God says he is enough for us, so why doesn't it feel like it? – Second Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 4

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

Have you ever questioned something like what the title of this post suggests? I have. My guess is that you have too. What do we do when God doesn’t seem to be enough for us? What do we do when we struggle with envy and jealously, especially of the arrogant and mean people who seem to be carefree and prosperous while we are trying to live God’s way, and yet are struggling.

As Asaph guides us in Psalm 73 through his struggle with envy, though he has taken us to the precipice of losing his faith, in verses 23-24 he remembers the truth that, though he was a mess and the world around him was a mess, God was actually there.  God was always there, holding his hand, guiding him.  That is striking to me because there are plenty of times, when it seems like God is not there.   We don’t always see him or feel him.  We can cry out to him, and he doesn’t answer.  But the truth is that he is still there.  He might be silent, but he is there. 

That truth changes the game.  Asaph declares in verses 25-26 that God and God alone fulfills his longings.  The earth puts forth its attempts to fulfill our longings.  But it has nothing compared to God. 

When our flesh and heart fail, and they most certainly will, God is our strength and portion, Asaph says.  That’s an astounding truth.  A truth that, quite frankly, might sound hard to believe.  God is better than what the world has to offer?  Intellectually or theologically, I think many of us would say, “Yes, of course God is better.”  But in our real lives, we so often might think or act differently from that belief. 

When I am sick, I don’t say, “God, you are enough.”  I say, “God, I want to be healed.  How are you letting that jerk at the office be so healthy, and not me?” 

When I am facing payment of taxes, I don’t say, “God, you are enough.”  I say, “God, I want money.  How are you letting the wicked person have wealth and not me?”

When I am facing a broken relationship, I don’t say, “God, you are enough.” I say, “God, why are you letting that idiot be so mean to me?”

If we examine our longings, so often God is not enough.  If we examine our longings, we want health and wholeness the way we want them, which is usually immediately and completely.

God says to us, I am enough.  Asaph is right, he gets to the proper conclusion.  God is the strength of our hearts and our portion forever.  God is enough to satisfy all our longings.   And only God is enough. 

Asaph concludes in verses 27 and 28 with a reminder that the wicked will perish, but for him, it is good to be near to God.  Thus he has made God his refuge, and get this, now he will tell of all God’s deeds.  Before, in verse 15, he was right to be concerned that he started talking, in the previous state of mind he was in, that he could do damage to God’s children.  That’s because he was living out the false story.  Now though, his thinking, his heart is in a whole different place, the true story, and he is absolutely going to tell the deeds of God.

Let God change your mind.  It starts with worship.  Worship music is so helpful in that regard.  As I’ve said before, my song of this year has been No Longer Slaves. It has redirected me to the truth that as a child of God we are not slaves to fear.  Maybe you have experienced the powerful transformation that can happen in worship.  So what should we do? Check back tomorrow as we conclude our study through Psalm 73 about dark longing.

The antidote to envy – Second Sunday of Advent, Part 3

Is there any hope to rid ourselves of envy and jealousy? What are we to do with our dark longings? We can feel powerless to combat them. We hate the way they make us feel. Dissatisfied and grumpy. Convinced that the next iPhone, the next TV show, the next vacation, the next date, the debt finally paid off, the _________ (you fill in the blank) is what we need to fill that empty hole. This is especially so when our friends or co-workers seem so happy and at ease. But when we hit that milestone, we are shocked anew that the emptiness remains. Nothing has changed. New England Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady, was once asked, “How many more Super Bowl rings is enough, Tom?” His response? “One more.” At 42 years old, Brady seems to be longing for another one.

What about our poet Asaph? In this Advent series on longing, we’ve been learning from Asaph in Psalm 73, and he has allowed us to see the dark longings of his heart. Where will he go with his thoughts and his pain and his confusion? He tells us in verse 17.  He enters the sanctuary.  He goes into the house of God, and then he says he finally understood!

What just happened? After wrestling and struggling, as we saw in the previous post here and here, Asaph teaches us that in worship comes understanding. When we reflect on God, we learn truth.

