A SEASON OF GETTING OR GIVING?

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. [John 15:12 (ESV)]

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. [1 John 4:18-21 (ESV)]

santaThe National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend between 727.9 and 730.7 billion dollars on Christmas gifts and merchandise between November 1 and the end of the year. If they’re correct, we’ll have spent nearly $95 for every one of the 7.7 billion people on earth (most of whom won’t get any of those purchases). It’s ironic that a day set aside to honor the birth of Jesus, the Savior who sacrificed His life for us, has become a frenzied season of obtaining and consuming.

While this clearly is a season of indulging, let’s also make it a season of giving. Some of us make our giving decisions by asking, “What’s the least I can give while still honoring God?” Others ask, “What’s the most I can give without changing my life?” A very few, however, simply offer what they have. When a young boy offered his lunch, Jesus fed a multitude. When a poor widow shared her one serving of flour and oil, three people ate for three years. When a farmer shared his sack of grain and loaves of bread, Elisha and one hundred hungry men ate to their hearts’ content. The boy, widow, and farmer offered what they had, not what remained after they’d eaten their fill and, instead of having less, everyone had more.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis suggests that the real obstacle to giving could be fear—the fear of insecurity. We’re afraid that, if we share what we have, we might not have enough later. What if the stock market crashes, we lose our jobs, need long term nursing care, or outlive our money? Lewis points out we must recognize that fear for what it really is: temptation. Worry is one of the enemy’s favorite weapons!

Jesus told us to love one another in the way He loved us and that was unqualified sacrificial love on the cross! Being saved by God’s grace doesn’t free us from obedience to His command. Our knowledge of God’s perfect love should dispel all fear—not just about judgment or eternity, but about today and the days after this one. What we give is between us and God but we must never let fear enter into the equation. “In God we trust” is written on our currency. Do we really trust Him? If we do, why do we have such trouble sharing our assets with His children? Let us trust Him and obey.

Not, how much of my money will I give to God, but, how much of God’s money will I keep for myself? [John Wesley]

Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. [1 Timothy 6:17-18 (NLT)]

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DOUBT AND UNBELIEF

The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.  [Deuteronomy 29:29 (RSV)]

purple coneflowerGod makes Himself known through His creation, His word, and in the still small voice of His Spirit and the things He has revealed to us are what make our faith possible. Nevertheless, there is much that He has not made known to us, which is why faith is necessary. A day will come when our questions will be answered; when that time comes, our hope will turn into reality and what we believe will be seen. But, until then, there will be occasions of doubt. Doubt, however, doesn’t mean we’ve lost our faith; we can’t doubt what we don’t believe!

John Piper likens our faith journey to driving a racecar and doubt to an opponent splashing mud on our windshield. We don’t quit the race because of a little mud; instead, we slow down, turn on the windshield wipers, and clean off the muck! Questioning how the man who’d been nailed to a cross and sealed in a tomb could rise from the dead, the Apostle Thomas had reason for his doubt. Although the others claimed to have seen Jesus, Thomas hadn’t and questioned their claim. Had they seen and touched the wounds in His hands or the gash in His side? Thomas thought he needed that kind of proof to be sure it was Jesus. But, like a good racecar driver, in spite of the mud on his windshield, he didn’t quit the race. Thomas was still with the disciples when, eight days later, Jesus appeared and offered his maimed body to the doubting man. Perhaps, simply hearing the Lord’s voice and seeing Him standing there was all the disciple really needed. We never read of him actually touching Jesus before exclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”

While doubt comes from a troubled spirit and a questioning mind, unbelief is an act of the will. A deliberate choice, unbelief is the opposite of faith! It says, “I hear you, but I choose not to believe you!” The story is told of an atheist and Christian who were debating the existence of God and the truth of Scripture. At the end of their discussion, the atheist asked the Christian, “What happens if you faithfully live your Christian life and, when you die, you discover that you’ve been wrong all this time?” The believer answered, “Having lived a good life of joy and love, I simply will remain dead.” He then asked the atheist, “But, what if I am right and you’re wrong?” The atheist replied, “Then I will have made the greatest mistake of my life!” That mistake will have eternal repercussions!

Faith is a journey and we all will wrestle with doubt along the way, as I did in yesterday’s devotion about evil. “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” said the father who asked Jesus to heal his son; I echo his prayer. Jesus doesn’t demand enormous faith before He acts on our behalf. He said a tiny mustard seed of genuine faith is all that we need to move mountains. When moments of doubt occur (and they will), let us continue to pray, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” God, the creator and sustainer of our faith, will give us faith when we ask. He will help clean the spattered mud off the windshield of our car so we can finish the race.

Sometimes we need to go through the foyer of doubt to get into the sanctuary of certainty. [Greg Laurie]

If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt… There is no believing without some doubting, and believing is all the stronger for understanding and resolving doubt. [Os Guinness]

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” [John 20:29 (RSV)]

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. [Hebrews 11:1 (RSV)]

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HOW COULD HE?

