Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Amazing Bibles on clearance at WTS Books!

Don't miss out on these! All of them are clearance prices, so act quickly!

ESV Archaeology Study Bible (TruTone, Brown) $32 (79.99 msrp) ESV Archaeology Study Bible roots the biblical text in its historical and cultural context, offering readers a framework for better understanding the people, places, and events recorded in Scripture. With editorial oversight from Dr. John Currid (PhD, University of Chicago) and Dr. David Chapman (PhD, University of Cambridge), as well as contributions from a team of field-trained archaeologists, the Archaeology Study Bible assembles a range of modern scholarship--pairing the biblical text with over 2,000 study notes, 400 full-color photographs, 200 maps and diagrams, 200 sidebars, 15 articles, and 4 timelines. These features bring life to the ancient texts, helping readers situate them in their historical context while recognizing the truth that the eternal God became flesh entered human history at a specific time and in a specific place. BUY HERE NOW >

ESV Gospels, Reader's Set (Cloth Over Board) $17.50 (34.99 msrp)
The 4 Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--offer firsthand accounts of Christ's ministry on earth. The ESV Gospels, Reader's Set presents each Gospel in its own stand-alone volume packaged all together in an elegant slipcase. Printed on book paper with smyth-sewn bindings, this set features single-column text that is free of all verse numbers, chapter numbers, footnotes, and most section headings, resulting in a novel-like reading experience--helping readers immerse themselves in the life and ministry of Jesus. BUY HERE NOW >

ESV Story of Redemption Bible: A Journey Through the Unfolding Promises of God (Hardcover) $25.99 (39.99 msrp) Bible is the epic story of the unfolding plan of God over the course of the history of the world. The Story of Redemption Bible: A Journey through the Unfolding Promises of God leads readers on a journey through this storyline from start to finish, with conversational commentary written by pastor Greg Gilbert interspersed throughout the full ESV text. With the aim of encouraging interaction and contemplation passage by passage, Gilbert explains how every part of Scripture fits together and is ultimately centered on Christ. Particularly suitable to those who are new to the Bible but rich with insights for even the most seasoned Bible reader, the Story of Redemption Bible will draw readers in as they see their place in the greatest story ever told. BUY HERE NOW >

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

A Conversation With Jesus: killer deal! now at WTS Books, David Helm's A Conversation With Jesus (6-book box set) is just $4.65!! This box contains six short volumes. Six people to meet. Each appeared on the pages of John's Gospel. Each met Jesus - the Nazarene, the Christ, the man who forever changed the world we live in. And each had a conversation with Jesus about something important to them. Through these conversations you can meet not only these six men and women, but this man who changed everything too.

I'm getting a set for myself, but I always love passing along these deals when I find them! BUY IT HERE>

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Dark Day Had to Come First

When Jesus was crucified, there was darkness over the whole land for three hours. We know what it’s like when the power goes out, don’t we? But even when we had no power a few weeks ago because of the ice storm, we could see during the day. The “light” was still on. But at noon as Jesus hung on the cross, God turned off the lights. The darkness of the cross was magnified when God turned the sky black. Can I remind you for a moment of what Jesus was going through?

The punishment of crucifixion was meted out for such crimes as treason, desertion in the face of the enemy, robbery, piracy, assassination, and sedition. Among the Romans, scourging, undoubtedly to hasten impending death, preceded crucifixion. The victim then bore his own cross, or at least the upright beam, to the place of execution. A tablet, on which the feet rested or on which the body was partly supported, seems to have been a part of the cross to keep the wounds from tearing through the transfixed members. The suffering of death by crucifixion was intense, especially in hot climates. The swelling about the rough nails and the torn lacerated tendons and nerves caused excruciating agony. The arteries of the head and stomach were surcharged with blood and a terrific throbbing headache ensued. The mind was confused and filled with anxiety and dread foreboding. The victim of crucifixion literally died a thousand deaths. The length of this agony was wholly determined by the constitution of the victim, but death rarely occurred before thirty-six hours had elapsed. The end was sometimes hastened by breaking the legs of the victims and by a hard blow delivered under the armpit before crucifixion. The sudden death of Christ evidently was a matter of astonishment. (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)

Jesus suffered more than any man ever has, not just because of the brutal killing instrument that he hung upon and the unspeakable pain he bore. He suffered the greatest pain because of the punishment he bore. Could this be another reason why God turned off the lights? The darkness over the earth magnified the separation between God and his Son.

