IN ENEMY TERRITORY

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. [1 Peter 5:8-9 (NIV)]

anhingaAnhingas are among my favorites of our lake’s birds. Unlike most birds, their bones are heavy and dense and, rather than waders like the herons and egrets or paddlers like the ducks, they are deep-diving swimmers. Lacking the oil glands that waterproof the feathers of other water birds, anhingas (and their cormorant cousins) become water-logged in the water. While making it difficult to remain afloat, that allows them to dive up to sixty feet deep, swim underwater for several hundred feet, and stay underwater for more than a minute. Eventually, however, the birds become so heavy they will sink unless they return to land to dry their feathers.

Every morning I find anhingas resting along the lake’s shoreline and spreading their wings to dry. The wettest ones get barely out of the water but, as they dry, they waddle further back until dry enough to get up onto a rock, bench, or low hanging branch. As their feathers continue to dry, they move higher up in the trees until they are dry and light enough to take flight.

Unlike the lake’s ducks who nest and sleep in the vegetation along the shoreline, anhingas remain on land only out of necessity. Vulnerable to predators, a soaking wet anhinga is like a “sitting duck.” With its stubby legs and large webbed feet, it can’t run; water-logged, the water isn’t a good option and yet it’s too wet to fly up to safety. While hissing, grunting, and trying to look intimidating by ruffling its feathers, raising its tail, lengthening and waving its long neck, and pointing its spear-like beak may deter some birds of prey, that behavior probably won’t dissuade hungry alligators or crocodiles.

Just as being vulnerable to a predator’s attack is part and parcel of being an anhinga, being vulnerable to our enemy’s attack is an inevitable part of being human in our fallen world. Rather than gators and crocs, that enemy is Satan and he can sneak up on us even more adeptly than the wiliest reptile in the Everglades. Rather than the weight of soaking wet feathers, it is the weight of things like pain, illness, betrayal, weariness, conflict, loneliness, loss, disappointment (and even hurricanes) that make us especially vulnerable to attack. The enemy will use every weapon in his armory including lies, half-truths, fear, despair, hopelessness, and (his favorite) doubt to assault our belief in the goodness of God. Fortunately, in His wisdom, God armed us for battle with more than the saber-sharp beak and intimidating appearance of the anhinga. We wage war with the weapons of our faith: God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit.

An anhinga, aware of its vulnerability when wet, only enters the water to hunt or bathe. With neck extended and eyes wide open, it remains watchful when drying along the shoreline and never dawdles there once dry. Like the anhinga, we must be alert to our vulnerability in our fallen world. Unlike the anhinga, however, we often act as if we’re not sitting smack dab in the middle of the enemy’s territory! A. W. Tozer warns us about thinking of the world as a “playground instead of a battleground.” May we never forget that we live in the enemy’s territory and he is as dangerous as a prowling lion or a hungry alligator!

Anyone who serves the Lord is going to be the target of Satan’s attacks. [Zac Poonen]

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. [Ephesians 6:10-12 (NIV)]

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OUR VOWS

For your Creator will be your husband; the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name! He is your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, the God of all the earth. [Isaiah 54:5 (NLT)]

But you have been unfaithful to me, you people of Israel! You have been like a faithless wife who leaves her husband. I, the Lord, have spoken. [Jeremiah 3:20 (NLT)]


Throughout the Bible, marriage is often used as a metaphor for man’s relationship with God. His covenant with Israel is seen as a form of marriage, their unfaithfulness as adultery, and their alienation from God as divorce. The book of Hosea is a story of a prophet with an unfaithful wife that parallels God’s relationship with his unfaithful people. Some scholars say the entire Song of Songs is an allegory of God’s love for Israel or the church. In the New Testament, John the Baptist describes the Messiah as a bridegroom and Jesus refers to himself as the groom in wedding parables. Marriage was ordained by God and the marital bond illustrates God’s relationship with His people.

