Passionate Patience

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’ve seen lots of posts recently about the “-ber” months–September, October, November, December–and the excitement for some as this season comes ’round. September in Michigan is filled with ripening fruits and changing colors. October brings pumpkins, apple cider, and frosty mornings. November is often spent thinking of and planning for Thanksgiving– bountiful feasts and time with family. And December brings the Christmas season– snow, caroling, giving and receiving gifts, and families gathered around trees and fireplaces, sharing old memories and making new ones.

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Part of this season of summer morphing into autumn and “falling” into winter is anticipation. The first apple harvest; the first frost; the first snowfall; those eager moments of wondering what will be under the Christmas Tree…we know they will come, but when, and how?

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My birthday is at the end of November, and as a child, I always loved Thanksgiving. It meant that family would gather, and at some point, they would sing “Happy Birthday” and there would be a cake among all the wonderful Thanksgiving desserts with my name on it! Four weeks later, Christmas would come, and the same excitement filled the house. It was difficult to be patient, but I learned that everything special was worth waiting for. In fact, sometimes, the anticipation is part of what makes such times more wonderful. There is no fun in rushing through precious moments or “ruining” the surprise of what is to come; nor is there any virtue in losing passion for what is possible, just because we can’t see the outcome, yet.

The Apostle Peter gave early Christians a list of attributes and spiritual traits that they should be developing in increasing measure. One of these attributes is “passionate patience.” In other translations, it is also called “perseverance,” “endurance,” “patience,” and “strength to keep going.” I like this wording, “passionate patience,” because it reminds us that patience isn’t just passive and meek. Especially as we work on building our spiritual understanding and alert discipline, patience becomes a powerful trait– one that distinguishes Christians from those around them. Some people are marked by impatience, anger, and dissatisfaction. Others are marked with complacency and resignation. Christians are asked to be passionately patient! Our faith and hope should radiate, even as we endure trials and anticipate God’s movement in the world around us.

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Jesus modeled “passionate patience” in His ministry on earth. Peter was witness to Jesus’ endurance in the face of rejection, unbelief, misunderstanding, and injustice– both to those around Him, and personal injustices. Jesus remained faithful, passionate for the truth, and compassionate toward others. He did not give in to despair, or waste His energy in anger or revenge. He did not make excuses for inaction, but He did not “burn out” in useless activities, either. He confidently did what the Father told Him to do– no more and no less.

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How do I reflect “passionate patience?” When I look around me and see injustice, do I explode in anger? Do I shrug my shoulders in resignation? Do I lose faith and passion? Or do I remain positive and faithful in doing what I know to be right and speaking up for the truth? Do I spread compassion or consternation? Antipathy, anger, or aspiration? When my life circumstances are filled with pain or hardship, do I endure? Do I persevere? Do I thrive? Or do I complain? Do I remain passionately hopeful, or give in to anxiety or despair? Do I wait for God’s strength and wisdom, or do I try to “fix” things in my own power? Do I accept help and guidance when I need it, or resent others’ efforts? Do I spread hope and healing? Or do I spread doubt and gloom? Do I grow bitter or better? I’d love to say that I respond with the kind of endurance, patience, and fortitude that Peter spoke of. And sometimes, with God’s help, I have. But I have much to learn, and room to grow!

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I pray that God’s spirit will help me grow in “passionate patience,” as I actively seek to follow Christ and reflect His love today.

Untie? or Unite!

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I once saw a cartoon involving a person holding a sign that read, “Bad spellers of the world: UNTIE!” Part of what makes the joke funny (at least to a pun-lover like me) is that all the correct letters are there–just two letters are transposed–but the meanings are completely different. And, of course, the bad speller misspelled the most important word. Instead of asking for unity, the sign invites potential destruction and chaos!

There is a serious side to this cartoon, however. Just like the sign-bearer, we often carry a message that is vastly different from what we mean to project– it may look similar or close to what we intend; it may even go unnoticed at first–but eventually, it will make us look foolish and actually call more attention to our faults and failures.

