. I looked, and I saw a figure like that of a man.  From what appeared to be his waist down he was like fire, and from there up his appearance was as bright as glowing metal. He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head. The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood. And there before me was the glory of the God of Israel, as in the vision I had seen in the plain. Then he said to me, “Son of man, look toward the north.” So I looked, and in the entrance north of the gate of the altar I saw this idol of jealousy. And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing—the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable.” Then he brought me to the entrance to the court. I looked, and I saw a hole in the wall. He said to me, “Son of man, now dig into the wall.” So I dug into the wall and saw a doorway there.And he said to me, “Go in and see the wicked and detestable things they are doing here.” 10 So I went in and looked, and I saw portrayed all over the walls all kinds of crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel. 11 In front of them stood seventy elders of Israel, and Jaazaniah son of Shaphan was standing among them. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising. 12 He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’” 13 Again, he said, “You will see them doing things that are even more detestable.” 14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz. 15 He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? You will see things that are even more detestable than this.” 16 He then brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord, and there at the entrance to the temple, between the portico and the altar, were about twenty-five men. With their backs toward the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, they were bowing down to the sun in the east. 17 He said to me, “Have you seen this, son of man? Is it a trivial matter for the people of Judah to do the detestable things they are doing here? Must they also fill the land with violence and continually arouse my anger? Look at them putting the branch to their nose! 18 Therefore I will deal with them in anger; I will not look on them with pity or spare them. Although they shout in my ears, I will not listen to them.”

Ezekiel 8 (NIV) via biblegateway.com

We make a big fuss in our culture about privacy. What I do in my own home, with my own life, in my own time, is private. And, for many of us, our privacy is sacred. We rage and fight and panic about who may be invading our privacy– listening in or watching us when we least expect it.

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I must admit, I don’t like the idea of anyone spying on me or listening in on my private moments. I especially don’t like the thought of someone manipulating or using my private words, images, or ideas without my knowledge or consent.

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But there is a danger in our quest for privacy– we are inclined to believe that anything we do in private CANNOT ever be discovered; that we are safe to do whatever we please, regardless of the consequences. The internet has made this idea even more dangerous–we can be private and anonymous behind the screen. We can say things we know we shouldn’t; we can view things we would be ashamed to acknowledge watching; we can explore fantasies, mask our inadequacies, pretend to be who and what we are not; all behind the “safety” of the screen.

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And this is nothing new. In Ezekiel’s day, the moral, legal, political, and religious leaders of the day thought they were “safe” to indulge in idol worship behind closed doors. But more than that, they believed that God would never see as they practiced divination, witchcraft, ritual prostitution, violent orgies, even child sacrifice! They had built hidden rooms where they practiced vile rites and indulged in the very behaviors they taught others to avoid. Worse, they condemned and vilified others when they “got caught” doing the same things they practiced with impunity. And when prophets came to them with warnings–the very words of God– they had them ruined, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.

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In the eighth chapter of Ezekiel, God shows his prophet a vision. He allows Ezekiel to “go behind closed doors” and see the priests and leaders at their worst–over and over again–secret rituals, detestable practices, flagrant disobedience, arrogant rebellion…And all of this was happening as the nations of Israel and Judah had collapsed, and many thousands had died from war, disease, and starvation. People had been sent into exile– defeated, starving, enslaved. Yet their leaders were keeping up an image of righteousness and proud endurance, instead of turning to God for help and hope.

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God was very clear–Jerusalem WOULD be captured and destroyed. Babylon WOULD take God’s people captive and send most of them to the sword or to exile. Defiance and pride– especially relying on the great victories of the past– would not save them. Rebellion and violence would not hold back God’s judgment.

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The same is true today. It is easy to write about praying and walking closely with God–I’m hidden behind a screen. I can sound righteous and Godly for a few minutes three times a week. And it is easy to point fingers and call out the bad behavior of others behind the anonymity of a computer screen. We need to speak up, speak out, and defend the cause of those who are oppressed, abused, enslaved, and silenced. But we also need to beware that we are not crying, “Shame on you!” from a locked closet, while waving banners or buying merchandise supporting the abusers.

And God sees all of it. What we may find shocking and reprehensible, God has already seen through to its conclusion! God WILL bring judgment and punishment for those who shed blood and bring violence and injustice. But God also sees what I do in the watches of the night; when I’m alone with my thoughts; when I’m not on my guard against what I view on Facebook or YouTube. God knows what celebrity gossip I crave, or what I’m “watching” on eBay. He knows if I am ignoring or justifying evil happening all around me. He watches over my shoulder when I’m reading that new novel, or I’m driving down the road (hopefully not at the same time!), or when I’m wallowing in self-pity or jealousy or anger.

