Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What Are Your New Year's Resolutions? Part One

Time for New Year’s resolutions! Or, if you are like me, you may have tried it once and, come February, thrown the whole idea overboard only to become cynical about the life-changes people struggle with come January 2 (can’t start on the 1st, that’s a day off). And it’s always the same old thing every year. The top resolutions rarely change. The leader is to lose weight, followed by getting fit, getting out of debt, stop smoking, stop drinking, getting organized, and so on, and so on. Why is it that you never hear anyone say, “This year, I’m going to eat more chocolate” or “I plan on sitting in front of the TV eating Cheetos and watching reality television at least 30 hours a week”? It is because those things are easy to us. They are natural. Pleasing the flesh is natural. Resolutions are about bringing the flesh into submission, which, to the Christian, is not only Biblical, it is commanded.

Resolutions to be subject to God go back as far as God given commands. When Moses read the Law to the children of Israel as told in Exodus 24, verse 7, the people responded by saying, “All that the Lord has said, we will do, and be obedient.” Many years later, when Hezekiah became king and restored Godly worship to Israel, he set in his heart to once again observe the Passover, which had not been done for quite some time, perhaps over 200 years. In 2 Chronicles 30:5, it says that the leaders of Israel resolved to make a proclamation throughout all Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, that they should come to keep the Passover to the Lord God of Israel at Jerusalem. And in verse 20, we see that God is pleased with them.

In the New Testament, we see commands scattered throughout, calling the child of God to be self-controlled and obedient. In Acts 24:25, Paul reasons with Felix about righteousness, self-control, and judgment to come. Notice the progression? It is righteousness, then self-control, then judgment. 2 Peter 1: 5-6 says we are, with diligence, to add to our faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self control… Why? Because we are partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust (more about this in part two).

So we are commanded by God to be resolute in putting to death the flesh and heed the things of God. The flesh is no longer a slave to sin, but it has been trained well by sin. The flesh often wants to go back to the things it once knew. It does not want to become weak as the spiritual man becomes strong. Our problem is that we grow weary in running. There is great difficulty in denying the flesh. It cries out for more and more. Why do you think Paul likened the Christian life to running a race? Running is not easy for those who do not do it and do it often. It takes much self discipline to become a good runner. The flesh must be brought into subjection when it comes to eating, drinking, sleeping, and enduring. But when a dedicated runner reaches his objective, he finds that the sacrifices made along the way are nothing compared to reaching his goal. As the writer of Hebrews says: let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. The race is clear. Our goal is Christ. And He calls us to run to Him, building up our endurance and bringing the flesh into subjection to do so.

So why is it so important? Many see Christianity as their ticket to heaven. It is a matter of obtaining a get-out-of-hell-free card. While getting into heaven and staying out of hell are certainly part of the divine transaction, the greater part of salvation is God bringing rebels out of their blind state of spiritual death and changing them from God-hating sinners to the God-loving redeemed who long to know their Savior and are pressing toward the goal of knowing Him in His fullness and His glory. Going to heaven is a great benefit, but the goal of knowing our God surpasses all. Our flesh, however, is a barrier to knowing and experiencing our God this side of death. Therefore, we are called to be self-controlled in order to experience God even more.

The spiritual realm is the reality we cannot comprehend well with our physical senses. Yet the two are inexplicably linked in ways we don’t understand. We want to think of the two being completely separate, but they are not. If they were, we would not be told to be self-controlled throughout the New Testament. And I also know this from personal experience. As a person who, at one time, was in tremendous physical shape, I know what can be lost in a spiritual sense when the flesh is allowed to dominate. Now, as I am obese, I find my spiritual senses often dulled as compared to the days when my body was under control in that area. The flesh puts up a fight, but I find that times of great spiritual fulfillment are accompanied with a body whose desires are under control and subdued.

What I need in this new year is to know my Savior even more. It is a God-given desire I am thankful for, and running that race means bringing my flesh into subjection. There are a few areas I need great help with, and God will do that. I must see the flesh die more in order to know him more.

There is one caveat in a study like this, however. We cannot see our salvation based upon us doing such things. Salvation is through Christ alone through His grace. Otherwise, we are pursuing salvation by our works, which can never be done. The same grace that saved us is the same grace that causes our hearts to want to persevere. And perseverance is a lifelong journey. There will be issues of the flesh that we will be struggling with all the way up until our deaths. At that time, Christ will give us the final victory over our flesh and complete our sanctification. This post is not about trying to be perfect to please our Lord. If you are converted and belong to Him, your worth and acceptance is found in Christ, not in what you do. This post is about Christians longing to experience more of Him by pursuing the grace He has given us that is molding us into His image.

