Heroic Quest

We think of love as a feeling.

God says that love is more than a feeling. It’s a feeling followed up by action. When we love God, our actions will align with his will. It becomes not a burden, but a joy to follow God’s commands.

Being obedient to God is no longer a “have to.” It’s a “get to” for the one who loves God.

This is all because spiritually, we’ve been reborn. This rebirth gives us a changed heart, a new state of mind, and a will to no longer be a victim of the world.

We have victory over the world through faith in Christ. Instead of victims, we are overcomers.

As people of our culture, we relate well to putting an end to the victim mentality, taking responsibility and being on a heroic quest to overcome. This is a cultural narrative that we live with, and most of us simply assume it to be the truest and best way to live.

Be aware, however, there’s a huge twist. In our culture, victory over the world is achieved when we vigorously go after and subsequently accomplish our own individual hopes and desires. In this narrative, we are heroes on a quest to actualize our dreams. We are only overcomers if we make an outstanding effort, find our true selves, and in this way fulfill our heroic quest.

John the apostle teaches a completely different way to overcome. It begins with understanding that Jesus is the true hero. And the quest is actually his. He made the outstanding effort to overcome the world by first allowing the world to seemingly overcome him. His quest was to seek us, and save us: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10, NIV).

It’s really quite beautiful. We don’t have to be victims anymore. We can be overcomers from now on!

And it’s really quite simple. We overcome the world when we are attached, by faith, to the One Who Overcame the World.

“In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 John 5:3-5, NIV).

Lord Jesus, thank you for overcoming the world on my behalf. Grant me your Spirit so that I can trust you, stop being a victim and overcome with you. I know you love me, and with your help, I want to obey your commands so that I can thank you for all you’ve done for me.

Our Bible reading for Saturday, December 5, is Daniel 11:36 – 12:13, 1 John 5:1-21 and Psalm 139:1-10.

Header image based on "Me rappeling." by Mike Petrucci, CC By-SA 2.0

The Real Law of Attraction

How do we, as Christians, prove that God — and his love — are real? A lot of times Christians answer that question through apologetics, which uses logical arguments in support of the Christian faith. The idea is to uphold and defend Christianity against objections through the use of reason.

Peter takes another tack. He indicates that the very best Christian apologetic is to live in love ourselves. That includes a willingness to be misunderstood and mistreated without retaliating in kind. In that way, we don’t worry so much about persuading others via the brilliance of our arguments. Instead, we woo people through the “genius” of our love and gentleness.

Don’t simply, in other words, tell people what Jesus said. Not that this is at all bad. The gospel is the key power to change hearts and minds. Hearts and minds will not change without it. Peter has already made this point: For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23, NIV).

So by all means, preach the gospel. Tell people what Jesus said. But also, Peter says, live what Jesus said. Live as Jesus did. And this act of worship will show others how much you really revere Christ in your heart as Lord.

This one-two punch — preach Jesus, and “be” Jesus — will far exceed any defensive arguments that we might be able to advance to try and prove the reality of our Savior-God and his love. It’s the real law of attraction. Attraction to Jesus, that is.

What Peter says here is no different from what Paul wrote to the Corinthians when he told them, If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians, 13:1, NIV).

“Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing… But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:8-9, 15-17, NIV).

Lord, I know that you are real. You have proven that to me through your love for me expressed in the gospel. Help me to “prove” you and your love to others through teaching the gospel, and also through loving others the way you have first loved me. Give me strength not to repay evil for evil or insult for insult, but rather with blessing. By your Spirit, help me to revere you, Jesus, as Lord, and treat others with gentleness and respect.

Our Bible reading for Tuesday, November 24, is Ezekiel 45:1 – 46:24, 1 Peter 3:1-22 and Proverbs 28:18-28.

Header image based on "HCD Apologetics" by Ryan Holloway, CC By 2.0

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

Near the Church, Far from God?

There’s an old French proverb that states, “He who is near the church is often far from God.”

