"Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, . . . They are not
just idle words for you-- they are your life" (Deuteronomy 32:46-47).

Friday, February 26, 2010

Spiritual Confusion

"I can't get up and give you anything" (Luke 11:7).

In the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow and the crew found a key-- well not exactly-- it was a drawing of a key. Trying to figure out what to do next led to utter confusion. (watch this video).

Have you ever experienced confusion in your walk with Jesus Christ? You know what I mean: you're heart has been set on being faithful to your Lord and out of nowhere - wham! - circumstances shifted, and all of a sudden confusion set in. Why is this happening? What is going on? Why me? Why won't things work out? Woa, I didn't see that coming! A million "what ifs" flood into your mind and hang around like storm waters that will not subside or drain away. You prayed but it was like heaven was silent, God was in bed, and he wasn't getting up and giving any answers.

You've tried to convince yourself that what's happening is somebody else's fault. It's not working. You've tried to spiritualize the situation and convince yourself that you're not confused. It's not working. You've performed an extensive self-evaluation. Have I been worshiping? Check. Have I been studying my Bible? Check. Have I been praying? Check. Have I been sharing my faith with others? Check. Have I been serving through my church? Check. Have I been fellowshiping with other believers? Check. You got through with your checklist and realized that as faithful as you've tried to be, there's always room for improvement.

So, you promised God that you would step-up your commitment level a notch- because you love Jesus and you really do want to serve him well. You felt better for a while but before the next Sunday you realized that confusion was still clinging to you like a sticky vine, and if anything, it got worse. Like you, I've been there. My gut-feeling is that times and seasons of spiritual confusion will be a part of our spiritual journey until our Lord takes us home to heaven. We're in good company though, Jesus' disciples spent a good deal of times confused about where Jesus was taking them, what they were learning, how they were to apply what Jesus was teaching them, and why they had to do this or that.

On one occasion, Jesus took his disciples to Peter's house where Peter's mother-in-law was sick with fever (Matthew 8:14ff). He healed her. When evening came, the house was suddenly surrounded by sick and demon-possessed people looking for healing. Jesus obliged them and healed many. The crowd kept growing. All of a sudden, Jesus got in a boat, called his disciples, and told them they were going to the other side of the lake. They must have thought: for what? What about all these sick people you haven't healed? Why are we leaving?

Then on the way over in the wee hours of the morning, a furious storm swept over the boat that scared the disciples to death (Matthew 8:23ff). How confused do you suppose they were? A father brought his demon-possessed son to the disciples and begged them to heal him, but they could not do it. After Jesus healed the boy, his disciples got a quiet moment with Jesus and asked, "Why couldn't we drive it out?" (Mark 9:28). How confused do you suppose they were?

After the Jewish leadership stoned Stephen to death, that very same day "a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1). While those Christians were running for their lives, don't you wonder how confused they were about what was taking place? When John saw Herod kill James, his brother (and apostle), and then arrest Peter (Acts 12:1ff), don't you wonder how confused he was? All the times that Paul was stripped, beaten, and thrown in jail for telling others about Jesus, do you suppose confusion ever set in?

Oswald Chambers said that times of spiritual confusion can be God using circumstances to take us in directions that we temporarily don't understand in order to lead us to the understanding of what he wants for us and from us. Jesus' parable about a needy man knocking on a neighbor's door at midnight (Luke 11:5-13) teaches us something about surviving spiritual confusion long enough to come away with a better understanding of God and ourselves.

The disciples prompted Jesus with the request for him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1). He shared what we've come to call the Lord's Prayer with them and followed with a story about a man whose friend arrived at a most inopportune time, midnight. Apparently, the man did not have enough bread to offer his late-arriving guest a meal, so he went next door to ask his neighbor for some food. When the man knocked on the neighbor's door, he was told that it was late, his family was in the bed, the lights were off, the door was locked, he had nothing to give him, and to just go away.
Jesus told his disciples that even if friendship were not enough to make the neighbor get out of bed and help his needy friend, he would certainly get up if the man would be persistent and not give up. Then Jesus said, "So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened" (Luke 11:9-10).
Finally, Jesus ends with an illustration about a good father who always has the best intentions toward his needy son and gives him good gifts. Our Lord teaches us two insights to help us navigate the rough waters of spiritual confusion:

