WHICH IS MORE IMPORTANT?

Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? [James 2:14-17 (MSG)]

Which can you do without? The right side of your heart or the left? Which blade on the scissors wouldn’t be missed? What is more important? The front wheel or the back one on your bicycle? The gas pedal or the brakes on your car? The right wing or the left of an airplane? Faith or works? Neither! None of these things can operate without the other. We need two blades on the scissors, two wings on the plane and we can’t be Christians without both faith and works.

We sometimes use the word “Christian” simply as an adjective to describe good, generous, moral or loving behavior. I have Jewish, Muslim and non-believer friends who easily could be described with those same adjectives. Good works alone cannot be used to define Christianity. On the other hand, I know people who say they believe in Jesus and call themselves “Christian” who appear to be sorely lacking in the good, generous, moral and love departments. So simply saying we have “faith” in Christ doesn’t seem to define Christianity either.

Our faith makes us Christians but that faith is far more than intellectual belief. Because the Holy Spirit comes along with faith, our faith is God at work in us. True faith changes our hearts, minds and souls. Since the Holy Spirit can’t help but do good works, if we have faith, neither can we!

Works follow from faith and yet faith, without works, cannot be faith. We can neither think our way nor can we work our way into heaven but, by the grace of God, with faith, we will live our way there!

Faith without works is like a bird without wings; though she may hop with her companions on earth, yet she will never fly with them to heaven. [Francis Beaumont]

I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.” Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove. [James 2:18 (MSG)]

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A WEAPON OF WAR

How long will you hurt me and crush me with your words? You have insulted me ten times now and attacked me without shame. [Job 19:2-3 (NCV)]

hot air balloon When writing about nitroglycerin yesterday, I realized there’s something else in our lives much like this strange chemical that can both hurt and help. Like nitroglycerin, man’s capabilities are a dichotomy between good and evil, building and destroying. The same mind capable of creating a vaccine that saves lives is capable of creating a bomb that can take those lives. While most of us have nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction and can’t destroy thousands with the push of a button, we all carry a weapon that can destroy one life at a time: our tongue!

Like nitroglycerin, our words can cause an explosion and major destruction. We can squash ambition with disparaging and demeaning remarks. We can shoot down someone with blame and guilt. While we’d never think of physically harming a person, with a few words, we can wound an ego. We’d never murder anyone but we certainly can manage to kill someone’s hopes and dreams. We’d never destroy a person’s home, yet we can destroy their reputation with just a few words! Ridicule and shaming can deflate self-esteem faster than an arrow can a hot air balloon. Our words, like nitroglycerin, can be devastating weapons.

Nevertheless, like medical nitroglycerin, our words also can help. Words of love, comfort, forgiveness, encouragement, respect, or sympathy can lift burdens and defuse situations better than any bomb squad. It is our choice as to whether we crush or nurture, rend or mend.

Father, forgive us for our thoughtless and often cruel words. Guide us to use our tongues with wisdom and love; show us how to heal, not harm. Let our words be ones of encouragement and support. Rather than destroyers, show us how to be builders; rather than combatants, let us be peacemakers; and rather than adversaries, let us be advocates.

Only speak words that make a heart grow stronger. [Ann Voskamp]

If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all! [My mother’s advice]

What you say can mean life or death. Those who speak with care will be rewarded. [Proverbs 18:21 (NCV)]

With words an evil person can destroy a neighbor, but a good person will escape by being resourceful. … Good people bless and build up their city, but the wicked can destroy it with their words [Proverbs 11:9,11 (NCV)]

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UH-OH!

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way. [James 1:2-4 (MSG)]

double rainbowThe most obvious way God speaks is through the Bible. Sometime, however, He whispers to us in the “Aha!” moments. Serendipitous, they are God’s love notes that gently remind us of His presence, His love for us, and the magnificence of His creation. While they vary from person to person, I tend to find them in things like butterflies dancing among the flowers or a double rainbow after a spring storm.

