The Battle: Enemy

I’m sure that you’ve seen the caricatures of the devil, like the one where he is red all over, has a tail, carries a pitchfork, etc. I wish he was that obvious because then his schemes would be easier to recognize and it would be easier not to cooperate with him. Frustratingly, he is crafty and subtle. Some of the names he is given in the New Testament include Satan, devil, tempter, evil one, deceiver, liar, father of lies, thief, accuser, enemy, prince of demons, prince of the power of the air,  and the most frightening to me…he masquerades as an angel of light. (2 Cor. 11:14)  We must be as wise as serpents and gentle as doves. (Mt. 10:16)

Isaiah 14: 12-14 tells us that Satan was a beautiful angel in heaven, but he wanted to elevate himself to the place of being worshipped–he wanted to be enthroned, he wanted to be God, so in an instant, as fast as a lightning strike, he was cast out of heaven to earth.  He still wants our worship.

In Luke 10:18 Jesus tells us that he was a witness to that event, he saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. No doubt, Satan is powerful, but we must always remember that he is not most powerful. God is the almighty One, the all powerful One, and He is who we worship. However, all good warriors know the tactics of their enemy, and Satan most assuredly has a battle plan that we must be aware of.

Pastor John pointed out five pieces of the enemy’s plan for us to look for.

  1. The enemy wants to blind your mind. (2 Cor. 4:4) The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers…  I’ve said this before, and will say it again–I believe followers of Christ can fall into this category. I know there have been times when I’ve doubted God; times that I’ve lost sight of who He is. More than once I have found myself praying the prayer of the father in Mark 9:24 I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief! When we choose doubt, when we choose unbelief, we allow our minds to be blinded, and we cooperate with the scheme of the enemy. Our minds are powerful–it is incredibly important to pay attention to what is going on in that arena. AND it is incredibly important to realize that people who don’t yet know Jesus are blinded. They cannot see. Jesus said that he came to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recover sight for the blind, release the oppressed, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19) We who know Him are the ones carrying out His ministry today. We must recognize that people are blind, pray for their sight, refuse to judge them for acting lost, and enter into their lives with love, compassion, action, and words.

2. The enemy wants to steal God’s word from you (Mt. 13:19) When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. The enemy is actively working against us to make the truths of God’s kingdom hard to remember. That’s why we must invest time and energy into studying, memorizing, and reading God’s word. All scripture is important, but as Christ’s followers I think it’s incredibly important to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John over and over and over again–we have to know our Savior–and the rest of it is then read through the lens of Jesus.  We must take time daily to get God’s word into our livesThe enemy wants it out of our lives…let’s refuse to cooperate.

3. The enemy sets traps. (2 Tim. 2:24-26) And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.  Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance…that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.  I hate acknowledging how many times I’ve fallen for his traps. Any time I take on an us/them mentality or a me/you mentality or an I’m all alone mentality, or a poor pitiful me mentality, I have fallen for the trap. Any time I give in to a temptation, I have fallen for the trap. James 1:14 explains very vividly, using conception and birth language, how this happens: …each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

  1. Satan tempts us according to our own evil desires. It’s personal. What might be tempting for me may not be tempting for you and vice versa.
  2. We follow the temptation, join ourselves–our heart, our soul, our thoughts, our flesh–with it.
  3. We carry the action through to giving birth to sin–doing what we were tempted to do.
  4. If we continue along this path, it leads to death. ( Can be death of relationships, death of purpose, death of dreams, death of unity, many things can die…)

We are never at the mercy of Satan. We can stop the process at any point, we can repent at any point, we can run to Jesus at any point–but we must be aware of the process in order to recognize it when it’s happening.

4. The enemy fights to stop you. (1 Thess. 2:18) For we wanted to come to you—but Satan blocked our way.  We must be aware that when we are on mission with God, the enemy will not make that easy for us. Paul circumvented what the enemy was doing by writing letters…he still got his message to the Thessalonians even though he was unable to get there in person. Roadblocks must not stop us. We have one purpose on this planet, and that is to populate the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus taught us to pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth….deliver us from evil….. If His kingdom is to come on earth, it will come through those of us who call Jesus our Lord and are being transformed to His likeness.  We must recognize the “stop” tactics for what they are and persevere in our mission to love people into the arms of Jesus.

5. The enemy plans to destroy you. (1 Peter 5:8) Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour(John 10:10a) The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy… We are the deeply loved image bearers of God. Satan hates God. Satan hates us. He wants to keep those who don’t yet know the love of the Father from ever knowing it. He wants to keep those of us who do know the love of the Father from being all that God made us to be in Christ therefore rendering us ineffective in kingdom work.

What is our response to his scheme?  James 4:7-8a  Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you…

A couple of things to note in that verse–

  1. Submit means to place yourself under the control of, be subordinate to–So we must place ourselves under the control of God and do life His way.
  2. Every use of the word “you” in these verses is the plural form.
  3. Resist is a military term which indicates that all of the forces on one side are working together to go after the one common enemy–Satan– not against one another. It means every believer in every denomination, in every country, all across the face of the globe– The Church– recognizing that we are on the same team to advance the Kingdom and principles of Jesus and to keep the enemy from gaining any territory. None of us fight the battle alone. When the capital “C” church gets this figured out, it will change the world.

Any time we fall into the trap that our battle is against flesh and blood rather than against our one enemy, we are headed for trouble. Jesus tells us over and over in Matthew 24 that it is possible for his followers to be deceived:

verses 4-5 Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many.

10-11 …many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other,  and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people

24–false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect

We, His children, must pray constantly for the Holy Spirit to reveal to us our blindspots, the areas where we are deceived, the ideologies that we take as “gospel” truth, We must be careful about elevating people and blindly following. We must be careful about following tradition or culture over Truth. Satan masquerades as an angel of light. Not everything that appears good is good. We must be careful about worshiping things other than God–whether it be political figures, nations, policies, news stations, sports teams, celebrities, money, pastors, teachers, authors, spouses, children, work, self, etc. and ask the Lord to open our blind minds to see clearly. We must ask Him to show us who we’ve “othered” and ask Him to help us love them well and remember that we are all on the same team. Our fight is for each other against the one enemy. His word is clear. His kingdom looks like the Sermon on the Mount–(Mt. 5, 6, 7) Do our kingdoms look like that?  Let’s not be afraid to repent, let’s not be afraid to step out of our comfort zones for His name and His glory. Let’s fight the good fight and do this His way. Are you in?

–Luanne

  Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you… (James 4:7-8a)

I love that Luanne broke down James 4:7 and defined the imperatives “submit” and “resist”. I am grateful for the reminder that submission isn’t forced–it’s a choice. We choose what we place ourselves under. And we all place ourselves under something… If that something is anything other than God, we are playing right into our enemy’s hand. It is also vitally important that we know and remember that resist is a plural word. It’s not something we do all alone. And who we resist is never one another–it is always our enemy. His ways, his lying words, his plans… When we stand together in resistance, he flees from us. The Greek word for “flee” in this verse is “pheugo”, which means “to seek safety by flight, escape safely out of danger, to vanish“.

There is one more imperative in these verses out of James: “Come near to God…” And the promise: “…and he will come near to you…” When Pastor John read these verses on Sunday, I knew I wanted to spend some time digging in here. When I looked up root words and definitions for the phrase “come near”, I found some things I didn’t expect. [I love it so much when that happens–it’s another great reason to really spend time in the Word, to dig into this gift of Scripture that we’ve been given and really chew on it–not just the words themselves, but also definitions, connections, and applications for our lives. The Holy Spirit will illuminate the words and enlighten us if we’ll give Him the chance…] 

When I followed the words back to their roots, one definition of the phrase stood out above the others: “to join one thing to another“. One of the examples given was the arms of the oceans… They are joined together so seamlessly that we can’t distinguish where one ends and another begins.

This is our invitation… 

Place ourselves under the control of God. Work together to send our enemy fleeing for safety. And be joined to God. And He will join Himself to us. Seamlessly, intimately–so close that lines of separation are indistinguishable.

This same phrase with the same root words is used by Jesus in Matthew 4:17:

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Through Jesus, the kingdom that He talked at length about in Matthew 5,6,7 which Luanne mentioned above, the kingdom of heaven, has been joined together our earthly experience. It’s not something we wait for on the other side, something that exists once our time on earth is through. The kingdom of heaven is here. Now. Inextricably connected to us and living within those of us who know Jesus.

The usage of “you” in James 4:8 (“…and he will come near to you…”) is the same word used in verse 7. Again, it is not talking to us as individuals. It is plural and it is a call to all of us who follow Jesus as Lord. Verse 7 tells us to collectively place ourselves (as one Church) under the authority of God and to come together to resist our enemy. And verse 8 begins by telling us to then be joined together with our God. It is not a me and my God concept. It is us and our God. All of us who, collectively, make up the bride of Christ.

WE. HAVE. TO. GET. THIS. RIGHT.

We have to stop separating ourselves from each other and living judgmental, critical, individualized lives. We have to stop fighting with each other and understand that the body of Christ is so beautiful because of our differences, not in spite of them. We need each other. If every soldier on the battlefield thought exactly the same way and had the same gifts and set of skills, that army would never be successful. It is necessary that armies engage their battles from all sides, with many different strategies, and from different positions in the field. The same is true fro us. I’ll say it again–we need each other.

Carlos Rodriguez, in his book Drop the Stones, writes these words…

“I am one in heart with every Catholic, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Methodist, and all others in our family who celebrate the name (and the ways) of Jesus Christ… Through us the prayer of Jesus will be answered, ‘That they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.’ [John 17:23] We need our Orthodox family. We need our brothers and sisters in the megachurches. We need the underground church in China as well as our Reformed relatives in America. We need one billion Catholics to join hands together with us in solidarity, in prayer, and in service… I believe that not one of us owns the full expression of the faith we love. And maybe God made it that way so that we would have to come together. To learn from each other. To grow with each other. And to stop calling each other the Antichrist.”

What do you say, Church? What will we choose? Will we continue to see our enemy in other flesh and blood? Or will we embrace that our earthly lives have been joined together with the kingdom of heaven and move together as the collective Church of Jesus against our real enemy? The enemy has a battle plan. He knows it inside and out. James gives us our battle plan, the one that will send our enemy fleeing. Let’s make it our goal to know it, to remember it, and to put it into practice. Together.

–Laura

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Last Words: Pontius Pilate

So far in this series, we have looked at some “last words” from the stories of Peter and Judas. This week, Pontius Pilate was our focus. Pastor Beau took us into the story of Jesus being brought before Pilate, the Roman governor, to be questioned and, ultimately, sentenced. We find this account in Matthew 27:11-26.

Beau has asked us a question in each sermon in this series. The first was, “Who is Jesus to you?” Last week he asked us to consider, “Which Jesus are you pursuing?” This week’s question is “What are you going to do with Jesus?”

