UNWELCOME FRIENDS

“I have told you all this so that you may find your peace in me. You will find trouble in the world—but, never lose heart, I have conquered the world!” [John 16:33 (PHILLIPS)]

When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! … The man who patiently endures the temptations and trials that come to him is the truly happy man. For once his testing is complete he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to all who love him. [James 1:2,12 (PHILLIPS)]
tri-colored heron

Winters in southwest Florida bring sunshine, warmth, ocean breezes, and visitors. Just as guests arriving at your door are unavoidable during winter in Florida, so are troubles (only they arrive all year long)! Jesus tells us troubles are inevitable, James tells us to welcome them as friends, and Paul tells us that we can have joy in the midst of them. I suppose we might as well make the best of them since, like poor relatives when we’ve won the lottery, trouble is sure to find us no matter where we hide. Troubles, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are dead serious while others are merely annoying. Like guests, troubles are unpredictable; when you expect them, they don’t arrive and when it is least convenient, they frequently do! Then, just when you think they’ve packed up and are ready to leave, you discover they’ve cancelled their flight and plan to stay for the season.

It’s been said that fish and house guests start to stink after three days; I’m inclined to think that problems start to stink about that time, as well. Unfortunately, it often is easier to get rid of spoiled fish and unwelcome company than it is to free ourselves from difficulties.

In spite of James’ words, I’m not sure any of us can welcome troubles the way we do friends. Nevertheless, while we don’t have to be thrilled about the arrival of troubles, we can maintain a positive outlook during their stay. Knowing God has a purpose for our trials, we can even find some joy in their presence. While we may not welcome challenges, we can welcome the refining of our faith, the development of our endurance, and the building of our character that accompany them.

When I look back over my lifetime, I realize that I’ve become a better person, not in spite of my troubles, but because of them. In retrospect, I see that good truly came from all the bad that happened. That said, I’m the first to admit that I don’t look forward to any more faith-strengthening or character-building experiences. Thank you, God, but I’d just as soon stop right here. God, however, doesn’t give us a say in that matter and He’s not done with any of us until our last day on earth. While I’m not putting out the welcome mat for misfortune, calamity, trouble, and trials, I won’t fear their arrival.

Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician prescribes because we need them; and he proportions the frequency and weight of them to what the case requires. Let us trust his skill and thank him for his prescription. [Sir Isaac Newton]

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we have only a hope of future joys—we can be full of joy here and now even in our trials and troubles. Taken in the right spirit these very things will give us patient endurance; this in turn will develop a mature character, and a character of this sort produces a steady hope, a hope that will never disappoint us. Already we have some experience of the love of God flooding through our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us. [Romans 5:3-5 (PHILLIPS)]

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GOD THE SON

The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). [Isaiah 7:14 (NLT)]

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

It was the whole Trinity, which at the beginning of creation said, “Let us make man.” It was the whole Trinity again, which at the beginning of the Gospel seemed to say, “Let us save man.” [J.C. Ryle]

African iris
When reciting either the Apostle’s or Nicene Creeds, we express our belief in God, the Father Almighty, who created heaven and earth, and in His Son, Jesus Christ. When thinking of God as the Father and Jesus as His son, however, it’s easy to think of Jesus as sort of a God, Jr. As the son, He’s a smaller, younger, novice, or apprentice version of God the Father—sort of like the son who’s learning the business so He can take over when His father retires. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When we read the first chapter of Genesis, God refers to “us” and “our image,” so the plural nature of God didn’t just happen two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. The Apostle John tells us that Jesus (the Word) existed with God in the very beginning. Our triune God (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) exists beyond time—He always has been and always will be. Having no beginning, He will have no end. Although it was thousands of years between creation and Jesus’ birth, God the Son always existed. In the same way, the Holy Spirit wasn’t born on Pentecost; like the Father and the Son, He always has been!

That night in Bethlehem, Jesus didn’t come as an assistant God or as a lesser version of God the Father. Look at His names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace and Immanuel. Those are powerful names given to a baby boy but that baby boy was God Himself. He didn’t come as a god who looked like a man nor did He come as a man who looked like God. Both fully God and fully man, He was co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit—they were one in nature, power, action, and will. Rather than God, Jr., Jesus was wholly God—only He was in clothed in flesh and chose to live as a man.

