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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THE BEST WE CAN

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 1:19-21 (MSG)]

Thompson's gazelleAs a teen and young adult, it was easy to be critical of my parents and their parenting. Vowing I’d never say or do some of the things they did, I was sure I’d never make any of their mistakes. Once I became a mother, however, I became far more forgiving and sympathetic. I understood that, all things considered, my parents had done the best they could. Granted, they didn’t always make the right decisions but I believe they thought they were the correct ones at the time. Parents want to keep their children from heartbreak, disappointment and harm; they want more and better for their children than they had. As a result, in spite of their best intentions, they can be over-protective, judgmental, enabling, dictatorial or stubborn. And, yes, I made some of the same mistakes my parents did (and plenty more of my own). Yet, looking at the finished products, I did just fine! Now, as parents, my children have the opportunity to make their own share of mistakes.

The vast majority of people don’t wake each morning intending to be unforgiving, unsympathetic, intractable, or indifferent. We don’t plan on being selfish, temperamental, hypercritical or rude. Rather, most of us probably wake up wanting to be kind and loving people. Unfortunately, we’re not always good at doing that! None of us are perfect; being human, we all make plenty of mistakes. People hurt us and we hurt others, but rarely do we or they do it on purpose. I never started the day planning to yell at my children or lose my temper, yet I often did. I certainly never begin the day intending to be impatient, inconsiderate, or negative, but that happens far too often. My prayer each morning is simply to be a better person that day than the one I was the day before and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that is slowly happening.

When we remember that sometimes our best efforts are not nearly good enough, it becomes much easier to forgive others for their failings. Forgiveness doesn’t mean those actions are right or good; it doesn’t mean we approve of them or accept them. It simply means we forgive them. While we’re forgiving others, we should forgive ourselves for our shortcomings as well. Let’s release our regrets; we all could have done better, but what’s done is done. If God can forgive us, we ought to be able to do so, too.

Father, lift any hidden resentment and regret from our hearts and replace them with love and forgiveness. Help us accept that flaws, both ours and those of others, are part of being human. Show us how to learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. Fill us with your Holy Spirit so that we can be better people today than we were yesterday, and even better ones tomorrow.

Some days, doing “the best we can” may still fall short of what we would like to be able to do, but life isn’t perfect – on any front – and doing what we can with what we have is the most we should expect of ourselves or anyone else. [Fred Rogers]

I was wrong before. I’m smarter now. [Chris Bohjalian]

Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything. [1 Peter 4:8 (MSG)]

If you, God, kept records on wrongdoings, who would stand a chance? As it turns out, forgiveness is your habit, and that’s why you’re worshiped. [Psalm 130:3-4 (MSG)] 

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TALKATIVE

For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s power. [1 Corinthians 4:20 (NLT)]

maccawWhen John Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, he was concerned both with the godless unbeliever and the casual and superficial believer: the nominal or counterfeit Christian. We all know them: people who may look and talk a lot like Christians but don’t live like one. Without even realizing it, we may even be one!

When Christian and Faithful encounter Mr. Talkative, Faithful initially considers the man a fine companion; he’s enthusiastic, speaks well and knows his Scripture. Christian, who knew Talkative in his hometown, warns Faithful that, “Religion has no place in his heart, or house, or lifestyle. The man’s religion is found only in his tongue rather than in him.”  Known as a saint abroad and a devil at home, Christian says Talkative is the sort of man who’s better looking from a distance. Although he can talk about faith, repentance, being reborn, and prayer, like the Pharisees, he doesn’t practice what he preaches. Christian then points out that Talkative isn’t even aware of the difference between speaking and being; he’s deceived himself into thinking that hearing and talking are all he needs to be a good Christian. “Knowing is a thing that pleases talkers and boasters, but doing is the thing that pleases God,” agrees Faithful.

Testing his new companion and cautioning him not to give an answer to which God would not give an “Amen!” Faithful asks Talkative, ”Does your religion exist in word or tongue and not in deed and truth?” Balking at giving a reply, Talkative leaves the men. After Christian points out, “Just as a body without the soul is dead, so talking by itself is but a dead carcass,” Faithful promises that he’ll pay closer attention to the distinction between talking and doing in the future.

Faithful observes that just as a prostitute is a shame to all women, a man like Talkative is a shame to all true believers. Christian adds that the number of people whose religion is in their words rather than their life is the reason religion stinks in the nostrils of so many men. We don’t have to be well-known evangelists caught in financial or sexual improprieties to give Christianity a bad name. We just have to be like Talkative: people whose religion is found only in their words rather than their hearts and actions.

