ON WHAT DO WE LEAN?

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV)]

pickerel weedWhile pondering an important decision, I realized I was trying to figure it out on my own rather than taking it to God. Relying on my own perception and trusting in my wisdom, however, is what got me into my dilemma in the first place. Based on some of the truly stupid choices I’ve made when leaning on my own understanding, it’s only through God’s grace that my life is not a total disaster.

It all started with Adam and Eve who, after listening to the serpent’s advice, leaned on their own understanding of God’s prohibition about that one tree. Doubting God’s goodness, they thought the fruit would make them as wise as God and foolishly took those bites rather than check with Him. Not trusting God’s promise of descendants to Abraham, Sarah looked to her own solution and gave Hagar to her husband. What part of “Don’t look back or stop anywhere!” did Lot’s wife fail to understand when she looked back at Sodom? It was leaning on their own understanding that made Aaron mold a golden calf and sacrifice burnt offerings to it or Saul spare Agag and take the best of the sheep, goats, cattle, and plunder from the Amalekites. There were grievous consequences to all those decisions to lean on themselves rather than God!

Consider the Israelites who made it through the wilderness from Egypt to Canaan by following God’s plan. Before crossing the Jordan, Moses sent twelve scouts on a reconnaissance mission to determine the lay of the land and the region’s agriculture. They weren’t supposed to assess the people or determine if they would enter Canaan—that was a given because God promised Israel both the land and their victory over its residents. But, when the scouts returned with reports of giants, the Israelites leaned on their own understanding rather than trusting God—an error that cost them forty more wilderness years

Although Israel’s  strength was in the power of their God, David’s logic told him a nation’s strength lay in the size of its army. Ignoring the advice of Joab, he trusted his reasoning more than God and took a census of all who could “handle a sword.” As a result of his foolishness, Israel suffered a plague and 70,000 people died. Although leaning on our own understanding doesn’t necessarily result in tragedy, it frequently does.

When faced with a decision, like David, we consult advisors and friends, or turn to that font of information and misinformation—the Internet. Unfortunately, our human understanding is pitifully limited and our motives often suspect. Writing and debate classes taught me that a case can be made for any stand on an issue—whether it’s the right stand is an entirely different matter! It’s human nature to search deepest for information and advisors supporting our desires and to disregard as faulty anything that doesn’t support our position. Rehoboam did just that when he followed the advice of his greedy friends rather than Mosaic law and the godly advice of his father’s advisors. When he leaned on his own understanding, the kingdom divided.

We see just a portion of what is right in front of us but, in just one glance, God sees the whole picture—the past, present, and future. While our flawed understanding of God and His plan isn’t a requirement for obedience to Him, our trust is! The first part of today’s verse tells us to trust in the Lord—which is what Adam, Eve, and the rest should have done! Rather than lean on our own understanding or that of other flawed humans, we must turn to the true giver of wisdom—God—and His book of wisdom—the Bible.

“I wish I knew what to do!” we exclaim. While I can’t tell anyone what to do, I can tell everyone what not to do—don’t lean on your own understanding!

This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. [1 Corinthians 1:25 (NLT)]

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THERE’S NO EXCUSE

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [Ephesians 4:31-32 (NLT)]

If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. [Matthew 6:14-15 (NLT)]

mourning doves
The husband quietly arranged for a week’s vacation from work and the wife also arranged for a week off from her job before they joined one another on a romantic getaway. Unfortunately, they weren’t married to one another and their respective spouses were blindsided by their heartless and public betrayal. Since the man was finance director of the school district, unfounded rumors abounded in our small town that he’d absconded with funds along with someone else’s wife. Even though this occurred decades ago, I still remember my shock a week later when, having found the forbidden fruit wasn’t near as tasty as they’d expected, the two adulterers returned to town and their respective homes.

I don’t know how the betrayed husband welcomed his wife or what became of their marriage but, since the betrayed wife lived three doors down and our children played together, I do know what happened to hers. Amazingly, the deceived wife forgave her repentant husband and welcomed him home. While forgiveness doesn’t necessarily end in reconciliation, in this case it did. “How could she forgive him?” asked a shocked (and very gossipy) neighbor. “After all,” she added, “There’s just no excuse for his shameful behavior.” Her question gave me pause since I wondered the very same thing—how could she forgive such an indefensible act?

Rather than look to gossipy neighbors, however, I turned to Scripture. Does God only forgive my “excusable” sins—when I accidentally fall into the mud—and not forgive the ones in which I deliberately go play in the muck? There was no acceptable excuse for the man’s abysmal behavior and nothing could justify the way he so publicly wounded and humiliated his wife but isn’t that the point of forgiveness? Regardless of the circumstances or how we choose to justify our actions, there never is an excuse for sin! If something was excusable—if extenuating circumstances justified a transgression or if there were a valid reason behind an offense, there really would be no need for forgiveness! Forgiveness is what God does because there is absolutely no excuse for our offenses, no defense for our sinful behavior, and no exception to the rules broken by our transgressions.

