Tuesday’s Truth – You Better Find Somebody to Love

Hello again! I know, I’m a day late with this one. It’s not even very long, so that’s not my excuse. Mostly, I was letting an idea marinate, to see if it was what was really supposed to go up this week. And I think that it is. Today I want to share with you something that seems so simple, but yet is often so difficult for Christians to put into practice. It’s one of the central features of Jesus’ life, and yet probably the one we least like to imitate. What is it? Simply put, it is loving sinners. I’m not interested in discussing specific lifestyles, actions, or choices that you or I believe are sinful. That’s not what’s at issue here. The sin isn’t the issue; our action is. Let’s use a bare-bones definition of a sinner – anyone who has not believed in salvation from sin through the death of Jesus. That’s who we’re talking about this week.

 

We like to say that we love sinners and want to bring them into God’s family. But many of us (I’ve been guilty of this too) only love people “outside the fold” in an abstract sort of way. We don’t go outside of the church and love them (socialize with them, care for them in times of need, encourage them, etc.); we hope that they will “get saved” so that they can be like us and then we can really love them.

 

Why do we do this? I think there are lots of different reasons. Sometimes we are afraid that if we associate with people who don’t follow all the same rules as us (this can even apply to other Christians sometimes, sadly) we will become “less saved” and fall into sin. If we associate with someone who uses profane language, we’ll start using it too. If we socialize with someone who drinks too much, we’ll become alcoholics as well. If we befriend someone who’s living with their boyfriend or girlfriend, we’ll become sexually immoral. While we certainly need to be on our guard to not be sucked into sin or worldliness, we are promised that we have not been given “a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.” (2 Timothy 1:7) God doesn’t save us and then allow us to be weak and fragile in the face of sin. If that were true, wouldn’t He just transport each person to heaven as soon as they believed, because they would be too delicate to remain in the world? We need to have more faith in the spirit God has placed within us. If we are loving the lost in the way that God has called us to, we don’t have to worry about being dragged away from Him.

 

Sometimes we avoid people we see as sinners because we just don’t know how to interact with them. We may have been sheltered by our parents during childhood, and by our church during adulthood, that we feel that we have nothing in common with those outside the church. They don’t understand our “holy-speak” and we don’t understand the things that they enjoy or that they are upset by. This is a legitimate obstacle, but one that must be overcome if we want to claim that we really love the lost. How do we do it? A little bit at a time, I think. Look for ways to find common ground with the unsaved around you. If you were homeschooled, went to a Christian college, and then worked in a parachurch organization, you probably don’t want to start out trying to connect with a biker gang. Baby steps, folks. What about the neighbors who have kids the same age as your kids? Or maybe fellow athletes on a community team? Start by finding the things that are the same about you, and hopefully they’ll see the differences between you in a positive light that turns them towards Jesus. (Which means that you’ll have to be careful to make those differences positive!)

 

Finally, I think a huge reason we neglect to actively, tangibly love sinners around us is arrogance and pride. We have our list of the really bad sins, and people in our lives who commit one of those sins are just too “dirty” for us. We can’t be friends with that guy at work, because it might expose our children to the evil in the world if they found out how he lives. We can’t let our daughter invite the neighbor girl over to play because her mommy doesn’t have good enough morals. We see ourselves as “good” and “pure” and these others as “bad” or “corrupted” and we’re afraid that they will rub off on us, or somehow diminish our goodness. We think that it is a case of oil and water, and that mixing is simply  impossible.

 

Friends, that’s not how it works, for so many reasons. First off, you are not so great. Before you were saved, you were, in the eyes of God, just as lost as the most sinful person you can think of. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) In His mercy God saved you, and in His mercy He can save others. There is no award for being saved, because you didn’t earn it or accomplish it. If God can love and have grace and mercy for the lost, surely you should be able to. If you are not a slave to sin, it is because Jesus paid for your freedom, and not because you were inherently strong or good.

 

Second, the sin of others can’t just “rub off” on us. It’s not like the flu – it doesn’t just spread, I promise. I’ve spent a lot of time around a lot of people with all the different brands of sin, and I haven’t become ensnared by any of them. But don’t ask me, ask Jesus. He spent more time with the lost than most of us ever will, and yet he remained without sin. Jesus loved a fraudulent tax collector (Zacchaeus – Luke 19:1-10), an adulterous woman (the Samaritan at the well – John 4:1-26),  and so many others that he and his disciples were infamous for their associations with the moral and religious outcasts (Matthew 9:10-11, Mark 2:15-16, Luke 5:29-30, Luke 7:34).  Jesus didn’t see his righteousness and purity as something to be jealously guarded and protected, but as something to be shared. He knew the importance having faithful friends who loved and worshipped God and set that example for us in his choosing of the disciples. We all need a community of people who share our faith and can encourage us. But Jesus also showed us how important it is for us to let the love we receive from our relationship with the Father spill over into the world around us, particularly to those who have not yet experienced the love of God. Jesus didn’t come so that good, moral Christians would have something in common; he came so that the sinful, the lost, the broken could be saved, healed, and restored (Matthew 9:12) And that is the job he left to us when he returned to the Father (Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8).