This week’s question comes from Matthew 27:22, where Pilate asks the crowd,

“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?”

What Beau pointed us to in this story is Pilate’s indifference, and the danger of becoming indifferent in our own lives. Pilate had his reasons. He was caught between the people he was governing and the authorities he answered to. We know from historical accounts of his life that he was not well thought of. He had made some mistakes professionally regarding how he ruled and was now governing in what the Romans considered a  turbulent area-it was not a desirable assignment. He was being watched by both Rome and the Jews (especially the Jewish leaders) that he governed. He knew he was under a microscope and he was consumed with self-preservation.

Has our own need for self-preservation clouded our decision-making ability at times, too?

Because Pilate was stuck in a place of self-preservation, he couldn’t hear the voices of wisdom around him–even his own. His wife implored him to judge rightly. Verse 19 in Matthew’s account reads like this:

While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him”.  

Pilate didn’t only miss the wisdom of his wife; he also ignored his own voice. We read in verse 18 that “…he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him”. And in verse 23, in response to shouts of “Crucify him!” from the crowd, he tries one last time to get a clear answer when he asks them, “Why? What crime has he committed?”.

Pilate seemed to know that Jesus was innocent from the very beginning of their exchange. And he never moves away from that belief as far as we can see in this account. So why, then, did he still hand Him over to be killed?

As it was last week when we looked at Judas’ story, the events of Jesus’ life and death were prophesied. We know that the prophecies had to be fulfilled. And God, in His sovereignty, knew who would choose to do the betraying, and who would ultimately hand Jesus over to be crucified. But we can’t forget that these men, these characters in the story had free will, just as we do. And there is value in taking a closer look at what motivated them–because, as we saw with Peter and Judas, sometimes the very same things that motivated them can be found within us. 

We talked earlier about Pilate’s indifference to Jesus. Jesus was nobody to Pilate. He didn’t know who He was. So it was easier for him to remain uninvolved, to bend to the will of the crowd. Because his indifference had a partner: fear. Fear is what drove him to be so concerned with self-preservation. And it is the perfect partner for indifference. Verse 24 reads,

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere and that an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” 

This combination of fear and indifference does to all of us exactly what it did to Pilate–it keeps us stuck. And it tells a lie that we readily believe. The lie is that remaining uninvolved absolves us of our guilt. Pilate bought this lie. He counted on it. But choosing not to get involved is always choosing complicity. Pilate, playing on the Jews’ own tradition from Old Testament law (Deuteronomy 21:1-9) tried to wash his hands of Jesus’ blood. But…

We cannot wash our hands of the consequences of our indifference.

And all the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt. 27:25)

The people’s response here, I read it in an eerie tone… It is self-fulfilling prophesy and it is two-fold. Their hands would literally be covered in his blood. The responsibility was on them, the Pharisees, the Roman soldiers who would carry out the details of the crucifixion and also on Pilate, whether he liked it or not. It is also on each one of us, as it was the sin of all that His death paid for. What the crowd didn’t realize they were saying though, is what many of them would come to count on in the future, when the very ones responsible for His death would find life in His Resurrection…  “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” I believe that many of those who were in the crowd on crucifixion day later put their faith in Him as their Risen Savior. And the blood that indicted each one would become the blood that would cover them and set them free. Just as it does for each one of us that believe in Him as our Lord.

No matter how many times we wash our hands, we can’t get the guilt of shedding Jesus’ blood off of us. We can’t clean ourselves off. The stains are permanent… Unless we are washed by the very blood we shed. Only the blood of Jesus can absolve us of our guilt, our complicity in the literal shedding of His blood for our sins. But we have to choose to say yes to this Love that died for us. We have to choose. Indifference is a choice. We cannot stay indifferent without consequence. It doesn’t work that way. We have to answer the question Beau posed to us,

“What are you going to do with Jesus?”

We have choices to make. And Holy week, the time that we remember the road to Calvary, is the perfect time to consider our answers not only to this question, but to the others that Beau challenged us to dig into:

Will we betray Him? Or believe in Him?

Will we follow Him? Or fall away from Him?     

Will we leave Him? Or let Him be the Lord of our lives?

I hope that as we move throughout this Holy Week, we can all consider our own answers to these questions. That we will each ask the Holy Spirit to point out any areas in our lives where we’ve been indifferent or trapped by fear. I pray that our decisions won’t be driven by our self-preservation instincts, as Pilate’s were, but rather by our love for the One who loved us first. The One who surrendered Himself and allowed His blood to be shed by those who would be made clean by that same blood. What will you do with this Jesus?

–Laura

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Last Words: Judas

Judas. It’s not a name that very many parents name their sons. Judas the traitor. Judas the thief. Judas the betrayer. Judas the beloved?

We don’t know a great deal about Judas. We know that he was the son of Simon Iscariot    (John 13:26). We know that he was one of the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus. We know that the other disciples counted him as one of their number who shared in their ministry. (Acts 1:17) We know that Judas was in charge of the money. (John 13:29), and that sometimes he helped himself to the funds (John 12:6). And we know that he loses his way.

Pastor Beau reminded us that we really don’t know what led Judas to betray Jesus. We don’t know what his ultimate motivation was. Of course, we know that the betrayal of Jesus was prophesied. We also know that God gives us the ability to make our own choices, and we know that Judas was susceptible to this particular temptation.

All of the disciples were human. All had issues. Peter was impetuous. James and John were called the “sons of thunder” and wanted to call down lightning on a Samaritan village that didn’t allow them to pass through. Thomas was a doubter. Like us, each one had weaknesses that could have led to their downfall. So, to say Judas was the “bad guy” doesn’t really work. Scripture is clear that we are all sinners and we all need a Savior. That’s why Jesus came.

Even knowing all of that, we want to know why Judas made his choice. Pastor Beau gave us four possible maybes.

1. Money.  I wrote above that Judas was the treasurer, that sometimes he stole out of the treasury, and we know that he sold Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Was greed his motivation?  Pastor Beau pointed out that in the Old Testament thirty pieces of silver was the price paid to the master of a slave if the slave was gored by an ox and killed. (Ex. 21:32) Thirty pieces of silver compensated for the life of the slave.  Judas sold Jesus for the value of a gored slave. Beau asked us if Jesus doesn’t have utmost value to us, what does? What are we willing to sell Jesus for?

2. Hurt. In John 6:70-71 Jesus says, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.) Did Judas know that Jesus was talking about him at this point? And in John 12, Judas is indignant that Mary poured expensive perfume on Jesus feet. He comments in verse 5, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.  Then Jesus publicly rebuked him and said: “Leave her alone…it was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

Have you ever been called out publicly? It’s not a fun moment. Jesus always spoke the truth in love, but if Judas didn’t understand the love of Jesus, the truth just hurt. Was he harboring anger and hurt toward Jesus? Was that his motivation?

3. Jealousy. Judas was not part of Jesus’ inner circle among the disciples. Peter, James, and John experienced things with Jesus that the others didn’t. Did that upset Judas? Was he jealous of the closeness the others shared?

We must always guard against comparing our stories to the stories of others. If we catch ourselves saying, “If only I had that”, or “If I didn’t have this”, we are getting into dangerous territory. Each of us has gifts, each of us has a role to play in the kingdom of heaven. If we are jealous of someone else, we miss what Jesus wants to do in our story.

4. Disillusionment.  Many times the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying. Many times Jesus had to explain things to them. It’s very possible that Jesus didn’t look anything like the Messiah they expected.  Many Israelites were expecting an earthly ruler who would overthrow the Roman government, who would make all the right political moves, and who would put Israel on top.  Jesus didn’t seem to be meeting those expectations.

Is it possible that Judas was trying to force his hand?  Is it possible that when Judas came to the garden with a large crowd who had swords and clubs that he was hoping this would be the moment that the warrior Messiah would rise up? Instead Jesus said to him, Friend, do what you came to do. (Mt. 26: 50)  I looked up the word “friend” in the Greek. It means “comrade, partner, in kindly address, friend, my good friend.”

Jesus leaves me speechless over and over. Even in this moment, he was loving Judas. The thought of that makes me want to cry. Jesus is so kind, so good, and so misunderstood.

Do we have false expectations about Jesus? Are we disillusioned with Him?

Judas seemed to act on his impulses and take matters into his own hands. It didn’t go well for him.

Judas’ ultimate enemy was Satan.  Satan prowls like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (1st Peter 5:8).  In this moment that someone was Judas. Both Luke 22:3 and John 13:27 tell us that Satan entered into Judas…  Judas was weak, making his own decisions, and he took the bait.

We see this prowling other times in Scripture. All the way back in the book of Genesis, God tells Cain: Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master. (4:7). Cain does not listen, he kills his brother, and bears the consequences of that choice.

God gives Satan permission to test Job. Job proves faithful to God, and is commended for his faithfulness.

Jesus tells Peter that Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Lk. 22:31-32).  

Simon Peter’s faith did fail, and he betrayed Jesus. But he came back. He allowed Jesus to restore Him.

I believe with all my heart, the same could have been true for Judas. Judas’ last recorded words are found in Mathew 27: 3-5. When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”  

At this point my heart breaks. Judas, once again took matters into his own hands and took his own life. He did not understand the depth of the love of God. He did not understand that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world. (Jn 3:17)

Judas misunderstood. Judas had weaknesses. Judas messed up.

I think the tragedy of Judas’ life has much to teach us. Judas’ weaknesses killed him—whether it was greed, hurt, jealousy, disillusionment, or something else, it cost him his life.

Do we know where we are weak? Do we know what it is that can pull us away from full on commitment to Christ? Is it social media, time management, gossip, shopping, over-eating, lust, porn, alcohol, dishonesty, money, drugs, TV, sports, self-pity, self-aggrandizement, promiscuity, politics, self-righteousness, prejudice, unhealthy friendships, self-protection, chasing adrenaline rushes, mental fantasy, comparison, envy, bitterness, unforgiveness? The list could go on and on. Where are you weak? Where are you susceptible to attack?

I recently read the phrase, “We are not punished for our sin, but by our sin.” Our weaknesses, the things we are susceptible to must be acknowledged and surrendered over and over to Jesus. Our weaknesses help us to remember how desperately we need our Savior. Apart from him, we are self destructive, others destructive, and we have a very real enemy who wants to take us out. Jesus knew this when He taught us to pray “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Peter shows us what to do after an epic failure. Peter, after denying Jesus three times, felt remorse; he went out and wept bitterly. Yet Peter did not ultimately give up. Jesus restored Peter, gave him a purpose and unleashed him as a powerful ambassador for The Kingdom.

Judas felt remorse. He acknowledged his sin. But he didn’t understand the unconditional love of God. He thought his story was over, so he took his own life.

