Spiritual Strength


And falling to his knees he cries out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he said this, he fell asleep.

Acts 7: 60

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful acts that is within the realm of human endeavor. This is especially true when the person or people that are being forgiven are guilty of perpetrating wrong against their benefactor. The wrong that was done to Stephen in this event from the history of the church in Jerusalem during those tumultuous times that came about after Jesus was crucified was as great as it can possibly get. For Stephen had been tried and convicted of blasphemy against God and was then taken outside of the city where he was brutally and violently executed by means of stoning. Stoning is a highly personal device for bringing about the torturous murder of a victim. This follower of the Risen Christ used his final breaths in order to speak out forgiveness for the people whose anger was being poured into his flesh by the impact of every jagged rock that impacted with his body.

This example of forgiveness is extreme. Yet, Stephen is doing nothing more than following His Master in this attitude of the heart, mind, and spirit. Remember, Jesus also forgave His executioners from the cross as He was establishing this same grace for all of us for the rest of time. In Christ, we are forgiven; through Christ’s blood, we are baptized into eternity as our universal separation from God and antagonism with the Lord are reconciled as Christ pronounces upon us the innocence that only He deserves. For Stephen to be able to forgive the people in the mob that was taking his life from him required something that came from a source that was far greater than anything that he naturally possessed. This was an act of both his will and of his heart, and it was one that, coming in this final moment of his earthly agony, required strength of body and of spirit that was beyond anything that people are capable of doing from within their own resources.

These words are those of the Spirit within Stephen, and this act of forgiveness is supernatural in its inspiration and in its execution. God forgives us because we have accepted Christ as Savior and Lord of our lives. Christ retains the role and the right to judge all human hearts and to tender this same grace to all that He deems worthy. Out flawed and frail human capacity to so determine who is righteous and which of us is worthy is no longer in play. Thus, we have no other choice than to follow Stephen’s example and to forgive people in all sorts of circumstances and situations. Forgiveness is complex, and it does not necessarily mean that a person is trusted and accepted fully regardless of what they may have done or the attitudes of their hearts and minds. Yet, forgiveness releases us from being responsible for establishing judgement and tendering eternal sanctions upon others; so, it also allows for us to extend Christ’s call to repentance and enter into restoration of relationship with the ones that have offended against us. Forgiveness enters us into the processes of bringing life after death, and this endeavor is Christ’s ultimate mission and our greatest calling as His people.  

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O God, save me by your name, 

   and vindicate me by your might.

O God, hear my prayer, 

   give ear to the words of my mouth.

Psalm 54: 1, 2

One of the first things that we are taught in life is self reliance. We learn to take care of ourselves and to solve our own problems. An attitude of “I got it, no problem, no help needed” is praised and encouraged by parents, teachers, mentors, and by our culture. This isn’t all bad; for, there is a lot of a best life practice quality to these skills and the attitudes that produce them. But there are times and there are situations when we need help and partnership. There have been far too many times in my life when I really needed help and didn’t seek it. I think that, in fact, we all need help and guidance and counsel every day.

These verses were written by David at a time when he was trying to solve his own problems and when he had run out of resources. He was in fear for his life due to King Saul’s anger, and he had been hiding out among the Ziphites; then, they turned on him and sold him out to Saul. David’s plan was in ruins around him, and he was feeling very exposed and totally vulnerable. He knew where he needed to turn for support, guidance, and deliverance. David had experienced God’s love, care, and strength as these characteristics of the Lord had been significant in other situations during his life. Although not in as dramatic a setting as David, I too have experienced the Lord’s favor in my own life.

The issues that we are facing may not be this big; as, there may not be a spear pointed at our hearts, but they often feel like that is the situation at hand; however, some of our issues are every bit as urgent and dangerous as David’s. When he came to his senses, when he went deep inside his heart and focused on the truth that life experience had taught him to rely upon, he started to focus on his real source of protection and on the only absolutely reliable place to go for direction. We, too, can see that it is through the might of God that we will make it through this world; it is through the sacrifice of Jesus that we are saved from evil. Like David, we can turn our hearts to Christ and speak our fears, concerns, and needs to Him. Then we can hear the blessing of His voice as He leads us to safety for our hearts and minds and into His strength.

Whoever is wise, let him understand these things;

   whoever is discerning, let him know them;

for the ways of the LORD are right,

   and the upright walk in them,

   but transgressors stumble in them.

Hosea 14: 9

The things that are to be understood are the ways of the Lord. That is, righteousness, mercy, justice, peacemaking, and love for people who would otherwise be considered as either beneath that sort of care and concern or who would be thought of as enemies. These are not small things, either, for they frame in a life that is committed to God and that is dedicated to following His will and to being His person in the world. The prophet also sets out an opposing approach to living out our days as those who do not wish to seek out the Lord and engage in following His Word will also travel through life in a journey that has its own consequences and outcome. They are seen as people who stumble and who bump into the obstacles of life in ways that are uncomfortable and that result in spiritual bruising and injury.