This is one reason why it is so important to consistently gather for worship.  Though we may be struggling with envy, gathered worship draws us to truth.  Through the words of the songs we sing, through the testimonies we share and through Scripture we study, we are pulled back into the story of truth.  So often our daily lives are caught up in another story.  That’s what was happening to the psalmist.  He was living life, thinking thoughts, and feeling emotions based on a false story.  But he was believing it, and it was killing him. 

In our day and age that same false story is very much a part of our American experience.  It is the story that says the right possessions, the right amount of money, the right job, the right vacations, the right hobbies, can fulfill your longings.  This is why Gore Vidal said that envy is the central fact of American life.

This is also why I chose the picture of the person shoveling dirt into a hole for this post.  Our hearts are like holes that we are trying to fill, but those longings are like bottomless pits.  As the psalmist discovered, we can’t fill that hole with the seeming wealth and freedom and ease we see around us. 

Asaph said that in the middle of this oppressive situation, in the middle of his confusion and bitterness, he entered the sanctuary, and he re-centered on the truth. 

In verses 18-20, Asaph explains the truth about the wicked.  Poetically he describes that there will come a day when God will deal with them.  Though the wicked seem impenetrable, God will have his day.  We can bank on that.  He is a righteous judge, and though the wicked might not face ruin in this lifetime, they will have to face God in the one to come. 

But Asaph, in this psalm is not so concerned about the wicked getting justice.  He is rightly more concerned with the shocking revelation that he has about himself.  It started in verse 17 when he says he went into God’s sanctuary and he understood.  Now look at verses 21-22. 

Asaph’s moment of self-awareness is new.  He admits that he was really far gone before.  When he had allowed his heart and mind, his longings, to be captured by the prosperity and health he saw around him in lives of the wicked, he now knows that he was senseless and ignorant and a brute beast, and he tells God so. 

This is Asaph’s cry of confession and repentance.  He is saying, “God I was focused on the wrong things, and it turned me into something far from what you wanted for me.”  In fact, he describes himself as a brute beast.  He is depicting in that phrase the difference between a human and an animal.  Big difference, right?  Humans have the highest capacity in the animal kingdom for thought, emotion, reflection, and more.  Animals are controlled by their instincts, drives, and primarily hunger.

I have no idea if animals have souls or if dogs will go to heaven.  I have spent a lot of time with our dog, and there are times I think he has genuine emotion, such that it seems he must have a soul.  In fact I recently read an article saying that when a dog puts their paw on you, that is how they say, “I love you.”  But there are many other times when I think our dog’s instincts control him almost to the point where he is a soulless robot.  If we take him out to do his business in the back yard, and there is a squirrel within range, he will lunge after it every time.  Even though he is hooked on a leash, and the squirrel is 20 feet up in the tree, he will try to defy gravity and jump straight up in the air to reach it.  Every time.  What bugs me the most is his barking when cars pull into our driveway.  We’re all inside in the living room, and as soon as hears a car, he starts barking immediately and loudly.  You’d think after three years I’d be used to it, but it can still often make me jump. If the person stays in their car checking text messages or something, he continues barking, and he will not stop.  I honestly don’t think he can stop.  It’s like he has this genetic robotic programming in him that is ruling him.  In that sense he is a brute beast.  The psalmist says he became like that.  He allowed himself to be so caught up in the false story that he could not see life any other way.  Bitterness and anger and envy and jealousy was crushing him.  It took worship to yank him out of the false story, back into the truth. 

Worship is an antidote to envy and jealousy. Check back in to the next post, as Asaph will guide us further into combating envy in our lives.

How envy rots our insides – Second Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 2

Have you ever burned with envy? You’re not alone. Envy is, as we saw in the previous post, considered to be the central fact of American Life. In the Advent series on longings, this second week we are looking at envy through the lens of ancient poem, Psalm 73. So far we have seen the author, Asaph, tell us that he almost lost his faith because of envy.

Specifically he envied of the arrogant and wicked.  You might think, “Why, Asaph?  Why envy the arrogant?  What is there is to be jealous of the wicked?”  But notice that specifically mentions what makes him so jealous.  Their prosperity.  He doesn’t want to be like them in their wickedness or arrogance.  He wants to be like them in their prosperity.