Alistair Begg says that the basic meaning of sin is to forsake God. Before you say, “Oh, I would never do that,” stop and consider. To forsake God can mean to go through your days as if God is not important. It is to live life on your own terms and only fit God into the picture when it is convenient, to have him as a sub-category in terms of what is really important to us. You are fine having him in the backseat. But you certainly don’t want him driving the car. The idea that he would take over and you would be under his authority in everything is offensive to you. If then, the essence of sin is to forsake God, the consequence of sin is to be God-forsaken. That’s why Jesus cried out as he did from the cross in His darkest hour, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

Why was the perfect Savior God-forsaken? Because he was bearing your sin and my sin in his body on the tree. Peter wrote, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit.”

This is the mystery of Easter. The dark day had to come first, for the new day to dawn once and for all.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Pressure Cookers of Resentment

The coronavirus has forced many of us to stay home more than we are used to, and that can lead to wonderful or not-so-terrific outcomes. People can tend to get a little touchy, slightly more irritable than normal. Reminds me of a peculiar habit camels seem to have. Read on…

William Barclay said, “There may be greater sins than touchiness, but there is none that does greater damage to the Christian church.” I found that quote as I was reading what Paul wrote 2 Timothy, instructing the young pastor that leadership requires thick skin, someone who is not easily offended. In fact, a leader is one who “patiently endures evil.” It could also be translated, “Bearing evil from others without resentment.” This is a rare quality, isn’t it? Let’s face it. There are lots of people who cannot bear anything without resentment, much less evil. They get resentful at the stoplight for staying red longer than they think is just. Look at them the wrong way and you are off their party-invitation list forever. Others will allow you a wrong look or a cross word or two, but they are adding your missteps to an invisible scale that they keep in their memory. Whoa to you when you finally tip the scale in the wrong direction. This is illustrated in nature, I discovered, with camels. Who knew? In his book, Zoo Vet, David Taylor writes, “Camels may build up a pressure cooker of resentment toward human beings until the lid suddenly blows off and they go berserk. In Asia, when a camel driver senses trouble, he gives his coat to the animal. Rather like Japanese workers who are reported to work off frustrations by beating up models of their executives, the camel gives the garment (a fit)—jumping on it, biting it, tearing it to pieces. When the camel feels it has blown its top enough, man and animal can live together in harmony again.”

Talk about getting your hump in a wad. And, just wondering, how many coats does a camel driver have to keep on hand? The problem with that whole scenario is obvious. If Carlos the camel owner is off his game by just a little, and doesn’t correctly read the signs that Carl the Camel is subtly sending him, it may be that Carlos, not his coat, is torn to pieces. Same way with you, as you face the wrath of Ken or Kara the church members. You may never know when you say the very thing that sends them into orbit. Or out the door. They won’t even give you a chance to offer them your coat or your hat to jump up and down and spit on. They just bolt. You may hear some reasons why they exploded later, as a friend of a friend of theirs tells you what they said about you on Facebook. Or, you may never know.

Paul’s instruction to young Timothy is clear: don’t be a pressure cooker of resentment yourself. When the camels are spitting and stomping all around, you are to remain calm. You are to be quick to forgive and slow to take offense, not the other way around. That doesn’t mean a leader is as silent as a post. No, he is to be skilled in “correcting his opponents with gentleness.” This is part of the problem: leaders who are unable or unwilling to gently correct evil behavior.

There is power in the life that refuses to drink in bitterness when others attack. It is the power that Christ Himself displayed as He was mocked and beaten and spat upon and finally crucified. There is no more beautiful picture of Christ than that of suffering servant. “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearers is silent, so he opens not his mouth.”