 

To wrap this all up, I’m not sure exactly why this is what I felt compelled to write about this week. Perhaps it will be a timely challenge and reminder to some of you. Maybe it will convict someone. I know it has challenged me just thinking about it, evaluating how I live in relation to the lost around me. Do I judge, or do I love? So often Christians feel that we have the right, the responsibility even, to judge the sinners around us. But we don’t. Of all the commands and instructions and responsibilities that God gives us after we are saved, judging is not one of them. Not the unsaved, not the saved. He kept that job all for Himself. I get so frustrated by people who claim to be Christians, but then make Christianity so unattractive by loudly and obnoxiously judging and denouncing sinners. Yes, sin is a problem. It’s a huge problem. It’s the problem. But we don’t win people to Christ by telling them how terrible they are and how they are ruining society. We don’t make Christ attractive by proclaiming our own goodness and righteousness. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people of their sin, and it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance, not our bashing or our boasting. (Romans 2:4)

 

Loving the lost is a risky proposition. It opens your eyes to see people the way that God does. It allows for the possibility that you will care about someone who refuses to answer the call to salvation. You may see those you love lost for eternity. God calls us to love the way that He does, and that kind of love opens the door to all sorts of pain. God’s heart aches continually for the lost who refuse His loving advances. And yet the rewards are just as infinite. When you see the lost saved, broken lives made new, sick souls healed, and people transformed by the power of Christ, there is nothing more amazing. You get to be a witness to something that causes all the angels to rejoice. I don’t know how God is calling you to love those around you. But I do know that He is calling you to it. Please seek Him this week, and don’t just wait for an answer – get out there and start loving some sinners!

 

Peace!

 

 

 

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Tuesday’s Truth – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Welcome back! Today I want to share with you another that was inspired by my reading about the ancient kings of Judah and Israel. I have to say, when I go back and dig through the Old Testament, I am often quite surprised by the level of treachery, violence, and corruption that existed in those days. If these were action movies instead of the Bible, I’d probably steer clear of them. I guess it is true, like Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, that there is nothing new under the sun. I find it interesting that God did not sugar-coat the history of His people. Many times in the accounts of the kings we are given this basic formula: King X did A and B which were good in the sight of the Lord, but he also did C, and so he did not obey God completely. Sometimes it’s just a plain, “King X did evil in the sight of the Lord and turned the people from Him.” Wow. Not how I would want to be remember for the next 3,000 years. I also find it interesting which events were included in the accounts of the kings, as some of them seem obviously important, while others feel more obscure. Each day, I’m excited to see what will happen next.

 

One morning recently, I was reading about a king of Israel named Jeroboam. (2 Kings 14:23-29) Now, the first king of Israel after Judah and Israel split was also named Jeroboam, and he was one bad dude. He’s the guy all the other kings are compared to. In fact, often, their reigns are summed up, “He did what was evil in the Lord’s sight and followed the sins that Jeroboam son of Nebat had caused Israel to commit.” The Jeroboam we’re talking about today was not this first king, but a later namesake. The first Jeroboam was not a person I’d want to be named after. And yet, here we are, a couple hundred years later, and we have another Jeroboam. In the second verse about him, we see that same description just mentioned. He was an evil king. Not just a morally ambivalent king. Not a king with a mixed record. He was bad to the bone.

 

Here’s the interesting thing. God pulled out one main accomplishment from Jeroboam’s reign to include in the Bible. 2 Kings tells us that Jeroboam’s main feat during his 41 years as king was to restore many of the borders of Israel. This was important because during the reigns of the last few kings before him, Israel had been almost constantly under attack by her neighbors. The passage from 2 Kings 14 tells us that God saw the trouble that the Israelites were experiencing, and that they had no friends or allies to help them, so He stepped in and gave Jeroboam the ability to rebuild and refortify the borders of Israel. At first that doesn’t seem too surprising, since God often had saved His people from their enemies. If we think, though, a little more about the situation, we can see that this was really quite an extraordinary thing for God to do.

 

For one thing, the Israelites had been incredibly disobedient and unfaithful. In past times their faith and obedience had wavered (these were the people God had called “stiff-necked” back in Exodus), but never before had they been so completely dismissive of God. They ceased to obey His rules for worshipping Him, they began worshipping many of the false gods from neighboring lands, they killed His prophets when they didn’t approve of the message, and so on and so on. The people of Israel weren’t a bit backslidden, so to speak, they were in full-out rebellion against God. This was true from the king all the way down to the lowest classes of people. These were not a people who deserved, or even sought, God’s deliverance. And yet, God had compassion on them and rescued them from their troubles.

 

The second thing I find interesting about this situation is God’s choice of deliverer for His people. In most of the other cases where God delivers His people from something, the person He chooses to do His work is someone faithful and obedient to Him. He chose Noah to save animals and people from the Flood, Moses to deliver the Israelites from Egypt, Joshua to lead them out of wandering and conquer their enemies, Gideon to deliver them from the Midianite raiders, and David to conquer the Philistines. And yet here we have Jeroboam, a notably bad guy, tasked with protecting and defending God’s people and their land. Why did God choose to use Jeroboam, rather than raising up a righteous hero? I don’t know. The Bible doesn’t  give us a lot of information here. I don’t even really have  a speculation. But what I do see is the truth that God sometimes uses truly bad things to make something good happen.

