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The Remarkable Power That Transforms Lives

This is a story about a man who was struck by a power that changed the whole course of his life, a man called Joe. Joe grew up in Kingsport, and he and all his buddies worked shift work at Eastman. He had a comfortable job and a comfortable life.

But something happened to Joe, something he didn’t expect. And although he never went past high school, never had any other formal training, within a few years he was speaking to thousands, writing books, traveling internationally, and leading a large organization. What was this one remarkable thing that happened to Joe?

Before we look at this one remarkable thing, let’s rearrange our story a little. “Joe” actually didn’t grow up in Kingsport, he grew up 2000 years ago along the Sea of Galilee. And Joe’s shift work wasn’t at a factory, it was out on the lake in a fishing boat. And Joe’s name wasn’t “Joe”– it was Simon Bar-Jonah. And this ordinary fisherman, who became known as Peter, had his life completely transformed through one remarkable thing: faith in Jesus.

Faith in Jesus took an ordinary man and transformed his whole life, and through that transformed life Peter helped change the world. Faith in Jesus can take our lives and transform us to make a difference in our worlds too.

An Unpromising Start

Peter’s start with Jesus didn’t look all that promising to the outside eye. The first time he was with Jesus the two words that best described Peter would have been “fearful” and “unworthy.” (see Luke 5:1-11) But God’s ways are often not our ways, and the potential that God can see in a person is often far greater than what they can see in themselves. Jesus could see greatness in Peter, greatness that Peter could not see in himself, and Jesus knew that faith was the key to unlocking that greatness that lay within. And so Jesus struck back at his fear by telling him not to be afraid, and struck back at his feelings of unworthiness by inviting him to follow Him.

But Peter was not alone in having a rather unpromising start. If you look at the story of Moses, in his first encounter with God he desperately tries to convince Him to send someone else. Gideon kept asking God “Are you sure You’ve got the right man?” The bottom line is that it matters not to God who you think you are, or what you think your limits are. Through faith God knows your life can be transformed into something extraordinary.

Faith Transforms Us to See Jesus

The Bible records three great ways that faith transformed Peter’s life. Faith transformed Peter to see Jesus as the Christ, to trust Jesus in every circumstance, and to be faithful to Jesus in every trial. In Matthew 16:13-18 we see how faith transformed Peter to see Jesus:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Let’s look at three lessons that this passage teaches us about faith. First, the passage teaches that seeing Jesus as Christ is the rock of our faith– the foundational transformation of faith. Jesus refers to this realization that He is the Christ as the rock that he would build his church on– the foundation that would withstand any storm or attack, the foundation that all the rest of the Christian life is built upon.

Second, faith is spiritual certainty. Look how although Peter accepted that Jesus is the Christ by faith, it wasn’t a leap of faith or a blind faith. No, Peter KNEW, he knew more surely than anything he had every known before– he was committed to that truth, he would later die for that truth. And that’s what genuine God-given faith is, it’s spiritual sight. When Paul says in 2 Cor 5:7 that we walk by faith, not by sight, he didn’t mean we walked in blindness, or in optimism “Well I sure hope that Jesus is the Son of God and He died for my sins.” No, no, a thousand times no! Faith is certainty, faith is truth, faith is reality, as Hebrews 11:1 states, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is spiritual certainty.

Third, see how faith is the gift of God. How humbling this is, both for Peter and for us. Look at Peter. Here was a man who lived with Jesus, walked with Jesus, heard Him teach, saw Him heal the sick, raise the dead. If any man could ever come to know who Jesus was by his own devices it was Peter, and yet Jesus tells Peter that even all his experience as a disciple could not reveal to him that his rabbi was the Son of God. Only through the gift of the Father could Peter be transformed by faith to see Jesus as Christ, and only through the blessing of the Father can you and I be transformed by faith to see Jesus as Christ.

Faith Transforms Us to Trust Jesus

The next passage from Peter’s life of faith we’ll examine is from Matthew 14:22-33:

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

In this passage we see that faith transformed Peter to trust Jesus in any circumstance. Here again, let’s draw out three truths regarding how faith transformed Peter, and transforms us to trust Jesus.

First, faith has the opportunity to transform us when all we have is faith. When it’s bright and sunny and everything’s going great there’s no need for faith. Why did Jesus say that it was harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven? Entering into the kingdom of heaven requires giving over all your life to trusting Jesus by faith, and humanly speaking many rich people don’t have a need to give over their life to anyone— they can take care of themselves just fine, thank you. But when the wind and the waves start blowing, and we desperately look around for anything to steady us, and we see Jesus, then is when faith can work a miracle in us.

Second, trusting Jesus by faith means trusting Him as Lord. This is actually the first time in Matthew that Peter addresses Jesus as “Lord.” It’s actually a great word study to study the situations where people address Jesus as “Lord”— the overwhelming majority of the time it is when they want something out of Him, usually in great distress and desperation. Jesus eagerly waits for us to trust Him, but honestly not just as a friend or the man upstairs, but as Lord.

