Monday, February 18, 2019

Is That All You’ve Got?

My favorite place at the Myrtle Beach marathon several years ago was the pre-race expo, and especially the bumper stickers that were for sale. One said, “If you find me on the road, please drag me across the finish line.” Or, “If you can read this, I’m not in last place!” Or, “This IS my race pace.” The next morning, I saw people holding some of the same signs, and many others. Some were signs of encouragement for the 6,000 runners who passed by. Some people were just trying to be funny, and they were. Like the guy just a half a mile into the race whose sign read, “One. Lousy. Parade.” Then there was the lady holding up a sign about 10 miles in that said, “My husband knows a shortcut.” Or the one that said, “The Kenyans finished an hour ago.” Some were meant to be funny, but just were not. When I was in the most pain of the race, around mile 24, I passed a guy standing on the side of the road whose sign read, “Is that all you’ve got?” The most encouraging sign I read said, “I am exactly .3 miles from the finish line.” That was a sight for sore legs. The only sign that was better than that was the one I ran under that said, “Finish.”

Paul holds up a sign in his first letter for Timothy, who was a sometimes fragile, sometimes discouraged young pastor, that says, “But you, O man of God.” Man of God! “Timothy,” Paul seems to say, “Remember who you are. You are a man of God.” I wish we could know somehow what effect that had on Timothy. Did he break into a huge grin when he read that? Or did he break down and weep in relief and thanksgiving?

More importantly, would the testimony of God and his word be the same for you? What is your identity? Are you a man or woman of God? Would you be able to say with confidence that you are one of his “peculiar people,” as Peter refers to believers? If you are born again, having been purchased by the peculiar and unique manner of the blood of the Savior on a cross, you are a man of God or a woman of God, no matter your age. You have been made to “stand” because of what Jesus Christ did, not because of anything you have done or ever will do. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

How are we able to stand? By grace. How do we get grace? Through faith. But where does faith come from? Through our Lord Jesus Christ. What is the result of this grace applied to our lives? We have peace with God. How? We have been justified (declared just and righteous, because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us). What can we do as a result? Rejoice in hope of the glory of God!

This is why Christians around the world celebrate the risen Savior every day. Jesus Christ hung on a cross for six hours one Friday, was dead and buried from 3 p.m. Friday until sometime before dawn on Sunday, and then he rose from the dead. He appeared to Peter, to the other disciples, and to more than five hundred at once.

Do you know Him? If you do, then you know what many in the world can only dream about. You know who you are. If that is “all you’ve got,” as the sign declared to my weary soul on a Myrtle Beach street, then that is plenty. It means that you are standing with the One who conquered sin, death, and the grave. There’s no better finish line in all the world.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Attitudes to Avoid, Actions to Adopt

“Religion begat prosperity and the daughter devoured the mother.” Kent Hughes explains Cotton Mather’s quote by saying that when a person comes to Christ by faith and is born again, his life is turned upside down. Old bad habits are replaced with new good habits of faith and love and hard work and gratitude. He becomes a better worker and manager of resources as he lives out the Scriptures, which results, often, in economic prosperity. The tragedy is, in many cases, “new prosperity and material wealth devour the same Christianity that gave them birth — especially in the second and third generations.”

This is why Paul in Scripture gives a stern warning to all who are “rich in this present age.” By the way, if you are tempted to stop reading because you don’t think you are rich, consider this. The average household income in Alamance County is around $43,000 per year. That income is in the top 1.72% worldwide, which means we are richer than more than 98 percent of the world. What should we do about it? According to Paul there are attitudes to avoid and actions to adopt.

Avoid being arrogant. It just goes with the territory that those who have look down on those who don’t have. If you live in a house, you look down on those who live in a trailer. If you live in a trailer on your own land, you look down on those who live in an apartment! And so it goes. But we are commanded in Scripture to put away arrogance and a haughty spirit. After all, “what do we have that we did not receive?”

Avoid trusting in uncertain riches. The more we have, the more we have to fight against finding our security, and even our sense of self-worth, in our possessions. This deadly downward spiral never ends well and can only be corrected through repentance and acknowledging God as the owner of everything, including the very breath in our lungs. He alone is worthy of our trust.

The actions to adopt begin with this simple command: “do good, be rich in good works.” I knew a dear lady who is with the Lord now, but she used her income and her nice home to show hospitality to people she knew who did not know Christ. She would invite several couples over for dinner and a conversation about things of faith. I know a couple here in town who own several properties that they invite people going through difficult trials to live in for a while, as they teach them to manage their money and their lives in a way that is healthy and productive. You know people like that as well. Are you one of those people who lives on less so that you can help others who have legitimate needs?

Paul then says to us we should be “ready to give, willing to share.” It is sad that though Americans have the largest incomes in the world, we also saddle ourselves with the most debt. As Dave Ramsey says with a smile, “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t even like!” Why not put yourself in a position where you are ready to give by getting out of debt as quickly as possible, while at the same time beginning to give to the work of your church, to global missions, and to local needs?