The church can seem like a very harsh and uncaring place. Church people can seem judgmental and hypocritical. Empathy and authenticity sometimes just don’t seem to be found in great abundance.

Even 2000 years ago, the apostle Paul knew how important it was for the church to demonstrate compassion, offer encouragement, and extend care and comfort to people. He knew how critical it was for Christ-followers to meet people where they’re at.

It was pure joy for Paul to share the gospel. But as he tells the Thessalonians, he also found great joy in sharing more than the gospel — in sharing his very life with them.

He worked day and night to support himself so he could selflessly teach people about Jesus, without needing their financial support. He lived a life that showed the Thessalonians step-by-step how a life with God is lived — an unselfish, righteous and pure life.

In this way, when the Thessalonians got near to Paul, they got a good picture of who Jesus is. They got a good picture of what the church is meant to be, too.

The good news about Jesus’ forgiveness. The love of Jesus reflected in actions. The power of Jesus for life-change. Hope. Encouragement. Comfort. And the challenge to grow in faith and obedience. That’s what the Thessalonians witnessed and received.

So when they got near the church, they also drew near to God.

“Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:7b-12, NIV).

Our Bible reading for Friday, October 9, is Jeremiah 18:1 – 20:18, 1 Thessalonians 1:1 – 2:16 and Psalm 119:1-8.

Lord, help me to love others as you first loved me. I ask you to strengthen me to follow the example of the apostle Paul, to share the gospel with those around me, and to sacrificially share myself as well.

Header image based on "St. Mary's, Stamford" by DncnH, CC By 2.0

Redefining Rituals

Rituals are nurturing practices that allow us to learn about God and be reminded of his most important attributes — his holiness, his love, his omnipotence, his mercy, his omniscience and his forgiveness.

Healthy worship rituals help us to meditate on God’s holy will expressed in the law. And they help us dwell again and again on God’s gracious promises expressed in the gospel. Rituals help us to form helpful habits that feed our faith, and do so on a consistent basis over the long haul.

All this is a good thing — a very good thing!

Yet, there is a danger inherent in rituals. If we’re not cautious about rituals, we can lose the substance of our faith in the midst of carrying out the ritual forms of our faith. Though it looks perfectly healthy and right on cursory examination from the outside, faith becomes an empty shell.

That’s what occurred with the Jews in the days of Isaiah. They were still faithfully carrying out the practices and rituals of their faith. But somewhere in the midst of carrying out their worship rituals, they had lost their love for God and their neighbor. The things most important to God were ignored, while the things most abhorrent to God were affirmed.

God — through Isaiah — suggested that his people needed to seriously evaluate themselves and redefine their rituals, such as fasting. The most important “fast” is not simply to give up eating. It’s to share our food with those who are hungry. It’s to provide travelers with shelter. It is to give clothes to those who lack clothing to wear. It is to bring justice and mercy to those who are oppressed and being treated unjustly.

Making this change was critically important to God. So as a special encouragement to the Jews to redefine their rituals, God also attached promises of grace to his command to do so. He tells the Jews that those who will redefine fasting in this way will see their influence grow. They will experience God’s protection and his blessing on their work. They will see their needs being met. He even promises that health and strength will be the hallmark of the people who “fast” in this new way.

Fast-forward to us, today, already living in a position of great influence, highly secure and protected, not to mention quite wealthy (certainly far beyond needs simply being met), with the best health and medical care in the world. That’s not to mention the even more important spiritual wealth that we possess. Jesus, God’s Son, has given us his righteousness, peace, faithful love, forgiveness, the power to experience a changed life, and the right to call ourselves the children of God with eternal life as our inherited destiny.

Every now and then it’s good for us, as well, to evaluate our hearts and examine our rituals. It’s a healthy exercise to reconsider and, if necessary, redefine. It’s important to make sure that we have not lost the substance of our gratitude and love for God, or buried our love for our neighbor somewhere beneath the ritual rubble that’s supposed to be nurturing our faith.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:6-11, NIV). 

