The human mind is the most deceitful of all things. It is incurable. No one can understand how deceitful it is. I, the Lord, search minds and test hearts. I will reward each person for what he has done. I will reward him for the results of his actions. [Jeremiah 17:9-10 (GW)]

Dame's rocketIn Leviticus, we find Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, offering incense to worship God. Although their goal was good, priests were required to fulfill their duties without variation and the brothers disregarded the method specified by God. Worshiping God was the right intent but using prohibited fire was the wrong way to do it and they were consumed by God’s fire. Bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem was a good goal but using a cart to transport it was the wrong method and Uzzah was struck dead when he reached out to steady it.

We may be tempted to sin in order to achieve an important aim and then rationalize our behavior by saying that the noble result justified the questionable method. As unfair as it seems, those men’s deaths at God’s hand tell us that the end, no matter how worthy the goal, never justifies the means if the means require a compromise of our faith or ethics. It is never acceptable to do something against God’s law. Right and wrong are not determined by a situation; they are determined by God! No matter how honorable or well-intentioned the goal, doing anything in sin to achieve an objective is not honoring God. Moreover, as worthy as we may consider our motives, they’re probably nowhere near as noble as we think they are. More often than not, those motives have more to do with ourselves—our desires, relief or convenience—than we’d care to admit.

Father, sometimes we’re tempted to let a situation justify sinful or questionable behavior. Thank you for showing us that even the most worthy purpose never justifies disobedience to your Word. If it’s not what Jesus would do and done the way He would do it, then it doesn’t honor you. Remembering that the end never justifies the means if the means offend you, show us how to achieve your goals in the way you have commanded. May we let your Holy Spirit guide us in all we say and do.

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord!” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the person who does what my Father in heaven wants. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name? Didn’t we force out demons and do many miracles by the power and authority of your name?” Then I will tell them publicly, “I’ve never known you. Get away from me, you evil people.” [Matthew 7:21-23 (GW)]

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This letter is from James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad. Greetings! [James 1:1 (NLT)]

large striped swordtail butterflyFour men were in heated disagreement at a falafel stand in Jerusalem when they asked a passerby to settle their dispute about the authorship of an epistle. “I’m James, the father of the disciple named Judas (also known as Thaddaeus),” said the first man, ”I wrote the book of James.” The next man interrupted, “I’m James, the son of Zebedee, a fisherman and brother to John. I was a disciple of Christ and I wrote that epistle!” The third man disagreed, “Oh no!” he said, “I’m James, the son of Alphaeus. I was one of the twelve and I wrote those words.” The fourth man contradicted him saying, “I’m James, the brother of Jesus, and I’m the one who wrote that letter to the Jews.” The man they’d asked to settle their dispute calmly said, “You’re all wrong; I wrote it.” In unison, they asked, “Who are you?” He answered, “God—and all Scripture is God-breathed.”

Although all Scripture is God-breathed, someone named James put those words on paper. I’d always assumed it was one of the disciples but, according to Bible scholars, the weight of the evidence seems to point to James, the half-brother of Jesus. One of the earliest epistles, this letter isn’t about doctrine; it’s about the application of Jesus’s teachings and a testimony to the kind of life we should have as followers of Christ. James makes it clear that faith without works is meaningless. We can’t just talk the talk; we must walk the walk. Having known Jesus all of His life, rather than just the three years of His ministry, James knew what he was talking about. He may not have heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but he’d seen Him live that sermon every day of His life. Until the resurrection, James may not have known Jesus was the Messiah but he knew Jesus as only a brother can. Whenever we wonder, “What would Jesus do?” there’s an excellent chance we’ll find the answer in James’ epistle, in words penned by a man who actually saw what Jesus did!

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? … So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. 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.” [James 2:14,17-18 (NLT)]

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And by the same word, the present heavens and earth have been stored up for fire. They are being kept for the day of judgment, when ungodly people will be destroyed. But you must not forget this one thing, dear friends: A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day. The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment. [2 Peter 3:7-10 (NLT)]

train tracks - Galena ILAlthough more people prefer to believe in heaven than in hell, the Bible tells us that hell is as real as heaven. It exists whether or not someone likes the idea of a place of eternal punishment or refuses to believe in its actuality. The Bible uses words like fire, brimstone, pits of darkness, torment, anguish, weeping and gnashing of teeth to describe it. I won’t pretend to know what hell is like but, based on Scripture’s description (whether literal or figurative), hell doesn’t sound like any place I (or anyone I know) would deliberately choose to be.