 

Here are just a few other examples of how God used bad people or situations to make good things happen for His people (which today includes all of us who believe in Him, not just the people of Israel):

  • God used the treachery of Joseph’s brothers (selling him into slavery in Egypt) to bring Joseph to power so that millions of people could be saved from starvation through his clever handling of food supplies before and during the massive famine that came over the Middle East.  (Genesis 50:20)
  • God used the captivity of His people by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians to allow Daniel to become a powerful advisor who spread the knowledge of God among the most powerful men of the day. (Read the whole book of Daniel – it’s fascinating!)
  • God used Cyrus, the ruler of the Persians, and arguably one of the  most ruthless kings of his era, to initiate and help fund the rebuilding of the walls and temple of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed 70 years earlier. (Ezra 1:1-4)

 

If you were to search through the Scriptures, I know you would find many more examples. As Paul said in his letter to the Roman church, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

 

Do we always see the good that God is going to bring about from the beginning? Surely not. When his brothers threw him in a pit, when they sold him to slave traders, when he was unjustly imprisoned, did Joseph know he would be a savior of many? Not in the least. When young Daniel was rounded up with his friends, separated from his family, forced to adapt to a new culture and a new language, did he know that he would counsel some of the most powerful men in all of history, or that God would use him to proclaim prophecies that are still being studied, thousands of years later? No, he couldn’t have even imagined it.

 

We live in a world where bad people and bad situations are abundant. We could spend all our time asking why God allows these people and things to exist, to continue. The philosophical and theological debates would be (and certainly are) endless, without any conclusion that satisfies everyone. The truth is, we don’t really know why God allowed evil to ever exist, and why He now allows it to continue. My feeling is that the reasons and relationships are far too complex for us to understand, even if God were to reveal them directly to us. I wish there were no evil. That is what makes Heaven such a wonderful concept – a place completely without evil must be unimaginably wonderful.  But such is not our situation here, no matter what you conclude about the nature, origin, or continued workings of evil. However, we have a clear promise and precedent in the Bible that God is bigger than the evil people and evil events of the world. He doesn’t just protect His people from evil, He doesn’t just teach us valuable lessons through the evil and painful things that happen to us, but He actually uses what we see as evil, bad, and unredeemable to do good for us in ways that we could not have anticipated or imagined.

 

I wish that I could say that this truth explains away all the pain and suffering in the world. I can’t. Evil actions cause pain. Joseph, Daniel, the Israelites – they all suffered real pain from their situations. If you have experienced something terrible in your life, there is no denying the pain you have felt. Evil, even when God uses it for good, is still evil. I can’t promise that you won’t experience pain, or that you will quickly see the ways that God intends to bring good out of your bad situation. Joseph, Daniel, and the Israelites waited decades to see God’s provision through their sufferings. The fact is, you may not even see the results in your lifetime. I don’t know how God is going to work in your individual situation. What I do know is that He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and that if He used bad for good 3,000 years ago, He’s still using bad for good now, and He will continue to do so in the future. Such a promise cannot erase the pain and suffering we will all experience, but it can give us a hope to cling to, a rope to help pull us up out of the depths and into a  more brightly lit faith.

 

Keep holding on!

Tuesday’s Truth – Stop, Look, and Listen

Hello again! It’s July already, friends, can you believe it? I know that every year we all complain that it is going by too fast, but seriously, July? It’s just not right! I hope that in this summer season, filled with all its breaks and vacations (and ironically, all its busy-ness and stress), you are taking time to be with God and listen to His voice. Today we’re going to talk about the importance of seeking God’s advice and instruction, so get ready.

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been reading a chronological layout of the Bible. I like this layout  because it helps me see the plan of God and His history with the world more clearly. I can see the progression from one king’s sin or success to that of his sons. I like being able to put it all together. The past few days I have been reading about two very different kings. One was the infamous King Ahab of the northern Kingdom of Israel, and the other was Jehoshaphat, the righteous king of Judah. Ahab came from a long line of kings who did everything to block God from the people, and vice versa. Jehoshaphat, on the other hand, had excellent examples in his father and grandfather, and worked diligently to keep his people true to the Lord.

In my reading lately, a certain point about Jehoshaphat kept sticking in my mind. He didn’t just obey the Law of God, get rid of idols, or ban people and practices that promoted idolatry. He also actively sought God’s advice and guidance when he had a big decision to make. Now, this is important to me, because in many ways, I don’t see Jehoshaphat as being that bright of a guy. He teamed up with one of his biggest enemies (King Ahab), and then agreed when King Ahab suggested basically using Jehoshaphat as a decoy in battle. The wisdom of Solomon was certainly not one of his characteristics. And yet, there is a promise in the Bible that we will receive wisdom when we ask God for it. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” Even though this promise was made nearly 1,000 years after Jehoshaphat’s reign, the principle has always been true, and God has always made good on the promise. What Jehoshaphat lacked in wisdom, he made up for in faith.

