Friday, February 24, 2012

The Christian "to-do" list

2 Peter 1: 5-7  "For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love."

Peter lays out a roadmap of Christian maturity in these verses.  All of the qualities and traits he mentions are after he mentions faith.  Faith is the foundation upon which your Christian walk is built.  Without faith, these qualities and characteristics do nothing for you.  Practicing these qualities without faith may result in people calling you a "good person", but the practice holds no eternal value.  We can't perform our way to Christ- it requires faith.

But faith is not the endpoint.  Peter encourages us to add these things to our faith.  And he says it will take effort on our part.  Faith and the presence of the Holy Spirit inside of us gives us the power and strength necessary to grow to be like Christ.  We play an active role in the growth process, though.  We can't sit back and expect the Holy Spirit to magically transform us without us making daily choices to put into practice what God has revealed to us about His character.  We do it in His strength, but we still have to do it!

Paul encourages us to "work out our salvation", and James tells us that "faith without works is dead".  Then, there are the qualities themselves.  All of these qualities are part of God's nature that we strive to emulate.  The list culminates in love, marking our true destination and goal.  God is love, so it makes sense that this would be the culminating step in the process of growing in Christ.

The traits are not one-time destinations that we achieve and then leave behind as we progress to the next.  These are all traits that should be present in our daily lives.  But I believe there is something to the order in which Peter presents them.  We've said that faith is mentioned first because it is the foundation for everything.  Love is mentioned last because it represents what God is, and therefore, our highest calling.  So it makes sense that the characteristics in between are listed in some kind of order. 

I believe they are listed in order of difficulty.  Being good can be as simple as following the rules.  Perseverance can mean to endure suffering and hardship while pressing onward.  This seems more difficult to me than simply following the rules.  Truly loving your neighbor, not just being courteous to them, can be harder than perseverance. 

This progression of traits and an honest evaluation of yourself against each of the traits can give us some idea of where we are in our Christian walk.  Again, though, the traits and growth in Christ are not tasks to be checked off the list and left behind.  Our goal should be to practice all of these in our daily lives.  If you don't always love your neighbor, give yourself a bit of a break.  It's the hardest one on the list.  If you can't practice basic goodness, though, try a little harder- it's the easiest one on the list.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Achieving holiness

1 Peter 1 14-15  "As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.  But just as He who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do;"

What does it mean to be "holy"?  Holy implies a state of perfection when used in reference to God.  Is Peter, then, asking us to achieve perfection?  I don't believe so.  Only God can and will ever be perfect.  If we had the ability to achieve holiness in the form of perfection, the Gospel of sacrificial atonement might have never come about.  If we were capable of achieving perfection, God would probably have been unwilling to send His one and only Son to die for us.  Why sacrifice your Son for something people can achieve on their own?

The fact that God did send His Son to die for us and achieve a level of justification on our behalf demonstrates that holy perfection is impossible for us to achieve on our own.  But what we can achieve is our own level of holiness.  Our level of holiness revolves around the choices we make and the way in which we live our lives.  The presence of the Holy Spirit inside of us and God's grace in revealing Himself to us through Scripture provide us with a basis and foundation from which to live our lives in accordance with His will.

A life well lived is simply a collection of small choices.  We are faced with situations every day in which we have an opportunity to respond in a manner that is aligned with the Holy Spirit, or we can choose to respond in a manner that gives in to our evil desires and conforms to the ways of the world rather than His ways.

Holiness is not the elimination of evil desires and temptations.  We are fallen, sinful human beings.  Those desires and temptations will always be present.  But God's presence through the Holy Spirit shows us a better set of choices to be made.  We achieve holiness by progressively responding in an obedient manner more often than we give in to our natural evil desires. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Praying with faith and belief

Matthew 21:22  "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."

Jesus' statement above seems too good to be true.  We can really receive whatever we ask for in prayer?  Notice, though, what come before this part of the statement... "if you believe".   What does belief mean in this context?  Does belief simply mean we believe He hears us when we pray?  Does it mean that we believe He can and will arrange circumstances to grant what we pray for? 