Two things, then. When pressure at home builds up, go outside. Exercise! And, be very careful around your camel.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Looking for a Less Busy Heart

I wrote this column in a different season, but it has applications for where we are now as a nation and as a people, tempted to give in the fear in the face of a virus. I hope this will be an encouragement to you!

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? It was. 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.”

During this time when the busy-ness of our lives has been slowed down and we have no choice but to be quiet, to connect more closely with our families, to read more, to pray more, and to think more, may God teach us how to have a less busy heart.

Yes, Lord. That’s what I need.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Grace of God Is a Gift

When I was 15, I finally understood the grace of God for the first time. I wanted to drive more than I wanted to breathe, so I asked my grandmother if I could take her 1969 Mercury Comet convertible, cherry red, out of the garage and drive it into the backyard where I would wash it. She said yes, so I backed it out slowly, and maneuvered it down a gentle slope into the yard. The sky was blue, the birds were singing, the radio was playing, I was driving a convertible: life was good. Then I pulled a 15 and hit the gas pedal instead of the brake. The car exploded forward, slamming into a fine upstanding specimen of our North Carolina state tree. The tree didn’t move. The front end of that beautiful Mercury folded up like an accordion, everything on the seats slid violently into the floor, I went into shock, and my grandmother, who stood close by and watched the whole thing, nearly wet herself from laughing so hard. I looked at her with my mouth open and finally stammered, “What are you laughing at? I just wrecked your car!” She said, still laughing, “Oh, Mark, if you could have seen your face when you hit that tree, you’d be laughing, too.” Then after I told her, my head in my hands, that I didn’t know how I would ever pay for the damages, she said the most shocking thing of all. “You will not pay for this. I will, and the only way anybody besides you and I will ever know about this is if you tell them.” Then she gave me a hug, we started cleaning up the mess together, and I understood the grace of God. My grandmother never spoke of it again, loved me just as much as before, and gave me much more than I deserved every day.

When I wrecked my life, slamming it into sin in more ways than I want to tell you about in this column, Jesus was right there, and he saw the whole thing. When I told him I didn’t know how I could ever pay for my sins against him, he said he had already taken care of it. He gave me grace, not just for salvation, but for every moment of every day that I will live and breathe this side of heaven. That grace was not free, just like that car repair in 1972 was not free. It cost Jesus his life to pay for my sins and to pay for the grace he would freely give me every day of my life. That is why I love him, and that is why I follow him. It is not ‘greasy grace’ or ‘sloppy agape,’ as we used to call it in the 1970’s. No, his grace does not give me license to live any way I want to live. Instead it gives me power to live in a way that is pleasing to God.

When I shared this story in Moldova in January in 8 different places, the people all laughed when my grandmother laughed. Then they got quiet as they understood that the grace that comes from Jesus Christ is not something they could ever earn. One man handed me a letter written in Romanian at the end of one of my seminars. After having it translated by someone there, I could read it for myself:

Dear Mark – thank you for taking the time and coming to teach about what is written in Scripture. I wanted to say that I understand grace better today. I knew that grace is a gift from the God most High, but never realized that it is not a reward. Today my eyes were opened to the truth even more. Thank you! Sergiu

I am so thankful for my grandmother who taught me about grace, and to the Lord for his costly gift freely given every day. But I do remain very cautious when driving anywhere around pine trees.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Go Ahead and Make Their Day

In her book, Twelve Baskets of Crumbs, Elisabeth Elliot writes, “‘Tell it like it is’ is the watchword today. But suppose …it’s actually beautiful? Suppose the boy who does your lawn does is fast, trims it perfectly, and takes care of the tools? Suppose the clerk who waits on you happens to be the most gracious one you’ve ever encountered?

Tell them.

Tell them now.”

Did you know that one of the most powerful medicines in the world is praise? It can heal a broken marriage if applied carefully and consistently. It can make a child’s sense of self-worth grow right before your eyes. It can encourage an employee to be creative and diligent. Mark Twain once said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” It’s a miracle drug, but it can only be administered from one to another. Self-praise is empty and vain, a shallow substitute for the real thing. That’s why Solomon said, “Let another man praise you, and not your own mouth.”