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When I read about Ezekiel weeping over the behavior of Israel’s leaders, I am convicted. How often do I weep and seek God’s mercy over the behavior of our leaders–all of them, and not just the ones I voted for? Or do I just fume and post about how awful “they” are (whoever “they” my be) and how “they” need to be punished? How often do I ignore my own bad behavior? I may not have a “hidden room” filled with detestable images and idols, but God is still watching how I react to challenging times. He knows if I am obeying His voice or merely pretending to follow Him while leaning on my own understanding or my own image of self-righteousness. He knows if I have made money, politics, status, safety, health, or even “religion” into idols, hoping that one or more of them will carry me through tough times. He knows if I am condemning others for their bad behavior, while hiding or justifying my own.

I want everyone to see me when I am noble and righteous–but I need to see myself as He sees me every day–His much-loved, and ever-needy, child.

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Father, may I be quick to remember that You ALWAYS see me– and that You ALWAYS want me to see You as well. Help me to see You in the middle of challenging times. Help me to see You when I interact with others. Help me to obey You in the private moments when no one else is watching.

When I Don’t Know How to Pray

Prayer is both simple and complex. Anyone can pray. There is no single correct “formula” for prayer. God is always listening and hears the prayers of those who sincerely seek Him. I can pray to God in formal words, songs, groans, and scattered thoughts.

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But there are times when I don’t know how to pray. More precisely, I don’t know WHAT to pray. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, or a chronic illness, my first instinct is to pray for healing– immediate and total healing. When I hear of a mass shooting, or a blatant injustice, or a natural disaster, I want to pray for all the pain and loss and evil to disappear or be reversed. I want all those things that I know to be “good”– health, happiness, healing, hope, unity, righteousness, and wholeness.

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Still, God’s ways are not my ways. God’s “goodness” is not measured in comfort and quick resolutions. I may not understand the goodness of struggle and pain in the short term. I think of disaster as total and irredeemable, and my prayers often come out of my own short-sighted thinking and my own discomfort at the realization of others’ (and my own) weakness and mortality.

There are a few Biblical principles that I find very helpful when I don’t know “how” to pray:

  • God knows –REALLY KNOWS– all my inner thoughts and feelings. Even more, He KNOWS what will happen, what should happen, and what is best in every situation. I can pour out my desire to see my friend restored to health, or a community re-united in hope, knowing that God is a God of healing and restoration; but also knowing that God’s timing and purposes may involve temporary suffering–even for those I love. Moreover, God knows why I am confused. He knows why I struggle to know how to pray. He doesn’t ask me to always know the “right” answer– He does ask that I trust Him to know and act in His sovereign strength and wisdom. No matter the circumstances, God is still on His throne. And I am not!
  • Jesus gave us simple but powerful examples of “how” to pray. In “The Lord’s Prayer,” He prayed for simple, personal things– daily bread, forgiveness, guidance–as well as big and overarching things–“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done..” His trust in the Father’s ability to accomplish all things was absolute, and His relationship was firmly established– “Father…Hallowed by Thy Name.” In the garden, Jesus was clearly suffering, and asked that the “cup” of suffering– the torture of the cross and the inconceivable horror of being rejected as He bore our sins and carried them through death and the grave– be removed. Yet, He submitted His desire, His fears, His anguish, to His Father– “Not My will, but Thine..”
  • There are other wonderful examples throughout the Psalms, the Gospels, the Epistles, and hundreds of years of Church leaders and saints: their prayers can teach us, encourage us, and embolden us.
  • Jesus promised that we would have an advocate–the Holy Spirit– who would intercede for us. When we don’t know how or what to pray, the Apostle Paul says that the Spirit makes intercession for us with “groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8:26 KJV). The Spirit also speaks to our own spirit to help us understand more clearly God’s ways and plans.
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I may not always know how to pray, or what to pray. But I can be confident that God hears my prayers. I can come before Him with the assurance that my prayers– and all my thoughts and emotions–are precious to Him because I am His child, redeemed by His sacrifice. My heart may not know all things, but as He continues faithfully completing the work He began in me (Philippians 1:6), my prayers will come more fully into alignment with His will.

Peace on Earth?

