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It’s Personal

The most astounding thing to me about Christianity is that it’s personal. When Jesus invaded my life, he dealt with my heart and began directing my life as an individual. I have grown to discover that my life is part of a worldwide, history-wide plan but God guides me and you specifically to fulfill our parts of the puzzle. This is why some passages in the Bible stand out and become intensely personal.
1 John 4 is one of those passages for me. As I read it again this morning, I was struck by how much of this chapter has been an intricate part of my life. Verse 4 started it all, “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” I had been reading the Bible after seeing the movie, “The Exorcist,” when I was sixteen years old. The movie shook me up because I heard it was based on something true and I couldn’t see much difference between me and the girl on the screen. The question that haunted me was, “If anything like that could happen to her, what would keep it from happening to me?” I hoped the Bible was going to have something for me and when I read, “. . .the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world,” the light went on for me. That night I asked Jesus to live within my heart and to guide my life.
Verse 7 then opened a new world for me, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.” My mom was racked with various fears so we lived a pretty isolated life. We didn’t have family friends and there was a general distrust of people in my home. When I met Jesus and started attending a Bible study with other teenagers, I discovered a group of real friends who genuinely cared about one another and were solidly committed to each other. It was awesome.
Since meeting Jesus, I am amazed at how many times I have quoted verse 18, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” I realize now this verse became important because of the fear I grew up around but it has grown to be a major theme in life. I respect God immensely but I am not afraid of Him because I know He loves me. I have had the privilege of introducing many people to my Savior as I have explained that they don’t need to be afraid of Him either. I have seen numerous individuals break through barriers in their lives as they have grasped the truth of God’s love and willingness to work on their behalf. Life is filled with the unknown for all of us but we can face it without fear when we are convinced that God loves us.
Finally, verse 19 is engraved on the inside of my wedding ring. Pam and I adopted this phrase as our motto from the earliest moments in our journey together, “We love because he first loved us.” We are both convinced we have the strength to love one another because we discovered the personal love of God in our hearts. He is bigger than our disappointments and greater than our irritations as His love renews our interest in one another year after year.
At times, I feel 1 John 4 was written for me. I know this is not entirely true because God has much bigger things going on than just my life but I am convinced He had me in mind when He led John to put these words on paper. What passage has become this personal in your journey?

Give and Take

Following God’s will is always risky because it is a supernatural journey that cannot be accomplished by human ingenuity or strength. That is why we call it a walk of faith. We take the risk of obeying even though we recognize it is impossible on our own. As a faithful partner, God gives the resources to actually do what He has asked us to do.
Daniel is yet another example of how this principle works. He and his friends took the risk of obeying God when it came to eating differently than the other men they were competing with. In response, “To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.” (Daniel 1:17) God gave them what they needed to succeed. The implication was that their own abilities were not enough. They were going to be asked to do things that were beyond human intellect and strength. But, the answers were not out of reach because God was willing to give them the resources.
Daniel is an extreme example of the principle because he was chosen to change history but our challenges are no less remarkable. We are all asked, on a daily basis, to do things that are beyond our human capabilities. Galatians 5 spells this out for us. “Stand firm.” (v. 1) “Do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh.” (v. 13) “Serve one another humbly in love.” (v. 13) “You, my brothers and sister, were called to be free.” (v. 13) “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (v. 14) I don’t know about you but, when I try to do these do things out of sheer will, I am sporadically successful. I can do them for a little while but then I either lose focus, lose the will or get so frustrated with the people I am trying to serve that I give up.
Fortunately, God is willing to give the resources. “Walk by the Spirit . . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (v. 16, 22, 23) As I take the risk to stand, serve, and love freely (without conditions or self-imposed expectations) God gives me the personal character and resolve I need to stay the course and pull it off.
I need to be reminded of this often. Intellectually, I know I live in a world of brokenness but I keep forgetting that when it comes to doing business and interacting with people. Getting business done is challenging with seemingly endless obstacles to overcome. Caring about people just seems to expose their weaknesses and stubbornness. I know this but I still expect it to be different. When I am focused on my abilities, I want people to be easier to deal with and business to fall together with less effort. As a result, it is always a choice of faith to stand with people, serve them humbly and love them despite their imperfections. I am just thankful that the Holy Spirit is committed to give me what I need to stay in the race.
Jesus, thank you for being an active partner in life who gives.

