IN PREPARATION FOR THE JOURNEY

We broke camp at the Ahava Canal on April 19 and started off to Jerusalem. And the gracious hand of our God protected us and saved us from enemies and bandits along the way. So we arrived safely in Jerusalem. [Ezra 8:31-32a (NLT)]

Bryce - Losee CanyonAfter years of exile, the Jews were finally returning home from their captivity in Babylon. Ezra assembled a group of 1,500 men and their families and led the second emigration back to Jerusalem. It would take about four months for the over 5,000 people to make the 900 mile journey across the desert. Since they were transporting about 30 tons of silver, gold, and bronze along with wheat, wine, olive oil, and salt, there was serious danger from marauding bandits.

When Persia’s King Artaxerxes offered Ezra an armed escort, he refused. Having assured the king that God’s hand of protection was all they needed, it would have been embarrassing and hypocritical to then accept military help. The Judeans couldn’t just “talk the talk” about the Hebrew God, they had to “walk the walk” and live as if they truly believed Ezra’s words and God’s promises.

Instead of trusting in soldiers, Ezra chose to trust in God. Although he was confident in God, Ezra did not take His protection for granted. He gave orders for the people to fast and earnestly pray that God would take care of them. Knowing the trip could be disastrous without God’s protection, they committed themselves to trusting in God alone. This choice was a strong test of everyone’s faith. It’s remarkable that two chapters in the book of Ezra are written about their preparation for the trip, but just a few sentences tell about the journey itself and their safe arrival. Perhaps, if we spent more time in prayer and faith preparing for our life’s journeys, they would be as free of difficulty as Ezra’s.

Prayer is the key to Heaven,
But faith unlocks the door;
Words are so easily spoken,
Prayer without faith is like a boat without an oar.
Have faith when you speak to the Master,
That’s all he asks you for.
Prayer is the key to Heaven,
But faith unlocks the door.
[Samuel T. Scott & Robert L. Sande]

But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. [James 1:6-7 (NLT)]

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HE ALWAYS ANSWERS

Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him. [Matthew 7:7-11 (NLT)]

Holy Name Catholic church - Steamboat Spgs.Thrilled at the result of her biopsy, Mary joyfully announced, “God is good and God always answers prayers!” Indeed, He is and does but we must remember that God does not always answer prayers the way we want Him to. I recently wrote that God is not a miser and our prayers should not be puny half-hearted ones. Nevertheless, regardless of the size of our petitions, we must remember that it is God’s will, not ours, that will be done. In spite of fervent prayers, some biopsies will say “malignant,” some prodigals will never return, some marriages will fail, and some people will not recover.

People often claim that Jesus’s words in Matthew 7 are a promise that God will give us anything we ask. But, seen in context, this verse is about seeking and finding God rather than having all of our wishes fulfilled. If we ask for things like His wisdom, discernment, patience, love, compassion, peace, and understanding, He will give them to us. That promise, however, does not mean God will answer all of our prayers with a “Yes!”

Just as loving parents wouldn’t give their children something bad when they ask for something good, Jesus tells us neither will God. But, what if, in his naiveté, the child unwittingly asks for something that isn’t what’s best? When my son was a teenager, he pled for a shiny new sports car; we answered with a second-hand Ford Tempo. Older and wiser, we knew a sixteen-year old boy didn’t belong behind the wheel of a Corvette. Now that he has a sixteen-year-old boy of his own, our son understands. A loving parent, like God, knows how to say “No!”

God is God and we are not. It is His will that reigns and our prayers are answered according to His plan rather than our wants. Both Elijah and Jonah asked God to take their lives, but He refused. God denied King Zedekiah’s prayer for help in defeating Nebuchadnezzar. When Jesus prayed in the garden, Paul prayed to be rid of the thorn in his flesh and David wanted to build the temple, God said “No” to them. When the disciples wanted Jesus to go back and heal in Capernaum, when a man asked Him to intervene in a family dispute, and when James and John wanted places of honor in heaven, our Lord answered them all with, “No!”