First, God's friendship toward us might sometimes seem unfriendly. Hearing his neighbor say "go away" must have sounded and felt very unfriendly. The friend must have been confused at his neighbor's actions, if only for a minute. Sometimes we treat God the same way thinking that if God is really our friend he would give us this or that, never allow us to suffer, respond immediately to our prayers. However, what we experience is exactly the opposite: we don't always get what we want, sometimes we experience suffering, and answers to prayer rarely come as quickly as we want them to. Does this mean God is unfriendly? Never.
When the neighbor said "no", it raised the intensity of his friend's pursuit. In other words, the pace of his chase increased to haste! Look what happened when he increased his asking, elevated his seeking, and amplified his knocking-- the neighbor got up and gave him what he asked for. If all a child is ever told is "yes", he will grow up to be a spoiled brat. On the other hand, if the child is always told "no", he will grow up to be selfish, angry and mean. The answer is: to have a well-rounded personality and disposition there are times when a child must be told "yes" and other times "no." Sometimes as parents, we have to withhold things from our children to teach them life-lessons, shape their hearts to selfless rather than selfish, and point their lives toward the greater good.
God works in our confusing circumstances in a similar way. Having to endure painful, stressful, hurtful circumstances may make God seem to us like an unkind friend. But he is not unkind. Consider Peter's advice to persecuted, confused Christians scattered all over the world of the first century: "You may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that our faith-- of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire-- may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls" (1 Peter 1:6-8). See, Jesus really is "our friend who sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24)."

Second, God's fatherhood over us might sometimes seem unloving. Living in the 21st Century may be a disadvantage to us trying to capture the impact of this 1st Century moment. There were no Wal Marts, Double Quicks, or grocery stores open 24/7 in the 1st Century. Being "neighborly" was a way of life. When a person needed sugar, flour, water, or a meal, any of them was as close as their nearest neighbor. So, it really would have appeared to be unloving when the neighbor in this parable told his friend to "go away."
One of the most repeated grievances that people have for not accepting Christ as Lord and Savior is they really cannot fathom how, as they put it, a loving God could allow suffering in the world. Children have accused parents of not loving them when they are disciplined. Does spanking a child, grounding a child, or taking away the tv, computer, and cell phone for a period of time necessarily mean that parents don't love their children? No. According to Proverbs 13:24, "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him."
The point is simply that sometimes what might seem to be unloving is actually God loving us enough to teach us, rebuke us, correct us, and train us in righteousness so that we will be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Psalmist said, "All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of his covenant. . . . The Lord is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made" (Psalm 25:10; 145:13).
God's desire is that our minds be transformed to reflect his thoughts and values; that our actions display his ways; that we be conformed to the image of Christ. For a potter to make a usable plate or bowl from clay, he must pull, squeeze, and stretch the clay. For a metal worker to make a usable sword, he must heat the metal with fire, strike it, and bend it. If the clay and the metal had feelings and could speak, they would both say that becoming something usable hurts and is almost always uncomfortable. So it is with us as God makes us usable for his glory.

Oswald Chambers also said, "There seems to be a cloud on the friendship of the heart, and often even love itself has to wait in pain and tears for the blessing of fuller fellowship and oneness." None of us enjoys trouble, stress, hardship, and confusion; yet, some of us have discovered that each can bring us closer to our Heavenly Father. Listen to Jesus promise to his disciples: "For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened" (Luke 11:10). God just wants the pace of our chase to increase to haste- he wants us to pursue him and his plans for us with all we've got.
God is a good father who always has what is good for us in mind. That's why if we ask him for a fish, he won't give us a snake. If we ask him for an egg, he won't give us a scorpion. If we, as parents, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more does God? So then, in our times and seasons of spiritual confusion, if we will keep asking, seeking, and knocking, sooner or later God will bring clarity to our circumstances and help us understand everything he allows to happen in our lives.
Bro. Jack

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Personal Letter From God to Us

"Tell me so that I may believe in him" (John 9:36).