Third, we can only trust through faith or doubt through unbelief– we cannot do both. Peter found this out in a split second— that the human mind can focus on only one thing— either trust or doubt. It’s like there’s a single parking spot in our soul, and only one vehicle can fit into it at a time. You can park trust in there, or you can park doubt, and it’s your choice. But— the choice you make— trust or doubt— will dictate everything else in your life. Peter chose to trust Jesus, and he was enabled to walk on water. But when he took his eyes off the reality of King Jesus, when he abandoned his spiritual sight and started using his physical sight instead, in an instant he moved trust out of his parking space and moved doubt back in. That is the value of keeping our minds continually attuned to the presence of God, so that our lives can be ruled by faith and trust, not by doubt and unbelief.

Faith Transforms Us to Be Faithful to Jesus

Finally, the life of Peter teaches us that faith can transform us to be faithful to Jesus in every trial. In Luke 22:31-34 we see the prelude to the great stumbling of Peter’s faith, before he denied Him:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.

The Bible has a lot to say about faith and trials. The first principle that we should know is that faith is the answer to every trial. When you’re in a rough time, or even a desperately hard time, it is not knowledge or cunning or strength or any other ability that will enable you to prevail, it is faith. Look carefully at James 1:2-4:

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 clearly sees that it is faith that will see us through any trial, and will result in our soul becoming fully mature.

Second, the Bible shows us that faith transforms us to walk as children of God in any trial. When the way is dark and we can’t see how a trial will end, how will we respond, how will we keep going? That’s what faith is about, about transforming us to keep walking, to keep responding in love, trust, & courage when we can’t see the path. Look at a passage from the life of Paul in Acts 27:21-25:

Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.

Here is Paul, a prisoner on a ship that is in the middle of a fierce storm that has lasted for weeks. Even the captain has no idea of where they are or where land is. But in the midst of this hopeless situation Paul shines as a beacon of light because of his faith. Through faith, we don’t have to respond in fear, despair, anger, or any other negative emotion, through faith we can walk in the light and the life of God.

Finally, the Bible teaches that our faithfulness is guaranteed by God. Just like Peter, we all will stumble in our faith, we will all bitterly disappoint ourselves. But Jesus never gave up on Peter, and he will never give up on us. He calls us all his sheep, and teaches in John 10:27-30 that…

My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father who has given them to me is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.

Jesus prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail (Luke 22:32), and Jesus prays for you and for me. Our faith can never fail because of Jesus.

The Rest of the Story

There is one more passage from Peter’s life worth looking at. As the radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, there is a “rest of the story” for Peter, after the bitterness of his denying Christ. It happens in Acts 5:27-29—

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”

Here Peter is at another trial of the Sanhedrin, the same ruling council that a few years earlier had condemned Jesus to death. But this time Peter is not just an observer, he is the man facing death. And what is his response at this trial? Does he out of fear deny Jesus? No, he leads the rest of the apostles in affirming the truth in courage. Here is the ordinary fisherman, transformed by the power of faith in Jesus, stunning the rulers of his day.

Faith had done its work, transforming Peter to see Jesus as the Christ, to trust Jesus, and to be faithful to Him. This same faith, this same Jesus, can work the same transformation in our lives today. It is all available to us, as we put our faith in Him.

How to Live a Rich Life

How you handle your riches is in many ways the mark of the character and quality of your Christian faith, the measure of your Christianity.  –John MacArthur

Because the way we handle money & possessions is so closely tied to the core of our spiritual lives, the Bible spends a great deal of time explaining how we should handle them. One of the key passages on riches is 1 Timothy 6:17-19(ESV):

As for the rich in this present age, charge (or command) them not to be haughty (or proud), 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.

Here in 1 Timothy Paul is writing to Timothy, his protege who is a young man pastoring the church at Ephesus. Throughout the letter Paul has been giving Timothy specific instructions on a wide variety of topics, both for himself and his congregation. In fact, Paul actually uses the Greek word for “command” five times in this letter, more than in any other letter he wrote.

So, here his last command to Timothy concerns people who are rich. Earlier in the chapter he addresses people who desire to be rich (v. 6-10), but finally he turns his attention to people who aren’t desiring to be rich— they already are!

Ephesus was a prosperous Roman city, and like most cities of the time had people who were both very poor and those who were very rich— who basically did not have to work for a living and had their own slaves. 

Probably the best way to think of how to apply who qualified as “rich” in Paul’s mind is to go back to verses 6-10, where he describes “food and clothing” as what is truly necessary to be content.  Not a house, not a car, not a job, not a phone— just clothes on your back and enough food to eat— those were Paul’s necessities, and for much of his life that is basically all he owned. Anything more he would likely have qualified as “riches.”

Before he gets to his commands to the rich, he takes special effort in verse 17 to point out that these people should realize that they are only rich “in the present age.”  He starts by focusing them on the eternal, and that material wealth or lack of it is only temporary and fleeting. In this he echoes Christ’s teaching of the rich landowner in Luke 12:13-21.

Verses 17-19 are actually one long sentence in the Greek— Paul essentially is saying, “Command the rich 1,2,3,4…” So in verse 17 he gives two commands as warnings, in verse 18 four commands to follow, and verse 19 explains the result of following God’s path.

Paul’s first two commands in verse 17 are warnings to the rich to not allow money to change their heart attitudes. Paul well knew how easily riches corrupt, as did Christ when he taught the disciples that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God in Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, & Luke 18:25. 