God speaks louder with those wonderful “Oh, yes!” moments—the joyful times when all seems right with the world. We recognize His voice when the healthy baby arrives, the surgeon says the word “benign,” or the prodigal returns home. Along with the welcome “Oh, yes!” moments are the unwelcome “Oh, no!” ones—times when the bottom falls out of our world. They come with words like “malignant” or “inoperable,” a phone call in the middle of the night, or in the ICU. In all of these occasions, we quickly seek God with either our incredible feelings of thanks and praise or in our deep sense of desperation and need. The only way we can make sense of either the awe or the awfulness of life is to believe and trust in our all-powerful and loving God who knows exactly what He’s doing.

While I can find God in the “Aha,” awesome and awful, my problem comes with God’s ”Uh-oh!” moments—the unexpected and unasked for minor frustrations of life. It seems easier to turn to God in the extremes than in the routine detours, roadblocks, and nuisances of everyday life. We all have them—waiting on hold for ten minutes only to get disconnected, losing the car keys, anything that involves technical support or the DMV (and possibly the post office), waiting all day for the repairman who never shows or engaging in wrap rage while trying to open a child-proof package! These are the moments when my fruit looks far more like impatience, peevishness, self-pity, childishness, and rudeness than anything produced by the Spirit.

We often talk about the joy and peace we have as Christians but rarely about how we deal (or fail to deal) with irritation and frustration. While the emotion isn’t sinful, often how we act in response to it is. The enemy doesn’t have to tempt us with a cannon when an annoying barrage of pellets from his BB gun will make us forget who we are and in whose arms we are held!

I doubt that I’m the only one who has difficulty maintaining perspective and patience in the face of the little aggravations that are part and parcel of living in our world. Perhaps it’s because we think those minor annoyances are solely our concern when, in actuality, like everything else, they belong to God! Focusing on whatever is upsetting us simply makes it grow in importance but focusing on God shrinks it back to size. Let us remember that our God listens—not just to our praise, thanks and heavy-duty pleas, but also to our prayers for perspective, patience and peace. It’s by focusing on God that we can turn those “Oh-oh” moments into “OK!” ones!

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. [Colossians 3:1-2 (MSG)]

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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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HIS FRUIT (Part 1)

So, I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions. [Galatians 5:16-17 (NLT)]

fruit of the spiritFortunately, because God loves His sinful children, we are saved through our faith and God’s grace; that means He takes us soiled sinners just as we are. But, just because God accepts His immoral, angry, impatient, bad-tempered, anxious and selfish children doesn’t mean He wants us to stay that way. Those who’ve had children know we don’t want them to remain toddlers or even teens forever. When Jesus saved the woman caught in adultery, he told her, “Go and sin no more!” and, when He saves us, He tells us the very same thing! Unfortunately, sinning no more is far easier said than done.

We may be reborn when we accept Christ but, other than being forgiven, the new saved us is still a great deal like the old one. Accepting Jesus doesn’t instantly make us into loving, joyful, serene, patient, compassionate, virtuous, faithful, humble, and self-disciplined individuals. Writing to the Galatians, Paul reminded them the old sinful self was still there, relentlessly trying to assert itself. Satan doesn’t disappear when we’re saved and, just as he tempted Jesus, he’ll continue to tempt us. We mustn’t err by picturing the enemy as a cartoonish imp wearing a red suit and carrying a pitchfork; he is no cartoon. There’s a war going on for our souls and he whispers into our ears with words of envy, anger, spite, fear, jealousy, lust, dissension, despair, pride, irritation, worry and self-centeredness.