There was no excuse for that adulterous couple’s behavior but one woman let her faith guide her. Choosing love over hate, hope over despair, and mercy over retaliation, she quietly forgave her repentant husband and continued their marriage. There was no excuse for Gomer’s betrayal of Hosea and yet the loving prophet redeemed her from slavery, forgave her, and welcomed her back into their home. David had no excuse for dallying with Bathsheba and Peter had none for denying Jesus yet both were forgiven. There was absolutely no excuse for the first sin and yet God loved us enough to redeem mankind with the blood of his Son, Jesus Christ.

There is no way we ever can justify any of our sins and yet, when we confess with repentant hearts, we are forgiven. It is precisely when there is no possible excuse that forgiveness is necessary. Let us never forget—if we want to be forgiven of all our sins, we are expected to do the same—even when there is no excuse!

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. [Colossians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2023 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

TATTOOS – Part 2

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. [1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (NLT)]


While the New Testament does not specifically address tattooing, my friend’s question about tattoos got me wondering whether it’s addressed in general terms. Because tattoos apparently originated in things like pagan symbolism, superstition, and idolatry, some maintain they’re prohibited in Scripture. Indeed, the Israelites were prohibited from worshipping the pagans’ gods, following their customs, and participating in “detestable acts” like child sacrifice and the New Testament warns of sorcery and idolatry, but applying those words to tattoos seems a long stretch. The dates of holidays like Christmas (Saturnalia), All Saints’ Day (Samhain), and Valentine’s Day (Lupercalia) have pagan beginnings as do customs like placing flowers on graves, embalming, and celebrating birthdays. Must we abandon those (along with the heart symbol) because of their pagan origins? In that case, we’ll need to ditch our calendars since both the days of the week and the names of the months are founded in astrology and pagan gods (i.e., Saturday/Saturn, Thursday/Thor, March/Mars, and June/Juno)! Where do we draw the line?

Just because pagans did something doesn’t necessarily mean it is sinful. Before condemning every pagan custom, we should remember that even the pagans ate, harvested crops, worshipped, and prayed! In fact, much of the early church’s success was because it adapted to (but didn’t adopt) the pagan culture of its time without compromising the gospel message. “Like the apostle Paul,” said pastor and theologian Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, “they sought to be all things to all people, that Christianity might become the religion of as many as possible.”

The Apostle Paul refers to a Christian’s body as God’s temple and some condemn tattoos with this verse. Likening tattoos to graffiti in the sanctuary of a church, they consider them nothing short of vandalism or defilement. Citing Paul, they maintain that altering our bodies in any way is a sin. Again, where do we draw the line—at make-up, plucking eyebrows, shaving, piercings, coloring hair, Lasix and cataract surgery, corrective and reconstructive plastic surgeries, Botox, or even Spanx? All alter our bodies in one way or another. Since the Apostle was specifically addressing sexual immorality among believers, that’s not what Paul had in mind with his words.

Perhaps the best Scripture to guide us regarding any body embellishment is found in 1 Peter 3. Rather than prohibiting adornments altogether, Peter was emphasizing a proper sense of values. Materialism, boastfulness, conceit, attention seeking, and obsession with sex existed in the 1st century just as they do today. Whether it’s a body entirely covered with tattoos, one enhanced with every sort of plastic surgery, a see-though gown with plunging neckline, heavy gold chains around the neck and gold rings on every finger, or tee shirts with rude or hateful messages on them, none seem to display the Spirit of God or represent the way our humble, gentle, and holy Lord would have appeared.

How we adorn our bodies is one of those grey areas that, to some extent, is a matter of taste and judgment. Remembering that we are created in God’s image and hold His Holy Spirit within us, we must be led by the Spirit, the Word, and common sense. Clearly, any practice that is vulgar, ostentatious, insensitive, or a distraction to one’s Christian influence should be avoided yet, even those guidelines are open to interpretation. When in doubt, I find it best to err on the side of caution and ask, “What would Jesus do?”