Yet, how many of you have felt that?  I listen to a podcast called Slow Burn, and right now they are in Season 3.  The first season was about President Nixon and the Watergate scandal.  Season 2 was about President Clinton and all his scandals.  For Season 3 they went in a completely different direction, and they are investigating the feud in hip-hop rap between the East Coast and West Coast in the 90s that led to the deaths of one rapper from each side, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.  There have been times in all three seasons when I have thought something very similar to what Asaph says.  All of these people, from presidents to rap stars, behaved with arrogance and wickedness, yet prospered in their wickedness. 

It can get us really bitter when we look at them, seemingly with no troubles and loads of cash.  That’s what Asaph says in verses 4-12.  The wicked seem to be healthy and free, even while they are acting with pride and violence.  They are able to persist in evil that knows no limits, to the point where it seems they are untouchable. 

Look at verse 9.  They act and talk god-like, as if heaven and earth are theirs.  In verse 10, people eat it up.  It seems like no one would fall for arrogant, wicked boasting, but plenty of people do.  There is part of me that wants to say, “Come on, Asaph, you are really exaggerating.”  But all it takes is to consider politicians in our society, and Asaph is right on the money, isn’t he?  Read the tweets, listen to the interviews and there are plenty of people exactly like Asaph describes.  It’s not just politicians, rap stars or sports figures.  I’ve heard people, famous and obscure, in all walks of life, talk like this.  From teenagers in school cafeterias, to soccer moms, to seminary professors.  I’m guessing you’ve heard it too.  Arrogance is everywhere.

It might seem crazy, but so often we really do long for it.  We long for what appears to be strength, and freedom, and ease and comfort. 

Sometimes it is non-Christian arrogance.  That’s what Asaph mentions in verse 11.  People in their pride challenging God.  That’s no joke. 

Yet, he says in verse 12, and this is what can be so frustrating, that wicked, godless, arrogant people increase in wealth.  It doesn’t seem right!  The politician with the horrible comments in interviews wins another election.  The foul-mouthed sports star gets another huge contract.  The actress that sleeps around is hired for film after film for millions a piece.  The CEO who makes a hundred times what his employees make is a total jerk to them. 

So our very normal reaction is to look at how the wicked prosper, and then look at how we, striving to follow Jesus, struggle.  How many of you have thought to yourself, for example, “Who came up with the pay structure in our society?” Or we say, “I teach kids, or I serve as a first responder, or I am a health care worker, or I am a pastor, and I society values me economically less than them?  I am giving, I am serving, I am busting my butt.” 

This is what Asaph is getting at in verse 13.  Any follower of Jesus could think this way when life is hard.  “Lord, I have followed your ways. I have tried to give to the church.  I did not have sex before marriage.  I exercise.  And this is what I get?”  When we struggle to pay the bills, when we have a health issue, when we lose our job, or lose a loved one, we can really start thinking that it isn’t worth it, all that spiritual toil.

I’m not saying that when we think this way, that we are at all thinking theologically correctly.  When we think like that, we often betray what is called a works righteousness theology.  Work righteousness theology says, “If I behave well, then I will be saved.”  Or “If I do what God says, then God will bless me,” as if God is a spiritual ATM who has to bless us when we behave a certain way. 

That’s just not the case.  But do we think that way? Maybe more than we realize.  When we try to live rightly, and then bad stuff happens to us, we can be really upset.  What we are often showing is the true longing of our hearts.  We want blessing more than we want Jesus.  We want health, we want riches, we want power, we want influence, we want attractiveness, we want good feelings, and often our Christian living is in hopes of getting all that good stuff, rather than just simply living for Jesus.  Thus when the bad stuff happens to us, we are crushed. 

I hear the crushing disappointment in the longings of the Psalmist.  Look at verse 14.  He says he is plagued.  Punished. 

He is really wrestling because, looking at verse 15, he wants to let these emotions and thoughts out.  He wants to complain, he wants to rant, he wants to post on social media, he wants to text his friends, but he is concerned, and this is a good sign that the condition of his heart is not totally corrupted: he is afraid that he will betray God’s children.  I find that fascinating.  In the midst of his wrestling with his unfulfilled longings and his envy and his disappointment, he still has a sense of responsibility for how his words will affect other followers of God.  After so many verses describing his struggle, we get a glimmer of hope here.  Maybe this guy’s not only filled with envy and jealousy.  Maybe he is not just focused on himself.  In verse 15 we learn that there is still a part of his heart that has selfless longings. 

