EXPECT TROUBLE

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. [Ephesians 6:10-12 (NLT)]

sunset

While talking about discerning God’s plan for us, a friend said she knows she’s chosen the right path when she moves forward in a plan and doesn’t encounter obstacles or challenges. After thinking about it, I beg to disagree.

Three gospels tell of the time Jesus and the disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee to escape the crowds. In a fishing boat without sails, the men rowed while Jesus slept. The lake is known for violent squalls that arise suddenly and one such storm did. As the wind blew and the sea surged, the waves broke over the gunwales and the boat began to fill with water. Sure they’d sink and drown, the disciples awoke Jesus. After admonishing the men for their lack of faith, He quickly rebuked the squall and calm was restored. That the wind and waves obeyed Jesus demonstrated His sovereign reign over nature. Scripture made it clear that only God has dominion over the natural world and the men wondered at Jesus’ ability to calm the storm.

While the storm presented an opportunity for Jesus to reveal the source of His power and authority, could there be more to it? Have you ever wondered why the exhausted Jesus wanted to cross over the lake to the Gentile region of Gardara or why the boat was pulled ashore near burial tombs? I suspect that Jesus knew of the two demon-possessed men living in those tombs and that He deliberately went there to exorcise their evil spirits. Rather than a teaching lesson for the disciples, could the storm have been Satan’s way of keeping them from their destination? Satan certainly had a vested interest in keeping Jesus from reaching the other side of the lake and, not wanting to lose those two captive souls, he attempted to prevent Jesus’ arrival with wind and waves. That storm occurred precisely because Jesus was doing God’s work!

When looking through Scripture, we find that encountering rough seas, storms, and obstacles seem to be a part of following God’s will. During the time he followed God’s plan, the Apostle Paul experienced ill-health, defections, beatings, imprisonment, at least three shipwrecks, and eventually martyrdom. Think of the troublemakers, false prophets, fabricated accusations, and persecution faced by the early church (all of which were courtesy of Satan). The enemy has been trying to thwart God’s plan since Eden; he’s not about to stop now!

When we are following God’s plan, we should expect opposition because the enemy does not want us to accomplish what God has purposed for us. Opposition doesn’t mean we should abandon ship; we just need to get on our life jackets and keep rowing! Like the early church, we do that by defending the truth, sharing the Good News, giving our concerns to God, living by faith, and remaining steadfast in our mission. “If you are going to walk with Jesus Christ, you are going to be opposed,” said preacher George Whitefield. That was true when he said it in the 1700s and it remains true today.

The way to thwart the devil is to strengthen the very thing he is trying most to destroy—your faith. [John Piper]

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:38-39 (NLT)]

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MANY WRITERS BUT ONLY ONE AUTHOR

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return here but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. [Isaiah 55:10-11 (ESV)]

great blue heronA popular mystery writer, frequently on the best seller list, now writes most of his books in collaboration with another author. Several years ago, after reading one of his joint efforts, I stopped reading his work entirely. While I never expected a literary masterpiece, the mystery was unrealistic, implausible, and the chapters unconnected. Although it’s said that he sets the plot line and there is an intense back-and-forth between the authors, it didn’t seem that way to me. It was as if the two authors alternated chapters and, at the end of their chapter, each deliberately threw in some farfetched character or event as a way of challenging the other to make sense of it. Having a plot outline certainly didn’t mean continuity or structure in their book.

Six years ago, I was part of a book project in which twelve women, all Christian blog writers, were to write a chapter about being hurt, then healed, and how the Holy Spirit transformed them into wounded healers. In spite of having a similar theme, herding cats would have been easier than having twelve Christian women come together in a cohesive voice. Instead of being a patchwork quilt bound together by our experience with the power of the Spirit, we were more like twelve totally different blankets with absolutely nothing in common. While it seemed like a good idea at the time, it clearly was not Spirit led and, while wishing the project well, I withdrew.

If twelve Christian women couldn’t come together into a unified voice and two well-known professional writers seem unable to put together a simple plot, I find it amazing that some forty writers managed to put together the sixty-six books of the Bible over a span of about 1,500 years. It’s not always easy to read but, without a doubt, the Bible makes sense and has a unifying theme: the revelation of God’s plan and purpose for His people and His Kingdom.

