Where to Look When You’re Hurting

There’s a little voice inside all of our heads that likes to speak up when we’re in the midst of trouble and hard times.

And this voice likes to say something along these lines: “If God really loved me, and if God really had his eye on me, and if God is all-powerful as he claims to be, then why wouldn’t he prevent all these troubles and hardships? What’s the point? Why would a loving, powerful God want to see me suffer like this?”

That voice can be a powerful voice at times. And listening to it can really derail our faith.

“God has forgotten me,” it tells us.

Or, “God does not want me,” or “God hates me,” or worst of all, “There is no such thing as God.” After all, we think, if there really were a loving God, why would he continue to let me twist in the wind in such agony and misery?

This is why it’s so important to constantly go back to the promises of the Bible and have our hearts and minds informed from the word of God rather than from our own human reasoning based on current events in our lives. If we try to figure things out without the word of God, our judgment will be clouded and we’ll end up reaching the wrong conclusions.

Paul directed the Romans’ attention to God’s promises and God’s heart, reminding them that God’s true intentions with all of us are motivated by love. When we’re determined to go our own way, he may allow us the freedom to go that way. But his goal is never our destruction or death. He takes no pleasure in rejecting us or removing us from his presence.

God’s end game is always to move us toward reconciliation and eternal salvation. Think of the story of the Prodigal Son. Everything he does is designed to lead us back into his loving, forgiving and merciful arms.

“For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (Romans 11:32, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Tuesday, July 28, is 1 Chronicles 4:9 – 5:26, Romans 11:11-32 and Psalm 89:19-29.

Lord, help me to always look to your words and promises in tough times. In my troubled heart, I am tempted to believe that you are so angry with me that you want to cut me off from your love. Assure me always that nothing pleases you more than when I turn away from my sins and return to you. Help me to know that you will welcome me with open and loving arms.

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Zeal Plus Knowledge

It can be easy to be led astray by people’s passion and sincerity. When we see people who have a lot of zeal for their faith and their religion, we naturally want to applaud that kind of heartfelt devotion.

Paul saw this heartfelt devotion when he looked at the Jews. In fact, he knew this zeal from the inside-out. Because Paul himself had been a zealous member of the Pharisees, the most passionate of the Jewish sects.

Paul loves these passionate people — as only a former insider could. He says in the first verse of Romans chapter 10, Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1, NIV).

But Paul also realizes how important it is for them to temper their zeal with knowledge. He knows that there are really only two approaches to a relationship with God. One works. The other does not. Paul wanted the Jews’ religious zeal to be mingled with the knowledge of which of the two approaches is the effective approach.

We see the same in our world today. The first approach says, “Lord, I believe I am a good person, certainly good enough to go to heaven. Let me show you how good I am. I have a good heart. A good mind. And even though my actions are not always perfect, I think I do enough right things to be acceptable to you. You’ll see that I’m your kind of person, God. Lovable, even if not perfect. Just the kind of person I know you would want to hang out with for eternity.”

The second approach says, “Lord, you are an amazing God. A good God — morally pure and upright in everything you do and say. Holy. And also an astoundingly kind God. Show me how good and kind, and especially merciful and gracious you are. Because my heart is dark. My mind is filled with ugly things. And my actions? They’re not even close to being consistent with what you ask of me. I could never in a million lifetimes come close to being the kind of person you want to hang out with — at least not by my own actions. In your grace, you sent your own Son, Jesus Christ, to be my righteousness. May his complete fulfillment of every right feeling, thought and act — his fulfillment of every law that reveals your holy will for me — be mine. Forgive my sins, and cover me with the righteousness of Christ.”

Paul is clear which approach is the correct approach, and which is not. The issue of “zeal without knowledge” stretches far beyond any single religion. Why? Because work-righteousness is the default “religion” of every human heart. And it is the religion the apostle Paul begs all of us to forsake for the faith that is singularly effective in producing a relationship with God.

And that is faith in Jesus Christ. Talk about passion and zeal… for all the right reasons, Jesus is someone we can truly get passionate about. Faith in Jesus as our Lord and Savior is zeal and knowledge, perfectly wedded!

“For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:2-4, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Sunday, July 26, is 1 Chronicles 1:1 – 2:17, Romans 9:22 – 10:4, and Psalm 89:14-18.

Jesus, grant me your righteousness. By faith alone, I want to have a right relationship with my Heavenly Father. Help me forsake  my heart’s natural religion, and no longer seek to establish a relationship with God by my own righteousness. Thank you for your grace and mercy that allows me to make such a request and be completely confident that you will fulfill it.

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Desire and Effort

There is something about God that’s extremely difficult for us to wrap our brains around. But the Bible tells us it is true again and again.

