A WONDERFUL LIFE

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. [Romans 12:1 (NLT)]

irisAround this time of year, I frequently return to Bedford Falls and get reacquainted with the conflicted George Bailey, the money-grubbing Mr. Potter, and Angel 2nd Class, Clarence Odbody. This year’s version of It’s a Wonderful Life was somewhat different. Rather than seeing the movie, I attended a theatrical production set in a New York City radio station in the 1940s. The well-known story unfolded as if it were a live radio broadcast. Just five actors took on all of the roles (along with producing the various sound effects required for a radio show). In spite of the unusual adaptation, the production remained true to the original movie’s message.

George Bailey, a building and loan banker, is an unlikely hero. Having abandoned his dreams for a life in Bedford Falls, he feels that life has passed him by. About to be thrown into jail because of his uncle’s carelessness (and Mr. Potter’s dishonesty), George realizes he’s worth more dead than alive. The other unlikely hero is Clarence Odbody, an ineffective guardian angel desperately trying to earn his wings by helping this despairing man on the brink of suicide. In spite of the story’s incredibly flawed angel theology, it’s a good tale. When George wishes he’d never been born, Clarence shows him what an ugly depraved community Bedford Falls would have been had he never lived. When George Bailey realizes how many lives would have been ruined, lost, or never even have happened, he chooses life.

While George’s perspective changes and there is a happy ending, it’s not a happily-ever-after one. Unlike Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, the evil Mr. Potter doesn’t transform. We know he’ll persist in trying to take over the town and that George will continue to have too little money at the end of the month. The challenges, disappointment, and disillusionment of George’s life don’t disappear. His sacrifices cost him dearly; his aspirations were surrendered, he lost his hearing, never attended college or traveled, worked in a job he hated, and endured financial hardship. Nevertheless, it’s a happy ending because George finally understands the sacrifice was worth it! He realizes the most important work we do is not the work we ever planned on doing.

The missing $8,000 wasn’t what caused George’s despair. He was unhappy and unfulfilled because he was concentrating on the life he wanted to live rather than loving the life he was leading. Like George, most of us have given up opportunities, hopes and dreams or endured hardship of some kind or another for the sake of others. If not, we should have because that’s what God tells us to do. Jesus made it clear that our lives were to be ones of sacrifice. We belong to Jesus rather than to ourselves. Following Jesus means we surrender to His purposes, which inevitably means we don’t always get what we wanted! We do, however, get something better (but often don’t recognize it).

The difference between George Bailey and a Christian is motivation. Bailey sacrificed out of a sense of duty to family, friends and town. Although family, friends, and community often benefit from our sacrifice, the Christian sacrifices out of love and obedience to God. George’s sense of duty was to Bedford Falls; ours is to Jesus! Our Lord was the suffering servant; can we be anything less? In spite of the difficulties encountered along the way, when we sacrifice ourselves to God, we will find such joy and peace that we’ll have no need for an angel to show us that it’s been a wonderful life!

All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away. [The motto Peter Bailey’s office in “It’s a Wonderful Life”]

If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. [Luke 9:23-24 (NLT)]

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HOW COULD HE?

For the Lord is good. His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation. [Psalm 100:5 (NLT)]

black vultureTears fell on my newspaper as I read the account of a toddler so violently raped that multiple surgeries will be required to repair the damage done to her little body. Nothing, however, will erase the abuse and my heart bled for the girl. From reading the book of Job, I knew not to ask God, “Why?” Nevertheless, I cried out to him, “How could you allow such evil to touch this child?”

Satan was unable to harm Job without God’s consent. Although he wasn’t permitted to kill Job, most of his family died—apparently, with God’s consent! When Jesus told Peter that “Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat,” it was clear the God allowed Satan to tempt Peter and the others. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness specifically so that He would be tempted. Wondering if these instances mean Satan always needs God’s permission to wreak his havoc on the world, I asked again, “How could you let him do this?”