55 years ago, I promised to love, comfort, and honor my husband and to forsake all others, keeping myself only for him as long as I lived. I took him for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and to love and cherish until we were parted by death. In light of the many Biblical references to our spiritual marriage, I started to evaluate how I’ve done keeping those same vows with God.

Although I’ve done a pretty good job of doing all that I promised to my husband, I’ve not done as well with God. In times of health, wealth and contentment, I often forgot who made those good times possible. Moreover, I often was doubtful, distant, or angry with God in the times of sickness, scarcity, and sorrow. Since I frequently followed my peers, took the easy rather than right route, and listened to the enemy when I should have listened to Him, I’m not sure I even forsook all others for the Lord. Like a mistress or prostitute, I seemed to love Him for his gifts and often came to Him only because I wanted something more. While I can’t comfort our Almighty God, I’ve probably caused Him a fair amount of discomfort and grief. Fortunately, there was nothing about obedience in my wedding vows because obedience certainly hasn’t been my strong suit with the Lord. While I haven’t failed completely as a spiritual wife, I certainly haven’t kept our covenant relationship as well as I should have done.

On God’s part, like the perfect husband, He has been faithful and loved me in all circumstances. In spite of seeing me at my worst and knowing my every fault, God continued to love me. When I stopped believing in Him, He never stopped believing in me and, when I rejected him, He never rejected me. No matter how unfaithful I have been, God has remained faithful to me. He’s been loving and true to me at my sickest, poorest, and most contemptible. He gave me unconditional love when my love for Him seemed to depend on circumstances. Just as God told Hosea to redeem and love his adulterous wife, God has redeemed and loved me! The gift of His only Son to save my sorry soul is evidence of that.

At landmark anniversaries, people often remake their wedding vows. Our vows to God need to be retaken not just every ten years but every day. Merciful God, thank you for your unconditional and lavish love. Forgive us for being less than you deserve and thank you for giving us more than we could ever desire. In all circumstances, may we love, honor, cherish, and obey you, now and forever.

Never again will you be called “The Forsaken City” or “The Desolate Land.” Your new name will be “The City of God’s Delight” and “The Bride of God,” for the Lord delights in you and will claim you as his bride. Your children will commit themselves to you, O Jerusalem, just as a young man commits himself to his bride. Then God will rejoice over you as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. [Isaiah 62:4-5 (NLT)]

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DO NO HARM

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:8 (NLT)]


Rather than in the Hippocratic Oath, “To do no harm” is found in Hippocrates’ History of Epidemics. “First, do no harm” actually dates to medical texts from the mid-19th century, and is attributed to the 17th century English physician Thomas Sydenham. Whoever said it first, I’m relieved those words weren’t the only ones recited by my doctors when they graduated from medical school. Simply doing no harm seems to set the bar too low. I want my physicians to do more than not harm me; I want them to help!

It’s never enough to stop at doing no harm; as Christians, we are to do what is right and good. Remaining on the sidelines may do no harm, but it rarely does any good either. We can’t stand idly by while people are in need nor can we ignore the plight of our neighbor, whether he lives right around the corner or half-way around the world. Rather than Hippocrates’ “do no harm,” I prefer the words of St. Ambrose in a 391 AD treatise setting forth the duties of the clergy: “It is not enough just to wish well; we must also do well. Nor, again, is it enough to do well, unless this springs from a good source even from a good will. … It is thus a glorious thing to wish well, and to give freely, with the one desire to do good and not to do harm.”

Of course, “to do good and not to do harm” requires determining what is good and what is harmful. In medicine that line often is blurred. Take chemotherapy—while it kills dividing cancer cells, it also kills dividing healthy cells like hair, skin, bone marrow, and the lining of the digestive tract. Nevertheless, it is used to treat cancer because it does more good than harm and the damage done to those healthy cells usually doesn’t last.