Praise is a rare gift. Solomon described it this way: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” The gifted ‘praiser’ celebrates Christmas every day as he gives precious gifts that cost him only attentiveness and courage.

But be careful. Praise and flattery are mortal enemies. Praise is medicine that gives life, flattery works like poison. Praise is given to benefit the receiver, but flattery is thinly veiled manipulation to benefit the flatterer. Also, be sure to praise character qualities or accomplishments. The need for approval will motivate our children to focus on what we praise. When my children were growing up, I knew that if I constantly told them how handsome or pretty they were, I would be setting a snare for their feet. Either they would become proud, or be deflated if their looks didn’t match up to the world’s standards. Our culture sets the highest premium on physical attractiveness, to the point that 98% of Miss America contestants said when surveyed they would change something about their looks if they could. Physical attractiveness is a false god that we must not erect in our children’s hearts.

Instead, praise godly character qualities. When Jesus met Nathanael, He said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit.” He recognized the quality of truthfulness in Nathanael.

Jesus said about His cousin, John the Baptist, “among those born of women there is none greater than John; but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” Jesus praised John’s humility.

He blessed the unnamed woman in Simon’s house who washed His feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, praising her act of selflessness and compassion.

After healing ten lepers, Jesus praised the one who returned to show his gratitude.

Jesus never praised anyone for his appearance, pedigree, education, material possessions or status in society. Aren’t those the very things we tend to elevate?

Why not set our hearts to become experts at praising others? Why not watch to catch our children in the act of doing something right, and then praise them for it? Why not take a moment and make a list of the qualities in your children, spouse, and close friends that are praiseworthy­­­, and then­­ follow through by telling them about those qualities? Be creative in your praise: you can say it with a card, a phone call, an invitation to lunch, a gift, or a word face to face.

Go ahead, make their day. Give them the gift of sincere praise.

Monday, March 2, 2020

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 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. When I was in Moldova in January, I heard from men who said God had led them to start teaching their family the Word and praying with and for their wives. God spoke something into existence in their hearts 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.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Normal Is Highly Overrated

We are only seven weeks out from Easter. After an Easter sunrise service several years ago, one of the little boys in the church asked me, “Isn’t it about time for the normal people to come?” I laughed as I considered a host of responses to him. There’s the comedienne’s book title that comes to mind: “Normal is just a setting on your dryer.” I thought about saying in response, “Do I not look normal to you?” But the possibility that I might get an unfiltered response gave me pause. I finally just laughed and said, “Yes, I think the normal ones will be showing up soon.” He smiled and went to look for them.

This encounter made me think about what it means to be “normal.” The simple dictionary definition is “conforming to the standard or the common type.” A normal softball for play in the church leagues must conform to a standard compression. I get that. Those who have jurisdiction over the sport have chosen that standard. They can change it if they wish. The normal speed limit on the interstate between here and Wilmington is 70mph. I get that. Those who have authority over the traffic laws of North Carolina have set that speed limit. They can change those laws as they so desire. A normal temperature for a healthy human being is 98.6. I get that, too. That temperature was chosen by our Creator.

A normal response to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, according to the dictionary definition of “normal,” is yawning indifference. The normal people did not show up at church last Easter, nor will they on any Sunday, precisely because they are normal. They have conformed to the standard. Even many who will attend church this Easter will do so, by their own admission, because they want to see the fashion parade, or because they know there would be more music, or because they figure the church will be decorated, or because it's tradition, or because it's the least they can do and maintain their "Christian" status, or because they feel guilty. They are part of the holly and lily crowd who goes to church every Christmas and every Easter without fail.

A normal attitude toward the Bible is that it contains some good stories and even some important truths, but at the end of the day mist believe that it is just a book, written by men. “Read it every day?” the normal people ask. “The only thing I read every day is Twitter and email.”