Let’s look at two episodes from Jehoshaphat’s life which show the value he placed on seeking the Lord before making a decision. The first one comes from 2 Chronicles 18. Jehoshaphat had agreed to work with King Ahab to regain a portion of land that was important to both Israel and Judah, but had fallen into the hands of a common enemy. Jehoshaphat agree to go along with Ahab, but first he suggested that they inquire of the Lord if He wanted them to pursue this new war. Ahab agreed, except that he “inquired of the Lord” through 400 prophets who were on his payroll, and were not exactly known for being faithful to God. So of course they gave the kings the go-ahead, saying that God loved the idea and would give them great success. Jehoshaphat, though not the brightest, as we’ve seen, still smelled the fish on this one, and asked if maybe there wasn’t a real prophet of the Lord available for a second opinion. One, named Micaiah, was finally rounded up (with the warning that he should just tell Ahab that his plan was a good plan) and, at Jehoshaphat’s encouragement, actually told the truth – that they could go to battle if they wanted, but that Ahab would be killed, and his army scattered. And that is exactly what happened. Jehoshaphat made one key mistake here. He asked for the Lord’s guidance and advice, but then he still went out to battle with Ahab, and was nearly killed in the process (remember the whole decoy plan? Yes, it worked – at first.) As he was on his way home, Jehoshaphat was confronted by another prophet who strongly rebuked him for his alliance with Ahab. If we are going to seek the Lord’s wisdom and guidance, we need to prepared not only to hear it, but to do it. (James 1:22)

On a second occasion, it appears that Jehoshaphat had learned his lesson, and was completely prepared to seek and follow God’s wisdom and will. In 2 Chronicles 20, we learn that a large army was preparing to attack Judah. When Jehoshaphat heard who was coming, he called all the people together, went down to the temple, and prayed with all his might. He recalled to God the other times that He had defeated the enemies of His people, and he summed up his request with this statement, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” (verse 12)

Like Jehoshaphat, there will be times in our lives when we are confronted with a major challenge or decision, and we may not see a clear answer right away. It is in those times that our eyes must come off of our problems, and our minds must stop spinning for solutions, and instead we must put our whole focus on God, seeking His ways. We look at what He has done in the past, what He has told us in His Word, and what He is doing in the present, and then we get a clearer picture of where He is taking us. It sounds simple, but it is not. It takes courage and faith to stop and seek God. It takes patience to wait for His answers. It takes discipline to tune our hearts to His voice.

As Jehoshaphat learned, it is worth having that courage, faith, patience, and discipline. After Jehoshaphat sought the Lord with the people of Judah, he took his army out to meet their enemies. But instead of planning battle tactics and sending out scouts, the first thing Jehoshaphat did was encourage his men to have faith, and then he led them in praising the Lord. Only after that did they set out for the battle. When they arrived, they found only the bodies of their enemies. God had heard their prayer and their praises, and had used the armies of Judah’s enemies to destroy each other. The army of Judah didn’t even have to fight, they just had to gather the spoils of war and take it home. This time, Jehoshaphat had listened to the wisdom of God and followed through, and not only was his land saved, not only were they enriched by the riches left behind by their enemies, but there was also an extended peace, because the nations around Judah feared being destroyed by God.

In our lives, we will face many situations and decisions that are more than we can handle on our own. The wonderful thing is that we don’t have to handle them alone. God’s promise to give us wisdom is still just as valid as it was in the days of Jehoshaphat, and the days of James. God’s promises don’t have an expiration date. Don’t be so afraid of losing an opportunity that you miss the chance to seek the Lord. Don’t be so paralyzed by fear that you can’t get on your knees and echo Jehoshaphat’s prayer, “I don’t know what to do, but my eyes are on you.”

Tuesday’s Truth – Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Welcome back again! Today I want to share something with you that I discovered in my daily Bible study. I’ve been going through a chronological reading of the Bible, and recently I’ve been covering the end of Solomon’s life, and the division of his kingdom into Israel and Judah. In my reading, I went through the last few chapters of the book of Proverbs. While most of the sayings in that book are clearly attributed to Solomon, Chapter 30 is supposedly written by a wise man named Agur. It is not clear who Agur was. Some sources believe that it was a symbolic pen name for Solomon. Others say that he was an Arabian ruler. The context, history, and Hebrew structure in the passage make it hard to be definitive. What is clear, though, is that whoever the writer of Proverbs 30 was, he made some very helpful observations about God, life, and the ways of the world. I’d like for you to look at just a few verses out of this chapter with me. Let’s start with a promise:

“Every word of God is flawless;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.

I love this idea of complete security. I’ve been reading lately about the kings of Israel and Judah, and it is amazing to me how simple it was that when they obeyed and trusted God, there was peace and prosperity, and they were never defeated, but when they went their own way and trusted in their own strength, or in their armies and allies, they invariably experienced failure and defeat. What a clear challenge to trust Him with everything.

The writer goes on to make a request of God:

“Two things I ask of you, Lord;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.

The wise man here is giving us a lesson in contentment. How often do you pray this same sort of prayer? Do you ask for God to give you only what you need, what He wills you to have, or do you continually ask for more? Give it some serious thought this week.

