Thursday, January 26, 2012

Learning in the interim periods of life

Philemon 15  "Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good-"

The day-to-day events in our lives form our perspective on reality.  Our scope and vision of the bigger picture is often very limited because we don't have the ability to see what the future holds.  If our relationships are going well or are going poorly at the moment, that is our reality.  It is difficult for us to take a longer-term view and to be comforted if the current situation is not what we want it to be. 

Paul is writing here to Philemon, whose slave Onesimus had run away.  Onesimus wound up in Rome, where he met Paul and was led to Christ.  Now Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon not simply as property but as a brother in Christ.  Philemon probably had been lamenting over the loss of Onesimus as one might lament over misplacing money.  It is upsetting and rarely do we believe that the situation will turn out even better than it was before.  We are simply focused on finding what has been lost and getting it back in our possession and control. 

But what if something's temporary absence meant that, upon its return, it was more fully ours than it had been?  Wouldn't that trade be worth it?  God can do wonderous works in an interim period when something (or someone) is lost to us.  He can bring them back to us more fully than we had them before.  Don't become so laser-focused on recovering what has been lost that you lose sight of what God is doing in your life and what He might have in store for you in the future.  Even if what has been lost is regained, what did God teach you in the interim?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

You're "perfect"!

Colossians 1:28  "We proclaim Him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ."

How would you react if someone claimed to be perfect?  What is your response if someone tells you that you are perfect?  The natural reaction probably involves almost immediate dismissal of the idea because we can instantly think of reasons or attributes of ourselves or of others that fall far short of perfect. 

As with a lot of things, the key to its truthfulness lies in how you define a term or a concept.  I think most of us would define "perfect" as having to do with our appearance, our behavior and/or our habits.  Paul introduces a new definition here- "perfect in Christ".  To be "perfect in Christ" doesn't mean that you are flawless, and doesn't mean you will ever be flawless.  "Perfect in Christ" means that we have accepted Christ as our savior, and His sacrifice allows us to be presented to God in an unblemished and blameless state. 

How would you feelings about (and interactions with) other believers change if you saw them as "perfect in Christ"?  How would your feelings about yourself change?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Me"-focused Christianity

Ephesians 3:2  "Surely you have heard about the administration of God's grace that was given to me for you."

The last two words of Paul's statement above are the most important- "for you".  I continue to think about how our Christian lives have turned into a "me-focused" existence.  We choose our churches based on what they can offer to us.  We choose our relationships based on our enjoyment of the other person and/or what they can do for us.  We give to charity sometimes because of how good it makes us feel.

As I discussed yesterday, we get so wrapped up in personal salvation, and then once we have accomplished this mission, we move on to other personal pursuits.  Our Christian walk tends to be focused on our own growth- individual reading, Bible study groups, listening to sermons, etc.  Personal growth in Him is very important, but at some point the focus has to shift away from ourselves and toward others.

Paul himself spent a period of time studying and growing in God's Word after his Damascus road conversion.  But he didn't remain stuck there.  Having a focus on others and becoming more concerned about their salvation and growth is not reserved for pastors.  All of us need to have this focus, because it is not all about "me".

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The confusion about doing good works

Ephesians 2: 8-10  "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith- and it is not from yourselves, it is a gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."

Paul makes a statement above that illustrates a point of much confusion among Christians.  It seems contradictory to say that we have been saved through faith (and this is a gift from God and not by our works), then in the next breath say that we were created in Christ Jesus to do good works. 

I've heard this concept of doing good works argued several times.  Some are uncomfortable with the end of this passage and much of what is written in the book of James (faith without works is dead). I think the confusion lies in the underlying focus.  If we are simply talking about the basis for personal salvation, it is true that your works are useless as a means of earning salvation.  Salvation is through grace and is unmerited.

But Christianity doesn't end with the concept of personal salvation.  We don't recite a sinner's prayer and ask for salvation, then go on about our regular business for the rest of our lives.  Living and growing as a Christian (sanctification) is much more than salvation.  Salvation is about recognizing and accepting what God has done for us.  It is inherently an individual concept because we can't accept Christ for someone else.  But to reduce Christianity to personal salvation only, whereby the focus is purely on ourselves, is selfish and unbiblical.

This isn't all about you or me.  God's primary commands are for us to love Him amd to love our neighbors as ourselves. What about personal salvation achieves either of these commands?  In my opinion, nothing.  Salvation is the re-establishment of a relationship with God.  It is equivalent to saying our marriage vows.  Married people know that the real work begins after your wedding day.  And the real work is achieved by your daily actions. 

