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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MEMORY WORK REDUX

Whenever you fast, don’t be sad-faced like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so their fasting is obvious to people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you fast, put oil on your head, and wash your face, so that you don’t show your fasting to people but to your Father who is in secret. [Matthew 6:16-18a (HCSB)]

sunflowerA young pastor friend admits to not being good at reciting Bible verses from memory. A product of the computer/Internet age, he just taps in a key word or topic and, almost instantly, the verses are right in front of him in whatever translation he wants. There’s no need to memorize verses when, with just a few keystrokes, the words appear. I may read the Bible every day and predate the age of computers but I’m no better at knowing verses by heart than he. If I  remember my passwords for both computer and Internet, I can find whatever verses I need. While that works when I’m researching or writing, my desk is not where most witnessing opportunities occur. I could plead age as an excuse but I didn’t memorize Bible verses even when my brain was younger and possessed far less useless trivia than it does now. My pastor friend and I both profess to love God’s word and yet we don’t seem to love it enough to learn it by heart.

For decades, I have given up some thing or things for Lent, often sweets and alcohol. I know those minor denials have nothing to do with my salvation or righteousness. They are just a way to remind me Christ’s difficult days in the wilderness and what God gave up when He sacrificed His only son for my sins. Although Jesus told his followers that fasting should be private, I often found myself needing to explain my refusal to partake in the host’s decadent dessert or the great bottle of wine he purchased in Napa. I also admit to occasionally feeling a sense of self-righteous pride when I denied myself chocolate chip cookies or a glass of pinot noir. Since self-denial should be private and never lead to self-righteousness, God and I decided to rethink my Lenten practices.

Last June, in a devotion called “Memory Work,” I wrote about four-year old Tanner Hemness who memorized a Bible verse for every letter of the alphabet. At that time, I downloaded the twenty-six verses he memorized with the intention of doing the same thing. Somehow, my good intention got side-tracked and I stopped after “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” [Matthew 7:7]

Rather than a season of fasting, this Lent will be my season of growth. There will be no need to worry about looking sad or explaining why I won’t eat someone’s homemade pie. Rather than a period of self-denial, it will be one of self-discipline. If four-year old Tanner could memorize those twenty-six verses in seven months, even with my neuron-challenged brain, I should be able to do it in the forty-six days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. After all, I’ve already learned one! We are to put God’s word to work in our lives and the first place to start is by putting His word into our hearts. God’s word in my heart can only put a smile on my face and His promises on my lips.

Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life, I would choose Bible memorization, because it is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what it needs. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth. That’s where you need it! How does it get in your mouth? Memorization. [Dallas Willard]

This book of instruction must not depart from your mouth; you are to recite it day and night so that you may carefully observe everything written in it. For then you will prosper and succeed in whatever you do. [Joshua 1:8 (HCSB)]

I have your decrees as a heritage forever; indeed, they are the joy of my heart. [Psalm 119:111 (HCSB)]

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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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LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE 

And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. [1 Peter 3: 15b-16a (NLT)]

dubble tulipHaving heard that I write Christian devotions, the man looked across the dinner table and asked, “Have you always been religious?” The unexpected question from a Jewish man I barely knew caught me off guard. While I knew he wasn’t asking for a long salvation story, I needed to answer his simple question. I faltered through a brief explanation that I couldn’t remember a time I didn’t consider myself a Christian but that my faith grew deeper as it carried me through some really rough spots in life. Having no idea where I’d go from there, I heaved a sigh of relief when the table’s conversation moved to another topic.

Describing our salvation experience was one of the topics this past week in our small group. There will be times, as there was at that dinner, when we’re given a brief opening to tell it and we’d best be prepared with a good but short answer. Pastor Bill Hybels suggests keeping that first answer to 100 words or less. In actuality, the shorter the answer, the more likely there will be a follow-up question later. As P.T. Barnum said: “Always leave them wanting more.”

When we ask someone, “How are you?” unless we’re a nurse or physician, we’re probably not interested in a detailed accounting of blood sugar, weight, bowel movements or blood pressure. When a non-believer asks about our faith, they’re not looking for a dissertation about the historical accuracy of the Bible, a sermon about salvation, or a blow by blow account of a faith journey that has probably taken years. They certainly don’t want to hear Christian buzz words like justification, conviction, propitiation, and sanctification or about the time God spoke to us in the grocery store.

When someone asks a simple and straightforward question about our faith, they expect a simple and straightforward answer. If someone is really interested in learning more, there will be additional opportunities to share the particulars. In actuality, for many of us, our salvation story is rather ordinary—we weren’t healed supernaturally, there were no burning bushes, the sky didn’t open, and a voice from heaven was not heard. Nevertheless, our lives changed. Unless we’ve thought about how to succinctly communicate that change, we may blow an amazing opportunity to share a little of God’s amazing grace. That time at the dinner party, I wasn’t well prepared; next time, I will be!

Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments into less than twenty-five words and Stephen managed to summarize the entire Old Testament into about 74 sentences for the High Council.  With a little effort, we should be able to put our faith story into 100 words. What’s your story? Can you tell it in 100 words or less?

