CAN WE CHANGE?

leopardCan an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. [Jeremiah 13:23 (NIV)]

What words of despair from Jeremiah! Yet, why would God send him to the people of Judah with the call to repent if there was no hope of change? Surely, He didn’t send His prophet on a fool’s errand!

We all have issues with sin. While it may not be theft or adultery, chances are it’s something like anger, envy, impatience, bigotry, hostility, selfishness, pessimism, or pettiness. “It’s just the way I’m built,” we say in way of excuse. While we may justify ourselves by saying our faults are simply our nature, they aren’t! Having recently gone through genetic testing, I didn’t see any genes for things like lust, short-temper, worry, nitpicking, intolerance, arrogance, discontent, or stinginess. When we confuse our learned behavior with innate behavior, we excuse the inexcusable. While we can’t change our skin color or blood type, we can change our habits.

The gift of habit is God given; indeed, we’re blessed that we can go through life without having to deliberately think through the details of every action. If we had to consciously consider how to brush our teeth, get dressed, tie our shoes, make coffee, or start the car, we’d never get anywhere in the morning. The gift of habit, however, can also be a curse when our habitual responses are not godly—when they entail things like bigotry, anxiety, deceit, pride, anger, self-centeredness, or jealousy. 19th Century preacher Charles Spurgeon likened the force of habit to a cobweb: at first, it’s easily broken. When it grows into a thread, however, it restrains us a bit and, when the thread changes into a cord, we find ourselves in a net. As the net hardens into iron and the iron into steel, we’re shut up in a cage of our own making with no way of escape.

In discussing Jeremiah’s question, Spurgeon emphatically states that the Ethiopian cannot change his skin but, he adds as emphatically, an Ethiopian’s skin can be changed. He explains that the God who turned “primeval darkness into light” and “changed chaos into order” can do everything and, should He choose to do so, He could easily change skin color and leopard spots. Far more important than changing appearances, however, God can transform human nature! The God who designed our hearts can make them new again. After all, change or re-birth is what Jesus is all about!

Jeremiah called the people to repent; the call to put off our old sinful nature and replace it with the new continues today. Although we can’t do it by ourselves, God doesn’t ask anything of us that we are incapable of doing. When we accept Jesus, the Holy Spirit produces fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  [Galatians 5:22-23] We may have to dig deep to find it but God’s fruit is there! Granted, it’s difficult to put away ingrained habits; change is neither easy nor fast. Nevertheless, though the power of the Holy Spirit, change is possible; we can take off the old and put on the new!

The God who made us also can remake us. [Woodrow Kroll]

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV)]

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. [Ephesians 4:22 (NIV)]

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GETTING IT JUST RIGHT

Pride ends in humiliation, while humility brings honor. [Proverbs 29:23 (NLT)]

brown bear - montana

In the story of The Three Bears, Goldilocks tasted porridge, sat in chairs, and climbed on beds in an attempt to find what was “just right” on the continuum between hot and cold, big and small, and hard and soft. When editing photos I do much the same thing as I adjust the brightness to find the setting where it’s neither too dark nor too light. As parents (and parents-in-law), we often struggle to find the right position between the extremes of meddling and total detachment. As Christians, we must find a proper balance between two other extremes: pride and humility.

Thinking either too much or too little of ourselves is equally wrong. Pride is insidious and can creep into our lives but so can false humility. When we’re prideful, we deprecate the gifts, talents and achievements of others but, when we’re falsely modest, we deprecate our God-given gifts, talents and achievements; both are dishonest. Healthy pride is a feeling of self-respect and confidence that acknowledges God’s gifts and isn’t threatened by the success of others. Healthy humility also acknowledges God’s gifts but with an attitude of genuine modesty and unpretentiousness. Both pride and humility exhibit delight in and gratitude for the blessings God has bestowed both on ourselves and others.

We need to know and recognize both our assets and our deficits. While our gifts vary from person to person, we are neither superior nor inferior to one another; we all are God’s children. It’s not just in the marketplace that God hates dishonest scales and deceit; He expects us to weigh and measure ourselves with honesty. Like Goldilocks, we must find the place that is “just right” between pride and humility: the place where we can both own our strengths and acknowledge our weaknesses. When we’re at that “just right” point, we can honestly give and take both praise and correction. Acknowledging the virtues and gifts of others as well as any with which we’ve been blessed, we can take joy in both our accomplishments and the accomplishments of others.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. [Rick Warren]

Too much humility is pride. [German proverb]

The Lord detests the use of dishonest scales, but he delights in accurate weights. Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. Honesty guides good people; dishonesty destroys treacherous people. [Proverbs 11:1-3 (NLT)]

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BE KIND

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)]

tiger swallowtailLast week, when Brandt Jean chose to offer his forgiveness and embrace the woman who killed his brother, he did it out of Christian love. Judge Tammy Kemp, moved by Brandt’s example, then handed the convicted murderer one of her personal Bibles and encouraged her to forgive herself. When the defendant asked her for a hug, the judge remembered a recent sermon about love and compassion and couldn’t deny her. Nevertheless, many people were outraged and turned their simple acts into political statements. They saw issues of race, civil rights, proselytizing, and something called “post-traumatic slavery syndrome” where there was only love, kindness, and forgiveness. Neither brother nor judge excused or absolved Amber Guyger of her crime; they simply extended compassion and forgiveness. Let us not forget that their actions were also in obedience to Christ!