15b “There are three things that are never satisfied,
four that never say, ‘Enough!’:
16 the grave, the barren womb,
land, which is never satisfied with water,
and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’

The writer continues with the idea of contentment vs. desire. I think we can all identify with the first two examples he give. As we talked about last week, death is something that is constant an inevitable. And all of us have known couples who have struggled with infertility. It is amazing what lengths people will go to try to conceive a child. The drugs, procedures, and financial costs are each extreme, and yet there is no slowing in the business of helping people have babies. The desire for the child overshadows any physical or financial discomfort. And while I cannot directly relate to that example, I certainly can relate to the final two. Here in our beautiful state of Colorado, our gorgeous spring and summer have been marred by a severe drought that has contributed to extensive wildfires. Last summer we dealt with the same issues, but this year seems even worse. Over 500 homes were destroyed just in one fire. In another area of the state, a popular tourist area was almost completely destroyed. In yet another area, over 50,000 acres of beautiful alpine forest have been consumed. Watching the reports come in each day, it is easy to see that fire never says, “Enough!”

Notice that these things which are impossible to satisfy are not spoken of positively by the writer. We live in a culture where a constant drive for more (more money, more power, more recognition, more success, more possessions, more happiness, more everything) is seen as a positive character trait. Commercials for athletic products tell us to keep pushing for more – faster times, more points, more wins. Educational institutions tell us that we can become more, earn more, learn more, if we attend their school. Movies and television tell us to climb the ladder, find a better spouse or partner, reach for the stars. We are told to never stop pushing the envelope, never accept defeat, never stay in one place too long. Satisfaction is the same thing as laziness and apathy. Every opportunity is meant to be taken, every risk is worthwhile.

And yet I wonder if we’re really happier, and more satisfied because of this constant drive for more. Look at the statistics relating to debt, divorce, and suicide just in the US. The average credit card debt in the US is over $15,000, The average mortgage debt is just under $150,000, and the average student debt is over $30,000. The divorce rate is around 40%. Nearly 40,000 people in the US commit suicide each year, and many more admit to thinking about it. We’re in a state of constant striving, and it’s not making us happier, more satisfied people.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon often speaks of human striving as being meaningless. It’s clear that more is not always better. Working hard, doing one’s best, reaching for dreams – all of that can be very worthwhile. Our failing is in letting our achievements, our possessions, our striving, take too high a priority. There are many ways we could talk about what this means, but let’s go back to what the writer said: having too much, seeking too much, can draw us away from God. We become like those kings I mentioned at the beginning who stopped trusting the Lord and experienced defeat and failure. Make the writer’s prayer your own this week. Ask Him to give you a spirit of contentment, no matter what your circumstance, trusting that He has given you all that you need.

 

Have a contented week!

Tuesday’s Truth – It’s Tradition!

Welcome to another week. Today’s topic is something that we’re all familiar with – traditions. We all have them, whether we like them or not. We learn them, adjust them, abandon and create them throughout life. If you’re at all like me,  you grew up with two sets of traditions for things like holidays, birthdays, and family gatherings. And then, if you married someone like my husband, you added in two more sets of traditions that were not only completely different from each other, but also completely different from the two you grew up with. They can be based on your ethnic background, religious beliefs, regional differences, and personal preferences. They can be mainstream or extreme, but either way, they are the main rules of “how we do things in this family”. And then, if you grew up in church, any church (or mosque, synagogue, or temple), you have a set of religious traditions that you carry around as well. Some of you have a very limited set, others (like myself) have a more “confused” bag of church traditions. For example, I was raised in a variety of evangelical churches, but I had family members who were Catholic, I attended a Baptist college, but then spent several years teaching at an Episcopal school. So I’ve had the full range of worship from pew kneelers to hand-raisers, environments from school gyms to stained glass, and sermon series based on popular movies as well as morning worship guided by the Book of Common Prayer. Eclectic doesn’t even begin to cover it.

 

Traditions are a crucial part of human culture and psychology. Our brains thrive on having a predictable framework for life. This is true at work, in the family, and in religion. Even those who reject what they see as “organized religion” still form their own traditions, rituals, and beliefs. Traditions help us connect with others, and help us bridge gaps in time and space. Traditions help the transmission of history and wisdom. Many traditions are enjoyable or comforting.

 

Traditions can have a negative side as well. They can be restrictive. They can be burdensome. They may be irrational, obsolete, or irrelevant. Traditions can keep people at a distance and create confusion. Some traditions may cause people to completely dismiss God or the church because they are too difficult to understand, too hard to follow, or too uncomfortable.

 

The thing about traditions is that they are only a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Too often, we become attached to a tradition, and force ourselves and others to “follow the rules” because it is tradition, rather than holding to a tradition because it is inherently valuable. An extreme example of this would be the extended segregation that was practiced in the southern United States even after the Civil Rights Act was passed, long after the myths about African Americans being sub-human or diseased or violent had been dispelled. White people didn’t want to associate with black people, but they couldn’t give a good reason why, they just knew that it wasn’t done: their grandparents and parents had avoided contact, and so should they. It was just the way things had always been, so it was they way they should be. That’s the biggest trap of traditions. Somehow we fall into a belief that tradition is more important than truth; that traditions should be followed because they are traditions, not because they serve a purpose or have sacred importance. We fear changing or discarding any traditional practice or position because we have so strongly linked “the way it has always be done” with “the way God wants us to do it”.

