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.

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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.

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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.

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It’s All God, From Start to Fuel to Finish!

What God starts, God fuels. What God fuels, God finishes.

Sounds a little bit like running a distance race, doesn’t it? You make your start. You make sure you’re fueled up during the race. And then you overcome all the obstacles and “walls” and make it through to the finish line.

But in the race of faith, the subject of all those sentences is God. God makes my start. God fuels me up. God overcomes the obstacles and walls and sees to it I make it through to the end. That’s important to know. Because what this means is that we don’t have to start this race, fuel it, or finish it.

That might sound pretty crazy at first, but think of it this way. God chose us and called us by the work of the Spirit to come to the starting line. He did this by having the gospel taught to us — typically through someone he sent. It might have been a parent, a friend, a family member, or just someone we know at work or in our neighborhood who invited us to church.

God then fuels our faith. Again, this is not our work, but the work of the Spirit. He does this through Bible teaching, and through sacraments like baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This fueling of faith is typically done at a church. Paul told the Thessalonians, they had only to stand firm and hold fast. In other words, don’t push the Spirit away. Don’t stop listening to the word. And as it imperfect as it can certainly be at times, don’t despise the church.

And it’s God who finishes the work, too. By grace he encourages us to eternity. By his steadfast love he gives us good hope. And with his forgiveness and power, he strengthens us to experience life-change. Our deeds and words change over time and become more and more attuned to the deeds and words of Jesus. Stay in touch with word and sacrament, with Christian friends and leaders, with growing and serving, and God will finish his work in you.

In the book of Hebrews, God is called “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” And in the book of Philippians, we read that the apostle Paul is confident that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

That’s really what Paul is also saying in today’s reading. But here in his second letter to the Thessalonians, he gives us just a little more detail about how that works. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther described the process beautifully in his explanation to the third article of the Apostle’s Creed:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church he forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (2 Thessalonians 2:13-17, NIV).

Lord Jesus, you are the impetus, the fuel and the finishing power in my race of faith. Give me the strength to overcome every obstacle and wall in my race. By your forgiveness, your wisdom, your power, and most of all, your love, take me through to victory!

Our Bible reading for Wednesday, October 14, is Jeremiah 29:24 – 31:14, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-17 and Psalm 119:33-40.

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Ambitious for a Quiet Life

Albert Einstein hit on one of the most important benefits of living a quiet life. It creates the right kind of environment for stimulating creativity: “The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.”

Einstein would seem to be the best advertisement for his own dictum. One would struggle mightily to find many people who would qualify for being more creative than he was.

But Einstein, brilliant as he was, was not alone in recognizing the beauty and the benefit of the quiet life.

The apostle Paul also knew the value — before God — of the quiet life. In fact, he says, a quiet life is something to make our ambition, our life’s goal. That may come as a bit of a surprise to some who view Christianity as a “loud faith,” and Christians as a group who are bent on “shouting their way” into people’s hearts and minds.

But in today’s world, even apart from our Christian faith, it’s tough to live the quiet life. We live in a 24/7 world. So what are some of the obstacles that get in the way of you living the quiet life? Paul brings them out nicely, even as he encourages us to overcome them for the sake of reaching our goal of a quiet life.

  1. Selfishness gets in the way of the quiet life. When life becomes all about getting what we need and want, it usually heads in the opposite direction of “quiet.” Paul’s antidote to this obstacle is to put the focus on others (and for believers, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ), and to improve that focus every day. That’s what Jesus did. He focused on you in love.
  2. Being up in every one else’s business gets in the way of the quiet life. Instead of focusing on picking the tiny splinter out of our neighbor’s eye, we can focus on the “logs in our own eye”. We can recognize the repentance and forgiveness we need. Daily receiving God’s grace and forgiveness by taking time to confess our own sins will help a lot with this. Frequently looking to the cross of Christ is a great way to stop looking judgmentally into the affairs of others.
  3. Ironically, boredom gets in the way of a quiet life. Keep your hands busy. A quiet life is not a lazy life filled with boredom. Don’t equate these. You can live quietly while living actively. Paul says that working with our hands is one of the most effective ways to achieve the quiet life. You can be motivated to do this by remembering the immense love that Jesus showed you by “working with his hands” — stretching them out to be nailed to the cross.