Perhaps the reason it’s so hard for us to understand this truth is that it seems to go against everything else we know or have experienced. Typically, we have to work hard and earn what we get in life. Desire and effort play a huge role in this.

Ask anyone who is successful in his or her field of work. Or a married couple who have been married for many anniversaries. Or artists who excel in their chosen art. Ask any of these, and you know what you’ll hear from them?

Without desire and effort, you won’t get anywhere.

But in our relationship with God, it’s an entirely different proposition. A healthy, strong, faith-filled and faithful relationship with God has nothing to do with our human desire or effort, the Bible tells us.

Our relationship with God depends entirely on God. He is the initiator. He is the sustainer. As the author of the book of Hebrews puts it, Jesus is both the “pioneer and perfecter” of our faith.

The Bible states and restates it so many times, and in such a variety of expressions, and in so many places, it must be true. Otherwise the truth would not have been so frequently repeated and restated.

God’s mercy is the thing. Not your effort, or mine. It’s all about God’s grace. It’s all about Jesus. It’s all about the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our hearts.

Notice carefully! There’s nothing there at all about us being at work on God’s heart!

Wrap your brain around it.

“It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Romans 9:16, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Saturday, July 25, is Hosea 11:12 – 14:9, Romans 9:1-21 and Psalm 89:9-13.

Lord, thank you for your mercy and grace. By your Spirit’s power, help me to understand that my relationship to you, my forgiveness and my salvation completely depend on these — and by no means depend on my own desire or effort.

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No Longer Condemned!

In the world of construction and buildings, “condemn” means “needs to be demolished and destroyed.” The building is no longer considered fit for use or occupation.

In the world of people, the definition really doesn’t change all that much. Merriam-Webster says that condemn means “to declare to be reprehensible, wrong, or evil usually after weighing evidence and without reservation.”

Putting the two together, many of us, whether we know it or not, live under a sense of condemnation. There’s a little bit of a “looking over our shoulder” feeling in our hearts.

Because we know our own sins and wrong best, we especially feel the threat when our conscience is troubling us. But intriguingly, even a string of good fortune will sometimes leave us wondering when the other shoe is about to drop.

That’s a form of condemnation too. So are questions like these: When is everyone going to find out what kind of person I really am — that I a fraud? When am I going to be caught and punished for the wrong things I’ve done, the hurts I’ve caused?

Paul knew that anyone who doesn’t have a good sense of God’s forgiveness, or our Savior’s power over sin, would feel this way. He recognized that especially the Romans, who often felt that their lives were ruled by the fickle Romans gods, or by “fortune,” or by their own powers of virtue and personal skill, would be subject to such feelings unless they really came to understand grace.

So he tries to make his statements as clear as possible. In fact, in Romans 8, Paul becomes very pointed. Condemnation? There will be absolutely none of that for those who by faith are covered by Christ’s blood and righteousness.

Why? Because we have been set free from the very law that would condemn us. God sent his Son to be a sin offering. Sin is dead. The law is entirely fulfilled. It no longer has any power or authority to harm us.

Yes, because of the weakness of our sinful flesh, we have failed to meet the righteous requirements of the law by our own efforts. But God sent his Son to be our perfect substitute. In our place, he has fully met every requirement of the law. And God has fully credited Christ’s righteousness to our account.

So no more worries about being punished by God. No more anxiety about divine threats hanging over our heads. No longer do we have to fear that we are headed for the torments of hell.

Christ is ours. And we are his. By the Spirit’s work we live under absolution, and no longer under condemnation. In God’s eyes we have already fulfilled his law perfectly.

No matter what anyone else may think or say about me, I know what God thinks. He loves me. He does not condemn me any longer.

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1-4, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Thursday, July 23, is Hosea 8:1 – 9:17, Romans 8:1-17 and Proverbs 17:25 – 18:6.

Heavenly Father, thank you for sending your Son, Jesus Christ, to be the perfect sin offering for me. Thank you for forgiveness and absolution. Help me to no longer feel a sense of condemnation, because the truth is, I am no longer condemned by you.

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Being Justified By Faith Has Major Benefits!

In yesterday’s reading from the book of Romans, Paul made the point that Abraham — the “spiritual father” of all believers — never had to earn his way into heaven. It was God’s gift to him. Paul even quotes a passage from Genesis to show that this was nothing new or shocking: “What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:3, NIV).

As Paul continues to teach the Romans in the next chapter of his letter, he returns to the theme of being declared righteous by faith. In this section he wants to teach the Romans (and us!) about the tremendous benefits of being justified by faith.

