July 2016


What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?

Romans 8: 31

 

The idea that God is with or for particular people, groups, nations, or causes is one that forms the foundation of hopes, wishes, and motivates actions. It has been a battle cry and a rationale that is set out in defense of human endeavors that range from the noble to the outrageous. So, what does it mean for God to be for people, and who are those people?

 

First off, it seems to me that God has always been for us. All people are a part of His creation, and we are that specially crafted portion of creation that was made in the image of our Creator. He breathed His life, our souls, into us and entered into a form of relationship with us that is utterly unique. Even in our rebellious and willful rejection of God’s rightful authority and rule, God set out a perfect and complete plan for salvation and for restoration. The Lord has never waivered from this plan, and He has never stopped pursuing each and every one of us. Still we humans are not easy to love and to nurture. We allow fear to motivate our thoughts and actions, and we treat people who are different from us as inferiors or as enemies.

 

None of this is pleasing to God, for nothing in these thoughts and actions is based in His will or upon His Word. So, I think that God is for all people in the sense that He desires for all to know Him by entering into a relationship with Christ. He is also for those who know Christ in that our motives, confidence in life, and capacity to love others are reflections of His character and are founded in our engagement with His Spirit. So, it would seem that God is truly for us as we set aside our personal aspirations and desires and yield our lives fully to Christ’s will. God desires for His people to be reconcilers, to be peacemakers, and to engage with our whole beings in His redemptive work in our world.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!

The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

Psalm 36: 7

 

It often seems as if values and principles, the moral and ethical framework and foundation of our culture, are changing very rapidly. This old-fashioned word, steadfast, is not really a part of the current cultural vocabulary. People do not stick to or with much of anything for very long, either. Although this lack of commitment to people and to values may feel like a modern phenomenon, a look at history shows that it has its roots in that long-ago garden and the desire on the parts of our earliest ancestors to be their own god. Over time people have just continued the progression of our movement away from the God of Creation and into our own self-defined god of personal convenience.

 

Based upon the evidence at hand, this effort to devise a better way to live than the narrowly defined one that God gives to us does not appear to be working so well today. Beliefs and actions that caused separation and death in those earliest of days are still bringing about the same results now. Our world is just better equipped to accomplish both of these ends. We live in a time of angry days. Individuals, groups of people, and nations are saturated in forms of fear and rage that are released in violence toward each other and that have no effectual resolution. It would appear that the only valid response to it all is self-protection and greater violence in return.

 

Yet that is not what God gives to us, and it is certainly not what He calls upon us to do. The Lord God has more right to be angry and upset over our way of living than does anyone else or any other group of people. All of our fear, anger, and violent discord are fundamentally directed at Him and are carried out in violation of His will and His Word. Still, the Lord remains true to His commitment to love all people for all time. The love of Christ stands today as the only valid answer that we have for the world in which we live. We can stand solidly today in the security of that love, and its protection, comfort, and counsel are the legacy that we can provide to our children and to all who follow after us. So, today, O Lord, I stand under the great shadow of your unceasing love and desire to pour Your redemptive truth out upon this wounded world where I live.

Rather, speaking truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ.

Ephesians 4: 15

 

From conception until twenty of so years later, people grow. Some of that growth is remarkably rapid, and some of it is subtle. There are other ways beyond the physical that we also grow, for we are said to grow in our jobs, in a relationship, or in stature in our community. Peaks and plateaus are found in all of our journeys, and some people work hard at continuing to move forward throughout life and others seem to settle at a point and don’t move much from that place of comfort. However, in the area of our spiritual lives, complacency and settling in are never good as Christ sets out an expectation of growth for His followers and for His body.

 

We all come to know Christ as spiritual infants. There is simply no possibility of growth without the vital nourishment that God provides through the mystery of the relationship that we can only have with Him by and in Christ. The presence of the Holy Spirit in us and in our lives is a gift that Christ grants to people who enter into that relationship with Him. The Spirit provides us with understanding of God through revelation of the deep meaning of His Word and by speaking eternal truth into our hearts and minds. As we know God and His righteousness iHbetter, we are made more and more mature in our thinking and in our actions. The only barrier that exists to our growth is found in ourselves. As we are willing to yield our lives to Christ and to surrender our human comfort to His will, Christ will transform our fallen flesh into the new creature that His love and grace promise.