Watching the wicked prosper while he struggles, Asaph knows that this private battle he is having between himself and God must stay private because he doesn’t want to do damage to others by letting it out.  This is instructive to us in our interactions with the world.  I’m not saying that we lie.  Social media can be a way that people really lie, presenting images of themselves as happy, carefree, and always going on amazing cool adventures, when in reality their lives have other sides too.  Sure, there are the happy times in their lives, but there are also hard times and sad times, but they never or rarely show the darkness.  We Christians should be committed to truth, presenting our lives as they really are. But the psalmist is also right, that we don’t want to needlessly drag people down. 

It is important to admit that the struggle is real.  He comes right back to that in verse 16.  He wants to talk and let it out, but he doesn’t want to hurt people.  So he says that he finds this dilemma oppressive.  Not to mention the fact that the whole situation is hard to understand.  Why does God allow the wicked to prosper, while at the same time there are righteous who suffer?  Why do the wicked seem so carefree, while they are still behaving wicked?  Yet those attempting to be righteous can struggle and feel plagued and punished.  It is hard to understand.  It can make us crazy. 

We can think that God would be far better off getting people to believe in and follow him if he flipped the script, and made the righteous (or at least those who are really trying to be righteous) to be generally blessed, and allow the wicked generally to suffer.  Am I wrong?  Isn’t that the dilemma we wrestle with when we are struggling?  I am grateful that Asaph is so honest in this Psalm.  God does allow the wicked to prosper and the righteous to suffer, and that can make us pull our hair out. 

It has led some people to stop believing in God.  What does Asaph do?  Where will he go with his thoughts and his pain and his confusion? Check back in to the next post where we find out.

The central fact of American life – Second Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 1

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

What is the central fact of American Life?  Please don’t Google it.  Just think about the first word that comes to your mind.

Did you think of words like: freedom, liberty, money, politics, consumerism, individualism or shopping?  There are many words both good and bad that define our American experience.  I recently read an answer to the question that surprised me.  Yet the more I thought about it, the more it struck me as true.  It was a quote from the writer Gore Vidal who said that “envy” is the central fact of American life. 

Someone has said that “Among the seven deadly sins – which also include wrath, avarice, sloth, pride, lust and gluttony – envy has been labeled the most joyless, widespread and destructive.”[1] 

Why?  Because that same author says, “Envy is an emotion we don’t feel comfortable expressing. A person might tell you that he or she is feeling sad today, but it’s less appropriate to say we are feeling envious.” 

So it festers inside us, growing.  This is especially true in our age of social media where, no longer are we trying to keep up with only a handful of Joneses in our neighborhood.  Instead we can see online nearly all of our friends’ lives every hour of every day.  We scroll through their videos and pictures and posts when we wake up, throughout the day, on our sofas at night, and in bed. It can lead to an explosion of envy within us, and for many it is rotting out our insides.

I read an article in which the author told a story that will ring true to many of us: “One night about five years ago, just before bed, I saw a tweet from a friend announcing how delighted he was to have been shortlisted for a journalism award. I felt my stomach lurch and my head spin, my teeth clench and my chest tighten. I did not sleep until the morning. I had not even entered that journalism competition, but as I read that tweet, I so desperately wanted what my friend had that it left me as winded as if I had been punched in the stomach.”[2]

She concludes, “We live in the age of envy. Career envy, kitchen envy, children envy, food envy, upper arm envy, holiday envy. You name it, there’s an envy for it.”  We pastors can have megachurch envy.

How about you?  Any envy growing in your life?  It is scary how dark longing can grow in our hearts.  This is so familiar for many of us, that we can become discouraged wondering what, if anything, can be done about it.

On this second Sunday of Advent, we continue our series, Longing, looking at Psalm 73, to see if there is any help for those of us struggling with the destructive longing called envy.

Psalm 73 is attributed to a man named Asaph, who served under the great King David of Israel, leading one of the priestly choirs at the time.  Let’s see what Asaph has to say about longing in this ancient poem.

