IN ALL THINGS

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

Swamp lily - Corkscrew swampAfter the Apostle Paul established the church in Thessalonica, he encountered persecution from both the Jews and city officials so he abruptly fled with Silas. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul sends words of comfort, edification, and encouragement to the new church. Along with some practical advice on Christian living, he reassures the new converts in their persecution and 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 are some of my favorite verses.

A common theme in Paul’s letters is that our joy, prayers and thanks shouldn’t depend upon our circumstances. In this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul’s short sentences have a forceful tone and, rather than merely suggesting, the Apostle is almost ordering them to rejoice, pray and give thanks! While we should rejoice in what Matthew Henry calls our “creature comforts,” rather than an emotion, this joy is an attitude of delight in the Lord rather than in our condition. Instead of “always,” the King James translation says “evermore” and, for the believer, rejoicing forevermore is possible. We can rejoice in anticipation of our future when our joy truly will be never-ending.

One of the ways to always rejoice is to pray without ceasing! Prayer is conversing with God and, if we’re talking with Him, we can’t help but be joyful. Yet, looking at Paul’s example of working as a tentmaker during his ministry, I don’t think Paul means we should be on our knees and praying incessantly 24/7. Nevertheless, we should be continually aware of God’s presence in our daily lives. Rather than do nothing but pray, we should allow nothing to hinder our perseverance and faithfulness in prayer. With attentiveness to God’s will for us, our lives should be a continual prayer and all of our actions should honor, worship and praise the Almighty!

Then we get to Paul’s third command: “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you…” Because most modern translations tend to group these three verses together in one paragraph, I took the last part of this sentence to mean that it is God’s will that we rejoice, pray and give thanks in all circumstances. Indeed, I’m sure it is but, reading his words in the light of the trials facing the Thessalonians gives them deeper meaning.

Considering that they were being persecuted and “all circumstances” for them included suffering, prosecution and intimidation, Paul’s words tell them to look beyond their hardship because all that was happening was within God’s will for them! Paul knew that God is at work on behalf of His people in any and all circumstances. It is because of that, we can be thankful in scarcity, hardship, loss, peril, and sickness and as well as in plenty, opportunity, gain, security, and health.

We can rejoice forever, make our lives a continual prayer, and give thanks in all circumstances because we know that our situation, no matter how dire, is within God’s plan for us and is for our good. Knowing that “this is the will of God for you who belong to Christ Jesus,” we can, indeed, joyfully give thanks!

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

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NITROGLYCERIN

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. [James 1:2-4 (NLT)]

crown vetchMy father had heart disease and often suffered from a burning chest pain called angina. When that occurred, he would stop what he was doing and place a nitroglycerin tablet under his tongue. Medical nitroglycerin acts as a vasodilator by dilating or expanding the blood vessels so the heart doesn’t have to work so hard to pump blood through those vessels.

When I was a girl and my dad took one of his nitro tablets, I didn’t know how they worked. Having seen enough Saturday matinees to know that liquid nitroglycerin is so unstable that the slightest jolt can cause it to explode, I couldn’t understand how my father could safely carry it around in his pocket, let alone put it in his mouth. After all, Sylvester the Cat exploded when Tweety Bird put it in his medicine and I’m sure Wile E. Coyote tried to use it on the Roadrunner! Whether in its liquid form or stabilized with clay in dynamite, nitroglycerin is the most dangerous and unstable explosive there is. How could something capable of blasting a hole in the side of a mountain keep my father’s heart from exploding in a heart attack?

I suppose trials are a little like nitroglycerin—they can destroy or help us. The end result depends on what we make of them and how we use them. We live in an imperfect fallen world and, like it or not, every one of us will face ordeals and troubles. Some we bring on ourselves as consequences of our own sin. But, as happened with Job, many of life’s trials seem as random as a tornado and descend upon us without rhyme or reason. Without God, those trials can demolish our lives as easily as nitroglycerin can demolish a building. With God, however, like medicinal nitroglycerin, trials can help our heart for Him.

