Cross and Crown

Life is filled with trials, tests and crosses to bear. But, while difficult, these don’t have to be the end of us.

Trials, tests and crosses may indeed stretch us, but they don’t need to break us. In fact, the testing of our faith muscles in life can be like the testing of our physical muscles at the gym. Greater strength and endurance will be the result.

That’s why James encourages us to adopt a challenge mindset.

“Consider it pure joy,” he says, when we are tested. And how does one do that? The way to accomplish this is to look past the pain we are currently experiencing to the great end result we will be achieving through the stretching and strengthening of our faith.

No, it’s not fun now. We admit that. And we empathize with the pain you’re going through. But that end result is so beautiful.

The result in this life is that we grow up and become mature. And through our trials, our trust in God and his promises is perfected. We are made more complete people. We become more fully-developed followers of Jesus Christ.

But the best result of all? That’s the one that comes after this life is over. Once we’ve stood the test, once we’ve born the cross, we’ll receive the crown. Eternal life — that beautiful gift of Jesus — will be ours.

Endure and procure. Bear the cross with joy. And you’ll receive the crown with even greater joy.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything… Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him” (James 1:2-4, 12, NIV).

Lord, help me to adopt a challenge mindset toward the trials, tests and crosses in my life. I want to be able to see past the pain to the awesome results that will follow. Help me find joy in knowing that because of you, Jesus, my crosses will all one day be exchanged for a crown.

Our Bible reading for Tuesday, November 17, is Ezekiel 32:1 – 33:20, James 1:1-27 and Psalm 127:1-5.

Header image based on "Cross and Crown" by RichardBH, CC By 2.0

Endurance

It’s so easy to get tangled up in sin. Walking our way through life is like walking through a thick forest of mesquite trees. The branches and thorns just keep grabbing at us, clinging to our sleeves and holding us back.

Imagine trying to run a race in such a place. You’re trying to make your way through as quickly and directly as you possibly can, but there is always another tree, another bramble, another thorny branch, trying to force you back, or make you go around.

That’s how the author of the book of Hebrews describes the “race” of our life of faith. Greed, pride, lust, despair, depression, anger, hatred, shame and guilt — these grab at our hearts and cling to our thoughts, he says. But we must throw them off and turn the spotlight of our attention away from sin to Jesus.

Recalling the joy with which Jesus ran his race — all the way to the cross! — will inspire us to run with gratitude. Such amazing love and sacrifice will motivate us to be ready to run our race.

Leaning on Jesus will help us be able to dig deeper when necessary, because he is the sole power behind our faith. Jesus is the one who created our faith and he is the one who will bring our faith to a beautiful state of perfection. Faith keeps us going even when times are tough.

Looking to Jesus as a model will instruct us in how a great race is run, so that we can imitate his racing skills and receive our crown. Even now, Jesus sits on his throne in heaven and is fully in control of the world for our benefit. So we do well to consider both his race and his final victory!

We must not grow weary, and we must not lose heart. That’s not easy to do when the briars and the bramble constantly grab hold. But Jesus has already marked out our race for us. He has promised to run ahead and clear a path for us.

The answer to keeping on going despite the challenges and the obstacles is to fix our eyes on Jesus. With the energy he gives us, we will find the endurance to run our race well.

Brush those thorny branches back. And keep on running.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3, NIV).

Lord, help me to throw off the spiritual enemies that want to hinder me and the sin that entangles me. I am sorry for listening to the voice of the world, of the devil, and of my own sinful flesh. Help me to focus my eyes on you, and on your forgiveness, love and power. And give me the strength to run my race with perseverance and endurance.

Our Bible reading for Saturday, November 14, is Ezekiel 26:1 – 27:36, Hebrews 12:1-13 and Psalm 125:1-5.

Header image based on "starr-011104-0068-Prosopis_pallida-thorns" by Forest and Kim Starr, CC By 2.0

Anchor for the Soul

Merriam-Webster defines the word “anchor” this way:

  1. a device usually of metal attached to a ship or boat by a cable and cast overboard to hold it in a particular place by means of a fluke that digs into the bottom 
  2. a reliable or principal support :  mainstay
  3. something that serves to hold an object firmly

The author of the book of Hebrews recalls the hope we have in Jesus — our hope of forgiveness despite the ugliness of our sins, our hope to have the power and the help of the Holy Spirit to change our way of life, our hope that heaven is real and that Jesus is preparing a place for us there.

And in his letter to the Hebrews, the author calls this hope an “anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”

The words strongly imply that our souls are never steady all by themselves. But you already recognize that, don’t you? Experience alone would tell you that. Worry, anxiety, guilt, shame, anger, frustration, greed, lust, envy, jealousy — these are all winds that blow our soul around and create waves, waves that cause our soul to bob unsteadily and erratically through life.

