I know that nothing good lives in me; that is, nothing good lives in my corrupt nature. Although I have the desire to do what is right, I don’t do it. I don’t do the good I want to do. Instead, I do the evil that I don’t want to do. … What a miserable person I am! [Romans 7:18-19,24a (GW)]
tri-colored heron - snowy egret

Yesterday, I suggested taking a good look at ourselves in God’s mirror but let’s not beat up ourselves over what we see. While a critical look at our spiritual shortcomings can make us feel wretched and condemned, that’s not what it’s supposed to do. There’s a big difference between condemnation, which comes from the enemy and conviction, which comes from the Holy Spirit.

Conviction of sins is one of the Holy Spirit’s duties and it’s more than a quick pang of conscience pointing out right from wrong. When we’ve been convicted, we see our sin, understand what an affront it is to God, and have the desire to change our ways to honor Him. In conviction, the Holy Spirit acts as a counselor whose purpose is to free us from emotional, mental, and spiritual bondage. Because He knows all of our thoughts (rather than just the ones we want to share), He shows us the truth and exposes our wrongs, admonishes us for them, and then convinces us of our need for Jesus. We repent, ask forgiveness, and then get on with our lives. While conviction may leave us disappointed in ourselves, it doesn’t leave us with guilt, shame, or despair. Rather than a dread of divine judgment, conviction leaves us with a sense of forgiveness, relief, peace, love, and hope.

Rather than acting as our counselor, however, Satan acts as both the accuser and judge who already determined our guilt. While Satan probably prefers that we keep sinning in blissful ignorance, the recognition of our sins gives him another opportunity to overcome us. He has a briefcase full of falsehoods and destructive thoughts to lay on us—self-pity, guilt, shame, and despondency, along with feelings of worthlessness, incompetence, and futility. He wants to condemn us to a prison term of living hell even though we’ve been forgiven because Jesus paid our debt and served our sentence. Moreover, Satan is worse than a nagging spouse—he never lets go of our past failures. He’ll not only tell us how we screwed up this time but he’ll remind us of every past mistake we ever made. Condemnation is Satan’s gift that keeps on giving!

The Holy Spirit convicts us so that we repent but Satan condemns us so that we feel guilt and shame! The Holy Spirit is like a parent who tells the child his actions are wrong and the enemy is like a parent who tells the child how naughty and wicked he is. One is specific and convicts a behavior; the other is general and condemns the person. Conviction tells us how we failed but condemnation calls us a failure. The Spirit’s goal is regeneration and renewal while the enemy’s is destruction and defeat. Conviction focuses on the problem and offers forgiveness; condemnation focuses on the person and lays on the blame. One wants us to be better but the other wants us to feel worse. Let us never forget that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it!

So those who are believers in Christ Jesus can no longer be condemned. The standards of the Spirit, who gives life through Christ Jesus, have set you free from the standards of sin and death. [Romans 8:1-2 (GW)]

Therefore, everyone was condemned through one failure, and everyone received God’s life-giving approval through one verdict. [Romans 5:18 (GW)]

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Check up on yourselves. Are you really Christians? Do you pass the test? Do you feel Christ’s presence and power more and more within you? Or are you just pretending to be Christians when actually you aren’t at all? [2 Corinthians 13:5 (TLB)]
little blue heron

Writing about Paul’s flawed bronze mirror yesterday reminded me of the mirror I have at the end of our hallway—the one mirror in the house I actually like! Unlike ancient mirrors with their fuzzy image, this mirror is quite clear but, like those ancient mirrors, the image it reflects is misleading. Some defect in it makes a person look slightly taller and slimmer. Unlike a fun house mirror, however, it’s a minor distortion and so subtle that it takes a while to realize that the reflection isn’t quite true.