For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100:5 (NLT)]

black vultureTears fell on my newspaper as I read the account of a toddler so violently raped that multiple surgeries will be required to repair the damage done to her little body. Nothing, however, will erase the abuse and my heart bled for the girl. From reading the book of Job, I knew not to ask God, “Why?” Nevertheless, I cried out to him, “How could you allow such evil to touch this child?”

Satan was unable to harm Job without God’s consent. Although he wasn’t permitted to kill Job, most of his family died—apparently, with God’s consent! When Jesus told Peter that “Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat,” it was clear the God allowed Satan to tempt Peter and the others. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness specifically so that He would be tempted. Wondering if these instances mean Satan always needs God’s permission to wreak his havoc on the world, I asked again, “How could you let him do this?”

Although Satan sometimes asked permission, I’m not sure we can infer that Satan always asked God’s permission to act against His children. Scripture doesn’t tell us he asked God if he could enter into Judas or tempt David with Bathsheba, Solomon with his foreign wives, Achan with Jericho’s plunder, Joseph with Potiphar’s wife, Esau with a bowl of stew, or Gehazi with Naaman’s money.

Satan and God are neither opposites nor equals. Satan was created and will end but God always has been and forever will be. While God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, Satan is none of those things. Unlike Satan, God has supreme authority over all things. That, unfortunately, leads me to the troubling conclusion that, while Satan may not always ask permission, nothing happens unless it is allowed by our sovereign God.

Coming to grips with the reality of evil may be the greatest challenge to our faith. If we truly believe that God is good and created everything, we have to ask how a good God could create evil. According to Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a truly good God is incapable of creating evil. Either something else created evil or evil isn’t a thing. But, if God created everything but couldn’t and wouldn’t create evil, we’re left with the conclusion that evil, while real, is not a tangible created thing! Rather than a thing, like a piece of fabric, Augustine posits that evil, like a hole in that fabric, is a lack of a thing; evil is a void in or lack of goodness. Augustine said, “Evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.'” He explains that, rather than choosing to do evil, men (exercising their free will) choose to turn away from good (which is sin). I don’t know if Augustine’s explanation is correct; I’m not sure I fully understand it. What I do know is that God called everything He created “good.” Although the tree in Eden contained the knowledge of good and evil, the evil wasn’t in the tree or its fruit. Adam and Eve’s lack of obedience, their turning away from the goodness of God, is what tore a hole in the goodness of the world.

The issue of evil will continue to trouble me, as it probably will you. Not being omniscient, we’ll never fully understand God’s purposes and ways; why He allows what He allows will remain a mystery. What isn’t a mystery, however, is who and what we know God to be! He is love! Our righteous God is sovereign over everything in the universe. He gave mankind free will and, with that free will, we can turn away from His righteousness but we also can choose to be moral and virtuous. For now, we must trust what we do know about God and believe in His wisdom, goodness and love (and continue to pray for those harmed by evil). “I do not know the answer to the problem of evil,” said Os Guiness, “but I do know love. That’s the key thing. In Jesus, we cannot doubt the love of God for us if we look at the lengths to which He went.”

God Almighty would in no way permit evil in His works were He not so omnipotent and good that even out of evil He could work good. [Augustine of Hippo]

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

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FINDING SOMETHING NEW

“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the LORD. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” [Jeremiah 31:33 (NLT)]

pikaSpencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? is an uncomplicated parable about two mice and two “little people” (Hem and Haw) who are looking for the “cheese” that will bring them happiness. When the cheese disappears, the mice quickly scurry off in search of more. Hem and Haw, however, have built their life around that cheese. Arrogantly thinking their brains are superior to those of their four-legged friends, they are unwilling to change and search for different cheese. Eventually, hunger drives Haw to leave his comfort zone and go in search of new cheese. When he finds it, he also finds those simple creatures, the mice, who’d been there for quite a while and enjoying the delicious new cheese.

The cheese is a metaphor for what we desire in life, whether a relationship, job, money, or peace of mind, and the book is about dealing with change, keeping things simple, and not confusing ourselves with fearful beliefs. Hem and Haw always thought that change would lead only to something worse. It is not until Haw understands that change also can lead to something better that he starts looking for new cheese. Sadly, left behind in the maze is Hem. Paralyzed with fear, in spite of his hunger, he stays in his comfort zone where the old cheese had been.

Throughout the story, Haw writes messages on the wall. When he writes, “The more important your cheese is to you, the more you want to hold on to it,” I couldn’t help but think of the Pharisees in Jesus’s time. The law was their cheese; they held tight to it and then over-complicated it. The simple law of keeping the Sabbath day became burdensome with its thirty-nine categories (and hundreds of subcategories) of prohibited work and exceptions to the rules. While tying knots was prohibited, if the knot could be untied with just one hand, it was allowed! People couldn’t carry their clothes out of a burning house on the Sabbath but they could put on several layers of clothing and wear them out! As happened with Hem, the Pharisees became over-confident and arrogant; for them, their complicated set of rules was the only cheese, even when it ceased making sense!