Lord, I thank you for your many blessings. You have graciously provided all I need for my body and life, as well as for my heart and soul. Help me to notice the needs of others and willingly seek to serve and generously give to those who need my help and assistance. Help me to love my neighbor as I love myself. Strengthen me to love sacrificially, as you have first loved me.

Our Bible reading for Thursday, September 24, is Isaiah 57:14 – 59:21, Ephesians 3:1-21 and Psalm 111:1-10.

Header image based on "Charity in the dictionary" by Howard Lake, CC By-SA 2.0

Keep in Step

Everything we are as Christ-followers is the work of the Holy Spirit. That statement is one of the distinctives of the Christian faith. Christianity holds that all that we are (and all that we can become) is a gift from God.

Think of fruit. Fruit is produced by a tree not by force of willpower. It’s produced because that’s the nature of the tree itself. An apple tree produces apples. A peach tree produces peaches.

What it is is what it produces.

This idea is so different from what every other philosophy or religion teaches: Focus. Self-reliance. Hard work. Responsibility. Willpower. Those are the things that lead to strong character and success, according to the dominant theories of culture and religion.

Paul teaches us that if we want to be people of strong character, the way to do that is not to build it through focus, self-reliance, hard work, responsibility and willpower, but rather through walking with the Spirit and keeping in step with him.

When we do that, the Spirit changes who we are. He strengthens us to become what we have already been declared to be in Christ: A dearly loved child of God, bought with the blood of Jesus Christ. And what we are is what we will produce.

The secret of success? Belong to Jesus Christ. Not to self. Keep in step. Not, “Step it up!”

The signs of success will be obvious. The kinds of character qualities most of us are seeking in life will come. Keep in step with the Spirit, and you’ll keep the fruit of the Spirit growing!

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-25, NIV).

Lord, help me to keep in step with your Spirit by reading my Bible daily. Remind me of the importance of regular attendance at church, at my growth group, and making use of the Lord’s Supper. In these ways, you will fill me with your Spirit and help me stay in step with him. I want you to produce the fruits of the Spirit in me — all for your glory, Lord.

Our Bible reading for Sunday, September 20, is Isaiah 47:1 – 49:7, Galatians 5:7-26 and Psalm 109:1-20.

Header image based on "Apple orchard in Tasmania with fruit on trees DSC_5957" by Apple and Pear Australia, Ltd., CC By 2.0

Abundantly Blessed, Abounding in Doing Good

Paul is gathering an offering to help believers in Jerusalem who are going through an extremely tough economic situation.

People in the various churches throughout Asia and Greece have responded generously to Paul’s appeal. He specifically mentions the Christians in Macedonia for having been unbelievably generous in giving toward this effort.

Now as he continues his appeal in the province of Achaia with the Corinthian congregation, he begins by helping them recall the generosity of God. Everything we have ultimately comes from him. So, when we give, we are ultimately giving back to God only what he has first given to us.

Paul calls on the Corinthians to put their faith in God’s generosity. We can be confident, he writes, that just as God has taken care of us in the past, so also in the future he will meet every need.

In fact, far beyond that, he will bless us abundantly.

In turn, we will be able to bless others abundantly. Through the good that we will be able to do in his power, with his resources, because of his love — we can change lives.

That’s what Paul wanted the Corinthians to know too. Their generosity and goodness — inspired by God’s generosity and goodness — would make a huge impact on the lives of those suffering in Jerusalem.

“And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8, NIV).

Lord, thank you for your generosity. You have generously met all my needs. Despite my often weak faith, I know I can be abundantly confident you will continue to meet all my needs. Give me the love for others that you have first had for me. Help me to be generous toward others who need my support, and to bless my neighbors who need my help.

Our Bible reading for Monday, September 7, is Isaiah 14:1 – 16:14, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, and Psalm 106:1-15.

Header image based on "abundance" by Luke, CC By-SA 2.0