I’ve been exploring some of the themes related to the Advent. But what happened afterwards? There is a curious and violent story related to the visit of the Wise Men– before they found Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, they visited the palace of the ruling King of the Jews, Herod. Herod was intensely curious about the baby– when and where the prophets said Messiah should be born. But unlike the worshipful wise men, Herod wanted to destroy this heaven-sent King; one who could pose a threat to his own power and rule.

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Jesus escaped Herod’s plot. Joseph had been warned in a dream, and had taken Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety. The Wise Men, also warned in a dream, had failed to report back to Herod the information he wanted. In his anger and fear, Herod ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys in the region, up to two years old. This “Slaughter of the Innocents,” as the event is known, seems to come in direct repudiation of the message of the angels at Christ’s birth. There was no peace in Bethlehem as soldiers dragged innocent babies from their mothers’ arms and killed them. There was wailing and anguish, instead.

How could a loving and wise God allow this to happen? It was no unforeseen accident, either. This event had been predicted by the prophets hundreds of years before it happened, just the same as the prophecies about Jesus’ birth. God could have sent angels to protect Jesus from this slaughter; He could have confounded Herod’s plans and stopped the soldiers from reaching Bethlehem; He could have struck Herod dead before the plot could be carried out…so why did He let it all happen?

I don’t have any definitive answers. But I can share some opinions, based on what I’ve learned of God’s character. I don’t think God was in any way indifferent to the suffering and injustice of this tragedy. But I think there are a few lessons we can take from this strange and disturbing incident:

  • First, Jesus came to share a very human fate. Jesus was not spared the indignity of being born in a cattle shed and laid in a manger. His life was not supernaturally easy or safe or comfortable. It was God’s perfect will that Jesus was vulnerable to attack, and in need of protection– even when it meant fleeing His home.
  • At the same time, He WAS fully God, and as such, posed a danger to men like Herod. Jesus, even from birth, had an authority greater than any king or emperor who ever lived. But He did not come to earth to exercise that power over other people. Instead, He came to serve and to pour out His life for others. It was not His mission to overthrow the existing government, or to challenge rulers like Herod. It was His mission to fulfill the Law, set an example of obedience, preach the Gospel, and offer Himself as atonement for Sin.
  • Herod had the earthly power to do good or evil as a ruler. He had the unique opportunity to join the Wise Men in worshiping the arrival of God’s chosen one– an event that had been anticipated for hundreds of years. Yes, God could have forced Herod to bow before the Newborn King, but Herod could also have chosen wisdom over fear. We have the same opportunity to welcome Jesus as our Savior– or to wage war against Him. Jesus invites us to follow Him, but He doesn’t stop us from making the same destructive choices that Herod made.
  • Jesus did not come to bring a worldly peace, but an eternal “Peace that passes understanding.” Even now, after His death and resurrection, there is still war and slaughter, crime and injustice in our world. But, because of all Jesus did, and is doing in and through those who follow Him, we see that tragedies can be redeemed; hope can survive where there seems to be no hope; and death is not the final victor. I don’t understand why these particular families had to face the tragic consequences of Herod’s rage and fear and ambition. But I understand that God is bigger than Herod; and more powerful than all the chaos and pain that he caused.
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The world is not at peace today. Innocent people– even babies–are hurt and killed in our world. God knows. He aches for our grief and pain. But He also knows His plans. He knows how the story ends– He knows all that has happened, and all that is happening, and all that will happen. Even in the glory of Christmas, He wants us to know that reality. Someday, Jesus will return in all of His authority and power. He won’t just end the reign of evil rulers like Herod– He will render their legacies useless. He will redeem injustices– even genocide and slaughter–and wipe out even the memory of their grief and terror.

The Thief Comes

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

John 10:10-11 (ESV)

I know a very wonderful and kind-hearted woman who put out a table with several items she wanted to give away to anyone in need. She set up the table, taped a sign to the front, reading, “Free”, and went about her day. She returned to find that not only were all the items gone, but so was the table!

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I also know many other people (including my husband and I) who have been victims of theft, shoplifting, pick-pocketing, mugging, etc. The world is full of honest people, but it is also full of thieves. One of the worst things about theft is not the loss of “stuff.” It is the loss of security; the loss of trust; the loss of innocence and faith. Theft is invasive, even when it is non-violent and impersonal, like fraud or shoplifting. Theft is almost never random– a thief “comes.” A thief has a plan, and a target. Thieves tend to choose their targets based on two factors– the risk and the perceived “payoff.” A thief will target a person or place where the risk is worth the prize–if a target is low-risk, a thief may strike even for a small amount. A high-risk target may still attract thieves, but they will not take such a risk without a lot of planning.