I wondered at my answer to Faithful’s question; does my religion exist in word or tongue (or, in my case, web page) and not in deed and truth? What would be your answer to Faithful’s question? More important, would God shout a loud ”Amen!” in agreement to our answers? Let us always remember that faith without works is dead and it takes far more than words to be Christ’s witnesses.

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable. [Kevin Max]

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? … Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” … Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works. [James 2:14,18,26 (NLT)]

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DOING IT RIGHT OR DOING THE RIGHT THING?

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)]

For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners. [Matthew 9:13b (NLT)]

grey catbirdWe recently saw a stage production of Les Miserables (“Les Miz”), a musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel. Set in France in the early 1800s, it tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. When Valjean, known as “Prisoner 24601,” is released, he is issued a “yellow passport” which he’s required to present to the police in any village he passes through. Stating he has been released from prison but listing his crimes, this yellow piece of paper marks him as a criminal forever.

Almost immediately upon his release, Valjean steals from the Bishop of Digne, the only person who shows him any kindness by offering him food and shelter. When the ex-convict is caught by the police, the bishop refuses to accuse him and even gives him more silver. The astonished Valjean then commits his life to virtue and service. Realizing he can’t start life anew as a convict, he breaks parole by tearing up his yellow passport and changing his name.

Valjean becomes a model citizen but, to an unrelenting policeman named Javert, Valjean remains Prisoner 24601 and a criminal. Even after Valjean saves his life, Javert remains wholly dedicated to enforcing the law by arresting Valjean and punishing him for breaking parole. He sings these words about Valjean: “Once a thief, forever a thief. What you want you always steal.”

While hardly a Christian story, Victor Hugo’s tale depicts the way Christian love can transform a person. We see how the bishop’s love and forgiveness affects Vajean and how his new personality positively impacts the lives of others. When we accept Jesus, like Valjean, we become new people and the old is gone. The “yellow passport” identifying us as sinners is torn and tossed and we are new people with a new purpose.

While we identify with Valjean, we also can resemble the unrelenting Javert or the merciful Bishop of Digne. Like Javert, do we ever act as judge and jury and insist that “a man like that can never change”? Are we people who can’t forgive: people who believe justice is more about retribution than mercy? Like Javert, are we more interested in being right or, like the bishop, is our concern doing what’s right? As did the bishop, do we truly believe in redemption, forgiveness, love and mercy? To give someone a new lease on life, would we lie to the police or give even more to a thief? Would we follow the letter of the law or the word of God? When I ponder this question, I think of the advice given to a young man by his minister father: “Don’t just do what is legally right, do what is morally right!” Let us remember that, as Christians, we are not called just to do things right; we are called always to do the right thing!

You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. [Matthew 5:38-42 (NLT)]

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THE ART OF PERSUASION (Philemon – Part 2)

Every time your name comes up in my prayers, I say, “Oh, thank you, God!” I keep hearing of the love and faith you have for the Master Jesus, which brims over to other believers. And I keep praying that this faith we hold in common keeps showing up in the good things we do, and that people recognize Christ in all of it. [Philemon 1:4-6 (MSG)]

brown pelicanPaul’s letter to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus is a lesson in the subtle art of persuasion. It’s said that we catch more flies with honey than vinegar and Paul illustrates that beautifully. A lot was on the line for the runaway slave Onesimus—if Paul didn’t convince Philemon to forgive him, the man could have been killed or sold to work in the lead mines. And, if Paul’s letter offended Philemon, the new church at Colossae could have suffered. As short as his letter is, I imagine Paul prayed and labored over it a long time.

Paul’s strategy is evident from the first line when he addresses not just Philemon but also Apphia, Archippus, and the entire church. That the letter was to be shared meant that all in the church would know of Paul’s request and Philemon’s response. Philemon is being held accountable for his decision from the first line of the letter.

Wisely, Paul begins with honey and sincerely praises Philemon and thanks him for his love, faith, hospitality and loyalty both to the church and Paul. The great thing about praise is that, while it encourages us, it also challenges us to live up to its words. Paul then tells Philemon that he prays for him so that the generosity that comes from Philemon’s faith will be put into action. Note that Paul’s prayer isn’t that Philemon will do what the apostle asks but that he’ll put his faith into action by doing the right thing.