As Christians, we often pray for unity– we talk about it, we long for it, and we call out for it. But what are we DOING to promote unity and love within the Church? I recently ended my subscription to an on-line forum with articles about Christian Living. I wanted to support discussion, encouragement, and even constructive criticism among the Christian community. But more and more, I found the articles and discussions were not constructive; they were divisive, sarcastic, boastful, and condescending to other believers based on how they worshiped– the kind of songs they sang, or the lighting and seating in their sanctuary, whether they wore suits and dresses or ripped jeans and flip flops, whether they collected offerings or had a diverse worship team. There was no effort to listen or present Biblical principals that might help congregations find a balanced way to discuss differences in worship styles. There was no invitation for consensus or inclusion; no discussion of doctrinal principles or lasting truths that must be upheld. It was a forum for bickering, snide commentary, complaints, and virtue-signaling from self-righteous people taking pot-shots at other self-righteous people. I’m ashamed to admit that I did not unsubscribe earlier–I sent in my own snide comments, my own self-justifying judgments of others.

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One of the pitfalls of social media is that it gives us the illusion of unity–we “like” posts, or others “like” what we have written or shared. We create convenient “echo chambers” filled with the kind of words and ideas that we find familiar or comfortable. This gives us a sense of well-being–even superiority–but it doesn’t promote true understanding with others. In fact, it may intimidate others into keeping silent about their own feelings or beliefs, while quietly resenting ours.

The Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) includes Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control– it doesn’t include cleverness, arrogance, criticism, complacency, or divisiveness!

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Ephesians 4:1-6

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+4&version=NIV
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It is not difficult to let our thoughts and emotions lead us to react badly– to untie, rather than unite. Here are several handy questions to ask BEFORE we grab up our “misspelled” sign and march around spreading dis-unity and chaos:

  • If Jesus were listening to me or reading my posts– and He IS!–would He agree? Would He “like” or “share” this? Would I send it to Him? Would I say this to His face?
  • Have I really thought about what this says to my family? My friends? My neighbors? My enemies? My Pastor? My co-workers? Strangers? Will it bring people together? Or will it force people to take sides? (There are times when we all need to be challenged to take sides on important issues, but is this one of them?)
  • There are some great posters in elementary schools that use the acronym to evaluate social media, but it works equally well for gossip, news articles, or any information or opinion that we wish to pass along– THINK–T: is it True? Have you checked the facts, dates, assertions, etc., to see if they are valid? H–is it Helpful? Is this good information? Am I helping people find a solution to a problem, or offering encouragement? I–is it Inspiring/Important? Am I wasting time passing on information or opinion just because I find it clever or entertaining? Or will this information inspire and build people up?Are lives in jeopardy if I don’t pass this information along or if I don’t comment? N–is it Necessary? Does this information or opinion need to be shared? With everyone? By me? Now? Finally, K–is it Kind? Even if it is “true” and “helpful”, etc., it can be abrasive, hurtful, or condescending in tone. Being “right” can still be “wrong” when it comes to unity and encouragement.
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Lord, help me to speak and act in ways that bring unity. Help me reflect the Grace and Peace that comes from You. Let my words and deeds produce Spiritual Fruit that lasts. May I seek to build up others, not tear them down or “untie” relationships that You want to flourish.

Good Christians of the world– UNITE!

Turn, Turn, Turn

Back in the 1960s, Pete Seeger “wrote” a new folk song, later recorded by a group called The Byrds.  All but the title and the last six words of the song were taken directly (though the word order was changed) from the book of Ecclesiastes.  Essentially, Pete Seeger wrote seven words and some music; the rest was written by King Solomon almost three thousand years ago!  Learn more about the song here…

timelapse photography of stars at night
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When God created the world, he instituted times and seasons– day and night; winter and summer; weeks and months.  We are bound by time while we live here.  Sunlight and darkness help determine when we are active or sleeping (less so since the advent of electric lighting); summer and winter (or rainy/dry seasons) determine when we plant or harvest, what we wear, how we travel, and what activities we plan.

