A Christian Philosophy of Things

My daughter-in-law recently shared a scenario I remember occurring with my own children. Her son, my grandson, accidentally broke something and was upset. In an effort to comfort him, his parents assured him it was all right, it was just a thing, it could be replaced.

Then the next time something broke, he nonchalantly said, “It’s okay, we can get another one.”

It’s been a couple of decades since my own were very young, and I can’t remember how I handled this with them. I think over time and experience, they learned that accidents are ok, but deliberate destruction is not; some things can be replaced easily, some things cannot.

I’m not prone to watch talk shows, but I caught part of one years ago in which a child said that when he got into trouble for jumping on the couch, it made him feel like his parents loved the couch more than him. I remember thinking, “It’s not unloving to teach a child to take care of property.” But perhaps the way the situation was handled added fuel to the fire. I remember a song my parents used to listen to told a story about a man getting after his daughter about not messing up the grass in the yard that he had worked so hard to maintain. Now he had a beautiful yard, but he was estranged from his daughter.

It’s possible to love our “stuff” more than we love people, or at least to give them the impression that we do. But teaching a child to take care of things in itself is not putting the things above the child. I’ve known adults with an “Oh, well” attitude towards things which they probably think is non-materialistic, but which seems careless.

How do we find that balance between not esteeming things too highly or too carelessly?

Here are some principles that help me.

Everything we have belongs to God. We don’t have anything that didn’t ultimately come from God. We’re just stewards of our possessions.

“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).

Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine. (Job 41:11)

“All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). Even if we grew, carved, crafted, or assembled something, the raw materials as well as the ability to do anything with them came from God.

We can’t take it with us. “As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand (Ecclesiastes 5:15). Ecclesiastes speaks often of the vanity of working for things and then leaving them behind to someone else.

We’re accountable for what we do with our things. “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” (Luke 16:10-12). “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 4:2).

Good stewardship includes careful use of things. This verse always convicts me, and I like the way the KJV puts it: “The slothful man roasteth not that which he took in hunting: but the substance of a diligent man is precious (Proverbs 12:27). According to the Pulpit Commentary at the bottom of this page, this could refer to someone who caught game but was too lazy to roast it, so it went bad (that’s the part that convicts me when I clean rotted stuff out of the refrigerator), or someone who catches game but then doesn’t attend to it, so it escapes. Either way, the slothful, or lazy person, doesn’t attend to what he has, but “the substance of a diligent man is precious” (some translations say “prized.”)

I hate to see people throw out perfectly good items just because they don’t need or want them anymore. Sometimes people will come by and take for themselves anything you have on the streets to be thrown out. Some people like to “dumpster dive” for treasures. So maybe people who take their unwanted stuff to dumps figure someone might find it there. But our local recycling and trash center doesn’t allow anything to be taken out, probably for safety purposes. I don’t like to mess with sales, but I like to take any unused items in good condition to the local thrift store.

Possessions are not wrong. I fear that some in the minimalist camp equate what they consider excess as sin. There’s nothing in the Bible that says we have to live as starkly as possible. We shouldn’t be covetous, and we have to understand that things cost money and take up space and time to maintain. But different people have different tolerance levels for “stuff.” I used to wonder whether it was wrong to want to wear pretty clothes or decorate my home. But I realized that God could have made the world just utilitarian, yet He didn’t. He created a wonderful variety of vibrant colors, animals, flora, etc. Edith Schaeffer made a strong case for this in a chapter on Interior Decorating in The Hidden Art of Homemaking. One of her quotes there:

If you have been afraid that your love of beautiful flowers and the flickering flame of the candle is somehow less spiritual than living in starkness and ugliness, remember that He who created you to be creative gave you the things with which to make beauty and the sensitivity to appreciate and respond to His creation (p. 109).

Possessions are temporary. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.(Matthew 6:19-21). 

Possessions can be idols. Jesus called one man who laid up many goods but did not prepare for eternity a “rich fool.” He reminded His listeners “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). The “rich young ruler” came to Jesus once to ask what he needed to do to get to heaven. Jesus told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Note: this is not something He says to everyone, but He knew that this man’s riches were an idol to him. The man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:22). Jesus went onto say that it is “only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23). Paul writes to Timothy:

 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

Possessions can be a distraction. Amy Carmichael told of a woman she was trying to share the gospel with in Japan. The weather was cold and Amy suffered from neuralgia, so she wore some fur-lined gloves. The women listened and seemed to be just about to turn to God when she noticed Amy’s gloves and asked about them.

She was old and ill and easily distracted. I cannot remember whether or not we were able to recall her to what mattered so much more than gloves. But this I do remember. I went home, took off my English clothes, put on my Japanese kimono, and never again, I trust, risked so much for the sake of so little (Frank Houghton, Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur, p. 59).