 

This act of yielding is both passive and active in its nature. Christ asks us to stop striving after the things and the outcomes that we think that we want so that He can reveal God’s true path to us. The Lord wants us to wait calmly and with peaceful hearts as we contemplate and meditate on His Word, and God promises that He will speak to us and provide that purpose and direction that we desire. Yet, Christ also calls upon us to be active in our pursuit of spiritual growth. When we are told to “speak truth in love” we are being instructed to do far more than just talking. Although verbal expression of God’s truth is a very important part of this idea, the real life imperative here is about the totality of the way that we live. Christ desires for us to live in a manner that starts deep within our hearts and that finds expression in every thought and action of our lives. Our Lord calls upon us to live in a way that demonstrates and proclaims His truth and His love for the entire world each and every moment that we draw breath. This is the exercise that brings about growth in us and unity in Christ’s body.

Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”

John 7: 38

 

Jesus is speaking to an audience that understands water. They know just how much it can do for them, and they are very aware of what a lack of it looks like and how that impacts every aspect of life. These people understand water because they live with dryness. Their physical world is semi-arid, their ancestors have told them the story about the years of living in the desert while God provided their food and drink, and the rabbis share with them the rich symbol of spiritual life that water conveys. Now, in these days of foreign rule and after generations of living under the control of man’s interpretation of the Law, life is very dry. The drought has set in and relief seems like nothing more than a dim hope. So here is this man, this carpenter named Jesus, and He is saying mystical things that somehow penetrate through the outer shell of cynicism to reach the hearts of some of those who hear Him.

 

What Christ is talking about here is truly miraculous. He tells us that God desires to meet the most fundamental of all human needs by means of entering into relationship with each of us so that we will be changed from being water consumers into being providers of it to our world. This idea creates a monumental shift in the way that the world functions. In the old economy, water equaled power and control. It was something that was purchased and sold, defended by armies, and handed out by holy men. As John explains, “This He said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive.” The Spirit of Christ is the transformative agent in the hearts and the minds of people who believe in Christ. The Spirit works in us to change us into people who operate in a manner that is contrary to the laws of nature. Instead of being a well whose resources are depleted over time and with use, we are continually filled with a supply of spiritual life that absolutely defies exhaustion.

 

So, although I believe that all of this is true, the dust clouds still swirl about me and its gritty presence chokes my lungs. Where is all of this miraculous change? Life can seem to be so far disconnected from the promise that Christ brings to us that reality makes accounts such as this one into practical fable. It’s a great story that has nothing to do with where I live. These are times when faith is about all that there is to rely upon. I know that Christ has been faithfully engaged with me throughout my life. It is also true that He desires for His promise of an abundantly changed life to be my experience. So, in times when life feels like the desert has taken up residency in my heart, Christ calls me to Him. He says that he wants me to settle in and to rest with Him for a time. His Spirit speaks as my heart drinks in liquid truth. He breaks away the shell of doubt, fear, and discouragement that I have foolishly built around myself. Now, the new, true self that is filled with Christ’s Spirit can begin to overflow His love into this drought ravaged land.

Thus says the Lord:

“This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles       at my word.”

Isaiah 66: 1a, 2b

 

There is an unending dialogue that takes place inside of my own mind. This sort of self conversation happens on a rather continual basis, and it revolves around the tension that exists between my own skills and competency and my deep-seated insecurities. On the one hand I am drawn toward the strengths that God has allowed me to gain, but on the other stands insecurity, doubt and fear. The human tendency in these situations is to either charge ahead trusting my own abilities or it is to shrink away from the task at hand doing nothing. Neither of these approaches guarantees the best of outcomes.

 

As I look at this functional conflict in life, I am faced with another practical dichotomy. It is true to state that the Lord equips and empowers us with what we need to face all that life brings our way. It is also true that God desires for us to continually and fully recognize and be submissive to our total neediness, to our complete reliance upon Him. We are fully equipped and capable, and through Christ, we can be confident; yet, we are absolutely incapable of living righteously on our own. The solution to this quandary is found in the fact that God did not create us to be on our own. He desires for people to be involved with Him in a loving and a totally committed relationship. The Lord possesses great gifts that He desires to grant to us as we seek His face and submit to His will.