Figuring Out Father

A friend recently asked me, “If your father wasn’t a good role model, is it hard to figure out how to relate to God as your Heavenly Father?” It is such a good question because we all assume God is kind of like our dads. Intellectually, we know that He is perfect, wise and loving but our emotions don’t always listen to our minds. We spent our most formative years adjusting to our dads so our impression of what it means to be a father is ingrained in our instincts. If your dad was a solid example, this is good news. Your understanding of God as your Heavenly Father will be healthy, dependable and encouraging. If, however, your dad was unpredictable, severely inconsistent, uninvolved or non-existent, you have a lot to overcome.
This question was hovering in my mind when I read Ephesians 5:17-20 today. I noticed in this passage a number of truths about God as our Dad that I want to hold onto and make instinctive:
• He wants us to find and fulfill our unique contribution to life. “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” God has a will and it includes us. His will is mature, focused and effective. That is why the opposite of it is referred to as foolishness. God knows who you are and what you were designed for. As a faithful Father, He is working to help you discover your purpose.
• He wants us to be energetic and powerful. “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” When someone is under the influence of alcohol, he says things he wouldn’t normally say, does things he wouldn’t normally do and has a boldness about him that is not characteristic of his ordinary life. In the same way, the Holy Spirit was put in us by our Father to give us words, actions and attitudes that can influence others.
• He wants us to have healthy relationships. The natural result of being under the influence of the Holy Spirit is we speak “to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” And we will “sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” This doesn’t mean we walk around singing all the time and answering everyone with music. It does mean we will naturally encourage others to grow and we will seek to include Jesus in our lives in a daily, natural way.
• He wants us to have a positive, grateful attitude. “. . . always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Zig Ziglar is famous for saying, “A positive attitude will not allow you to everything. But a positive attitude will allow you to do everything better than a negative attitude will.”
These are things all of our dads ought to have equipped us for in life. Some of you reading this can rejoice because your dad did that for you. Others of you just feel a void. We can all move forward from here, however. We can learn from God’s word the truth about God as our Father and we can help the next generation get a head start.

Objectively Subjective

“My eighteen year old daughter asked me, ‘How can I tell if a young man I am interested in is the man I ought to marry?’ What would you tell her?” I was curious to know how serious the relationship was so I hesitated in answering. It was quite possible the daughter was in an unhealthy relationship and her dad was looking for ammunition to get her away from a current young man. It was also possible this was a sincere question from an emerging young lady. This concerned dad must have seen what he thought was confusion on my part because he asked me, “Is there even an answer to the question or am I just on my own to figure it out?”
I shared with him that there are both objective and subjective factors to consider. On the objective side, there are character issues to look at. I encouraged him to have his daughter make a list of the traits she was looking for in a man she would consider spending her life with. There are numerous passages in the Bible that discuss the importance of personal character. Ephesians 5 is one such passage that encourages each of us to pursue the following convictions:
• Persistent love. “Walk in the ways of love, just as Christ loved us.” (v. 2) This is the kind of love that willingly sacrifices and looks out for the best interests of others. It is not, “I love because I want something from you.” It is, “I love because that is who I am.”
• Moral excellence. “Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality.” (v. 3) People who can be trusted for a lifetime have the powerful passions of their life under control. It is not that we want our desires and drive in life numbed. We just want to have the forces of our life focused on healthy, encouraging, productive activities rather than selfish gratification.
• Ethical encouragement. “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” (v. 4) The Holy Spirit who is in us has a positive attitude and looks for ways to build others up. Words are either powerful allies or destructive weapons and we must each decide how we are going use them.
• Committed to truth. “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.” (v. 8 ) When we meet Jesus, we encounter the source of truth and we get exposed to everything that is true about life. If we are going to be consistent in our relationship with Him, we will seek to apply truth to our lives on a regular basis.
This is a short list of the type of character God is trying to build in us. The list can certainly get so long that no one can ever measure up, but it is helpful to identify key character traits that make for healthy relationships. Then ask the questions, “Am I growing in these areas myself?” and “Am I willing to wait for someone who is also growing in these areas?”
The pursuit doesn’t stop with the objective list, however. We all have subjective preferences that include personality, body type, sense of humor, sense of purpose, career pursuit and social interest. I encourage young people to boldly identify these subjective preferences because they are a big part of what attracts us to other people. When the objective list and the subjective list converge in a relationship, we have strong confidence it has what it takes to build a life together. Of course, there are no 100 percent guarantees in any relationship because we are confronted with significant decisions every year that have the power to alter our lives. It is, however, likely that people of solid character who are attracted to each other for good reasons are going to decide to work through the issues of life together rather than use them against each other.
God, give us both objective and subjective wisdom in our relational choices.