A normal attitude toward Christianity itself is that it is one way among many, and that any who would suggest otherwise are narrow-minded bigots who would impose their “standard of morality” upon the rest of the world. A missionary in Turkey was explaining the truth of the resurrection of Christ. He said, "I am traveling, and have reached a place where the road branches off in two ways; I look for a guide, and find two men: one dead, and the other alive. Which of the two must I ask for direction, the dead or the living?" "Oh, the living," cried the people. "Then," said the missionary, "why send me to Mohammed, who is dead, instead of to Christ, who is alive!”

The other “abnormal” people will show up this Easter, and every Sunday before and after. Together, we will worship the One who calls us to be anything but normal, the one who rose from the dead to conquer sin, death, and the grave.

Normal is highly overrated.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Getting Ready for Church

When I read 1 Timothy, a letter Paul wrote to a young pastor 2000 years ago, I marvel at how timely it is…and how practical. Paul addresses men and women in chapter 2, giving encouragement to both sexes for how they are to prepare themselves for public worship. Men get ready to come to church by checking their hands. If they are clenched in fists of rage, or shoved into their pockets because of apathy, they are not ready. If they are locked behind their backs because they have abdicated leadership and are being led by their wives, or if they are steeped in a sinful lifestyle, they are not ready. It wasn’t hands Paul was concerned with, but he says you can tell a lot about a man’s heart by looking at his hands. If they can be lifted in prayer, without wrath and without doubting, that expression matches his profession that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The word for wrath in this text means, “anger as a state of mind.” It doesn’t mean you had an argument in the car with your wife on the way to church, men. That can be quickly confessed. It points to a slow burn, an angry, simmering state of mind that always threatens to erupt. This is the man who is always looking for a fight, quick to defend himself at the slightest provocation. Or the man who lives to punish someone who has hurt him. That’s good old, garden-variety bitterness. Except it’s not good. And the only fruit from that garden is poison. What can we do about this? Preach the gospel to ourselves every day. Remind ourselves of the grace that was poured out on us through the brutal death of our Savior. Can we possibly look to the cross and at the same time hold onto towering rage or seething bitterness?

Now Paul turns his attention to the women, except he doesn’t talk about how women are to pray, but how they are to dress. There is nothing in the text, or anywhere in the Scriptures, really, about how a man should dress for worship. Perhaps this is because God has given men and women different desires, for the most part, with regard to clothing. Answer this question: Mostly, men dress for church to A. Be comfortable but not sloppy, or B. To express something about themselves. Right, the answer is A. A man dresses for utilitarian reasons: what can I get by with, or, what will my wife let me get by with? How does a woman dress for church? A woman’s dress is an expression of who she is and what she believes. The question in this text is not whether a woman should dress to look her best. The issue is how she chooses to adorn herself, and Paul has two exhortations on this. He says, women, make sure you dress with modesty and propriety. When a woman or young woman dresses immodestly in the worship service or anywhere in public, she seems to be offering something that only belongs to her husband, or to her future husband. It would be a good exercise for every woman and young woman to ask her husband or father, “What kind of clothing do women wear that tends to make you stumble?” Get an honest answer, ladies, and then avoid dressing that way yourselves, for the gospel’s sake.

Paul has much more to say in this powerful little letter. Study it out for yourself, you who believe the Bible.

Monday, February 3, 2020

God Is There in the Darkest Hours of Your Life

Tony grew up in a legalistic home with a workaholic father who was never pleased with his work. “I was awkward and uncoordinated,” Tony said, “and when I was unable to meet his expectations, my reward was a fist. I was punished for misunderstanding what my father wanted me to do. I was punished when I asked a question. I was punished when I didn’t work fast enough. I was punished when my awkwardness caused me to knock things over or drop things. I was punished when I told the truth, and when I told a lie trying to avoid more punishment. I was punished! I was punished!” In time, Tony came to live in terror of his father--not just the beatings, but also the verbal abuse. Tony’s father would tower over the trembling boy, his face contorted in rage, shouting what a stupid, incompetent idiot he was—as he punched him again and again. By the time he reached high school, Tony had decided to commit suicide. The only thing that stopped him was a fear that God might be real, and might send him to hell. So Tony began to search out the question of God’s existence. “Before I killed myself,” he said, “I had to be sure.”