 

We seem particularly prone to this in religious and moral matters. We sometimes put more importance on the way our culture, church, or family has done things than on what God actually says (or doesn’t say) about many issues. (Please note, I am not saying that all moral positions are just traditions; I believe in moral absolutes, but only where God has made it clear that something is an absolute. Many of the things we hold tightly to are really interpretations and traditions, and we need to extend grace to each other, not judgment.) I witnessed an amusing example of this several years ago. My husband and I were still be living in the town where we attended college (a relatively conservative Baptist school). The college had very strict rules against any type of drinking, smoking, or other substance use, and most of the students had grown up in homes and churches that likewise took a very dim view of such things. However, at that moment, there happened to be a conference of Episcopal bishops and clergy meeting at the Episcopal school I taught in. Episcopalians have no tradition that frowns upon drinking or smoking in moderation. I had become used to this in my time working at the school, but many of the students attending my alma matter did not have the benefit of that experience. One evening during the bishops’ conference, we were enjoying dinner at a local pub and coffee shop, which was very popular with students (and which happened to be run by the rector of the local Episcopal church). The bishops and clergy had all decided to meet there as well. One of the men, with his purple shirt, clerical collar, and large cross, stepped outside for a smoke. At the table next to us, a young man, obviously from the Baptist college, was talking with his friend, and they could not reconcile in their minds how someone who was obviously a Christian minister could also be an unashamed smoker. Now, I’m not saying smoking is a good idea. We know that it is a serious health risk. However, it’s not expressly addressed in the scriptures, and so I can’t say that the smoking bishop was any less of a Christian, any less obedient to God, just because he smoked a cigarette and I did not. We must be cautious about letting our traditions  cloud our views of other sincere, God-fearing, people.

 

We fall into this trap in missions and evangelism too. We think that part of converting people to faith in Christ is making them like us. This was clearly the case in the early years of world missions, when missionaries from England and America would go to Africa and Asia and not only preach the Gospel, but also try to change the clothing, language, and the social and family structure of the people they had been sent to, as if making them Christians also meant making them English-speaking Westerners. At this point in history, we have gotten much better about being culturally sensitive, but the belief that changed hearts necessarily mean changed traditions still holds on. If we want to continue reaching people, both at home and abroad, we need to be more conscientious about to what extent we are asking people to obey God, and to what extent we are asking them to follow our own traditions. We need to not be afraid to confront and change tradition where it is no longer serving its intended purpose, and is instead serving to keep people farther from God.

 

I found a wonderful quote about this very thing in my leisure reading this week. I had just begun re-reading Charlotte Bronte’s classic, Jane Eyre, one of my very favorite books. I always have appreciated the philosophy and theology that Bronte weaves throughout her works, but I found this gem in her preface to the novel. She says, speaking of tradition,

“Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns. These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines for the world-redeeming creed of Christ.”

 

We are not the only ones to struggle with this balance between tradition and truth. The Jewish community in Jesus’ day had a very strong culture of traditions. Some where merely cultural, while many of them were based on the laws and regulations that God had given to Moses and the Israelites. In the end, however, they did not serve to help people cultivate their relationship with God, but to keep people from having that close, loving relationship with Him. Jesus himself chastised the religious leaders of the day, saying “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” (Luke 11:46) Jesus often disregarded Jewish custom, tradition, and regulation when it served his purpose of drawing people to himself. He healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-3, Luke 13:9-11), and allowed his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-3). When confronted by the religious leaders of the day, he rhetorically asked them whether it was better to do good or evil on the Sabbath (Luke6:9), basically turning the question of what observing the Sabbath meant back on their own heads. In Matthew 15, Jesus took part in a debate with the religious leaders about the value of traditions. He summed up his indictment of the religion of the day by saying, “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (Matthew 15:6b) To Jesus, the one person who perfectly fulfilled all of God’s law, the point was not the act of observing a ritual or of maintaining a tradition, but of living with one’s heart tuned to God.

 

Early church leaders also cautioned against those who professed to be Christians but insisted on new believers following the old Jewish customs in order to be saved or to be a part of the church.  This is what he had to say: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) In Acts 15, Paul, James, Peter and other leaders of the early church determined that there was no point in making new believers (especially those from outside the Jewish culture) follow the traditions of Judaism, but to instruct them to obey the core of God’s law. Peter pointed out that the old traditions and rules had been too much even for centuries of faithful Jews. (Acts 15:10) In his letter to the Philippians, Paul warned the church not to be led astray by those who would seek to enforce Jewish customs in the name of salvation in Christ, because we are not saved by outward acts, but by inward belief. (Philippians 3:1-3) Disagreements about traditions often threatened to tear the early church apart, but the Apostles wisely intervened and taught their followers to put their focus on honoring God, rather than honoring man’s traditions.