Yes to both of these.  Both a belief that He hears us and a belief that He can and will do what we ask are major components of faith.  Faith flows from a changed heart and the infusion of the Holy Spirit.  This faith grows and becomes true belief as we follow, obey and draw closer to Christ. 

Many might read Jesus' statement as if it were a blank check just waiting for us to fill in the amount.  It could be interpreted as Jesus being compelled to grant any request, whether it is truly for our benefit or detriment.  But the belief and faith He says must first be present stems from a level of Christian maturity where our desires and requests are closely aligned with His will. 

We usually know when we are asking God to provide something or do something that isn't aligned with His value system.  When we know this, we don't pray with the same level of belief and faith that is required.  Only when we know His will and His divine character do we pray for things that align with His will and character.  And only when we pray with this alignment do we pray with the type of belief and faith the He honors.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Consuming fire or safely contained embers?

Hebrews 12:29  "For our 'God is a consuming fire.' "

A fire may be partially contained when it is held within the borders or confines of a fireplace, grill, etc.  Other fires are uncontrolled and wild, moving along in search of additional fuel.  These could be labeled as "consuming fires", because they don't discriminate from what is in its path.

Contained fires are within our control because they are usually created by us.  We set the borders, we are in control of adding or not adding fuel in accordance with our wishes for the fire's strength and duration.  We can also extinguish a fire that is within our control.  We will let it burn until it has served our purposes, then douse it and put it out. 

A consuming fire is not within our control.  In fact, we are largely at its mercy.  A consuming fire engulfs everything it touches.  It will burn and consume all in its path until it decides to extinguish itself.  This is the more accurate portrayal of God.  We often think we have God in our lives when He burns as a small, controllable fire in our nice, contained fireplace.  This type of fire is nice to watch and serves our purposes, but it stays in its place and we do not fear its power.

A consuming fire is raw, dangerous (at least in terms of endangering our sense of control over it) and indiscriminate of those things in its path.  It destroys the things that are subject to its strength.  It will not destroy those things that are designed to endure. 

Does God truly burn in my life as a consuming fire?  Have I allowed God to burn and destroy the impurities in my life?  Or have I given God's fire a safe, contained area in which to burn only for my benefit and enjoyment and always within my control?  God, I ask You to become a consuming fire in my heart and in my life.  Let me be fully subject to Your will, and not make You subject to the limitations and constraints I try to put on You through my will.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Accepting what was done for YOU

Hebrews 2:16  "For surely it is not angels He helps, but Abraham's descendants."

Because Christ dwells in the heavenly realms and is seated at the right hand of the Father, it is easy to believe that He only associates with those in that realm.  It makes sense that He might associate and interact with angels and other heavenly beings.  It is also natural to believe that He who is perfect and blameless would only interact with those who are also perfect and blameless.  None of us humans falls into this category, so the natural follow-on thought from these concepts is that He only aligns Himself with angels, not us sinful humans.

But this is false.  Christ became fully human and lived among us.  In His infinite mercy and grace, He came down from the exclusive company He kept in heaven and entered our imperfect world.  He experienced what we experience, but did not fall.  He experienced physical life and physical death. 

He did this not for the angels, for why would they need it?  They have already attained the eternal destination God's death made available to us.  Therefore, He must have only done this for those who needed it- you and I. 

Accept and rejoice in the personal gift of redemption and reconciliation to God.  It is a gift for you, not someone else who seems to be more deserving or to have earned it in some way.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

How can we NOT have faith?

Hebrews 11:1  "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."

Chapter 11 of Hebrews is sometimes referred to as the "Faith Hall of Fame".  The author reminds us of many heroes of the Old Testament that lived and acted by faith.  Although the specifics of their situations are different, all of these heroes had one thing in common: they lived by faith and died without seeing the Messiah for themselves. 

But they stayed faithful even in death because they believed that God was who He said He was and that He would do what He said He would do.  They certainly hoped to see God's Kingdom reign on earth with their own eyes, but just because it didn't happen during their finite lives didn't mean that their faith and belief were all for naught.  They did have other direct experiences that helped solidify their faith.  Their faith was not without basis, they just didn't see the full revelation of what they believed God would eventually do. 