snow nature forest winter
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But Solomon reminds us that there are also “seasons” that don’t depend on the weather or the amount of light filling the horizon.  There is a time to be born and a time to die; a time for laughter and a time for weeping; a time for war and a time for peace.  Our world is not static– it is filled with changes, and times for turning away from one thing and facing another.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (ESV)
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Our prayers will change with these seasons– prayers of wonder and prayers of wondering why; prayers of great boldness and reluctant, halting prayers; prayers that come from joy, and those that come with wracking grief.  There will be seasons of chaotic busyness, and seasons of loneliness and long hours; seasons when we help lift the burdens of others before our own, and seasons where others help us lift burdens we cannot bear alone.  There will be seasons of fierce, pounding spiritual warfare, and seasons of relative peace and rest.

green grass field during sunset
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Solomon lays out the concept, but I like Pete Seeger’s addition of the phrase, “turn, turn, turn.”  It reminds me that the seasons of my life will change, but I need to change as well.  I need to turn, first of all, to see where God is working in my life and the lives of others– that’s where I need to be and where I need to be focused.  God will never leave me nor forsake me, but He loves me too much to “leave” me in a rut– He needs me to move on and finish the race He has set out for me.  Change can be difficult, but without it, there is no growth!

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Second, I need to turn from habits and activities that are “out of season”–young parents will have a completely different way of mapping out their time, including time for prayer and Bible study, than empty-nesters.  People in mourning will have a different approach to prayer and worship than those who are in a season of celebration.  There is a season to break down–to end bad relationships and turn from bad habits–and a time to build up healthy relationships and habits.  There is a time to speak– to share prayer requests and spend time in corporate prayer; to ask questions and persist in our requests.  But there is also a time to stay silent– to meditate and listen more than we talk; to be still and know, instead of pace and ponder.  I don’t wear a heavy coat in the middle of summer or run barefoot in the snow– I need to turn in alignment with the season I am passing through.

barefoot basket blooming blossoming
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Finally, I need to turn away from temptation and sin.  God gives me the power, through His Spirit, to turn and walk away from the quicksand of complaisance, the tidal waves of desire, the live wire of unchecked rage, or the bottomless pit of envy, but I must turn away from them.

This life is full of seasons and change– some good, some dangerous.  But God is outside of time and seasons.  He provides endless variety, but He never changes His essential nature.  No matter where we turn, He can be found!

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As Iron Sharpens Iron

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:17
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Do you have a friend who “sharpens” you? Someone who keeps you honest? Someone who challenges you? Someone who holds you accountable? The Bible has much to say about relationships that we form– and some of it may surprise us. Earlier in Proverbs 27, the writer says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” (v.5 NIV) and, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” (v. 6 NKJV).

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I don’t know about you, but I want friends who encourage, friends who make me feel good about myself; friends who make life more pleasant and uncomplicated. I don’t enjoy hearing criticism, or having my beliefs and ideas challenged. I don’t enjoy conflict, and I tend to avoid it whenever possible. However, I also know the truth of verse 6 from experience–I can trust the constructive criticism of a good friend, even when it stings in the moment. A loving friend will take the risk of saying what needs to be said, and not just what I want to hear.

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There are three points that struck me recently as I came across these verses:

  • “Iron sharpens iron”–nothing gets sharpened by a marshmallow, and an iron blade that is left unsharpened will either lose its edge over time, or rust from disuse. We may not like conflict. But we need to be disciplined, and that means that we need to be held accountable. We need to be challenged and sharpened, or we will grow dull or rusty. God can use the “fire” of circumstances to soften our hard hearts, but He often uses other people to “spark” us into action. Left to my own devices, I can grow rusty and useless. I can feel sorry about a bad or sinful habit– I can confess it, and make plans to change. But I am more likely to grow and develop positive habits and actions if there is someone keeping me honest. I can have good ideas; I can know what the Bible says– but I can also fall into deception, lazy thinking, and pride. A good friend can help keep me “sharp” in both actions and thinking. We are not meant to do life alone, and God does not want “Holy Hermits.” He also does not want us to be so timid and accepting that we fail to sharpen others. It is really hard to risk a friendship by speaking the truth–but NOT speaking is sometimes more damaging to the friendship– and to our friends!
  • “Iron” is what sharpens “Iron”–We need to seek out truth and wisdom, and that’s what we need to offer others, as well. We should not waste time on petty disagreements, trying to “win” every point in an argument, or pointing out every minor fault. We also need to have mutual respect; being willing to listen, willing to let a few sparks fly, and willing to respect another’s strengths as we develop our own. This verse is not about letting someone else dominate you or shut down your voice, just as it is not about dominating or “fixing” someone else by forcing your opinions (even if grounded in the truth) down their throat.
  • “So one person sharpens another.” Notice it doesn’t say whether the person is a believer, a dear, personal friend, or a relative. Any person can “sharpen” us. I may disagree with another person– a coworker, a peer, a neighbor–and still respect that their ideas, their words, even their criticism.
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How does this tie into our pursuit of prayer? Conflict and testing can make us better or bitter–in this analogy, it can make us humble or it can make us brittle. A humble person will be shaped and sharpened. A brittle person will snap or break.

