AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION

And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one. [Matthew 6:13 (NLT)]

Back in the ‘70s, comedian Flip Wilson coined the phrase, “The devil made me do it!” Actually, Wilson really can’t be credited with its origin. Eve used pretty much the same excuse when she blamed the serpent back in Eden and Adam kept the ball rolling when he blamed Eve! Instead of the devil, Aaron blamed the people for the golden calf, Moses blamed the Israelites for his failure to enter Canaan, and Saul blamed his soldiers for his refusal to follow God’s command. Of course, they all were wrong. The responsibility for all of our actions falls solely on us and yet, like them, we’d prefer blaming our missteps on someone or something else.

Although temptation frequently enters our lives, it never is God who tempts us—that’s Satan’s job. Just as God won’t force us to be obedient, Satan can’t force us be disobedient. Although God give us trials, whether we sin or not in those trials is entirely up to us.

One of Benjamin Franklin’s most famous sayings is, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Although Franklin coined the phrase in 1735 when writing to The Pennsylvania Gazette about Boston’s impressive fire prevention methods, that axiom holds true when it comes to preventing sin, as well. It is far easier to prevent something bad from happening than to fix the problem later. Nevertheless, we often put ourselves smack dab in the middle of tempting situations—the man encountering marriage difficulty who meets with an ex for a drink and a little sympathy, the recovering addict who spends time with friends who still use drugs, the compulsive shopper who “walks” in the mall, or even the dieter who regularly stops at the donut shop for coffee.

Neither of my parents were saints but they did their best not to become sinners. My father enjoyed a martini nearly every evening but, after my mother died, he completely abstained from alcohol for several months. The grieving man said he was afraid that he’d end up trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol. Recognizing his vulnerability and not wanting to add to his problems, he used an ounce of prevention by turning away from something that could lead to trouble. That’s what Joseph did with Potiphar’s wife and what David should have done the moment he saw the naked Bathsheba bathing on her rooftop.

It’s never a sin to be tempted; the sin comes in yielding to temptation! In Proverbs, Solomon cautioned, “If a bird sees a trap being set, it knows to stay away.” [1:17] Let’s use the common sense given to us by God and do the same!

We must not count temptation a strange thing. “The disciple is not greater than his master, nor the servant than his lord.” If Satan came to Christ, he will also come to Christians. [J.C. Ryle]

If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure. [1 Corinthians 10:12-13 (NLT)]

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THE APOLOGY

He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding. [Ephesians 1:7 (NLT)]

Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? [Romans 6:1-2 (NLT)]

golden mantled ground squirrelI’m not sure if Hammie MacPherson, the mischievous little boy mentioned in yesterday’s devotion, ever made his annoying noise again but, in another “Baby Blues” comic by Kirkman and Scott, he tells his mother, “I’m sorry and I promise it will never happen again.” When she asks what he’s done, he says he doesn’t yet know. “It’s still early,” he adds, “so I thought I’d get the apology out of the way first.”

Contemplating the day’s mischief, Hammie apologized in advance. I’m not so sure our forgiving God welcomes that approach to forgiveness. After all, an apology is merely an excuse. The word “apology” comes from the Greek apologia, meaning a speech in one’s defense. The original English sense of the word “apology” was self-justification. Most definitely, either in advance or after the fact, God is not interested in any defense of our indefensible actions.

Granted, Christ died for all of our sins—past, present, and future—but I’m pretty sure God’s promise of forgiveness doesn’t give us free rein to do as we please. Although Christ’s sacrifice paid our debt, we haven’t been given carte blanche to deliberately live sinfully. God’s forgiveness involves repentance on our part and genuine repentance includes not just a confession of wrongdoing but also a willingness to make things right and to do better in the future. Confessing our unnamed sins in advance of their commission indicates neither remorse nor repentance.