How much more basis and direct revelation do we now have the benefit of?  The Messiah has come- He lived among us.  We have the incredible blessing of having seen the Messiah through the eyes and words of the authors of the Bible.  Their accounts allow us to know that what was prophesied and foretold in the Old Testament came to be.  It is fact, not just something we hope for and wait for. 

Yet we still have a hard time having faith!  How is it that we can have the fullness of direct revelation from God and not live with at least the same amount (if not significantly more) faith than our Christian ancestors?  All the basis we need for our faith is found in the fact that God promised to send a Messiah that would reconcile us to God for eternity, and HE DID!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

My commanding officer

2 Timothy 2:4  "No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs- he wants to please his commanding officer."

Paul is encouraging Timothy as he combats against false teaching in the church at Ephesus.  Paul is warning Timothy about the hardship he will continue to face, the endurance he must have and the faith he must keep.  There was much quarreling in the church over trivial matters that were off-point from the Gospel.  Paul warned Timothy about falling into these traps, and encouraged him to stay focused on the Gospel. 

Paul calls God our "commanding officer", and analogizes our life in Christ to being a good soldier and working to please the One in command.  Every one of us works every day to please our "commanding officer".  The question is- who IS my commanding officer?  We know the answer should be God, and sometime He probably is.  Other times, we allow other things to become our commanding officer- ourselves, our family, our bosses, money, sex, social status, and the list could go on. 

The ultimate goal is to make God our sole and permanent commanding officer.  But maybe an intermediate step is to recognize those times when something else has taken His place.  Ask God's forgiveness and ask Him to help you restore His rightful position.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Faith entrusted to you

1 Timothy 1:11  "That conforms to the glorious Gospel of the blessed God, which He entrusted to me."

How do your feelings about something change when it is something that has been entrusted to you by someone else, rather than it being something you consider to be yours?  Ownership carries with it a certain pride and level of diligence in caring for something.  But I think your level of diligence and care increases when that something belongs to someone else and they have entrusted you with it.

When someone expresses trust in us, we almost instinctively want to rise to the occasion and prove ourselves worthy of their trust.  Paul describes the Gospel as having been entrusted to him.  This is a much different way of viewing it versus what I think is more natural, which is to focus on our decision to accept the Gospel as truth. When you are entrusted with something, acceptance is less of a focus.  Caretaking and diligence become more important.

How would your relationship with God change if you viewed your faith not as the product of your own act of acceptance, but rather as God's act of entrusting it to you?  Try viewing your faith not as something that you casually own, but as a great treasure that God has entrusted to you.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The "seasons" of life

Titus 2: 3-5  "Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good.  Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the Word of God."

Paul is telling Titus how to instruct the various groups in the young church on Christian living.  Notice the differentiation in what Paul says should be taught to older believers and what should be taught to younger believers.  There are foundational truths of Christian living that transcend all groups of believers.  But there are also truths that come into particular focus in different stages of life. 

I like the characterization of "seasons" of life.  Just as the seasons come and go, the phases of our lives come and go.  Each season has its own positives and negatives, and none is exactly like the others.  The transition periods between seasons can blend attributes of both the coming and going seasons.  But for the most part, each season is distinct.

The same holds true for the seasons of life.  Sara and I find ourselves in the season of young children.  This season has a focus on their care and establishing a solid foundation for their growth and development.  This season of life brings immense joy in watching our children grow, learn and experience life.  It also brings restrictions in terms of our time and ability to do certain things that are just not feasible right now.

This season will pass, and the next season will hold its own positives and negatives.  Certain things will become easier, and others will become harder.  But this is all by God's design, and He holds many joys and lessons to be experienced in each season. 

Sara and I remind ourselves continually to not miss what this season has to offer because we are longing for a different season.  Experiencing each season in full is part of God's sanctification process.  I pray that God will allow us to live intentionally and fully in each season of life He gives us.