Within this one book we find poetry, law, and history along with biography, wisdom, prophesy, and personal letters. Written in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), the writing took place in various locations—from the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula to the king’s palace in Israel, from Babylon to a prison in Rome. The writers were a diverse group of men—ranging from a doctor, publican, tent maker/Pharisee, and adviser to a Babylonian king to fishermen, shepherds, kings, scribes, and judges. They all had their own style and, in some cases, even a specific audience. Nevertheless, in spite of their different backgrounds, languages, times, and places, there is a cohesiveness to what all of these men wrote and their words never contradict one another. Even with the writers’ different perspectives, they have a unified voice that proclaims the same one true God and Jesus as the way to salvation.

When two well-known authors working together can’t put together a solid well-written mystery and twelve women, living at the same time, speaking the same language, and claiming to be Christian writers can’t successfully put together their faith stories, how did the Bible’s forty writers manage to do it? Perhaps, it’s because people write what they want to say but the Bible’s writers wrote what God wanted said! The Bible may have forty different writers—the people who put pen to papyrus or parchment—but there was only one author: God. It was God who inspired those men and, because they wrote His word, the Bible is one uninterrupted and unified story. It is, indeed, “God-breathed.”

The Bible is God’s word in human words. [Mel Lawrenz]

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)]

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. [Matthew 24:35 (ESV)]

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FELIX

Sending for Paul, they listened as he told them about faith in Christ Jesus. As he reasoned with them about righteousness and self-control and the coming day of judgment, Felix became frightened. “Go away for now,” he replied. “When it is more convenient, I’ll call for you again.” [Acts 24:24b-25 (NLT)]

flame vineFelix was the governor of Judea from 52 to 58/59 AD. A Greek who became a freedman under the reign of Emperor Claudius, he’s described as a cruel, immoral, and corrupt governor by ancient historians Josephus and Tacitus. Tacitus called him “a master of cruelty and lust who exercised the powers of a king in the spirit of a slave.” As Judea’s governor (or Procurator), his job included procuring funds for Rome which Felix accomplished mercilessly while lining his pockets as well. That it took 470 soldiers to safely escort the Apostle Paul from Jerusalem to Caesarea indicates the lawlessness of his time.

In Acts 24, we meet Felix as he conducts an inquiry into the Jews’ charges against Paul. After hearing the accusations of the Roman advocate Tertullus, Paul launched a strong defense against the false allegations. Perhaps uncomfortable with Paul’s reference to the righteous and unrighteous, Felix adjourned the case until the arrival of Lysias, the garrison commander who saved Paul’s life in Jerusalem.

A few days later, Paul again appeared before Felix. Joining the governor was Drusilla, his third wife and the granddaughter of Herod the Great. She’d left her husband, King Aziz of Emesa, for Felix and, like her uncle Herod Antipas (the one who beheaded John the Baptist), her marriage was illegal since she was neither divorced nor widowed. I imagine the shameless couple didn’t take kindly to the Apostle’s words as he spoke of righteousness, self-control, and the coming day of judgment. Frightened by Paul’s message, Felix sent him away, saying he’d call for him again when it was more convenient.

Although the governor frequently called for Paul to talk with him over the next two years, Felix never decided Paul’s guilt or innocence. Scripture tells us the corrupt man was looking for a bribe, but surely it didn’t take Felix two years to realize a payoff was not forthcoming. I suspect the governor was drawn to Paul’s message but, unwilling to repent, he couldn’t commit to the Way. The corrupt and powerful man was caught between two incompatible worlds—if he chose Christ, he would end up relinquishing his position, influence, ill-gotten wealth, and even his wife. Unwilling to do so, Felix thought himself a freedman, when, in fact, he was in bondage to his sinful way of life. Eventually recalled to Rome, Felix never decided about Paul or Jesus simply because it was inconvenient. Let us not make the same mistake!