When the comic strip’s Hammie does something naughty, as he surely will, his loving mother will forgive him. His disobedience, however, will disappoint her, incur her anger, and cause him to be disciplined (the “or else” in yesterday’s message). When we accepted Christ, we may have been declared righteous but we still have a long way to go before we act righteously. Like the little boy, we continue to go astray. Fortunately, our salvation is secure in Christ and our sins have been forgiven in advance. Nevertheless, we must remember that they truly grieve God. With our sins, we risk both God’s divine displeasure and discipline. I doubt that apologizing in advance for willful disobedience will be successful in the MacPherson house; I know it won’t work in God’s!

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. [1 John 1:8-9 (NLT)]

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THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE

This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. [John 15:12-13 (NLT)]

climbing asterWhile every thesaurus says that hate is the opposite of love, I’m not so sure. Authors like Wilhelm Stekel, John Le Carré, Rollo May, Elie Wiesel, and George Bernard Shaw have said that indifference (or apathy) is the opposite of love. Disagreeing, Reverend Billy Graham said the opposite of love is selfishness.

Hate, apathy, or selfishness? Since apathy is lack of concern or interest in anything and selfishness is lack of concern or interest in anything but oneself, I thought back to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Although its purpose was to define the identity of one’s “neighbor” to the lawyer who asked, the parable also illustrates what it means to love.

Let’s start with the bandits. They probably didn’t hate the man they attacked and, had they simply been indifferent to him, they would have ignored him. While they weren’t interested in his well-being, they were very interested his property and they wanted it. Rather than hate or apathy, it was selfishness that made them take everything the man possessed. Their self-centered attitude was “What’s yours is mine, and I’ll take it!”

We then come to the priest and Levite. We have no reason to suspect they knew the victim and hated him. But, had they truly been disinterested, the priest wouldn’t have crossed to the other side of the road upon seeing the wounded man nor would the Levite deliberately have walked over to look at him. Both men took an interest in the wounded man and then deliberately chose to ignore him. Rather than hate-filled or apathetic, they refused to help the man out of selfishness. More concerned about themselves and their journey than the welfare of a dying man along the side of the road, their self-centered attitude was, “What’s mine is mine, and I’m going to keep it.”

Then we come to the Samaritan. As a Samaritan, he certainly had reason to hate the Jewish victim, but he didn’t. Rather than being indifferent to the man’s condition or selfish with his time and resources, he was generous. His philosophy was that of love: “What’s mine is yours and I will share it.”

When thinking of hate or even apathy as the opposite of love, like the priest and Levite, we can tell ourselves that, as long as we didn’t hurt someone, we obeyed the command to love. But, when we think of selfishness as the opposite of love, far more is asked of us. No longer passive, love demands more than simply not hating or harming someone. Love requires effort; it is a giving up of self and a giving of self to another.

After writing that selfishness was the opposite of love, Billy Graham asked, “Will you ask the Holy Spirit to free your life from selfishness and fill you instead with His love?” Will you?

The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” but the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” [Martin Luther King, Jr.]

Dear children, let’s not merely say we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. [1 John 3:18 (NLT)]

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IMITATION LOVE

Treat other people exactly as you would like to be treated by them—this is the essence of all true religion. [Matthew 7:12 (PHLLIPS)]

turtleOnce upon a time, a father gave his daughter a painted turtle. One morning, she ran to her father in tears and sobbed, “My turtle died!”  Wanting to bring a smile back to his little girl’s face, Dad promised the reptile a lovely funeral after which he’d take her to their favorite fast-food spot for a happy meal and toy. When that did nothing to stop the flow of tears, he upped the ante by proposing to follow lunch with the latest Disney princess movie. As the sobbing slowed, he then promised they’d stop at the mall where she could ride on the merry-go-round and Ferris wheel. With only a few whimpers remaining, Dad topped off his offer with a promise to stop on the way home for a double scoop ice cream cone. Thrilled to finally see a smile on his daughter’s face, the relieved father reached into the tank to remove the dead turtle only to discover that it was alive and well and just had been enjoying a turtle nap. When he joyfully reported, “He’s not dead!” the disappointed girl’s response was, “Then can we kill it?”