Similarly, in Isobel Kuhn‘s early ministry in China, she was a newlywed taking joy in setting up housekeeping. When a couple of Chinese women came to visit, she was thrilled to receive them. They were among the poorest people, and their culture was very different. One of the women blew her nose in her hands and wiped them on Isobel’s rug. The other held her child apart from her while the child wet on the rug. The women had dirt floors in their homes, so they were unaware they had done anything “wrong.” Isobel “managed to remain courteous” while the women were there. But once they left, “Hot resentment rose in my heart, and then there followed my first battle over things.” She concluded:

If your finery hinders your testimony throw it out. In our Lord’s own words, if thine hand offend thee, cut it off; He was not against our possessing hands, but against our using
them to hold on to sinful or hindering things.

So I faced my choice. In our first home—what was to come first? An attractive sitting-room just for ourselves? Or a room suited to share with the local Chinese?

Our engagement motto hung silently on the wall—God first. Mentally I offered that pretty rattan furniture to the Lord to be wrecked by the country peasants if they chose (Isobel Kuhn, Whom God Has Joined, pp. 21-22).

When they moved to their next station, she sold these items and bought easily washable furnishings like the Chinese had.

We’re commanded to be generous. It’s easy to look at millionaires and think, “Yeah, those rich people need to be generous!” But the Macedonians were commended for giving “according to their means” out of “extreme poverty” (2 Corinthians 8:1-5). We’re all richer than someone. What’s considered poor these days would be considered quite rich by people in some other countries or by people from a hundred years ago.

We only give back to God what is His. David and other leaders donated materials for Solomon to build the temple. David prayed before the assembly, acknowledging “all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours” (1 Chronicles 29:11-13)(See point 1). Then he said:

But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you . . . O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own. (1 Chronicles 29:14, 16)

We hold possessions loosely. Rosalind and Jonathan Goforth’s lost nearly everything not once, but four times in their missionary experience: through fire, flood, the Boxer rebellion when they fled for their lives, and damage when they were on furlough and others moved their things to a leaky storage shed. Rosalind found this fourth loss “the hardest to bear,” possibly since it came about “because ‘someone had blundered'” (Rosalind Goforth, Goforth of China, p. 210).

When, in the privacy of their own room, the “weaker vessel” broke down and wept bitter, rebellious tears, Goforth sought to comfort her by saying, “My dear, after all, they’re only things and the Word say, ‘Take joyfully the spoiling of your goods!’ Cheer up, we’ll get along somehow” (p. 211).

Jonathan quotes there from Hebrews 10:32-35, where the writer recalls some of the sufferings the Hebrews had endured:

But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.

We trust God for things we need. “Daily bread” is one of the things Jesus instructs us to pray for (Matthew 6:11). He also said, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25). He pointed out the birds and flowers that our heavenly Father feeds and cares for. Then He reminded His listeners, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (verses 32b-33).

God often provides through honest work: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes say much about diligence, hard work, and reward. The New Testament condemns “idleness” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-10) and commends work:

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12)

We not only work for our needs, but to provide for our families. In the context of the church providing for destitute widows, Paul writes, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).

So, though God usually meets our needs through providing opportunity and strength to work, when no work is available, or it’s not enough for the needs, we’re not to worry. We seek Him and trust Him to provide. I heard one preacher say that when his car had a problem and he didn’t have the money to fix it, remembering that all we have belongs to God, he prayed, “God, Your car needs work.”

It seems the more I search, the more I find in the Bible concerning how we should think about things. Other aspects include not stealing other people’s things, covetousness, and contentment.

But these prevailing truths help me. Everything we have comes from God and belongs to Him. Some day we’ll give an account of how we handled what He gave us. Therefore we take care of them, use them wisely, hold them loosely, give generously to others, and trust Him to provide. He “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). It’s okay to enjoy the material blessings He provides. But we don’t set our hearts on them or esteem them more highly than we should. We understand that God, people, and eternal truths are more important.

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Alone with God

Community is a great gift. Many of us have come to appreciate it now more than ever, since gathering with others has been restricted for several months. There’s nothing like being with, singing with, exercising the “one anothers” of the Bible, encouraging and being encouraged by God’s people.

So many have fallen away from regular church attendance, leaders have stressed the importance and benefits of Christian community in the last several years. But as often happens, the pendulum sometimes swings too far the other way. Some admonishments have overstated the importance of community. In one tweet I saw, some advocated changing the pronouns in hymnbooks from singular to plural!

I believe strongly in Christian community, in gathering regularly together as believers. I wrote about it here and here and here and here.