Paul first warns to not let riches make a person proud. Pride is a wrong heart attitude towards people, and having riches will easily enflame our heart to look down on others. Instead, the Bible encourages the heart attitude of humility and treating all equally, as in James 2.

Second, Paul warns to not put hope in riches.  This is a wrong heart attitude towards things, again illustrated by Jesus in the story of the rich landowner. He contrasts the uncertainty of riches with the certainty of putting our hope in a good and loving God, who provides us all things that we need to enjoy. (see also Matthew 7:11 & James 1:17)  Instead of trusting in riches, the Bible tells us to have the heart attitude of deep trust & gratitude towards God.

Next, Paul gives a series of positive commands, different ways those who are rich can lead a truly “rich” life in the Kingdom of God. He enjoins them to do good, then amplifies that by making a play on words, telling them “to be rich” in good works. The Greek word “to be rich” here is the exact same one used earlier in the chapter in verse 9 when Paul was warning people NOT to desire “to be rich” in material things.  He then asks them to be generous givers, and to share with others.

In verse 19 Paul concludes by explaining that in heeding his commands the rich will lay up treasures that will be a good foundation for their eternal future. The Greek word here for foundation is the same one that Christ used in the Sermon on the Mount in his parable of the two men who built on the two foundations. By avoiding pride, by trusting only in God, by doing good, by sharing, by giving, we lay hold of what is truly life. This is a forceful grasping in the Greek— the same word that described Jesus grabbing Peter out of the sea when he was drowning. 

So what is this “life that is truly life” that we should grab & hold on for dear life? It is life in the Kingdom of God, alive with the presence and joy of Jesus. As we follow Jesus, as we lead generous lives, our hearts and our lives become transformed. Even though it sometimes seems more difficult than passing a camel through a needle’s eye, through the grace of God we can lead this life. Through Paul’s instructions we clearly see the pitfalls we must avoid and the path we must follow. All we have to do is follow Jesus & walk with Him in His Kingdom. This is the way to lead a truly rich life.

I’m Glad the Bible Isn’t Photoshopped

There has been much written about the scourge of Photoshop, the program that enhances nearly every photo we see in magazines and on the net. Every blemish, every wart gone. No fat from that Christmas candy. Every muscle perfectly toned from hours of disciplined exercise, oh, sorry, every muscle perfectly toned from a few clicks of a mouse. 
 
With the right computer program, you can even generate a completely artificial computer perfection. The face at right is constructed from the best features of 22 different beauty pageant contestants. She’s not just beautiful, she is actually more beautiful than any real human face is physically capable of being.  
 
The danger of Photoshop is obvious: we see this unrealistic unattainable beauty, and then we start comparing it to the real people in our lives. Not suprisingly, the real people always come up short. No one can live up to the dazzling standard of perfection that Photoshop gives us. 
 
But the danger extends beyond photographs: we are also exposed to “Photoshopped” lives as well. We watch movie romances where the men and women respond perfectly to each other, or if there is any conflict it is perfectly orchestrated to work itself out within an hour of screen time. At the end, the leading man or leading woman says and does everything just right, and everyone smiles and sighs, “Why isn’t my life like that?” If not romance, we see the team win the big game, the family work out all their differences, the girl get her big break. We subconsciously question why we can’t have a perfect life since we see ones lived out before our eyes on a screen or in the pages of a book. 
 
But there’s one book that isn’t Photoshopped at all, and I’m very thankful for it. It’s the Bible. All of its people are real, with real joys, real struggles, real failures, real hope. We see where a truly good king can become so lost and entangled he commits murder. We see where the strongest man in the world cannot control himself, becomes a blind slave, and yet finally sees the light in the end. We see how a man who truly loved Jesus denied him, but later died for him. 
 
The Bible shows us that people, all people, are human. That there is selfishness pettiness & foolishness in us all. And that God’s love & grace extend to us all, and can work miracles. 
 
Most of all, we see that there was one man who did not need to be Photoshopped, who the Bible could present in every detail of his life to be human, and yet beyond human in his perfect love & strength & wisdom. We can gaze on the perfect image of Christ, and realize with hope & joy that through God’s grace He is transforming us too into His likeness.  

The Pillars & Planks of the Man of God

The time was September 2002. My oldest son Andrew had just turned nine, and I was amazed at how fast the time had passed. I remembered that day in 1994 when I first held him in my hands. I was overcome with a profound sense of the responsibility of having this tiny life in my hands, both in a literal sense and in a sense of the responsibility of guiding the life of his soul. I remembered feeling totally inadequate to the task, and asking God for His grace.

Nine years later, I again felt keenly in need of God’s grace. No, there was no major crisis, but I saw how that tiny baby that it seemed like just yesterday I was cradling in my hands was now a cub scout, and I saw how this boy would soon grow into a man. I looked around and thought how little this world and this culture would be a positive influence on his journey into manhood, and how it was my responsibility, more than any other person, to be a mentor, example, and guide to him.

The boy would soon be a man, I thought. But that realization begat the question, what is a man? What defines manhood? How does God define it? What are the values that will allow a man to look back at the end of his life with a sense of deep & lasting satisfaction, and what will cause the heart of God to speak over his life, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased?”