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When I am challenged or criticized, do I take it to God or do I take it to heart? Do I ask God to reveal truth or have I already decided what I want to believe? Not all criticism is constructive; not all challenges are meant to sharpen us. Do I react in anger? Do I become sullen? Do I crumble into a puddle of doubt? Or do I see it as an opportunity to become sharper, to change course, or to refine my thinking? Conflict and criticism do not happen in a vacuum–God is as close as a prayer, and willing to give wisdom, discernment, and strength!

How do I react to the other person? Do I become bitter toward them? Do I seek for ways to repay them with criticism or prove myself to them? Do I pray for THEM to change, without looking at my own responsibility? Do I appreciate the risk they may have taken to speak up? (Or do I appreciate the reasons they may have for feeling or thinking as they do, even if I am convinced they are in error?) Can I offer thanks to God for the way He may be using that person to sharpen me–even if that is not their intent? Can I pray for God to bless and strengthen them, even if we don’t agree?

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This is all easier to write than to put into practice. But I can say from experience that God has often used the most unlikely people to “sharpen” me in unlikely ways and unlikely moments, and I am so grateful for the “faithful” (and temporary!) wounds of friends. I am also grateful for others who challenge me to defend the Faith, and who open their hearts to me– even when we clash sometimes.

It Is Well With My Soul

I’ve been reading through the book of Job this past week. Job’s story challenges us– especially if we trust in our circumstances to confirm God’s love for us. Job was a seeming pawn in a situation beyond his control or understanding. He lost nearly everything– his cattle, flocks, all his children, and even his health. The only thing he did not lose was his nagging wife, and his faithful, but very unhelpful friends.

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At first, Job’s friends seem very supportive. They stay with him, saying nothing, just offering their presence for a week! But then, they start spouting the kind of useless aphorisms and accusations that make Job’s bad situation infinitely worse. They “remind” him that good people don’t suffer–only the wicked experience pain and loss. This knowledge, they assure him, comes from their own experience, and the wisdom of the past. When Job protests that he is innocent, that his suffering is NOT because of his own wickedness, they become increasingly angry and irrational– making up accusations and heaping blame on Job for daring to “question” God.

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But Job’s friends, even though they speak with confidence and sound very much like many people we hear today, are wrong. Job’s experience is real–suffering comes to the innocent, while the wicked often “get away with” their sin, living lives of ease and comfort at the expense of others. We see it in the world around us– innocent people are the targets of mass shootings, or war, or famine, or disease. Meanwhile, criminals get “off” on a technicality; decorated war “heroes” destroy entire cities; powerful tyrants bend laws and oppress the helpless.