Nothing within us will keep us steady. We need something outside of ourselves to hold our souls steady. We need something reliable to be our support and mainstay. We need something that can resist the force of the winds and the waves and hold us firmly in place in the grace, mercy and peace of Jesus Christ.

And that “something” is the hope that Jesus gives us. Hope secures us to the bedrock of God’s promises and holds our soul steadily in place.

So the bottom line is this: Don’t set sail in life without an anchor on board. Don’t allow anyone to tell you that you don’t need an anchor for your soul. Take Jesus, and the hope he gives you, with you everyday wherever you go.

Then you will have a soul that is firm and secure.

“We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Hebrews 6:19, NIV).

Lord, I thank you for the hope that I have in Jesus Christ, your Son, my Lord and Savior. Help me to carry this hope with me every day in life and use it as an anchor for my soul. I want to live a life and have a soul that is firm and secure.

Our Bible reading for Thursday, November 5, is Ezekiel 7:1 – 9:11, Hebrews 6:13 – 7:10 and Psalm 119:161-168.

Header image based on "Ancora, ancla, anchor." by Miguel Campo, CC By-SA 2.0

Cut Through the Clutter

“Most people don’t have that willingness to break bad habits. They have a lot of excuses and they talk like victims,” says Carlos Santana, pioneer musician, winner of multiple Grammy awards, and the person listed by Rolling Stone magazine as number 20 on its list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”

The author of the book of Hebrews understood this little “secret” about people too. We of the human race tend to have a self-defense mechanism that resembles the defense system of modern military aircraft. When a radar-guided missile is fired at it, it dispenses a cloud of chaff — small, thin pieces of aluminum or metallized glass fiber — in an attempt to distract the missile from its target.

In our case, the missile is guilt. When guilt threatens to strike us in a vulnerable place, a place that strikes close to home, we tend to dispense the chaff of our excuses. The reality is just as Santana said. It’s really a self-protective measure we use to stanch the hurt, and avoid having to break our bad habits.

We forget that God sees past all the excuses. He knows our hearts and our minds. He can see to the core of our being. With him, we have no secrets.

Praise God, he loves us enough that he has given us a tool to help us move beyond the excuses. He gave us his word, and it knifes through all the excuse-making and the blame-shifting. The word of God cuts through all the clutter and gets straight to the heart of the matter.

God knows and sees everything very clearly. With the help of his word, we can begin to see everything very clearly, too — even the motives of our own heart. And that will help us break our self-destructive bad habits, eliminate excuses, and put an end to the victim-mentality.

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:12-13, NIV).

Lord, help me to set aside all my excuses. I want to trade in all my excuses for the forgiveness of Jesus and true life-change. Keep me studying the Bible so that your word can cut through all the clutter and help me to break bad habits. I know your love and your mercy are the true power to change my heart and my life.

Our Bible reading for Monday, November 2, is Joel 2:18 – 3:21, Hebrews 4:1-13 and Psalm 119:145-152.

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Is Forgiveness a “Have To” or a “Get To”?

The book of Philemon is very short — only one chapter. But it is also deep. And it is especially deep on the topic of motivating people to do the godly thing, and to do it for the godly reason.

Paul is appealing to Philemon to forgive Onesimus. Onesimus was Philemon’s slave. Onesimus had run away and according to Roman law, Philemon would have had the right to severely punish Onesimus for this.

As you read the following set of verses, take note of how Paul frames his appeal. Could he have demanded that Philemon do what he was telling him to do? Could he have pulled the authority card out, and told Philemon, “Hey, I’m an apostle. Don’t forget it. Forgive Onesimus. Don’t even think about doing anything different. I’m ordering you to do this.”

Yes, he could have. But he doesn’t do it that way.

Instead, he makes a request, and he does so in the hope that Philemon will be internally motivated by the love that’s in his heart — love for Jesus, and love for Paul, and even love for Onesimus — to extend forgiveness.

Why would he do that?

Because Philemon would recall that he had first of all been forgiven and loved. By Jesus. He would remember that without Jesus, he himself would still be a slave to sin, death and the devil. Gratitude would fill his heart and inform his actions.

Especially, in this case, gratitude would inform his actions in regard to Onesimus. Framed this way, forgiveness would not be a “have to.” It would be a “get to.”

“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains” (Philemon 8-10, NIV).

Lord help me to love and forgive others as you have first loved and forgiven me. Not because I have to, but because my heart is so filled with gratitude that I get to.