More to come in part two.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas from RTM

In thinking about Christmas this year, my mind is drawn to the power of God’s plan. We sing about the tiny baby, wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger. We think of him as helpless infant, cradled in the arms of Mary, just like any other baby would have been. And while these things are certainly true, a much bigger picture was unfolding in the spiritual realm. Here is God, intervening in the dilemma of man. Here is God, in the flesh, interjecting Himself into the suffering of mankind in order to save it.

What makes this even more amazing is that God was saving us from Himself. Every man, from Adam until now, is an enemy of God by his wicked works. God’s holiness cannot tolerate our imperfection. Therefore, God had no choice but to be done with the human race and pour out His infinite wrath upon us all. Yet He did not. When Adam sinned, God did not pulverize him at that very instant. Why did he not? That seems to make God unjust. A just judge does not let the guilty go free. But that very first Christmas, God was introducing the whole of creation to His justice. On that day, divinity burst in to humanity. It was only by this that God could save us. The babe in the manger would grow and take our stead. Christ would stand in the gap, and God would be proven to be just as He poured His infinite wrath down upon His only Son in the last hours of His life. God is not unjust. From the Old Testament saints who, while still sinners, God allowed to live and counted them as righteous, to us now, who carry the stain of sin deep within our flesh, there is one who, while fully divine, learned what it meant to be a man and lay down His life for His brothers. Hebrews 5:7-9 says: “who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.”

And even though He laid down His life, it was His to take up again. And now, He, a man, sits at the right hand of God on our behalf, making intercession for us. That is the meaning of Christmas. It is among the greatest of miracles. The angels stood, looking through the portals of heaven, watching as their God became flesh and lowered Himself to live upon a sin-sick world and allowed Himself to be abused, mistreated, and killed at the hands of those He came to save. Oh, how they must have marveled at the Master’s plan.

May we be even more eager to look into His plan to marvel and wonder at a God who loves us so. And if you have not come to Him, humble and repentant, trusting in Him for the salvation of your soul, may you look upon the Christ child and tremble. For the one who came to save will one day be your judge. And he stands ready to dash you against the rocks of His wrath, which you will endure for eternity.

And Mary brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
“ Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Worst Day Ever!

Imagine this: Your alarm clock sounds at the usual time, alerting you that is time to get up, get the kids off to school, and get ready for work. This morning, you reach over to hit the snooze, only to accidentally turn the alarm off. The next sound you hear is the honking of the school bus as it briefly stops in front of your home and then pulls away toward the next stop. You jolt up in a panic. In a frenzy, you fly around the house, getting kids ready for school and yourself ready for work. You manage to pull everything together so as to maybe get the kids to school on time. You breeze out the door only to see a flat tire on your car. You’ve never changed a flat before, but by the time you make a call, get someone to come out, and get it changed, you’ll be even more behind than if you did it yourself. Forty-five minutes later, you wonder if your previous decision was a correct one, but now the tire is changed and you can’t go back. You are now disheveled, there is dirt under your nails, and you smell a bit sweaty. You rush the kids to school and sign them in as tardy as the principal stands behind the desk in the front office and gives you the you-have-to-be-the-worst-parent-in-the-world look. You get to work and hour and a half late, and there is a voice mail on your phone. The boss wants to see you immediately. You timidly go to his office, only to find out that his day must be just as bad as yours for he has no desire to hear your reason for being late. Amid flying spit and flailing arms, you are issued a warning to never be late again.

Sound like the beginnings of the worst day ever? In all honesty, it does. The first few hours of your waking time have been wrought with confusion, frustration, and opposition at every turn. But times such as these really try us, and our reactions can tell us much about our mindset. Is our reaction to be one of despair, helplessness, and anger? Or is it to be one of hope, trust, and faith? As Christians, we know the answer should be the second one, right? But why is it often not that way?

First, an ungodly reaction shows that we have a mentality of permanence. That is, we think things around us are stable and permanent. Now we always say the right things such as ‘nothing is guaranteed,’ ‘the next breath could be the last,’ and so on. But we really don’t think that way from day to day. We believe that today, for the most part, will be like yesterday, and tomorrow will pretty much be the same as well. Any changes are premeditated and planned, so those are OK. But we really don’t have the mentality that things around us are unstable and situations can change at any moment. We have become masters at controlling our environments. . . or so we think. But scripture points out that such thinking is ungodly. When Amos prophesied the destruction of Israel, he said in chapter 9 verse 10 that “All the sinners of My people shall die by the sword, who say, ‘The calamity shall not overtake nor confront us.’” God knew that deep down in their hearts and minds, they really did not believe that God would bring any calamity upon them. The thought is continued in the New Testament when Jesus, in Luke 12, tells the story of a man who decides to hoard some of his bountiful crops so he does not have to work for the next few years and enjoy some time off. But God said to him, ‘”Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?” The man thought his life would be pretty much the same for the next few years, so since he had a great abundance, he would kick back and relax. But those years were not his to have. An attitude of impermanence is central to the Christian life and is woven throughout scripture. We are implored to be watchful and ready to take flight at any moment when our savior rends the skies and reveals Himself in glory. The parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25 illustrates this well. It has also entered into our Christian vocabulary where we are often described as pilgrims. A pilgrim is a transient; one who is traveling through and not entangled in the affairs of the areas he visits. Otherwise, he is bogged down and no longer traveling.