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Where is God in all this? WHO is God in all this? There are many different responses, but I want to look at three that are all present in the book of Job:

  • Mrs. Job: “Curse God and Die.” Some people look at evil and suffering, and they decide that God must be a fraud. Either He cannot or He will not destroy evil, or He would have done so before now. They declare with great defiance that either God does not even exist, or He must be malicious, capricious, petty, and weak.
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  • Job’s friends: “Everyone knows that God rewards good and punishes evil.” Doesn’t the Bible say this? Isn’t this what we learned in Sunday School? Surprisingly, most of us would say, “Yes, that is exactly what I learned as a child, and it is exactly what the Bible says!” But look closer. The Bible says that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) It goes on to say that “The Just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4 and Romans 1:17)–not their good works. God DOES reward goodness, and he DOES punish evil– but He also redeems the wicked and causes the good to go through times of trial and suffering. God is more than a two-dimensional dispenser of rewards and punishments. God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8), and there are times that He chooses not to explain His ways “in the moment” of our suffering, or in the moments when wickedness seems to be “winning.”
    Unfortunately, when bad times come; when we experience pain, or watch someone else going through inexplicable suffering, if our view of God is incomplete or two-dimensional, we are left repeating the little we KNOW (or think we know) about God, and defending, not God’s character, but OUR knowledge. This is especially true if we have not been tested ourselves.
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  • Job: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” (Job 13:15) “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” Job 19:25-27 Even when Job struggled with his pain and suffering–even as he defended his character to his accusing friends, Job KNEW that God was GOD. He knew all that his friends were saying ABOUT God, but he also knew God–even when he didn’t understand His actions. And after all the arguments had been made and all the “easy” answers had been spilled out, GOD did not slay Job; he did not leave him in his agony. Neither did He provide Job with detailed answers or explanations. But He redeemed the situation– Job ended up with more blessings than before. More importantly, Job ended up with a greater understanding of who God is.
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When all is not well with our health, or our finances, or our safety, or our relationships, it can still be “well with (our) Soul.” God does not change, but He does ask us to trust Him, even when His ways are not our ways. God will reward good and punish evil– but it may not be in our lifetime or as we imagine. God may stay silent during times of great stress and pain, but He will not leave us! In every situation, we can trust Him.

Will we?

Go! Tell! Witness! Believe!

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.

Luke 2:15-17 (ESV)

Go! Tell It on the Mountain! The ancient prophets foretold it. The Angels brought the news to the shepherds, who told it to their neighbors: Jesus, the Christ, is born! He is here among us! God in the flesh! What amazing and glorious news! This same Jesus told parables, shared prophecies, and spoke the Truth– and taught His disciples to do the same! Through the centuries, witnesses have spoken words of hope, healing, and salvation to the next generation, taking the Word as they spread throughout the world.

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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

 
John 1:1; 14
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“Good Christian, fear, for sinners here the silent Word is pleading..”

What Child is This?

Jesus, who spoke the universe into existence, came into His own creation in silence as a newborn baby. The angels announced His coming; the shepherds spoke of Him; the Wise Men came to honor Him. But His arrival was just the beginning. In His ministry, He would speak words that echo through the centuries– words of hope; words of warning; words of life and salvation. And He challenges us to speak as well– to share the Gospel; to be His witnesses to the uttermost parts of the earth (see Acts 1:8).

Our words matter. Our words have power– power to build up, and power to destroy. We have opportunities each day to speak Truth, Hope, Joy, Peace, Compassion, Love…or to stay silent. And we must be careful to speak the truth– even when it is inconvenient, unpopular, or risky. We must not compromise by speaking pleasant platitudes or ignoring danger. Truth is not always pleasant–Jesus’s words were not always welcomed; not always comforting. But they brought healing where it was most needed, and hope where there was darkness.

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And more than words must go out into the world– Jesus didn’t sit in a comfortable corner of a bistro waiting for the hurting and hopeless to come to Him and hear His words. He climbed mountains and crossed lakes; He traveled from town to town; He shared meals and participated in the Synagogue services; He touched lepers and spoke to outcasts. Today, we have amazing opportunities to spread the Good News–technology and media; the ability to meet others in person (COVID permitting!) or via Zoom or Skype or even cell phone; and, in many places, the freedom to speak without fear.

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 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (NIV)
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The Word came down at Christmas. Let’s make sure the Word goes out this Christmas– the Savior has arrived! He is Christ, the Lord! Joy! Peace! Hope! Celebration! Go! Tell it on the mountaintops and in the valleys and across the seas!

