FASTING THOUGHTS

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 commandment that says, “You must not commit adultery.” But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [Matthew 5:21-22a,27-28 (NLT)]

bue birdShortly before the start of Lent, I got an email advertisement for a Christian book that asked “What if you fasted regret? What if your friends fasted comparison? What would be the fruit of fasting stinginess?” Those questions certainly got me thinking about our thoughts.

The one place we have total freedom is our mind. Even though we have freedom of speech, we can’t shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre or “Bomb” in the security line at the airport. We can, however, shout anything we want at anyone anywhere in the silence of our minds. The father of those three abused gymnasts was free to wreak all sorts of revenge on their abuser in his mind but he couldn’t touch the man in court. We can be charming and polite to the woman who stole our husband and amazingly civil to the man who betrayed our trust when, in our imaginations, they suffer every disaster and tragedy that can befall man or beast.

Since our thoughts are far less easy to control than our actions, we’d like to think of them as less important. When we entertain wicked thoughts, we think we’re not sinning because we’d never actually do the terrible things about which we’re thinking. Since we won’t burn down the house of the man who deceived us or climb in bed with the sexy hunk at work, we think we’re innocent of wrongdoing. But are we? Remember the words of Jimmy Carter that nearly cost him the 1976 election: “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.” Upon reading Jesus’s words in Matthew 5, it would seem that Carter’s confession, while ill-advised, was true! While thoughts and actions can have different results, Our Lord made it quite clear that thoughts are as important as actions. Jesus knew the evil thoughts of the Scribes and he knows ours.

Fortunately, Jesus telling us to get rid of our hands or eyes if they cause us to lust was hyperbole or Jimmy Carter (and much of the rest of the world) would be minus both hands and eyes. He is, however, telling us that our evil thoughts can be controlled. We can renounce every one of them and replace them with godly thoughts. Max Lucado describes it this way: ”You can be the air traffic controller of your mental airport. You occupy the control tower and can direct the mental traffic of your world.” When we keep the runway filled with godly thoughts, the bad ones circling around have no place to land. Our thoughts are as much a part of whether or not we love our neighbor as are our actions.

What would our lives be like if we fasted from things like anger, lust, envy, animosity, haughtiness, disdain, revenge, irritation, and impatience, not just in our actions, but also in our thoughts and, not just during Lent, but all of the time?

We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ. [2 Corinthians 10:4-5 (NLT)]

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. [Philippians 4:8 (NLT)]

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IT IS WRITTEN

sheepThe thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. [John 10:10-12 (ESV)]

I came across a cartoon drawn by Paul Noth in which an enormous billboard overlooks a pasture inhabited by a flock of sheep. The sign, a political advertisement, shows a picture of a smiling wolf in coat and tie with the words: “I am going to eat you.” Looking up at the billboard, one sheep tells another, “He tells it like it is.” Would that all politicians were so forthright!

While it was political commentary on the part of Noth, seeing the sheep in the pasture made me think of how often we’re compared to sheep in Scripture. Unlike that wolf, however, Satan would never be so honest as to openly announce his intention to devour us. Instead, like many politicians, he distorts the truth and makes false promises.

In Matthew 4, we read of Jesus being led into the wilderness to be humbled and tested. For forty days Jesus fasted and, during that time, Satan visited Him. Like a politician who knows the people’s hunger and promises a chicken in every pot, Satan tempted Jesus to tell the stones at his feet to become bread. He then took Jesus to the highest point of the Temple and, like a true politician, offered only a half-truth. Citing God’s promise to protect His people, Satan dared Jesus to jump. Finally, he took Jesus to a mountain peak where he promised to give Him all the nations of the world if only He’d kneel down and worship him. Like many a politician, Satan promised something he couldn’t deliver—it wasn’t his to give away! In all three cases, Jesus countered Satan’s deceitful words with Scripture. “It is written, man shall not live by bread alone. … It is written, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test. … It is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” [Matthew 4:7-10]

Unlike the sheep in Noth’s cartoon, our shepherd has not left His flock defenseless. We’ve been given the armor of God, including a sword, with which to defend ourselves from the wolf’s attack. That sword is God’s word. Perhaps, it’s time to sharpen up our blades with some Bible reading so that, when we’re tempted, we too can say “It is written…!” It was Thomas Jefferson who said, “A well informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.” Those words apply to the citizens of God’s kingdom, as well; when we know the truth, the enemy can’t bamboozle us with his lies.

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. [Psalm 119:11 (ESV)]

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ACCEPTING AMENDS

God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy. [Matthew 5:7 (NLT)]

Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven. [Luke 6:37 (NLT)]

beach sunflowerYesterday, I wrote about making amends; today, I write about accepting them. In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, the young man realizes the error of his ways, returns to his father, admits his failure, and is forgiven. Although the son offers to act as a servant, his father doesn’t ask for amends or acts of penance; rather, he welcomes him back as an honored son. It’s a beautiful story about God’s redeeming grace and forgiveness. Like any good story, however, there’s conflict—the prodigal’s older brother. When he returns from working in the fields to the feast celebrating his brother’s return, he becomes angry and resentful. The parable concludes with the father’s explanation that the celebration is because, “He was lost, but now he is found!”