Paul tells us we were created to do good works.  We don't do good works to earn rightstanding with God, but as a reflection of the rightstanding He has already granted to us.  If someone serves their spouse purely to avoid their wrath and to re-earn rightstanding with that person every day, their heart is in the wrong place.  The focus is still inward, and the goal of making life easier for themselves is a selfish one.  It's not about blessing their spouse, but about their personal benefit in avoiding their spouse's wrath.

A changed heart has an outward focus, and the focus is on someone other than themselves.  When our focus shifts from ourselves to God and those around us, good works flow.  Purposely avoiding good works because of a twisted interpretation of verses in the Bible is evidence that someone's focus is still on themselves and what God is able to do for them.

When we serve God and others with a joyous heart, not out of some sense of obligation, we are allowing the Holy Spirit to work as it should in our lives.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Saved from shipwreck only to be bitten by a viper

Acts 28:3  "Paul gathered a pile of brushwood, and as he put it on the fire, a viper driven out by the heat fastened itself on his hand."

The trials and challenges Paul faced were seemingly endless.  After much criticism from Jews, beatings, imprisonment, and sickness, he was now on his way to stand trial before Caesar.  His ship to Italy had been wrecked at sea, but he had been spared in order to continue his journey to Rome. 

Now, when he makes it to dry land, escaping the wreckage at sea, he is bitten by a viper.  At any point along the way, Paul could have thrown up his hands and questioned God's plans.  It seemed that God was simply saving him from one trial in order to subject him to another.  All the while, Paul is staying faithful and obedient to God only to run into more trouble. 

He could have taken all of this as a sign that he wasn't in God's will, and that he should turn around and go elsewhere.  Encountering trouble and roadblocks is not always a sign that God is trying to stop you from doing something.  In trials, God has a greater opportunity to reveal Himself to us.  Sometimes he wants us to persevere and continue to grow in Him before He allows us to arrive at a particular destination.  We may need to grow stronger along the path because of what He has in store for us when we reach the destination.

Trust in God's plan and continue to follow the path He lays before you.  His ways are better than our own, and His path allows us to grow and mature in Him.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The mercy of trials and tribulations

Acts 27: 23-24  "Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, 'Do not be afraid, Paul.  You must stand trial before Caesar, and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.' "

Paul's life is a testament to endurance and perseverance.  To read about his seemingly constant trials and tribulations is to put our own daily inconveniences into proper perspective and to gain the courage to keep going. 

In this case, Paul is caught on a ship being battered by a storm as it sails toward Italy.  Paul receives encouragement from the angel that neither he nor his shipmates will perish.  It would be easy for Paul to take this as a sign that God wants to save him in order to continue his great ministry and because God is pleased with Paul's faithfulness. In other words, it would be easy for Paul to believe that he had earned this salvation.

But the angel puts any of this self-serving thought process to a halt immediately by telling Paul that the reason he will be spared here is because he ultimately has to make it to Rome so that he may stand trial before Caesar.  If I'm in Paul's shoes, I'm saying, "Are you kidding me?  You aren't sparing my life so that I can go on doing these wonderful things I have been doing for God's glory?  Instead, you are sparing my life so that I may finish my journey and stand trial before Caesar?  If that's all I have to look forward to, maybe I'd rather just end it right here and now!"

Reading the account now, we have the benefit of hindsight and we know all of the good and all of God's will that was fulfilled after this point in the story.  It is easy for us to see now what God really had in store, and to know that He wasn't finished with Paul yet.  His plan and purposes is why He saves us, not our own.  And we should never forget- God is NEVER indebted to us.  He never owes us anything good based on anything we have done.  All we deserve and will ever deserve, no matter how we perform or how many times we show up at church on Sunday, is death and eternal separation from Him.  Our obedience is simply an act of worship, not to earn anything for ourselves. 

Through trials and tribulations, God reveals more of Himself to us.  That is His greatest act of grace and mercy- to allow us to know Him.  Therefore, to not subject Paul to further trials, through which God revealed more of Himself to Paul, would be a true showing of God's wrath, not the trials and tribulations themselves.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Are you qualified to speak about the Gospel?