Tony still went to church, at the insistence of his parents, and one Sunday a gaunt, shabby man with a strong foreign accent appeared on the church doorstep. Tony showed him in, not knowing that this man held the key to the answers he was seeking. The man had a good reason to look so haggard—he had survived 14 years in that hell on earth known as a communist prison camp in Romania. His crime? He was a pastor who preached the Gospel. On the man’s neck and head, Tony could see the deep scars from the torture he had endured. This was Richard Wurmbrand, and as he shared his story, a flicker of hope was kindled in Tony’s heart. Here was a man who had been beaten just like he was, in fact far worse, and understood the searing pain of not wanting to live any more. Yet he had a profound faith in a good God who loves us. “He should have been full of fury at his captors,” Tony said. “That I could understand. But he had responded in love. This wasn’t just a Sunday ritual. This was a life-giving power.” (adapted from “Total Truth,” Nancy Pearcey)

Tony’s life began to change that day as he witnessed the power of God in Richard Wurmbrand. Both of these men had been in prison. One was tortured by communists. The other was tortured by a father who hid behind a religious facade as he unleashed his anger on his son, very nearly destroying him. Oh, but this is the good news, dear reader. Tony did not survive because of his “indomitable human spirit.” No. He was rescued by God as he heard the testimony of another who had been rescued. I know some of you have suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of those who were entrusted by God with your life. The very ones whom God appointed to teach and train and love you used you for their own sick and twisted purposes. Learn from Tony and Richard. Look to God. He has not abandoned you, nor has He forgotten you. 

Another who suffered torture for the sake of the Gospel said, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Not the communists. Not an abusive father. “Nor any other created thing.”

God is there.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Things We Do for Love

I grew up in tobacco country. In fact, that noxious weed put me through college. My father and mother both worked long years and retired from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. My grandmother was a receptionist for over 30 years at Whitaker Park, where cigarettes are manufactured and thousands of visitors come every year to see how the process works. My older brother also worked for Reynolds, and he was the one that I most wanted to be like when I was a young teenager. So, I fired up my first cigarette when I was 15 years old. I remember the first one because it made my head spin and my stomach turn. That should have told me something right there, but I was a little slow when it came to picking up such cues, especially when they conflicted with my goal: to be cool. I loved and admired my older brother and if smoking was good enough for him, then by golly it was good enough for me.

I started out as a casual smoker, just a few cigarettes a day. That was enough to give me the ‘tough-guy image’ I was after, but kept the stench to a minimum. But there’s a not-so-funny thing about cigarettes, which I found out soon enough. They are addictive. It wasn’t long before I couldn’t eat a meal or drink a coke or enjoy a cup of coffee without craving a cigarette. Then I began to ‘need’ one after I woke up in the morning, or before I went to sleep at night.

I knew I was really hooked when I started staying home from events that would last too long and where smoking was not permitted.

I smoked for nearly ten years and I used to quote Mark Twain to my college friends who expressed concern. “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world,” I told them. “I know because I've done it thousands of times.”

But I was hooked, and I knew it. The habit was interfering with my social life, slowing me down on the intramural fields, costing me precious funds that as a college student I really did not have, and producing a guilty conscience. Undeterred, I kept puffing…and hacking.

Then I met Cindy and fell in love. We had a whirlwind romance for a year and less than a month before my wedding day, Cindy made this announcement: “I can’t marry a smoker. You are going to have to choose…is it going to be me or cigarettes?”

I chose Cindy that same day and have not touched a cigarette since. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for a woman who was willing to draw a line in the sand and risk losing someone she loved. She drew the line because I was someone she loved and wanted to love for the rest of her life. It was God who gave me grace and strength to overcome a habit that was in control of my life. I am and will be forever grateful to the Lord for that. But God used a beautiful and gracious woman to give me the desire to quit.

Now, if you want to hear what it was like on our honeymoon, with me in the middle of full-scale nicotine-withdrawal, that’s another story. Just suffice it to say that we had some battles that might have ended our marriage if we were not so stubbornly committed to loving each other no matter what.

