AN ABOUT FACE

I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law.  I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. [Philippians 3:5-6 (NLT)]

In writing about change yesterday, I couldn’t help but think of the Apostle Paul. He knew firsthand of God’s transforming power. When we first meet Paul, he’s going by his Hebrew name of Saul and looking on as Stephen (the first of Christ’s followers to give his life for the gospel) is stoned to death.

The slaying of Stephen led to a wave of persecution and Saul relentlessly went from house to house in search of Jesus’s followers so he could drag them off to prison. Full of religious zeal and eager to kill those who followed the Way, Saul asked the high priest for permission to go to Damascus so he could arrest Christ’s followers and drag them back to Jerusalem in chains. In short, Saul was brutal and violent and little more than a religious terrorist! It is on the road to Damascus, however, that Saul meets the risen Christ and has his amazing conversion [Acts 9]. Meeting Jesus face-to-face, being struck blind for three days, having Ananias lay hands on him, scales falling from his eyes, and Saul’s baptism make for a powerful story of redemption and truly testify that no person is beyond the saving grace of the Lord.

Nevertheless, old habits die hard and, as I wrote yesterday’s devotion, I wondered if Saul struggled as this once fanatical persecutor of Christians transformed into the great Christian evangelist. As a second-generation Pharisee, he thought of himself as a member of an elite group and anything foreign would have been detested. Wanting to keep himself free of any impurity, the old Saul would never associate with Gentiles or even any Jews who interpreted the law differently. Yet, the man who abhorred anyone different from him preached all over the Roman Empire, stressed unity between Jewish and Gentile believers, and became known as the Apostle to the Gentiles!

As a Pharisee, Saul had been meticulous to the point of obsession about obedience to both the written and oral Law. Yet, in an about face, he maintained that Jewish Christians no longer had to abide by those same regulations and that Gentile converts didn’t have to become Jews before becoming Christians. Understanding that it was the Holy Spirit rather than the Law that empowered holy living, Saul changed from thinking that strict obedience to the Law would make us right with God to knowing that we are only made right by grace through faith in Jesus.

Nevertheless, until meeting Jesus on the way to Damascus, Saul’s life had been wrapped around strict adherence to the Law. Did he have difficulty letting go of Pharisaic traditions like their elaborate hand washing ritual before meals, the conspicuous wearing of phylacteries and tassels, or fasting twice a week? Did the Jew who’d grown up loathing Gentiles cringe when he first sat down to eat with them? Until now, I hadn’t considered how difficult it had to have been for the Pharisee to become the Apostle. The man who wrote that “anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person” [2 Corinthians 5:17] knew firsthand the truth of his statement. It is in his transformation that we see the power of Jesus to revolutionize a life! Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the persecutor of Christians became a preacher for Christ!

Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. [Philippians 3:8-9 (NLT)]

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CAN WE CHANGE?

leopardCan an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. [Jeremiah 13:23 (NIV)]

What words of despair from Jeremiah! Yet, why would God send him to the people of Judah with the call to repent if there was no hope of change? Surely, He didn’t send His prophet on a fool’s errand!

We all have issues with sin. While it may not be theft or adultery, chances are it’s something like anger, envy, impatience, bigotry, hostility, selfishness, pessimism, or pettiness. “It’s just the way I’m built,” we say in way of excuse. While we may justify ourselves by saying our faults are simply our nature, they aren’t! Having recently gone through genetic testing, I didn’t see any genes for things like lust, short-temper, worry, nitpicking, intolerance, arrogance, discontent, or stinginess. When we confuse our learned behavior with innate behavior, we excuse the inexcusable. While we can’t change our skin color or blood type, we can change our habits.

The gift of habit is God given; indeed, we’re blessed that we can go through life without having to deliberately think through the details of every action. If we had to consciously consider how to brush our teeth, get dressed, tie our shoes, make coffee, or start the car, we’d never get anywhere in the morning. The gift of habit, however, can also be a curse when our habitual responses are not godly—when they entail things like bigotry, anxiety, deceit, pride, anger, self-centeredness, or jealousy. 19th Century preacher Charles Spurgeon likened the force of habit to a cobweb: at first, it’s easily broken. When it grows into a thread, however, it restrains us a bit and, when the thread changes into a cord, we find ourselves in a net. As the net hardens into iron and the iron into steel, we’re shut up in a cage of our own making with no way of escape.

In discussing Jeremiah’s question, Spurgeon emphatically states that the Ethiopian cannot change his skin but, he adds as emphatically, an Ethiopian’s skin can be changed. He explains that the God who turned “primeval darkness into light” and “changed chaos into order” can do everything and, should He choose to do so, He could easily change skin color and leopard spots. Far more important than changing appearances, however, God can transform human nature! The God who designed our hearts can make them new again. After all, change or re-birth is what Jesus is all about!