Acts 26:16  " 'Now get up and stand on your feet.  I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of Me and what I will show you.' "

Paul is on trial in front of King Agrippa.  He is telling the king the story of how God met him and turned him from a persecutor of the Christians into a leader of them.  The appointment God gave to Paul is the same one He gives to each of us.  And as explained above, the call to duty is not complicated or overwhelming. 

We know from Paul's background that he was raised with a deep knowledge of Jewish traditions and the Old Testament.  Then he experienced his conversion and was able to use that background as a basis to argue in favor of the Gospel.  It is easy for us to dismiss the idea that we have the same calling as Paul because we do not have the depth of knowledge that he had.  But look again at Jesus' words and what He called Paul into:

1) to be a servant (no special qualifications or knowledge needed for this)
2) as a witness of what you have seen (the only qualification here is that you have a memory)
3) as a witness of what I will show you (the only requirement here is that you stick with Him and pay attention)

We are all just as qualified as Paul to heed God's calling.  If you are willing to be a servant, can remember what He has already shown you, and will pay attention to what He will show you in the future, you qualify for the job.  No special knowledge or seminary degree needed.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Using your spiritual gifts

Romans 12: 6-7  "We have different gifts according to the grace given us.  If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.  If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach."

We spend a lot of time and energy at various points in our lives trying to figure out the perfect job fit for ourselves.  We take personality and aptitude tests that suggest what jobs might suit us.  The primary driver behind our education system is to prepare us for the workforce. A common question we ask children is, "what do you want to be when you grow up?"  The natural follow-on question when you meet someone for the first time is, "what do you do?"  Our focus as a country is even more concentrated right now with so many people not able to find jobs.

Do we do a good job of choosing what we do, and do we use the right criteria to choose?  The most practical criteria for choosing a profession or occupation is whether you can earn a good living doing it.  Some may be concerned with the level of power or prestige that comes with certain positions. 

The real litmus test should be whether or not a job allows you the opportunity to use the unique giftings God has given each of us.  More importantly, do you know what your gifts are?  Are you using them in your life to expand God's Kingdom?  This is the heart of the matter and where our real focus should be.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Have you opened all of your gifts?

Romans 8:10  "But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness."

Many people debate the issue of what does or does not make someone a Christian.  Many point to whether or not someone has received salvation and, if so, they are deemed to be a Christian.  Others say it depends on whether the Holy Spirit is alive within them and is Lord of their lives.  I believe it is both.

I don't believe that being a Christian is solely a question of whether or not someone is saved.  There is a lot more to being a Christian than just salvation.  At the time of salvation and acceptance, God sent His Holy Spirit to live within the believer.  Therefore, the Spirit is within each of us who believes through faith.

But the Spirit is like a package we have received in the mail.  When the package arrives, if we immediately take it up to the attic and store it, we are not using it.  We aren't gaining the benefits of having it and letting it be a part of our lives.  It is in our possession, but we've set it aside and forgotten about it.

Being a Christian means turning over your life to the Lordship of Christ.  This doesn't just happen one time.  It happens (or doesn't happen) every minute of every day.  We continually need to allow Him and the Spirit to lead us. 

If the package is unopened and stored in the attic, you may have salvation, but I would argue that you are not experiencing what it means to be a Christian.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

This isn't all there is

Romans 7:1  "Do you not know, brothers- for I am speaking to men who know the law- that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives?"

Paul is speaking here about the temporary nature of the law.  Once a person dies a physical death, the laws of this life do not apply anymore.  The law does not speak to eternal matters, but simply governs our behavior in this life. 

The same can be said for virtually everything that surrounds us in this world.  It is all temporary and holds little, if any, eternal value.  Chasing after the things of this world is truly like chasing the wind, as Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes.  We never catch it, and even what is in our presence is impossible to grab hold of and hold in your hands. 

So is this life and the things of this world all that there is?  Are we put here to accumulate all we can and to try to live under the law until we die?  Then what?  What a pitiful state of being for those who have nothing but the constantly depreciating value of the world surrounding them.  I grieve for those who use money as a way of keeping score, as a way of defining themselves as a success or a failure.  There will always be people who have more, and the person will never become rich enough to realize that wealth will never be enough.

I pray that these people will take hold of what is permanent and eternal.  Only life in Christ is permanent and eternal.  Only the Holy Spirit can provide a different framework and perspective in which to view the world.  Once the world and all of its trappings are not all there is, it goes from being our everything to being a much smaller portion of our reality.  The laws of this world become guideposts that reflect God, but are not God in and of themselves.  Once we really have God, we can quit making the things of this world our god.