But some of the most poignant moments of life occur between the individual and God alone.

Joseph spent years isolated from a believing community after he was sold into slavery before his family came. If he had not known how to walk with God alone, his story would have come out very differently.

Two of the major events in Jacob’s life occurred when God met with him alone. One was in a dream on his journey to his uncle’s house; the other occurred when he wrestled with the angel of the Lord on the way back home to face Esau.

Daniel had three friends, but he faced the lion’s den alone, received visions from God alone, and prayed for his nation alone.

David spent much time alone and used much of it to write psalms.

The psalmists speak of remembering God’s word, work, and character and communing with Him alone in the middle of the night.

Elijah met with God alone after the great victory over Jezebel’s priests.

Paul traveled and ministered with companions, at times he had to stand alone.

Jesus ministered to crowds, small groups, and individuals, but sought time with His Father alone.

One of the blessings of the Christian life is that we have access to God directly. “For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). We don’t have to go through a priest or anyone else to get to Him. And, though sometimes we come with others, there are times we interact with Him alone.

God formed us individually. Psalm 139:13-16 tells about God forming us, knitting us together in our mother’s wombs, making us in secret.

We’re born again individually. Someone might be with us; someone might have explained what salvation meant and prayed with us. But we’re saved when we individually believe on Christ. No one can do that for us.

We’ll give account of ourselves. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)

We have our own relationship with God. I wrote recently that the Christian life is a relationship with God, not a set of rules and rituals. We have a relationship all together as a family. But most families don’t relate to each other just as a group all the time. Each individual child has a relationship with the Father.

We meet with God individually. As vital as it is to meet together to hear God’s Word preached and explained, we need to partake of it on our own. Many verses compare God’s Word to food. We don’t eat just one or two times a week. We’d be pretty malnourished spiritually if we did. When I attended a Christian college, students were often reminded that it was an easy place to get away from the Lord. It was easy to coast on the atmosphere, to read the Bible for class assignments, to attend many Christian meetings, etc., without personally meeting with the Lord.

We walk with God individually. Just as we’re saved in a one-on-one exchange with God, so also our obedience, growth, and sanctification occur between us and God. Again, others help, teach, encourage. But they can’t obey and grow for us. They might help us resist temptation, but we need to apply the Word of God and yield to Him in our own hearts.

We encourage ourselves in the Lord. Other Christians are a great source of encouragement, and I have leaned on them many times. Yet sometimes we have to stand alone. David experienced one such instance when everyone was against him, even threatening to stone him. But David “encouraged himself in the Lord” (1 Samuel 30:6). So many of his psalms were written when he was alone, or at least they were written about being alone. Yes, the psalms were sung congregationally. Some dealt with God’s people as a whole. But many of the situations written about were experienced individually, written down, and sung with the congregation so that they then could individually be encouraged and apply the truth of them.

We can pray individually. Yes, Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20). But He also said, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret (Matthew 6:6a). He’s not forbidding public prayer in the latter verse, but illustrating that it’s not something we do for “show” (compare with verses 1-5). I’ve often requested prayer from the whole church body or texted a Christian friend with an urgent prayer request. But have you ever noticed how many times in the Bible people prayed alone? Take as just one example Elijah, of whom James says “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (James 5:17-18). Kevin Schaal says in This Is No Time for Timid Prayers:

Sometimes we minimize the power of the prayer of a Christian individual. We tend to view prayers like votes—ours is only one among many millions and God somehow looks at the collection of prayers before Him instead of the heartfelt cry of an individual. The Bible never presents prayer like that. James 5 does not say “the effectual fervent prayers of a large group of righteous people accomplishes a lot.” The individual prayer of one righteous person can change the world.

I’ve read in some missionary biographies of great victories that were followed a few weeks later by a note from some faithful supporter saying, “I felt strongly led to pray for you on this date. Was anything in particular going on?”

We worship God individually. Even when we’re worshiping with a congregation, we worship and praise in our own hearts. And we can and should worship and praise when we meet with God alone.

Meeting with God isn’t meant to happen either alone or with a group. We need both. Our time alone with God will inform and enrich our time with each other, and our time with each other should do the same for our individual walk with God.

I’ve appreciated the creative ways people have developed to keep in touch with each other through this pandemic. Let’s use all of those ways as much as possible. But be encouraged: you can pray, worship, serve, and walk with God in any circumstance, alone or with a group.

I could not do without Thee,
I cannot stand alone,
I have no strength or goodness,
No wisdom of my own;
But Thou, belovèd Savior,
Art all in all to me,
And perfect strength in weakness
Is theirs who lean on Thee.