I like to think of it in terms of a wartime mentality as described by John Piper. The soldier moving through enemy territory travels light. He is only concerned about guarding himself and his fellow soldiers and making it to his destination. Even minor provisions are enough to keep him on his mission. He notices the things around him, but only from the viewpoint of how the enemy might use them to hinder or even destroy him. A vine could be concealing a trip wire. A grove of fruit trees may be the perfect place for the enemy to dig a pit. A seemingly mild distraction could be the ploy to get the soldier to lay down his arms. So are our days upon this earth. And an entanglement with the idea of permanence is one of distraction by the enemy. And, in the end, such an attitude can be one of a very anti-Christ spirit. Peter reminds us in 2 Peter 3 that “scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.’ For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.”

But there is one other thing such days can reveal, and that is where we place our trust. We trust in our cars to start every morning and for there to be air in the tires when we start to roll down the driveway. We trust that the school bus will arrive on time and that when we get to work we will have a job, just like the day before. We trust in so many things without even thinking twice. And the trust runs so deep that when we have the flat tire, or the car doesn’t start, or we are threatened with that job loss, our worlds can be rocked. These things have revealed our misplaced trust. If we trusted in Christ the same way, these things would not have the effect that they do. They would not control us. We take comfort in the things that are from God, yet not in God Himself. Our God is comfort, in the end. And ultimately, we have betrayed the only One who is worthy of our trust. When our faith is properly aligned in the person and integrity of Jesus Christ, these things do not destroy or derail us. It is in Him that we can be assured that He is working all things for His glory and our good if we are called by Him. In fact, trying times are times of great blessing because we know that we can “count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” James 1: 2-4.

So may we see the world as it is: waning, temporal, and not our home. And that becomes ever more evident as we see God for who He is: everlasting, permanent, and trustworthy.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Trust and Obey, There is No Other Way!

I recently heard a pastor say something interesting about the way God’s promises are presented in Scripture. The realization of many of His promises comes as the result of our obeying His commands. In other words, God commanded something, and, if we act, His promise will follow. As the pastor said, God’s promise undergirds our obedience.

But for those of us who may take the sovereignty of God to an extreme, this seems contrary to what we think about Him. We think that God is in control of everything, which He is, and that God will bring about whatever He wants to bring about, which He will, so we may have a tendency to flop back like a wet rag and say, “God, you have to do this for me!” But if many of God’s promises are dependent on our obedience, He says, “I will. . . when you obey.”

An example of this comes from a recent discussion I had with some friends. The topic of besetting sins came up. These are sins that continue cropping up over and over in our lives, and we have yet to gain complete victory over them. A question arose over the seasons of victory a believer does have in his or her life. Since they did not last, were they just a result of man-driven will power? We do want to do everything in the power of the Spirit, so we must avoid trying to do anything on our own, right? But once I began to look at scripture regarding this, I saw exactly what the pastor was talking about. God’s promises often undergird our obedience, and we must have a measure of resolve to obey.

Here are some examples of such commands: Romans 6:12-14 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. Romans 8:13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. I Corinthians 15:34 Awake to righteousness and do not sin. Titus 2:11-14 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. 1 Peter 1: 13-16 Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.”

These are all direct commands. But you may say, “Wait a second. Now it’s about works and what I do, not what God does!” But where does your desire to obey God’s commands come from? It comes from HIM! In Romans 3, Paul quotes the Psalms to describe the natural state of man. He says: “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one. Their throat is an open tomb; With their tongues they have practiced deceit.” But upon conversion, a change takes place. God says of the new Christian: “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them.” – Hebrews 10:16.

So the desire to obey God; the desire to do as He commands; the desire to be resolved to rid ourselves of our besetting sin is a God given grace. If He has given you a new heart that now desires after His righteousness, but you have not yet been perfected, then rejoice! This is in His plan! Your desire to obey and your struggle are signs He is working in your life. It is all a gift from Him. Come to Him in obedience and see His promises start to work in your life.

Hebrews 12