When you communicate your personal faith story with sincerity, you will see supernatural sparks fly as God uses it for his glory and your listener’s good. [Bill Hybels]

So never be ashamed to tell others about our Lord. [2 Timothy 1:8a (NLT)]

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SEALING THE DEAL

A few days later Felix came back with his wife, Drusilla, who was Jewish. Sending for Paul, they listened as he told them about faith in Christ Jesus. As he reasoned with them about righteousness and self-control and the coming day of judgment, Felix became frightened. “Go away for now,” he replied. “When it is more convenient, I’ll call for you again.” [Acts 13:50-51 (NLT)]

Steamboat ski areaWhile under arrest in Caesarea, the Apostle Paul spent two years sharing Jesus with Felix, the governor. Nevertheless, after two years of testifying about salvation through Christ, Paul couldn’t seal the deal and Felix never came to believe. I’m reminded of a charming salesman who worked for a friend of ours. Although he diligently went out and made sales calls, no matter how many times he called on a potential client, he couldn’t close a deal! Eventually, as nice as he was, he had to be let go. After all, salesmen are expected to make the sale. Fortunately, God doesn’t work that way; if He did, the Apostle Paul might have been out of a job after failing to seal the deal with Felix!

Like Paul, we can repeatedly share our testimony with someone—we can teach Sunday school, invite people to church, talk about Jesus to everyone we meet, and even write Christian devotions. Nevertheless, we might never close the deal and hear someone say, “I’m accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” That, however, does not mean we have failed.

In my son’s first job out of college, he worked with a team of engineers selling cogeneration technology. Prior to his employment, the engineers from his company would meet with a potential customer to show them the benefits of their technology but they just couldn’t close a deal. It was not until my son joined the team that they made a sale. Rather than engineering, my son’s specialty was finance. The people making the final decision about purchase weren’t the engineers—they were the financial officers. Engineers talked combustion, turbines, power ratings and reciprocating engines which meant nothing to them but my son talked their language: percentages, return on investment and profits. Although my son closed the deal with his talk of financial advantages, he couldn’t have done it without the engineers who laid the groundwork by explaining the process.

Evangelism, like sales, is often a team effort; we may not be the ones who close the deal but we all must do our part to make the sale! While some may hear the message and respond immediately, committing to Jesus is a gradual process for many others. If we think we have to seal the deal every time we have a Jesus conversation, we’re going to be very disappointed Christians. That, however, doesn’t mean we stop having those conversations. Whether we’re just laying the ground work, explaining the process, or extolling the advantages, we may never know if our words have moved someone just a little closer to accepting Christ.  It may be someone else’s job to seal the deal; our job is just to keep sharing God’s Word!

For “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? [Romans 10:13-14 (NLT)]

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CLOSE ONLY COUNTS IN HORSESHOES

For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that every one who believes in him shall not be lost, but should have eternal life. … Any man who believes in him is not judged at all. It is the one who will not believe who stands already condemned, because he will not believe in the character of God’s only Son. [John 3:16,18 (PHILLIPS)]

prairie coneflower - grey-headed coneflowerWe have friends who attend what I call the church of “what’s happening now.” While they acknowledge a “higher power,” it may or may not be God. There may be an afterlife or reincarnation and, then again, maybe not. Although they look to the Bible for wisdom, much of it is considered mythical and legendary. They also find spiritual inspiration in texts like the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu), Dhammapada (Buddhism), and Tao Te Ching (Taoism). Theirs is an eclectic mix of beliefs with each person having his or her own personal truth. They are loving caring people who believe in good things like justice, compassion, peace, protecting the environment, and the dignity of the individual. Nevertheless, while some of their thinking may be correct, their conclusion is wrong.

C.S. Lewis asserts that while many non-Christian religions have good ideas and may not be entirely erroneous, they most definitely are not correct. He points out that, while some math answers might be closer to being correct than others,  there is only one correct answer to the problem. If, for example, we had to determine the volume of a cone, we’d begin with the formula (1/3 x b x h). Before starting, however, we’d have to figure out b, the area of the base (pi x r2). What with two formulas, several multiplications and one division, there are plenty of opportunities to get the final answer wrong. If the wrong formulas are used, no matter how accurate the figuring, the answer is wrong. If both the formulas and math are correct but the wrong number for pi is used, the answer is wrong. If everything is done correctly but the decimal is misplaced, while nearly correct, the answer still is wrong. Although a nice math teacher may give us some credit for being partially correct, I’m not so sure God works that way. As Lewis points out, although some of the answers offered by other religions are closer to being right than others, Jesus Christ is the only correct answer to the problem.

A mathematician is given a set of axioms and postulates (mathematical truths) on which he is to base his figuring. They are his foundation—the starting point for reasoning and truth. While mathematicians may arrive at the same answer in different ways, they share a belief in the same basic truths. Within those basics, they are free to measure, calculate, and theorize to their heart’s content but they must abide by those basic truths until one of them is proved wrong.

Our creeds are the axioms and postulates of Christianity. These basic truths of our faith are based, not on the works of Aristotle or Euclid, but on the Bible and the words of God. Within those uncompromisable Christian truths, we are free to make choices. Some people worship on Saturday and others on Sunday, some baptize with a sprinkle of water while others are fully immersed, some kneel when praying and others stand, some observe Lent when others don’t, and some have two sacraments while others observe five additional ones. Nevertheless, our Christian creeds are just that—Christian—and they clarify and encompass our universal beliefs so that we all share the one and only right answer!

You all belong to one body, of which there is one Spirit, just as you all experienced one calling to one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, one Father of us all, who is the one over all, the one working through all and the one living in all. [Ephesians 4:4-6 (PHILLIPS)]

Copyright ©2018 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.