Influence…


This is how the Lord responds: “If you return to me, I will restore you so you can continue to serve me. If you speak good words rather than worthless ones, you will be my spokesman. You must influence them; do not let them influence you!

Jeremiah 15:19 (NLT via biblegateway.com)

I’ve been reading in Jeremiah for the past week. Jeremiah was given a thankless task of delivering a prophecy of doom for the people of Judah and Jerusalem. God, in His righteous anger even told Jeremiah that he should no longer pray for his own people. Their doom was inevitable, brought about by their continuous idolatry and arrogant disobedience. As Jeremiah received the visions, he grew discouraged. Why should he continue to preach to those who were never going to listen? Why face the ridicule, the persecution, and the death threats? Why bother?

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But the Lord responded with a rebuke to Jeremiah–“Don’t give up! Don’t walk away from your mission! Don’t let them influence you–You must influence them!” Those are difficult words to read. And even more difficult ones to put into practice. It is very easy to feel discouraged when it seems that you are alone in your beliefs; alone in your commitment; alone in your grief and distress. Jeremiah was torn and broken by his mission–no one wanted to hear his message. No one responded to his calls for repentance or his warnings of God’s judgment. In fact, his complaint was that other “prophets” were saying the opposite– that God would rescue Judah from her enemies; that all would be well. How could Jeremiah stand firm in the face of such opposition?

God’s answer may seem a bit harsh on the surface–“Stop whining! You WILL be my spokesman, and you must influence them and not let them influence you.” But look closer, and you will see an amazing and hopeful message in God’s rebuke. God has not set Jeremiah up for failure and discouragement. God’s promise is to strengthen and protect Jeremiah in spite of the opposition– if he will stay the course. Against the worst odds, against the threats of his enemies, God will be with Jeremiah as he speaks the truth–no matter how difficult; no matter how grievous; no matter how unpopular. Moreover, God will give Jeremiah the power to influence his enemies– not just with his words, but in spite of them–by his faithful, courageous commitment to the truth.

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We live in a world where people make a career out of “influencing” others– advertising, advocating, lobbying, arguing on social media, creating memes and soundbites and slogans. We are surrounded by voices and billboards and pop-ups demanding our attention and invading our thoughts. And it can be very easy to be swayed by the overwhelming noise and distraction offered up all around us. Just like Jeremiah, we can be discouraged, and even silenced, by the crowds of others, speaking fear, doubt, anger, and lies. And, in our own voices, we cannot drown out their “influence.”

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God does not call us to shout louder, or change our message to be more “palatable” to the masses. God does not call us to “win” every argument or convert all of our neighbors. But God does call us to be faithful in speaking the truth– more, He calls us to live out the truth in obedience and humility. It may seem thankless at times, but living with integrity and solid faith influences others in ways only God can know. We need to continue to speak truth. “Worthless words” may rule the airwaves, or glut our newsfeeds. But truth whispers in consistent, loving action, and humble service. May we be known for our prayers and our steady confidence than for our persuasive tongues and arrogant arguments.

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Shibboleth

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. (Matthew 7:15 KJV)
Behold, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves; be wary and wise as serpents, and be innocent (harmless, guileless, and without falsity) as doves. (Matthew 10:16)
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 John 4:1-6 NKJV)

(All Bible references, including emphases, via biblegateway.com)

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Hucksters, charlatans, con-artists, false prophets– we’ve all seen or heard them. Some are easy to spot; while others seem sincere. They “talk the talk”–they “Praise the Lord,” they pray, they quote scripture. How can we tell if they are “wolves in sheep’s clothing?”

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In the Old Testament book of Judges, two tribal groups had a battle. Afterwards, the victors set up a “test” for soldiers trying to cross the Jordan River. The Ephraimites spoke a dialect that did not contain the “sh” sound. When asked to say the word, Shibboleth, they could not pronounce it correctly, and so were unable to hide their identity as enemy soldiers, even though they looked just like the others waiting to cross.