Yet, that is not how things often seem. The righteous are known to suffer and to be considered as outcasts in society. Godliness is certainly not always found to be desirable or even acceptable in many places on earth. There is a tension that exists between living as God calls upon people to do so and living in a manner that finds acceptance and favor in our world. Still, we are called by God to enter into wisdom, that is, to follow Him and to adopt the truths of Christ’s gospel as our own. We are to be generous people that give of our wealth and that also give away ourselves in ways that demonstrate grace, mercy, and acceptance to people that do not know God and that might not otherwise encounter the presence of Christ in the course of their days.

The Lord desires for His people to follow Him and to do what is right and just as we go. He does this so that our lives will be conducted in a manner that more fully reflects the glory of His holiness and so that the rest of our world will see that contrastive goodness and seek after it for themselves. He also calls us into righteousness so that life in this world will go well with our own souls. There is something troubling and unsettling about knowing Christ and still living outside of the boundaries of God’s will. When we do that our souls are troubled as we are functioning in a manner wherein our thoughts and actions are set on a collision course with the essence of who we have become as Christ’s Spirit has come to dwell within us. Here, like it was with the recipients of Hosea’s message, we are called upon by God to repent, to seek out the Lord and enter into His will, and to turn away from the ways of the world and to embrace the grace, love, and peace that come from walking along the path that the Spirit sets out for us to follow.   

Jesus said, “They (my followers) are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”

John 17: 16

Here is a fundamental truth regarding the way that a relationship with Christ changes people. We are born into this world, and our identity is formed, framed, and established by the values and the priorities of the world. We are inevitably driven by the forces that are generated from the core of this sin-infused and fatally flawed environment. We are all born as children of wrath and iniquity, and our parents and everyone else who seeks to influence us have no ability to change this. They can share their faith with us; however, we, alone, can choose to enter into transformative change. We are granted the opportunity to accept a new identity and a renewed orientation through accepting the offer of redemptive grace that God has provided in Christ.

When we have done this, Jesus claims us as one of His own followers, and His Spirit comes to live within us; so that we are changed from the center of our beings. We no longer find our identity, our values, and our perspective on life in the old places. We now possess God’s heavenly, righteous, and eternal view of what it means to live in this world. We are now empowered and equipped to become people who bring about change in our world, for we gain the ability to see the people, institutions, and organization of this world from God’s perspective, and we have the capacity to embrace His heart of loving grace and His desire to see the fallen restored.

This is a highly challenging thought; for, my life is still filled with thoughts and actions that look more like those worldly ones that I was born with than they do like the ones that Jesus expresses. Yet, Christ has said that He has taken me out of the world and into His realm; so, the parts of my life that are still oriented to that old, worldly form of thought are the result of my stubborn refusal to let go of them. So, I pray, “Lord, take these unloving, self-centered, and defeated attitudes from my life, and fill me with the newness of your Spirit; so that, I can walk through my life as a person who brings the redemptive power of the love of Christ to the world where I live.”   

But he said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefor I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

2 Corinthians 12: 9

We tend to like strength. It is something that is applauded, held up for praise, and sought after by most of us. It is natural to equate dominance and power to authority, and so, we put those who take charge and exert their superiority over others into positions of leadership without much in the way of question or challenge. Yet, we often fight against the forms that this power takes as it is put to use and exhibited, for the more authoritarian the person, the less that individual is likely to function in a manner that could be deemed as godly or Christ-like. The question, “Why is that so?” leads to consideration of sources and forms of real power and authentic leadership in our world.

Christ’s words for Paul give us some guidance in this question. Paul was remarkably well educated and trained, and he had then been instructed in all things that concerned knowing God and the fulfillment of that knowledge that had been established by and in Christ. Yet, all of this wisdom, position, and experience were of no use at all without God’s grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit residing within Paul. So, everything that Paul said, wrote, and demonstrated by the way that he lived was the direct result of Christ’s redeeming grace, sacrificial love, and guiding presence. All of Paul’s authority to speak to others on behalf of God’s truth and for the sake of righteousness came about because of his submission to Christ; so, it was the outworking of Christ’s strength and the authority to rule over the world that the Father had granted to Him.

We can evaluate our world from this same perspective. Where do we see submission to Christ, and how is that form of spiritual humility expressed by people in positions of power and authority? These are important questions to ask, and this characteristic of boasting only in personal weakness is one to seek after in people who are entrusted with leadership in all aspects of life in our world. Reality informs us that there are no perfect people in our midst, and no leader will ever be fully and absolutely submitted to Christ in this life. Yet, we can seek after those that come close and that, like Paul, are striving to set aside their personal power in order to more fully embrace and live out the Spirit’s leading and God’s will in their thoughts, words, and actions. Paul proved himself worthy to be followed because of his weakness in Christ. Are we each likewise seeking to empty ourselves of strength in order to become weak in this same manner, and do we seek to place people into positions of authority because they, too, are following Paul’s model of strength that comes solely from Christ?    