Grieve for the Living

We live with an agonizing discrepancy. We were not originally designed to lose. When Adam and Eve were created, they were going to live forever. Their descendants were going to live forever. They were not going to have deal with illness, death, abuse, abandonment, financial reversals or evil. Things didn’t stay that way, however. Mankind fell and we have been wrestling with brokenness, evil, and destruction ever since.
The news this month has been ripe with reminders of the depravity and brokenness of the human condition and we have all experienced various reactions. It occurred to me today as I was reading Isaiah 15 and 16 that part of a healthy response is to grieve for everyone involved. Moab was put under discipline by God but He found no pleasure in it. God never sacrifices His righteous standards in life but He is primarily motivated by love. In His review of the state of Moab,
• God’s “heart cries out over Moab.” (15:5)
• He weeps. (16:9)
• His “heart laments for Moab like a harp.” (16:11)
I am glad that God is just and that He disciplines people when they do wrong but I am just as glad that His heart breaks over the damage that is done by people’s actions. Since we are created in the image of God, it is my goal to have this same balance in my life. I want us to have strong laws and to act deliberately, wisely and definitively when justice has been violated. I want to us to uphold a standard of respect, high morals, sanctity of life and integrity.
At the same time, I want us to appropriately grieve over the depravity of mankind and the pain it inflicts on a multitude of individuals. I grieve over the factors that converge in people’s lives that cause them to rely on drugs, have affairs, abuse others, lie, cheat, steal and manipulate others for their own advantage. There has to be deep pain or unchecked evil in the heart of these people that desperately needs to be redeemed and transformed. Our faith is littered with imperfect heroes from Samson to David to Paul to Jonah. They all had dark moments in their lives but they also experienced the transformation of grace. In our steps to curb evil and punish wrongdoing, I believe we should also hold out hope that those who do wrong will one day experience the grace of God that can deliver eternal hope even if it can’t undo the temporary sufferings.
Even more, I am determined to grieve over the impact of evil actions on those who have been victimized. Every month, innocent children, business partners, hard-working volunteers, sincere spouses, investors, and the disadvantaged are taken advantage of. People’s lives are left with scars, sensitive trigger points, overwhelming fears and potential bitterness that create significant obstacles to successful relationships and personal growth. I have had the privilege of working with numerous people over the past 25 years as they found ways to forgive rebuild and grow to the point they can now help others who have experienced similar travesties. I grieve over the fact, however, that they had to go through the strenuous and vulnerable process to get there.
Jesus, in the midst of the pain and mistreatment that happens in this world, let me never lose my heart of compassion or my willingness to defend the innocent.