Let us never forget that it was God who came to be born as a man that night in Bethlehem. It was God who was baptized by John and called “the Lamb of God.” It was God who preached the Sermon on the Mount, threw the money changers out of the temple, and called Himself “the bread of life” and the “good shepherd.” It was God who spoke with the woman at the well, healed the lepers, gave sight to the blind, and raised Lazarus from the dead. It was God who was tempted by Satan in the wilderness and it was God who lived a sinless life as a man in a sin-filled world. It was God who was betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, sweat blood in Gethsemane, and condemned to die between two thieves. Mocked, whipped, and nailed to a cross, that was God who suffered and died a criminal’s death. And it was God who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. It was God, in the form of a man called Jesus, who did it all just for us!

Our triune God is one in essence and yet three distinct persons. Understanding how each personage of the Trinity can be fully God while there is only one God is beyond my pay grade. Then again, I can’t understand things like quantum physics, the theory of relativity, string theory, or black holes. I can’t even fathom how I can be body, soul, and spirit in one person, so I shouldn’t be surprised at my limited understanding of the Trinity. As John Wesley aptly said, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a man, and then I will show you a man that can comprehend the Triune God.”

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. [Nicene Creed]

Jesus said to them, “For sure, I tell you, before Abraham was born, I was and am and always will be!” [John 8:58 (NLV)]

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WHAT IF?

What if the Lord had not been on our side? Let all Israel repeat: What if the Lord had not been on our side when people attacked us? [Psalm 124:1-2 (NLT)]

mottled ducks
My husband and I, our three children, their spouses, and the five grands recently spent a week together in Idaho and every minute of it was amazing and wonderful. During a quiet moment, I looked down at my wedding ring and asked myself, “What if?” What if an odd set of circumstances hadn’t occurred in October of 1966 and I hadn’t met the man who is my husband? What if his original date hadn’t gotten ill and what if my sorority sisters hadn’t insisted on fixing me up with him? I really didn’t want to go; what if I’d refused? What if he hadn’t relentlessly pursued me or called that one lonely night and asked me to go for ice cream? If a variety of events hadn’t come together in just the way they did, I wouldn’t have met him, let alone married him, and those children and grands wouldn’t have entered my life. What if we hadn’t somewhat foolishly (and hastily) gotten married while we both were in school? My father died only a few months after our wedding and, had I not been married, I would have been completely on my own at the unwise age of twenty. But, in God’s perfect plan, I wasn’t alone; He’d already given me a new family in my husband and his parents.

“Whew, that was close!” Surely, you’ve had times like that—occasions when you’re sure God’s hand delivered you—the split second that kept you from being a traffic fatality, the chance encounter that led you to the solution for which you’d been searching, being one of the 5% who beat the prognosis, or the time your toddler’s close encounter with a car was only that—close. “What if…?” we ask ourselves. What if He hadn’t protected me from my enemies? What if God hadn’t stopped me when He did? What if He hadn’t saved me from myself? I’m not much for looking back and regretfully asking “What if?” but, when asking it reinforces our confidence in God’s deliverance, it’s a good question to ask.

Think of the times you’ve been in the right place at exactly the right time and the times you weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time, the times everything miraculously fell into place, and the times you escaped trouble and tragedy by a fraction of an inch! That wasn’t due to happenstance, good luck, or even our own skill. Give credit where credit is due—that was God’s hand touching our lives.

In Psalm 124, David asked the people of Israel to consider what might have happened if the Lord had not been on their side. After reviewing God’s past deliverance, he declared his confidence in God’s future faithfulness. When I ask “What if?” I see a God who loves me and is committed to my welfare—a God who has been right beside me even when I didn’t know it—a God who put together the pieces of my life in an inexplicable but wonderful way.

As David found, when we ask, “What if the Lord had not been on my side?” the answer will reassure our confidence in God’s future faithfulness. Indeed, “Our help is from the Lord!”

They would have swallowed us alive in their burning anger. The waters would have engulfed us; a torrent would have overwhelmed us. Yes, the raging waters of their fury would have overwhelmed our very lives. Praise the Lord, who did not let their teeth tear us apart! We escaped like a bird from a hunter’s trap. The trap is broken, and we are free! Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. [Psalm 124:3-8 (NLT)]

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YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” [Isaiah 55:8-9 (NLT)]
spiderwort

During our summer travels, we were seated with a young couple during breakfast at a rural B&B. Upon discovering they were PhD candidates at the University of Chicago, we asked for an explanation of their research. Our eyes glazed over as the man used words like photons, leptons, mesons, baryons, and hadronic interactions. By the time his wife explained her materials research and mentioned macromolecular interactions, microstructures, interface dynamics, nanoparticles and stress variations, I think we would have preferred a flippant, “We’d tell you but then we’d have to kill you!” response to the ones we got. As patient as they were and as dumbed-down as they made their explanations, we barely knew more about their studies at the end of our conversation than we did at the beginning.