If, instead of a parable, this was a true story, what would happen next? Even with his father’s forgiveness, the boy still would face the consequences of his foolishness; having already gotten and squandered his money, there would be no inheritance when his father died. Although making amends wasn’t necessary for the father’s forgiveness, a truly repentant son would want to find a way to make things better. Perhaps he would work extra hours in the fields, help the homeless or counsel rebellious young men. While the boy’s relationship with his father was restored, I doubt the relationship with his elder brother mended so easily.

The older boy rightfully resented all of the extra work required of him during the prodigal’s absence, but there was more to his anger. He’d watched his father walk out to the gate each morning to wait hopefully for his younger son’s return, only to see his father return crestfallen each evening when he didn’t show up. He’d heard his father’s sobs when news of the prodigal’s disgraceful life reached his ears. When famine hit the land, he saw his father pace in the middle of the night as he worried how his younger son would survive. He knew his father, having given so much money to his younger son, was having financial difficulties. He’d seen the toll his brother’s abysmal behavior had taken on the entire family and wanted to see his brother chastised rather than given a party. He wanted to see him in sackcloth and ashes rather than wearing the best robe in the house. His brother deserved punishment and humiliation rather than a celebration. Being forgiven just shouldn’t be that easy!

As sinners, we should try to make things right with the people we’ve offended. Yet, in the prodigal’s situation, whatever he did to make amends probably would never be enough for his elder brother. Unable to understand his father’s amazing grace, rather than apologies or amends, the older boy wanted retribution. Nevertheless, as offended parties, we don’t get to choose how apologies are offered or amends are made, nor do we get to withhold our forgiveness if we’re not satisfied. When someone comes to us with a repentant heart and asks forgiveness, we can’t demand the type and amount of humble pie he must eat before getting it. We just have to forgive.

We are to forgive so that we may enjoy God’s goodness without feeling the weight of anger burning deep within our hearts. Forgiveness does not mean we recant the fact that what happened to us was wrong. Instead, we roll our burdens onto the Lord and allow Him to carry them for us. [Charles Stanley]

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)]

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CLEAN IT UP

Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today…” [Luke 19:8-9a (NLT)]

dogI laughed at the picture of a large dog, with what looked to be a smile on his face, on his hind legs, holding a poop pan with one paw, a rake with the other, and scooping up a pile of dog dirt. The sign read: “Pets, people and parks – When you pick up your pile, everyone smiles.” Yes, we all smile when people clean up the mess left behind by their dogs. Unfortunately, it takes more than a pooper scooper to clean up the mess we leave behind when we sin.

There’s an old Jewish tale about a loquacious businessman who learned a secret about another man in town. It was so sensational that he couldn’t help but pass it along to his family, friends, and neighbors. When the man who was the tale’s topic discovered how his personal life had been broadcast throughout town, he complained to the rabbi who then summoned the tale bearer to his office. At first, the gossiper defended his actions—after all, the story was true! True or false, responded the rabbi, the story was not his to tell and he’d done incredible harm to the man’s reputation. Asking how to make amends, the gossipy man was told to return the next day with his best feather pillow. Once back in the rabbi’s office, he was told to slit open the pillow and shake out all of the feathers. When the rabbi told him then to collect the feathers and put them all back into the pillow, the man protested. The window had been open and a breeze had taken the feathers all over town; getting them back was impossible. “That,” replied the rabbi, “is what happens whenever a secret leaves your mouth. It flies on the wind and can never be gotten back.” Aside from being a lesson about gossip and guarding one’s tongue, it also points out the difficulty of cleaning up the messes that we can make in the lives of others when we sin.

Sometimes, it’s relatively easy to make amends for our failings; other times, there’s no way we can ever make something right or undo what’s been done. Fortunately, making restitution is not a requirement for God’s forgiveness; for that we just need genuine repentance. Although making amends wasn’t a requirement for Zacchaeus’ salvation, his repentance led him to do just that. While the New Testament doesn’t specifically require us to make restitution for our wrongs, Jesus did tell us that if we’ve hurt or offended our brother in any way, we must go and be reconciled.

Unfortunately, while God will forgive us our sins, not everyone else is so willing or able. Reconciliation is not always possible and, unlike a pile of poop, not everything can be picked up or made clean again. The mess left from some sins, like the feathers in the wind, can never be made right. Other sins are best left buried in the past; making direct amends in those cases would only do more harm or bring more pain. While the sins of the past don’t affect our salvation, they do affect our present and often leave us with regrets and guilt. If we can’t make amends directly to the people we’ve hurt, we can prayerfully consider other ways, such as service or giving (as did Zacchaeus), to indirectly right our wrongs. While we may not be able to fix everything we’ve broken, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can live new and improved lives and make the world a better place in which to live.