People Need Hope

I have noticed I do a lot better in life when I have a sense of hope. When I can look ahead and say, “I can see good things coming,” my attitude stays calm, my motivation stays high and my willingness to faithfully do what is right remains intact. On the other hand, when it appears that things are going to be bad no matter how much effort I put in, I fight the tendency to become selfish, lethargic and apathetic. And I have noticed I am not alone.
I recently met a young man with admirable potential and some impressive traits. He is taking courageous steps to discipline his life and challenging his peers to live with excellence. He has set ambitious goals for himself which will require significant focus and effort. His communication skills, while still in development, are ahead of most of his contemporaries. It is easy to look at this young man and conclude, “There is hope for the next generation because they will be led by individuals like this.” But, he is distracted by recent events. His parents got divorced which has him thinking, “Does this happen to everyone in my family? My grandparents are both on second marriages and now my parents are done. Is this going to happen to me also?” To be sure, he has the drive and raw talent to change the pattern in his life but he is wrestling to find the hope that he can actually do things differently.
His story, of course, is not unique. Many young people are dealing with their parents’ divorce. Spouses are wondering what happened to the loving, cooperative relationship we once had and will we ever get it back? Qualified individuals are struggling to find work. Hard working couples are finding it difficult to keep up with their bills. Some people have been through horrendous experiences that have left deep emotional scars that make it hard to trust. Still others are living in conditions that no human should have to endure. The one thing we all have in common is we need hope. We need to know that better days are coming.
God has always known this so He sprinkled promises of hope throughout the Bible. In Isaiah 11 and 12 we encounter a repeated phrase designed to remind all of us that hope is always alive. The phrase is “in that day.” It is a reference to the day when Jesus sets up His kingdom on earth and changes everything about life. In this passage, the phrase reminds us:
• We are going to be governed by a great leader. (Isaiah 11:10) “the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples.”
• We will live without personal turmoil. (Isaiah 12:1-2) “Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away . . . the LORD himself is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.”
• We will celebrate because we have been set free. (Isaiah 12:3-6) “In that day you will say . . . Give praise to the LORD . . . Sing to the LORD . . . Shout aloud . . . for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.”
God’s goal is to give people hope so they do not lose heart.
Jesus, remind me of your promises today. Let the knowledge that I am secure for eternity keep my heart vibrant, my motivation steady and my convictions active.

C2C

I get in a lot of conversations with people who are dealing with chaos. I believe I get in these discussions because it so common that it affects all of our lives. The chaotic behavior comes in two forms. The first is from the initiator. If you know your Bible at all, you know that people are not right. Our natures are corrupt and we tend toward self-centered and self-destructive choices. The easiest trait to develop in someone is selfishness. As a result, people regularly do things that just don’t make sense. Consider just a few examples of the kinds of things people passionately do that defy logic:
• We get intensely mad at the people we love the most.
• We yell at our kids not to yell at us.
• We spend money we don’t have.
• We use alcohol and drugs to either lower stress or hide from the real world.
• We get defensive when the people who care about us the most try to help us get better.
• We try to control the behavior and decisions of others.
Some of these things are bad but some are well-intentioned and noble. The problem is that none of them matches the way God created life.
The second kind of chaos comes from the responders. It is undeniable that people do hurtful, unhealthy and unproductive things. Unfortunately, it is common for those affected by the unhealthy decisions to respond just as chaotically. Consider just a few of the responses that likewise don’t make sense intellectually:
• We present rational arguments for why people should not act irrationally.
• We negotiate with people who are not thinking clearly.
• We ask, “What can I do to change this person’s behavior.”
• We spend lots of time pointing out how wrong the other person’s choices are.
• We dwell on the type of lifestyle the other person ought to be following.
As a result, we become just as chaotic in our thinking, emotional reactions, lack of personal growth and expended energy as the person we are upset with.
If we are to be victorious, we must move from chaotic to constructive (C2C). The key question for us becomes, “Regardless of circumstances and the choices of others, what type of person do I want to be?” Paul emphasized this approach to life in Ephesians 4:1, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” We have received a life of peace, patience, gentleness, humility, unity, power, faith, intimacy with God, willing sacrifice, reliance on truth and inexhaustible love. The eternal, infinite God deposited His life in us through the presence of the Holy Spirit. We literally have the opportunity to live a life beyond our own needs or abilities. The wisdom we need to make constructive choices, the strength we need to give constructive responses, and the hope we need to build a constructive future already reside within us. We just need to trust in it and choose to walk worthy rather than fall into the chaos around us. It is a tough thing to do but so is walking in chaos!