Our lifestyle, language, attitudes, and manner of dress reflect on His name. He leads us in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Unless you are honestly convinced that the thing in question will bring glory to God, then don’t do it. [Curtis Hutson]

Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God. [1 Peter 3:3-4 (NLT)]

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DRIFTING

So we must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away from it. [Hebrews 2:1 (NLT)]

Lake Brienz-Switzerland
We had an elderly friend who frequently visited us at our lakeside cottage. An avid reader but a poor swimmer, she loved to relax and read in a small rubber raft while floating on the water. Inevitably, she’d drift off and, finding it difficult to paddle against the current and return to the dock, she’d call on the children to swim out and tow her back to safety. Eventually, tiring of their towing job on a breezy day, they took a length of rope and tied it to both raft and dock. The rope was long enough to allow our friend to float around but short enough that she never got too far away from home. I thought of her when I read the caution in Hebrews 2:1 to carefully listen to the truth lest we drift away from it.

Like the Hebrews, many in the church at Colosse were drifting away into dangerous waters. Rather than drifting into apostasy (the abandonment of their belief in Jesus) as were the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews, the Colossians were drifting into the equally dangerous waters of heresy (adhering to a belief contrary to church doctrine). Sitting near the intersection of several major highways, Colosse was exposed to a wide variety of beliefs and philosophies. Rather than waves of persecution, these new Christians were being pushed along by the popular, but false, teachings of the day. Various un-Biblical philosophies and beliefs were being integrated into doctrine and wreaking havoc in the church. Just as my children brought my friend back to the dock, Paul’s letter was his way of returning the church to sound doctrine.

From Paul’s letter, it appears that some teachers were peddling something akin to Gnosticism—a belief that some people possessed secret superior knowledge that was hidden from most other believers. Thinking that all matter (including the body) was evil, they affirmed the deity of Jesus but denied His humanity. Others seemed to embrace a fusion of Christianity and Judaism that included Jewish dietary laws and the observance of Jewish holy days. Some Colossians espoused a spiritualistic teaching requiring them to worship angels before connecting with God. Still others adopted a legalistic version of Christianity with man-made requirements like pious self-denial, special rituals, and possibly circumcision. Calling them “empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense,” Paul pointed out that those beliefs came from human thinking and demons rather than Christ.

When those false theories and ideologies were merged into the tenets of the new church, there was just enough of Scripture’s truth in them to make them sound right. Even in the 21st century, it’s easy to get caught up in new philosophies or trendy ideas and different “empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense” continue to be preached today.  As Tim Challies said, “This world is a murky madness of true and false. For every doctrine we know to be true, there seems to be a hundred pretenders.” Like the Colossians, we must be on guard for those pretenders—those who add to, ignore, dismiss, or edit Scripture along with any who are more interested in filling their wallets than saving souls, more intent on pleasing mankind than God, or claim to have been called by God to preach words outside of Scripture.

To avoid drifting away from the truth found in Jesus, rather than tethering ourselves to a dock as did my friend, we must tether ourselves to God; instead of using a rope, we use His word as found in the Bible. Simply put, sound doctrine comes solely from God. Its authority comes only from God’s Word and is consistent with all of Scripture (rather than a verse taken out of context).

Whatever is only almost true is quite false, and among the most dangerous of errors, because being so near truth, it is the more likely to lead astray. [Henry Ward Beecher]

But you must continue to believe this truth and stand firmly in it. Don’t drift away from the assurance you received when you heard the Good News. … Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ. [Colossians 1:23,2:8 (NLT)]

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WHAT CAN PEOPLE DO TO ME?

For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” [Hebrews 13:5-6 (NLT)]

peony

While 21st century Christians might not recognize the source of the two verses quoted in Hebrews 13:5-6, the recipients of that epistle certainly did. As Jews who converted to Christianity, they were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. The first verse (found in Deuteronomy 1:6 and 8), were relayed by Moses to all of Israel and then specifically to Joshua. After Moses’ death, God personally made the same promise to Joshua in Joshua 1:9.

The second verse cited can be found in Psalms 118:6 and 56:4 and 11. While we don’t know who authored Psalm 118, we know that Psalm 56 was penned by David and was about running from Saul and being seized by Philistines in Gath. Any Hebrew in Paul’s time would know these quotes and the full context in which they were used.

Rather than facing battle with the Canaanites, fleeing from Saul’s army, or being in the hands of the enemy, the original readers of this epistle were new believers who faced persecution from both Rome and their fellow Jews. Having already endured public ridicule, beatings, imprisonment, excommunication from their synagogues, confiscation of their property, and flight from their homes, yet another wave of persecution loomed on the horizon at the time this epistle was written. Discouraged and disheartened, these new Christians were losing heart. Fearful, many contemplated abandoning their belief in Jesus and returning to Judaism.

Wanting to prevent them from apostasy, the epistle’s author encouraged these Jewish converts to remain steadfast in their new faith. Rather than disparaging Judaism, he fortified their faith by showing how Hebrew Scripture pointed the way to the Messiah and how Jesus fulfilled its Messianic promises. He explained that Jesus was superior to the Levitical priesthood, that His sacrifice was better than any required by the Law, and that the new covenant was better than the old. It is when encouraging his readers to stay strong in the faith that the letter’s author refers to these two Old Testament verses.