The Bible says, “love never fails,” and this is one grateful former smoker.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Sweet Freedom of Forgiveness

Someone has said that the two most important words in the English language are, I’m sorry. There is power in those words, power to heal and power to set free. Perhaps the second most important words in the English language are, I’m forgiven. But what happens when we ask for forgiveness and we don’t really believe we have received it? Or we say, “Well, I know the Lord has forgiven me, I just can’t forgive myself.” Friends, that’s an awful place to be, yet it’s home for many people who refuse to accept the sweet freedom of forgiveness that is offered in Christ.

C.S. Lewis said, “I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.”

I love the story of the young boy who was throwing rocks one day down by the barn and he decided to do the very thing his father had told him not to: he took aim and fired off a few rounds at the chickens. Then he was horrified when one of his salvos hit his father’s prizewinning rooster, a bulls-eye to the head, and the rooster fell over dead. The boy was sick to his stomach with fear, and tearfully replayed the event over and over in his mind, hoping for a different result. The bird was still dead.

So the boy tried to cover his sin by hiding the rooster, but that didn’t work. He was miserable with guilt, and in bondage like he’d never experienced. He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t even play because of his guilt. So finally he retrieved the evidence of his sin and went to confess to his father. To his surprise and great relief, his father embraced him, forgave him, and together they buried the rooster.

The boy was free again. He could eat, play, sleep, and work without guilt. For a while. Then he lay in bed one night and played back the tape in his mind of the rooster-slaying incident until, overcome with sorrow again, he went out into the moonlight and dug up the carcass. He carefully brushed it off, cleaned it up, put it in a box and carried it to his father, asking for forgiveness with tears. The wise Dad embraced his son once again and told him that he had already forgiven him, and together they buried the bird one more time.

All was well for a few days, until one of his friends began to ride the boy pretty hard about the rooster, reminding him of how many prizes it had won. The boy tearfully dug up the bird again, but it had decomposed badly in the summer heat. He cradled this object of his father’s past affection and went to pay for his sins once more.

You see, the boy had been forgiven by his father’s grace, though he didn’t deserve it. But he never released his guilt and accepted God’s gift. Because he was more me-focused than God-focused, he fell right back into bondage by trying to ‘earn’ something God had freely given.

The sweet freedom of forgiveness cannot come through the flesh, through our works, or through anything we do. The most precious of all freedoms can only come through the work that Jesus Christ did on the cross. Freedom and forgiveness are works of God’s grace!

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Don’t Get Used to the Dark

Vance Havner said in a sermon years ago that he walked into a restaurant that was “a dimly lit dungeon,” so dark that he was tempted to ask the waiter for a flashlight so he could see the menu. He had to feel his way to the silverware on the table. The food came, and he said, “We sat there and ate by faith and not by sight.” After a while he could begin to make out a few things on his plate. That’s when his companion for supper said, “Isn’t it amazing how you get used to the dark?” He was speaking literally, but there is a spiritual truth there that relates to fighting the good fight of faith.

I believe one way we know we are getting used to the dark is when the fight has gone out of us and we are just floating with the current, kind of like dead fish. That’s the situation David found when he visited the battle, or the non-battle, between the Philistine’s champion, Goliath, and the army of Israel. Goliath strutted and mocked, taunting the army of Israel, challenging them to send their champion out to fight him. There were two problems with the army of Israel. First, not one soldier moved a muscle because they were all afraid. They were doing all they could to avoid a fight. Courage leads to action. Fear leads to apathy. Perhaps the reason most Christians do not contend for the faith is because we have become accustomed to our fear-born apathy. When we first got saved our faith was stronger than our fear and our joy in the Lord for saving us made us bold witnesses for Him. Remember, believer? We were not always the wisest witnesses, but God can work with that. Then the edge of our joy began to wear off and we began to settle into a routine. We got used to the encroaching darkness around us and gave up the fight.