Don’t get devoured by your own prosperity. I believe that those who learn to give will one day be met in heaven by the beneficiaries of their giving. That is worth the sacrifice.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Humility Changes Everything

A man that looked like he could play defensive end for the Panthers approached me after a meeting two weeks ago in Chisinau, the capital city of Moldova. One of the things I had taught that evening (with my son, Caleb) was how important it is for a man to pray with and for his wife, out loud, often. Even daily. We talked about the privilege and the responsibility a husband has to love his wife, and that includes praying for her. I told a story of how God had humbled me years ago, when Cindy was going through a trial. I knew that it was not enough for me just to pray “in my head” or in private, for her. She needed to actually hear me praying for her more often. She needed me, and God wanted me, to speak Scripture over her as I cried out to God for her. It was humbling and at the same time, it was one of the best days of our marriage when I decided to obey the Lord in this.

I told the men that night that I know most Christian husbands do not pray out loud for their wives. Some are afraid they might say the wrong thing. Some are embarrassed to be that vulnerable. Some are too busy. Some just refuse to do it. We reasoned with the men from Scripture about the position we have in the marriage. If we are to be like Christ, who is seated at the right hand of the Father, and is always interceding for his bride, the church, shouldn’t we enter into this ministry as well?

This man looked down at me and said, “How can I humble myself? I am too proud to pray for my wife out loud.” He was asking how to humble himself while he was in fact humbling himself! I saw in this man two ways that we walk out humility. First, when we voluntarily confess sin, we are humbling ourselves. It is one thing to “be humbled” when your sin is exposed by someone else. It is quite another to own it, confess it, and turn away from it. Second, when we ask for help, we are humbling ourselves. The man said, “Help me.” He was a man who had heard truth from God’s Word that had produced personal knowledge of the Lord that he had not had before. He was broken over his disobedience and he wanted to do the right thing. Now, true humility was proved out that night if he went home and humbled himself before his wife by asking if he could pray with and for her. Only the Lord and that couple know whether that happened. I believe it did, and that their marriage is stronger now than before.

Contrast that example with another listener who approached me after a seminar in the city of Orhei. This woman, a mother and a grandmother, told me through our translator, that she vehemently disagreed with me about training and disciplining children. I reasoned with her from Scripture for several minutes, and got nowhere. Another man who was standing there observing all of this said to me, “There’s no way she will listen to you. She doesn’t listen to anybody.” That would be indictment enough. But after I was pulled away to talk to someone else, this woman continued to bend the ear of the translator. He also pointed her to the Bible. She finally said, as she turned and walked away, “I don’t care what the Bible says.”

It is the same in Moldova as in America as in every place on earth. Those who humble themselves before the truth of God’s Word come to a greater place of joy and freedom than they have ever known. Those who walk away from the truth continue stumbling through the darkness.

Humility changes everything.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Looking For a Less Busy Heart

Let’s say you are looking at the checkbook and there is more month left than money. Been there? You have two weeks to go until your next paycheck, no money, and three bills that have to be paid. What do you do? If you are like most, you start to panic. You immediately go from “heart at rest” to heart palpitations. You start to panic. Then you complain to yourself. “Why is this happening? What am I going to do?” That doesn’t satisfy you at all, so you take the typical next step: you complain to someone else. You get on the phone and ask someone to commiserate with you. Let’s be honest. What you are really doing is asking your friend to enter into unrest with you. Let’s shuck it down even further. You are asking your friend (whom you love?) to enter into unbelief with you.

Everybody who has been there, say “Amen.” In fact, if you have been in this place, stuck between a rock and a hard place without a pickaxe, that’s good. Recognize that God puts us there to teach us that He alone is sufficient to meet our needs. That doesn’t mean we can throw money away or live the life of a king on a pauper’s salary. That’s just foolishness that brings its own punishment. But let’s say you are living within your means and the unexpected happens. Suddenly your means are not enough. As the saying goes, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” This is a great place to trust the Lord.

That’s what the psalmist decided to do as he spoke this word to himself: “Return to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you!” What a wonderful verse to memorize, to speak to yourself during difficult days, and most of all, to believe. Instead of the panicked phone call to a friend, speak to your soul and to God. Charles Spurgeon said, “Whenever a child of God even for a moment loses his peace of mind, he should be concerned to find it again, not by seeking it in the world or in his own experience, but in the Lord alone. When the believer prays, and the Lord inclines His ear, the road to the old rest is before him; let him not be slow to follow it.”

Has the Lord dealt bountifully with you? Oh, yes. No matter your circumstances at the moment, the fact that there is breath in your lungs is a gift from God. The fact that you can see to read this column is a gift from God. And if God has brought you to knowledge of the faith and you have trusted Christ alone for your salvation, you are indeed blessed. We can all pray without hypocrisy, “Lord, let my soul return to its rest,” no matter the trouble we may be facing.

One final point. Don’t confuse this request with a desire for life to be easy, or stress-free. Let me ask you something. Was Jesus busy? Oh, yes, from before sunup to after sundown, the Lord was working. Was Jesus’ soul always at rest? Oh, yes. In his book, “A Praying Life,” Paul Miller writes, “The quest for a contemplative life can actually be self-absorbed focus on my quiet and me. If we love people and have the power to help, then we are going to be busy. Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life; it offers us a less busy heart.”