God always answers prayers but frequently not the way we expect or desire. Just because we don’t get what we want, however, doesn’t mean we get nothing. Although God’s answers often are mysterious and even heart-breaking, they always are purposeful. God’s “No!” is His “Yes!” for a far greater end, be it protection, teaching, spiritual growth, or guidance. Let us be thankful that God keeps us from what we thought we wanted and blesses us with what we didn’t know we needed!

When God says no, we are sometimes tempted to wonder if He loves us. In reality, it’s because He loves us, He sometimes says no. [Lysa TerKeurst]

Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine. [Luke 22:42 (NLT)]

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THAT WAS GOD

There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. [John 3:18 (NLT)]

hindu pujaWhen writing about the prayers of Malala Yousafzai’s mother yesterday, I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding. Although she was praying to Allah, it was the one true God—our Triune God of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—who heard and answered her prayers. While God is not a fan of Islam, He loves all of His children, whether Muslims, Hindus, Christians or others. Just because the Yousafzais don’t believe in Him doesn’t mean He doesn’t believe in them and their efforts to make our world a place where every girl can learn and lead.

If we believe that Christianity’s major claims are true, then the claims of any other religions must be false wherever they contradict it. Islam condemns the Trinity and denies the Fatherhood aspect of God, the deity of Jesus, and His death. By denying Jesus’s death, Islam denies His resurrection and ascension, His atonement for our sins, His Holy Spirit, and the salvation of His believers: the cornerstones of our Christian creeds! Islam and Christianity can’t both be correct any more than Buddhism, Hinduism or a whole lot of other isms and Christianity can.

My Hindu friends often say, “Well, it’s all the same God!” but it isn’t. Christianity recognizes one God in three person but my Hindu friends believe in a multitude of gods who are a manifestation of various aspects of one god, Brahma. Omnipotent, unknowable and impersonal, he may exist in three separate forms: Brahma (Creator), Vishnu (Preserver), and Shiva (Destroyer). While Hinduism views mankind as divine and believes each person is judged and punished by his own karma, Christianity believes that only God is divine, Jesus is the only way and there will be a final Judgment Day.

Saying we all worship the same God is what David Limbaugh calls “intellectual laziness.” The claim that all paths can lead to God is a statement we should never make or accept. It’s an insult to Jesus: God incarnate who came, suffered, and died on the cross for our sins—something totally unnecessary were there another way to God. Jesus definitively said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” [John 14:6] In spite of the Universalists’ claims, all religions do not lead to God. Then again, no “religion” leads to God; only faith in Jesus Christ does!

Our God is a God of love and His benevolence and mercy is extended to everyone. It was our Triune God, not Allah, who heard Mrs. Yousafzai’s prayers and extended His hand of healing to her daughter. Unfortunately, that mercy won’t be extended in the world to come. Simply put, for those who do not believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior, death means punishment and eternal separation from God. Let us remember, however, that the exclusive truths of Christianity do not mean that we are exclusive in our love. Everyone, regardless of race, faith, ethnicity, sex or culture, is our neighbor and a person to be loved!

The Father loves his Son and has put everything into his hands. And anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment. [John 3:35-36 (NLT)]

There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved. [Acts 4:12 (NLT)]

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HE’S NOT A MISER

zebras - great migration -serengetiWhat shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Romans 8:31-32 (NLT)]

Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. [James 4:2b (NLT)]

Yesterday, when writing about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012, I thought of an exchange between her parents while the girl was being operated on for the removal of the near fatal bullet. The words “the patient may die,” had been on the papers consenting to her surgery and Malala’s father was deep in prayer. Making bargains with God, he prayed aloud, “Even if she is injured, just let her survive.” Malala’s mother, a devout Muslim, stopped him in his prayers with these words, “God is not a miser!” She confidently added, “He will give me back my daughter as she was,” and then returned to her non-stop prayers for a full recovery.

Her dissatisfaction with her husband’s prayers and her confidence in God’s ability to do great things reminded me of something said by C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory. Calling us “half-hearted creatures,” he compared us to “an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” While Lewis was writing about wanting things of the world when the splendor of God could be ours, I think his words apply to prayer, as well. Our prayers often are half-hearted and, like Malala’s father, we are far too easily pleased. We forget that, rather than a miser, God is our generous loving Father.