I could not do without Thee!
No other friend can read
The spirit’s strange deep longings,
Interpreting its need;
No human heart could enter
Each dim recess of mine,
And soothe, and hush, and calm it,
O blessèd Lord, but Thine.

I could not do without Thee,
For years are fleeting fast,
And soon in solemn loneness
The river must be passed;
But Thou wilt never leave me,
And though the waves roll high,
I know Thou wilt be near me,
And whisper, It is I.

From “I Could Not Do Without Thee” by Frances Ridley Havergal

Psalm 62 God alone

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What Grace Does

Most Christians are familiar with the word “grace.” If asked about it’s meaning, we could come up with something about “unmerited favor.” Pressed further, we’d explain that grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve: salvation first of all, then answered prayer and abundant blessings. We could differentiate grace from mercy: God not giving us what we do deserve: anger and punishment. We know that we’re saved by grace through faith: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”. (Ephesians 2:8)

Yet for the first time, I was struck this weekend not just by what grace is, but what it does. Thanks to Jen Wilkin in her book In His Image, who shared these first two points in chapter 6, “God Most Gracious,” and sparked a mini-study and a lot of thought.

Grace teaches:

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

The NIV and KJV and a few other versions say “teaching” instead of “training.” Others say “instructing.”

And what does God’s grace teach us? “To renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (verse 12). Since Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works,” His grace enables us to obey and live for Him and say no to self. This is one reason why the thought that grace will encourage people to sin because they can “get away with it” is so erroneous. That’s not what grace teaches.

This paragraph also demonstrates that good works come after and from salvation. Our good works don’t count for our salvation.

Grace strengthens:

You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 2:1)

Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. (Hebrews 13:9)

Grace gives comfort and hope:

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word. (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17)

Grace makes sufficient:

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

Grace enables:

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

In addition, Paul often mentions how God’s grace enabled him to do what God called him to. One example: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Grace helps:

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

The entire Godhead is involved with grace: The Father: 2 John 1:3, Philippians 1:2; The Son of God, full of grace and truth: John 1:14; The Spirit of grace: Hebrews 10:29.

Thankfully, grace is something we can grow in (for more information, see What does it mean to grow in grace?. 2 Peter 2:18 says “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.” And who does He give His grace to? “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)

And where does this grace come from? It’s not a separate entity: it comes from God. What a marvelous gift we have in God’s grace!

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

John Newton

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What do you look for when you read the Bible?

What do you look for in the Bible

Many look for something to meet their current need. They are sad and want comfort. They have a problem they need help with. They feel lonely and unloved, and they need affirmation that God cares for them. They’re frightened and anxious and need to know God is in control and will take care of them.

Those aren’t wrong motives in themselves. The Bible does help and comfort us. God wants to meet our needs. But the Bible is so much more than a momentary fix.

We talked a couple of weeks ago about reading the Bible to foster our relationship with God. Part of getting to know God is learning truth about Him.

Most people don’t approach their time in the Bible eagerly wondering what doctrine they are going to learn that day. The word “doctrine” smacks of theological arguments, dry, dusty old books, and difficult academic language.

But what if we thought of doctrine as bedrock truth that helps us get to know God better and helps us live for Him?

Which is better?

To feel momentary relief from loneliness, or to be convinced beyond all doubt that God will never leave us or forsake us?

To question God’s handling of a situation, or to rest in the fact that the Judge of all the earth will always do right?

To struggle with feeling unloved and unworthy, or to remind ourselves that God has accepted us in Christ and has always dealt with us in grace, not according to what we deserve?

One way to mine the Bible for truth about God is to write down that truth as we come across it. Several years ago, Mardi Collier told her husband she wanted to get to know God better. He suggested she go through the psalms and write down every truth about God that she came across. As she came to a new truth, she’d write it across the top of a notebook page, and then list verses underneath as she found them. Some of the page titles focused on what kind of Person God is: My God is holy, My God is good, etc. Others shared God’s actions: My God hears me, My God is in control, and so on. Her study ended up covering the whole Bible and eventually became a book, What Do I Know About My God?

You may or may not want to do a full-fledged study like that. It would certainly be beneficial. But at the very least, the mindset shift of actively looking for truth rather than looking to the Bible as just a problem-solver, as something to make us feel better, or as just part of our routine for the day, will enrich our time in the Word and our relationship with God.

We still need to read the Bible, even when we feel we have a good grasp on particular truths. We’re forgetful. We need reminders and reinforcements. We can always learn truth more fully.

The better we get to know Him, the more we see Him as He truly is, the more we love Him, and the better we represent Him to others.

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The Struggle Is Real

God's purpose in our strugglesDid you know that if you help a butterfly out of its chrysalis, it will probably not be able to fly and might die? There’s something in the process of breaking out of the chrysalis that exercises and strengthens wings and gets fluids where they need to be.