Yes, Lord. That’s what I need.

Monday, January 21, 2019

This will be on the Final Exam

I heard a former NFL coach say that the most important thing about the scouting combine was that it gave the scouts and coaches an opportunity to look the players in the eye and see what kind of character they have. “Their speed in the 40 is highly overrated,” he said. “What is most important is the interview.” The most important consideration for coaches looking to draft a young player to their team is their character? Maybe that’s because there is so little of it.

It is the same in the job market. When two equally skilled people compete for the same job, the person who gives the best interview usually lands it. One professional said there are five red flags for him in an interview, any one of which is a deal-breaker. Even if the candidate is imminently qualified, he won’t get the job if: 1) He talks too much; 2) She doesn’t have a basic understanding of the company; 3) He is not wearing a suit; 4) She begs for the job; 5) He doesn’t know how to communicate why he would be a good fit for the company. I would suggest that each of those ‘flags’ indicate character problems of selfishness, laziness, carelessness, insecurity, and laziness (again)!

In the NFL combine or the professional interview, the question is, does the man or woman reflect the resume? The employer is trying to get a look at the heart, the character, the real deal. God does the same.

David asked God in Psalm 15, “Lord, who may abide with You? Who is able to stand in Your presence?” He was not asking God how to be saved from his sins. That only comes by grace through faith, which cannot be earned by any man or woman. Christ paid for it on the cross. David was asking how he could know that he belonged to God. “Lord, what is the character of a life that You approve? How can I live in such a way to enjoy the fullness of Your fellowship?”

I have a warning for any of you dear readers who might entertain these thoughts: “I don’t care about the ‘fullness of His fellowship.’ I just want to make sure I am in. That when the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there. I want to live my life on my own terms, but I also want to go to heaven when I die.” If that is the attitude of your heart, it calls into question whether you have ever known true repentance. When the Spirit of God comes in, He doesn’t just take up space, He takes over. There is a change in a man’s thought patterns, actions, desires, motives, goals, and affections when he has been born again. Many think they have invited the Lord into their lives but in essence have said to Him, “Stay in this closet in the basement, please, so as not to get in the way with how I want to live my life; when I need You, I will come and get You.” No, regeneration results in “extreme makeover,” and there are dire consequences for all who would pretend. As Charles Spurgeon said, “To own Him in our profession (what we say) and deny Him in our practice (how we live) is, with Judas, to betray Him with a kiss.”

Read Psalm 15 and see how your walk, your talk, your values, and how you handle money will stand as evidence of life-change. And yes, Virginia, there is a final exam. All who truly know God will pass.

Monday, January 14, 2019

God Creates Something Where There is Nothing

“For He commanded and they were created.” That’s what the Bible plainly teaches. When God spoke, He made something out of nothing. It is an astounding thought that we cannot understand, and in an attempt to “unscrew the inscrutable,” men have resorted to myths and fables and lies. The truth is, God spoke to nothing and that nothing became something. John said in his Gospel, speaking of Jesus Christ who is the agent of creation, “All things were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made.” That means that everything that was not God was made; in fact, if there was anything co-existent in the universe with God, then it, too, would by its very nature be God. The primordial slime out of which evolving man supposedly crawled would have to be considered a god if it is eternal, if it existed by its own will. Worship the slime or nothing at all, if it is your progenitor. Sadly, many do. The truth remains: God alone is God because he created all things and all things therefore belong to him.

“He commanded and they were created” should be an encouragement to all of us as creations of God, because he still does that. He still speaks into existence that which he desires. That’s how we came to Christ in the first place. There was no faith, no life, and no hope; we were dead in our trespasses and sins, rebels against God. Then God spoke. Something came from nothing. That’s what surprised Jonah so much, and made him mad. The Ninevites were the absolute last people on the planet anyone expected to repent. There was nothing in their hearts for God and man, except for hatred. They were brutal and feared by all, and had no regard for human life. Perhaps Jonah did not want to preach to them because he did not think there was any way these brutes could ever be converted. God spoke through Jonah and something came out of nothing. He commanded and they were created. Or re-created. The whole city repented, more than 120,000 people, perhaps the greatest revival in one city the world has ever seen.

“He commanded and they were created.” It is the same after we come to Christ as well. That’s what gives me hope to pray for situations where there seems to be no hope. God can call into being something that is not there. Paul said, “God gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did.” I have spoken to many Dads in the last couple of years who have told me that God spoke to them about their responsibility to disciple their children when there was absolutely no vision for that at all. A man called me from Wichita a few years back and said that he had recently been convicted about needing to have his children with them in church. God led him and his wife to keep their children in the service with them at the mega-church they attended, and that has led to a number of changes. He began to seek the Scriptures about the family and worship and the father’s responsibility. God spoke something into existence in his heart that was not there before. He does it in the hearts of teenagers who are out of control. He does it in failing marriages. He even does it in dying churches. He spoke the worlds into existence. He can certainly change us with a word as well.

God speaks to nothing and nothing becomes something. That’s worth rejoicing over.