As Christians, do we believe in heaven and hell? Do we truly believe in judgment and that Jesus is the only way to salvation? Why, then, do we seem so casual about sharing the gospel message? While fear of hellfire makes a poor basis for people’s acceptance of Jesus, concern for their final destination should be good motivation for our evangelism.

Pretend we’re at the train station. We see someone laying on the train tracks but he tells us there’s no need for concern since there’s no train coming. Although we don’t know exactly when it will arrive, we’re sure there is a train and that it is moving down that track. If we truly believed him to be in the path of that speeding train, what would we say or do? Would we walk away and quietly wait on a nearby bench or would we try to convince him to come to safety? Would we try to pull him off the tracks? If we are sure someone will spend eternity separated from our loving God, what will we do to keep that from happening?

Last April, the news aired video of a man collapsing onto the subway tracks. A utility worker spotted his fall and jumped off the platform to rescue him. The barely conscious man was scooped up and lifted back to safety just seconds before a train sped into the station. Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t ask us to step into the path of a speeding train in our witness. He does ask us, however, to clear the tracks the best we can. We do that simply by sharing the Gospel message.

If we understand what lies ahead for those who do not know Christ, there will be a sense of urgency in our witness. [David Jeremiah]

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. [Acts 1:8 (NLT)]

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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)]

Say no to hateI walked into the university workout facility and was greeted by a large sign telling me the school says no to hate. I was surprised that a Christian University felt the need to say what should be obvious. Has hate become so much a part of our everyday lives that we have to be reminded not to do it? There wasn’t a sign telling us not to pee in the pool, have fist fights, or swear. Evidently, certain acceptable behavior was assumed but not hating wasn’t! Apparently, the sign is necessary because people feel freer to express their prejudice, intolerance, and bias than do any of those other things.

Monday, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker re-established a task force on hate crimes. It will advise him on issues such as the prevalence, deterrence and prevention of hate crimes and support for hate’s victims. In 2015, the state had 424 hate crimes including intimidation, vandalism and assault. The Massachusetts Anti-Defamation League found a 44% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the first nine months of 2017 and the state’s hate crime hotline has received more than 2,000 calls since it began just a year ago.

One look at the news tells us that Massachusetts is not alone. Hate (and its cousin anger) make the headlines regularly—violence in Charlottesville, a sport star’s home vandalized with racial slurs, Asian-Americans told they don’t belong here, swastikas painted on Jewish temples, and a Texas mosque burned to the ground. Trucks become weapons in the hands of extremists and shootings in theatres, shopping centers, schools, concerts and churches almost seem commonplace. Last night, a local pastor was interviewed about the large security/safety staff now present during any church function. His church is not alone; many places of worship have felt the need to protect themselves from haters.

Hate can express itself in subtle ways through slurs, intolerance, intimidation, harassment, marginalization, and exclusion. Hate is also a crime when a criminal offense is motivated by race, ethnicity, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religion, or disability. Whether or not a crime is committed, in God’s book, hate is an offense. Worse, hate is like an infectious disease—the victim of hate often becomes a hater himself!

As Christians we are allowed to hate evil. We can and should hate things like hypocrisy, godlessness, violence, greed, immorality, exploitation, dishonesty, brutality, deceit, abuse, idolatry, betrayal, false teaching, corruption, intolerance, and hate. What we must never do is hate people. Rather than hate, we are commanded to love and that love isn’t limited to Christians or people who think, look, speak or act like us. We are to love all of God’s children. There’s plenty that’s wrong in our broken world; let’s not add to it by spreading hate through bigotry, intolerance, racism, discrimination or prejudice. We shouldn’t need a sign that tells us to say no to hate. Let us be the ones who demonstrate God’s love in this broken world of ours.