There’s a second thing we see about this army of Israel that helps us understand what it means to fight the good fight of faith. The soldiers whom David observed that day were no longer practicing the disciplines they had first learned in the army. There was no one even in the bullpen warming up to face Goliath. The fight was gone out of the team and the game was over. Though they were trained warriors, no one was using his training. David showed up on the scene, heard Goliath’s blasphemous taunts, and immediately signed up to get in the game. He said to Saul, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” He defeated Goliath because he was not afraid of him, because he was well trained in the weapons of his warfare, and because he used those weapons by faith. When Goliath mocked David, the young soldier replied, “You come to me with a sword and a spear and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of Hosts.” David brought the fight to Goliath and brought glory to God.

Have you grown accustomed to the dark? Or are you fighting the good fight of faith? Examine your heart for fear and its companion, apathy. Examine your life for the disciplines that keep us always in the fight, with the Word of God and prayer being our primary training table. There are also courage-producing books that will help you think through the taunts of the enemies of faith. One that my wife and I are reading together now is Confronting Christianity: Twelve Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. Rebecca McLaughlin tackles the toughest questions that confront us, with the Word and with logic. Questions like these: “Aren’t we better off without religion?” “Hasn’t Christianity denigrated women?” “Isn’t Christianity homophobic?” “How could a loving God allow so much suffering?” And many more. This book will arm you with answers and encourage you in the fight of faith.

Don’t get used to the darkness. Light a candle.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Things I Heard Along the Way

It is my practice, on the last Sunday of the year, to share a few things I heard that year, and hopefully learned. If I may, I would share part of that sermon with you in this column.

God calls us to co-labor
Read 2 Corinthians 2:12-13 for the context. This is a passage that leapt off the page to me as I read it on January 4. I wrote in my journal, “Paul didn’t stay in Troas because Titus wasn’t there. An argument that ministry should be done with others. Or that Paul wanted a companion to encourage him and bring him joy in the hard work of ministry.” Elijah was so discouraged in his ministry as a prophet that he wanted to die and told the Lord so, adding, “I have been very jealous for the Lord…, (and) even I only, am left, and they seek my life to take it away.” God told him that there were seven thousand in Israel who were, in effect, standing with Elijah. He also sent Elisha to him, to travel with Elijah and eventually to take his place. We are never alone. But we also must seek out others to co-labor with, as Paul did, and as Jesus did.

Habits of Grace
One of the best books I read this year, and then took two young men through, is “Habits of Grace,” by David Mathis. Mathis focuses on various practices and habits of Christians that will sweeten our walk with the Lord, help us grow up in him, and make us more useful for the work he has called us to do for his name’s sake. But the author issues a caution right up front: “The grace of God is gloriously beyond our skill and technique. The means of grace are not about earning God’s favor, twisting his arm, controlling his blessing, but readying ourselves for consistent saturation in the roll of his tides.”

I love that he includes wonderful quotes from some of my favorite authors, like Donald Whitney: “One of the costs of technological advancement is a greater temptation to avoid quietness,” and so we “need to realize the addiction we have to noise.”

SMART goals
I don’t remember when I first heard this acronym, but I wrote about it in my journal in February.

Specific: Non-specific goals are not goals at all. For example, a goal to “read more in my Bible this year” is not specific enough. To “read through the Bible” is better. Or, “to spend a month in a single book of the Bible, reading it over and over, before moving on to another book in the next month.”

Measurable: we all know what that means. How will you know you reached your goal if you cannot measure it? To become “better acquainted with the Bible” is not as measurable as, “Commit a chapter of Scripture, like Ephesians 1, to memory.”

Attainable: “Telling everybody at my workplace about Jesus,” is not attainable if you work at a large company. “Tell one new person about Jesus each week” is a reasonable goal.

Realistic: To travel to every state in the country this year is not realistic. To take your family on a vacation for a week is, and if you haven’t done that in a while, I highly recommend it. Jesus told his disciples on occasion to come apart for a while and rest. As Vance Havner said, “If you don’t come apart for a while, you will come apart!”

Time-Bound: If you are going to pay off a debt this year, set a reasonable time limit. Put a date on when you plan to finish writing a letter, or a song, or even a book. Then do whatever it takes, without sin, to meet your own deadline. Plan your work, then work your plan.

May the Lord bless you with great fruitfulness in Him this year!