The Right Relationships

We all have role models. Whether we can formally identify who they are or say to others, “I want to be like that person,” we are all patterning our personal decisions, interactions, and convictions after others with whom we have significant contact. To be sure, we are individuals with unique characteristics but we have developed that uniqueness by borrowing from others.
I decided early in my adult life that one of the people I should add to my list of role models is Jesus. It seemed like a strange thought at first because He is so much better, so much smarter, and so much more powerful than I could ever hope to be. He did, however, live a human life. He experienced hunger and friendship and family. He also said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15) The context is specifically regarding serving others since He just washed their feet but the principle applies to all of life.
One of the characteristics of Jesus I want to emulate in my life is having right relationships. In Isaiah 11:2, we see that Jesus has authority partly because He strategically relates to the most important aspects of life. As I follow Him, it is my goal to develop these also:
Right relationship with my decisions: “The Spirit of wisdom and of understanding [will rest on him].” I make so many decisions every day I take them for granted. I have choices about what I will wear, what I will eat, how I will organize my day, how I exercise, what my attitude will be from moment to moment, what step I will take in personal development, and so on. A friend of mine is known for consistently repeating the phrase, “We make our choices and our choices make us.” Each of these decisions goes much better if I have wisdom and understanding to know both what I should and how I should do it.
Right relationship with others: “The Spirit of counsel and of might [will rest on him].” Every relationship on earth is flawed since it is the interaction of two imperfect people. Sometimes human relationships need a soft touch of grace, patience, and humility. People need time to grow and freedom to operate with their imperfections. At other times, relationships need leverage and confrontation. People can be stubborn, unwilling, or blind to what they are doing and need to be confronted with “might.” It is not easy to figure out but it makes all the difference when you get it right.
Right relationship with God: “The Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD [will rest on him].” God is more than an idea, more than a religious notion, and more than a passive Creator. He is a living, thinking, feeling person. To be sure, He is way beyond us in all categories but He set up life so that we could interact with Him. It takes knowledge to get it right. There is so much about God that we will never figure out on our own. It requires us seeking Him and Him responding with revelation for us to discover the truth about His majesty, power, presence, wisdom, eternal nature, love, etc. Because He is infinite, there is no end to everything about Him. Relating to Him, therefore, always involves discovery. It also takes reverence to get it right. Amazingly, God created a way for us to be adopted family members and friends with Him. It is not an equal partnership, however. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and one day “every knee [will] bow . . . and every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2:10-11)
Jesus, give us grace this week to have the kind of relationships with our decisions, with others and with God the Father that you had when you walked this earth.