All of us are weak. Paul tells us that no one is righteous. No one. He tells us that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s perfect standard. He tells us about his own wrestling match with sin in Romans 7, and finishes that portion of scripture by saying What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me…. Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rm. 7:24-25)

Jesus delivers us from our sin. Let that sink in. He always has the final word! When we are being sifted Jesus prays for us, he intercedes on our behalf. When we are weak, He is strong. He sympathizes with our weaknesses because he was tempted in every way but did not sin. He is for us, not against us.

Please know, no matter your story, as long as you are alive, there is hope. You have not committed the one sin that Jesus’ death on the cross didn’t cover. There is complete and full forgiveness for you. There is restoration. There is new life. There is joy. There is Holy Spirit power to carry out the call that God has given you. You are loved. Breathe it in. Bask in it. Jesus loves you. Don’t ever give up.  Your story is not over. Believe it!

—Luanne

Luanne wrote, “I think the tragedy of Judas’ life has much to teach us. Judas’ weaknesses killed him…”

I wholeheartedly agree with her. Until this Sunday’s message, I’ve never attempted to relate to Judas. His story has made me feel sad, mad, confused… but that’s as far as I have ever gone. There’s a strong tendency to move into the “us/them” mindset when it comes to this particular man, at least for me. I think in general, we as Christians have always “othered” Judas-even to the point of demonizing him-rather than taking the time to examine if any of Judas’ flaws can also be found in us…

Last week, the question Beau asked us to consider was, “Who is Jesus to you?”. This week, he asked,

“Which Jesus are you pursuing?”

It’s a question we have to ask ourselves, and be willing to answer honestly. I believe it’s a huge part of the answer to all of the questions we have about Judas and his choices–and it can also show us the why behind our own decisions.

We don’t know exactly what Judas thought about Jesus. Whatever beliefs he may have held, his actions proved that the Jesus he was pursuing didn’t actually exist.

Beau took us into the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane when Judas’ betrayal of Jesus took place. (Matthew 26) I’ve known the story for a long time, but I’ve never taken notice of some of the things Beau highlighted in the text. I knew they came to arrest Him, Judas betrayed Him with a kiss, and Peter cut off a guy’s ear, which Jesus then healed. Those are the basics that I’ve always paid attention to. But the way they came for Jesus, and when (at night when none of His followers were around…), hadn’t stood out to me as anything more than background details of the main story. But there is so much more here, especially as it relates to Judas and which Jesus he may have been pursuing… In this account, we see a glimpse of what his beliefs may have been. This was one of many occurrences when Judas took things into his own hands. And as Luanne wrote about above, he may have been trying to force Jesus’ hand here. To force him into the role, the mold, that he felt Jesus, as King, should occupy.

Beau referenced parts of Psalm 2, a psalm that speaks of the coming Messiah, in his message. Verses 8-12 read this way in the New Living Translation:

“‘Only ask, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, the whole earth as your possession. You will break them with an iron rod and smash them like clay pots.’” Now then, you kings, act wisely! Be warned, you rulers of the earth! Serve the Lord with reverent fear, and rejoice with trembling. Submit to God’s royal son, or he will become angry, and you will be destroyed in the midst of all your activities—for his anger flares up in an instant.

If Judas was familiar with this text, which he most likely was, it stands to reason that the Jesus standing in front of him didn’t look like he expected the Messiah to look. Perhaps he thought he could force Jesus into the box he’d created in his own mind for Him–a box marked by rule, authority, power, wealth, control-things that would all also benefit Judas and feed his desires. Maybe he had it in his head that he could be part of provoking Jesus to step up and oppose those who opposed Him…

Sometimes I want Jesus to oppose (even take out…) those who oppose Him, too. And more specifically, those who seem to stand in the way of His Kingdom coming the way thatthink it should. And sometimes… I just want Him to take out those who oppose me… Those who hurt me, make me angry, stand in my way.

Sometimes I pursue a Jesus who doesn’t exist, too. 

When I get caught up in my own pain, selfishness, pride, I create a version of Jesus who works on behalf of me, who makes my life easier and better… It breaks my heart to even write that, to admit that it can be true about me. But when I choose my will, when I take things into my own hands, I can be Judas. When Satan dangles the perfect temptation in front of my weakness and I take a bite, I fall prey to it… just like Judas did

I’ve betrayed Jesus, too. In a million little ways and in big ways. I’ve allowed selfishness to guide my heart-I’ve looked for a Jesus who would fulfill my wants and expectations. I’ve let hurt and jealousy paralyze me rather than let their presence lead me to the feet of Jesus. And I’ve been disillusioned when the Jesus I expected hasn’t shown up. That’s where the similarities between me and Judas end, though…

Because even at my worst, the Jesus I wasn’t pursuing–the real Jesusnever stopped pursuing me. He has come to me over and over–with words of truth soaked through with love, calling me “friend” and “beloved”. My weakness, mistakes, and full-blown sin have never stood in the way for the real Jesus. He doesn’t turn away when He sees them in me. In fact, it’s the depth of my brokenness, my weakness, that He moves toward. Because in my weakness, He is strong. I am so grateful that He doesn’t take out all those who oppose Him–because I’ve been, and still can be at times, one of those opposers…

There is a song that we sang at church this week that has been wreaking havoc in my heart. It’s called “All I Have is Christ”. It goes like this:

I once was lost in darkest night
Yet thought I knew the way
The sin that promised joy and life
Had led me to the grave
I had no hope that You would own
A rebel to Your will
And if You had not loved me first
I would refuse You still

But as I ran my hell-bound race
Indifferent to the cost
You looked upon my helpless state
And led me to the cross
And I beheld God’s love displayed
You suffered in my place
You bore the wrath reserved for me
Now all I know is grace

Hallelujah! All I have is Christ
Hallelujah! Jesus is my life

Now, Lord, I would be Yours alone
And live so all might see
The strength to follow Your commands
Could never come from me
O Father, use my ransomed life
In any way You choose
And let my song forever be
My only boast is You

The Jesus we sing about in this song, the one who loved me first, who looked upon my helpless state and decided to suffer in my place, to bear the wrath that was mine… I want to always pursue this Jesus. The Suffering Savior is, indeed, the Conquering King. But He conquered His way… Not mine. And His way is always better. No matter the depth of pain, shame, hopelessness we may feel, Jesus longs to move into it. Our darkness doesn’t scare Him away. Because the real Jesus is blazing Glory-light that scatters even the deepest darkness. It’s strong enough to have scattered all of Judas’ darkness–if he would have let the real Jesus save him. Tragically, Judas’ darkness overwhelmed him before the light of hope had a chance to write a different ending to his story…

Too many stories have been left unfinished. Hopelessness has won too many times. There is a different way… a way that leads to life instead of death…There is a Hope that stands amidst torrents of grief and is unshaken by the winds of shame. There is a Light that shines across dark and murky waters and shows us the way to shore. There is a Love that can absorb our hate, our jealousy, our selfishness–every drop of our sin. The truth is, this Love has already absorbed every drop of sinfulness into Himself. He already paid the debt we owe. And He stands ready and waiting to absorb us–each messy, broken story of our lives–into His Life. He longs to absorb our sordid history into His Story and rewrite our days in red.

This is the Jesus who pursues us. Is this the Jesus we’re pursuing?

–Laura

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Hold On: Habakkuk 3

In week one of this series, Pastor John encouraged us to hold on to hope. In week two, we learned about how to hold on in the waiting. In the third and final installment of this series, it was all about Who we’re holding on to.

Habakkuk, whose very name means to embrace or wrestle with, to hold on, sets the third chapter of his book to music. The whole chapter is a song, a heart cry to his God. Have you ever sung your heart out to God? As Habakkuk sings his prayer-or prays his song-however you want to look at it (I personally believe prayer and worship are synonymous…), he is also spurring his own soul to remember.  As he wrestles with the coming destruction of his people, he does two things. Luanne wrote about the first in last week”s blog. He chose wisely in the waiting. Luanne wrote:

“Habakkuk, he climbed up on a wall to get a new perspective. He knew that even in the hard stuff, God was at work. He chose to look for Him, to look to Him, to trust Him. He recognized the violence and injustice of his own people, he knew that an enemy that was violent and unjust was coming their way to wipe them out, and he chose to trust God.”

And in this week’s passage, he remembers. These are some pieces of his prayer, his song:

“Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord. Renew them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy… God came… His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden… He stood, and shook the earth; he looked, and made the nations tremble… His ways are eternal… Sun and moon stood still in the heavens… You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one…” (Habakkuk 3:2-13, NIV, selected verses)

After Habakkuk recalls where and how he has seen God move in the past, he finds himself overwhelmed… and resolute.

“I trembled inside when I heard this; my lips quivered with fear. My legs gave way beneath me, and I shook in terror. I will wait quietly for the coming day when disaster will strike the people who invade us. Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He makes me as surefooted as a deer, able to tread upon the heights.” (Habakkuk 3:16-19 NLT)

Have you ever found yourself in a season so dark that you had to borrow light from the past in order to move forward? Have you ever heard a message that plunged you into the depths of despair, to a place so terrifying that you had to consult your memories in order to find any hope at all?

I’ve received messages like that… As a little girl, there was the news that my daddy was moving out-it ushered in the dark… The message that my baby might not survive did the same… The news that what I thought I was called to do was no longer an option for me-the stripping of what turned out to be a false identity-brought in an entirely different type of darkness…The relayed message that my little girl had been bitten by a rattlesnake while her dad and I were 1,100 miles away… A doctor telling me through sad eyes that my mama was terminal and our time with her was very short blocked the light, too…

These are a few of the dark-inducing messages that have come into my life. Yours might be different. Maybe you were told you couldn’t have the children you long for. Or that your precious unborn child no longer had a heartbeat… Maybe your message came in the form of an incurable illness. Or it could have been carried on papers you were served, informing you that your marriage was over. Perhaps it came in the form of a dismissal, a pink slip, a foreclosure notice. It could be that phone call that informed you of an unexpected deployment, or the one that came from the jail where your child was being held. It could be an admission, a confession, news that your child has been abused, or any number of other heart-stopping things. We receive endless messages over the course of our lives. And we can’t escape the hard ones, not one of us can.

When these messages come, they carry the terrifying tune of destruction, not at all unlike the message Habakkuk received from God. But Pastor John told us on Sunday that our passage describes both destruction AND deliverance. It’s easy to find the destruction. The book of Habakkuk tells of the destruction that would come upon his people as well as the eventual destruction of their oppressors. The deliverance, however, is found in the remembering. Habakkuk’s firm, resolute proclamation at the end of chapter 3 is made before any of the destruction or the deliverance actually happens… 

How did he get there? How can we get there?