I wanted to give my son some guideposts, some markers along the way that would be faithful & true. And so I turned to the Scriptures, and saw three vertical pillars that define the relationship between a man and his God, and fourteen horizontal planks that characterize a life well lived. These pillars and planks can describe the lives of both men & women of God, but I wrote them originally for my son, and set them in a frame that hung as a daily reminder in his bedroom.

The first of the three pillars that I chose was that a man enjoys God with all his heart. Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself also in the Lord,” and yet so few people structure their lives around that command. It is so easy to slip into a mere religion of rules and end up delighting in religion itself like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, or adopting today’s materialistic mindset that adds God as a once a week afterthought to a life really focused on the things of this world. I wanted my son to steer a true course between both of those errors first and foremost.

The second pillar posted on his bedroom wall stated that a man depends on God for all his needs. I wanted to cultivate in him a constant gaze toward God, meditating on Philippians 4:19, “And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” I knew that if he always looked to God, God would never fail him.

The final pillar I gave to him was that a man glorifies God with all his life. Looking to the Westminster Confession and to Paul’s command that, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God,” ( 1 Corinithians 10:31 ) I did not want him to fall into the trap of dividing his life between the secular and the sacred. I didn’t want him to ever think that God would consider it acceptable to give a mere portion of his time, talent, & treasure to the Kingdom. No, I wanted him to see all of life as a marvelous quest to enjoy God, depend on God, & glorify God.

With these pillars firmly set, I next outlined the “planks”– the values that characterize the man of God. I first reminded him that a man was passionate–that he loves God and loves life with all his heart. A life not driven by passion is a life that accomplishes nothing. I wanted the first commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” ( Matthew 22:37 ) to be more than just words to him, but the life blood of his own heart.

Next I wrote that a man was selflesshe shows God’s love to others. Jesus in John 13:34 gave us a “new” commandment to love one another. What was new about the love Jesus commanded? His love was a selfless, sacrificial, divine love, the love that He himself showed to us. I wanted to pass on that challenge to my son, to let his life be characterized by selfless Christlike love.

The third plank was that a man needs to be humble. I defined a humble man as one who knows he needs God, who admits when he’s wrong, and who isn’t proud when he’s right. Humility begins with the realization of who I am in relation to who God is. Humility demonstrates itself day to day by accepting responsibility in the face of failure, and avoiding pride in the face of victory. As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 5:5, the man who can consistently live out humility is the one who gets much grace from God.

But in his humility a man also needs to show that he is brave. The definition I wrote was that a brave man is committed to do what’s right whatever the sacrifice, for he knows that God is faithful.  I crafted each word to clearly define what a God-honoring bravery is: it takes commitment, it must be in the service of what’s right, it must be prepared to pay the price, and it must have as its foundation the faithfulness of God toward His people.

Another essential quality I saw was being thankful: to know God’s love is behind every blessing & every trial. The Bible warns of both flavors of ingratitude– that of the man in plenty who forgets God, and the man in want who blames God. Every man experiences times of both want & plenty, and I wanted my son to be prepared to obey the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to give thanks in everything.

The sixth plank in my list was for him to be committed to being honestalways telling the truth no matter what. Telling less than the truth is always the easy way out of a difficult situation, but it is never the right way. As a memory verse I wrote down Proverbs 12:22– Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal truthfully are His delight.

I next wrote that the man of God is a holy man, in that he lives as a temple of the Holy Spirit, as 1 Corinthians 6:19 teaches. The concept of personal holiness is so often misunderstood & even mocked, both within & without the church. I wanted Andrew to see the Biblical view of holiness, as being honored, chosen, and set apart for God’s use.

I also wanted him to learn the true way to be strong– that supernatural strength is found in following God. The prophet Isaiah gave us this secret of the true source of strength thousands of years ago when he wrote,

He gives power to the weak,
And to those who have no might He increases strength.
Even the youths shall faint and be weary,
And the young men shall utterly fall,
But those who wait on the Lord
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint. ( Isaiah 40:29-31 )

A godly man also reflects God’s own character in being faithful– he knows that God expects him to keep his promises. I want my son to one day hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” ( Matthew 25:21 )

In order to be faithful, a man must be hard-working– knowing the opportunity to use all his might for God’s glory is an honor and a pleasure. I most certainly did not want him sprawled across my couch at age 29 playing video games. I wanted his life to demonstrate 1 Corinthians 15:58 with him “always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that (his) labor is not in vain in the Lord.”

I longed to see him grow up to be wiseseeing things as things as God does, as well as patient, seeing God’s timing as perfect. I knew that without patience & wisdom no man will go far.

But with the strength & wisdom & patience, I did not want him to be directionless in life. I wanted him to be a man of purpose– always searching for what God wants him to do. I knew that God never tells us the whole story of our life, but I wanted him to always be assured that there was a story that the Father had specifically written for him. I wanted him to know that he could live with the same confidence that Jesus displayed in John 12:49 and know that God had sent him into this world for a specific purpose as well.