Einstein had it right. So did Paul. One of the best ways to live creatively for the glory of God is to be ambitious to accomplish a quiet life. Such a life wins the respect of others. And such a life is the result of being fully sufficient in Christ.

“And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody” (1 Thessalonians 4:10-12, NIV).

Jesus, send me your Spirit, and inspire me by your love and forgiveness to make it my ambition to lead a quiet life. Help me to mind my own business, work with my hands, and most of all, keep on loving others more and more.

Our Bible reading for Sunday, October 11, is Jeremiah 23:9 – 25:14, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 and Proverbs 24:23-34.

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What God Works In, We Work Out

There’s an old saying that when you see the word “therefore” in the Bible, the first thing you should do is ask, “What’s it there for?”

In the case of Philippians 2:12, the “therefore” is pointing back to the previous section of Paul’s letter (Philippians 2:1-11), where he poetically describes the humility of Christ in going to the cross, and his subsequent exaltation to the right hand of God.

Paul coaches his Philippian friends: “Therefore,” since Jesus went to the wall for you to win your eternal salvation, now you go to the wall to take the gift of salvation you’ve been given and put it to work. Whatever you do, don’t let the gift just sit there and gather dust.

This gift of salvation is such a great and priceless gift that it should actually be put to use with fear and trembling. And how do we put it to use? It’s not complicated. It’s really quite strait-forward. Take Jesus’ words and actually practice them in your life.

In other words, really believe that what you believe is really real — and then obediently act on your faith:

  • Trust Jesus for forgiveness and eternal life — and find true peace in this
  • Trust that God’s commandments are the way to be attuned to God’s heart — and find joy in living according to them
  • Trust that putting the interests of God and others ahead of your own interests will bring you great blessing
  • Trust that this life is not all there is — God has an amazing inheritance in store for you in eternity
  • Trust that the Bible is God’s word, and therefore, your perfect guide to walking in step with the Holy Spirit

You won’t need to do any of this by your own willpower or energy. God will give you everything you need. He will provide you with the willpower, and he will give you the energy. To believe. And to obey.

Because whatever God demands, he also always graciously provides — just as God first graciously provided us with Jesus, the Savior we all need.

God first works in us by being gracious to us. And what God works in, we then work out by being obedient and faithful to him.

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13, NIV).

Lord Jesus, you humbled yourself and became obedient to death to win forgiveness of sins and salvation for me. Lord, I want to express my gratitude by being faithful and obedient to you. Work in me to will and to act according to your good pleasure.

Our Bible reading for Thursday, October 1, is Jeremiah 2:31 – 4:9, Philippians 2:12-30 and Psalm 115:12-18.

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Humility and Worship

Sometimes when we realize how much God has done — and is still doing for us every day — it’s very humbling.

All of creation. This entire universe was made for our benefit, made to provide for all our physical needs. All this beauty is ours. And we can make even more beauty using the materials provided by God. All this is provided so that we can have the comforts of home, awe-inspiring destinations for adventure, and an infinite outlet for our creativity.

All of redemption. When we dragged God’s perfect world — and ourselves — down into the dust, God pulled us back up again. He sent his Son, Jesus, to live a perfect life and die on a cross in our place so that we could be saved. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof-positive that our redemption is really real.

All of life-change. In our fallenness we often make a mess of things. When we couldn’t get our act together no matter how hard we tried, God sent his Holy Spirit into our hearts and minds. He transformed us into people who know and trust Jesus. We heard God’s life-giving word and with the Spirit’s help we are putting his word into practice. We are living as if we are God’s people. And that changes everything!

When we think about all of that, the only response is humility.

And worship.