We get there by going back. Back to where we’ve seen God move before. When the road before us is dark and foreboding and hopeless, we have to look back. We have to remember when God showed up. When we first fixed our eyes on the one who has always had His eyes on us. When we can look back and remember, we see again the extravagant length our God is willing to go to deliver us–and we can find a sliver of light to shine on our dark path, a reason to hope. Not hope for our enemy’s destruction, hope in the Deliverer who is completely for us. We are His priority. We want Him to act amidst the circumstances around us… He wants to do the work within us. Several months back, I wrote a little about the desire for deliverance versus desiring the Deliverer… Here is a bit of my own wrestling, and what Jesus showed me then…

“I have been asking Jesus to enter into the chaos around and within me. I have been praying that way-it made sense to me.

Enter into the chaos, Jesus. Come in. Come fix it. Come get me out…

But the chaos hasn’t stopped. The churning seas continue to rage. And I have found myself discouraged, afraid, confused. I have felt unsafe and even angry.

Why won’t You come into the chaos? If You would come in, You could fix it…

…The problem was, I have been surrounded by and consumed with the chaos in my life and in the lives of those around me. He has been trying to lift my face, to implore me to just look up. If I would just lift my eyes, I would see Him standing above the churning waves. I would hear His words-words that don’t enter into the trivial and chaotic, but stand altogether seperate from and above them. And I would see His hand reaching out to me, inviting me to step out of the swirling chaos and into the realm of His Shalom…

…His very Presence brings light into darkness. I wanted Him to bring the light of His Presence into the chaos of my circumstances. He wanted to give me a different perspective. The perspective that comes when I stop staring at all that is going wrong and look into the face of all that is right. All I could see were the waves surrounding me. All I could feel was the pull of the undertow dragging me down-further and further. My eyes darted frantically around, desperate for Jesus to just show up in this place. If You were here with me, things would change, the seas would calm…

All the while, He stood above the crashing waters, extending His hand, waiting for me to look up…

Look above the chaos. Look at Me. The chaos may continue… but you don’t have to stay there. You can come up here with me. The waves still rage-but you don’t have to. Come up higher and you’ll see. You’ll see it all looks different from My perspective.”

The perspective shift that occurred when I looked up is the same one we’ll encounter by looking back and remembering. When we look back and search for the marks of His Glory throughout our stories, we will come face to face with Jesus. As we gaze back into the moments He showed up before, we’ll catch a glimpse of His face, His eyes that are fixed on us. Eyes that are full of love, acceptance, grace, forgiveness, connection…

As I write, I’m aware that we’re all in different places. Maybe you’ve never encountered Jesus. Maybe when you look back, you don’t see any hope, or any light at all. If that’s your story, my prayer is that today will be the day you’ll look back on in the future, a day clearly marked by the Glory of God and His love for you, the beginning of the rest of your story. Or maybe you do know Jesus, and you can recall times when He’s shown up in your life. But when you picture His face, His eyes don’t look at all like what I’ve described. Maybe the eyes you see flash with anger, disappointment, condemnation… If that’s what you see, I pray for a divine interruption to come your way–that the God who made you and loves you and delivers you will reveal the truth of who He is and His affection toward you. I pray that today will be a defining moment for you as well-a day marked with a deeper connection and the beginning of the most beautiful love story.

And for all of us, I pray that we’ll make the choice to wait in hope, and to remember. That at the end of the day, regardless of the messages each of our stories contain, we can stand resolutely and declare, as Habakkuk did,

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength!”

–Laura

Laura wrote: The book of Habakkuk tells of the destruction that would come upon his people as well as the eventual destruction of their oppressors. The deliverance, however, is found in the remembering. Habakkuk’s firm, resolute proclamation at the end of chapter 3 is made before any of the destruction or the deliverance actually happens…

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, YET I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength!” (Hab. 3:17-18)

That little word yet… Habakkuk’s use of that little, powerful, three letter word leads us to the greatest lesson the book— Habakkuk does not put his head in the sand and pretend like calamity is not coming. He knows that it is. He doesn’t try to pretend like  he’s devoid of fear—he acknowledges my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.(3:16) YET… 

And, as Laura highlighted above, it’s remembering who God is and what He’s done in the past that gives Habakkuk the assurance that God is strong, that God is sovereign, that God is at work, that God can be trusted, that God is still worthy of praise, and that deliverance will come.  Hindsight is huge.

Do we remember that the pivotal point of our faith, our deliverance, happened through devastation and destruction? We have the benefit of hindsight, but for a moment, try to put yourself in the midst of Jesus’ closest friends and followers during the twenty four hours of Jesus’ life that ended with his crucifixion. Turn on your imagination for a moment, and set yourself in the scene.

Picture yourself at the Passover meal with your closest friends. Imagine settling into the familiar and beloved Passover script, remembering God’s powerful deliverance in the days of Moses. Imagine your interest being piqued when Jesus took a detour from the normal script and began talking about the bread being His body broken for them, and the wine His blood poured out establishing the new covenant between God and His people.

In this setting, you have no idea what is coming in a few short hours, yet Jesus says to you: do this in remembrance of me. Are you confused? Are you intrigued? Are you thinking this is another parable that’s difficult to understand?

Imagine going to the garden and watching Jesus pull away. If you manage to stay awake, what are you thinking as He wrestles with the Father–as He implores the Father to let the cup pass from Him– as He feels all the emotions of the coming calamity?  What goes through your mind as He ultimately surrenders to the Father’s will?

What do you feel when Judas comes with the religious leaders and Roman soldiers? What is going through your head at the unjust , crazy, false accusation trials that take place under the cover of night? How do you feel when Pilate declares that Jesus is to be crucified? Are you still around, or have you run away because you are afraid? What are you feeling at the horrors of the beating, and the cruelty of the crucifixion? Can you imagine what that felt like to His followers?  Would you have lost your hope? Would you have forgotten in that moment God’s miraculous past deliverance that you had been celebrating a few hours before? Would your “yet” have been–I know that God will still deliver and I will praise Him–or would you have run and hidden thinking that this was the end?

It wasn’t the end, and on the third day, everything for all time changed. Jesus rose again—fellowshipped again with His friends. A short while later He ascended to heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit, just like He said He would. (Acts 1&2). His followers were changed, empowered, fearless and lived in the hope of future deliverance, so much so that they very literally gave their lives for the Kingdom of God.

Hebrews chapter 11 ends by highlighting some of the nameless martyrs by saying: Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they were put to death by the sword, they went about in sheepskins and goat skins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated, the world was not worthy of them…. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us…  These followers lived in the yet. They held on, knowing that God was worthy and deliverance was coming.

These were all commended for their faith—As. Is. Habakkuk. Calamity was coming. It was going to be awful, YET he chose to remember who God is, what He’d done in the past, and gain hope for the future. 

We can make the same choice. We can remember the day that appeared like total disaster to Jesus’ closest friends was God’s sovereign plan for our ultimate deliverance.  Jesus says to us—remember. He tells us in this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world. (Jn 16:33)

We don’t have to deny the feelings when these hard seasons come. We don’t have to pretend like we’re not wrestling when these hard seasons come. AND we don’t have to be hopeless when these hard seasons come.

 …you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again… (1 Thess. 4:13b-14a)

We have a good Father who is for us. Have you resolutely chosen to trust Him no matter what? Do you have your yet firmly in place? Are you determined to remember all that He has done and hold on to Him? Ultimate deliverance is certain for those who know Jesus. Do you know Him?

—Luanne

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.  (Romans 15:13)

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Hold On: Habakkuk 1

John 3:3 “…No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

We began a series through the book of Habakkuk on Sunday. What an incredibly relevant book it is for our day and time. The entire book is a prayer-a dialogue- between Habakkuk and God. Habakkuk is not afraid to ask God hard questions. He is not afraid to wrestle, but he wrestles with God and not against.

Habakkuk reveals some things about himself in this prayer;

*He reveals that he is deeply connected to God and seeks intimate connection with Him.

*He reveals that God speaks to him as a result of this intimate connection and that he listens to God.

*He reveals that he cares about and feels responsibility for his community.

*He reveals that no matter what happens in this life, he trusts God, and knows that God is in control.

When Habakkuk writes his prayer, the world around him is in chaos. Israel has divided into two nations; the larger northern kingdom called Israel, and the smaller southern kingdom called Judah. Habakkuk lives in Judah. Not only do Israel and Judah fight against one another, not only do they each have their own king, they also have infighting in their own kingdoms. All of this fighting, all of their quarreling, all of their divisiveness weakens them and makes them susceptible to attack from powerful enemies. They live in constant fear and unrest. It is into this reality that Habakkuk cries out to God.  This is how he begins:

How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” But you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me, there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous so that justice is perverted. (1: 1-3)

Doesn’t that sound like today?

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)  there are 65.6 million displaced people people who have had to flee their homes because of violence.   Breaking that down into a number that is easier for us to understand—nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution. 20 people per minute.  Habakkuk cries out to God “Violence!” It bothers him. Does it bother us?

We have plenty of violence in the United States: School shootings, mall shootings, church shootings, concert shootings, civilians shooting police, police shooting civilians, men violating women, child abuse,  and thousands of  other violences that don’t make headlines.  Habakkuk cries out to God “Violence!” It bothers him. Does it bother us?

We have laws that favor some and are oppressive to others. Gary Haugen of The International Justice Mission taught me that historically, law systems, police and governing systems were put in place to protect the privileged class.  During the days when Spain, Great Britain, Portugal, and other countries were colonizing other nations, their law systems were set up to protect them- the colonizers, the conquerors-  from the people whose country they were taking over.   Even though that happened a few hundred years ago, many justice systems never evolved into serving and protecting all people equally. Habakkuk cries out… the law is paralyzed and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous so that justice is perverted. It bothers him. Does it bother us?

We have division—deep division in our nation. It feels as if we have made certain political ideologies our gods; we are an angry people, we attack one another viciously, we quarrel constantly, our favored media sources “disciple” us and have created mob mentality—an inability to think as individuals, only to think as a group, and we defend our groups and fight for our groups no matter what. We refuse to see anything amiss in our own groups. Habakkuk cries out…there is strife, and conflict abounds. It bother him. Does it bother us?

As I write this, like Habakkuk, my heart is deeply troubled. I sense, like he did, that we are headed for disaster.  Jesus said to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:25 Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.  Not only are we a divided nation, we are divided as Christians. We are in trouble. We are holding on to the wrong things.

God responds to Habakkuk’s concerns about the state of their kingdom, and His response is a hard one to fathom. It begins with what sounds like an amazingly  powerful word:

Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed.  For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.

And then God lays out how the Babylonians are going to come and totally wipe them out.  Yikes! What are we supposed to do with that? In the theology of many of us, there is no space for a response like this from God. So what does Habakkuk do?

He responds with: Lord, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, You, Lord, have appointed them to execute judgment; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. (v12) 

We’ll pick up at this point in the text next week, but wow! What a response! Pastor John pointed out that Habakkuk is not focusing on the words that God spoke; he’s focusing on the God who spoke the words. He acknowledges God’s sovereignty. He still has questions, but at the end of the day, he trusts God. He is holding on.

