You were running well, who hindered you from obeying the truth?

Galatians 5: 7

The strides are coming in a smooth and easy rhythm, ground is flying past with little effort, and the race is going just as you had planned for it to go. Then, there is that sudden sense of a foot being nailed to the track or you experience that disorienting feeling that comes when one foot is knocked off line by an outside force. In a moment order and progress have become chaos and pain, victory tasted has become defeat experienced. This is the nature of life when we dare to venture into the world of entering into the contest against the forces of evil; for they don’t compete in a fair and above board manner. They want to win, and will do and say anything to achieve that end. So, we need to be willing to fight even harder to stay true to the calling that Christ has set before us.

It seems that one of the things that Paul is telling us here is that we need to be continually on the alert for the sorts of false information and misleading thoughts or ideas that will be set before us to try to get us off of God’s desired course. Living a life in the center of God’s will is never going to be a sit back and let it all come to me sort of existence. There will always be a need for effort and focus on our parts. We need to be students of God, studying His truth and its application in our lives through continual and thorough engagement with His Word. In addition to our study, the Spirit of Christ will provide us with the discernment and understanding that we need to test everything that we are told and taught so that we will not be tripped up by false teaching.

In my own experience, I am often my own greatest hindrance in running this spiritual race well. It seems that I fail to condition and to train consistently and adequately; then, my legs become weak, my cardio conditioning fails me, and my form is flawed so that I end up tripping and falling into an inglorious heap on the side of the track because I stepped on my own foot. What I mean is that the same exercise of study, prayer, and fellowship that is the best way to defeat each and every one of Satan’s assaults upon the practice of my faith is also the best way to stay conditioned for the rigors of living a life of righteous joy in the center of God’s will. Truth wins the race in this life, truth is defined by God, Himself, and truth becomes real and tangible as we grow in our relationship with Christ. So, truth is the heartbeat of the runner who finishes strong in this race of life. 

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Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.

Psalm 50: 14

No matter what we do or how much effort we put out in attempting to serve God, it is all of little importance if our hearts are not thankful. We can be continually engaged in doing good works and in churchy-type activities and still be doing it all in order to feel good or to appear righteous to other people. It is the internal attitude that matters most, and that attitude is formed out of an understanding of why we need to be thankful to God.

There is something about the act of thanking God that is beneficial. As we express our dependence and blessedness by thanking the Lord for who He is, for what He does, and for His amazing love, our hearts and minds become oriented to hearing and doing God’s will. Thanksgiving leads to freedom from my preconceived notions of what I should be engaged in and opens my mind to grasp the idea of embracing the things that will truly bring glory to God. Expressing my thanks to God places Him in the center of my focus and takes me out of that position, and that change in orientation leads to the sort of empowerment that sets true service into motion.

My prayer for this day is that my heart will stay in a continuous attitude of thankfulness to my Lord, that my mind will not drift away from that focus, and that everything that I do throughout this day will be engaged in from a desire to bring glory to God. A thankful heart is at peace in even the most turbulent of times. Expressing thankful words brings out the joy that sorrow has concealed. Thanksgiving soothes the pain of grief and loss. Thoughts of thanks and praise lead us out of the world and into the throne room of God. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, my Lord and King. Thank you. 

Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors.

And I will save the lame and gather the outcast,

and I will change their shame into praise

and renown in all the earth.

Zephaniah 3: 19

This verse is a part of Zephaniah’s summation of his discussion of how God will deal justly with Israel by virtue of returning the nation and its people to their homeland and out of an oppressive captivity. Yet, I think that it also shows us a more fundamental aspect of God’s nature and the character that is His nature’s foundation. Although the Lord does care greatly about the lives of all people, He has an especially soft spot for those who are less able to take care of themselves. So, when I see the term lame, I think of people who are physically disadvantaged regardless of cause or reason for their condition, but I think that God actually has a larger group of people in His mind when He looks upon those who are lame. These are people who are easy prey or targets for oppressors. God’s view of lameness also includes emotional weakness, issues of mental capacity, and any other conditions of body, mind, or spirit that might cause a person to need extra care, provision, or understanding. Our Lord takes each and every one of these people under His wing of protection and holds them very close.

The Lord also seeks after a very wide circle of people who could be labeled as outcasts. These can be those among us who are difficult to be around, and they are often those who are simply different from whatever is normal or usual in our own cultural environment. This can include people who are from other countries, races, ethnicities, economic status, or any other conditions that might brand them as different from me and from my natural family and neighbors. God does not use the concept of outcast as a way of describing people. Rather, He sees all of us as His children, and He goes searching for those of us who are far away from Him in order to win us back to close proximity through love, grace, and understanding. The Lord would have each of us view all others in this same manner. We are to seek after those who are different from us, open up our hearts and our homes to them in a way that speaks Christ’s love through actions and by attitudes while giving praise to the One who saves with our words.