Verse 1 serves to set the tone for the psalm.  Though Asaph is about to launch into some deep pain, he wants to start by remembering the light, the truth, that God is good.  Sometimes when life turns dark, it can be really hard to believe that God is good.  Maybe you know what I mean? 

That initial dose of the truth of God’s goodness is an important anchor, because Asaph quickly races off into the darkness. 

For the next 15 verses, verses 2 through 16, Asaph drags us down into the muck of his envy.  In fact, he says in verse 2 that it was so bad, he almost lost it.  His poetic imagery is that of a climber who is on a bare cliff face.  In recent weeks the news has reported multiple professional climbing accidents.  Climbing is risky business: one wrong move, and you can fall.  I look at free climbers and their daring boggles my mind. 

In August 2015 a group from Faith Church traveled to Kenya to work with our missionaries at Rift Valley Academy. On a free day, they took us hiking up the side of a dormant volcano, Mt. Longonot.  We followed a trail to the rim, and at the top discovered that the trail wound its way around the rim of the crater.  It was a gorgeous view, as the giant crater was filled with a lush green jungle. Maybe a quarter mile around the rim, we found markings for a trail the went down into the crater, and some of us decided to go for it.  You need to know that the trails up the outside of the crater and the around the rim, while not easy or casual, were still fairly well kept.  The trail going down into the crater?  Not so much. It was treacherous at times.  At one point, maybe halfway down, we saw a steam vent nearby and wanted to go find it.  I should have known better, because I had learned years before in Costa Rica that on volcanoes, those steam vents can pump out poison gas.  As we hiked closer to the steam, there was a six-foot drop that we had to jump down.  We jumped down, hiked over to the steam vent, and put our faces in.  Thankfully, no poison…just a sulphuric smell.  It was actually really cool.  But now we had to get back up the six-foot drop to get to the trail!  There wasn’t much room for error.  We could easily lose our footing and we’d be tumbling down the inside of the crater.  I remember feeling nervous, because my son and another youth group member were with me, and I was the only adult, responsible for them.  My son went up first, and then his friend and finally me.  It was wild and exhilarating, maybe because we were so close to disaster! 

That is what Asaph is trying to tell us.  He was so close to losing it.  Losing what?  Losing his grip on faith, on truth.  Maybe you can identify with this.  When life gets tough, it sometimes feel like our faith is so weak.  

Why was Asaph so close to losing it?  Look at verse 3.  The reason was envy and jealousy.  More on that in our next post!


[1] https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/can-envy-virtue-taming-green-eyed-monster-work/

[2] https://getpocket.com/explore/item/the-age-of-envy-how-to-be-happy-when-everyone-else-s-life-looks-perfect

The only way to truly fulfill your longings – First Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 5

Photo by Alex Ivashenko on Unsplash

Have you ever thoughts that you be so happy if you hit the lottery? I have. I have dreamed of how I would spend the money. It sounds so freeing. I would be free from debt. My kids would have no college debt. I get excited just typing it. Many of us can feel that way, can’t we? We are convinced we will be happy if we get a surprise inheritance, or if we get the latest new iPhone for Christmas, or if our favorite sports team wins the big game, or if that guy asks us out on a date, or if we ask a girl and she says Yes, or if we get a house, or…you fill in the blank.  Those longings are strong, and we have convinced ourselves that if those longings are satisfied, they will make us happy.  But it does seem that every Christmas we have a new Christmas list. So we continue to long for more.  That thing we had to have last year, it very quickly lost its satisfaction.  So it might sound off to hear Paul saying in Galatians 2, which we have been studying in the series (starting here) that we need to die to ourselves and live life 100% by faith in Christ, so that his life becomes our passion.  Of course it will sound off when we have lived, even as Christians, for so long in a world of competing longings, or if we have lived a Christianity that is focused on rule-following.  So even if I haven’t convinced you, let’s at least take some time to consider the possibility that when our longings line up with Jesus’, then we can experience a deep happiness.

The longings within us are real and often strong.  Desire is not inherently evil.  We all have desire.  But if our primary desire is not for Jesus and his heart, then our desires will be skewed. 