One day Jesus was walking with his disciples. They ran across a man who had been blind since birth. After teaching them that God's life and power is to be displayed in all people regardless of physical limitations, Jesus "spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man's eyes." He then told the man to "go" and "wash (his eyes) in th Pool of Siloam." When the man obeyed Jesus, suddenly he could see. The Pharisees harassed the man and even barred him from ever setting foot in the Jewish assembly again. When Jesus heard what happened, he went to find the man. Here's how the exchange went from John 9:35-38:

Jesus asked him, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?"
"Who is he, sir?" the man asked. "Tell me so that I may believe in him."
Jesus said, "You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you."
Then the man said, "Lord, I believe," and he worshiped him.

Isn't it so common how we want to have the facts explained to us before we will believe anything. Certainly, this is an incentive for us who have believed in Christ to share him with those who haven't. Yet, there is something more that is intriguing about the man's request: "Tell me so that I may believe in him." Is it possible that Christians today need to hear Jesus tell them some things so that they will believe him in the everyday moments and circumstances of life? Sure, the Bible is available to be read; however, how many people in the church really honestly read God's promises in the Bible as God's love letter to them?

In a book entitled Pastors at Greater Risk by H. B. London Jr. and Neil B. Wiseman, the authors interviewed some pastor's wives on the subject of living under the constant pressure of feeling like they have to please everybody and not let anyone down. One of the wives said her strategy was taking the promises of God and reading them like a love letter from him to her. This prompted me to add to her material and try to imagine a letter God might write to me. I share it with you because the letter is not just to me, but to all of us who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Read and enjoy.

A Personal Letter from God to Us: (Christian, write your name in the blank)

Dear ___________________,

Nothing is impossible for Me. I’m able to do immeasurably more than you can ask or imagine. In Me all things were created in heaven and on Earth, visible and invisible, thrones, powers, rulers, authorities. All things were created by Me and I am before all things. And in Me all things hold together, even you. Mine is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor. I am exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from Me and in My hands are strength and power to exalt. Trust Me. Nothing on Earth is My equal. It is not by your might. It is not by your power, but by My Spirit.

I know when you sit down and when you rise. I perceive your thoughts from afar. I’m familiar with all your ways. Before a word is on your tongue, I know it completely. You cannot flee from My presence. If you go up to the heavens, I am there. If you make your bed in the depths, I am there. If you rise on the wings of the dawn, if you settle on the far side of the sea, even there My right hand will guide you. My right hand will hold you fast. Even darkness is as light to Me. I stretch out the heavens like a canopy and spread them out like a tent to dwell in.

I measure the waters of the earth in the hollow of My hand and with the breath of My hand, I mark out the heavens. I’m the creator, the wonderful counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. I’m the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. I’m immortal and I dwell in unapproachable light. Yet, I tell you, approach My throne of grace with confidence so that you might receive mercy and grace to help you in your times of need.

Remember that you live in a fallen world. When the world persecutes you because of Me, I will bless you. At times, your sin and the sins of others will bring pain and suffering into your life. Even though it breaks my heart, wrong choices by you and others may cause you to lose your family and friends, but remember, I will never leave you nor forsake you. Always keep this in mind: I am the Master of restoration; whatever you lose, I can restore if all are willing. I will work all things for your good if you will love Me and pursue My calling on your life.

So, call to Me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know. I will have mercy on you according to My unfailing love. I will blot out all your transgressions according to my great compassion. I will wash away all your iniquity and cleanse you from your sin. I will teach you wisdom in the inmost place. I will create in you a pure heart and renew a steadfast spirit within you. I will restore the joy of your salvation. I will sustain you, and I will make you strong.

Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear– for you belong to Me. Look at the birds of the air, and know that I feed them. Look at the lilies of the field, and realize that I dress them in splendor. You are more valuable to me than the birds and flowers I’ve made. Your life is more important than food, and your body is more important than clothes. Whatever you do, do it for My glory. Lead a quiet life, mind your own business, and work with your hands so that your daily life wins the respect of others. Chase after Me with all of your being, desire My kingdom, live according to My righteousness, and I will take care of your every need. Do not worry about tomorrow today. Remember, I am the same yesterday, today, and forever.

I’m telling you the truth, if you keep My word, you will never see death. I’ve prepared a place for you. One day soon I will come get you and bring you to where I am because I want you to be with Me in eternity. Until then, I promise to be with you and in you.