This week, Ellen DeGeneres received backlash for sitting next to President George Bush at a football game. Responding to the outrage that a “gay Hollywood liberal” would sit beside “a conservative Republican president,” she pointed out that she is a friend to many who don’t have her same beliefs. The comedian added, “I think that we’ve forgotten that it’s okay that we’re all different.” In her own way, the comedian captured the essence of Jesus’s commands with her words, “When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”

Last fall, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 80% of our population believes the nation to be either “totally” or “mainly” divided. Apparently, that’s just about the only thing Americans can agree upon except, of course, that most of those polled also believe that this divisiveness is the fault of the other side of whatever their ideology happens to be!

We are becoming a nation that views people through ideological eyes rather than the eyes of God. We see black or white, rich or poor, labor or management, rural or urban, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, friend or foe instead of seeing a human being. In his song Russians, Sting put it this way: “There is no monopoly of common sense on either side of the political fence. We share the same biology, regardless of ideology.” Whether or not we look like them, speak their language, come from the same background, believe the same things, or agree with their lifestyle doesn’t matter. They are people—people just like us, made in God’s image and precious in His sight.

The essence of Christian life is love and that love is active rather than passive. It isn’t just about turning the other cheek and not retaliating; it is about positive acts of kindness. As Christ’s followers, we must never hesitate to reach out in love to everyone (even those with whom we disagree). Moreover, as His followers, we must never be part of the divisive rhetoric that has become part and parcel of this day and age. The rules for conducting our lives were not written by man; they were written by God. The only side we should take on any issue is His!

Again I say, don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth. [2 Timothy 2:23-25 (NLT)]

But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. …If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! [Luke 6:27-28,32-33 (NLT)]

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JUST SORRY OR REPENTANT?

You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one. You do not want a burnt offering. The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. [Psalm 51:16-17 (NLT)]

The fellow looked at me and apologized: “I’m sorry; I know I can be a real #@!%* at times!” I debated as to my response. While the polite thing would have been, “It’s OK, I understand,” that wouldn’t have been honest. His behavior wasn’t OK. We’re told in Proverbs 27:6 that wounds from a friend are better than an enemy’s kisses and, since he’d left the door wide open, I agreed with him. “I know you are. But you don’t have to be,” I gently added. “It’s your choice!” Apparently preferring an enemy’s kisses to my honest assessment, he shrugged his shoulders and left the room.

Although “sorry” and “repentant” often are used synonymously, they are not the same thing. My friend’s regret may have been heartfelt but repentance requires a change of heart. While sorry, he wasn’t ready to change his heart or his petulant behavior.

In John 8, we read about a woman caught in adultery. Facing a crowd ready to stone her to death, she surely regretted her behavior. After Jesus’s words caused the crowd to disperse, our Lord didn’t condemn her but He didn’t send her back to her paramour either. Clearly expecting repentance, He told her, “Go and sin no more.” [8:11] Whether or not she repented, we don’t know, but Jesus’s actions and words that day make two things clear. First, rather than wanting sinners to die, God wants them to repent and live! Second, forgiveness doesn’t mean tolerance.

Repentance has two requirements: turning from evil and turning to good. When we repent, we turn from sin to obedience, evil to good, selfishness to selflessness, deception to truth, vulgarity to civility, meanness to kindness, animosity to goodwill, dysfunction to function, and childishness to maturity. As Christians, we don’t repent because we’re afraid of fire and brimstone or that God will strike us dead. Out of our love for God, we consciously decide to become better by moving away from anything that offends Him toward something that pleases Him. The power to do that comes from the Holy Spirit.

Let us never confuse an apology, regret or even confession with repentance. It’s not enough to say, “I have sinned;” we must commit to making a change and not sinning again!

To do so no more is the truest repentance. [Martin Luther]

For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death. [2 Corinthians 7: 10 (NLT)]

Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. [Matthew 3:8 (NLT)]

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BITING OFF MORE THAN WE CAN CHEW

AlligatorPride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall. [Proverbs 16:18 (NLT)]

I will not endure conceit and pride. [Psalm 101:5b (NLT)]

With her uncanny sense of what it means to be part of a family, Lynn Johnston’s comic strip For Better or for Worse often hits home. In one, Elly, the weary mother, is pecking away at her typewriter. When her husband John asks why, with all of the people in her department, she seems to get everything dumped on her, El admits that it wasn’t “dumped;” she volunteered! Her thoughts in the final frame read: “Trouble with having a big mouth is…You usually bite off more than you can chew!” Truer words were never said!