How then, do we line up our longings with Jesus in our minute by minute daily lives?  How do we actually die to our longings, and allow Jesus’ longings to become ours?  Do we just pray all the time?  But what about work, eating, sleeping? 

If what I’m talking about is correct, that we experience deep happiness when our longings line up with Jesus, then we will have to learn to long for Jesus in all the hours we spend at work, standing in front of our classrooms if you are a teacher, or sitting at your seat if you are a student, folding laundry, making dinner, and when we are on our phones, or watching TV, on scrolling through social media. No matter what we do in life, we will need to learn to align our longings, moment by moment, with Jesus. But how does that alignment happen?

I’d like to suggest that increasing our longing for Jesus will almost certainly not happen all at once, like a miraculous total change.  It can happen that way, but I would suggest that is rare and we shouldn’t expect it.  Rather, observe the life of Jesus who had a habit of longing for God.  He so often practiced it away from the crowds, behind the scenes, alone, sometimes in the middle of the night or early in the morning.  Considering that he practiced it though he himself was God, certainly we who are humans should practice as well. What we notice then, of Jesus, is that his behind-the-scenes practice empowered him to live a God-filled life.    

Later in Galatians 5, Paul will say that Christians should walk in step with the Spirit.  God’s Spirit, as Paul said in another letter, 1st Corinthians, chapter 6, is living in you.  Some of us barely recognize the Spirit in us.  Some of us might even be afraid of the Spirit, wondering if it means we’ll speak in tongues or something.  Some of us have no idea what it means that the Spirit is within us, or how to walk in step with the Spirit.  But clearly for Jesus (as we will see later in our Advent sermons when we study John 14, it is vital that we Christians understand that his Spirit lives in us).  Paul is saying the same thing here.  I suspect that many ofus can go for long periods of time with little to no interaction with the Holy Spirit in our lives. 

But when we learn to walk in step with the Spirit, our longings become his longings, and his longings become our longings.  So how do you walk in step with the Spirit?  Well, consider this: How do you learn about the ways that a favorite sports team moves and what plays they make?  How do you learn what your child is like?  How do you learn what your friends like to do?  Time.  We give time to watching how our sports teams interact with other teams.  We give time and attention to our child, our friends, etc. We will not be able to learn how to walk in step with the Spirit if we do not spend time and attention to the ways of Jesus.  We long for where our hearts lies.  What we are willing to sacrifice for shows us what we long for.  Therefore, take time to study Jesus.  Read his word.  Talk with him.  Sit still and listen for him.  Meet with others who you think do this well.  Be humble as you learn.  And watch your longing for him increase, and your heart be transformed.    

The result Paul says is that the Fruit of the Spirit flowing from your life.

How you speak.  With kindness and patience.  

How you care for people. With love and goodness.

How you live.  With gentleness.  With joy. 

So let’s make this Advent a season of longing for Jesus! What is one way that you can free up time, even if it is 15 minutes to spend more time with Jesus, getting to know his Spirit in your life? 

Make a commitment to it for the next four weeks.  Tell it to someone you trust.  Ask them to check in you!  And get ready to watch God transform your longings to be in line with his.

How Christian freedom should not lead Christians to behave badly – First Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 4

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Have you ever heard Christians say that if churches or Christian institutions don’t have rules and regulations, people will go off the rails leading to anarchy?  So if we want to be good Christians, they say, then we should be making new rules, like the ones in the previous post: no wearing lipstick or smoking a pipe.

As we continue our study through Galatians 2, Paul says, “Wait a minute, that’s not true.  Jesus doesn’t promote sin.”  Consider what Paul says in verse 17.  When we look at our lives, even after placing our faith in Christ, do we see that we sin, doing things that do not honor God, whether that be in word, thought or deed?  My guess is that all Christians should be answering, “Yes,” because we still do things that dishonor God, right? So does the fact that there are Christians who trust in God’s grace, but still sin, mean Jesus promotes sin?  It could seem like it, right?  Shouldn’t Christians be the ones who don’t sin? Maybe what is needed is a new Christian law code, to help us stop sinning?

In verse 18 Paul says that if he rebuilds the law, it will result in him becoming a lawbreaker.  But he has not rebuilt the law.  That is not what the good news of Jesus is all about, it is not about making a new law code. 