Finally, I wanted to sum up all I wanted him to be for God, for his family, and for himself. I chose the word deep. The man who is deep gets that way by committing to grow by knowing himself, the world, and God better each day. By living his life daily by these pillars and planks, he develops into a man of depth who is of inestimable value to God’s Kingdom.

So, eight years later— how is my child who is now a man? Well, at 17 he still has a way to go, but he is on the path. As he continues to learn from God and walk with God, I trust that he will continue to be a son that makes his father proud. For that matter, I hope that we all want to live by the same pillars & planks to make our Father proud as well.

Fear (not?)

Fear is something every human has to face, and it all started with one man:

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

This first instance of fear illustrates what fear is: the emotion that grips us when we know something awful is looming ahead.  It may be certain or only a possibility, but the impact on our soul is the same. It may cause us to feel frozen or to run in terror, but the power of fear can overwhelm all of us.

Adam may have been the first person to feel fear, but he certainly wasn’t the last.  The first pages of the Bible are littered with fear of every kind and shape.  In Genesis 18:15 Sarah is afraid that a stray comment she says to two visitors might show her foolish.  In Genesis 19:30 Lot, who had just been personally rescued by the angels of God from utter destruction, is so afraid of strangers that he decides to live alone in a cave.  In Genesis 20:8 the men of Abimelech are afraid of God’s judgment.  In Genesis 26:7 Issac lies because he is afraid that the men of Gerar might kill him.  Jacob, on the other hand, seems to live his whole life in fear: he is afraid of God in Genesis 28, afraid of Laban in Genesis 31, afraid of Esau is Genesis 32, and afraid of the ruler of Egypt, who we know turns out to be his lost son Joseph, in Genesis 42.

But all is not fear in Genesis.  There is another voice to be heard.  A single voice which keeps speaking out against fear, and bringing comfort to the hearts of men.  It is the voice of God.

In Genesis 15:1 Abram is living  in a strange and hostile land, and God tells him, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  In Genesis 19:30 Hagar is in the desert about to see her son die from thirst, and God directs an angel to say, “Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is… I will make him into a great nation.”  In Genesis 26:24 Issac is afraid of a hostile army and God proclaims, “I am the God of Abraham your father. Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake.”  And God reassures fearful Jacob at the end of his days by saying, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation.” (Genesis 46:3)

God and only God was able to say, “Fear not…” to all of these people, because only God has infinite knowledge to know the future, infinite power to change the future, and infinite love to craft the future so that His children are preserved.  From Abram to Israel, these men & women of old were able to trust what God said because they knew who God was.

What about you?  What are you afraid of?  Where in your life do you need to hear God say, “Fear not?”  You may not have the experience of verbally hearing God like Abraham & Issac, but you have the same God, the God Who has revealed Himself in the pages of Scripture as worthy of your trust.  Trust His goodness, trust His character for any & every fear in your life today.

On Flying Pigs and Losing Your Salvation

I had someone email me with a question on what the Bible taught about losing one’s salvation. Of course, I couldn’t think of the question in any ordinary way, and the thought popped into my head, “That’s just like asking about flying pigs!”

“Sweet niblets! How is losing your salvation like flying pigs!?  What was he thinking?”  Hmm….  What I was thinking was: if you haven’t been taught what a pig is, then the question as to whether a pig can fly is a perfectly reasonable one.  But once you really understand what a pig is, you don’t even think to ask the question, because it’s obvious a pig could never fly.

In the same way, many people wonder if a Christian can “lose their salvation”– can stop believing in Jesus or do something evil enough to go to hell.  My answer is that once you thoroughly understand what the Bible teaches about what a Christian really is, then the question becomes meaningless— you know that a Christian by their inherent nature could not possibly lose their salvation.

Unfortunately, many people can spend their whole life going to a church without developing a complete understanding of what being a Christian really means.  Some believe it means that they have “given their heart to Jesus” or that they belong to a church or that they once prayed for God to forgive their sin.  It’s hard to even come up with a good word to use— sometimes we’ll use the terms “Christian” or “born again” or “saved” or “follower of Christ” or “child of God” without stopping to think that each of those terms may mean very different things to different people.

There’s a good reason for the confusion, actually: salvation in Christ is not just one single thing, but many.  Salvation is not just having one’s sins forgiven, is not just being granted eternal life, is not just having a personal relationship with God, is not just being adopted as a child of God, and is not just spending eternity with God— it is ALL of those things and many more.  God pulls out all the stops and pours on the blessings when he saves a soul. (You can find my chart of the major aspects of salvation here.)

But of all the different facets of what God does for us in salvation, there is one that often gets pushed to the side in our thinking, that of regeneration.  Regeneration is the theological term for what Jesus referred to as being born again in John chapter 3.  It is God bringing our souls from spiritual death to spiritual life (Ephesians 2:5).  Theologian J. I. Packer states, “The regenerate man has forever ceased to be the man he was; his old life is over and a new life has begun; he is a new creature in Christ.”   John Piper in his book Finally Alive writes:

What happens in the new birth is not getting new religion but getting new life. What happens in the new birth is not merely affirming the supernatural in Jesus but experiencing the supernatural in yourself. What happens in the new birth is not the improvement of your old human nature but the creation of a new human nature— a nature that is really you, and is forgiven and cleansed; and a nature that is really new, and is being formed by the indwelling Spirit of God.