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

So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God. [Matthew 5:23-24 (NLT)]

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APPROVAL RATINGS

Obviously, I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant. [Galatians 1:10 (NLT)]

rabbitsI’d just returned from the dentist’s when their email arrived asking, “Would you recommend us?” Thinking the question theoretical, I answered in the affirmative only to be taken to hyperlinks for both Google and Facebook to do just that. The following day, I got a longer survey regarding my visit. It again asked if I would recommend his services and requested use of my name in a testimonial. Clearly, my dentist wants the approval of his patients.

Like my dentist, we all want to be noticed, liked, approved, applauded and endorsed but, unlike him, we don’t employ a company to do surveys for us. Nevertheless, we tend to measure approval in other ways—the quantity of Christmas cards sent or received, “friends” on Facebook, hits on the website or likes on the posting. Approval is determined by the number of invitations extended or accepted, memberships (and offices held) in various organizations, honors awarded, and followers on Twitter or Instagram. We judge admiration on the number and expense of gifts received, the reviews on Yelp or Trip Advisor, the size of the obituary and the length of the line to pay condolences.

In the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes (drawn by Bill Watterson), there were several instances (usually after having been disciplined or given a chore) in which the precocious Calvin informed his father that his approval ratings were dangerously low (especially with six-year olds and stuffed tigers). To Calvin’s surprise, his dad seemed unconcerned about his approval ratings’ ups and downs. This comic strip father knew that a parent’s purpose wasn’t to gain his child’s approval. Would that other parents were so wise!

We all seek approval but by whom? Like Calvin’s dad, our job is not to please our children; nor is it to please any other person. Jesus warned us that we can’t be servants to both God and the world (its wealth, possessions, fame, popularity, status, or praise). Our job is to please God; His approval rating of us is the only one that truly counts! When we try to please both the world and God, the interests of our two masters eventually will collide. When that happens, and it will, whose approval will we seek—man’s or God’s?

For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. [1 Thessalonians 2:4 (NLT)]

No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. [Matthew 6:24a (NLT)]

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AND EVIL BEGAT EVIL

swamp (string) lily - corkscrew swampAs you know, long ago God instructed Moses to tell His people, “Do not murder; those who murder will be judged and punished.” But here is the even harder truth: anyone who is angry with his brother will be judged for his anger. Anyone who taunts his friend, speaks contemptuously toward him, or calls him “Loser” or “Fool” or “Scum,” will have to answer to the high court. And anyone who calls his brother a fool may find himself in the fires of hell. [Matthew 5:21-22 (VOICE)]

While Satan’s presence is easy to see in malevolent acts like terrorism, genocide, slavery, torture and human trafficking, he’s usually far more subtle. That we don’t expect his presence in our emotions and actions works to his advantage and we don’t see him when he comes slithering into our lives. Like a trickle of water seeping through a foundation crack, he oozes in without our noticing and, before we know it, he’s settled into the La-Z-Boy and made himself at home in our hearts.

Evil is anything that contradicts the nature of God and it includes immorality, pettiness, deceit, envy, maliciousness, unforgiveness, hatred, slander, hypocrisy, covetousness, and corruption. Unfortunately, those evils are harder to recognize and far more likely to be in our hearts than genocide, murder or even adultery.

The enemy doesn’t care who he captures and the more the merrier as far as he is concerned. Rebekah and Jacob let him into their hearts when they plotted to deceive Isaac into thinking he was blessing Esau when actually blessing Jacob. Esau’s reaction to their deception allowed the enemy entrance in his heart when he decided to kill his brother. Their story illustrates how evil has a way of begetting more evil.

After recently witnessing some of the enemy’s destructive work, I’ve had righteous indignation at the way innocent people were hurt. Unfortunately, I’ve also had some very unrighteous anger and ill will. There’s a fine line between disappointment and disgust, indignation and fury, and making things right and retaliation. I found myself hoping for disaster to strike the wrongdoers and have caught myself disparaging and despising them. The enemy has used my anger to open the door for malice, unkindness and even gossip. His evil is just begetting more of the same.

Somehow, during Jacob’s twenty year absence, Esau managed to empty his heart of bitterness and anger at his brother; Satan lost that battle. If, however, I allow anger to continue brewing in me, he’ll be able to put another notch on his belt. Anger, spite, contempt, disdain, condemnation—they all diminish me and the Christ within me. That I’m angry on someone else’s behalf or that the other people’s sins have harmed people while mine have harmed no one (but me), is of no matter. My thoughts have been evil and the only option is to capture them, send them packing, and seal the cracks that allowed them entrance. I’ll do that by conforming my thoughts to God’s will and allowing His love and forgiveness to rule my heart.

Never let evil get the best of you; instead, overpower evil with the good. [Romans 12:21 (VOICE)]

We are demolishing arguments and ideas, every high-and-mighty philosophy that pits itself against the knowledge of the one true God. We are taking prisoners of every thought, every emotion, and subduing them into obedience to the Anointed One. [2 Corinthians 10:5 (VOICE)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.