Many years ago, I certainly bit off more than I could chew. School, church, community, and charity obligations began to interfere with my mothering. I was in a push to complete a major publicity campaign for a charity event when, like Elly, I sat working at the typewriter. My three small children took one look at me, intently typing, and started to cry in chorus. Shushing them, I sat them in front of the TV, and returned to my work. Those tears, however, preyed on my mind. They told me, in no uncertain terms, that I’d clearly taken on way too much. While my family’s basic needs had been met, I’d neither been truly present nor very pleasant. Following that day, I finished the obligations I already had, lessened my participation in several activities, and didn’t take on any new responsibilities until my children were older.

What is it that gives us such big mouths when it comes to taking on more than we can chew? In my case, it was an inflated ego. Sure no one could do as good a job as I would, I tried to do it all! No one else could do the publicity right, so I did it; no one else could write a good newsletter, so I did it; no one else could be as good a Brownie leader, so I did it. I foolishly thought I could do it all! It took three tearful children to remind me that only God can do it all and He’s the only one who can do it perfectly. The rest of us need to realize our limitations.

Having greatly overestimated my abilities and underestimated those of others, I was filled with pride and conceit. While the obligations I had were all good causes and worthy of my efforts, I had to understand that I wasn’t the only person who could complete God’s tasks. Pride had kept me from trusting that God would provide the qualified people necessary to do His work if He wanted it done.

The following year, I handed my publicity notebook over to someone else. Did she do it the way I would have? No. Did she miss some deadlines? Yes. Without my publicity, was the event successful? Yes; in fact, even more so! Did my various causes survive without my over-involvement? They did and it was humbling to realize that the world does quite well without me trying to run it.

Make no mistake, I’m not advocating an attitude of “Let the other guy do it.” I am, however, warning us to beware of the pride and arrogance that refuses to allow him or her to do it. Inflated egos can turn us into little gods who think we are the only ones who can write, play an instrument, lead a choir, take photographs, chair a meeting, bake, entertain, organize, teach, lead, encourage, or create. All of us have God-given talents and spiritual gifts and God rightly expects us to use them to his glory. We need to remember, however, that others also have been blessed. If you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, perhaps it’s time to let someone else use their talents and gifts.

Father, we want to serve you. Give us the wisdom to know both when and how to use our gifts in the best way possible. Guide us when we make obligations so that we never let pride or vanity make us say, “Yes,” when we should be saying, “Thank you, but no!”

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. Don’t be impressed with your own wisdom. [Proverbs 3:5-7a (NLT)]

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SOMEONE’S LOOKING

The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord sits on his throne in heaven. He sees what people do; he keeps his eye on them. [Psalm 11:4 (NCV)]

beach weddingWhen I was a little girl and got sick, my mother would dress me in a fresh pair of pajamas, tuck me into her bed, get out her hairbrush, and do my hair. “Why bother?” I’d ask, “No one is going to see me.” She’d always reply, “God sees you and you want to look your best.” I found it comforting, as I lay in bed, to know that both God and my mother were watching me.

It’s not just God, however, who watches—people do, too. While enjoying dinner on the patio of a local restaurant, we observed a couple exchange wedding vows on the beach. Although here were only five people present for the ceremony, when the groom kissed the bride, the entire patio applauded in joy. The couple beamed with delight and enthusiastically waved at the sixty uninvited guests who had witnessed their nuptials.

Their joy as being observed was a contrast to another al fresco dinner many years earlier. We were seated on a porch overlooking a well-lit boat launch. Two couples were trying unsuccessfully to get their boat back onto its trailer. With one attempt, the trailer wouldn’t be back far enough but, with the next, it would be too far back. The boat would drift, the trailer tires spin, or the boat motor would quit. As the evening wore on and the boat remained in the water, the boaters’ tempers flared. That they may have enjoyed too much liquid refreshment during the day didn’t help and there were angry words, cussing and name calling. We were finishing our key lime pie when their truck successfully pulled the trailered boat out of the water. In relief, the entire dining room broke out in applause. The four looked up at us, somewhat mortified that their poor behavior had been witnessed by so many.

Unlike the wedding couple, we’re not always in our best attire and on our best behavior. Our conduct, like that of the boaters, frequently leaves much to be desired. We’re told to let our lights shine so that people will see Christ in us but we’ve been known to let our lamps get so dim that Christ is nowhere to be seen in us. Whether we’re shining or not, however, a bright light may be shining on us (as it was on the boaters)! It’s not just the eyes of God that are upon us; people observe us, as well. Are we the shining light we’re called to be?

We are indeed the light of the world—but only if our switch is turned on. [John Hagee]

In the same way, you should be a light for other people. Live so that they will see the good things you do and will praise your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:16 (NCV)]

You are God’s children whom he loves, so try to be like him. … In the past you were full of darkness, but now you are full of light in the Lord. So live like children who belong to the light. [Ephesians 5:1,8 (NCV)]

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