I’m not sure any of us truly like mirrors. In actuality, most of us would prefer the ancient bronze ones to those unforgiving three-way mirrors we find in changing rooms! No matter how beautiful we might be, the reflection in a good mirror is brutally honest. I may be able to edit away blemishes, wrinkles, and even pounds with Photoshop but any mirror tells me they’re still there! As much as most of us would prefer not looking too closely at our bodies, we are even less likely to enjoy examining our spiritual nature.

Unfortunately, we’re usually more willing to look closely at other people’s behavior than our own. We’ll use a magnifying glass for them but, when scrutinizing ourselves, we would prefer a mirror like the one in my hall—one that makes us look better than we are—to one that provides a frank and candid assessment. The words “mirror” and “miracle” share the same Latin root of mirari, meaning “to wonder at or admire.” While we’d prefer looking in our spiritual mirrors to admire what we see, at least for me, there is much that isn’t attractive, let alone admirable. One’s spiritual mirror should be as accurate and blunt as those make-up mirrors with lights and magnification! Nevertheless, when we take a deep look at ourselves, we’re tempted to minimize our spiritual flaws by excusing the inexcusable, rationalizing the unjustifiable, defending the indefensible, or just plain ignoring the obvious.

Although diet, exercise, cosmetic surgery, make-up, and Spanx can make some changes in our appearance, there really isn’t a lot we can change about our bodies. No matter what I do, I never will have the added height and long slender legs I see in my hall mirror. There is, however, much that can be done about our spiritual imperfections and shortcomings—things like anger, vanity, bitterness, hardness of heart, bigotry, pride, scorn, resentment, greed, and lust. To do that, however, we need to take a good hard look at ourselves in our spiritual mirrors!

Forgive us, Father, when we fail to take a thoughtful and honest look at ourselves. Examine us, O Lord, and tell us what is there! Give us eyes willing to see what you see, commitment to making the necessary changes, and the power of your Holy Spirit to do it.

O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. … Search me, O God, and know my heart; test my thoughts. Point out anything you find in me that makes you sad, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:1,23-24 (TLB)]

And why worry about a speck in the eye of a brother when you have a board in your own? Should you say, “Friend, let me help you get that speck out of your eye,” when you can’t even see because of the board in your own? Hypocrite! First get rid of the board. Then you can see to help your brother. [Matthew 7:3-5 (TLB)]

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Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, you want to be with me because I fed you, not because you understood the miraculous signs. But don’t be so concerned about perishable things like food. Spend your energy seeking the eternal life that the Son of Man can give you.” [John 6:26-27 (NLT)]

Although people flocked to Jesus, many came for His miracles and what He could do for them rather than for His message. After all, He gave sight to the blind, calmed storms, gave excellent fishing instructions, cured the paralyzed, freed people from demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, turned water into wine, made money appear in the mouth of a fish, and fed thousands with next to nothing. After Jesus fed the multitude, the people recalled the Messianic prophecy of Deuteronomy 18:18 that God would raise up a prophet like Moses and they wanted to make Him king. They didn’t understand that the kingdom of the Messiah would be a spiritual, not a political, one. Rather than seeing Jesus’ miracles as God’s stamp of approval on Him and coming to Jesus out of faith, they came to Him looking for more. As if feeding lunch to over 5,000 hadn’t been enough, they wanted an even greater miracle on a par with the manna Moses provided for the Israelites. Even though Jesus fed 5,000 men for a day, Moses fed millions for decades!

Jesus, however, corrected them. The manna wasn’t from Moses—it was from God. Moreover, that manna only lasted one day—the true bread from heaven, the bread Jesus offered, would last for eternity. Jesus wasn’t there to sustain life with something perishable but to give life with something everlasting!

Seeing Jesus as a miracle worker and a political king, the crowd followed Him. How do we see Him and why do we come to Him? Do we come for spiritual reasons or worldly ones? We may not expect Jesus to provide the food and drink for our next party but are we seeking Him for other things we think we can get from Him? By joining a church, are we seeking friends, contacts, or status? Do we have a personal agenda like politics, business relationships, or help from the parish? Are we motivated to seek Jesus in pursuit of wealth, success, comfort, emotional experience, or a miraculous fix of a problem?