Kids are naturally selfish and self-centered—just watch toddlers play and notice how often you hear the words “mine” and “gimme.” Children are self-absorbed little creatures, but so are adults—we’re just a bit more civilized in our selfishness. We may not grab, hit, or throw temper tantrums, but we still tend to put ourselves and our wants first. Since that unfortunate day in Eden, mankind has shown a preference for self-interest. We typically see the world only from our viewpoint rather than that of others or, more important, with the eyes of Jesus.

As members of the body of Christ, it is the lives of others that are to concern us. We are advised to share in both the joy and sorrow of our brothers and sisters. Sometimes, however, it seems easier to share in other people’s sorrow than in their joy. Just as the turtle’s fortuitous awakening meant the little girl lost her afternoon of fun, it’s rarely easy to rejoice in other people’s good fortune when we don’t share in it. Jealously, envy and resentment can rear their ugly heads. It’s especially difficult to rejoice when another person got the job we wanted, someone else’s child got the award, another person won the match, a co-worker got the praise or raise, or a friend heard the word “benign” when we heard the words “malignant” or “inoperable.” Nevertheless, regardless of our situations, other people’s good news should always be a reason for our joy.

“Genuine krab meat” isn’t truly crab; it’s an assortment of fish that has been skinned, boned, minced, and rinsed before being formed into the paste known as surimi. Fillers, flavor and color are added and the mixture is shaped into chunks or tubes and cut into blocks or sticks and cooked. Once cut up, it may look like a bit like the real thing, but there is nothing genuine about it. We’re called to love genuinely, even if it means we might have to skip the happy meal, movie, and ice cream. Let there be no imitation Christian love around here—it’s as tasteless and disagreeable to God as imitation crab.

Let us have no imitation Christian love. Let us have a genuine break with evil and a real devotion to good. Let us have real warm affection for one another as between brothers, and a willingness to let the other man have the credit. … Share the happiness of those who are happy, the sorrow of those who are sad. [Romans 12:9-10,15 (PHILLIPS)]

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TRYING TO SERVE TWO (Part 3)

You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind, or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. [Deuteronomy 5:7-9a (NLT)]

campionAlthough Elisha once worked his land with a plow and oxen, after he accepted Elijah’s cloak, he burnt his plow and oxen, left home, and joined Elijah as an itinerant prophet who depended on others for food and shelter. We know that every time Elisha passed through Shunem, he was fed and sheltered by a family there and Scripture tells us that pious Israelites commonly brought gifts to the prophets they consulted. So why wouldn’t Elisha accept any of Naaman’s generous gifts?

As a pagan Aramean who was ignorant of Jehovah, Naaman was used to priests and prophets who greedily demanded rewards for their services. As a servant of God, however, Elisha knew it was wrong to accept payment for Naaman’s healing. After all, he’d done nothing but tell the man to wash himself in the Jordan seven times. Elisha’s refusal of payment made it clear to Naaman that Israel’s powerful God alone had done the healing and God’s grace and miracles are not for sale. When Jehovah made Himself known to the pagan warrior, Naaman realized that, rather than being one of many gods, the God of Israel was the only God. Saying, “There is no God in all the world except in Israel,” the Aramean vowed never again to worship another god.

Naaman then made a rather strange request—that he be allowed to load two mules with some of Israel’s dirt to take back home. While that seems a bizarre sort of souvenir to us, it made perfect sense to Elisha. The pagan people of the ancient Near East believed that gods were tied to the lands they ruled and that a deity only could be worshiped on the soil of the nation to which he was bound. If Naaman wanted to worship Israel’s God, he thought it necessary to use some of Israel’s dirt to make a brick altar on which to make sacrifices. The man who once undervalued and scorned Israel’s Jordan River now overvalued its dirt and wanted to take some back to Damascus! The pagan didn’t understand that all of earth’s soil is God’s!