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Titus 2: 11-14

Purification is hard to endure. Most of us do not like it all that much. We may think that we truly want to know God and to be in a relationship with Him through the Son, Jesus Christ, but when the reality of what that means to me is looking me in the face, I am no longer so certain or sure. It is not that I do not love Jesus or believe in the holy God of redemption, it is more that I am not fully committed and so yielded to His will for me and His path for my life in response to that will. So, living as a follower of Christ might seem to be a simple thing until the actual cost of doing this is counted; yet, God does ask me to face reality and to do that very thing. He then asks me to grant the Spirit access to all of the darkened corners of my heart and mind so that every aspect of who and what I have been can be reordered into those of a person who reflects Christ fully in the conduct of my life.

For make no mistake about this fact regarding the world where we live and the age that it is in, we do exist in lawless times. Listen to the dialogue of our day, consider the violence that is present in every corner of the globe, and contemplate how little of the bounty that we possess is being used to care for the millions upon millions of starving and homeless people that are present almost everywhere. This is not a time when the world’s heart is in any way in synch with Christ’s. This world is spinning ever further away from the gospel of grace, love, peace, and redemption that is the center of Jesus’ call and appeal to His followers. As we know Christ, we are to be the people who work to bring about changes in this world. When we listen to the Lord’s voice, He is speaking faith, courage, engagement, and hope to us, and He is saying to us that we are to go out into this world and touch its inhabitants with the healing hand of grace and mercy that is directly attached to Christ’s heart.

The purity that Christ leads us into is not one of separation from the world around us. Rather, it is a form of holiness that seeks to get down into the ragged mess that is life on this planet and that is willing to breathe in the foul air of its most desperate of places in order to hold up the heads of those who are oppressed, defeated, and alone. Christ’s righteousness has no space within it for the categorical rejection of people, and it does not grant to us the right or the authority to make decisions regarding the worthiness or the worth of others. We are to love and to care for all of the people of our world without regard to any consideration beyond that of following Christ and of doing the sorts of things that He did. The good works that we are called to do are real and tangible, they also involve on-going and unceasing prayer, they require sacrifice, and they will bring about personal pain, suffering, and loss. Yet, Christ is committed to providing us with the strength, direction, and courage to go out and to do what He is calling each of us to do. His power and heart for redemption provide the zeal that keeps us going through dark days and hard times as Christ leads His people into the holy work of loving others.     

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

2 Corinthians 5: 20

This is the job title that everyone that follows Christ is given. We are the Lord’s ambassadors. He sends us out into foreign lands and commissions us to represent the Kingdom of God in all of our interactions with the inhabitants of those places. This is similar to what an official representative of a government is charged with in being sent to operate in a country other than that person’s native one, but there are certain important differences. Christ’s ambassadors may serve anywhere in the world, and our office is frequently found in our own front yard or at a table in local café. The diplomacy that we practice does not have a direct impact upon international trade agreements and seldom leads to the resolution of tensions that involve armies and the potential for large-scale violent engagements. Yet, the work that we undertake can be even more significant than that, for it contemplates the eternal destinies of souls.

As an ambassador that is sent out from a nation sets aside the rest of life and goes where dispatched by its leaders, so too, are we called upon by Christ to leave behind our concerns, fears, and issues of distrust and discomfort in order to engage with people who do not know Christ in a close and personal manner. We are to go to them with the message of Christ’s gospel of reconciliation, and we are to do this without regard for the potentially hostile attitudes of those to whom we are sent. We might be rejected and our message may even be ridiculed, but that is no loss to us, for Christ sends us out in the full confidence of our faith to speak truth into the lives of people that are lost and that need to know the loving grace that Christ desires to pour out upon them. The message that we are given to proclaim is one of peace between God and people, and it is the story of how any and all of us are brought into full and unfettered relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

This is a message of hope, of love, and of reconciliation. These truths are best conveyed as they are demonstrated through engagement with others, and this direct engagement aspect of the role of ambassador is both the most effective and the most dangerous one. The danger is found in the risk of rejection, ridicule, and even of attacks of various kinds and types. Yet, those are small concerns when it comes to representing Christ in the world, and they are mere wisps of shadows as compared to the sacrifice that the Lord made for us and for the people that we are sent to on His behalf. This calling to the role of ambassador is a holy one, and it is not for the weak of spirit or of heart and mind. However, in Christ, we are all conquerors over the world; so, our concerns, fears, and reluctance can be overcome by the presence of the Spirit with us in all that we do and everyplace that we travel in this world. As ambassadors for Christ we serve the Risen King, and we can go into every corner of our world with our heads held high confidently proclaiming God’s sovereignty, grace, love, and desire for reconciliation with all that reside there.   

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