Although this verse contains a description of the way that God views people in our world, I believe that He desires for each of us who know Him to live in this same manner. He guides us into holding these same attitudes deeply and personally. Followers of Christ are to be people who seek after the outcast without regard for the cause of that condition or state of their being. In so seeking after them, we are to grant them shelter, to provide what they need to carry on with life, and we are to befriend them in a way that speaks acceptance and that remains true and faithful to those friendships into the unforeseen future. Christ leads us into loving the lame and into seeking to meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs in ways that speak Christ’s redemption and restoration in a manner that words are inadequate to express. There are many people in our world who live as exiles, who are lame or outcast; so, there are multitudes of people in our daily lives who need a friend, a protector, a listening ear. We all encounter these people and they are God’s blessed gifts to us, for they allow us to draw closer to Christ by trusting Him to care for and to lead us as we enter into their lives in Christ’s name.    

I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in the blessings.

1 Corinthians 9: 23

Sharing is one of the hardest things for young children to learn; the basic nature that people are born with wants to acquire and does not want to let go. There is something in us that seems to believe that we will never have enough, and this thought is fueled by the sense that if we don’t keep everything to ourselves, we will be somehow diminished. One of the marks of growing, of maturing, and of becoming more outwardly focused is the ability to share. Sharing takes our eyes off of ourselves and places that attention on the needs of another. This sort of act opens up our heart to receive even more of the goodness that God has at His fingertips and is ready to give away.

In this verse, Paul is speaking from a very mature perspective; he has grown enormously in the few years that he has known Jesus. The Lord has changed Paul’s orientation and focus entirely. He has turned around from serving a self-determined and human-devised concept of God that set Paul up as the center of his own universe to serving Christ, thus, as this new person in Christ, Paul was serving the true needs of people. He was seeking to bring people into relationship with their Savior and Lord. So, he was endeavoring to connect the earth-bound with the eternal.

One of the most beautiful aspects of God is that He is selfless. He sacrificed Himself for our sakes, and He completely gives Himself to us despite the ways that we treat Him back. Our highest calling as people who know Christ is to do the same. There is, in fact, an element of selfishness mixed with fear and lack of trust that causes Christians to hold onto the knowledge of the love of God and to not willingly share this life altering truth with others. Our calling, in Christ, is to live lovingly, love openly, and to do it all so that the people in our circle of contact have an opportunity to come to know the One who changes people’s lives. This form of spiritual maturity is not measured so much in years; it is demonstrated by an openness to trust God to work through us, and it is expressed by the boldness and the fearlessness that are required to share the truth that saves through the way that we live and by the words that we speak.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;

   my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

Psalm 13: 5

The little word “but” that David hangs out there at the start of this verse carries a large amount of weight, for the four verses before it are loaded with the pain and the heartache that can come to anyone when the world seems to be against us. He was feeling as if his enemies were prevailing in their assaults upon his body, mind, and spirit. The fact that those enemies included formerly trusted friends and even family members made this new reality all the more difficult to bear. In times like this, the tangible or physical aspects of the assault are hard to handle, but the emotional and spiritual components of it are what truly oppress and drive us down. Unfortunately, this is the sort of time in the journey of life that almost everyone experiences. We all find ourselves in a place where we are at odds with others and wherein those challenging relationships reach the point of seeming no return where our resources are depleted and our hearts are overwhelmed by the weight of it all.

These are times when we need to be rescued, when we need a real and a lasting friend to reach out to us and to hold us tightly in a safe and a reassuring embrace of genuine love and care. We may be comforted by such a friend, and I pray that each of us has at least one of those in our lives; yet, the sort of love that is being described here finds its source in the author of all love, in the God of our salvation. This is a love that does not look at our weakness or failure and hold these things against us. This is a love that desires to redeem rather than defeat; so, this is a lover who wants nothing from us other than the pleasure of our company and the return to health and strength of our bodies, minds, and spirits. The sort of love that is sourced in the Lord forgives wrongs, points out goodness, and speaks truth to counter the lies that evil attempts to use to overwhelm us. 

The Father sent the Son, Jesus Christ, into our world to demonstrate and to perfect this form of love. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross provided us with the ultimate expression of God’s unending and unshakeable love for all of the people in the world for all time. This is a love that was present with the first people and that has continued unchecked and without change through the balance of history. Try as we may have done, we are not able to defeat God’s love; so, there is no sin or rebellion that is greater than Christ’s ability and will to save us. There is also no dark place where we can go that is sufficiently hidden from His view that we are unfindable there. This is a hard and a harsh world that is populated with people who think, say, and do things that are mean, violent, and damaging in many ways; yet, nothing that they do can truly harm our souls. Christ loves us in a way that can bring joy to the darkness and that can bring about a heart-deep form of rejoicing that overcomes our tears. This is the love that Christ desires to pour out on you and on me, and this is the love that saves!     

Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?

   Who is like you, majestic in holiness,

   awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?