When I study the Bible texts about the new birth, it is abundantly clear that this radical transformation and recreation that God gave to me is irreversible; it cannot be undone anymore than a butterfly cannot return to being a caterpillar.  I am now spiritually alive:  nothing that I did caused it (Ephesians 2:9) and nothing that I do or don’t do can un-cause it.  By its very nature it is a glorious eternal change; there is no way it can be “lost.”  Praise God, pigs can never fly, and I can never lose my salvation.

What Scale Are You Using?

 

Every day, you use a scale.

No, not two metal bowls that you put items in, but rather a scale in your heart.

It’s the  scale that determines whether you are happy or sad, content or frustrated.

It’s the scale of what matters to you.

Think about it: How are you feeling, right now?  Are you happy?  Are you sad? What emotion do you have?

Ok, now consider this: why are you feeling this way?  If you’re happy, why are you happy now, and not sad?  Why are you frustrated, and not content?

It’s because that you’ve weighed your life in your scale of what matters, looked at the result, and said to yourself, “Ah, life is good, I am happy” or “Crap, life stinks, I feel bad.”

What’s Your Scale?

So the real question is: What scale are you using?  How are you determining whether life is good or life is bad?

This is a vitally important question.  The scale you are using will determine the life that you live, but often we live on “automatic pilot”— we  don’t consciously think about what scale we are using in the back of our minds, and so we careen from one emotion to the next without realizing what is causing us to feel happy or sad.

To make things even more complicated, we usually are switching back and forth between multiple scales.  We might start the day using the scale of success, how we are doing in our job or if we feel fulfilled in it.  We might look in the mirror & use the scale of our physical body, how fit or healthy or attractive we are.  We think about our last conversation and use our scale of relationships, how well we are liked or whether the people in our lives are meeting our needs.  We see a sporty car at a stop light & start using the scale of money and material possessions.  On & on it goes: we have so many different scales of what can make us happy to choose from.

But there’s actually the key: we have the ability to choose the scale. We aren’t locked in to using the scale we use now, or the scale that our parents or friends or the rest of society use.  We have the freedom to choose which scale we use each day.  Which brings us to the obvious question:  What scale should we choose?  What scale will bring us the greatest lasting joy?

A Scale Without Fail

Let’s look at the example of one person who was filled with joy & contentment no matter kind of day he was having: Saint Paul.  Some of his most famous words are in his letter to the Philippians:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. (Philippians 4:11-12)

This letter is sometimes referred to as Paul’s “joy” letter, because there are a dozen references to joy and rejoicing in the letter, even though it was written while he was in a Roman prison.

So what was Paul’s secret to maintaining joy and contentment no matter what his circumstances?  Obviously he wasn’t using the scale of success or material possessions.  He couldn’t have even been using a scale of being free or having a full stomach.

To discover Paul’s scale of what mattered to him we just need to turn a few pages back to Chapter 3:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…

Paul had only one scale:  his union with Christ.  That’s all that he needed, and he consciously chose to abandon every other scale he had (“whatever gain I had, I counted as loss”).  He had a position of great social, academic, and political power, leading a lifestyle of privilege, and he gave it all up to “know Christ and the power of His resurrection.” (verse 10)

Why Christ?

Why did he do that?  Why did he bank all of his happiness on the one scale of union with Christ?  The simple explanation is that CHRIST WAS WORTH IT.  Life with Christ far outweighed any other possible joy in Paul’s life.  He was an example of the parable which Jesus taught in Matthew 13:44-6–

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.  “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

Jesus said union with Him, life in the kingdom of heaven, is so precious that the person who realizes its worth will in joy be willing to give up everything else in his life to have it.

One Final Question

Which leaves us with one final question:  Do you put Christ in your scale?  Is He your hidden treasure?  Is He your pearl of great price, which you would gladly sell all your possessions to have?

If He is, then you have a foundation of joy that can never be shaken, for your union with Christ can never be broken.  As Paul wrote in Romans 8:35-39–

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If we are always focusing the scale of our heart on Christ, we can always feel content and joyful regardless of other circumstances.  May we pray daily for God to turn our hearts to be wholly focused on Him.

Three Steps to Heal a Wounded Heart

broken heart by CarbonNYC via Flickr

We All Have Wounded Hearts—

Whenever two people are in contact, they will end up wounding each other.  That’s the inevitable result of imperfect people living in an imperfect world. Doesn’t matter how much they love each other or how careful, kind, & considerate they are; the time will come when pain will be inflicted.

Sometimes the wound is trivial; sometimes it is devastating.  The wound can be a one-time injury or it may be repeated daily, growing deeper & more painful over months & years.  It can come from the hand of a casual acquaintance or from the person who means the world to them.

Regardless of the source or the severity, what we all end up with are wounded hearts.  Whether it’s a little wound easily ignored, or one that feels like our whole chest has been ripped open, we know that it needs to be healed. 

The question is, how?  How do you heal a wounded heart?