Jeremiah called the people to repent; the call to put off our old sinful nature and replace it with the new continues today. Although we can’t do it by ourselves, God doesn’t ask anything of us that we are incapable of doing. When we accept Jesus, the Holy Spirit produces fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  [Galatians 5:22-23] We may have to dig deep to find it but God’s fruit is there! Granted, it’s difficult to put away ingrained habits; change is neither easy nor fast. Nevertheless, though the power of the Holy Spirit, change is possible; we can take off the old and put on the new!

The God who made us also can remake us. [Woodrow Kroll]

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)]

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. [Ephesians 4:22 (NIV)]

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GETTING IT JUST RIGHT

Pride ends in humiliation, while humility brings honor. [Proverbs 29:23 (NLT)]

brown bear - montana

In the story of The Three Bears, Goldilocks tasted porridge, sat in chairs, and climbed on beds in an attempt to find what was “just right” on the continuum between hot and cold, big and small, and hard and soft. When editing photos I do much the same thing as I adjust the brightness to find the setting where it’s neither too dark nor too light. As parents (and parents-in-law), we often struggle to find the right position between the extremes of meddling and total detachment. As Christians, we must find a proper balance between two other extremes: pride and humility.

Thinking either too much or too little of ourselves is equally wrong. Pride is insidious and can creep into our lives but so can false humility. When we’re prideful, we deprecate the gifts, talents and achievements of others but, when we’re falsely modest, we deprecate our God-given gifts, talents and achievements; both are dishonest. Healthy pride is a feeling of self-respect and confidence that acknowledges God’s gifts and isn’t threatened by the success of others. Healthy humility also acknowledges God’s gifts but with an attitude of genuine modesty and unpretentiousness. Both pride and humility exhibit delight in and gratitude for the blessings God has bestowed both on ourselves and others.

We need to know and recognize both our assets and our deficits. While our gifts vary from person to person, we are neither superior nor inferior to one another; we all are God’s children. It’s not just in the marketplace that God hates dishonest scales and deceit; He expects us to weigh and measure ourselves with honesty. Like Goldilocks, we must find the place that is “just right” between pride and humility: the place where we can both own our strengths and acknowledge our weaknesses. When we’re at that “just right” point, we can honestly give and take both praise and correction. Acknowledging the virtues and gifts of others as well as any with which we’ve been blessed, we can take joy in both our accomplishments and the accomplishments of others.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. [Rick Warren]

Too much humility is pride. [German proverb]

The Lord detests the use of dishonest scales, but he delights in accurate weights. Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. Honesty guides good people; dishonesty destroys treacherous people. [Proverbs 11:1-3 (NLT)]

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BE KIND

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)]

tiger swallowtailLast week, when Brandt Jean chose to offer his forgiveness and embrace the woman who killed his brother, he did it out of Christian love. Judge Tammy Kemp, moved by Brandt’s example, then handed the convicted murderer one of her personal Bibles and encouraged her to forgive herself. When the defendant asked her for a hug, the judge remembered a recent sermon about love and compassion and couldn’t deny her. Nevertheless, many people were outraged and turned their simple acts into political statements. They saw issues of race, civil rights, proselytizing, and something called “post-traumatic slavery syndrome” where there was only love, kindness, and forgiveness. Neither brother nor judge excused or absolved Amber Guyger of her crime; they simply extended compassion and forgiveness. Let us not forget that their actions were also in obedience to Christ!

This week, Ellen DeGeneres received backlash for sitting next to President George Bush at a football game. Responding to the outrage that a “gay Hollywood liberal” would sit beside “a conservative Republican president,” she pointed out that she is a friend to many who don’t have her same beliefs. The comedian added, “I think that we’ve forgotten that it’s okay that we’re all different.” In her own way, the comedian captured the essence of Jesus’s commands with her words, “When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”

Last fall, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 80% of our population believes the nation to be either “totally” or “mainly” divided. Apparently, that’s just about the only thing Americans can agree upon except, of course, that most of those polled also believe that this divisiveness is the fault of the other side of whatever their ideology happens to be!

We are becoming a nation that views people through ideological eyes rather than the eyes of God. We see black or white, rich or poor, labor or management, rural or urban, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, friend or foe instead of seeing a human being. In his song Russians, Sting put it this way: “There is no monopoly of common sense on either side of the political fence. We share the same biology, regardless of ideology.” Whether or not we look like them, speak their language, come from the same background, believe the same things, or agree with their lifestyle doesn’t matter. They are people—people just like us, made in God’s image and precious in His sight.

The essence of Christian life is love and that love is active rather than passive. It isn’t just about turning the other cheek and not retaliating; it is about positive acts of kindness. As Christ’s followers, we must never hesitate to reach out in love to everyone (even those with whom we disagree). Moreover, as His followers, we must never be part of the divisive rhetoric that has become part and parcel of this day and age. The rules for conducting our lives were not written by man; they were written by God. The only side we should take on any issue is His!