In everyday life, the line between doing good or harm also can be blurry. After he advised clergy to be generous in giving, Ambrose explained that generosity didn’t mean they should give an extravagant man the means to continue living extravagantly, facilitate an adulterer in his adultery, or aid someone plotting against his country because, in those cases, giving would do more harm than good. While his examples seem pretty straightforward, determining whether we’re helping or hurting others rarely is so clear-cut.

As Christians, we have the desire to help others, especially our loved ones. We must prayerfully determine whether we are empowering people to achieve something they couldn’t do by themselves or simply enabling them to perpetuate a problem. While empowering helps, enabling harms. There are certain battles that are not ours to fight, debts that belong solely to the debtor, and work that must be done without our help. There are consequences that others must face—things that will be lost, disappointments that will occur, hardships that must be endured, tears that must be shed, restitution that needs to be made, and even time that must be served. We do more harm than good when we deny our loved ones those life experiences that rightfully are theirs. Sometimes denying help is the best way to do good for someone.

Father God, guide us in our efforts to do your good works. Keep us from ignoring the many needs around us but don’t let our efforts to be helpful to those we love do more harm than good. Give us the means and desire to do good and the discernment to know the difference between doing good and doing harm. Show us the path you want us to take so that we always do the right thing.

Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. [James 4:17 (NLT)]

Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law. [Romans 14:10 (NLT)]

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HEROD AGRIPPA I

The Lord detests the proud; they will surely be punished. … Pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall. [Proverbs 16:5,18 (NLT)]
peacock

After Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, Herod Agrippa interrogated and executed the apostle’s guards. Luke tells us that the king then went to Caesarea where he died. While independent historical evidence of the Bible’s stories isn’t necessary, it’s always welcome. The Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 AD) corroborates Luke’s account of the king’s death in his Antiquities of the Jews. 

With his flowery language, direct quotes, and added details, Josephus’ account differs slightly from Luke’s but the two versions are complementary rather than contradictory. While in Caesarea, Agrippa attended a festival in honor of the emperor Claudius. Luke simply describes the king’s dress as his “royal robes” but Josephus adds that they were “made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful.” When the sun shone on Herod, the garment “was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another, (though not for his good,) that he was a god.” Luke tell us that when Agrippa spoke, the people gave him a standing ovation and said his voice was that of a god, not a man. Josephus adds that “the king did neither rebuke them nor reject their impious flattery.”

Both historians report that Herod Agrippa immediately fell ill and died. “A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner,” reported Josephus, adding, “And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life.” Although Josephus doesn’t specify the cause, Luke says the man was “consumed with worms” and Agrippa probably had roundworms or tapeworms. Feeding on the nutrients in the intestines, these parasites can block the intestines, bile and pancreatic ducts, and cause severe pain along with seizures, diarrhea, and vomiting. Able to migrate to other parts of the body, the worms can damage the liver, eyes, heart, and brain. Being eaten by worms both before and after his death seems a fitting end for such a despicable man and both Luke and Josephus agree that his agonizing (and gross) death was a supernatural act of divine judgment for Herod Agrippa’s arrogance and blasphemy in accepting the people’s worship.

Herod Agrippa I was raised in Rome where, after playing the dangerous game of political intrigue, he ended up on the winning side. It was through his friendship with the emperors Caligula and Claudius that he gained rulership of all the Jewish territories once ruled by his grandfather, Herod the Great. Although he owed his position to the favor of the Roman emperor, Agrippa was part Jewish. The politician in him  recognized the importance of prudence and diplomacy with the Jews if he wanted to maintain his powerful position. According to Josephus, Agrippa sought the support of the Pharisees and proved his Jewish identity by carefully observing the law and making daily sacrifices. By acting as a Roman for the Romans and an observant Jew for his subjects, the king did what was politic and self-serving until that day in Caesarea when he was lauded as a god.