 

Traditions can be useful and enjoyable, but they do not tell us much about how we really must live as children of God. Fortunately, the Bible is very clear on what really matters. The prophet Micah gave a clear description of a life lived rightly when he wrote, “No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Jesus summed up all of God’s laws in two simple (yet still not easy) requirements: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39) Outwith those few things, the rest is just window dressing. The design of your church, the order of service, the style of worship music, the fashion of your clothes, the way you celebrate holidays, the rituals you do or don’t observe – they may help you personally in your relationship with God, but they must not ever take the place of that relationship.

 

Be Blessed!

 

How do you feel about traditions, especially within Christianity? Are there any you find particularly valuable in your walk with God?

Tuesday’s Truth – Precious in His Sight

Hello, friends! This week I’ve been thinking about children a lot. That’s probably because my little guy has been kicking and wiggling around much more over the past week, and I’m finally starting to believe that there is a tiny person growing inside me. The incredible excitement and the immense responsibility of his upcoming arrival have hit me hard lately as I research birth and child-rearing philosophies, as his little crib sits in the spare room waiting to be assembled, and as the pile of tiny clothes waiting to be organized grows. I know that the love I already feel for him can’t begin to compare with what I will feel the moment he’s in my arms. It’s hard to imagine. And as I was thinking about all of this, I realized something even more astounding. Even in all my maternal affection and devotion, I will never come close to loving my son the way that God loves him, the way that God loves all His children.

If you grew up in church (and probably even if you didn’t), you’re familiar with the song, “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” One line reminds us that all children are “precious in His sight”. Sometimes children’s songs aren’t so great on theology, but this one is dead on. Throughout the Bible there are stories that make it clear how much God values children, as well as some pretty direct statements. Let’s look at just a few:

  • What was the first good thing that happened after Adam and Eve were banished from Eden for sinning? You guessed it, the births of the world’s first babies. (Genesis 4 )
  • God protected and blessed Ishmael, Abraham’s son with Hagar, even though he wasn’t the son God had promised to Abraham and Sarah. (Genesis 21:8-21)
  • God commanded the Israelites to instruct their children in the history of God’s relationship with His people and to teach them His laws and promises. (Deuteronomy 6:7)
  • God chose a young boy, Samuel, to become one of Israel’s greatest leaders.
  • God chose David, barely a teenager, to defeat Goliath and the Philistines, as well as to become the king of Israel.
  • The Psalms tell us that God is intimately involved in the development of each unborn child (Psalm 139:13)
  • Jeremiah is told that God knew him before he was even born. (Jeremiah 1:5) We can assume that God knows each one of us just as well.
  • Many proverbs speak to the importance of raising children.
  • God allowed Elijah to raise the widow’s son from death. (1 Kings 17:17-24)
  • God allowed Elisha to raise the Shunnamite’s son from death. (2 Kings 4:8-37)
  • Jesus healed many children and raised others from the dead. (Matthew 17:14-18 Luke 7:11-17 Mark 5:21-43)
  • Jesus welcomed and blessed the children that were brought to him, over the objections of his disciples.  (Matthew 19:13-14 Mark 10:13-14 Luke 18:15-16)
  • Jesus used the faith of a child as the benchmark for true faith. (Matthew 18:3 Matthew 18:4 Mark 10:15 Luke 18:17)

Because children are so precious to God, we should be careful about how we view and treat children.

  • We need to see children as blessings and wonders, not as inconveniences, annoyances, or accessories. Children take time and effort, and are not often convenient, but we must see them as worth the investment.
  • We must commit ourselves to training our children, not only in the practical things of life, but in faith and virtues. We must be careful and intentional in the way we teach our children at home (directly and indirectly) and in the choices we make regarding both their academic and religious education.
  • We should strive to see our children the way that God sees them, as valuable individuals with immense potential. David’s family scoffed at the idea of him being anointed as King of Israel, but as God told Samuel, we are quick to judge by what we see on the outside, not what is hidden on the inside. (1 Samuel 16:7)
  • We need to remember that every child is valuable as a person and is “precious in His sight”. Having taught many children, I can tell you that it is sometimes hard to remember that the child who constantly tests your nerves and pushes the boundaries is just as precious as the one who always obeys and seeks to please. Our human nature tempts us to value the pleasant and easy things in life more than the difficult. But if we believe that every single child is created in God’s image and is made directly by Him for a specific purpose, we must learn to value every child equally. Does that make them easier to deal with? Some days yes, some days no; but it does help us keep our perspective. The good news is that if we are dealing with our children (or students) according to God’s ways, the most difficult ones often become the ones who make the biggest positive mark on the world later in life. Keep the big picture in mind!
  • Finally, we need to remind ourselves that we are God’s children, no matter our age. (1 John 3:2) As His children, we are loved far beyond what our minds can grasp. You are a blessing, a wonder, a valuable individual with immense potential. You, my friends, are “precious in His sight”!

Keep Smiling!

Tuesday’s Truth – It’s Not Okay

Welcome back! I hope you all had a wonderful weekend, especially all you amazing moms out there.