Do we look to Jesus for our advancement or to advance His kingdom? Do we want to be glorified for what we do or glorify Him with what we do? Do we want to feel loved and or do we want to love Him and His children? Are we seeking an emotional high rather than spiritual growth? Do we seek power, influence, or recognition rather than a life of service and humility? Do we want His joy without our obedience or His forgiveness without our repentance?

Like the woman at the well, do we want His water so we don’t have to walk to the well and fill our jugs? Like the people who followed Jesus to Capernaum, do we want Him to miraculously satisfy our daily physical needs? Are we little better than Judas and following Him for the pieces of silver preached in the prosperity gospel? Are we looking for material possessions and wealth or spiritual gifts and the Fruit of the Spirit? Do we seek Him for what He can do for us or for who He is? Do we look to Jesus to take whatever is in His hand or do we come to offer Him what is in ours? Just asking…

True Christianity is to manifest genuinely Christ-like behavior by dependence on the working of the Spirit of God within, motivated by a love for the glory and honor of God. [Ray C. Stedman]

I tell you the truth, anyone who believes has eternal life. Yes, I am the bread of life! Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but they all died. Anyone who eats the bread from heaven, however, will never die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh. [John 6:47-51 (NLT)]

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BLIND (Samson – Part 2)

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. [Ephesians 6:10 (NLT)]

For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. [Philippians 4:13 (NLT)]

HibiscusWhile the Nazarites’ long hair was supposed to be a constant reminder of their commitment to God and a sign to others of their vow, I don’t think his hair was what gave Samson his strength. Three times Delilah asked Samson the source of his strength, three times he lied in his answer, and three times he woke to find himself incapacitated in the way he said he could be defeated. After being betrayed by Delilah three times, why would the man finally tell her the truth the fourth time she asked? He couldn’t possibly have been that foolish. Perhaps, his Philistine wife’s betrayal years earlier taught him a thing or two about deceit. When Samson finally told Delilah the source of his strength, could he have thought all four of his answers to be lies? Wanting to continue enjoying her favors in bed, he might have thought he’d given her an answer as outlandish as tying him with seven bowstrings or weaving his hair onto a loom. I’m not a Bible scholar but I suspect the boastful warrior thought that, in spite of having the long hair of a Nazarite, he alone was the true source of his strength.

What the proud man didn’t understand was that his strength wasn’t found in bulging muscles, six-pack abs, or even untrimmed hair—it was found in God. Samson didn’t lose his strength when he lost his hair. He lost his strength when he lost sight of God—when he decided his lustful desires were more important than his Nazirite vows. Nazarites’ hair was dedicated to God and their heads were shaved only when their vows came to an end. This was to be done publicly at the door of the tabernacle. Considered sacred, the hair was part of their offerings presented to the Lord and was to be burned with the peace offering. Because the hair was consecrated to the Lord, it was not be cast into any profane place—and there probably was no place more profane than the pagan Delilah’s bedroom. Samson’s strength didn’t leave him because his head was shaved. He lost his strength when he ended his Nazirite vows by choosing the pagan and treacherous Delilah over the God to whom he’d been dedicated.

Samson’s long hair was merely a symbol of his being set apart and it didn’t give him strength any more than wearing a cross or a clerical collar endows people with virtue or makes them Christian. Earlier in life, it wasn’t Samson’s hair that enabled him to break out of restraints and kill 1,000 Philistines with a bone—it was the Spirit of the Lord that had come upon him. Rather than thanking God, however, Samson proudly boasted of his personal triumph: “With the jawbone of a donkey, I’ve killed a thousand men!” After claiming the victory for himself, he complained to God about his thirst. When water gushed from a rock, rather than offering thanks to God, Samson called it “The Spring of the One Who Cried Out.” A better name would have been the “The Spring of the God Who Answers!”