Respectfully Busy

Timothy was a talented, committed young man. He showed great promise in the area of being a pastor so the apostle Paul invested time, energy and personal capital to help him succeed. In 1 Timothy 5, Paul reminds his protégé that being busy is a good thing.
His advice is based on two universal principles. The first is that people deserve to be treated with respect. The second is that your life works best when you take personal responsibility for yourself and those you love. Paul broke down the relationships of Timothy’s life into natural family categories (v. 1-2) Older men are to be treated as if they are our fathers. Younger men are to be treated as if they are our brothers. Older women are to be treated as if they are our mothers. Younger women are to be treated as if they are our sisters. The common denominator in all these cases is respect. I am not naïve about the world we live in so I know there is a lot of chaos in families. Parents and siblings mistreat the ones they love the most on a regular basis. As a result, most of us have some recovery work to do so that we live constructive lives rather than repeat the chaos of our pasts. It doesn’t change the fact that it is normal to treat our family members with respect.
I am celebrating my mom’s 82nd birthday this weekend because it is the respectful thing to do. I have to travel to see them so it will make my weekend busier than it would normally be but it is the right thing to do. While I am there, I will visit with my older sister who lives in Boston. The celebration will likewise make her life busier than it would normally be but there is no hesitation on our parts because we want to show our parents the respect they deserve.
Paul then ventures into the priority of personal responsibility. The context for the discussion is widows who are associated with the church. In their day, it was difficult, and sometimes impossible, for a widow to produce an income. In compassion, the church developed a habit of looking after the needs of this precious group of individuals. The “program” only worked right when everyone involved took personal responsibility. If the woman had kids or grandkids, they were challenged to take care of her first (v. 4). Paul does not just present this as an option because he sees it as a social and spiritual obligation. “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (v. 8 ) Paul knew that family is the best place to take care of family and when the family breaks down, the church and society absorb an unsustainable burden.
Paul then turns his attention to the widows themselves. He, first of all, challenges them to decide if they want to be widows. In order to be supported by the church they had to commit to put “her hope in God and continue night and day to pray and to ask God for help.” (v. 6) There is also an implication that she will remain single the rest of her life and serve the church community. (v. 6, 10) Should she decide to let the church take care of her personal needs, she will in turn, demonstrate her dedication by “showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.” (v. 10). If she is not willing to adopt this kind of lifestyle, she ought to pursue getting married again.
The point of all this is that showing respect to others and adopting a conviction of personal responsibility means I will be appropriately busy for the rest of my life. There is a lot of discussion today of being too busy. I don’t know about you but I like being busy. I just like being busy with things that have purpose rather than frantically trying to find fulfillment in trivial pursuits.

Subtle Servanthood

One of the great concepts of Christian living is servanthood. “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11) It sounds good and noble but it has some rough implications. Servants respond to the initiative of their masters. Servants live for the good of other people. Servants make sacrifices that benefit others. I get reminded of the reality of being a servant whenever I read about the nation of Israel. God initiated the idea of a nation in direct relationship with Himself because He wanted to show the rest of the world how He applies His grace to people’s lives, how he upholds a standard of righteousness that leads to healthy living, and how He parents His children. He blessed the nation so other nations would see the advantage of knowing their Creator and humbly seeking Him. He disciplined the nation so other nations would realize they were accountable to a just God.
A great example is found in Jeremiah 7. The nation of Israel is in a season of apathy. They are going through the motions but they lack fervor, faithfulness, and moral fortitude. “Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place.” (v. 3) The implication is that Israel can either repent, be restored and remain in the land God has set apart for them or they are going to be sent into exile.
God sent Jeremiah to be a bold messenger of God’s justice and mercy because He would rather have a kind and gentle relationship with them than discipline them as a Father. It is clear that God’s motivation is to create an example for others by the list of actions he wanted His people to take in verses 5-6:
• Deal with each other justly.
• Do not oppress the foreigner.
• [Do not oppress] the fatherless or the widow.
• Do not shed innocent blood in this place.
• Do not follow other gods to your own harm.
Three of the five directives involve influence on other people’s lives rather than meeting personal needs.
As I consider this, I cannot escape the conclusion that much of what I go through in life is not personal. I told God years ago that I wanted to be a servant of His. I didn’t know all that was involved in that commitment but I sincerely meant it. I have since learned that God takes His servants through many experiences so that later on we can relate to others who have been through similar experiences. Many of the hardships, corrections, challenges, and blessings are there as training. They are not in response to anything we have or haven’t done.
If you are like me, this is a tough principle to grasp. I easily get introspective and conclude the setbacks of my life must be based on a lack of talent, perspective or maturity. To be sure, I make my share of mistakes so sometimes I earn the right to be disciplined but it is often not the case. I intellectually accept that God is working to equip me to help others in the future so I have started praying differently. “Jesus, I am going to assume that challenges in my life are for the purpose of training and they are for the benefit of others. Give me the wisdom to recognize when the hard things in my life are truly about my behavior or attitude. Also, give me the willingness to have my life be an example to others of your justice and grace.”