The two sworn enemies of the soul are “Yesterday” and “Tomorrow.” Yesterday slays its thousands. Past sins plunge many into darkness and despair. … Tomorrow slays its tens of thousands. Vows, promises, resolutions are never fulfilled. “Some other time,” many say, when urged to repent and believe. They fail to realize that now is the acceptable time. [Herbert Lockyer]

Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living. [Romans 6:16-18 (NLT)]

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OR ELSE

My child, do not reject the Lord’s discipline, and don’t get angry when he corrects you. The Lord corrects those he loves, just as parents correct the child they delight in. [Proverbs 3:11-12 (NCV)]

little blue heron“Baby Blues,” a comic strip by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott, portrays the MacPherson family and the frustration, craziness, and humor that come with parenthood. Perhaps because I had a boy like him, my favorite character is the middle child, Hammie. Without a doubt, the inventive boy is a handful but he’s delightful in his own special way. When Zoe, his older sister, comments that he’s stopped making his usual annoying noise, he explains: “Mom used the three magic words.” When Zoe asks, “Please and thank you?” he clarifies, “Stop or else!”

Like the MacPhersons, the three magic words at our house were “please” and “thank you.” However, like Hammie’s mother, there were times I gave my children the option of obedience or facing the consequences with the other three: “Stop, or else!” Of course, the “or else” is an empty caution unless there’s an understanding of what “or else” entails.

The Old Testament is filled with God’s warnings of “or else” to the Israelites; sadly, it’s also a chronicle of their repeated failure to listen and obey Him. Time and time again, they disregarded God’s law, rejected His prophets, fought among themselves, worshipped other gods, and participated in pagan practices. They couldn’t say they weren’t warned by all the judges, kings, and prophets God sent to them so they shouldn’t have been surprised by the famines, floods, droughts, wars, exile, and oppression that resulted from their disobedience. Those afflictions, however, didn’t mean God had been unfaithful to His people. On the contrary, He was completely faithful to his words of warning. By withholding His blessings, the people got exactly what God said they would.

The book of Judges is a series of “Stop or else!” stories. Time and time again, after their disobedience, the Israelites faced the consequences of oppression by people like the Philistines and Ammonites. They eventually repented, called to God for help, and were granted relief. Although a period of peace followed, they were slow learners and the cycle would repeat: obedience gave way to disobedience and they again faced God’s “or else.” Nevertheless, just like Hammie’s patient and loving mother in the comic strip, God never gave up on His people.

Like a good parent, God gives fair warning and provides his people with plenty of opportunities to change their ways. Jesus warned us about sin, Satan, hypocrisy, pride, selfishness, materialism, greed, and false teachings. He clearly told us there are consequences to sinful behavior: the wages of sin is death, there will be a day of judgment, the unrighteous won’t enter the Kingdom, unbelief brings death but belief brings life, and the day of His return will come without warning. Scripture tells us how it will end—we can’t say we haven’t been warned!

It is the wonder of the grace of God that he has given such warnings. If we do not listen and turn from our evil ways, and so suffer awful judgment, then it is not the grace and love of God that is lacking, but the fault of our unrepentant hearts which refuse to heed the revelation of God, and spurn his love. [Georgina W. Everingham]

Our fathers on earth disciplined us for a short time in the way they thought was best. But God disciplines us to help us, so we can become holy as he is. We do not enjoy being disciplined. It is painful at the time, but later, after we have learned from it, we have peace, because we start living in the right way. … So be careful and do not refuse to listen when God speaks. Others refused to listen to him when he warned them on earth, and they did not escape. So it will be worse for us if we refuse to listen to God who warns us from heaven. [Hebrews 12:10-11, 25 (NCV)]

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THE MAIN THING

Martha was frantic with all the work in the kitchen. “Master,” she said, coming in to where they were, “don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work all by myself? Tell her to give me a hand!” … He replied, “You are fretting and fussing about so many things. Only one thing matters. Mary has chosen the best part, and it’s not going to be taken away from her.” [Luke 10: 40-42 (NTE)]

great blue heronThe guest pastor shared an experience when he was an intern at a large church. Posted on the door leading into the senior pastor’s office was this quote by Stephen Covey: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” At eye level and in large letters, anyone entering the pastor’s office was sure to see it. He’d given the sign little thought until one day, hot under the collar and ready to voice a complaint, he started to knock on his boss’s door. Seeing the sign, he paused, quietly returned to his desk, gave his complaint more thought, and asked himself if he was keeping the main thing main with his grievance.