Although Satan sometimes asked permission, I’m not sure we can infer that Satan always asked God’s permission to act against His children. Scripture doesn’t tell us he asked God if he could enter into Judas or tempt David with Bathsheba, Solomon with his foreign wives, Achan with Jericho’s plunder, Joseph with Potiphar’s wife, Esau with a bowl of stew, or Gehazi with Naaman’s money.

Satan and God are neither opposites nor equals. Satan was created and will end but God always has been and forever will be. While God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, Satan is none of those things. Unlike Satan, God has supreme authority over all things. That, unfortunately, leads me to the troubling conclusion that, while Satan may not always ask permission, nothing happens unless it is allowed by our sovereign God.

Coming to grips with the reality of evil may be the greatest challenge to our faith. If we truly believe that God is good and created everything, we have to ask how a good God could create evil. According to Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a truly good God is incapable of creating evil. Either something else created evil or evil isn’t a thing. But, if God created everything but couldn’t and wouldn’t create evil, we’re left with the conclusion that evil, while real, is not a tangible created thing! Rather than a thing, like a piece of fabric, Augustine posits that evil, like a hole in that fabric, is a lack of a thing; evil is a void in or lack of goodness. Augustine said, “Evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.'” He explains that, rather than choosing to do evil, men (exercising their free will) choose to turn away from good (which is sin). I don’t know if Augustine’s explanation is correct; I’m not sure I fully understand it. What I do know is that God called everything He created “good.” Although the tree in Eden contained the knowledge of good and evil, the evil wasn’t in the tree or its fruit. Adam and Eve’s lack of obedience, their turning away from the goodness of God, is what tore a hole in the goodness of the world.

The issue of evil will continue to trouble me, as it probably will you. Not being omniscient, we’ll never fully understand God’s purposes and ways; why He allows what He allows will remain a mystery. What isn’t a mystery, however, is who and what we know God to be! He is love! Our righteous God is sovereign over everything in the universe. He gave mankind free will and, with that free will, we can turn away from His righteousness but we also can choose to be moral and virtuous. For now, we must trust what we do know about God and believe in His wisdom, goodness and love (and continue to pray for those harmed by evil). “I do not know the answer to the problem of evil,” said Os Guiness, “but I do know love. That’s the key thing. In Jesus, we cannot doubt the love of God for us if we look at the lengths to which He went.”

God Almighty would in no way permit evil in His works were He not so omnipotent and good that even out of evil He could work good. [Augustine of Hippo]

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

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NOT KEEPING MY PROMISE

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. [2 Corinthians 5:10-11 (ESV)]

Yesterday, I wrote about my infant nephew’s baptism at my mother’s hospital bedside. Because she was at death’s door, everything was arranged in a rush; at fifteen, I was recruited as the baby’s Godmother (or sponsor in Baptism).

As his Godmother, I made three promises for my nephew: that he would “renounce the devil and all his works…believe all of the Articles of the Christian Faith and…keep God’s holy will and commandments.” In a perfect world, he would have made those same promises again when he was old enough to personally know Jesus. But the world isn’t perfect and he didn’t.

That same day, as his Godmother, I made a promise of my own: I would make sure he learned the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and “all the other things which a Christian ought to know and believe to his soul’s health.” Sometimes promises are easier said than done and I did not keep my promise any better than did my nephew his. I can make all sorts of excuses for my failure: my youth at the time, that we’ve always had at least 1,000 miles separating us, and that I have only seen him a handful of times in his 57 years. Nevertheless, I did not try to keep those promises and I will answer to God for my failure.

When I stand at God’s judgment seat, my sins will not be an issue; they already have been forgiven and my ticket to heaven is secure. But I will be asked to give an accounting for what I have done (and failed to do) since becoming a believer. I squandered my opportunity, small as it was, to share God’s love and the good news of the Gospel with my nephew. I can’t say that anything I could have done would have made a difference in his troubled life but I should have tried. That weighs heavy on my heart—not because I may miss out on some heavenly reward, but because I missed an opportunity to be a disciple of Christ.