Pint-sized prayers suggest that we doubt God’s love for us and yet God is love; He loved us enough to give His only son to die for us! Small prayers imply that we think God is puny. A 97-pound weakling God could not have created man from dust and woman from man, made walls collapse and the sun stand still for Joshua, provided both drought and rain to Elijah, or given sight to the blind and raised Lazarus from the dead. Nothing is impossible for Him.

Perhaps we ask far too little of God because we’re afraid that He will think we are asking too much. Yet, without asking, we won’t receive. Malala’s mother said that God isn’t a miser and, with 100 thousand million stars in the Milky Way alone, creation tells us that’s true. A miserly God wouldn’t have given us nearly 10,000 different species of birds, 950,000 species of insects, and even 16,000 species of mushrooms. He’s a “more than enough” God who loves to give gifts to His children. Why are we so easily pleased asking for a little bite when He’s waiting to give us the whole cake?

Mark’s gospel tells of a man who brought his demon-possessed, deaf and mute son to Jesus. He didn’t ask Jesus just to stop the convulsions or only to give the boy hearing or speech; he asked Jesus to heal him, but added, “if you can.” Assuring him that, “Anything is possible if a person believes,” the father’s reply was, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!” [9:23-24]

Knowing that nothing is impossible with God, and remembering that God is not a miser, let our prayers be bold ones. Let us also pray that He helps us overcome our unbelief!

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. [1 John 5:14 (NLT)]

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. [Hebrews 4:16 (NLT)]

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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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BEWARE THE GNATCATCHERS!

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)]

red-shouldered hawkSeeing a red-shouldered hawk perched up in a nearby tree, I focused in on it only to see him suddenly duck his head to avoid being attacked by small bird and then drop again as another tiny bird swept down at him. Those two gnatcatchers boldly harassed the hawk as it kept bobbing and weaving to dodge them. Fiercely territorial, gnatcatchers are unafraid to confront predators and, apparently, the hawk was infringing on their territory. Eventually, the hawk admitted defeat and flew off to another tree. I later asked one of the Audubon docents why the large hawk didn’t fight back against the tiny birds and was told that the hawk knows it can’t win. Being so small, the fast and agile gnatcatcher easily can out maneuver the bigger bird. For the hawk, the energy spent trying to catch the gnatcatcher isn’t worth it; fleeing makes more sense than staying. After settling in another tree not far away, the hawk spotted a crayfish. After sweeping down to catch it, he returned to his new perch and enjoyed a peaceful breakfast (without any annoying gnatcatchers).

“Surely, there’s a devotion of some kind in this!” I thought. Seeing those tiny birds harass the hawk (who was more than 100 times their weight) seemed like a David versus Goliath moment. The more I thought about it, however, I thought the hawk was the innocent party. He hadn’t provoked the birds; he was just minding his own business and looking for breakfast when those birds started pestering him. What the gnatcatchers were doing is called “mobbing.” When birds mob, they make a distress call that attracts other birds (even different species) to join in the harassment. If the hawk hadn’t moved, chances are more birds soon would have joined in hounding and harassing him.

Since another word for harassing is “worrying,” I wondered if those gnatcatchers might be like the worries that seem to come at us from out of nowhere to vex, torment, and distress us. Like mobbing birds, worry calls its pals anxiety, fear, and apprehension to join in troubling us. The gnatcatchers kept the hawk from doing his work (finding breakfast) and worry keeps us from moving ahead, as well. Realizing those birds were not going to disappear, the hawk wisely moved away from them. Often, we’re not that smart; we remain smack dab in the middle of worry and allow it to continue attacking and pecking at us. While the hawk only needed to fly to a nearby tree, we need fly to God, thank Him for His goodness, ask Him for help, and leave our concerns with Him. “You can pick what you ponder,” says Max Lucado. We can perch ourselves in the midst of worry or we can perch ourselves in the promises of God.

Whether or not we worry, our problems will remain. Worry, however, accomplishes nothing. We may not have a lot of power over our problems, but we do have power over our thoughts. Like the hawk, we need to stop perching in the worry zone and get on with our lives, whether that involves catching crayfish in the swamp or giving our concerns to God and working at finding a solution to our problems!

Your problem is not your problem; it is the way you think about it. [Max Lucado]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)]

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