Monthly Archives: February 2011

It Depends

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.  If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.”
John 15:9-10 (NIV)

Every promise of God in the Bible is conditional.  I know that idea freaks some people out, but it’s true.  God’s LOVE for us is unconditional, but His promises all require that we do or don’t do something in order to receive them.  Often these requirements are preceded by the word “if”, but often they are just listed in a cause-and-effect relationship.

John 15 has many blessings for Jesus’ disciples, both for those that were with Him when He was here on earth and for us today.  And these blessings also include conditions as well.  The blessing in this section is that we can remain in Jesus’ love.  The condition for remaining in His love is to keep His commands.

I often hear people decry the very idea that God or Jesus would set a condition for remaining in His love.  “If God’s love is unconditional, why would He put conditions on it?”  The fact is, God’s love for us is agape love, which is most clearly defined as sacrificial love.  It is the kind of love that always seeks the very best for the beloved (us), even if it costs the lover (God) everything.  It is unconditional in the sense that we don’t have to earn God’s love for us (nor can we), and in the fact that God loves every person on the earth with this amazing, self-sacrificing love, even those who won’t give Him the time of day; even those who use His name as a curse; even those who hate both Him and His children.  He went to the cross to save us all, even while we were still at war with Him.  But the sad reality is that most of the people in the world will never accept the conditions for receiving God’s unconditional love, and will end up cutting themselves off from God forever, consigning themselves to the lake of fire for all eternity.  As much as God loves them, and as badly as He would like to save them, and as much as He sacrificed to enable that to happen, His holiness and justice require that certain conditions (repenting and receiving Jesus as their Lord and Savior), be met to receive that love.

In the same way, once a person receives Jesus, there is a condition for remaining in Jesus’ love:  obedience to Jesus’ commands.  If we are unwilling to obey, we cut ourselves off from Jesus’ love, making ourselves unable to receive it.  This disobedience is sin, just as much as it was sin when we disobeyed before we knew Jesus.  And if we cut ourselves off from His love, we will end up just as lost as we were back then.

So what does it take to obey Jesus’ commands and remain in His love?  First of all, it requires an acknowledgement that Jesus is actually or Lord as well as our Savior.  That means that we have laid down our right to ourselves and have given ourselves to Him as a bond slave.  We have been purchased at the price of His own blood, and from the moment we accept that reality, we lay aside our own agendas, plans, and dreams, and take up His agenda and His plans for us.

Second, we must know what Jesus’ commands are.  And there are many.  And that requires that we continually read the Bible with an eye to learning His commands and obeying them.  In verse 12 of John 15, Jesus commands us to love one another with the same self-sacrificing agape love that He loves us with.  In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus tells us to go and make disciples of all nations.  In Luke 18:18-22, Jesus also brings the 10 commandments under the umbrella of His commands.  And, as He speaks through the writers of the New Testament, He adds still more.  (Some may object that this leans too heavily toward legalism.  But what I am suggesting is that when Jesus Himself says that we must obey His commands to remain in His love, that’s what He actually meant!)

The third requirement to keep Jesus’ commands is the will to obey.  Without the positive intent to actually OBEY Jesus’ commands, not only avoiding what He says to avoid, but actively pursuing those things He says to do, learning those commands become mere trivia.  But if we intend to obey immediately with all our hearts any command we receive, Jesus will empower us to obey, and we will remain in His love.

All of this is in the context of the branch needing to remain connected to the vine if it is going to bear fruit.  Any branch that doesn’t remain attached quickly dries up and is thrown into the fire.  In the same way, if we don’t remain in Jesus’ love through our total obedience, we will end up spiritually dry and fruitless, worth nothing but to be thrown away.

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Hannah’s Prayer

Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on a chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s temple.  In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord.  And she made a vow, saying, “O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”
As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth.  Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine.”
“Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord.  Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”
Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
She said, “May your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.
Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the Lord and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah lay with Hannah his wife, and the Lord remembered her.  So in the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.”
1 Samuel 1:9-20 (NIV)

An anonymous writer once wrote, “Prayer moves the hand that moves the universe.”  When you say that in a room full of Christians you get a lot of nods, and maybe even a few “amen’s”.  But do we really believe that?

In these days of popcorn prayers and arrow prayers and “a word of prayer” before services start, do we really believe that these short, perfunctory words actually do much to move the hand of God?  Does the way we pray really demonstrate that we understand that the very God of the universe is giving us an audience to hear what we want or need from Him?  None of these questions are rhetorical; they all have answers for each of us.

In Hannah, we see real prayer – prayer that moves the hand of God.  She is so focused on what she so desperately needs God to do for her that she isn’t even aware of anyone else being around her.  She is so passionate in her longing for God to reply that she is willing to do whatever God wants of her, including giving her child right back to the Lord who would give him to her.  She truthfully describes her prayer as “pouring out (her) heart before the Lord,” and “praying out of (her) great anguish and grief.”