 

You’ll notice that the title of this week’s post is “It’s Not Okay”. Wow…how is that for some truth? But truth it is. There are a lot of things in life that are not okay. It’s not okay that thousands of children are abused every single day. It’s not okay that my beautiful friend was just diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. It’s not okay that three young women spent the last 10 years in captivity in the middle of an Ohio suburb. It’s not okay that my niece was born with a heart defect. It’s not okay that buildings collapse and kill people because someone was too greedy to ensure the building’s safety. It’s not okay that my best friends lost their daughter before she was two months old. It’s not okay that every day spouses are being cheated on, teens are being drawn into drug and alcohol addiction, children are being orphaned, lives are being lost before they’ve really been lived. The list just keeps going. No matter what you believe about why there is evil or pain in the world, you can’t escape the truth that it is there.

 

I almost feel unqualified to even be talking about this subject, because right now there’s not a lot of pain in my life. I am happily married, we have a comfortable house and a steady income, we’re surrounded by loving family and friends, and I’m 5 months in to an uncomplicated, relatively painless pregnancy. The scary thing is, I know that any of that could change at any moment. Pain, trial, suffering, whatever you want to call it, could pop up any day. In fact, one of these days it will. I don’t know what it will be, or when it will come, but I know that there is something down the road that I am going to have to face, whether I like it or not.

 

So often, Christians try to sell our particular brand of belief by talking about how much better life is once you accept Christ as your savior and have a personal relationship with God. On the one hand, that is true. There is absolutely nothing better than a personal, intimate relationship with a merciful, powerful creator. It changes everything. But it does nothing to change the fact that you and I will  have awful things happen in our lives. The Bible is pretty clear about this. Jesus promises, “In this world you will have troubles.” (John 16:33) His brother James, in his letter to the believers who had been scatter from Jerusalem due to extreme persecution, speaks of trials and suffering as a given in the life of a Christian. (James 1:2) We sometimes forget about it here in America, but Christians have been persecuted by economic oppression, torture, and death from the very beginning up to the present day. And even Christians who don’t suffer for their beliefs still suffer. The friends and family that I mentioned earlier, none of them are suffering because someone doesn’t like that they believe in Jesus; they are suffering because the world is a broken place.

 

God created our world to be a beautiful, peaceful, perfect place. We still see the traces of that perfection and beauty in nature, in certain relationships, in very precious moments in our life. But when evil entered the world and gained a foothold, nothing could be perfect anymore. That’s the thing about evil – it ruins everything. There is absolutely nothing in life that is completely perfect. The wonderful joy and love that comes with a new baby is only reached through months of discomfort and hours of extreme pain. The most beautiful mountains of our planet claim the lives of many who are lured in by the challenge of conquering them. Many of the most majestic animals in nature survive by hunting and killing other wonderful creatures. Man, who creates beautiful works of art and amazing feats of engineering, cannot live long without fighting and warring, whether on the battlefield, in the courtroom, or in the living room. We seem a doomed world.

 

And doomed we are. As we just saw, no one escapes the trials of a life lived on earth. There is no religion that is able to erase suffering. Some promise it, but none delivers. Now you’re probably thinking, “What a terrible thing to say. This blog is about glad hearts. I’m not feeling particularly glad at the moment.” And you would be right. So far, I’ve only given you the bad news. I wish I could tell you that it will all get better. I wish I could “sell” Christianity to you right here by telling you that if you surrender your life to God and accept Jesus Christ as your savior, all the suffering in your life will disappear. Many, many people would gladly tell you exactly that. But as I said earlier, that’s simply not how it works. Don’t despair, however, because there really, truly is good news in all this suffering.

 

What is the good news? God is the good news. Over and over again in the Bible, God acknowledges the suffering we must endure. He is not blind or deaf to our sufferings. He does not promise to remove our pain here and now. He does promise a heaven that is free of sorrow (Isaiah 25:8). He also promises to stand by us in our trials and to redeem our sufferings. Let’s quickly look at the passages from the Bible that show His promises:

  • God’s promises to be with us
    • When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. (Isaiah 43:2)
    • God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
    • Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for You are close beside me. (Psalm 23:4)
    • My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
    • He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; he is my God, and I trust him. (Psalm 91:2)
  • God’s promises to redeem our trials
    • You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. (Genesis 50:20)
    • God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. (Romans 8:28)
    • For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. (James 1:3-4) (Romans 5:3-4)

 

That’s a lot of truth right there, friends. God doesn’t promise that we won’t face pain and suffering. Sometimes, I confess, that terrifies me. I hate the certain uncertainty of a future suffering. I have to walk a thin line between realism and pessimism. The comfort and the victory come when I remember God’s promises, when I recall that I will never go through pain that doesn’t result in something good, and I will never walk through a valley alone.

 

I don’t know what it is in your life right now that’s not okay, but I know that every one of you has something that you are struggling with or that is causing you pain. Even in the goodness of my current situation, I encounter daily trials. It doesn’t matter if you are dealing with something that seems minor or catastrophic to others; whatever your pain is, it is painful to you. I’m so sorry that I can’t promise you a pain-free life. What I can tell you is that not once have I seen God desert someone in their suffering. I’ve watched people go through the most terrible things, far worse than most of us will ever endure, and every time, something good has been the result, when those people trusted God to redeem their suffering and stand by them through their trials. Whatever it is that you are walking through right now, I encourage you to let God walk through it with you, and to bring you something good on the other side.

 

Take heart, friends.