Similarly, a baby chick pecks its own way out of a shell. It can sometimes be aided if it’s stuck, but it’s risky. A baby joey climbs from its mother’s uterus to her pouch even though it can’t see yet.

Even a human baby’s struggle to crawl and then walk comes about with many fits and starts until he or she develops the strength to progress.

I’m not sure why so much of life involves struggle. Maybe struggle is one result of the fall of man into sin in Genesis 3. But God uses struggle in our lives for good.

Yet, we don’t like struggle. We do everything to escape it if we can. Labor-saving devices created more time but took the natural exercise out of our lives. I’m not ready to go back to toting my water from a creek or beating my laundry with rocks. But I’d probably be more fit if I did.

Trials act in the same way spiritually. We try to reduce them or get out of them as soon as possible. But if we don’t exercise our faith, it won’t grow strong.

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)

Just like any other struggle, our “faith muscles” may grow weary. But God has promised to be with us, strengthen us, and help us. And people see that the grace and strength to endure come not from us, but from God.

 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)

Trials test the genuineness of our faith plus result in praise to God.

 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)

God watches over our trials in love. He won’t let them last any longer than necessary.

Though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men. (Lamentations 3:32-33)

Meanwhile, just as Jesus, who “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,” so we keep our eyes on the future ahead of us.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

A man in one of our former churches had an awful disease called Von Hippel-Lindau Syndrome which caused multiple tumors to grow throughout his body. He said once that he could endure it if he knew God had a purpose in it.

He does.

Our suffering and trials may be physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational, financial, or something else. It’s normal and acceptable to pray for quick relief. We may not know all the reasons why God allows our particular suffering. But we know He is using it in our lives and that of others. Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 says sorrow teaches our hearts things that could not be learned by feasting and laughter. God is producing something in us that wouldn’t come about any other way. Without those trials, we might end up as weak and helpless as a flightless butterfly.

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God Remembered

How can God remember when He doesn't forget?“God remembered Noah.” (Genesis 8:1)

Does that statement strike you as strange? God is omniscient. He knows everything from the names of all the stars to the number of hairs on our head. He doesn’t forget. So how could He remember?

Our church is reading through Genesis, and I am once again using one of Warren Wiersbe’s brief commentaries as an aide: Be Basic (Genesis 1-11): Believing the Simple Truth of God’s Word. He had some helpful notes on this passage.

The word “remember” in Genesis 8:1 doesn’t mean to call something to mind that may have been forgotten. God can’t forget anything because He knows the end from the beginning (Kindle location 2006).

Wiersbe uses as an example Hebrews 10:17: “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” That doesn’t mean He somehow employs divine amnesia. Rather, He “doesn’t hold our sins against us” any more when we believe on Christ. They are no longer on our account.

So what does it mean that God remembered Noah?

It means “to pay attention to, to fulfill a promise and act on behalf of somebody” (Kindle location 2006).

“To pay attention to.” Sometimes it feels like God is far off. But He’s not. He has promised us His presence. He’s promised to meet all our needs. He’s shown us His love in hundreds of ways.

“To fulfill a promise.” “‘To remember’ implies a previous commitment made by God and announces the fulfillment of that commitment” (Kindle Location 2013). When God “remembers” a promise, He’s not thinking, as we do sometimes with our promises, “Oh yeah! I told them I’d do that. I guess I better get around to it.” Rather, when He “remembers” a promise, He’s saying, “Now is the time!”

“To act on behalf of somebody.The ESV Study Bible notes echo this: “When the Bible says that God ‘remembers’ someone or His covenant with someone, it indicates He’s about to take action for that person’s welfare” (p. 64). Though He acts on our behalf every day, when He “remembers” us in this way, He’s about to do something special.

In Genesis 8, Noah and his family had been in the ark for over a year. There were 40 days and nights of rain, the flood waters cresting, then slowly receding, then the land drying up enough for everyone to come out. We don’t know how they felt or got along for all that time. But it’s possible they could have felt forgotten or wondered how long this situation was going to go on. Yet God knew all along the time He had set for Noah and his family to disembark and start a new life.

In Psalm 77, Asaph writes of a time in which his “soul refuses to be comforted,” and being “so troubled that I cannot speak.” He got so low in spirit that he asked himself:

“Will the Lord spurn forever,
    and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
    Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
    Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”(7-9).

But then he took himself in hand, took his thoughts captive, and directed them to what He knew of God:

I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
    yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will ponder all your work,
    and meditate on your mighty deeds.
Your way, O God, is holy.
    What god is great like our God?
You are the God who works wonders
you have made known your might among the peoples (11-14).