Many of us do not have a theology that includes suffering and hardship. Many of us only have a theology of prosperity and blessing. That leads us to being very shallow, and in danger of abandoning our faith, of letting go rather than holding on when life doesn’t go the way we think it should. We forget that Jesus was crucified, we forget that most of his disciples were martyred. We forget that all across the face of the globe there are Jesus followers being put to death for their faith today.

We forget Jesus’ words in Matthew 24: 4-12

“See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.  All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.  And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.  And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.”

We forget that Paul wrote in his second letter to Timothy:

 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.  For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good,  treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.….Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,  while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed.  (2nd Timothy 3: 1-5, 12-14)

We forget that Jesus said

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

We get our earthly kingdom eyes full of the situations around us, and we worry, and we rant, and we let our hearts grow cold, and we become unbelieving believers forgetting that when God spoke For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jer. 29:11)  that the Israelites were captives-in exile- and God had just let them know that they were going to be captive for a long time. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. (Jer. 29:4-5)

We forget that God tells us For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Is 55:8-9)

We forget the faith of Joseph who said: You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Gen. 50:20)

The faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who said: If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Dan. 3:17-18)

The faith of Job who said: Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10)

We forget that we’ve been challenged to trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding…(Pr 3:5)

So what do we do, how do we hold on?  We  throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And… run with perseverance the race marked out for us,  fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. (Heb. 12:1-2)

We hold on by surrendering our lives to Jesus, to His ways, to the principles of His kingdom, and no matter what this earthly kingdom has going on, we represent Him, we love Him, we love others, we leverage our lives for His kingdom, we join Him, by the power of the Holy Spirit in His call which He laid out when He said: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind to set the oppressed free. (Luke 4:18)

John 3:3 “…No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

May we live like the born again who see the kingdom of God. May we hold on to who we are as His ambassadors, His ministers of reconciliation,  and may we hold on to the King of the Kingdom who matters for eternity, trusting that God is sovereign, that He is at work, that He has a plan, and that we can reflect His love and glory in this fallen world no matter what is going on.

–Luanne

As we embark on this journey into Habakkuk, we see a justice theme permeating almost every verse of the first chapter. It’s clear that this book has a lot to do with justice. I love that it does, because God’s heart for justice beats strong in my own heart, too. Luanne articulated this theme beautifully above. I would love to tag on to what she wrote because justice, equity, seeing the image of God in all people-it is something I am passionate about. But He is leading me a different direction this time…

Pastor John said on Sunday that contained within God’s seemingly harsh, confusing words is a simple message of hope: Hold on…

Luanne wrote:

“We get our earthly kingdom eyes full of the situations around us, and we worry, and we rant, and we let our hearts grow cold, and we become unbelieving believers forgetting that when God spoke, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11)  that the Israelites were captives and God let them know that they were going to be captive for a long time.”

In captivity, with no sign of their situation changing anytime soon, God told His people that He saw the big picture, that He had plans-good plans-for them, and that He would give them hope and a future. We read that verse, share it, put it on bookmarks and graduation cards… and forget the context.

Habakkuk knew the context of the story he was in. He remembered even as he heard hard words from God that there was a larger story being written. The current circumstances that he and his people found themselves in was one chapter in the larger narrative of the story of God. He heard the “Hold on” cut through the message of impending destruction and the noise of the violence around him.

Pastor John explained the charge to “hold on” as an exhortation to embrace the gray area in the meantime. We, as people, have a natural tendency to think we know best. And we have an almost desperate desire to know what’s coming up ahead of us. Embracing the gray area is not fun. It can be terrifying, because we feel completely out of control. And we are. 

We can see from the way Habakkuk related to God that he got this. He understood that God was the One in control. He had, at some point, settled in his heart the matter of God’s sovereignty. And he chose to trust him. We can see this in the way he questioned and prayed-honestly, pouring his heart out, and also in the way that he listened–not with the ultimate goal of understanding, but rather with a heart that remembered who was speaking.

Luanne wrote above, “Habakkuk is not focusing on the words that God spoke; he’s focusing on the God who spoke the words.” 

That is the challenge to all of us as we move into this series… Do we come to God with our questions and chaotic circumstances, in a time when our world is in what appears to be a terminal tailspin, and choose to hold on to Him no matter what He might say-or might not say-about it all? Or will we let go of Him and get swept away by the craziness of our situations?

I think that sometimes we want to stay where we are until we can see clearly what’s up ahead. When what we can see looks like a gray area, it’s easy to feel stuck and grasp at control. But what if God is actually calling us to take a step into the gray before we can see what’s on the other side? What if what we are seeing with our eyes looks like clouds and fog and impending doom, but God is calling us to take a step through it, because the light-the hope-is seen only when we step into the storm? He wants us to fix our eyes on Him and take a step-even when our natural eyes can’t see Him through everything that’s swirling around us.

I can’t help but think of the story from Matthew 14, when Jesus walked out onto the sea while his fearful disciples rowed futilely against a storm. When Jesus told them it was He who was coming toward them, Peter requested that He tell him to come to Him on the water, so he would know it was Him. Jesus obliged Peter’s request and said, “Come”. Peter stepped out and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. All was well until, as the NIV words verse 30, “he saw the wind”. I’m not even going to go into how one sees the wind-that’s a different conversation entirely. But when Peter noticed the wind–however that happened–the Word tells us that he became afraid and began to sink. Peter had Jesus in the flesh, right in front him, but his eyes weren’t fixed on Him in this moment. He knew who Jesus was, he believed, he was experiencing the miracle of walking on water-and the swirling storm around him was enough to divert his attention and change his situation.

We can do the very same thing. We don’t have the physical embodiment of Jesus in front of us, as Peter did. No, we who know Jesus have the Holy Spirit living within us, teaching and guiding us in the way of the Kingdom, moment by moment… and we still get caught up in the storm rather than holding onto the hope that we have that there is a bigger story being written than what our eyes can see. Even with Kingdom vision, with spiritual eyes that see the Imago Dei in all people, with hearts that beat in rhythm with God’s own heart, our circumstances can loom large and cast doubt into our hope–if our eyes aren’t fixed on Him. What does that mean, “fixing our eyes”? In the Hebrews 12:2 verse that Luanne previously referenced, “fixing our eyes” literally means in the original Greek, “to turn the eyes away from other things and fix them on something”. It also means “to turn one’s mind to” something. The definition necessitates a choice. We have to choose what we’re going to look at. Habakkuk chose to see the God who reigned above the chaos, outside of and apart from the storms around him. He chose to acknowledge His control and His higher thoughts and ways. He set his mind on what he knew to be true in the midst of a situation that could have imparted terror and panic into his head and heart.

We have the same choice. Luanne explained in her portion just how crazy the world around us has become. She identified the parallels between what Habakkuk and his people faced and what we are currently facing in our world today. We can’t not see what is happening. And we should feel bothered by and sense a responsibility toward the violence, the injustice, the chaos that’s all around us. But we get to choose what we fix our eyes on. And if we listen, we’ll hear God whispering the same message of hope to us that comes through in the story of Habakkuk: “Hold on. I’m at work. I know you see this… but I want you to fix your eyes on Me. I am here. I’m involved. And I’ll never walk away…”

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” -Romans 15:13

–Laura

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A Balanced Life: Re-prioritize

Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,”says the Lord Almighty.

“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’

 “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.

“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’

“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”  (Malachi 3:7-10)

On Sunday, we heard the final installment of our series, A Balanced Life. It was a summation of all that we’ve learned over these last six weeks as well as a charge to check our priorities. Pastor John put before us five ways we spend our money and the order in which we often do so. The list is: Spend. Pay debt. Pay taxes. Save. Give. This list may shuffle around a bit for each of us, but let’s assume the first and last priorities listed match for the majority of us. If that’s the case, our priorities indicate a “me first” mentality rather than a “God first” mentality.

Many of us live this way. The people God was speaking to in the Malachi passage above were living this way. They hoarded their best, took care of themselves, and gave God their leftovers.

We have a tendency to do the very same thing.

It may start small–the utility bills were high one month, and the paycheck was only big enough to cover them, the rent and a few groceries. So we didn’t give that month. We didn’t even save. We just did our best to take care of the most pressing needs. We had every intention of getting back on track the following month. But the next month presented with unexpected medical bills and the kids needed new shoes. So giving took a back seat once again. Before too long, budgeting for giving kind of fell off the spreadsheet… and even when income increased, our priorities didn’t change. We faintly  heard God calling us to come back, to return to His way, but we found ourselves saying, as God’s people said in the verses above, “How are we to return?”

This is a hypothetical story, but I have to own that my own life has mirrored the story more than once. The needs seem so pressing… What will happen if we don’t take care of those necessities first? God knows our struggle with trust and our inclination toward controlling our own lives. So He challenges us to take Him at His word… He says, “Test me in this, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” 

Jesus issues a similar challenge hundreds of years later, saying, So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”. (Matthew 6:31-33)

God is asking us to take Him at His word–to try it His way. And see what happens. The God of Creation–Maker of our every cell, Giver of our every breath–tells us to put Him to the test. His grace and patience with our selfish, stubborn, wandering hearts leaves me without words… Once again, as we’ve seen so many times, He gives us a choice. Try it His way–because He has so much more for each of us. Not only financially but in everything, His plan is to prosper us, to provide for us, to expand our territory… for His Kingdom’s sake. And this is where our hearts betray us… We say our hearts belong to God… We’ve “given our hearts to Jesus”. We sing the words “You have my heart” during worship services.

But does He, really? Does God have our hearts?

Pastor John said on Sunday, “Whatever has our hearts, we resource. We invest in and value those things”.

If we say that God has our hearts, but we don’t resource or invest in His Kingdom, we deceive ourselves.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25) 

If we aren’t doing what God says, we can’t say that He has our hearts. It’s a hard word. But there’s no way to sugarcoat it to make it easier to swallow. We either live “me first” or “God first”. There is no in between. It can’t be both. We serve, feed, and invest in one or the other. Period. This is about so much more than money-but it has to include our finances. If it were only about our time, our gifts, our talents, I would feel a little better about saying that my life evidences that God has my heart. For me, those things are easier, although, I still find myself utterly selfish much of the time. But when it comes to my finances? I fall well short of trusting God with my finances the way that He asks us to. This series has held up a mirror that has revealed, in my life, a need to re-prioritize.

I want to order my life the way that John laid out for us at the end of his message, the way our Savior modeled perfectly for us: Give. Save. Live. Jesus gave up Heaven and put on skin to come to us. And then He gave His life in order to save us. He saved us so that we could live-not only in eternity with Him someday, but here and now. And His desire for us in the here and now is to live His way. He wants to have our hearts so that we will willingly give all that we have and all that we are and leverage it all to bring His Kingdom to earth. So that in our giving of ourselves, souls will be saved and people will live. This is the way to honor God with our whole lives. May He find us faithful to live His way. May we not simply say that He has our hearts-may our lives bear fruit that proves it.