Caesarea was a pagan city, so it’s somewhat understandable that the crowd may have been in awe of him. Nevertheless, Agrippa was a Jew who knew that what occurred was nothing short of idolatry! Moreover, as a Roman, he knew that only Caesar could be proclaimed a god. The right (and expedient) thing to do would have been to immediately correct the crowd and reject the honor of being called a god but Agrippa didn’t. Instead, he was filled with pride and the man who’d lived by flattering others to curry favor made the mistake of believing his own flattering reviews. When Agrippa accepted the crowd’s worship, he offended both the emperor Claudius and the Jewish leadership. More important, he offended God!

While none of us are likely to be lauded as gods, we all will have moments, like Herod Agrippa’s, when pride takes hold of us. Pride like the king’s, however, is idolatry because it is worship of self! When we put ourselves front and center, our pride displaces God from His rightful place. Pride may not bring on a fatal case of worms but let us remember these words by Charles Spurgeon: “No matter how dear you are to God, if pride is harbored in your spirit, He will whip it out of you. They that go up in their own estimation must come down again by His discipline.”

None are more taken in by flattery than the proud, who wish to be the first and are not. [Baruch Spinoza]

I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not give my glory to anyone else, nor share my praise with carved idols. [Isaiah 42:8 (NLT)]

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THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS – Independence Day

Give me understanding and I will obey your instructions; I will put them into practice with all my heart. Make me walk along the path of your commands, for that is where my happiness is found. [Psalm 119:34-36 (NLT)]

Today we celebrate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence 246 years ago—when American colonists shed the tyranny of Great Britain and King George III to form the United States of America. Among the unalienable rights cited in this historic document are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” During this long holiday weekend, Americans have been busy enjoying life, celebrating liberty, and pursuing happiness with a variety of activities that, among other things, probably include parties, picnics, flags, fireworks, parades, sparklers, and carnivals along with beaches, pools or sprinklers, and hot dogs, burgers, potato salad, and ice cream!

“The pursuit of happiness,” however, had a different meaning back in 1776 than it does today. When our Founding Fathers wrote of pursuing happiness, they weren’t thinking about 4th of July fireworks, fun, and games. Rather than a temporary emotion, they were thinking of a state of being and envisioning the kind of happiness that comes from having a government in which people can participate, their voices are heard, they can control their destiny, justice prevails, talents are nurtured, people can work and move ahead, the nation is tranquil, and its borders are defended. Pursuing happiness in 1776 wasn’t about self-gratification; it was about an individual’s contribution to society. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy explained, “For them, happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.”

Unfortunately, a prevalent attitude in our nation today focuses on individual needs and desires and the pursuit of happiness is interpreted as meaning, “Do whatever makes you happy!” We might want to exercise some caution when pursuing happiness while focusing only on ourselves. It didn’t end well in Eden when Adam and Eve decided to pursue happiness by eating the forbidden fruit nor did focusing on their own desires work for David or Sampson. A hungry Esau pursued happiness with a hearty bowl of stew and his brother pursued it by deceiving Isaac. Achan pursued happiness by keeping plunder from Jericho as did Saul when he kept the best spoils from Agag. Sarah foolishly pursued happiness by giving Hagar to Abraham and, like many of us, Noah sought happiness in too much wine. Yet, none of those pursuits brought happiness. In spite of his wisdom, Solomon pursued happiness by accumulating massive amounts of silver and gold, 700 wives, and 300 concubines and yet his words in Ecclesiastes are not those of a happy man. As Thomas Jefferson said, “It is neither wealth nor splendor; but tranquility and occupation which give you happiness.”

While we live in a free country and God has given us free will, we need to be sure we don’t ever use our freedom to fall into another kind of tyranny—a tyranny much worse than that of King George III—the tyranny of sin.

There are two freedoms—the false, where man is free to do what he likes; the true, where he is free to do what he ought. [Charles Kingsley]

Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. [Romans 6:15-16 (NLT)]

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CONVICTION AND CONDEMNATION

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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