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There is an old Irish prayer that says, “May those who love us, love us; and those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts; and if He doesn’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we’ll know them by their limping.” God doesn’t always “turn their ankles,” but He will give us the wisdom to discern false prophets– If we ask and listen. Even those who “talk the talk” will speak with a worldly “accent” that gives them away. They will fail the test of “Shibboleth.” Their talk will be filled with spiritual-sounding words and phrases, but it will deflect honor away from the only One truly worthy of our worship. Their teaching is described in 2 Timothy as “having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” (2 Timothy 3:5 NIV) Beware of teaching that proclaims the power of the Human Spirit over that of God’s Spirit; or speaks of God’s power being demonstrated only in terms of worldly success. They may not “limp,” but they will “lisp.”

When the Gileadites used the “Shibboleth” test, they were looking for a specific mistake in pronunciation to identify their enemies. When we are testing Christian teachers, we should also look for specific “mis-pronouncements.” And just as important, we should look for words that don’t match actions and attitudes. For example, anyone who wants to call themselves a Christian or Christ-follower, but won’t proclaim Jesus Christ– His ministry, life, death, and resurrection– should be suspect. Many people want to proclaim a Jesus who will appeal to the masses– a Jesus who will be your pal, your guru, your cheerleader, or your “life coach,” but NOT your Lord. Others will present Him as a Savior who is distant, whose love is conditional on abject obedience and blind trust. Neither of these are accurate pictures of the biblical Jesus Christ. We must also beware the teachers who present a Jesus whose lifestyle is nothing like the one they practice. None of us is perfect, but we should be living a life that testifies to God’s faithfulness, not our own popularity or power or purse.

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The best way to learn to detect imposters and false teachers is to spend time each day with “the real thing.” When I spend time reading scripture each day, it become easier for me to detect a “lisp” when someone misquotes it or takes it out of context. When I spend time asking God to reveal more of his character, I will learn to spot His character (or absence!) in those around me.

Father, may I have ears to discern Your voice and Your power today. May I be wise as I listen to those who speak of You. And may I not say, do, or write anything that doesn’t reflect Your Truth and Your Glory. Thank You for Your wise counsel, Your examples throughout Scripture and in those who desire to follow You faithfully, and for Your Spirit, who reveals Truth.

“Ever Hearing”

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who just pretended to listen? They nod or make a sympathetic face, but clearly they have no idea what you are saying. Maybe they nodded at the wrong time, or even interrupted you with some comment that was completely off-topic.

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God not only hears what we say to Him, He understands better than WE do!

That is not the case with us. We can be “Ever Hearing” but “Never Understanding,” just like the people of Israel during the ministry of the prophet Isaiah. (see Isaiah 6: 9-13) Isaiah brought warnings and prophetic judgments from God–calls for repentance and warnings of impending punishments. He spent years delivering the same message to hundreds of people. They heard his message, but they did not listen, understand, or repent. Jesus, in Mark 4:12 alludes to this passage in Isaiah– clearly, the people of his day were equally “deaf” to the truth, even though thousands came to hear Jesus speak

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Jesus’ brother James, in his epistle, rephrases the same idea– “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22 ESV) Just because we have believed the Good News does not make us immune to hearing without listening, understanding, and obeying.

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We have thousands of Bible study books, websites, videos, broadcasts and webcasts, blogs, and live meetings–and, for many of us, they are free and easy to access. There are billboards, memes, t-shirts, Christian radio stations, and more, sharing scripture, testimonies, cartoons, songs, prayers, and more, 24 hours a day in almost every corner of the world and in most of the world’s languages.

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But sometimes, the very prevalence of such material causes us to take it for granted; and our hearts and minds become numb to the glory of God’s wisdom and the urgency of His warnings. We hear that God is sovereign– and we say that we believe–but we act as though we know better than God how the world “should” be. We hear that God is gracious and merciful– and we sing praises for His mercy toward us– but we have no mercy for others who fall short of our expectations. We hear that God is close to the broken-hearted (Psalm 34:18), but we act as though God favors the proud and self-sufficient.

Why would God command Isaiah to continue preaching to those who refuse to listen and obey? And why would Jesus follow in Isaiah’s footsteps– relying on parables and teaching the masses who misunderstood His Gospel?