Perhaps a better answer to our questions would have been, “You wouldn’t understand even if we told you!” Nevertheless, if they’d said that, even though they were right, we would have been offended by their answer and insisted we could figure it out. Their world, however, is so far removed from ours and their vocabulary so specific that it would have taken them hours (more likely days) of explanation before we could have a vague understanding of what they did and why they did it. Nevertheless, we managed to find common ground in our fondness for Chicago, the charm of the B&B, and the delicious breakfast we were enjoying.

Even though the Bible clearly explains that God’s thoughts and ways are not ours, Scripture’s answer is neither satisfying nor comforting in the face of tragedy. Naturally, we want an explanation but God is strangely silent. Perhaps that’s just His way of saying, “Trust me, child, you really wouldn’t understand even if I explained it all to you!” While it’s not found in the Bible, the old maxim, “God works in mysterious ways,” is true. If the world of physics and materials science is beyond my limited understanding, I know I’m incapable of ever understanding what makes God run the universe the way He does. I’m still having trouble understanding a love so great that He gave His son as propitiation for our sins! I can’t fully grasp an all-powerful God who has always existed and always will—an all-knowing God, unconstrained by time or space, who can be everywhere at once—a God who can see yesterday, today and all the variations of tomorrow at one time. If I can’t fully comprehend God’s traits, what makes me think I could ever comprehend His reasoning?

We mortals want a detailed explanation of our lives from God but, even if He offered us one, we’d never understand it. Moreover, I’m not so sure I really want to know—the weight of such divine knowledge would be overwhelming. As we did with those grad students, however, we can find common ground—in God’s case, that would be His love for us and our love for Him. For now, that will have to suffice.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! [Romans 11:33 (NLT)]

The teaching of your word gives light, so even the simple can understand. [Psalm119:130 (NLT)]

God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs And works His sov’reign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain.
[William Cowper]

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THE GAME OF LIFE

“What does God know?” they ask. “Does the Most High even know what’s happening?” Look at these wicked people—enjoying a life of ease while their riches multiply. Did I keep my heart pure for nothing? Did I keep myself innocent for no reason? I get nothing but trouble all day long; every morning brings me pain. [Psalm 73:11-14 (NLT)]

Even before my children could read, we played Chutes and Ladders, a simple board game for youngsters with a goal of moving around the board and being the first one to reach the final square. Players who land on a good deed space get to take a shortcut up a ladder to see their reward. Players who land on a naughty square, however, face the consequences when they lose ground and slide down a chute. Planting seeds, for example, leads up a ladder to a pot of flowers but eating too much candy sends the player down the chute with a tummy ache. The game is supposed to reinforce the idea that good deeds are rewarded and bad behavior has consequences. While a good lesson, we grown-ups know that not every good deed is rewarded and not every bad one gets punished. Perhaps that other children’s game, The Game of Life, is closer to reality since, regardless of how virtuous the player is, he can still be fired, have a mid-life crisis, or experience a stock market slump. Yet, in that game, the player with the most money wins and, while we all like money, we also know that no amount of money makes us winners in this life (or the next).

Milton Bradley’s original game, The Checkered Game of Life, seems to reflect the unpredictability of life a bit better than either of the two games mentioned. A morality game pitting virtue against vice, Bradley’s 1860 version was not for preschoolers. Players moved ahead when landing on squares like Honesty or Influence but backwards on squares like Idleness. While School led to College and Perseverance to Success, Gambling led to Ruin and Intemperance to Poverty. Players earned points by landing on virtue squares like Wealth, Happiness, or Honor and lost them by landing on vice squares like Disgrace, Poverty, or Crime. If they had the ill-fortune of landing on Suicide, they were completely out of the game! Even the most virtuous of players had to navigate around or through those troublesome vice-filled squares before accumulating the 100 points needed to end the game at the final square: Happy Old Age.