Paul gave the Galatians a long list of evils: everything from idolatry, sorcery, and drunken parties to things probably closer to home such as quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition and envy. Repeating his warning that anyone living that sort of life would not inherit the kingdom of God, Paul added these words of hope: “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” [Galatians 5:22-23a] The good news is that God has not left us defenseless—which is where the Holy Spirit and His spiritual fruit enter in! When we become Christ followers, the Holy Spirit enters our lives and, along with a spiritual gift, He plants the Fruit of the Spirit in our hearts.

Planted by the Spirit in our hearts, the Fruit of the Spirit is a little like a Swiss Army knife with its numerous functions. Just as the multi-faceted pocketknife can provide us with two blades, corkscrew, screwdriver, bottle opener, scissors, wood saw, toothpick, tweezers, can opener, and key ring, the Fruit of the Spirit is an all-purpose tool providing us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These characteristics describe Jesus and it is the presence of this fruit in our hearts that enables us to grow more like Him every day: to have His purpose, thoughts, words and actions be ours.

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. … Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. [Galatians 5:22-23a,25 (NLT)]

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GUARD YOUR GATES [THE HOLY WAR – Part 1]

He burned down the Temple of the Lord, the royal palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem. He destroyed all the important buildings in the city. Then he supervised the entire Babylonian army as they tore down the walls of Jerusalem on every side. [2 Kings 25:9-10 (NLT)]

Schoonhoven - city gate

Jerusalem was heavily fortified and completely protected by walls over thirty-nine feet high and eight feet thick. In 586 BC, the Babylonian forces of King Nebuchadnezzar breached those seemingly impregnable walls and Jerusalem was burned, the city’s walls torn down, and the people taken captive. The city’s walls were rebuilt by Nehemiah 141 years later but they were again breached in 70 AD by the Romans who destroyed the city, demolished the second Temple, and massacred much of the population.

Published in 1682, John Bunyan’s allegory The Holy War tells of another fortified city’s fall. Bunyan’s walled city of Mansoul had five gates: Eye-gate, Ear-gate, Mouth-gate, Nose-gate and Feel-gate. Rather than Babylonians or Romans, Mansoul’s enemy was Diabolus. Unlike Jerusalem’s, Mansoul’s gates could not be breached or opened from the outside. They could only be forced if someone within the city allowed it. In short, sin could only enter if someone permitted its entrance. Diabolus and his then invisible army sat down in front of Ear-gate and assaulted it with fraud, guile, and hypocrisy. With the deaths of Captain Resistance and Lord Innocence, the townspeople looked at the tree of forbidden fruit, tasted it, forgot their good King Shaddai, opened both Ear and Eye-gate, and Mansoul came under the rule of Diabolus.

The Holy War is a none too subtle allegory that makes its point: walled cities can fall and city gates can be breached, if not from the outside, then from within. Like the city of Mansoul, sin will tempt and try to seduce us but it can’t force its way into our lives; it only enters by invitation. We alone are the ones who determine what we look at, hear, touch, feel, smell, say and do. Satan didn’t force Eve to eat that fruit, Cain to kill Abel, Jacob to deceive his father, the Israelites to worship a golden calf, Samson to dally with Delilah, David to take Bathsheba, Jonah to run away from Nineveh, King Ahaz to sacrifice his son, Herod to decapitate John, Judas to betray Jesus, or Peter to deny Him. These people freely opened their gates to temptation and allowed sin entrance into their lives.

An inevitable part of life, temptation is not a sin; it is a trial of faith. Mansoul’s sin was not in hearing the lies of Diabolous—it lay in believing and acting upon them. Sin happens when we drop our guard, open our gates, and allow it into our lives. God has given us a conscience, self-discipline, His word, and the Holy Spirit to defend our gates; whether or not we open ourselves to sin always remains our choice. Let us be cautious as to who and what enters our gates!

Temptation is the devil looking through the keyhole. Yielding is opening the door and inviting him in. [Billy Sunday]

But let us who live in the light be clearheaded, protected by the armor of faith and love, and wearing as our helmet the confidence of our salvation. [1 Thessalonians 5:8 (NLT)]

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