Instead Paul says in verse 19, that he died to the law, that he might live for God.  Do you hear that?  Christians are those who live for God.  So how does that work?  Those of you who have ever felt those first pangs of being in love, could it be said that you were living for that person?  Did you plan out your day so you could interact with them?  Did you see things and wonder, “Would they like that?”  Or “What would they think of this idea?” Those are evidences of living for another.  In like manner, we are to be living for God.  Not checking off our adherence to rules and regulations.  Living for him, loving him and his ways, and knowing that his ways are made and created out of his heart’s desire for our very best.

Paul’s teaching reaches its high point in verse 20.  This is a powerful verse, and one that I encourage you to memorize.  Let’s look at it closely. 

The first line is, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live.”  A Christian is a person who so identifies with Christ that we see ourselves as crucified with him.  It’s like Jesus himself once said, “If you want to be my disciples you must die to yourself.”  That’s what Paul is getting at here.  We die to ourselves, to our desires, to our longings.  In fact, there is a sense, Paul says, that we no longer live.  Our desires and longings are dead. 

That might sound harsh or wrong.  Isn’t it OK to have desires?  Well, Paul goes on and says something that speaks to this.  

Look at the next phrase: “but Christ lives in me.”  Our desires, our longings are replaced by a whole new kind of life that is now energizing us.  Jesus’ life is in us.  That’s wild.  And a tad weird. Think about it: don’t Christians believe that Jesus is a person with a body? Yes, we do. So how is a person inside billions of other people?  To answer that we need to remember what Jesus himself taught. In places like John 14, he said that when he would leave his disciples, he would send his Spirit to live with them.  That is how he lives in us.  By his Spirit.  The Spirit of Jesus lives in us, and that is astounding.  God is within us!  

That gives Paul reason to keep thinking about the ramifications of this.  He says next that “the life I live in the body, I lives by faith in the Son of God.”  Paul’s longing is for Christ and Christ only.  He wants a life that is marked by faith in Jesus.  Do you see what Paul has done here?  He has taught us that Christians will replace their longings with faith in Jesus.  The more we love and know Jesus the more our hearts will beat like his, our eyes will see things as Jesus does, and our longings will be what Jesus’s are.

There is incredibly good reason for this, as we see in his final phrase: “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in God…” In other words we can replace our longings with his longings, and we can do this with full confidence in him because, “…he loved me and gave himself for me.”  

Everything Paul has said in Galatians 2:20 is rooted in God’s love for us.  God’s love for us is an all-encompassing, total kind of love that we could never fully describe or explain.  It is so rich.  It never fails.  Because of that we can make his longings our longings.  When we do so, we can and will find satisfaction in him.

Just dwell on that verse.  Let me read it again.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Isn’t that a beautiful concept?  What Paul unearths for us is the true satisfaction of longing.  In comparison to all we long for, even good longings like peace and happiness, there is a deeper satisfaction that must come first, Paul says, and that is a longing for Jesus.

Clearly then, when God is living in us by his Spirit, and our longings are aligned with his, we do not need a law code. Our lives will more and more resemble his!

Finding our way through the muddy waters of law and grace – First Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 3

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Do Christians have Christian laws we are supposed to follow in order to be right in God’s eyes? Can you think of any?

This is a tricky subject because Christians are called to live a certain way, so how is that different from following the Old Testament Law? We’re about to discover that this was a huge issue in the early church. Frankly, I find it to still be a big issue in our day. Many Christians are confused about our relationship to the Law. In our Deuteronomy series, I wrote about it starting here. But it is coming up again. Actually, I find that in my pastoral ministry at Faith Church, it comes up multiple times every year. Many Christians have a hard time wading through the muddy waters of law and grace. Perhaps what Paul has to say in our study of Galatians 2 can help us, as it seems the Galatian Christians, and even a top leader of the church, were just as confused.

As we saw in the previous post about Galatians chapter 2, Paul became a follower of Jesus, believing in and teaching the true story of Jesus. We learned that at one point during his ministry of traveling around the Roman Empire in the First Century, heralding the story of good news in Jesus, Paul sharply confronted the Apostle Peter.