–Laura

Laura wrote above: If we aren’t doing what God says, we can’t say that He has our hearts. It’s a hard word. But there’s no way to sugarcoat it to make it easier to swallow. We either live “me first” or “God first”. There is no in between.

There is no in between.

We have the choice with every decision we make to choose the principles of the kingdom of heaven, or the principles of the kingdom of earth.  The principles of the kingdom of heaven will always be God first and others focused. The kingdom of earth will always be me first and self focused. God has clearly shown us in His word what “God first” living looks like, and also what “me first” living looks like.  “Me first” living always indicates a lack of trusting God to know what’s best.

“Me first” led to Eve’s taking Satan’s bait in the garden–When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Gen. 3:6) She wanted what looked good to her, and what she thought God was withholding from her.

“Me first” led to King David not going out to war in the season that kings went to war, and during that leisure time when he saw Bathsheba bathing on her roof, he used his power to take advantage of her which led to pregnancy, which led to the murder of her husband, and the child did not survive. (2 Sam. 11)  King David was thinking “me first” from the moment he chose not to go to war with his men, and all the way through that tragic story.

“Me first” was the attitude of “the rich fool” as he built bigger barns to store all the stuff that he planned to use for himself–and then he died. (Luke 12: 16-21).

“Me first” always has hard consequences, yet “me first” is the fallen condition of all of us. How do we fight it?

Author Daniel Hill, in his book White Awake writes of the one-degree rule. He says: In aviation there’s a principle called the one-degree rule: a tiny error in direction can make a major difference in the final destination of a flight…(Hill transitions the one-degree principle into the story of the prodigal son and says this about the older brother) though he dutifully followed the house rules, his obedience wasn’t flowing from a grateful heart. Instead he was driven by his own selfish agenda. Though this distinction was difficult to detect from the outside, it eventually showed itself in the cumulative toll that it took on his soul. By the time it bubbled to the surface, the elder brother was marked by a combination of anger, joylessness, judgement, and most sadly, an inability to internalize the love of the Father.”

Sarah Young’s January 30th entry in her beautiful devotional book Jesus Calling begins with this phrase: Worship Me only. Whatever occupies your mind the most becomes your god.

I believe both Hill and Young give us clues as to how to fight “me first” mentality. In order to internalize the love of the Father, in order to worship Him only, in order to stay on track, there are things we must pay attention to.

First, we must know that we are loved by God. As we spend time with Him and experience His love, we grow to love Him in return–just like babies grow to love their parents in response to the love they receive. Jesus tells us that the first and greatest commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind‘; (Luke 10:27).  Truly, we are not capable of loving God this way, but we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us love God the way God desires to be loved–it’s a prayer He loves to answer! When we love Him this way, the temptation to worship lesser gods fades.

Loving God with our minds means that we allow Him to search us in order to help us recognize those one-degree thoughts and choices that lead us astray.

I’ve always found the apostle Paul’s wording in 2 Corinthians 4:4 interesting when he says that “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers….”  

I truly believe that part of living a balanced life is praying Psalm 139:23-24 every single day: Search me, O God, and know my heart, test me and know my anxious thoughts, see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.  Then we need to sit with Him and let Him bring things up so that we can deal with them–repent of them.

The word translated “repent” in our Bibles is the Greek word “metanoia”, which literally means “changed mind”. To live in harmony with God, we must allow our minds to be in tune with His heart, His ways.

Romans 12:2 makes this so clear: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.  

Paul also tells us in 2 Corinthians 10:5 to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.  Again, interesting phrasing. When someone is taken captive, they are typically interrogated as the captor seeks to discover things about the enemy’s tactics.

I believe that even those of us who are saved can have our minds blinded when we choose to live in unbelief or in the kingdom of earth with its priorities. We must allow the Holy Spirit to show us those areas where we are going astray. When He brings things up, we must interrogate our thought process–what is it revealing about what we believe? Is it a “me first” thought that is revealing an area in our lives where we don’t trust God, or don’t want to live according to the principles of His kingdom? I would say that most often the answer to that question is “yes”. So then, we have a choice. Do we continue with our one-degree deviations which will get us to the place the Israelites were when they asked Malachi  “How are we to return?”, or do we repent–change our minds–renew our minds–and line up our minds, our lives- with the kingdom of heaven?

God asks for our entire lives–everything we are, everything we have. He tells us to seek FIRST His kingdom and His righteousness, and tells us that He will take care of all the rest.  Do we believe Him?  He told the Israelites through the prophet Malachi: Test me in this…and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” 

He wants to bless us, but He wants to bless us for the sake of His glory, His kingdom, and His renown. He wants us to come after Him because of love, not because we are trying to manipulate Him into giving us stuff–if we want Him for the blessings, that is still “me first”, but if we want Him because He is the love of our lives, it’s about Him.

Everything we have is from Him and for Him. That includes our finances. Do we live like that’s true?  Do we trust Him to be a God of His word? Do we trust Him to take care of us if we seek His kingdom first–if we give to Him first? Are we willing to test Him and see if the floodgates will open when we do life His way?  What if those floodgates of blessing aren’t material possessions at all, but they are lives of people saved for eternity because God’s people chose to live and give God’s way? What blessing could be better?

“Me first” or “God first”? The choice is ours.

–Luanne

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A Balanced Life: Discontent

So do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ Or what shall we drink?’ Or ‘what shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows that you need them. Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.   (Mt 6:31-33)

Familiar verses, yet how often do we think about what they truly mean? What does it mean not to worry about worldly possessions? What does it mean to seek the kingdom of God before seeking anything else?

This week, Pastor John talked to us about discontentment and what leads to it. Greed is the fruit of discontentment. Our insatiable desire to be rich (or at least comfortable with a good retirement), to have the newest, the best,  the latest and greatest drives our discontent, leads us into debt, and will never ultimately satisfy. I think deep down we know that, yet, if we choose to be really honest with ourselves, what is it that we seek? What is it that we spend the precious moments of our lives in pursuit of?

One of the pictures used as a backdrop for the sermon this week was of a dollar bill positioned so that the words “In God We Trust” were front and center. What irony to have that phrase emblazoned on our currency. Jesus says in Matthew 6:24 No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.  And here, in this nation, the physical manifestation of the tussle between a false god and the one true God are married on our currency. Which do we really trust? Which do we really pursue? Which do we depend upon to meet our needs, to take care of us?

I don’t like asking these questions. They are hard! They force us to face our imbalance. And, I can tell you, a few years ago in my own life, I was confronted face to face with my imbalance, my idolatry in this area.

My family was in a season of crisis; as a result my husband stepped away from his job for a season. I work full time and have great benefits, but don’t bring home enough money to even cover our mortgage payment. I was in a total panic over our situation. We have always had good credit, we have been responsible bill payers, and here we were in a season of great financial difficulty. We cut out all frivolous spending—no paper towels, no paper napkins, nothing extra, no new anything, we ate bare minimum inexpensive food such as beans and rice. We did not go shopping, not out to eat, no gifts at Christmas, cut out everything. Even with all these cuts, I knew that we did not have the means to pay our mortgage or our bills. I came face to face with how much I depended on money. In my panic, I cried out to God. (Wish I had gone to Him first without panic—it’s easy to say we trust Him until we have no other choice.) Gratefully, He showed up. There is no logical explanation for the fact that we made it for a little over a year with not enough income to pay our bills, and never once got behind. We went through our savings, and God showed up. People at church would sneak money into my purse. One friend felt God asking her to give us a portion of her paycheck every month. We got a couple of large unexpected financial gifts that kept us going for a couple of months. And, each week as I’d sit down to pay bills and balance our books (still in a state of panic), they never worked out right. The bank always said that there was more in our account than there could have been. I would try and try to get it figured out, and would eventually give up. One Saturday morning, I was paying bills and expressing frustration as I tried to reconcile the books, and I felt God speak to me saying, “Stop it! Don’t try to make sense of it. I am taking care of you.”

Even as I typed that sentence I exhaled loudly. That’s exactly what I did that morning. I exhaled and fell into the loving arms of the only One who is dependable. The only One for whom resources are never an issue. God met our needs all year long. Often times He waited until the final, final, final moment before showing up. And yes, I would panic and then apologize when He came through once again. He was growing my faith, and my total dependence upon Him. It was emotionally excruciating at times, but He was stripping me of the false god I was trusting, and giving me no choice but to lean solely on Him.  Now, several years on the other side of that scary, faith-building year, I still thank God for provision when we pay our bills, when we eat our food, when we can give gifts, sponsor children, etc.—and I have no doubt who my provider is.  Every penny comes from His hand.

I wish that I could say that I learned to be content in that season. My discontentment was fierce. It wasn’t about having material things. I was totally okay with the financial cutbacks. I was not okay with the lack of inner peace caused by my lack of faith that we had no nest egg—no money to fall back on. And what that discontent came down to was a lack of trust in God. I was totally living in crippling fear because we couldn’t provide for ourselves. I don’t like admitting that, but it’s true. Money was my idol, and my dependence upon it was great.

Paul, when writing to Timothy, gave him this counsel about money: Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (Such great words of warning about pursuing riches—it’s the LOVE of money that gets us in trouble, the pursuit of money—the dependence on money–Paul continues…) But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness… (1st Tim 6:6-11)

Imbalance happens when dependence on money removes us from total dependence on God. Are we going to use our time and energy to pursue money and the things of this world, or the kingdom of God and the fruit of His Spirit?  Have we lost our ability to be content? Do we let our discontentment drive us?  What are we pouring our lives into? What are we pursuing first?

There is only one Prince of Peace and he is the one who says to us: So do not worry saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ Or what shall we drink?’ Or ‘what shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows that you need them. Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Mt 6:31-33)

Do we believe these words? Do we trust God to be true to His word, to His promises? Do we want Him more than anything else? Is He enough for us? Are we satisfied in Him? Are we willing to pursue His Kingdom first and let Him handle all the rest? Will we be content in Him? Will we let Him be our peace?

Godliness with contentment is great gain. (1st Timothy 6:6)  Do we believe it?

—Luanne

“Do we let our discontentment drive us?”

Luanne’s question struck me. I think no matter who we are, the answer is unequivocally, “yes”–discontentment drives us. Which leads us to more questions…

Why are we discontent? 

And, more importantly,

What does our discontentment drive us toward? 