The last part of the second quote asks, “What can mere people do to me?” Clearly, people had done a great deal of harm to those Hebrew Christians in the past and worse soon would follow. Moreover, just as Christians were persecuted in the 1st century, they continue to be persecuted in parts of the world today. The epistle’s author, however, wasn’t delusional; he knew the people to whom he wrote were not safe from harm at the hands of their fellow man! A closer look at the full verse never says Christ’s followers won’t suffer. Hebrews’ author was telling those new Christians not to be afraid because God was beside them; his words are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago. His confidence came from knowing that our lives and future are in the hands of a God who loves us and has pledged Himself to us.

No matter how dire the circumstances, we aren’t alone. While our adversaries are mere mortals, standing beside us is God and His love for us outweighs the hatred of men. In the end, all of the adversities and suffering of this world pale in comparison to the resurrection blessings that await us. The worst thing people can do is kill our bodies. No person, however, can touch our souls!

Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. [Matthew 10:28-31 (NLT)]

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TRUTH OR FICTION?

All scripture is breathed by God, and it is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for improvement, for training in righteousness, so that people who belong to God may be complete, fitted out and ready for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NTE)]

Bible
I didn’t mean to spoil anyone’s holiday last month when writing about some common Christmas misconceptions in “The Real Story.” Like many others, I display historically inaccurate nativity scenes, sing “We Three Kings,” attend live nativities and Christmas pageants, and never will tire of the little ones, in their crooked tinsel halos, singing “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” Even when not historically accurate, Christmas practices like these have become a beautiful part of our traditional celebration of the Lord’s birth. That devotion’s purpose was to point out that, since  God’s story needs no embellishment, we need to know the difference between legend, tradition, and truth if our witness is to be effective.

It’s crucial to know what Scripture says because it’s not just Christmas traditions that can blur the line between truth and fiction. For example, even though Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code  is entirely fiction, there are many people who believe it to be reality-based. While adding sex, intrigue, and conspiracy to the story of God’s redemption of mankind made for a best seller and popular movie, it’s a poor substitute for the truth found in God’s word! We can’t rewrite Jesus to make Him more human nor can we rewrite His message to make it fit our purposes. As Christians, we must be wary of hoaxes and untruths in any sort of media, whether they purport to be fiction or not.

Several years ago, a woman in our study group asked to lead the day’s prayer from a popular devotional. Because the book’s author originally claimed the book’s words came directly from Jesus, this woman believed she was directly quoting the Lord in the prayer and gave its words the same authority as Scripture. The problem wasn’t in the prayer’s insipid words, it was in the author’s claim of divine revelation—that they were Jesus’ words. None of us can speak for God and that prayer’s words were the author’s, not the Lord’s. If our witness is to be effective, we must know the difference between Spirit-led ideas and God’s word. No matter how inspiring, we must never put our words (or those of anyone else) in Jesus’ mouth. If we want to know what He has to say, the Bible (rather than a devotional) is where we should look!

In another small group, we were discussing the crucifixion when Joseph of Arimathea was mentioned. Scripture only tells us that he was a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin who obtained Jesus’ body from Pilate and, with Nicodemus, prepared it for burial before laying the Lord in his own tomb. One group member, however, related how Joseph later brought the gospel to Britain along with the Holy Grail and, when he stuck his staff into the ground, it miraculously turned into a thorn tree overnight. While Joseph was mentioned by early church historians and in apocryphal and non-canonical accounts, no additional details were ever found credible. He wasn’t even associated with the Holy Grail until his name appeared in a 12th century verse romance and the first mention of his evangelizing Britain wasn’t made until the mid-13th century! As for the Holy Grail—Scripture makes absolutely no mention of a Holy Grail because there was none; like this story of Joseph of Arimathea, it is nothing more than a mythical legend. Nevertheless, many Christians continue to confuse legend with gospel truth.

Because it is authoritative, true, and complete, Scripture alone is the basis for our faith, doctrine, and witness. Proverbs 30:5-6 and Deuteronomy 4:2 and 12:32 all speak to Scripture’s sufficiency with their warnings to neither add to nor take away from God’s word. Moreover, in spite of skeptics’ claims, every book that God intended to be in the Bible is there. Rather than being lost or hidden, any “missing” books were rejected because they were fallible religious/historical books rather than the inspired inerrant Word of God.

As Jesus’ witnesses, we are expected to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!” Of course, to do that we must know the truth and we can only do that by doing what the Bereans did—test what we hear and read by searching for the truth in Scripture!

And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth. [Acts 17:11 (NLT)]

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