God’s purpose isn’t to give us easy comfortable lives; He wants us to grow into the image of his son, Jesus Christ (which is what sanctification is all about). Everything in our lives, both good and bad, is designed to help us reach that goal. Unfortunately, when all is going smoothly, we tend to forget about God, just as easily as my father forgot about his diseased heart when relaxing in his recliner. But, just as the pain from stress or strenuous exercise made him turn to his nitro, trials force us to turn to God.

I lose the parallel between trials and nitroglycerin here because, while those tiny nitro pills alleviated the pain in my father’s chest, they didn’t cure his heart disease. They were merely a temporary fix and he died of a massive heart attack at the age of 56. Trials, however, do more than ease the symptoms of what’s wrong with us; they can actually shape and fix us. Disappointment, despair, and disaster, unlike heart disease, don’t have to kill us. Faith is a muscle and, just like the heart, it grows stronger when it is exercised. Somewhat like a cardiac surgeon, God fixes our hearts with trials.

Whether our trials are as destructive as liquid nitroglycerin or as therapeutic as nitroglycerin pills depends upon our reaction to them. We can become bitter or we can consider them a blessing. We can rebel or choose to trust God and accept His grace to deal with our difficulty and pain. Fortunately, rather than a cardiologist, we have the Holy Spirit who will give us all of the comfort, strength and wisdom we need to endure our trials. Because of Him, we can emerge from our trials with mended hearts and a stronger, purer and more mature faith.

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

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FROM BAD TO WORSE

O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? [Psalm 13:1-2 (NLT)]

Once a pampered prince, forty years later, Moses was living as a Midianite shepherd. When speaking to him from the burning bush, God laid out His plan for freeing the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and the pivotal role Moses would play in it. Protesting, Moses made excuse after excuse but God countered every excuse with a solution. Provided with a shepherd’s staff and Aaron as his mouthpiece, Moses reluctantly accepted God’s charge. Before approaching Pharaoh, however, he first met with Israel’s elders to convince them that he was on a mission from God.

Although the elders were convinced, Pharaoh wasn’t. When Moses asked that the Israelites be given just three days to journey into the wilderness and worship their God, Pharaoh didn’t just refuse. Accusing Moses of interfering with his people’s work, he cruelly increased their work load. Instead of having the straw needed for brick making provided, they had to find their own straw while still meeting their daily brick quota. When they failed to do so, the Israelite foremen were beaten. Faced with an impossible task, they approached Pharaoh. Pitilessly refusing to lighten their load, he accused the Israelites of laziness. Protesting to Moses, the foremen blamed him for the harshness of their Egyptian masters. Disheartened at his lack of success and Egypt’s increasing brutality, the Israelites lost all confidence in Moses and God’s promise of relief. Instead of going from bad to better, things had gone from bad to worse.

Sadly, even Moses lost faith. Forgetting that God told him Pharaoh would not let them go easily, the despondent Moses cried out to God. He questioned God’s purpose and even accused Him of doing nothing to help!

Things looked bad for David more than 420 years later. After Samuel anointed him king, David spent the next fifteen years on the run from King Saul who was trying to kill him. Like Moses, he was following God’s plan and yet things had gone from bad to worse for him, too. Like Moses, he cried out and asked God why he’d been forsaken.

Things looked dire for Elijah, as well. Like Moses and David, he wasn’t winning any popularity contests by obeying God. In his case, the prophet was giving unpleasant prophecies to some evil people. The enraged Jezebel was out to kill him and he’d just received her message that he’d be dead within 24-hours. The exhausted man sat under a broom bush and, sure that he was as good as dead, told God to kill him then.

Scripture teaches that, when we’re following God’s plan, we will face opposition in the world. It’s been suggested that if we don’t face the enemy’s opposition, we’re probably not doing God’s work. There will be times when our circumstances look bleak, God seems to be looking the other way, and the enemy seems to be winning.