Jesus, however, introduced a new kind of cheese: a new covenant of salvation through faith, not works. Rather than the law being written with ink on paper it was written with the blood of Jesus upon men’s hearts. Although God’s promise of a new covenant came true in Jesus, the Pharisees refused to change and stayed hungry in their corner of the maze.

A great many of us in the 21st century are little different from those who resisted Jesus in the 1st. We may not cling to a long list of prohibitions and rules as did the Pharisees but, out of fear of change, we cling to a way of life that isn’t working. We’re like the rich man who asked Jesus what he needed to do for eternal life. When told that he must give up the old cheese (his riches), he walked away rather than accept Jesus’s offer of salvation. Like Hem, could we be going hungry when all we need to do is step out of our comfort zone and seek the Bread of Life? Or, like, Haw, will we seek and find?

His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. [Acts 17:27-28a (NLT)]

Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” [John 6:35 (NLT)]

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THE STORY CONTINUES 

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)]

mute swanYesterday, I wrote of those times when we’re blind-sided by challenges and difficulty. When that happens, it truly is difficult to accept and trust God’s love and wisdom. Unfortunately, while Jesus made many promises, an easy life was not one of them. In fact, we’re told that troubles are pretty much guaranteed.

Just as a book has several chapters, some happier than others, so it goes with our lives. Often a chapter filled with challenges is followed by a chapter of blessings. That happened for several of those people about whom I wrote. Three estranged adult children came together to help their parents during that series of medical crises. Better yet, their mother recovered from her stroke and her cancer treatment was successful. The man defrauded by his business partner paid off his debts and started over again; he has become a wealthy man. The woman betrayed by her husband met a widower and fell in love; the two married and she is now mother to his three children. God blessed the couple who lost their twin boys with a beautiful healthy little girl. Although she didn’t beat cancer, the fifteen extra years God gave the last woman allowed her to raise her children and hold her first grandchild. Her once heartbroken husband recently remarried and started a new chapter in his life.

Does this mean an end to all of their troubles? No; troubles will come and go. More chapters will be written, some better than others, but none of us should worry or be afraid while waiting for the next chapter to unfold. We must trust God’s plan for us and live each day, one day at a time, secure in the knowledge that God will provide us with all we need to meet every challenge. We can remain confident that the last chapter of our lives, the one when we enter God’s kingdom, will be the best one ever!

If God can bring blessing from the broken body of Jesus and glory from something that’s as obscene as the cross, He can bring blessing from my problems and my pain and my unanswered prayer. I just have to trust Him. [Anne Graham Lotz]

My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever. Those who desert him will perish, for you destroy those who abandon you. But as for me, how good it is to be near God! I have made the Sovereign Lord my shelter, and I will tell everyone about the wonderful things you do. [Psalm 73:26-28 (NLT)]

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LEAPING OVER A WALL!

deerFor it is you who light my lamp; the Lord my God lightens my darkness. For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall. This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him. [Psalm 18:28-30 (ESV)]

We’d been driving down a remote mountain road when we spotted a herd of deer in front of us. After leaping over the fence on our left, they crossed the road and trotted off into the forest on our right. One, however, stopped on the side of the road. Turning her head and flicking her tail, she stared across the road at where she’d just been. There, on the other side of the fence, we saw one lone fawn, struggling to leap over the obstacle. Perhaps looking for an easier way across the road, he kept pacing back and forth along the fence line. Several times he approached the fence, but never quite took the necessary leap. Meanwhile, unwilling to leave her youngster behind, the doe patiently stood across the road. Perhaps it was the way she flagged her tail that finally convinced him he could do it. In one great leap, the little deer made it over the fence, trotted across the road to his mother, and off they sped to join the rest of the herd.

I wondered why this fawn was unable to clear the fence when the other youngsters had leapt over it so easily. Perhaps, having strayed or lagged behind the others, he didn’t realize he needed a running start. Maybe, when he saw the fence, he allowed fear to stop him in his tracks. Fortunately, his mother’s presence eased his fears and gave him strength and courage enough to leap over it. As the doe did for the fawn, God’s presence in our lives eases our fears. It is His presence and power that enables us to vault over the hurdles in our lives.

Thank you, Lord, for never abandoning us. Don’t ever let us lose sight of you. Help us stay close to our brothers and sisters in Christ so we can learn from them and follow their examples. Encourage and strengthen us so we never allow fear to keep us from following wherever you lead.

If the Lord be with us, we have no cause of fear. His eye is upon us, His arm over us, His ear open to our prayer – His grace sufficient, His promise unchangeable. [John Newton]

For who is God, but the Lord? And who is a rock, except our God?—the God who equipped me with strength and made my way blameless. He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights. [Psalm 18:31-33 (ESV)]

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