When believers stand before God, we will be judged. Since we each have been uniquely created and gifted, my evaluation will not be the same as yours; nevertheless, each one of us will give an accounting of ourselves. What did we do with the spiritual light we had, what did we do with the opportunities given to us, and what did we do with the time, talents, and property God entrusted to us?

My nephew is part of the reason I support recovery ministries as well as programs serving people who are homeless or mentally ill. I continue writing these devotions as a way of atoning for not keeping the promise I made 57 years ago. Older, wiser, and having more light, opportunity, time and ability, more is expected of me now. As for my nephew, I continue to pray for God’s protection, grace, and mercy on him. As for us, I pray that we will make good use of all that God has given us and that through our words and deeds we will live and teach the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and “all the other things which a Christian ought to know and believe to his soul’s health.”

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them. [Romans 12:6 (ESV)]

Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. [Luke 12:48b (ESV)]

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CAUGHT IN THE HEADLIGHTS

He walked away, about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him. [Luke 22:41-43 (NLT)]

deer“It never occurred to me,” my friend said, “that I could outlive my wife.” Several years older than his spouse, overweight, diabetic and nearly blind, he always thought she’d be there to care for him. That, however, was before she suffered a stroke, had complications from carotid artery surgery, was diagnosed with cancer, had another surgery, and started a regimen of chemotherapy (all within a few months’ time.) Like a deer caught in the headlights, he was almost frozen in disbelief, bewilderment, and fear.

At some point in time, a “deer in the headlight” moment like that will happen to us all. Disease, disability, adversity and misfortune will slam into us and turn our version of life upside down. I think of a friend who was swindled by his trusted business partner and another one who was betrayed by her husband; neither of them ever envisioned such duplicity. When the young couple was told to expect twins, it never occurred to them that neither child would live to see his second birthday. When a friend’s wife beat cancer, her family never foresaw that, fifteen years later, it would return with such a vengeance that she’d be gone in less than a year. Such scenarios were never pictured by any of these people when asked about their hopes and dreams.

Although we are the main character in our life story, we eventually realize that we aren’t writing the script—God is the author and we don’t get consulting or editing privileges. We can’t choose the setting, rewrite the parts we dislike, dictate the ending, or decide the length of the tale. As Christians, we know that the play’s sequel will take place in God’s presence in heaven, where there will be no death, pain, crying or mourning. Nevertheless, sometimes that knowledge is of little consolation as we (or those we love) struggle to make it through the present act. All we can do is trust that our loving God will give His children the courage and strength necessary to get through it all, one day at a time.

Father, some of us are suffering and others of us are crying for those who are in the midst of difficult circumstances. If it is at all possible, please take away their cup of suffering. If not, help us all to accept what seems so unacceptable and to understand what seems so unreasonable. Strengthen our faith with trust and let us see hope on the horizon.

The truth is, in this world it’s a 100 percent guarantee that we will suffer. But at the same time, Jesus Christ is 100 percent certain to meet us, encourage us, comfort us, grace us with strength and perseverance, and yes, even restore joy in our lives. Your Savior is 100 percent certain to be with you through every challenge. [Joni Eareckson Tada]

And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20b (NLT)]

Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. [Romans 12:12 (NLT)]

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THE BEST TIME TO MEET HIM

I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. [John 11:25-26 (NLT)]

In commenting about the unexpected death of a young man, the pastor said, “The best time to meet God is when you’re right with God!” For a good part of his brief life, the young man about whom he was speaking had been a troubled unbeliever but, shortly before his death, he came to know Christ. While he will be missed by his grieving family and friends, they can find comfort in knowing his final destination. Since they, too, are believers, they know they will see him again in the future.