Having converted to the God of Israel, Naaman made one more request of Elisha. Even though his heart was committed to Jehovah, Naaman knew there would be occasions when he would be required to enter the pagan temple with his master the king. The warrior requested Elisha’s permission and God’s forgiveness when he bowed to the Aramean god Rimmon. Although we’d expect Elisha to respond with the first commandment, the prophet didn’t address Naaman’s dilemma. He simply encouraged the man’s desire to be faithful to God while serving a pagan king with these words, “Go in peace.”

Elisha’s words were ones of grace acknowledging that the world is filled with difficult decisions for people of faith. Unlike Naaman, we may not be expected to bow down to an idol to please the king, but we regularly face both big and small moral dilemmas when we’re asked to bow to the idols of position, appearance, popularity, success, status, fashion, fame, wealth, reputation, or sex. We must ask ourselves who is our master and to what will we bow.

We don’t know what happened to Naaman but I wonder how serving two masters worked for him! I suspect one of them was not pleased.

So fear the Lord and serve him wholeheartedly. Put away forever the idols your ancestors worshiped when they lived beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord alone. [Joshua 24:14 (NLT)]

Jesus replied, “The Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” [Luke 4:8 (NLT)]

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THE WRONG MASTER (Part 2)

You cannot be the slave of two masters! You will like one more than the other or be more loyal to one than the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Matthew 6:24 (CEV)

black vultureWhen writing about serving only one master, I thought of Gehazi, the scoundrel who tried serving both God and mammon. A servant to the prophet Elisha, Gehazi’s story is found in 2 Kings 5. When Naaman offered Elisha great riches in gratitude for being healed of leprosy, Elisha refused. It was God’s power, not his, that healed Naaman and, knowing that the only master he served was God, Elisha replied, “As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve. I will not accept any gifts.”

It must have irked Gehazi to see his master refuse Naaman’s offerings of gold, silver and clothing (worth around $750 million today). After eyeing those riches, the servant pictured the life of luxury he could enjoy with some of Naaman’s treasure. It seemed foolish to send all that wealth back to Aram. Wanting some for himself and thinking Elisha would never know, Gehazi secretly followed after Naaman’s chariot.

After catching up with Naaman, the servant explained that his master had sent him. His master, however, wasn’t Elisha; it was mammon! The deceitful servant concocted a story that Elisha would like a talent of silver (about 75 pounds) and two sets of clothing for two young prophets who had just arrived. Granted, the servant’s request was somewhat modest considering the size of Naaman’s initial offer; nevertheless, it was the equivalent of 300 years’ worth of wages! I suspect Gehazi was afraid a larger request might have aroused suspicion. Nevertheless, more than happy to find a way to repay the prophet, Naaman offered twice that amount of silver and Gehazi returned home with his ill-gotten gains.

When Elisha asked where he’d been, the servant foolishly lied to his master. The prophet, however, was not deceived and told his servant that it was a time for worship, not a time for financial gain. As a result of his greed and deceit, Naaman’s leprosy became Gehazi’s and would afflict his descendants forever. The exact nature of his disease is unknown since leprosy in the Bible referred to Hansen’s disease (leprosy) as well as any other skin disease like psoriasis, alopecia, impetigo or dermatitis. Although his punishment didn’t threaten Gehazi’s life, such a skin disease condemned him to life as an outcast. Having served mammon instead of God, Gehazi expected the power, comfort and luxury promised by riches; what he got was life as an untouchable pariah.

There is nothing wrong with men possessing riches. The wrong comes when riches possess men. [Billy Graham]

People who want to be rich fall into all sorts of temptations and traps. They are caught by foolish and harmful desires that drag them down and destroy them. The love of money causes all kinds of trouble. Some people want money so much that they have given up their faith and caused themselves a lot of pain. [1 Timothy 6:9-10 (CEV)]

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