Although Samson called to God to deliver him from thirst, he might have been wiser if he’d called to God to deliver him from temptation and desire. Sadly, there is no mention of Samson calling to God again until we find him blind, weak, and humiliated as he is paraded in front of the Philistine crowd in their temple. Thinking God’s purpose was to serve him rather than his purpose being to serve God, Samson was blind long before the Philistines gouged out his eyes. He’d been blind to the power of God throughout his life. As Craig Groeschel aptly said, “He lost sight of his blind spots, which ultimately cost him his sight.”

It was only when he was blind that Samson finally saw the real source of his strength and prayed, “O God, please strengthen me just one more time.” God heard his prayer and Samson killed more Philistines as he died than he ever did when he lived. Without God, no matter how good our eyesight, we are blind and, without Him, no matter how many hours we’ve spent at the gym, we will be weak. It is when we look to God that we see, when we admit our weakness that we become strong, and when we are humble that we can be great.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see. [John Newton]

Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. [2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NLT]

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THE NAZIRITE (Samson – Part 1)

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)]

great egretThe word Nazirite comes from the Hebrew words nazir, meaning to consecrate, and nazar, meaning to separate. By taking on the vows prescribed in Numbers 6:2-21, Nazirites separated themselves from the world and were consecrated to God. For the length of their vows, they abstained from wine or any fermented drink. They also were prohibited from eating, drinking, or touching anything coming from a grape vine such as grape juice, wine vinegar, raisins, grapes, and grape seeds, skins, and leaves. Their hair was not to be cut during the entire length of the vow and the Nazirite was prohibited from becoming ceremonially unclean by being anywhere near a dead body. Both men and women could take the Nazirite vow and, at its conclusion, their hair was shaved and special offerings were made to the Lord. Typically, the vow was taken voluntarily and had a specific time frame, usually thirty days. For three men in Scripture, however, becoming a life-long Nazirite was decided for them. Angels of the Lord determined that both Samson and John the Baptist were to be Nazirites and it was Samuel’s mother who dedicated him a Nazirite.

Perhaps it was because it wasn’t his choice to become a Nazirite that Samson seemed particularly flawed in his role. While his hair remained uncut until that unfortunate night with Delilah, he certainly didn’t remain set apart from society or consecrated to God. He deliberately defied both Jewish law and his parents by marrying a Philistine woman and, later in life, he continued to consort with Philistine women of questionable morality. Samson’s first wife finagled the answer to his riddle with a combination of feminine wiles and nagging. More than twenty years later, the enticing Delilah managed to do the same thing. But, because of his lust and braggadocio, the man who could kill a lion with his bare hands and slay thousands of Philistines, was putty in the hands of a sexy nagging woman.

As for being ceremonially unclean—after killing thirty men, Samson stripped them of their clothing to pay off a gambling debt and, after killing a lion, he later returned to its carcass. Finding a bee hive in the animal’s remains, he scooped out handfuls of honey. As a Nazirite, he never should have touched the dead men or returned to the dead animal or reached inside its decaying body. The lion had attacked him near the vineyards of Timnah but, as a Nazirite, he never should have been anywhere near a vineyard. Later, during his week-long nuptial celebration, in a move that that seems suspiciously like the sort of thing a young man would do after having too much to drink, Samson asked a riddle and bet thirty Philistine men that they couldn’t answer it. The prohibition about grapes and wine was supposed to show self-discipline and restraint but most of Samson’s behavior speaks of hotheadedness, pride, entitlement, lust, and self-indulgence rather than consecration to the Lord, ritual purity, or self-control.

Although Samson’s story is told in three chapters of Judges, his twenty years as a judge are dismissed with one short sentence. The mighty warrior—the man dedicated to God while still in the womb and selected by God to deliver His people—ended up blind and grinding grain in prison. He squandered his strength on foolish wagers, getting out of scrapes that were his own fault, and chasing after pagan women. He was a lustful braggart who was physically strong but morally weak. Granted, in his last act, he killed thousands of Philistines by destroying their temple but consider what this man could have accomplished if he truly had consecrated his life to God!

Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee. … Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee. [Francis R. Havergal]

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. [1 Peter 2:9 (ESV)]

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While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because he had married a Cushite woman. They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” But the Lord heard them. [Numbers 12:1-2 (NLT)]

roseThomas isn’t the only Bible personality who gets a bad rap. Consider Miriam, the resentful sister who, along with Aaron, attacked Moses for marrying a Cushite woman. The implication in their complaint is that it was a recent union; perhaps Moses’ wife Zipporah was dead. The Cushite woman may have been one of the many non-Israelites who joined the Hebrews in their exodus from Egypt. That she wasn’t an Israelite shouldn’t have been an issue to them since Zipporah had been from Midian. The land of Cush, however, was used to describe Black Africa and the siblings may have been disparaging the woman’s dark complexion. Moses’ new wife, however, wasn’t the real issue. Miriam and Aaron simply were jealous of their brother and, since they couldn’t find fault with his leadership, they spitefully chose to criticize his choice of wife.

Appointed by God as Moses’ spokesman, Aaron served as high priest and Miriam was God’s prophet. Although they assisted their brother, Moses was the indisputable leader. God spoke with him face-to-face and, as God’s spokesperson, he became Israel’s law-giver. Unsatisfied with their roles, however, the siblings wanted equal authority with their brother. When God heard their hostile words, He upheld Moses’ position as His chosen leader. As the instigator of the complaint and mini-rebellion, Miriam received the brunt of the punishment and was given a skin condition and required to stay outside the camp for seven days! (A Biblical form of “time out.”)

Whenever Miriam is mentioned, I first think of the jealous, spiteful, complaining, and possibly racist sister of Aaron and Moses. Miriam, however, also was the caring and concerned big sister who kept an eye on her baby brother as he lay in a basket floating on the edge of the Nile. It was she who approached Pharaoh’s daughter and innocently offered to find a Hebrew nurse for the hungry infant. It was her quick thinking that reunited the boy with his birth mother. She probably continued to be Moses’ link between Pharaoh’s palace and his Jewish family for several years. It was the prophetess Miriam who led the women in song and dance as they proclaimed God’s victory over Pharaoh right after the Israelites safely passed through the Red Sea. Loving sister, poetess, and prophet, and yet I remember her as an envious disgruntled woman.

Fortunately, we don’t define most of the Bible’s characters by their failures and shortcomings. Even though Aaron shared in Miriam’s complaint, we remember him as Moses’ right-hand man. We remember David as the giant killer rather than a murderer and adulterer, Rahab as the woman who saved Israel’s spies rather than a pagan prostitute, John Mark as the author of a gospel rather than the man who deserted Paul, and Solomon as a wise king rather than the man who disobeyed God by amassing horses, foreign wives, and a huge amount of wealth.

Church tradition holds that Thomas carried the gospel message to Parthia or India where he was martyred, so he didn’t define himself by his doubt. As the one who spoke powerfully on Pentecost, healed the lame, and preached before the Sanhedrin, the Apostle Peter didn’t define himself by his failures and I’d like to think that, when Miriam returned to camp, she didn’t define herself by hers either. I know God didn’t because, when He spoke to the people through the prophet Micah, He joined Miriam’s name with those of Aaron and Moses and said, “For I brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from slavery. I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to help you.” [6:4]

From their accomplishments, it seems that, rather than defining themselves by their failures, they learned from them. What about us? How do we define ourselves? None of us are perfect and we probably have a long list of failures, missteps, and transgressions. God has forgiven us; have we forgiven ourselves? Each day, God gives us a clean slate—let us erase the past and confidently move forward to be better person today than we were yesterday and a better person tomorrow that we are today!

You must learn, you must let God teach you, that the only way to get rid of your past is to make a future out of it. God will waste nothing. [Phillips Brooks]

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)]

No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. [Philippians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

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