First, he tells us, those who have been justified by faith already have the kind of supernatural, inner peace that everyone else is still seeking. We no longer have to keep stressing and striving to find peace. Peace with God is the root and the trunk from which every other kind of peace is merely a branch — be it emotional peace, financial peace, marital peace, or any other kind of peace we might be looking to find.

Second, those who have been justified by faith have been given protective “grace boots” to wear. When we stand in these “grace boots” the mud and muck of sin can no longer touch us. The guilt and shame of the wrong things we still do — even as Christ-followers who sincerely and deeply want to quit sinning — are unable to cause us to slip or fall. Jesus has taken that guilt and shame on his own shoulders. That is the very reason he was crucified for us!

And finally, those who have been justified by faith have an unassailable hope that carries us through all our pain and suffering. We know that the glory of God — the glory of heaven! — awaits us one day. So when we go through tough times here on earth, we become tougher. For the believer, sufferings only serve to produce a more positive person filled with perseverance and character.

Peace. Grace. Hope.

This is what most people are constantly seeking — and often fail to find.

But Jesus has them for us. And they all come together with his gift of justification by faith. And that makes justification by faith the gift that keeps on giving!

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:1-5, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Saturday, July 18, is Amos 6:1 – 7:17, Romans 4:16 – 5:11 and Psalm 86:11-17.

Lord, thank you for giving me such beautiful gifts. You have declared me innocent of all sin. You have given me the Holy Spirit and his power to cling to you in faith. And by faith in Jesus, you also give me peace, grace and hope. What more could I ever ask for? What more could I ever need?

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Abundantly Loved!

God is gracious and forgiving. That is his very nature. It’s literally the meaning behind his name: the LORD (the Hebrew name Yahweh).

That means we can ask him to restore our sin-broken relationship and no longer be angry with us. And we can keep on asking for this again and again.

“You, LORD, showed favor to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins. You set aside all your wrath and turned from your fierce anger. Restore us again, God our Savior, and put away your displeasure toward us” (Psalm 85:1-4, NIV).

God is gracious and forgiving. That means that God has Amazon warehouses of limitless kindness, tolerance and patience that we can draw on daily. Such abundant love can lead us to step back from sin and see it for what it really is — selfishness.

“Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4, NIV).

God is gracious and forgiving. That means that he loves to bring compassion instead of calamity. He thrills in delivering healing in place of demanding punishment.

“He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2, NIV).

Sinful humans do not have it in their nature to be gracious and forgiving toward each other. As sinners, we don’t even have it in our nature to be kind, patient or tolerant with ourselves. We need this solid foundation of love badly, and there’s nowhere else to get it but from the LORD.

It’s also not in our nature to believe we can find it from God, even though we always can. Which is why the Bible emphasizes again and again and again how gracious and forgiving God is.

Our Bible reading for Tuesday, July 14, is Jonah 1:1 – 4:11, Romans 2:1-16 and Psalm 85:1-7.

Heavenly Father, thank you for loving me abundantly. Your love for me shows itself in a myriad of ways. But the most important is that you gave up your one and only Son to show me grace and win forgiveness for me. Truly, your patience and passion for restoring broken sinners like me is astounding! By your Spirit’s power, help me to find peace and rest in your abundant love every day.

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Track Record

Sometimes when we go through really tough times in life, we begin to question God’s love for us, or God’s ability to change things for the better.

Asaph, who wrote Psalm 77, demonstrates a good approach for times like this. He shows us that, as he goes through his own tough times and doubts, he takes the opportunity to step back and remember that God has a track record.

And that track record is one we all ought to examine from time to time. We’ll find a pattern of love. We’ll discover a habit of grace and mercy. We’ll observe a custom of displaying infinite power — for just the right reasons, at just the right time.

Which quite possibly begs the question: Is this the right time for you to remember God’s track record, to consider it, to meditate on it, even?

You can find that amazing track record right here in the Bible!

“I will remember the deeds of the Lordyes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds” (Psalm 77:11-15, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Tuesday, June 23, is 1 Kings 11:14 – 12:24, Acts 15:22-41 and Psalm 77:10-20.

Lord, help me recall your track record. Help me remember your deeds and miracles, your works and might. Most of all, help me remember your grace and mercy in Jesus Christ, your Son, my Lord and my Savior.

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Worth Fighting For

This is the age-old debate. Is Jesus enough? Or do we need to add something of our own?

Paul and Barnabas were dealing with some people who had come into their home congregation in Antioch to teach the people that Jesus was not enough. They told the people in Antioch, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1, NIV).

Paul and Barnabas knew this was completely incorrect. They knew the truth. Jesus is enough. He is completely sufficient. And he has taken care of everything we need for salvation.