“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care” (Psalm 95:6-7, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Thursday, August 13, is Ecclesiastes 7:1 – 9:12, 1 Corinthians 7:36 – 8:13 and Psalm 95:1-11.

Lord, thank you for all you’ve done for me. Your works of creation, redemption and sanctification are awe-inspiring. I’m humbled by your love for me. Truly, you are worthy of my worship!

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Get Ready for What’s Coming

Life is nothing more than a blip, really. So, it’s actually amazing that we have some time to think about what’s coming next after this blip is over. But we do, by the grace of God.

What’s next is eternity. Heaven. Our salvation is near and our destiny is drawing closer. And that means that this blip of a life is going to end sooner than we realize. Before we know it, we’ll have blown right through the blip.

So one thing Paul wants us to remember is this. We have only so much time here on planet earth to fully live in our new identity as children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. The time is short for us to put aside the deeds of darkness, with its key goals being to “party hardy,” stay high, get wasted, sleep around, divide people, devastate relationships, and self-centeredly wish I had more of this or that than anyone around me.

Paul says that the way we get ready for what’s coming is to get rid of all of that and put on the Lord Jesus Christ. And what he means by that is that we need to have a faith-relationship with Jesus. We need to trust that he is our Savior, and our Lord.

God will provide this for us. Through baptism. Through his word. And through the sacrament of holy communion.

Time is short. If we refuse to put ourselves in position for God to reach us through the word and sacraments, God will not come to us in any other way. We need to quickly put down the deeds of darkness and the desires of our selfish, sinful self. We need to give Jesus space to work on our hearts.

We can’t, in other words, put on one set of clothing until we’ve taken off the old set. In this case, “layering” just isn’t going to cut the mustard. There’s no “both-and” to be had here. This is a definite “either-or”.

So which set of “clothing” do you want to put on? Remember, “what’s next” is coming very, very soon. And it’s very clear that we need to have the right set of “clothing” on right now!

So get ready for what’s coming!

“And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13:11-14, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Thursday, July 30, is 1 Chronicles 7:1 – 9:1a, Romans 13:1-14 and Psalm 89:38-45.

Jesus, thank you for giving me your perfection as my new clothing. Help me to treasure it and to be ready for what is coming.

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Caving in to Sin: The Devastating Reality of the Christ-Follower

In writing the Romans, Paul made it clear that a Christ-follower is no longer under the control of sin. Jesus has emancipated them from the power and authority of sin. It cannot master them any longer.

But the apostle also made it clear that this is not the same as saying that they have been removed entirely from the reach of sin. While sin can no longer force them to do anything, it is still a powerful influence in a Christ-follower’s life.

That’s just being real!

Sin is still going to present itself to us as the attractive alternative, and constantly try to woo and win us over. Evil is going to be a constant presence in our lives, inviting us to do things that are pleasing only to our selfish, sinful nature — but not to God!

In other words, a Christ-follower is not leaving the battle with sin behind when he or she becomes a Christian. The exact opposite! They are stepping onto the field of battle!

And on that field of battle there will be some victories — all to the glory of God, and only by his power! But because we remain sinful, there will also be frequent failures large and small, and some massive. We can expect these defeats to be hurtful and harmful to others, and self-destructive as well.

Which means, in our struggle with sin, while there will be times when we bask in the glory of Christ’s victory over sin (which is also our victory over sin!), there will also be times when we are left feeling destroyed and decimated. Wretched, as Paul puts it.

Yes, the final victory is already ours. But for the battles along the way? Devastating losses will occur, and not infrequently. Paul says it so beautifully here: We remain wretched sinners, but Christ also still very much remains our Deliverer!

Thanks be to God!

“So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (Romans 7:21-25, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Wednesday, July 22, is Hosea 6:1 – 7:16, Romans 7:7-25 and Psalm 88:9b-18.

Lord Jesus, thank you for coming to deliver me from sin, guilt, shame and death. I am a sinner. I am still tempted daily to cave in to sin’s call. Forgive me. And create in me a clean heart. Give me the will and the strength to do your will each day to display my gratitude for your salvation.

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