There’s no doubt that Paul is the one with authority in this relationship and could easily pull rank on Philemon. Remarking favorably on Philemon’s character again, Paul says he knows an order isn’t necessary because his friend knows the right thing to do and so, rather than make a demand, he makes a personal request. As Paul pleads Onesimus’ case, he calls the slave both his child and a beloved brother, calls Philemon his brother and partner, and finishes by calling Onesimus and Philemon brothers. Rather than emphasizing differences in position and sending back a slave, Paul emphasizes their oneness in Christ and sends back a brother. After offering to make restitution by paying Onesimus’ debt, Paul applies gentle pressure by reminding Philemon that he has a debt to Paul (it was the Apostle who brought Philemon to Christ). By mentioning Philemon’s salvation, Paul subtly reminds him of the forgiveness we have in Christ and that Jesus saved our lives by paying a debt that wasn’t His.

Hidden in Paul’s request to prepare a room because he hopes to visit Philemon soon is the notice that Paul will soon have firsthand knowledge of Onesimus’ fate. Paul closes the letter with greetings to Philemon from others in Rome, making it clear that Paul’s request is public knowledge (and yet another reminder that Philemon will be held responsible for his actions).

Although Paul presents his request as a favor, one commentary describes it as the Apostle promising he wouldn’t twist Philemon’s arm but then our hearing the bone crack! While that’s a rather brutal description, it’s probably accurate. Nevertheless, I think of it as an example of how to use tender nudges rather than strong arm tactics. Admittedly, Paul’s letter backed Philemon into a corner, but I don’t think Philemon even knew it. The letter is written so sincerely, humbly, lovingly and gently that it wouldn’t surprise me if Philemon thought forgiving Onesimus was his idea!

The mere existence of this epistle lends credence to the belief that Onesimus was forgiven. Had Philemon not forgiven him, the letter wouldn’t have been copied and circulated throughout the early church. Philemon is thought to have become the bishop of Colossae and to have died a martyr under Nero. There also are records of a bishop in Ephesus named Onesimus that many scholars believe to have been Philemon’s repentant slave. Paul’s faith in both men seems to have been well founded.

With only 25 verses, the letter to Philemon is far shorter than the devotion I’ve written about it. I urge you to read it in both a traditional translation and a contemporary one like The Message. It is a beautiful example of how we, as Christians, should approach resolving differences. It reminds us that the power of gentle persuasion often is greater than the strong-armed power of authority; a humble request is always sweeter than a dictatorial command. Remember, we’ll always catch more flies with honey than vinegar!

Do me this big favor, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good. I know you well enough to know you will. You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written. [Philemon 1:20-21 (MSG)]

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THE CROWN OF MARTYRDOM

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. [1 Corinthians 13:3 (MSG)]

yellow-crowned night heronWe all know drama queens (and kings) who don the crown of martyrdom. On occasion, we even may have worn that crown ourselves. Along with the crown, we put on a robe of selfishness and self-righteousness. Dressed for the part, we see outer circumstance only in the light of how they negatively affect our lives (ignoring how they may be affecting those around us). Rather than asking, “What can I learn from this?” we protest, “I don’t deserve this!” as if anyone else does! Forgetting that God only wants our best and there is purpose in our pain, we find our troubles the perfect excuse for resentment, complaints, bitterness, and an all-out pity party.

If anyone had the right to play the martyr; it was Jesus. He was born in a stable and slept in a feed trough! His parents couldn’t afford a proper offering at the purification ceremony and his family had to flee to Egypt for several years. Once they arrived in Nazareth, there probably were whispers among the neighbors. “That’s Jesus; he’s not really Joseph’s son, you know! That shameful Mary was already pregnant.” Jesus knew He was a king, but He didn’t live like royalty; instead, he lived and worked as an ordinary man. Rather than riding in a chariot, he walked the dusty roads. There was no bed in a palace for this Prince of Peace; he rested wherever he could lay his head. People pursued Him wanting miracles but forgot to thank Him for his healing. Angry crowds reviled Him and the religious leaders of His own town wanted to toss Him down a hill! He gave and taught, healed, blessed and loved, fully knowing where it would all end—on a cross at Calvary. He knew He would be martyred, yet he never complained; He never once said, “Pity me!” Brutally beaten and humiliated, Jesus wore his crown of thorns without complaint. Then, instead of being angry about His torture on the cross, He lovingly asked God’s forgiveness for those who were killing Him.

A few years later, Stephen, who is believed to be the first Christian martyr, followed Jesus’s example when, as the rocks rained down on him, he used his last few breaths to pray for his slayers’ forgiveness. Jesus and Stephen were real martyrs and no anguish we endure will equal theirs. Yet, rather than the crown of martyrdom, they wore the crown of love and forgiveness!

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. … Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life. [James 1:1,12 (MSG)]

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