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Thieves also come unannounced and unexpected. While thieves plan carefully, their victims have little or no warning. Theft is shocking and upsetting. We don’t set aside a time to be robbed, or items that are meant to be stolen. Thieves creep in, or distract and deceive us. It would be very foolish to leave valuables or cash around unattended or unprotected. As my friend found out, even a table left unguarded can be lost.

Most of us take precautions against theft. We lock our doors, put our valuables in a safe or in hiding, and even install security cameras and alarms to alert us to possible theft. We avoid dark alleys and dangerous places. We keep watch.

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We guard our valuables, but how well do we guard our hearts? Jesus compared us to sheep– helpless and vulnerable to predators, including thieves. He warns that the thief– Satan– comes only to steal and kill and destroy. Satan doesn’t want our money or our watch, though– he wants our time, our attention, our desires, and our worship. He wants to steal them, and kill us, and destroy our relationship with the Eternal Lover of our Souls. He wants us to be distracted by worry, greed, fear, pride, addictions, dysfunctional relationships, anger, abuse, emotional entanglements, empty pursuits, and endless doubts and questions.

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Satan doesn’t wait for us to seek him out. He doesn’t give us warning about his intentions. But he does come like a thief. He comes to steal our joy, our faith, our innocence, our rest, our security, our gratitude, our focus, our sense of purpose, and our hope. How much of an effort have we taken to stop him? How much effort do we take to guard what is more valuable than our money– our families, our character, our very soul? We wouldn’t walk down a dark alley with a wad of cash– but will we walk into temptation? Will we ignore warnings, believing it just “won’t happen” to us?

Luckily, we have a Good Shepherd. Even when we, like sheep, aren’t paying attention, and don’t see the enemy, God is still there, laying down His life, so that we can have a more abundant, more joy-filled life. The thief will still come– that’s not just an abstract warning, it’s a guarantee. There will be troubles in life that will threaten to steal all that God intends for us to enjoy. And, if we insist on going it alone, we will become victims of theft– our relationships, our character, our futures– we are at great risk. But if we trust in the Shepherd, we will have the best protection. The thief will still come to attack, but he cannot take what is in the Father’s hand– US!

The thief comes– to take; to destroy. The Shepherd comes– to give; eternal and abundant Life!

Out of the Same Mouth

Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 

James 3:5-10 NIV via biblegateway.com (emphasis added)
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‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’

Epictetus (Greek philosopher)
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Have you ever made a tape of you speaking, and played it back to listen to yourself? Or have you had someone remind you of what you said earlier in the day or week? Have you been astonished to hear what came out of your mouth (or how someone else interpreted your words)? James, the brother of Jesus, had much to say about the dangerous power of an untamed tongue. “Fire”, “poison”, “corrupt”, “restless”, “evil”, and “deadly” are harsh words, but we should heed James’ warning.

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Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing…
Out of the same mouth come worship and complaining…
Out of the same mouth come encouragement and gossip…
Out of the same mouth come blessings and bitterness…
Out of the same mouth come hymns of heaven and threats of hell…

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And it’s not just our mouths, anymore. I see (and have seen it in my own feeds) posts on social media that make me wonder if the person posting is aware of what they posted just minutes or hours before–rants and boasts, complaints and smug condemnation sprinkled with Bible verses about Peace and Love, and pictures of puppies. We copy and paste, write and speak “in the moment” out of the emotions and thoughts that we allow to govern us. And while we may forget our momentary outbursts and random sarcastic comments, others do not. God does not ignore them, either. He can and will forgive them, but He isn’t “fooled” by our gracious cover-ups and flowery quote boxes.

When I pray today, I need to “listen” to what I’ve been saying lately. Do I need to deal with hidden anger or resentment? Do I need to confess (both to God and to someone else) about gossip? Do I need to reconsider the way I speak about my relationships and my achievements (and failures!)?

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The same mouth that praises God should be speaking life, peace, healing, and hope to those around me. The same mouth that promises to follow Christ, should promise to reach out to those for whom He died. The same mouth that gives thanks for Salvation should be eager to share the Good News.

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The tongue is powerful–whether as a weapon or a tool; whether controlled or out of control. God wants to teach us to use it as a tool for good. Not just when we pray, or worship, but every time we use it!

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