So they pushed back. Big time. Even to the extent of traveling all the way from Antioch to Jerusalem to defend the truth that it’s all about the grace of God.

They knew well, there’s no ceremony, no tradition, no act of goodness, no performance of duty, and no obedience to the law that’s needed from us. It’s purely and solely by God’s undeserved love and unmerited favor that we are saved.

Jesus has done it all.

How amazing is that?! What peace there is for those who know of God’s grace! And neither Paul nor Barnabas were about to allow anyone to steal that peace from their brothers and sisters in Christ at Antioch.

For them, and for us, the grace of God is always something worth fighting for!

“No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:11, NIV).

Jesus, thank you for your amazing grace! Thank you for the peace it brings me. I trust that you have done everything needed to win forgiveness and eternal salvation for me. Help me fight away every thought or suggestion that would attempt to sway my heart or mind away from you, Jesus, and your pure grace.

Our Bible reading for Monday, June 22, is 1 Kings 9:10 – 11:13, Acts 15:1-21 and Psalm 77:1-9.

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God Made It Personal…

When Jesus lived a perfect life, when he then offered that perfect life as a perfect sacrifice for sin, he did it for the entire world.

Remember what John the apostle wrote?

“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, NIV).

It’s another both/and! Jesus lived and died to win forgiveness of sins for everyone. But it’s equally important to know that he lived and died to win forgiveness for you!

For you, personally.

You were on Jesus’ mind each day when he lived according to God’s laws perfectly in your place. You were on Jesus’ heart when he died on the cross, and when — three days later — he rose from the tomb.

In a town named Pisidian Antioch, the apostle Paul spoke to a group of Jewish believers in a synagogue. He wanted each person to know that he, Paul, was sent to personally seek them out. He was sent to tell them that through Jesus, forgiveness of sins is being proclaimed to them.

Each person who believes in that forgiveness — who believes in that Savior! — is set free from every last sin, Paul promises. He goes on to point out that this was something they could never have accomplished on their own by their obedience to the commandments that had been given to Moses.

The message is clear. God saw that you needed his help. You matter to God. And so God made it personal!

You — you, personally — are forgiven!

“Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Friday, June 19, is 1 Kings 6:1 – 7:22, Acts 13:13-41 and Psalm 75:1-10.

Jesus, thank you for loving me. Thank you for providing me with forgiveness of sins, because I matter to you. You have placed me personally on your own heart.

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Four Causes of Salvation

When we look at the Bible, we can see that it uses “both-and” language in describing the spread of Christ’s kingdom.

On the one hand, the grace of God deserves the credit for people coming to faith and the kingdom growing. The faithful and undeserved love of God causes him to see our guilt and misery. And it causes him also to freely forgive us of all of our sins because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice on the cross. This is the key to our salvation.

Theologians call this the “impulsive cause” of salvation.

But if you look at the Bible closely, you’ll also find that it’s people who bring God’s grace to those who need to hear it. In today’s reading, for example, we read of Barnabas sharing the gospel with the people of Antioch. And it’s clear that he played a role in the salvation of the people of Antioch. He was Christ’s agent and ambassador to carry the message of grace to this city.

Bible scholars call this the “ministerial cause” of salvation.

But did you know that when the Bible talks about the salvation of souls, it’s actually a “both-and-and-and” situation?

For instance, there’s the gospel in word and sacraments, which is also credited with leading us to salvation. This is the powerful tool that ministers are given to use to spread the kingdom. God the Holy Spirit creates faith and gathers the church through the gospel.

This is known as the “instrumental cause” of salvation.

And finally, there is the root, the very heart of our salvation: God. Everything originates with him — with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Without God, there is no grace, no minister to share the gospel, no Bible, no baptism, no Lord’s Supper.

Because of this, God is the “principal cause” of our salvation.

Count them. Four “causes” of salvation. Both-and-and-and. But is this just theological hairsplitting? Or is there a very practical and very necessary aspect to understanding the four causes of our salvation?

In short, the answer to that question is, “Yes!” Because once we know the cause, we can use the cause to produce the effect. In other words, if you want faith, if you want to help the kingdom grow in others, if you hope for salvation, now you know exactly where to go!

Go to God. Go to his grace and mercy, his steady and unfailing love and forgiveness. Go to the gospel in word and sacrament. Go to the people who want to share these with you. And be one of the people who wants to share them with others.

Clearly, Barnabas had a good handle on this, and that’s exactly what he did:

“News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (Acts 11:22-24, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Wednesday, June 17, is 1 Kings 2:13 – 3:15, Acts 11:19 – 12:19 and Proverbs 15:1-10.

Lord, help me to be your agent in the world to share the gospel with others, pointing them to you, and to your amazing grace.

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