Hannah received assurance that her prayers had been answered, and her pregnancy was the proof that it was so.  She had moved the hand that moves the universe, and the impossible happened.

How many of us really pray like Hannah, from the very depths of our souls?  How many of us truly agonize in prayer until we know that God has heard us?  It seems clear that the dearth of miracles and mighty movements of god among us today is the result of anemic prayers said more out of habit and hope than out of passion and true understanding of what we are supposed to be doing when we pray.

The Bible is full of images of God’s people praying mighty prayers from their hearts:  from Moses standing in the gap pleading with God not to destroy the Israelites; to Elijah, praying on top of Mt. Carmel for God to defend His name by fire from heaven; to Jesus, praying anguished prayers form the depths of His soul at Gethsemane; and dozens more.  These prayers mightily moved the hand of God.  They changed people, changed circumstances, and even changed the course of history.

I think that it is time for God’s people to get back to praying powerful prayers, scrapping the form prayers that are convenient but impotent, refusing to ever “open with a word of prayer” that lacks passion or any real purpose other than to put a religious patina on the proceedings.  If we can’t be passionate about what we are praying about, we should just skip it – the results will probably be the same.

Please understand – I am not against prayer at all – in fact I am a great believer in the effectiveness of passionate prayer.  But I sincerely believe that way to many of us, myself included, have fallen into the habit of praying unpassionate prayers because they are easier, quicker, and simpler than the real thing.  But they are also totally ineffective.  I believe with all my heart that God really would love to meet our needs and answer our prayers, but He will only do that if we pray, real, heartfelt, passionate prayers that will move His heart as well as His hand.

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Mary or Martha?

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.  But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Luke 10:38-42 (NIV)

It doesn’t take much to be a Martha these days.  Our days are so filled with “have to’s” and our leisure time with “want to’s” that there is no time left for simply sitting at Jesus’ feet and learning from Him.  We try to squeeze in a quick “quiet time,” but all too often our minds are drawn back to what we have left unfinished, or forward to what we have planned, and we end up spending most of our time just trying to corral our thoughts.

It would be easy to think that it was easier back in earlier times, when life was lived at a much slower pace and TV and the Internet hadn’t been invented yet.  But the testimony of those ages, all the way back to the time of Mary and Martha, indicates that distractions were just as easy to come by in those “simpler” ages as they are in ours.  Even those in monasteries and such ended up having to develop a focused mind and heart when it came to sitting at Jesus’ feet.

So what is the solution?  I think the key is in verse 42, and it revolves around the concept of choice.  Mary had “chosen what is better,” clearly implying that Martha had chosen what was clearly not as good.  But there were no victims of circumstances or schedules here, or even of temperaments.  There was just choosing, based on what was most important to each person.  Martha CHOSE to fill the time of Jesus’ visit with activities that were aimed at Him, but not focused on Him.  Mary CHOSE to spend the time totally focused on learning from Him, no matter how much of the other stuff was left undone in the process; what Jesus had to say was so important that she just put everything on hold for a while.

It is easy to use the excuses “I can’t,” “I had to,” or “I just wasn’t able to” when it comes to our quiet time.  But when all is said and done it really boils down to a matter of choice.  If we really look hard at our days, we find that we spent half an hour doing a crossword puzzle, an hour or two watching TV or surfing the net, or an hour reading a few chapters in our latest novel.  We might even have spent an hour or several doing some “ministry work.”  And then we claim that we had not time to sit quietly at the Lord’s feet, learning from Him.  The fact is, we had the time, but we chose to use it doing something else.

Someone once told me that if we fail to set time aside purely to meet with the Lord on any given day, what we were actually saying is that the LEAST important thing that we DID do that day was more important to us than sitting at the feet of our Savior and Lord, listening to and learning from Him for a few minutes.  That’s something to think about!

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Don’t Worry About It!

Don’t Worry About It!

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Matthew 6:25-34 (NIV)

When Jesus was here on earth, He showed us clearly how this whole concept of God providing for our daily needs is supposed to work.  First of all, He modeled the prayer that asked every day for our daily bread.  This is most likely a reference to the manna that God provided for His people while they were in the desert on the way to the Promised Land.  The people were moving the whole time, and had no opportunity to cultivate grain to eat.  So God gave them a daily miracle.  Every morning when they woke up, there was manna covering the ground all around – all they had to do was to pick it up and prepare it.  Each person was able to gather exactly the correct amount for him and his family.  The trick was, manna didn’t keep.  If you tried to save some until the next day, it would rot and stink and worms would be crawling all over it by morning.  (Except for the Sabbath.  God provided twice as much on Friday morning, and it miraculously kept just fine for Saturday morning so that the people didn’t have to go out manna gathering on the day of their Sabbath rest.)