When Jesus’s followers stood at the foot of the cross, watched Him suffer, and heard Him speak the words of Psalm 22 asking God why He’d been abandoned, it probably seemed that all hope was gone and the enemy had won. Three days later, however, it was clear that all hope had arrived! We can’t give up on the power, wisdom and goodness of God because his plan sometimes seems to have gone awry. Let us always remember that God’s promise to the Israelites is as true today as it was over 3,400 years ago: “Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you.” [Deuteronomy 31:8 (NLT)]

The Lord hears his people when they call to him for help. He rescues them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed. The righteous person faces many troubles, but the Lord comes to the rescue each time. [Psalm 34:17-19 (NLT)]

I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” [John 16:33 (NLT)]

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BATTLES

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? … No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. [Romans 8:35,37 (NLT)]

columbineI prayed for Pearl for over a year. This beautiful toddler had Stage-4 cancer and her bones, brain, and internal organs were riddled with the disease’s treacherous cells. Her prognosis was bleak and there were times she nearly lost her life to the effects of the various remedies rather than the cancer. That Pearl is alive and cancer free today is nothing short of a miracle. Nevertheless, she and her family went through a very dark valley to get to this place of victory. I’m sure, if given a choice, they would have preferred God to have miraculously healed her prior to the long battle she fought for over a year.

The Old Testament is filled with conflicts. In a few instances, the Israelites were given victory without ever having to go into combat. 2 Chronicles 20 tells of the time God promised Jehoshaphat the battle was God’s. At the very moment the people began to praise Him, the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Mt. Seir started fighting among themselves. By the time the army of Judah arrived, every one of their enemies was dead. 2 Kings 19 tells of a night when 185,000 enemy Assyrian soldiers were struck dead by an angel of the Lord. When the survivors awoke to the corpse-filled camp, they retreated to Nineveh where they remained. Because God took His people around the dark valley those times, the battles were won without engaging in combat or suffering loss.

For the most part, however, God’s assurance of victory rarely meant there would be no struggle. Yes, the walls of Jericho fell but, when the Israelites charged into the city with their swords and captured it, it’s hard to believe the people of Jericho didn’t defend themselves vigorously. Although the Israelites defeated them, Scripture never tells us they suffered no battle injuries or fatalities. In Joshua 10:2, God assured Joshua of victory over the Amorites but that conquest didn’t come easily. They fought so long and hard that Joshua had to ask God to prolong the day until they’d defeated their enemies. The spoils of war may have gone to the victors but, surely, they came at a cost and not every Israelite safely returned home that day. Even when we’re victorious, every battle leaves scars of one kind or another.

God could defeat armies without using any of His soldiers but He often sent His people into battle. I have no doubt that God could have miraculously cured Pearl without her and her family having to suffer through a year of painful expensive treatment and the agony of never knowing what the next procedure or test would bring. But, like the armies of Israel and Judah, they had to go through the dark valley and into battle before victoriously coming out on the other side.

The Apostle Paul tells us to rejoice in our troubles and trials because they lead to patient endurance which leads to maturity of character. I imagine Pearl’s family felt there had been more than enough character building long before her suffering ended. Nevertheless, they remained faithful and hopeful because they knew they were never alone in that dark valley. The battle was neither Pearl’s nor theirs; it was God’s.

We do not live in a perfect world. Although we are assured of victory, we are not assured of a battle-free life nor are we assured of victory while on this side of the grass. We will be faced with trials, temptations, loss, struggle, disease, suffering, and death. That God has won the war does not mean His Christian soldiers won’t ever have to fight! Nevertheless, we are victorious!

For every child of God defeats this evil world, and we achieve this victory through our faith. And who can win this battle against the world? Only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. [1 John 5:4-5 (NLT)]

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THE GOOD OLD DAYS

Virginia CityDon’t long for “the good old days.” This is not wise. [Ecclesiastes 7:10 (NLT)]

When talking with my centenarian mother-in-law, we often spoke of the “good old days.” She sometimes indulged in what I came to call “wishful remembering” and her past became more like a Hallmark movie than reality. I suppose, to some extent, we all do the same. The sledding hill grows steeper, the house bigger, the friends nicer, the grades better, the paycheck larger, and the success greater while any failure, disappointment, blame, pain, or drudgery diminishes. Not every memory we have, however, is a correct one; rather than an accurate record, our memories are actually what we tell ourselves about the past. Given the choice, it’s far nicer to have wishful good memories than ones of bitterness, regret and sorrow and I never corrected my mother-in-law’s. Nevertheless, we must be cautious of becoming too attached to our memories, especially if our less than accurate version of yesterday keeps us from moving into tomorrow.