The pastor’s comment made me remember a sympathy note written by C.S. Lewis in 1944 to the wife of fellow professor at Oxford. After expressing how much he missed the man, Lewis told the new widow how deeply the professor’s funeral had affected him. Mentioning the many times he’d heard the same service read for non-believers, he admitted to a sense of relief at hearing those same words said for a true man of faith: “a man not unworthy of the service.” Lewis admitted that, “In some queer way it enormously strengthened my faith, and before we filed out of chapel I really felt…a kind of joy—a feeling that all was well, just as well as it could be.” Understanding that the best time to meet God is when you’re right with God, Lewis knew the professor had been welcomed home by his Father in Heaven.

I think of a friend, whose husband is nearing the end of his life.  As non-believers, she knows a religious service would be hypocritical and has been pondering what sort of funeral she might have for her husband when the time comes. For a non-believer, there is little comfort in hearing that Jesus is the resurrection and the life and His believers will never die or that our bodies “buried in brokenness…will be raised in glory.” Scripture’s words of assurance that Jesus has prepared a place for us in His Father’s house or that nothing can separate us from Christ’s love are meaningless to someone who doesn’t know Jesus.

Believers and non-believers alike experience grief but it was the faith C.S. Lewis shared with his fellow professor that allowed him to experience joy at his friend’s funeral. The words of a traditional Christian funeral/celebration of life service are only comforting to a believer if the dearly departed was a believer.

When my friend’s husband dies, I don’t know how she will mark his passing, but it won’t be with words of Scripture, prayers, psalms, or hymns. When that day comes, I will choose my words of sympathy carefully; they probably will be something innocuous about hoping her memories bring her comfort and solace. (Her lack of faith certainly won’t!) No matter how nice the memorial program or beautiful the music, I will not feel a kind of joy as I depart because I know that the best time to meet God is not when you deny His existence. The best time to meet God is when you’re good with Him!

Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. [1 Corinthians 15:43-44 (NLT)]

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PERMANENT RECORDS

He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. [Psalm 103:12 (NLT)]

I—yes, I alone—will blot out your sins for my own sake and will never think of them again. [Isaiah 43:25 (NLT)]

great southern white butterfly

When I was a girl in elementary school, the teachers would speak ominously of our permanent records. While the threat that Santa knowing if we’re good or bad only worked during December, a teacher’s threat of, “This is going on your permanent record!” scared us into obedience the entire year! Perhaps elementary schoolers in the 1950s were more naïve than today’s youngsters, but my friends and I were convinced that each of us had a permanent record that logged test scores, grades, and attendance records along with every infraction or disciplinary action. Every time we used our outside voices inside, chewed gum in class, forgot the hall pass, passed notes, got in a spat, lost our lunch money, or were sent to the office, the transgression was documented for posterity. Passed from teacher to teacher and school to school, that record might even follow us from job to job.

Nowadays, the dreaded permanent record no longer may be a threat and yet, with social media postings, today’s youngsters are far more likely to have a real permanent record of their assorted transgressions than I ever was!

Fortunately, God doesn’t keep a permanent record of our transgressions. When Jesus died on the cross, He paid for our sins (past, present and future) once and for all. Once we repent and accept Jesus, our sins are both forgiven and removed. Erasing them from our permanent record, God chooses not to remember them. His forgiveness, however, doesn’t mean we’ll never sin; just as we didn’t get 100% on every test in school, we won’t do life perfectly. But, because of Christ’s sacrifice and our faith, our sins no longer have any bearing on our salvation. When we repent and ask forgiveness, God’s loving grace forgives us and yesterday’s mistakes have no bearing on today. God gets out his holy eraser again and again and wipes them away. Along with the Apostle Paul, we can forget what is behind us and look forward to what lies ahead.

If seven times a day we offend him and repent, does he forgive? Ay, that he does. This is to be unfeignedly believed, and I do believe it: I believe that, often as I transgress, God is more ready to forgive me than I am ready to offend, though, alas, I am all too ready to transgress. Hast thou right thoughts of God, dear hearer? If so, then thou knowest that he is a tender father, willing to wipe the tear of penitence away, and press his offending child to his bosom, and kiss him with the kisses of his forgiving love. [Charles Spurgeon]

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)]

For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. [2 Corinthians 5:21 (NLT)]

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