I imagine that some people found this really inconvenient – they would rather have had God provide enough for a whole week at a time so that they didn’t have to rely on God every day.  But God wanted them to develop the habit of relying on Him each day to provide for that day, only one day at a time.  Jesus, in the prayer that He taught us, clearly shows that He looked to the Father to provide for Him each day.  Just for today, and tomorrow He asked for what He needed for tomorrow.  No stashing away in case God dropped the ball, but simple trust that God would provide tomorrow, just as He provided today.

Secondly, Jesus’ entire life was focused fully on God, constantly and consistently seeking to do the full will of the Father with every thought, word, and deed (Matthew 26:39; John 5:19, 8:28, 17:4); obeying Him instantly and completely every moment of every day.  And, as a result, Jesus never lacked a single necessity.  In fact, it seems that the only time that He went hungry was when the Father specifically directed Him to fast (for 40 days!).  He said that He had no place to call His own, but He never lacked a place to sleep.

Throughout His life on earth, Jesus demonstrated both the honest trust in God to provide, and the seeking first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness (characterized by complete obedience to all of God’s commands).  So when He talked about God’s ability to meet our every need for food, and drink, and clothing, He wasn’t just spouting religious theory, but tried and true reality.

So what about us?  When we have a need that we don’t see being met in our own lives, do we first examine ourselves to make sure that our top priority is wholehearted seeking after the realization of God’s kingdom and His righteousness?  Are we willing to look at ourselves objectively enough to actually see whether that is our number one focus, or if it has slipped down to somewhere in the top ten or twenty?

And when we have someone else approach us with a physical need, like food or clothing, how do we approach that?  Do we just help them with their need and wish them well?  Or do we ALSO passionately and powerfully teach them from our own life experience that the secret to a life of freedom from want is to seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness, making the pursuit of those realities in our own lives our number 1 pursuit?  And then do we help them to assimilate this truth and come alongside of them to help them begin to live it out in their own lives?

I see these basic rule of the kingdom, seeking God today for TODAY’s necessities, and making God’s Kingdom and His righteousness, missing in the lives of the vast majority of people today who go by the name of Christian.  When we plan our days, diligently seeking and fully doing the will of God falls far down our list of considerations, if it is there at all.  Asking God how HE wants us to spend our day, whether a workday or a day off, is never seriously considered.  Instead, we make our plans and, if God is consulted at all, it is to ask Him to keep us safe or to help us be successful while we are off doing our own thing.

To the vast majority of people, even Christians, the idea of being so thoroughly devoted to God’s will seems outrageous and bizarre – something that might be fine for monks or religious hermits or something, but something that is totally impractical for real people with real bills to pay and real jobs to go to.  I think that we might even be a little bit nervous about what God might ask us to do if we were to begin our day by reporting for duty and asking Him how He would like us to spend our day.  Would He tell us to skip work and cause us to lose our job?  Would He send us someplace that we would find intimidating, or ask us to talk to someone about Jesus?  It all seems so risky, so dangerous.

And so we replace seeking God’s kingdom with wistful agreement that it would be nice of God’s kingdom really was a reality in our world.  And we replace passionately asking for God’s Holy Spirit to make us pure and holy by totally changing our hearts, or minds, and our very wills with trying to not sin as much.  And then, when find that we are lacking some necessary thing, we beg God to meet our need “in accordance with His promise.”

God really does want to meet our every need, just as He did for Jesus and for His disciples (cf., Luke 22:35).  But in order for us to even be qualified to receive that help, we have to fully meet the requirements:  seeking FIRST the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.  That means that those things must become our absolute top priority – above family, above jobs, above hobbies and entertainment, above anything.  Only then will He provide “all these things” for us.

If we count the cost and decide that it is unreasonable, or just plain too high, or too risky, or too anything else, we will probably end up lacking a lot of things in our lives.  But it won’t be God’s fault.

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Out of Gas

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8 (NIV)

 It’s a thing of beauty:  a glistening silver 1955 Porsche 356 2-door convertible.  You can almost feel yourself drooling as you look inside and see the plush black interior, and the speedometer that tops out at 140 mph.  The spotlights in the auto museum highlight the finish on the glossy paint and the lovingly applied layers of high-grade wax.  But if you wanted to hear the roar of the 4-cylinder horizontally opposed engine, you would be in for a big disappointment:  there is no gas in the tank.  Nobody intends to drive the car, at least not for a long time, and it would be foolish to put gas in the tank of a car that nobody intends to drive.