Again I say, don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth. [2 Timothy 2:23-25 (NLT)]

But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. …If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! [Luke 6:27-28,32-33 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

SOMEONE’S LOOKING

The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord sits on his throne in heaven. He sees what people do; he keeps his eye on them. [Psalm 11:4 (NCV)]

beach weddingWhen I was a little girl and got sick, my mother would dress me in a fresh pair of pajamas, tuck me into her bed, get out her hairbrush, and do my hair. “Why bother?” I’d ask, “No one is going to see me.” She’d always reply, “God sees you and you want to look your best.” I found it comforting, as I lay in bed, to know that both God and my mother were watching me.

It’s not just God, however, who watches—people do, too. While enjoying dinner on the patio of a local restaurant, we observed a couple exchange wedding vows on the beach. Although here were only five people present for the ceremony, when the groom kissed the bride, the entire patio applauded in joy. The couple beamed with delight and enthusiastically waved at the sixty uninvited guests who had witnessed their nuptials.

Their joy as being observed was a contrast to another al fresco dinner many years earlier. We were seated on a porch overlooking a well-lit boat launch. Two couples were trying unsuccessfully to get their boat back onto its trailer. With one attempt, the trailer wouldn’t be back far enough but, with the next, it would be too far back. The boat would drift, the trailer tires spin, or the boat motor would quit. As the evening wore on and the boat remained in the water, the boaters’ tempers flared. That they may have enjoyed too much liquid refreshment during the day didn’t help and there were angry words, cussing and name calling. We were finishing our key lime pie when their truck successfully pulled the trailered boat out of the water. In relief, the entire dining room broke out in applause. The four looked up at us, somewhat mortified that their poor behavior had been witnessed by so many.

Unlike the wedding couple, we’re not always in our best attire and on our best behavior. Our conduct, like that of the boaters, frequently leaves much to be desired. We’re told to let our lights shine so that people will see Christ in us but we’ve been known to let our lamps get so dim that Christ is nowhere to be seen in us. Whether we’re shining or not, however, a bright light may be shining on us (as it was on the boaters)! It’s not just the eyes of God that are upon us; people observe us, as well. Are we the shining light we’re called to be?

We are indeed the light of the world—but only if our switch is turned on. [John Hagee]

In the same way, you should be a light for other people. Live so that they will see the good things you do and will praise your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:16 (NCV)]

You are God’s children whom he loves, so try to be like him. … In the past you were full of darkness, but now you are full of light in the Lord. So live like children who belong to the light. [Ephesians 5:1,8 (NCV)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

WHEN PUSH COMES TO SHOVE

Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. [Matthew 5:38-42 (MSG)]

water lilyThe billboard’s message read, “When push comes to shove, don’t!” It was sponsored by a nonprofit foundation that uses a variety of media sources to encourage positive values, good role models, and a better life. “Hard to argue with a goal like that,” I thought before discovering that some people took exception to their peaceful message. Re-tweeting it, one rock musician told his fans just to “shove harder.”

Recently, the management of our home association sent an email regarding the previous night’s annual meeting. Being out of town, we’d missed it but, apparently, pushes had come dangerously close to shoves. Because it had deteriorated into arguments, shouting and name calling, the management company found it necessary to inform the home owners that such future behavior would not be tolerated. They warned that, if it recurred, the meeting immediately would be adjourned. I was shocked that such an email was found necessary. These weren’t enemy nations or small children on a playground; neighbors and adults, they all knew better.

When we think we’re not being heard, we tend to get louder and, instead of communicating, we end up with a shouting match. Feeling a bit “holier than thou” while reading about the contentious meeting, the Spirit’s convicting voice reminded me I’m not much different. Last month, my husband took a quick trip. When dropping him off at the airport, I’d asked where he wanted to be picked up and we agreed on the lower/arrivals level. Upon his return, he called to say he was waiting at the far end of the terminal by the Jet Blue door. I parked there and waited and waited. I finally gave him a call and we both heatedly asked where the other was. Back and forth it went—him saying he was right there and me insisting he wasn’t, our voices getting just a little louder with each exchange. My husband eventually paused and asked whether I was at arrivals or departures. “Exactly where you told me: on the lower level at arrivals!” I replied. “Oh,” he quietly said, “I’ll be right there!” You guessed it; he’d been waiting upstairs. If, instead of accusing one another of being wrong, one of us had simply asked where the other was, we could have avoided a rather tense homecoming! Granted, we didn’t call one another names but, on a smaller scale, we were no different than our irate neighbors.

In today’s angry world, rather than have a civil discussion, people frequently intimidate, attack, and demonize anyone who thinks differently. What happened to being able to disagree without being disagreeable? For a civilized people, we seem to have lost all civility. Epictetus said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” He also said, “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” Of course, in some cases, that man (or woman) doesn’t want to learn anything that goes contrary to what he desires.

We are called to be peace makers and we do that by being humble, patient, and using our ears twice as much as we do our mouths. Not pushing back when push comes to shove doesn’t mean we lie down and allow someone to walk all over us. Not pushing back means we continue to stand, but we stand with civility, kindness, patience, and love. Another billboard sponsored by the same group says, “Always be a little kinder than necessary.” If we were, there might not be so many pushes, shoves, and angry tweets!

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life. [James 1:20-21 (MSG)]

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