I believe that we all experience a “holy dissatisfaction” within ourselves that is part of how God designed us. It’s what produces restlessness and discontentment. I believe that this discontentment is meant to drive us toward what we were made for. It’s meant to be a catalyst that launches us toward God. In Paul’s prayer for the believers in Ephesus, he says these words:

May He grant you out of the riches of His glory, to be strengthened and spiritually energized with power through His Spirit in your inner self, [indwelling your innermost being and personality], so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through your faith. And may you, having been [deeply] rooted and [securely] grounded in love, be fully capable of comprehending with all the saints (God’s people) the width and length and height and depth of His love [fully experiencing that amazing, endless love]; and [that you may come] to know [practically, through personal experience] the love of Christ which far surpasses [mere] knowledge [without experience], that you may be filled up [throughout your being] to all the fullness of God [so that you may have the richest experience of God’s presence in your lives, completely filled and flooded with God Himself]. (Ephesians 3:16-19 Amplified)

We were created to experience the fullness of God. The fullness of God… Let that sink in, if you can… God desires that we be completely filled with Him, satisfied in Him. He tells us over and over again in His word that He is our sustainer, our provider. He longs that we want Him most, more than anything else–because He knows that there is nothing on earth that will satisfy the longing in our souls.

So… why then–if God has offered us the fullness of Himself to fill the holes inside of us–do we allow our discontentment to drive us toward other things? Toward the bigger, better, newer stuff that this world has to offer?

I think maybe it’s because we don’t actually believe that He is good. If we turn tail and run in the opposite direction we’ve been running, if we run to him and let the rest go and actually take Him at His word–we’re afraid it won’t be enough. To leave our stuff behind, to stop numbing the pain with things that bring temporary pleasure & security, means that we have to trust Him enough to hope for something better… And sometimes? We’re just not sure. We can’t quite imagine being “filled up [throughout your being] to all the fullness of God [so that you may have the richest experience of God’s presence in your lives, completely filled and flooded with God Himself”. 

We can’t imagine it–until we experience it. Luanne wrote this about her own wrestling in trusting God to provide for her and her family:

“I exhaled and fell into the loving arms of the only One who is dependable”.

Sometimes an exhale is a wordless surrender. In that moment, Luanne chose to trust in the goodness of the One who had proven Himself faithful to her. We all have to choose… Discontentment is an insufferable companion. It will move us. It will drive us. That’s by design. But God doesn’t force us toward Himself. He is, as we’ve said many times before, a gentleman. But what He offers… He longs that we taste it. “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.” (Psalm 34:8 NIV) But we can’t taste His goodness or be filled with His fullness if we’re running the other direction.

We must flee one to pursue the other. Discontentment will either drive us to flee the things of this world and pursue God… or, to flee from God and pursue the things of this world. This is not a both/and situation. We have one heart. That heart has one throne. It will not be shared. We have to choose.

Paul uses both words-flee and pursue-in his charge to Timothy. Their meanings in this passage are compelling…

“But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” (1 Timothy 6:11 NIV) 

Flee in this verse means to “seek safety by flight; to be saved by flight”. Pursue means “to make to flee; put to flight; to run swiftly in order to catch something”. Did you catch the similarities? Which one sounds easier? To fly away to safety? Or to make ourselves fly swiftly in order to catch something? Maybe the answer depends on what we’re fleeing from and what we then pursue… But I believe it takes more effort, more commitment, to pursue something than it does to run away from something. And we have to be convinced that what we are pursuing is worth the effort it takes to go after it…

If you look up the root words in the verse, 1 Timothy 6:11 reads like this:

“But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue equity, the Gospel-scheme of reverence and worship–godliness, reliance on Christ–the persuasion of Gospel truth, agape love, patient endurance that remains present, and painful, passionate humility/meekness”.

Are those easy to pursue? No. Is that a compelling option when choosing between the things of this world and God? That depends. It depends on whether or not we understand what we have, what we’ve been entrusted with. I included this verse in its entirety last week, and it’s applicable again here…

“…your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32 NASB)

We. Have. The. Kingdom. God has given us the Kingdom and desires to fill us with the fullness of Himself. He longs for our discontentment to incite a “holy dissatisfaction” that drives us to pursue Him and let the things of world grow dim and lose their hold on us in light of His goodness.

Luanne asked us, “What does it mean to seek the Kingdom of God before seeking anything else?” 

I’m not going to attempt to answer that for all of us here. But I believe that to seek the Kingdom above all else is to take God at His word. It is, in part, an exhale that instigates a free-fall into His arms. It is choosing to take the time to taste and see His goodness and letting the fullness of all that He is propel us to “…pursue equity, the Gospel-scheme of reverence and worship–godliness, reliance on Christ–the persuasion of Gospel truth, agape love, patient endurance that remains present, and painful, passionate humility/meekness”. 

What does it mean to you to seek the Kingdom before seeking anything else? Have you ever exhaled into a free-fall and found yourself safe in the arms of the dependable One? We would love you hear your thoughts…

–Laura

This is a song by Audrey Assad and it speaks of tasting of God’s goodness. Enjoy! “I Shall Not Want”

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A Balanced Life: Debt

Sunday, we had our third installment in the series A Balanced Life in which we are tackling difficult financial concepts and learning that how we handle our finances is intricately connected to our spiritual lives. God has much to say about money in His Word. Sunday’s sermon was an “ouch” sermon, as Pastor John talked about debt.

John told us that there are four negatives to debt:

1. Debt curses us. God chose Israel and established them as a people in order to make His name known throughout the world. He wanted them to live in total dependence upon Him, and He let them know what He wanted that dependence to look like. In the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy He says things to this like this: If you fully obey…the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth…ALL these blessings will come on you…you will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country…The fruit of your womb will be blessed, the crops of your land, the young of your livestock…Your basket and your kneading trough will be blessed….the Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to…He will bless you in the land He is giving you…The Lord will establish you as His holy people if you walk in obedience to Him…The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of His bounty…You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none.  

Being in a position to be a lender is the position of someone who is blessed. The borrower is in the opposite position. Borrowing indicates that things are going poorly, and borrowing brings more baggage than we want to acknowledge.

2. Debt enslaves us. Proverbs 22:7 states that “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.”

That’s pretty clear. For the last three years, I have attended the International Justice System’s (IJM) Global Prayer Gathering in Washington D.C.  IJM works on behalf of the poor who are subjected to violence through human trafficking, land-grabbing, and bonded labor slavery throughout the world. Learning about those issues, hearing the stories of, seeing the scars of and meeting people who used to belong to someone else is sobering—life changing. In the case of bonded labor slavery, a person in need is often “loaned” an amount of money ( i.e. for a daughter’s wedding, or the children’s education, etc.) and the “generous” lender “hires” the person, promising wages to make it possible for the borrower to pay the debt and promising a paying job once the debt is paid. What the borrower doesn’t know is that the  business owner will charge them exorbitant interest on their “loan”, or high prices for the equipment that they will need for their work, or charge them for the food they eat while they work, making it impossible to pay the loan. (The unjust share-cropping system after the abolishment of slavery in the US that went on well into the 20th century followed similar heinous practices.) The borrowers work constantly under threat of violence. They don’t get to go back home. They become slaves. Some of the people we’ve met at IJM are second and third generation slaves. They were born in the brick factory, or whichever business, and have never tasted freedom. This is a very real example of the borrower becoming slave to the lender. And it is the reality of the principle of borrowing for all of us. What we borrow does not belong to us. What we borrow belongs to our lender.  We work to pay it off over time, but as long as we owe, we are indebted to the real owner of the property, and ultimately at their mercy (or lack thereof).

3. Debt controls us. Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control. (Pr. 25:28)

For many of us, the debt that we accrue is not an issue of need or desperate circumstances. For many of us, the reason that we have debt is because we lack self-control. We live in a world of glossy advertisements, shopping at the click of a button, delivery right to our homes, making it easier than ever to give in to the temptation of “I’ve got to have that now.” “That’s just what I need to make my life better.” Out of control spending can become addictive. And again, we place ourselves in vulnerable situations—like that of an unprotected city—when we choose to spend rather than save, when we choose to buy on impulse rather than pray and wait—when we choose discontentment because we don’t have that thing and we convince ourselves that we won’t be content until we do. Our personal greed feeds the greed of the lender—and greed—lack of self control—leads us nowhere good.

4. Debt robs us. The wise store up choice food and olive oil, but fools gulp theirs down. (Pr. 21:20)

Debt robs us of the ability to be generous. In order to be generous we must have enough to give. We must live with margins—not spending all we have, not borrowing what we don’t have—if we want to be able to give money away. Giving away money when we owe money to someone else, means that we give away money that really isn’t ours to give.

Ouch, right?!

As I was praying through all of this, God brought Galatians 5:1 to mind…It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Because of the costly price Jesus paid so that we could have freedom, God does not want us in bondage to anything. Bondage of any sort, including monetary debt, becomes a yoke of slavery.  God wants us to depend upon Him, to lean into Him, to let Him be our provider, and to live with wisdom and self-control. He has given us self-control through His Holy Spirit (the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Gal. 5:22). We don’t do this journey alone. We don’t do it in our own strength. He is with us.

Pastor John didn’t leave us hanging after the four negatives. He also gave us tools on how to get ourselves out of debt.

1. Get a plan. Without a plan, nothing will get better.

2. Get on your knees. Surrender your life, your spending, your debt to God. Ultimately, debt is a spiritual issue. It is the result of trying to meet our own needs, or fulfill our own desires.

3. Get connected. Bring your situation into the light. We don’t like to talk about it. That truth right there is an indication that debt creates shame (not from God), causes us to feel like we must hide, that we’re stupid, or hopeless. None of that is true. Bringing the situation into the light, facing it head on, creating accountability with another person or in a group brings freedom and community as you work together to turn your situation around. Anything hidden in the dark gives it control over us. The truth will set us free.

God’s word teaches us that we all fall short of the mark of His holiness. Not being able to attain our own righteousness, we become slaves to sin and owe a debt to God that we will never be able to pay. God sent Jesus to pay our debt. Jesus, the sinless perfect Son of God, took our debt upon Himself and paid it in full. That price has been paid for everyone, but in order to receive the gift of that freedom, we must acknowledge our need. We must surrender our lives to Him. He desires that we become part of a community—that we do life together. And to grow in godliness, to be transformed into the image of Jesus, we must have a plan that includes spending time with Him, and making fellowship with Him priority.

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness… (2 Peter 1:3)

God desires our freedom in all ways. We have a tendency to want this freedom to come automatically. We pray, “Lord, make me like Christ.”, or “Lord, help me get out of debt.”, and want an immediate transformation. However, both situations take time and require depending upon Him.  He has provided all that we need to live generous lives. He desires that we live for His kingdom and not be slaves to the systems of this world. He has graciously done His part. Will we depend on the divine power of His Spirit, line up our hearts and minds with His desires, choose to live counter-culturally and take the actions necessary to do ours?

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. 

The freedom has been provided. The choice to live in it is ours.