You have heard that our ancestors were told, “You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.” But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! … You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! … If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. [Matthew 5:21-22a, 43-44, 46-48 (NLT)]

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Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way. For they cannot rest until they do evil; they are robbed of sleep till they make someone stumble. [Proverbs 4:14-16 (NIV)]

barred owlPeer pressure—as youngsters we succumbed to it because we wanted friends. When trying to explain why we couldn’t stay out past curfew, go to an unchaperoned party or date while still in junior high, our parents would say something like, “If your friends jumped off a cliff (or ran through traffic), would you do it too?” If you were like me, you relentlessly assured them that all of your friends were doing whatever it was and that all of their parents allowed them to do it. They probably responded with a serious warning about the dangers of peer pressure and dubious friends.

Unfortunately, it’s usually easier to recognize bad friends in hindsight than when they’re right in front of us. A perfect example of an unwise friendship is that between David’s firstborn son and heir to the throne, Amnon, and his cousin Jonadab. Described in various Bible translations as very clever, crafty, shrewd, wise (as in “wiseguy”), or cunning, Jonadab was precisely the kind of friend our parents warned us against—the inciter, the one who always seems to be around trouble but doesn’t get caught. In this case, Amnon had a serious case of lust for his half-sister Tamar. Although sex between them was strictly forbidden, Jonadab provided Amnon with a scheme that would allow him to have his way with the young virgin. Amnon followed the plan and violently raped his sister. When King David did nothing to right this wrong, Tamar’s brother Absalom took revenge and killed the rapist. Like a bad penny, it was Jonadab that turned up at David’s side to tell him the news. It was Amnon’s unwise friendship with Jonadab that started the ball rolling for the downfall of David’s kingdom.

While our friends probably won’t help us plot a rape, they can subtly affect our behavior in a negative way. Remembering some of the conversations I’ve overheard at the gym and around the bridge table, it’s clear that mean girl comments are not limited to junior high and mean girls can turn into mean women. It’s easy to be drawn into their conversations and cattiness and get led astray. Wanting to be one of the group is not limited to teens. Even adults want to feel part of a community of friends. We must be discerning, however, when it comes to choosing those friends. Our spiritual lives require friends whose faith will bring us closer to God, not those who will pull us away. We may be adults, but we can still succumb to the influence of other people and peer pressure. We need to “fool-proof” our lives and pick our associates wisely.

Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm. [Proverbs 13:20 (NIV)]

Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” [1 Corinthians 15:33 (NIV)]

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Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. [Ephesians 5:1-2a (NLT)]

Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. [1 Corinthians 10:31b (NLT)]

snowy egret - corkscrewAs he took us to the car rental agency, the van’s driver welcomed us to Cleveland, explained where to get gas before returning our cars, and reminded us not to text and drive. After asking if there were any other questions, a voice from the back asked, “What is the purpose of life?” The driver quickly replied, “Finding comfortable shoes!” While we might rank finding comfy shoes high on our life list, that’s not the purpose of life.

In a Ziggy comic (written by Tom Wilson), the bald headed underdog arrives on a mountaintop in a quest to find life’s purpose. The wise sage replies, “If you have to ask the meaning of life…You can’t afford it!” Apparently, the meaning of life isn’t as expensive as the cartoonist thought. In 2000, someone claiming to have discovered “the reason for our existence” offered that knowledge to the highest bidder on eBay. Evidently, this wisdom had little value; the starting price was a penny and the winning bidder got the information for a mere $3.26.

Of course, the easy answer is that the purpose of life is to have a life of purpose but, like most pat answers, that’s inadequate and disappointing. According to the Bible, the reason we are here is to glorify God, enjoy fellowship with him, love our neighbors and be good stewards of God’s creation. In short, we’re here to honor God in all we do and we do that by being more like Christ.

Within that general purpose of glorifying God and being more like Christ, we each have a distinctive purpose and a unique role to play in God’s plan. While it’s easy to know what our purpose isn’t—sin, self-indulgence, power, riches, fame, popularity, pleasure, success, or status—it’s harder to know what our unique purpose is. I know this much—if we’re dissatisfied, we haven’t found it. It won’t take a flight to Cleveland, a trek to a mountaintop guru or a winning bid on eBay to find our purpose. We just need to ask God and listen to our satisfaction, inner convictions, gifts, and passions. God wants us to find the purpose of life more than we do. After all, He’s got big plans for us!

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. [Ephesians 2:10 (NLT)]

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

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