Just before Jesus left earth, he told His gathered disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came on them – power to be His witnesses to the world, spreading the good news of Jesus’ victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil to everybody, and to effectively lead people to the Lord for salvation.  Ten days later, these same disciples were indeed filled with the Holy Spirit during the Jewish feast of Pentecost.  And, as a result of that filling, the testifying about the powerful acts of God, and the testimony of Peter, backed by the other apostles, 3,000 people were brought into the kingdom of heaven and baptized on the spot!  (Acts 2)  A short time later, after a miraculous healing of a man who had been lame for decades, another couple thousand people became believers in Jesus.  (Acts 3:1-4:4)  The power really was doing its job.

Over the next few years, more and more people, including members of the Jewish priesthood, came to believe in Jesus through the Spirit-empowered testimony of His followers.  These filled-to-the-brim believers literally rocked all of Jerusalem with the message of salvation, and then, when persecution scattered them to the surrounding countryside, they rocked the rest of the country as well!  (Acts 8:4)  True to Jesus’ word, they powerfully preached the gospel throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

It is significant to me that we never see a record of the early church conducting evangelism seminars and workshops, or of the folks in the first century church telling the leadership that they would like to be able to witness to people, but they just didn’t feel like they had enough information and knowledge about how to do it.  It really does seem that the Holy Spirit provided all that the people needed in order to be powerful and effective witnesses to the love and grace of Jesus, showing multiplied thousands of people how to come into the kingdom the same way that they themselves had come in.  Of course, that’s not to say that these people didn’t faithfully study the Bible, and pray, and worship together, and devote themselves to the apostles’ teachings, and all of the other things that are vital parts of keeping their relationship with Jesus living and strong on a daily basis.  But when they were filled with the Holy Spirit, the clearest result is that they were empowered to be witnesses, the Holy Spirit powerfully using their own testimony and the knowledge of the Bible that they had gained through faithful study, and aiming it straight into the hearts of their hearers.

These days a lot of people seem to have an entirely different focus on what the Holy Spirit is all about.  As a pastor in a holiness denomination, I read and hear a lot about what the Holy Spirit does in a believer’s life.  And, while the beliefs of a lot of these people are not necessarily wrong, it really does seem, from a biblical angle, to be sadly incomplete.  Many people, especially in the holiness churches, will tell you that the purpose of the Holy Spirit is to purify our heart, removing depravity, so that we can be empowered to live a holy life.  And this side of the equation is not incorrect – it even has good biblical support, such as Acts 15:8-9 (NIV), where Peter is relating his experience with the salvation and Holy Spirit filling of a bunch of gentiles:  “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.  He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.”

But, as I said before, this viewpoint is sadly incomplete, leading many people to a woefully inadequate view of what the life of a fully sanctified Christian is supposed to look like.  As Jesus told His disciples before He left, the coming of the Holy Spirit into a person’s life would result in an amazing power being unleashed through that person.  But it was power for a specific purpose:  to be a witness.  And, in this context, it makes absolute sense that God would, at the same moment, cleanse a person’s heart of all impurity, of all depravity, of all wrong motives, because God can’t trust that magnitude of power, “like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms,” (Ephesians 1:19-21 NIV) to people who have mixed motives and evil in their hearts.  He can only entrust it to people whose hearts have been made pure and holy.

But if we want to stop at pure and holy, then being filled with the Holy Spirit really makes no sense at all.  If we just want to live a holy life, a life in which we merely don’t sin, then just a small bit of the Holy Spirit will do.  (John Wesley himself wrote in his “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection” that even babes in Christ are able to not sin, because He knew that the Holy Spirit lived within them, and so they had the Holy Spirit’s power to be able to resist the devil’s temptations.)  But the main purpose of the filling with the Holy Spirit, the main purpose of the Holy Spirit’s power in a believer’s life is to give them power to be witnesses.

When the disciples had been warned by the Jewish leaders not to preach in the name of Jesus any more, or they would be punished severely (Acts 4:18), the gathered believers prayed an amazing prayer, that ended with the words, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (Acts 4:29-30 NIV)  (In other words, make us powerful witnesses!)  And the very next verse tells us that “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” (verse 31)  The Lord answered with a fresh filling of the Holy Spirit to empower their witness!

The fact of the matter is that holiness of heart and life only makes sense in the context of being a powerful witness to the unbelieving world about our Jesus.  But, I am sad to say, too many people see a sin-free life as the goal of being filled with the Spirit.  And, if that is as far as we take it, we end up like polished statues of saints sitting on a shelf somewhere:  nice to look at, but pretty worthless when it comes to the actual work of the kingdom.  Like the Porsche 356 in the auto museum, we look good on the outside, but we have no power inside to actually DO anything.  And the fact is, just like it doesn’t make any sense and would be a total waste of a good resource to put gas into the engine of a car that you don’t intend to drive, it is a total waste of time for God to fill anyone with the Holy Spirit who never intends to use that world-shaping, life-creating, evil-banishing power to boldly witness to the unsaved about what the Lord has done in their lives.

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