In Psalm 42, another psalmist experienced a low point.

I say to God, my rock:
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
    because of the oppression of the enemy?”
As with a deadly wound in my bones,
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
    “Where is your God?” (9-11).

Not only did he “feel” forgotten, but others added fuel to the fire.

But he talks to himself, just as we have to do sometimes:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God (11).

Whenever we feel forsaken, when It seems God is talking a long time to answer our prayers and come to our aid, we can remind ourselves of His love, His character, His promises, His past works in the Bible, and the way He has worked in our own lives. In His perfect timing, He will especially meet our need, come to our aid, and fulfill His promise.

Nevertheless, he looked upon their distress, when he heard their cry. For their sake he remembered his covenant, and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love. (Psalm 106:44-45)

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Is Truth or Love More Important?

Why do we need to pit them against each other? They are both important. They are both needful.

Our church just finished reading through the book of Revelation together. In chapters 2-3, God lists seven different churches along with what was good and bad about each one.

The church at Ephesus was commended for testing “those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false” and for hating “the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” (Revelation 2:2-7) But they were rebuked for having “abandoned the love you had at first.” They were admonished to “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

The church at Pergamum (2:12-17) was commended for holding fast to their faith and not denying God’s name, yet rebuked for having some who held to false teaching. They were warned to repent, or “I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth,” previously identified as His Word. The church in Thyatira (2:18-29) was commended for “your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance” but rebuked for allowing false teaching.

God is love (1 John 4:8). And Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

God wants us to love Him with our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). He searches mind and heart (Revelation 2:23).

Truth is so important to God that all the prophets and almost all the epistles warn against false teaching. Sound doctrine is brought up again and again. In fact, Paul instructs:

 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15)

You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Corinthians 5:5)

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Corinthians 5:11)

If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:3-5)

They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. (Titus 1:11-14)

By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:19b-20)

Wow, some of that sounds harsh. But how loving is it to let people go on in a false doctrine themselves or lead others astray? Spurgeon once said, “To pursue union at the expense of truth is treason to the Lord Jesus.” Paul aims for restoration as much as possible: “Warn him as a brother,” “that they may be sound in the faith,” “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”

We get into trouble if we stand for truth without love, if we use truth as a steamroller or sledgehammer, with pride in being “right.” “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)

But we also get into trouble if we tolerate any behavior or aberration of doctrine for the sake of love. We need to be gracious, to give people time to grow, to realize we all make mistakes and stumble.

And we have to be careful that the truth we stand for is the bedrock truth of the Scripture: the gospel, the deity of Christ, the verity of the Bible, etc. There are many other areas where good people can differ, but we too often elevate those and defend our views on them with more vehemence than we do the fundamentals.

But if someone’s lifestyle and teaching contradicts the clear Word of God, we have to take our stand with God. The prophets and the apostles proclaimed truth and exposed and corrected errors and false doctrine. Every book of the Bible proclaims truth, and almost every one warns about those who would corrupt it.

We can’t follow the “nice” (to us) parts of Scripture and leave off the rest. All of God’s Word is inspired.

May God give us wisdom and grace as we walk in truth and in love.

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Remembering the Relationship

“It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship.”

Christians often say this when sharing the gospel with unbelievers. We want them to understand that Christianity isn’t just a matter of changing churches or habits or rituals.

We enter into a relationship with God when we repent of our own way and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. We actually become God’s children.

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). (See What does it mean to be a born again Christian?)

And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

This relationship changes everything, and we spend the rest of our lives growing in it and learning the implications of it.

The main way we grow in that relationship is the same way we grow in other relationships: communication. We read the Word God left here for us, the record of what He wants us to know and practice. We talk to Him in prayer.

Because we’re human, we set up habits and routines to helps us incorporate prayer and Bible reading into our everyday lives. We find a Bible reading plan or study book that works with our schedule. We stake out a serviceable spot and assemble tools: good lighting, highlighters, pens, journals.

And then life happens. We wake up too late one morning. Or we wake up early because we have to be somewhere. Or someone is sick or company comes. Or we don’t feel inspired.

If our time with any other member of the family gets disrupted, what do we do? We touch base as we can and make arrangements to talk one-on-one another time.

When our time with God gets disrupted, what do we do? We feel nagging guilt because an item on our to-do list didn’t get crossed off. We forget the relationship aspect of it

I love what Sue Donaldson says here: “We don’t worship the habit, but habits help us worship.” We set up the habits in love, in order to foster our relationship with God. But then we devolve into just keeping up the habits and forget what they’re for.