 

Perhaps the key to living in a righteously bold manner is found in the resolution of this tension. People need to contemplate and to recognize the many ways that God has gifted us with the blessing of all that we require to follow His will in this life. However, we must also remain completely submitted to that will and to God’s word. True submission is not something to be taken lightly or to be assumed. It is contrary to much of what we are taught in this world and to the way that our culture operates. It is certainly not the language of our public discourse. Yet, in fact, real strength and lasting confidence are based upon an attitude in which we yield our hearts and minds to God in humble submission and recognition of our complete brokenness. As I come before the King with my hands trembling in recognition of my inadequacy in relation to His righteousness and glory, my Lord takes hold of them, steadies me, and goes forward with me into a life of confident service to Him.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

Romans 7: 24, 25

 

Paul is agonizing over one of the greatest challenges that all followers of Christ face. This is something that impacts each of us in a deeply personal way in that we engage with this struggle of our old flesh verses the new person that we are in Christ internally and we are confronted with it in other people that we encounter. No one that I know has escaped from the challenge of this conflict. Although we are newly born into righteousness through relationship with Christ, our bodies still carry around with us the brokenness of sin, and its impact upon us does not fully cease in this life.

 

Although many things that we can do will help to minimize and to control the urges, drives, and desires of this old self, nothing that we do will fully prevail against them. Even the Law that God gave to Moses was weak and insufficient for this purpose. In fact, God knew that this would be the case; so, that law truly served as a form of beacon that led people to more fully understand our need for something more, for something that was beyond our own strength and that was out of our control. Paul had personally encountered the enormity of his own need, and God had stepped into the void of Paul’s false perfection with the filling of His Spirit.

 

This transition from service to sin and control by the flesh was gained through Christ and was made effectual by His sacrifice. Paul had encountered the miracle of redemption in a moment, but then he lived in the moment-by-moment reality of surrender to His Lord. We each personally go through a similar process and so do the other followers of Christ who we meet along the way of life. In these times of collision with our own un-Christlike thoughts and actions and with those of others in His body, we are granted the opportunity to engage in this process of change and growth. For these are times when love, grace, mercy, and a desire to be a peacemaker need to prevail. These are times when Christ alone is the answer to my own need as His Spirit pours truth and grace into my thirsty flesh.

For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

James 2: 13

 

What is mercy? By definition it is granting pardon or favor to someone over whom one has the power to judge. It is probably seen most frequently in the way that a parent treats a child, for children seem to go through life in a constant state of testing and suffering the consequences of those actions, and parents are thus forever responding with judgment that is tempered with mercy. Although it has many of the same characteristics, God’s mercy is much more significant than this. God sits in judgment of the life or death of every person, and He also possesses the final authority over the eternal disposition of our most essential selves in that aspect that we refer to as the soul.

 

Thus the sacrifice of Jesus was an act of ultimate mercy on the part of God so that every person who chooses to believe in Christ will be forgiven of all sin and escape the promised final judgment and sentence of death for the soul. In Christ we are set free. God’s mercy is an integral part of His nature and is an expression of His character. So, as we are new beings in Christ, we are transformed into people who manifest God’s nature and reflect His character. The grace that God has poured out on us is something that we possess in abundance to grant as His gift to our world, and it seems that mercy is an active expression of that grace.

 

So, back to the question of what is mercy? I think that it is much more than what we often first consider, for the mercy that God grants to us is very broad and applies to an incredibly wide range of acts and thoughts on our parts. All people deserve God’s judgment. We earn it with great ease as rebellion and defiance of God are our birth nature. Still, God pursues us in order to grant us His grace and tender His mercy to everyone who will respond to that loving effort. As I reflect upon God’s mercy as it is shown to me, I am led to seek His will for my response. I believe that Christ is telling me to be merciful. That is to be slow to judge and to grant grace to all. I am to love those who are unlovely to me, and I am to pursue to lost with that love so that they might see Christ.

 

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.

James 2: 1

 

We are born showing partiality, and there is much to commend about this fact. Babies are partial to their mothers from the moment of first breath. They rapidly learn to seek out and to favor the people who provide their primary care, too. As we develop we tend to be drawn to certain foods, colors, activities, and interests. These are among the things that define our individuality and that also gather people into groups of like-minded individuals so that various forms of community are formed. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of this. Yet, there is partiality that causes separation and that leads us away from God’s desire for the way that humanity should function.

 

There is no doubt in my mind that God desires for people to live and to function in various forms of in-gathering that we reference as community. Some of these are civil in structure, others are governmental, and some are based in interests or for common good. Yet, the ones that God cares the most about are the ones that are organized around commonality of faith and the beliefs that come out of that faith. It is in this setting that we best learn to function in a manner that begins to imitate the way that God calls upon His people to live. Communities of faith, what we often call the church, are that human expression of Christ that operates within our various cultures. This is the organic place where we learn to grow in our knowledge and our understanding of Christ, and this is a platform from which He can be demonstrated to our world.