What We Usually Try Doesn’t Work

We all try to do our best to answer that question for ourselves, but we usually don’t do such a hot job of healing our hearts.  Often, we end up just trying to stop the pain for a while and think that we are healing the wound.  So we use addictions, whether of food or drink or drugs or sex.  Or maybe we will try to plug up the hole with success or shopping or other “stuff.” Others will turn to anger or revenge to try and seal over the wound. None of these patches last, and all of them end up wounding the heart in even deeper ways.

But what does work?  What will bring true & lasting healing to a wounded heart?  I have found there needs to be three steps to fully close the wound and fully heal the heart.  They all need to be done, and they need to be done in order.  With these three steps, I can guarantee that any heart can be healed of even the deepest wound.

Simple, But Not Easy

The three steps are simple, but they are not easy.  If they were, then doubtless we wouldn’t be struggling so often with a wounded heart, would we?  Because it is not easy to heal a wounded heart, there are two prerequisites, two things that you must have before you can walk the path of healing:

The first thing we need is humility.  Without humility, you cannot take even the first step to healing a wounded heart. But as anyone whose heart has been wounded knows, humility is very hard to come by when you’ve been wronged and you’re hurting.  It’s the exact opposite of what our heart naturally seeks when wounded. 

“Why should I be humble?  I’m the one who was wronged, I’m the one who is hurting, I’m the one whose life is a mess!  Look at me!”  All of those reasons sound, well, reasonable, but unfortunately they’re all wrong.  No spiritual problem can be solved when the heart is gripped by pride.  That’s why Jesus started the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)  We must allow our heart to be humble, even in its woundedness, before healing can begin.

The second prerequisite for healing a wounded heart is Jesus. Honestly, you can read all the books, go to all the seminars, and meet with all the counselors you can find, but until you fall down at the feet of the Healer from Nazareth, your heart can never be whole.  Jesus Himself told us that his mission on earth was to heal the brokenhearted (Luke 4:18 NKJV).  Only the Spirit of Christ can give you the strength to follow the three steps.  You must be willing to go to Him & trust Him with your wounded heart.

First Step: Forgive

The first step to heal a wounded heart is to forgive.  Yes, it doesn’t sound fair.  But it is true.  Until your heart is filled with true, pure forgiveness, it will never heal.  Never.

I won’t pretend this is an easy step.  If the hurt is deep, it’s not easy at all.  But it’s necessary. You cannot make any progress at all in healing your heart until you forgive the hurt that has been done to you.  That’s why Jesus taught his disciples over & over the importance of forgiveness.  Whether He was in prayer (Matthew 6:12) or in parables (Matthew 18:21-35), Jesus focused on forgiveness.

If you think, “I just can’t forgive this…” then know that if you are a child of God you can forgive, for you can have the mind of Christ. He can help you forgive even the worst of sins against you.  He is our strength & our example, for He forgave those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34).  Pray for the Lord to grant you a heart of forgiveness.

Second Step: Accept

I wrote about the beauty of acceptance back in 2007.  In that article I outlined the three barriers we face in truly accepting one another:

  1. Lack of Intimacy
  2. Failed Expectations
  3. Hurt From Wrongs

We need forgiveness to get past all these barriers, but our hearts need to grow beyond forgiveness to heartfelt acceptance.  We can look to Jesus as our guide, for He was known for His acceptance of the rich and the poor, the saint & the sinner, the priest and the prostitute.  He accepted all who came to Him (John 6:37).

With the help of humility & the Spirit of Christ, accept the one who wounded you. When your heart can reach out to another’s heart, understand that they are human and flawed just as you are, and forgive their wrongs, then the healing balm of acceptance can further restore your heart.

Final Step: Love

Once we have forgiven and once we accept, then our hearts are free to love.  I know, part of you is saying, “Wait, I just want my wound healed, I just want to feel better, and now you’re telling me to love the person who caused this?”  Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

Our hearts were made to love, and they will never be whole until they wholly love.  Instinctively, we know this to be true.  Jesus taught that it was the greatest commandment (Mark 12:28-34), and He gave us the specific commandment to love one another (John 15:12).

How can we love someone who has wounded us & hurt us, who may even hate us?  Here again, Jesus is our example, for while we were still in rebellion against Him, He loved us enough to die for us (Romans 5:8).  And the Bible promises in Romans 5:5 that we are able to love because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”  Truly, we are able to love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).

A Final Thought

Forgive. Accept. Love.  The three steps of the path of healing, a path that can only be taken girded with humility, walking with Jesus.

Jesus can heal our hearts & free our hearts to forgive, to accept, & to love.  As God heals your heart’s wounds may you grow to embrace and rejoice in the following words from 1 John 4:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God….

God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another… if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us…

We love because He first loved us.

How Is Your Faith Tested?

two paths by RyanBSchultz via Flickr

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)

 

When you think of your faith being tested, what comes to mind?

Faith that God will heal a loved one?

Faith that God will open a door so you can get a job?

Faith that God will (insert supernatural outcome) to (bad situation I want out of)?

I think there is a problem in always thinking of the “testing of our faith” in this way.  Yes, God is still in the business of doing truly supernatural things, but that’s not how life is day to day.  It’s also important to realize that many times we put our faith in some good outcome we want, but not something that God has actually promised.  If we put our faith in a supernatural outcome that God hasn’t promised to us (that new job, a healed loved one), what happens when the job doesn’t come, or when the loved one dies?  Even in the great faith chapter in Hebrews, it speaks of people being tortured, dying, and even “not receiving what was promised.”