Our Bible reading for Thursday, October 29, is Lamentations 2:7 – 3:39, Philemon 1-25 and Psalm 119:121-128.

Header image based on "Motivation in Somerset" by Sam Saunders, CC By-SA 2.0

Letters from Home

Augustine of Hippo (350-430 AD), one of the early Church Fathers, and a deeply respected theologian and philosopher, once said about the Bible, “The Holy Scriptures are our letters from home.”

If you’ve ever lived far from home, you know the power of that statement. When you are on the other side of the country (or the other side of the world) and you get a letter from home — you treasure every word. You pore over it again and again. Those words reconnect you with your loved ones.

Paul encourages young pastor Timothy to treasure every word of the Bible like a letter from home. In the previous verses, he has just reminded Timothy that he lives in a world that is not friendly territory for the Christ-follower. He says, “There will be terrible times in the last days… in fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:1, 12, NIV).

But as Timothy lives like a stranger in a strange and hostile land, he can stay connected to his Father through these letters from home. Timothy had grown up in the scriptures. They were familiar territory to him. And this was not the time to abandon them. Rather, he should double-down on them.

Paul explains why. The Bible is useful. And the Bible is inspired. If Timothy wants to be wise and ready for eternal salvation, he simply needs to keep on studying the Bible. If Timothy wants to know the things that will make him wise for life right here, right now, he can read the Bible and meditate on it.

There’s nothing like the Bible to show us the truth, and keep us safe from self-deception, the world’s myths, and the devil’s lies.

There’s nothing like the written word of God for exposing our personal rebellion against God, for correcting our mistakes, or for training us to live God’s way.

Better yet, there’s nothing like the gospel to point out Jesus’ love for rebellious sinners, Jesus’ willingness to pay the price for our mistakes, or Jesus’ self-sacrificial kindness in taking our place and living God’s way on our behalf.

These letters from home remind us where we came from and whose we are. And they show us how to get home again from this strange, hostile land we now live in.

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:14-17, NIV).

Lord, help me to continue in what I have learned from you in the Bible. Help me to stay convinced by your Spirit’s power that Jesus is my Lord and my Savior. Help me to place full confidence in your word, and to know that it is truly useful to me.

Our Bible reading for Saturday, October 24, is Jeremiah 50:11 – 51:14, 2 Timothy 3:1-17 and Psalm 119:89-96.

Header image based on "Letter from Kenya" by Jeff Turner, CC By 2.0

Faith and Hustle

When my kids were younger they had a list of chores on the refrigerator. The list was something that Julie and I had put together for them so that they could learn to help out around the house, and develop a habit of taking responsibility for the overall good of the family.

Of course, the chores were not always beloved by our children. But they did develop good habits and were good about getting the chores done. Most times, they hustled and got them done pretty quickly, in fact.

But there were a few times when they just weren’t into the chores. So, they would drag their feet and not get started on completing the list. We would remind them, of course, but sometimes reminders weren’t enough to get the children moving.

Accountability breeds responsibility, so on our kids’ “less than energetic” days, Julie and I might have had to finally resort to threats of privileges being taken away. That was never the way we wanted it to be. Our goal was for them to be motivated from the inside (their own willingness and desire), not from the outside (us and our threats).

In Psalm 119, the poet talks, in a way, about God’s “chore list.” He calls them statutes or commands, God’s law. The author says that he has looked at himself, compared his actions with God’s law, and has turned things around so that his actions are aligned with God’s statutes and commands.

Something that stands out here is that he commits himself to a personal “zero-tolerance policy” for foot-dragging. He will obey God right away. He will find out what God wants and then hustle to get it done. And his motivation to do this clearly comes from within. This is what his heart is moving him to desire, and desire immediately.

Is there an area in your life right now that you find yourself dragging your feet when it comes to obeying God’s commands? Is it the right time for you to take a moment to consider your ways, and begin to more closely align to God’s will? Are you ready to commit to going about this in an expeditious manner, hastening to obey, and make the change immediately?

In other words, is now the time for some “hustle” in your relationship to God? When the love of Jesus truly touches our hearts, this is what our hearts will be motivated to desire — just as the Psalmist’s heart was.

“I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes. I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands” (Psalm 119:59-60, NIV).

Lord, help me to consider my ways and turn my steps to your statutes. Give me the inner desire to hustle and do this quickly, so that I may align my heart to yours right away.

Our Bible reading for Sunday, October 18, is Jeremiah 38:1 – 40:6, 1 Timothy 3:1-16 and Psalm 119:57-64.

Header image based on "Chores" by Roxanne Ready, CC By-SA 2.0