 

So, as Jesus was absolutely impartial in His treatment of people, we must also be impartial. This is true for followers of Christ individually, and it is even more so true for His church. Although there exists structures of authority and order within God’s plan and design for our earthly community, even those authority constructs should not establish superiority, power, or dominion over others. Although James spoke specifically about wealth and social status in this letter, the implication of the concept expressed is clearly much broader than that. In our world we can include such things as manner of dress, education, intellectual capacity and even the currently hot topics of sexual orientation and national origin or beliefs within the areas where people who follow Christ cannot discriminate. We must be open to caring about and for all who come our way. We cannot act out of partiality to any greater degree than did Jesus, Himself. God calls upon His church to be a place where love and grace pour out into a world where these are precious commodities that lead straight to the glory of the Lord.

How lovely is your dwelling place,

O LORD of hosts!

My soul longs, yes, faints

for the courts of the LORD;

my heart and flesh sing for joy

to the living God.

Psalm 84: 1, 2

 

This is a song of longing and desire. It tells of the longing of God’s people to visit His holy temple so that they could again be in the presence of God. As this psalm anticipates an event to come and a time when that ideal will be achieved, today we could take it to indicate that time in the future when we are with Christ in heaven and possibly that promise of restoration in Jesus’ second coming. Followers of Christ can find great hope in the promise of eternity and in the understanding of God’s plan for a renewal of His creation glory on this earth. However, I don’t think that this is how we should take the meaning of these words today. To me, this psalm speaks to a living reality that has been realized in Christ.

 

We no longer need to travel to a place in order to find the fully realized presence of the Lord. His Spirit is in us and is active in our world. This place, even with its brokenness and its rebellion against God’s Word and His will, is a holy place, for it is the dwelling place of the Lord. He has not surrendered His original claim to the ownership of every inch of this planet. I recognize that God’s title to creation and His occupancy of this world are being challenged continually. It is apparent in the news of our days and in the events of our lives that this challenge is being carried out by determined and very powerful enemies of the Lord. The ensuing struggle is the real war that is on-going in our world today just as it has been since the beginning of its history.

 

As a follower of Christ, it is helpful to me to allow Him to reshape my thinking about my world by opening my eyes, my ears, and my heart to the presence of the Lord in this dwelling place where He has placed me. When I focus my vision on Christ and on His desire for all of creation, I start to see things differently. In that light, I see the imprints of the creative hand of God in the natural world that surrounds me, and I appreciate His imagination and intellect in what people have created. Even more importantly than all of that, I begin to embrace and to understand the truth of who and what every person on this earth truly is. We are all creatures who are made in the image of God, and each of us possesses a soul that is formed out of His breath. So, even when faced with people and with situations that are frightening, troubling, or uncomfortable; I can move forward with a song of worship on my mouth and the love, grace, and mercy of Christ extended to all who I encounter.

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and God our Father, who loves us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.

2 Thessalonians 2: 16, 17

 

There are days when pain surrounds the heart. The losses that this world forces on us rub us raw, and any outer layer of protection that we might have nurtured and developed to surround that sensitive organ is removed, often in an instant. We are left speechless, breathless, and with nothing to hold onto or to bite into in order to relieve the aching in our heart. This is the unrelenting reality of life, and everyone faces it. No one escapes the circle of pain that loss draws tight and tighter around us. Yet, this is the place where God is also most present. This is the very place where Christ entered into our world at its most impassioned and painful peak.

 

Christ engaged the greatest form of earthly loss, which is death, directly, totally, and absolutely. He granted to people the Father’s assurance of life that extends through all of eternity and that eclipses anything that this earthly existence promises. In Christ, life is something that begins here and now, but it finds its full freedom and greatest expression in the glory to come as we dwell in the presence of God. However, we still live in this world, and we are faced with the challenges that come with the life that we have in the here and the now.

 

So God grants us certain assurances. He has defeated the ability of death to rule over us. Everyone who knows Christ is alive both in this world and especially after being freed from it. When we are assaulted by the grief and the suffering of loss, God is with us. His presence is real, tangible, and unending. He sits in vigil with us through all of the long hours of that night of sorrow. God pours out His love and His mercy on our wounded hearts. Then He leads us into worship; that is into personal and public sharing of the truth of His presence. Words that speak about our faith and of God’s working in our lives bring healing to the heart of the speaker and to those of the hearers. Christ also leads us into acts of care and expressions of love, for these good works serve to bring Christ’s body together in a manner that provides mutual protection and opportunity for healing for our wounded hearts.

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