We don’t have to play a game or read the Book of Job to know that life can seem as arbitrary as the spinner in a children’s game. None of us can control nature, time, chance, or other people. Like Job, we’ve all had had times when life seemed incredibly unjust—when we suffered from bad things we neither caused nor deserved. Like Solomon, we can’t understand how it is that bad people can have smooth sailing while good people often struggle to keep their heads above water. Nevertheless, there were times we benefitted from life’s capriciousness and escaped the consequences of our own poor behavior. Even though we should have, we didn’t slide back down the chute or take the trip to Disgrace.

When we play a game, once there’s a winner (or the kids get bored), the game is over. Fortunately, our game of life is not the sum total of our existence in this world—it is simply the prelude to the real one that will last forever. All that seems unfair or wrong here on earth is only temporary. In the end, something very bad will happen to those who don’t know Jesus and something very good will happen to those who do! Moreover, as Christians, we know that, no matter how the game ends in this life, we are winners in the next!

I have observed something else under the sun. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time. People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a trap, people are caught by sudden tragedy. [Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 (NLT)]

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MEGA MILLIONS

For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. [1 Timothy 6:10 (NLT)]

Wealth from get-rich-quick schemes quickly disappears; wealth from hard work grows over time. [Proverbs 13:11 (NLT)]

St. Abune Teklehaimanot, I pray You help me win the Lottery today. I beseech, entreat and beg you who stood upon one leg that you may grant my fervent plea and the winner of the jackpot will be me! [Pete Crowther]

mountain bluebirdKnown for his extreme piety and for sprouting wings when he fell off a mountain, some people regard St. Abune Teklehaimanot as the patron saint of gamblers. The last years of his life, he chose to live in small deep cave that had spears sticking out of all the walls and remained standing the entire time, even after breaking a leg. While the wing sprouting and ability to remain standing seem to be lucky breaks, I find him an odd saint from whom to request help at winning the lottery. Nevertheless, some people do. Considering the size of tonight’s Mega Millions lottery (at least $530 million and counting), I imagine several ticket purchasers have been calling on God (and even Saint Abune).

I wonder what God thinks of the lottery. We’re told to be good stewards of our blessings, so does He approve of spending hard-earned money on a game of chance? I understand the odds of winning this lottery are 1 in 302,575,350 and, compared to those odds, getting struck by lightning (1 in 12,000) seems a near certainty! Since purchasing a lottery ticket is little better than tossing money out the window, I’m not sure God approves.

Moreover, because the ones who buy the most lottery tickets are the people who can least afford them, many believe the lottery actually exploits the poor. God, who tells us to care for the less fortunate, might disapprove for that reason alone. He also might object simply because the sole purpose of purchasing a lottery ticket is to win money. Jesus cautioned about the danger of riches getting in the way of faith and it’s in 1 Timothy that we’re warned about the love of money being the root of evil. Proverbs warns us about “get rich quick” schemes which certainly describes the lottery. I really don’t know where God stands on the lottery and, while I suspect He doesn’t much like it, I doubt that buying a lottery ticket occasionally is a sin. Nevertheless, we better remember that greed always is a sin!

Now we come to the question of praying to win the lottery. Personally, I think that’s not the kind of prayer God wants to hear and it will fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, what if we promise to give it to God? What if we promise to build Habitat homes, Family Life Centers for churches, and schools and hospitals in third-world countries? What if we promise to fund church missions and missionaries, medical care for the indigent, mental health services, shelters for the homeless, day care facilities, food pantries, and seminary costs for aspiring pastors? Would asking God for the winning ticket be the right prayer then? Will God listen if we promise every cent to His work? As much as God wants us to do good works, I don’t think a winning lottery ticket is how He wants them done.

God promises to provide for our needs but He expects us to do the work and make some sacrifices along the way. Let’s face it—giving away money that hasn’t been earned is hardly a sacrifice. God expects us to appreciate His blessings and, if there’s been no effort on our part, there usually is little or no appreciation of the blessing. That’s why groups like Habitat for Humanity require some sweat equity from the families who receive a home. It is up to every one of us, not just the lottery winners, to have altruistic and unselfish goals and it is up to every one of us to do something about achieving them. Rich and poor alike, we all must do our part to fund those worthy causes, feed the hungry, and build those needed homes, hospitals, schools, and churches and all without lotto winnings.

If you win the Mega Millions tonight, I pray you use your money wisely and remember that the more we are blessed by God, the more He expects us to bless others. A word of caution for the winner—according the New York Daily News, nearly 70% of lottery winners end up broke or bankrupt within seven years!

Don’t love money; be satisfied with what you have. For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” [Hebrews 13:5 (NLT)]

And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God. [Hebrews 13:16 (NLT)]

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