So what is the testing of the faith that James speaks of?   He says we will meet “trials of various kinds”– like we would run into tests of faith all the time.   What kind of tests to our faith would that be?

May I suggest that it the testing that all of God’s people face every day, the test of choosing the narrow gate:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)

Every day we must make choices that test our faith.  Do we make the easy choice of passing by the person in need, or do we take the narrow gate of helping the person who can never repay us?  Do we make the easy choice of looking at that inappropriate internet site knowing that “it’s harmless”— or do we take the narrow gate of having the faith that a life of integrity will be blessed by God?  Do we run that stop sign or be late for that meeting?  Do we speak with love toward the person that hurt us?  Do we put down the right numbers on that income tax form, knowing there would be more money in our pocket if we don’t?  Do we stay in that marriage that we are miserable in, knowing that getting out would make us happier?

All these are tests of faith: tests for us to answer that entering the narrow gate, following the path of a disciple, will be best, even if our fallen reasoning & desires urge us otherwise.  Only by passing these tests day by day will steadfastness be produced in our hearts.  Only by choosing the narrow gate, day after day, will we one day be perfect & complete.

The Faith of a Wife: The Three-Fold Example of Sarah

One of the great Biblical examples of faith is Abraham. Much has been written and spoken about him, and rightly so. Much less has been said of another striking example of faith, the faith of his wife Sarah. Her life of faith was different, and in some ways much harder, than that of her husband. She demonstrated a three-fold faith that is an example for every wife, and for every believer, male or female.

First, Sarah had faith in God’s direction & provision. Hebrews 11:8 says Abraham set out “not knowing where he was going.” Certainly, that took faith on Abraham’s part, but put yourself in Sarah’s sandals. At least Abraham had some type of vision or message from God, but all Sarah had was her new husband telling her, “God told me to go.”  “Where, my husband?” “I don’t know.” “How long will we be gone?” “I don’t know.” “How will we eat and stay alive? Will there be any other people there? Will there be any civilization or laws? Will I ever see my home or family again? Will we lose everything we have or be enslaved or worse?” “I don’t know. God just told me to go.”

Remember, this was before national governments, wikipedia, savings accounts, or any type of long-distance communication. Setting out from your own village literally meant “not knowing where he was going,” with no guarantee at all of what it would be like. Imagine that, and realize the faith Sarah had to have in God. None of us will ever be called to that kind of faith. Even the missionary called to a far off land will know quite a bit about what lies ahead: the people, the geography, the government, his mission board and support team, how he will travel, how he can get out if there is danger.  Sarah knew absolutely nothing: she needed massive faith in God’s direction & provision.

But, Sarah also had to have faith in her husband’s ability. Let’s get real, Sarah: Did your husband really hear from God? Maybe it was his midlife crisis instead, or over zealous optimism, or misdirected desires. If you’re a wife, it can be a scary thing to put your faith in your husband. And what’s scarier is that God has a track record of sometimes leading people through rough seas— the same chapter in Hebrews that lists Abraham & Sarah’s faith also lists people of faith in chains & torture & death.

I don’t think it’s easy for any wife to have faith in her husband, especially when the direction that he is pointing in doesn’t seem to square with where she thinks God would lead. But what is the alternative, when you look from God’s perspective? A godly college student named Ruth was absolutely convinced that God had called her to be a missionary, but her boyfriend didn’t feel that call. How was she to know at the time that her lanky young Billy Graham would one day become the greatest evangelist of the century with her love and support? She had to take it on faith. Another young college student named Noel was engaged to a pre-med major, when he suddenly told her that he wanted to go to seminary instead. Would she search for a more stable, more secure husband, or would she choose to follow & support John Piper so that one day his ministry would put his theological writings in the hands of millions of believers?

Of course, not every case of a woman having faith in her husband has such a happy ending. Sarah’s life wasn’t all roses, either. Abraham stumbled badly at times, even putting Sarah’s life in danger by his foolish decisions. Even the best of husbands is a flawed & sinning human, and the worst of husbands can be much worse. That’s why Sarah, and every other wife, must have faith in God’s sovereignty. This is the hardest kind of faith to have: to believe that God still has a purpose and will still work for His glory and her good in a flawed, even deeply flawed, mate & marriage.

If you are a wife, why not commit to Sarah’s three-fold faith: to have faith in God’s direction & provision through your husband, to have faith in your husband’s ability, and have faith in God’s sovereignty even in your husband’s weakness, failures, & sin.  If you say that you can’t see how you can have that kind of faith with your husband, well, that’s why it’s called faith. You believe it not because of who your husband is, but because of who you know God to be.

If you’re not a wife, you can still look to Sarah’s example of trusting God. Every husband is tempted like Adam to complain to God about “the woman who You gave to be with me.” (Genesis 3:12) Don’t complain— trust God for your mate. Everyone can also apply this faith principle to their friends & church— just because they’re not perfect doesn’t mean you can’t have faith in them & in God working through them.  No matter who you are or what people are in your life, God challenges you to live this three-fold life of faith today.