Scholars have different theories, but I think there are two main reasons:

  • We know from examples and from experience that the same message that falls on “deaf”ears over many years can suddenly “click.” God know this better than anyone. He is patient and humble. God’s message doesn’t change, but sometimes, it takes a while to “seep in” to the heart and mind. Someone who is “ever hearing” may be processing more of the message than we know. God’s spirit whispers, and His truth can be drowned out, but it cannot be silenced. It is important for us to continue to speak, to write, and to LIVE the truth– not just for others, but to make sure we are still listening, understanding, and obeying the truth.
  • God IS truth. And God may whisper, but He will not be silent. God is mysterious, but not absent, or cold, or withdrawn. In Romans 1: 18-32, Paul says that God has revealed all of His invisible qualities in all of nature throughout all of time. We cannot say that we NEVER saw the glory of a sunset, or heard the power of thunder, or felt the warm kiss of the sun, or in some other way experienced the loving and majestic reality of God. We CHOOSE to ignore or rebel against God’s ever-present, all-gracious love.
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What glories will we see, hear, and experience today? Will we be “ever hearing” but “never understanding” “how wide, and long and high and deep” (Ephesians 3:17-19) is the Love of Christ? I hope we will take every opportunity to listen, understand, and obey His call today!

Think on These Things…

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9 (NIV via biblegateway.com)

Sometimes I have to ask if I have a “Hollywood Musical” kind of faith: the kind that breaks into song and dance in the face of trouble, and expects all of life’s problems to be solved by sheer optimism and a catchy tune. But life is full of real problems– ones that cannot be “solved” by putting on a determined smile and skipping down a Yellow Brick Road or twirling through the Alps. In fact, most of life’s problems are bigger and darker than my ability to sing or dance or even think away. I can’t sing away cancer. I can’t end injustice just by whistling a happy tune. I can’t dance my way through mass shootings, economic downturns, famines, or war.

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But I CAN choose my attitude– every day, no matter what my circumstances. I cannot ignore realities around me, but I can control HOW I view them: I can choose how much of my attention and energy I spend on negative things, and the perspective from which I view the world around me. Positive thinking won’t make problems disappear, but it will determine my response to circumstances– even unexpected ones.

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The Apostle Paul wrote of this to the church in Philippi. Paul himself was facing very difficult circumstances– imprisoned, awaiting a sentence of death, in poor health–circumstances that would cause most people to be depressed. But Paul was sending encouragement and hope and words of joy and peace to his friends.

Notice the difference, though, between the “power of positive thinking” espoused by Hollywood, and the Power of Faith that Paul practiced. Hollywood tells us to think of our “favorite” things–kittens and mittens and snowflakes and schnitzel. Such thoughts can bring us a temporary measure of comfort and reassurance, but they cannot give us the power to endure a constant onslaught of negative viewpoints and bad news. Paul, in contrast, asks us to think of higher and bigger things– GOD’S favorite things! And he gives us the imperative–this isn’t just a “helpful hint,” meant to make us feel better for a moment. This is a consistent practice; whether the sun shines and the birds sing, or the “dog barks” and the “bee stings.” And, though they are divided into two separate verses, there is a second part of the imperative–we are to put into practice what we have learned. We need to be positively active, as well. We need to BE true and noble and pure; we need to share and promote all that is lovely, admirable, and praise-worthy.

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Just thinking about “nice” things won’t change the world. Just thinking positive thoughts about ourselves or reciting positive thoughts to ourselves won’t necessarily lead to positive results. But training ourselves to think “above and beyond” our circumstances; to think about the positive ways we can respond to them; and preparing to actively pursue positive actions, no matter what– these steps put us in a position to be used by God to create positive change.

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Praying the attributes of God will automatically help us to think of all that is true and noble and pure– because God IS all that is true, and majestic, and holy. Remembering all that God has done– throughout history and in our own lives–will remind us how even small acts of faith can make a difference in a cold, dark world.

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And let’s not forget the end of verse 9– “And the God of peace will be with you.” Never forget the positive promise of God’s abiding presence in all of our circumstances. Not only will he give us joy and peace, he will give us the power to endure and prevail!

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