—Luanne

Luanne wrote, “Because of the costly price Jesus paid so that we could have freedom, God does not want us in bondage to anything. Bondage of any sort…becomes a yoke of slavery.” 

There is one-and only one-yoke that we put on after entering into relationship with Christ-His yoke. The easy yoke and light burden that He offers. (Matthew 11:30) I emphasized the word “offers”, because He never makes us submit to His yoke. He could–He bought us at the highest price. But after He purchased us with His own life,  He did the craziest thing… he set us free. We sing words like “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe…”, but we often live like we owe Him nothing. How quickly we forget what we used to be…

John used the words “curse”, “enslave”, “control”, and “rob” to illustrate the impact debt has on our lives, as Luanne highlighted above. Interestingly, those are the very same words I would use to describe our condition before we encountered Christ. Before our spiritual debt was paid, we were cursed-bound for death and eternal separation from God. We were slaves to sin before our chains were broken. We were completely controlled by our sinful, human nature-invaded and taken over by our flesh. Spiritual debt had robbed us, too-it robbed us of our ability to give love–we can only love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). Until we knew Christ, we didn’t know love.

BUT, Jesus… When Jesus comes into our lives, when we acknowledge Him as our Lord, He changes ALL of that. When we come into relationship with Him, we surrender all that we are to all that He is. We give our whole lives back to God–our rightful owner who could have replaced our enslavement to sin with slavery to Him, but instead gives us the freedom to choose. That alone blows my mind and could be a whole other post in itself, so for now, I’ll leave that there. But when we accept the gift of life and salvation that He has provided for us, we are essentially saying, “I am yours. I belong to you. You are my Lord, my Master.” And He gives us a new name. He renames us as he takes the weight of our curse, breaks the chains of our slavery, frees us from bondage to our flesh, and enables us to love and live given. From that point on, we are known by our good name that He’s given-a name that includes words like children, co-heirs, friend, Beloved, bride, and so many more. This new name He gives us cannot be taken away.

Pastor John said on Sunday, “Debt targets your good name”. And that sent my mind spinning… We have an enemy who does the same. He targets our good name. He can’t take it away, but he can sure try to cover it with blemishes. If we resist the yoke that Jesus offers, resist fully submitting to Him as our Lord (which means Master), our resistance, our desire for control over our own lives, can open a door for us to be drawn into the form of slavery named Debt. If we allow ourselves to become indebted to anything other than Jesus, we are choosing to walk back into the slavery that He freed us from–not spiritually, but in our physical lives. Our enemy cannot drag us back to our fallen spiritual condition. We are sealed in Christ.  Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” (1 Corinthians 1:21-22) But, if we allow him to, he can influence our physical lives, marking our outward lives with the same bondage and slavery that defined our spiritual selves prior to encountering Jesus. 

I think that the most sinister piece of being indebted-whether it be spiritual or financial-is that it robs us of our ability to live given. Living given is what most identifies us as followers of Christ. Whether it be love, forgiveness, grace, time or finances, followers of Jesus ought to be the best givers–because we are to model our lives after the Greatest Giver who has withheld from us no good thing-even His very own Son. Living given is an outpouring of all that we are in every area of life, every situation we encounter. In Ann Voskamp’s stunning book, The Broken Way, she writes these words:

Live given… Here is my brokenness… Here is my battered life, here is my bruised control, here are my fractured dreams, here is my open hand, here is all that I have, here is my fragile, surrendered heart, here I am, a living sacrifice. Broken. Given. Living given means breaking down all the thickened walls and barriers around your heart with this hammer of humility and trusting the expansiveness of the broken-wide-open spaces of grace and communion.

Could it be that our debt reveals our fear?

Perhaps our fear of losing control… or our fear of living out the broken vulnerability we are called to in Christ? Is our acquiring-all of our getting, needing, hoarding-simply our attempt to escape living broken and given? In the same book I referenced above, Ann writes this:

When I’m no longer afraid of brokenness, I don’t have to control or possess anything–dreams or plans or people or their perceptions. I can live surrendered. Cruciform. Given. This feels like freedom.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…

Our God desires that we live given lives–grateful for the freedom that was bought for us–that testify to the extravagant, generous nature of our good Father.

So how do we get there? How do we get to the place where our physical lives mirror the freedom and victory we’ve been given spiritually?

Luanne wrote about the tools John presented us with on Sunday, and I’m going to reiterate them here. We have to get a plan and we have to get on our knees. These two go hand in hand in my mind. I think the first place to go with our shortcomings is always to our gracious Father who will lead us through His Spirit. And I know that any plan I make might not line up with His–Many plans are in a man’s mind, But it is the Lord’s purpose for him that will stand (be carried out). Proverbs 19:21 AMP--so I don’t want to make any plan without first getting on my knees before Him. And after that, we get connected. Not superficially, either. Deeply, authentically connected to others. Like Luanne said, “Anything hidden in the dark gives it control over us. The truth will set us free.” We have to own what we owe. Even when we are in debt up to our eyeballs and don’t actually own anything we have, we can own our sin and our mistakes. And it’s great to do this with our God, but He doesn’t desire that we stop there. James 5:16 in the Amplified Bible reads like this:

Therefore, confess your sins to one another [your false steps, your offenses], and pray for one another, that you may be healed and restored. The heartfelt and persistent prayer of a righteous man (believer) can accomplish much [when put into action and made effective by God—it is dynamic and can have tremendous power].

These are the steps to freedom, friends. The steps toward living the abundant, overflowing, generous lives God wants us to live. Can we let go of our sense of control (we’re clearly out of control anyway-our lives and bank accounts are the evidence of this), find the courage to face our fears, and take these steps toward living fully free, given lives? Jesus didn’t only die to give us eternity with Him. He died that we might live in the fullness of His life in the here and now, lives that point to His way, His kingdom.

Jesus paid it all-all to Him I owe.

–Laura

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Something Had to Die

You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires. Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. (Colossians 2:20-3:4)

Being made alive in Christ is both a one-time transaction and a continual process. This is one of many concepts that Beau presented to us as we continued our journey through Colossians this week. He shared with us two of the things that happen within us when we give our lives to Jesus:

-Salvation: being reconciled, put back into right relationship with God

-Sanctification: re-creation by God, being set apart to a sacred purpose

Salvation happens immediately. It is not in any way dependent on anything we say or do. It is the transition from death to life. Sanctification, though, is a lifelong process of being changed from the inside out until the image of Christ shines in us. I love the verse from Ephesians that Beau used in his sermon:

And then take on an entirely new way of life—a God-fashioned life, a life renewed from the inside and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you. (Ephesians 4:24 Message)

This God-fashioned life, this life that is renewed from the inside and works itself into our conduct–it is produced in us “as God accurately reproduces his character in [us]”. So, sanctification, this re-creation process, it’s something God does, not us, right? Like salvation?

Yes… but, there is more to this piece. Beau articulated that we can be alive without really living. We can breathe and eat and drink and be “alive” in the most basic definition of the word. Paul reaffirmed in his letter to the Colossians that they had “died with Christ” and been set free from the spiritual powers of this world. But they were not experiencing real life. They hadn’t fully become new, though they were new creations in Christ. They were following rules and thinking of earthly things, still caught up in “this life”. Does that resonate with anyone? Paul is asking them “Why?” in this passage. He reminds them that their “real life is hidden with Christ in God”. 

Beau shared about the process of coming alive in Christ in his life. It reminded me of my own process…

When I gave my heart to Jesus as a little girl, I crossed from death to life by the free, un-earnable gift of salvation. I was alive in Him. There were moments of growth in those early years.

When I recommitted my life to Him as a teenager, there was a degree of surrender. A knowing that the life I was “living” wasn’t really life the way God wanted me to experience life.

But I didn’t really experience “coming alive” in Christ until I was ready to die to myself. Not partially. Not only in certain areas… in everything. The experiences of my childhood and youth and early adulthood were undeniably steps on the sanctification journey. And, like Beau said, I haven’t “arrived” at my fully sanctified state-of-being. I wholeheartedly believe and expect that we won’t reach that point until we kneel before our Savior in heaven. We are in process during our entire time on earth-I see that as one of the clearest marks of God’s nearness and faithfulness to us–that He never leaves us where we are. He keeps coming to us, to work on our condition and reproduce His character within us… if we allow Him to do so.

It wasn’t that many years ago that I understood in a new way what it meant to die to myself and be made alive in Christ. I, like the Colossians, was good at following rules. My life was one full of pretense–which is “professed, rather than real, intention or purpose”. I was focused more on my kingdom than the Kingdom of God. Earthly things had my attention. There were times my sights were set on things above–but it didn’t take much to distract me and take my eyes of the path ahead. I had my salvation. I was “alive”. But I wanted the sanctification part to be on my terms. So the life I was experiencing was not the fullness of life that God desired for me to have in Him. And somewhere along my journey, I started to crave more. I didn’t know what that “more” was yet. I had no idea how much it would cost, or how much dying would be involved. But somewhere along the way, I knew I had a choice to make…

Before church on Sunday, I was reading in Deuteronomy 30 and I paused and wrote down these verses in my journal:

“…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life…” (vs.19-20)

The words came to mind again as I listened to the sermon.

Choose life…For the Lord is your life…

We get to choose. We move from death to life in the moment we are saved by grace. But, as He has since the very beginning, God gives us choices. We get to have as much of God as we want. How much do we want? It’s easy to say that we want all of Him. All that He has to offer. All of the fruits of His Spirit. The very fullest life in Him. But just as Jesus had to die in order to be resurrected, fullness of life in Him can only be created in us if we are willing to fully die to ourselves.

Beau said that sanctification “requires being in and with Christ daily” and, “To be in and with Christ is to identify with Christ in death and resurrection”.

We can’t experience one without the other. We cannot be resurrected, made new, made alive without being willing to die first.

Surrendering our whole lives-our desires, dreams, expectations, fears, hopes-before God, choosing to die to our own kingdoms–it doesn’t feel safe. But each time we say yes to God’s re-creation process within us, each time we choose His Kingdom over ours, we come to life a little more. Because that’s where our “real life” is found.

Beau summed up this very complex passage with the phrase:

“Truly living is right position, working on condition“. 

Our very first step is being put back into right position before God-salvation. The rest comes after that. We don’t work on our own condition before coming to Christ. And we aren’t the ones who work on it afterwards, either. Legalistic rule-following, trying harder to be better–this doesn’t get us saved and it isn’t what makes us sanctified. It is God who works on our condition, as the Ephesians 4 verse beautifully states. We simply have to be willing to let Him. We have to be willing to die. Because for something to be made alive, something always has to first die.

What is God asking us to die to this week? Where have we chosen a lesser life? Are we willing to lay it all down, to die to ourselves, so that we can experience the fullness of life God desires each of us to have? I am pondering these questions again and I hope you will, too.

–Laura

life from death