We often approach our devotional time out of duty rather than anticipation of spending time with God. A quiet time begun as a sense of duty can turn into something that touches out hearts and draws us close. Remembering our purpose will motivate us to look for Him rather than just dragging our eyes across the page.

We don’t always feel warm fuzzies when in any relationship. But love isn’t always warm fuzzies. Sometimes it’s doing for another when we don’t “feel” like it. A mom awakened at 2 a.m. by her baby’s cries might not feel warm and nurturing at first. But she gets up out of love for her child, and the warm feelings kick in later. Remembering our purpose, our history, and the relationship can help restore the warm feelings.

There are other ways we often lose the focus of our relationship with God:

  • When we have a need, we look for verses to plug into it rather than remembering, “This is what my Father said about this issue.”
  • We avoid sin to avoid punishment or protect our reputation rather than, like Joseph, cringing at the thought of acting unseemly toward God. He’s done so much for us. How can we disregard Him or do things that hurt or displease Him?
  • We set up our ministries and cram all of our service into that time slot, thinking we’re “off” the rest of the time. Instead, we should remember God’s family is our own, and we minister by His grace whenever a need comes up.
  • We treat prayer like a vending machine—insert request, receive answer—rather than a conversation with our God.
  • We witness for Christ during our official church visitation time instead of looking for ways to point people to Him all through the day.
  • Modesty becomes rigid standards for hairlines, hemlines, and necklines rather than a heart attitude to please and rightly represent God.
  • We feel we’ve had a great worship experience because we knew all the songs or sang our favorites, even if we didn’t have a conscious thought of the greatness of God while singing.

Israel was rebuked all through the prophetical books for forgetting their why and their who. Their habits and rituals then became empty, a weariness. It wasn’t too long before idolatry provided a seemingly more exciting alternative.

But they weren’t the only ones. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day stressed God’s law, but missed its heart and purpose. The church in Ephesus did all the right things outwardly but had left their first love.

How can we guard against just going through the motions? How can we keep a warm, nurturing, and loving relationship with God at the forefront of all we do?

God gave Ephesus a twofold instruction: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Revelation 2:5a).

Remember. Remember how God saved us. Remember what our life was like before: “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Those who were saved very young can think about what life might have been like if you hadn’t heard the gospel from your earliest days.

Remember our “Ebenezers,” those times we especially saw God’s hand at work. Remember prayers God has answered and how He has led in the past. “I remember the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the work of your hands” (Psalm 143:5).

Remember and meditate on His attributes. Focus on Him in our Bible study and worship. Perhaps go through a book like Jen Wilkin’s None Like Him and In His Image.

Read though some psalms or other Bible passages that especially drew us close to God’s heart in the past.

Repent. We pray and ask His help to love Him as we ought.. We reverse the list above. We go back and evaluate all those activities and relationships in light of our relationship with God.

There for me the Savior stands,
Shows His wounds and spreads His hands.
God is love! I know, I feel;
Jesus weeps and loves me still.

Pity from Thine eye let fall,
By a look my soul recall;
Now the stone to flesh convert,
Cast a look, and break my heart.

Now incline me to repent,
Let me now my sins lament,
Now my foul revolt deplore,
Weep, believe, and sin no more.

From “Depths of Mercy” by Charles Wesley

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Shining light in a dark and drowsy world

The room is just the right temperature. The covers are the perfect weight. The lights are off, your body relaxes, and you’re just about to drop off to sleep.

What’s the last thing you want to happen in that moment?

Someone to shine a light in your face.

It might help to remember, when we’re trying to let our light shine in this world, that some people don’t necessarily want to be awakened.

And this is the verdict: The Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness rather than the Light, because their deeds were evil (John 3:19).

Many missionaries have heard calls to the field telling the woes of people who have never heard the gospel and are crying out for someone to come. They invest a great deal of time and money preparing to uproot their families, leave their loved ones, and go to a faraway country, full of hope and big plans. But then they find no one is really crying out in need. No one wants their message. Everyone seems pretty self-satisfied. It’s no wonder that some missionaries of old who blazed the trails, like Adoniram Judson, went for seven years in Burma without any response.

Does that mean we don’t shine our lights? No, Jesus told us to:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).

But we understand that people might resist, even reject it at first. We try to make the message as inviting as possible, but we understand that others consider the cross itself foolish, or even an offense, no matter how unoffensively we try to present it.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Sometimes we need to wake people up in a hurry due to an emergency or danger. Or some don’t wake up to a gentle approach. Some people need a sudden Damascus Road experience like Paul , where the light suddenly shines forth in such brightness that they’re blinded. And only then, the scales fall from their eyes and they begin to see.

But many people experience more of a slow dawning. The light of the world we share is Jesus. As they see glimpses of Him and His truth, they are drawn to Him.