Of course, to keep the main thing main, we must identify it first. Scripture, however, makes the main thing rather clear: love God, love others, and follow Jesus. Nevertheless, even when we’ve determined the main thing, it’s easy to get distracted and shift our focus. Like a reader who nitpicks over semi-colons and spelling while ignoring the significance of the words, we frequently cease focusing on God and His purpose to focus on ourselves and our interests.

Martha, for example, lost sight of the main thing when she complained to Jesus about her sister Mary. The mother of James and John lost sight of the main thing when she demanded special treatment for her boys and the disciples lost sight of the main thing when they squabbled over who was the greatest. Losing sight of the main thing, Elijah threw himself a pity party when things got tough, Jonah tried to escape his assignment in Nineveh, and the Pharisees carefully tithed their spices but neglected their parents and neighbors.

Our complaints to others (and to God) usually have little or nothing to do with God’s plan but rather with how it affects us. I’m busy, tired, bored, annoyed, angry, unappreciated, taken advantage of, better than him, too good for that, underpaid, or over-scheduled. Maybe some of our complaints are true. The question, however, remains—are any of them the main thing? If not, what is?

Father in heaven, help us keep our eyes on the main thing—you, accepting your plan, and furthering your kingdom. May we always remember that the main thing is never about us and always about you!

Let the king’s word dwell richly among you, as you teach and exhort one another in all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God with grateful hearts. And whatever you do, in word or action, do everything in the name of the master, Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the father. [Colossians 3: 16-17 (NTE)]

Look at it like this. People whose lives are determined by human flesh focus their minds on matters to do with the flesh, but people whose lives are determined by the spirit focus their minds on matters to do with the spirit. [Romans 8:5 (NTE)]

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GETTING OUT OF THE PIT

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. … God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. [James 1:2-4,12 (NLT)]

donkeyThe story is told of a donkey who fell into a deep pit. Unable to get out, the animal brayed loudly until the farmer came to investigate. Seeing no way to get his donkey out of the pit, the farmer decided the only thing he could do was to put the poor animal out of its misery. Since the pit needed to be filled anyway, he got a spade and started to shovel dirt into it. When the donkey felt those first clods of dirt on his back, he lost all hope of rescue and brayed even louder. As he shook the dirt off his back, however, he discovered a growing mound of dirt beneath his feet. Seeing a possible solution, the donkey grew silent as he continued to shake dirt off his back and started tamping it down with his hooves. As the dirt piled up beneath his feet, the donkey got higher and higher in the pit. Paying no attention to the now silent animal, the farmer kept shoveling until he finally stopped for a rest. When he turned around, the man was shocked to see the donkey step out of the pit and trot away. The animal could have chosen to wallow in his misery—simply hung his head and let that dirt cover him up—but he didn’t. Instead, he took steps to change his situation.

Giving up is often our first response when we get buried in our troubles. Deciding the marriage can’t be saved, the situation is hopeless, we’ll never beat the addiction, we’re worthless sinners, we failed, no one understands, or that the pain will never end, we don’t even try to find a fix! That, however, means we’ve ceded control of our lives to something or someone other than God. By giving up, we’ve stopped living God’s will because we’re not letting Him shape and mold us in our circumstances. God’s not done with us until He says so!

When I look back at some of my worst experiences, heaviest trials, and most heartbreaking times, I see my greatest emotional and spiritual development. Growth seems to occur in the valleys (or pits) rather than on the hilltops. Perhaps that’s because we want to maintain the status quo in the good times; when all is going smoothly, we certainly don’t want to rock the boat with any change. Bad times, however, make us as uncomfortable as that trapped animal. Like the donkey, when we are buried in trouble, we have a choice: wallow in misery or make a change.

Instead of letting the dirt bury him, the donkey turned it into a gift. We can see our troubles as penalties or gifts, endings or beginnings, impediments or opportunities. The choice is ours. Life is always going to try to weigh us down; the trick is in deciding to get out of the pit. The donkey did it by shaking off the dirt. As people of hope who know that Jesus can do within us that which we can’t do for ourselves; let us do the same!

We are always on the anvil; by trials God is shaping us for higher things. [Henry Ward Beecher]

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. [Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)]

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