Less than a month after God’s parting of the Red Sea and their song of victory and triumph at the defeat of Pharaoh, the Israelites had a serious case of wishful remembering and started to grumble. Instead of recalling the slaughter of baby boys and the back-breaking labor of Egyptian slavery, they remembered sitting around in comfort eating all the bread and stew they desired. Months later, they again complained about their hardships while recalling free fish, fruit and vegetables instead of the price they paid in sweat for that food. Rather than oppression, they remembered the “good old days” of Egyptian provision.

Sodom was the place where a gang of men wanted to attack Lot, sexually abuse his guests, and, for reasons beyond our understanding, Lot offered his virgin daughters to a mob of depraved men. When Lot’s family was told that Sodom was to be destroyed, they were urged to flee immediately and specifically warned to neither stop nor look back. Nevertheless, stopping and turning back is exactly what Lot’s wife did. According to the Moody Bible Commentary, the Hebrew word used for her looking back (vathabbet) has a very specific meaning of looking at something with desire or approval. Lot’s family left their home, possessions, friends, and even their sons-in-law behind. Choosing not to recall the evil, Lot’s wife turned, remembered the “good old days,” and longed for what had been and was no more.

When we follow God, we’re not promised an easy journey; in fact, Jesus pretty much promises we’ll encounter hardships. Stepping out in faith often means moving from comfort, convenience, and familiarity into the disruption, trials and vulnerability of the unknown. In light of new challenges and burdens, it’s easy to repaint the past with wishful memories of “the good old days.” As bad as the past may have been for either the Israelites or Lot’s wife, for them it seemed preferable to their unknown tomorrows. Those wishful memories, however, cost the Israelites an extra 38 years and Lot’s wife her life!

While wishful memories can make the past more palatable, they also can prevent us from experiencing the blessings of the future. We must never remember the good old days at the expense of failing to trust God with the new ones.

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

But I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. [Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

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BEARING FRUIT (Part 2)

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15:4-5 (NLT)]

concord grapesBeing the branches on the vine of Jesus means that we are extensions of Him and a good branch is one that produces fruit. In Galatians 5, Paul told us that fruit should look like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Our fruit doesn’t come by following guidelines or obeying laws; it comes from a relationship with God through Jesus Christ; it comes from staying connected to the vine.

My son lives in California and has several beautiful trees in his yard. Not an arborist, I didn’t know what kind of trees they were until I saw their fruit. It was only by the orange persimmons, yellow lemons, and dark figs that I recognized the trees. As with my son’s fruit trees, it is by our fruit that we are recognized as Christ followers. Our responsibility as Christians is to bear godly fruit and, if we’re not producing fruit that looks and tastes a whole lot like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, we’re not connected to the vine!

As with any orchard, it takes time for trees and vines to grow and fruit to ripen and mature. Moreover, being a Christ follower doesn’t mean we’ll never sin. Admittedly, in spite of the Holy Spirit, often my behavior is anything but Christ-like and, frequently, there’s a shortage of good fruit in my orchard. There will be people and situations that challenge our capacity to act as would Jesus. Things will try our patience, test our faith, cause us to question our ability to love our neighbor, and challenge us to curb our anger. There will be times we’re exasperated, irritated, distressed, offended or worried. We’ll fail to turn the other cheek, lose our tempers, and say things we shouldn’t.

Because our behavior in these instances is a clear indication of where we are in our faith walk and how connected we are to the vine, I call them our “Jesus meters;” a bad score on the Jesus meter tells us we’re not walking His walk! When that meter indicates rotten fruit (or none at all), we repent, ask forgiveness, take comfort in God’s grace, reconnect with the Holy Spirit, learn from our errors, and continue to grow on His vine.

Just as I know my son’s trees by their fruit, Jesus know us by ours. If we’re bearing the Fruit of the Spirit, people will see some of Christ in us. If there were a litmus test for Christlikeness, it would not be pious words, powerful preaching, grandiose gestures, or even extraordinary feats; it would be the presence of the Fruit of the Spirit. If love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control aren’t evident in our lives, we may be talking the talk but we’re clearly not walking the walk.

Being reborn takes only a moment but becoming a Christian, now that takes a lifetime. Every life bears fruit of some kind. The question for each of us is, “What kind of fruit is mine?”

When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father. [John 15:8 (NLT)]

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