Exodus 15: 11 

Sometimes I just need to close my eyes and open my inner being in order to allow all that is the Lord to come flooding deep into my mind, heart, and soul. It does seem that all of us require these times of reflection, for otherwise, life is just too busy and we are far too distracted to even notice what God has been about along the path of our traveling. God had certainly been active and present during the time just before Moses and the Israelites sang this stanza from their great song of thanksgiving to God for saving them from the Egyptian army. We can look at this scene and quickly recognize the fact that it is relatively easy to give thanks to God when He has done something spectacular such as parting a large body of water and then closing it up again to swallow up the angry forces that are seeking one’s own destruction. Expressing appreciation for God in those circumstances is no problem at all, but those sorts of events don’t come along very often. So, we need to find other points along the way wherein we stop and reflect on the wonder, the majesty, the loving care, and the provision of the Lord in our lives. These are the moments when we reflect upon God’s perfect holiness.

God does not do what He does for the reasons that motivate most of us. God acts out of the depths of His character, and the words and deeds that spring forth from there are carried out as a full expression of His nature. The Lord genuinely loves His creation in ways that we struggle to begin to comprehend. He cares about the way that our lives go, and He enters into the course of affairs in our world in a manner that expresses that care, concern, and desire for us to flourish in this life. The rub for people often comes from the fact that God’s concept of flourishing is quite different than is ours. We think in terms of comfort, wealth, health, and position or power when we describe what it means to be successful in life. The Lord looks to our souls and desires for us to be people who love Him, seek after His presence in the ordinary spaces of our lives, and who take a similar attitude of loving care and understanding grace with others that we encounter during our days. God never promises us that we have wealth, health, or an easy journey through life; instead, He promises to us that He will never leave us in this life and that we will be with Him in Heaven for eternity after these days are completed.

So, back to that moment of quiet, close-eyed reflection. It seems to me that it is very easy to lose sight of God as I go through the processes and engage with the urgencies of my days. The voices that assail my mind often place blinds over my heart’s ability to discern truth and wisdom, and the tasks that life demands frequently claim my mind’s total attention to the degree that they have my absolute loyalty. All of this comes at the expense of my ability to appreciate the One who makes it possible for me to do everything that I accomplish and who grants me the love, grace, and wisdom that I need to enter into all of it with a heart that is set on doing what is righteous, good, and holy. The Lord desires for each of his people to live out every one of our days in a manner that will bring the presence of God into all of the places that we occupy and that will leave the sweet aroma of His holy love behind us as a reminder of why we live as we do. The ability to go through life with God in front of us in everything is gained and is enhanced in these times of looking closely upon His face, of expressing thanksgiving for all that the Lord is and does, and by seeking His will for each thought, word, and action that we will undertake today.  

Be not wise in your own eyes,

   fear the LORD, and turn away from evil.

Proverbs 3: 7

If only it were this simple. Just avoid the trap that is out there ready to spring. In this case that trap is an over abundance of confidence in one’s own knowledge, skill, and competency to sort our life. Then, hold the appropriate level of respect for God, and hold Him in that position of being the better choice as the source of that same desired knowledge, skill, and competency. Finally, we need to turn away from evil, and so, stop doing what is wrong and do what is right. Unfortunately, life is seldom that clear about these matters, and we are also not usually this ready and willing to just set aside the things that we have been thinking and doing and turn to a more righteous way of life. Some of this reluctance to change is based in stubbornness, other aspects of it are grounded in the way that we have learned to survive in this world, and much of it is established in a set of deeply held and complex views of what is right, just, and good.

However, most of the things about the way that we live that God would desire for us to change are grounded in our understanding of who God actually is and are set off against the nature of the position of authority that we ascribe to God in our lives. If we hold God in high esteem and consider Him to be relevant in all areas of our lives and in the operation of the world, we will tend to be willing to yield our wills, desire for control, and self-interest to the Lord and to follow God’s Word as the singular absolute source of knowledge and wisdom. On the other hand, if God is understood as someone worthy of less than this high level of respect and not granted the same ultimate authority over all that takes place in life and in the world, then we will not be so inclined to subordinate our own logic, desires, and wisdom to His. Every person on the earth is traveling through life at some place on the continuum that is described above. Each of us gets to wrestle with our understanding of God and with our willingness to submit to Him and to follow His will over every other influence or source of guidance that we may know or hold as significant.

To me, there is one singular difference making element in this life-long tension that is set up by God’s having granted people the free will to make choices regarding how we relate to Him and in the sources that we will turn to for knowledge, guidance, and the wisdom that is required to sort it all out. God provided the world with His answer to the internal struggle that we are all faced with in the person of Jesus. In turn, He left us with His Spirit to dwell with us in the world and to literally reside within the bodies of everyone who accepts Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Christ’s presence within our hearts and minds establishes a new foundation for understanding the nature, character, and will of God. The Spirit gives the gift of understanding and the perspective of eternal wisdom to all who seek this revelation from God. Christ changes the manner in which our eyes see our world by giving us a field of vision that is framed in by love, grace, mercy, and justice. He leads us into worshiping God in a manner that comes from deep within our souls as Christ within us causes us to turn away from evil’s attempts to deceive our minds and hearts and misdirect our steps away from God’s desired path.