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:4-5).

When I am trying to fall asleep, light is an irritant. When I lay down on the couch for a nap, the overheard light in the living room or dining room is right in my eyes. Then I have to wrestle with getting up to turn it off, which will wake me up more, or trying to ignore it to go to sleep.

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your heart (1 Peter 1:19).

But once I am awake, I am thankful for the light that drew me from drowsy darkness, even if I was irritated and grumpy at first. Sometimes I even berate myself for not responding to the light earlier.

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made His light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:19).

We shine our lights by using the Word of God.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path (Psalm 119:105).

We shine our lights by how our transformed conduct differs from the world.

For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them (Ephesians 5:8-11).

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain (Philippians 2:14-16).

The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Romans 13:12-14).

We shine our lights by pointing back to our light Source.

I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in Me should remain in darkness (John 12:46).

We try to stress the urgency of waking.

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed (Romans 13:11).

Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep (Mark 13:35-36).

We hope, we trust, we pray that the Light will chase away the shadows and drowsiness, and draw the spiritually sleepy to the joys of the full light of day.

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light (Psalm 36:9).

For it is you who light my lamp; the Lord my God lightens my darkness (Psalm 18:28).

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God’s Efficiency

God's plans are bestDuring my college years, students often ran short of cash. Credit cards were not as ubiquitous, Apple Pay had not been invented yet (Apple either, for that matter), and students in general did not have as much discretionary funds as they seem to today.

One situation stood out to me. The details are fuzzy after a few decades, but it seemed like a student needed laundry money. She hadn’t asked for help, but someone became aware and passed the need along. The information traveled through a handful of people before someone was found who had a little extra cash to give to the cause.

But what I remember most from the experience was wondering why God didn’t somehow make the need known to the one person who could help instead of having so many involved. Humanly speaking, it seemed like that would be more efficient. All I could conclude at the time was that those who knew the situation were also in on the blessing.

That may have been the first time I realized that God’s idea of efficiency is not the same as ours. You’ve probably heard the phrase “God is never late, but He is seldom early.” I’ve known many people waiting on funds for camp or mission trips or other needs who could testify to that, with the remaining money coming in at seemingly the last minute.

Another area where God’s way of doing things puzzles me involves time and interruptions. I get frustrated when I try to plan my schedule efficiently in order accomplish what I think He wants me to do, and then an interruption, delay, or snafu occurs. Didn’t He know those things were going to happen? Couldn’t He have directed my planning so as to avoid them? Sure. Then why didn’t He? I don’t know all the reasons, but perhaps one is to teach me the longsuffering I pray for. You can’t learn longsuffering with suffering long. You can’t learn patience without being put in a situation where patience is required.

Perhaps some delays are for our safety. Maybe not getting on the road on time despite all our best efforts kept us from an accident. An interesting, often overlooked passage occurs in Exodus 13, where the Israelites have just left Egypt. Verse 17 says, “ When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, ‘Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.'” So He took them the long way around—to the Red Sea. He knew the nearer way would have been too much for them. But that means He also knew that they should have been able to trust Him for what they would face when caught between Pharaoh’s army and the sea.

Probably another reason He allows interruptions is to remind us that people are more important than our tasks and plans.

Then there are other times we marvel at the series of seeming coincidences that can only point to God’s sovereign rule. When Rosalind Goforth narrowly escaped the Boxer rebellion in China, she hadn’t had time to pack clothes. Dear ladies nearby offered to sew for the family. They got everyone outfitted but the baby by the time the Goforths boarded their ship. Rosalind was exhausted and just could not sew another stitch. Then she got word that a package had been delivered for her: someone had sent her the clothes of her baby son who had passed away. None of these women knew the need, but God arranged their help and gifts at just the perfect time.

We rejoice in situations like that because we see how it ll worked out so marvelously. But we need to trust that God is also working things out when we can’t see it, or when it’s not happening like we thought it would.

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand. Proverbs 19:21.

 We’ve heard Romans 8:28 so much that we’ve become numb to it. But we need to remind ourselves it is not a cliche: it’s a blessed truth:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

All things.

Even delays, disappointments, detours?

All things.

The gospels show Jesus being interrupted frequently. Yet He never lashed out at the interrupter. He was busy, but never frantic. He didn’t do everything that could have been done—there were still sick, blind, lame, needy people in Israel. But He could say, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:4).

You’ve heard the phrase “God moves in mysterious ways.” Did you know that line came from a hymn by William Cowper? It goes like this:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sov’reign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ev’ry hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow’r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

God’s idea of efficiency may be different from ours, but His efficiency for what He wants to accomplish in our hearts and lives is perfectly and lovingly planned and carried out.

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