What did Peter that had Paul so concerned?  Paul says that Peter allowed himself to fall in with the Judaizers.  The Judaizers are the false brothers Paul referred to in Galatians 2, verse 4.  Now Paul describes them a bit more.  They were people who believed that Christians still needed to follow the regulations of the Old Testament Mosaic Law, especially the practice of circumcision.  This became a major issue in the early church, because when Gentiles, people who are not Jews, became Christians, believing in the Good news of Jesus and following him, those new non-Jewish Christian had never been circumcised. 

Paul taught them the true gospel which is about believing in and following the way of Jesus, and which is not about following the Old Testament Law.  Therefore non-Jews who became Christians didn’t need to be circumcised.  Thus Paul is saying the Judaizers were wrong when they came to Peter and swayed him to their view.  And Peter was wrong to be swayed. 

So Paul strongly opposes Peter.  Peter knew the truth of the Gospel, but he was caving – he was allowing other things to get in the way of the truth of the gospel.

We don’t struggle today with whether or not to be circumcised.  It’s not a religious issue for us.  What do we struggle with?  What are the laws that can enslave us away from the Gospel?  Over the years on this blog, I’ve talked about numerous such contemporary laws.  Usually they’re unwritten laws, but they can hold power over us nonetheless.  There are the classics like not working on Sundays, which can include things like washing the car, mowing the lawn or doing laundry.  We’ve talked about what people should or should not wear.

But at our weekly Faith Church sermon roundtable when we discussed this sermon, I learned some new ones!  Two ladies remembered that lipstick was a big deal in their day.  Christians didn’t wear lipstick.And then another person said that his father-in-law was not allowed to be on his church leadership board because he smoked a pipe.  These are all things which are not a part of the Goods News of Jesus, but they are conditions added by man. 

What we’re talking about is Law vs. Grace.  Peter was allowing himself to be swayed by the people who said that Christians needed to follow the stipulations of the Old Testament Mosaic Law, and Paul was shocked because the true gospel he taught was the story of how Jesus brought us freedom from the Law.  So Paul writes the Galatian Christians because he hears they were getting swayed the same way Peter had!  In other words, Paul brings up the story about the time he confronted Peter to illustrate the truth.  And what is the truth? 

That’s what he talks about next.  We might call it a theology of grace.  Look at what he says in the rest of the chapter, Galatians 2:15-21.

Paul’s focus is on God’s grace.  We cannot be justified, Paul says, by following rules and laws.  We are justified by God’s grace, through placing our faith in Jesus.  That word justified is important.  He uses it a bunch of times in verses 16-17.  It means “to be made right.”  We are not made right in the eyes of God by following the law.  We are made right (that is, brought into a right relationship with God) by placing our faith in Christ who was right for us.  This is what Paul gets at in verse 21, where he uses the word righteousness.  In the Greek language Paul wrote in, this is the same root word as justify in verses 16-17.  Paul is saying that we absolutely need God’s grace to be made right, to be brought into a right relationship with God. We can’t be made right on our own.  If we could be made right on our own by following rules and regulations, then Christ died for nothing, Paul says.  So the good news of Jesus is that though we could never be made right on our own, Jesus died and rose again, winning victory over sin, over death and over the devil, so that we can place our faith in him and be made right.

Paul is rightly concerned, therefore, that the Galatians were starting to believe a different story.  They were believing the old story, the one that said you had to follow all the rules and regulations of the Old Testament Mosaic Law in order to be made right before God.  Paul is saying, “No!  You are free from the bondage of having to follow the Law because Jesus fulfilled the Law for you, setting you free through his life, death, and resurrection!”

That leads to a great question, the obvious question, I think.  Since we have been freed in Christ, does that mean we can live however we want, do whatever we want? Check back in to our next post as we see how Paul answers that important question.

Peer pressure and our longings – First Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 2

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Have you ever been swayed by what other people think, even though you don’t really agree with them? Have you ever been influenced to act contrary to your beliefs because you feel pressure from others? Often we say that teenagers succumb to peer pressure, but the reality is that adults of all ages are just as susceptible. We have deep longings to be accepted and liked, and those longings can impel us to think and act in ways we never otherwise think or act. What can we do about these longings?

In the first post in the series, I made the claim that Jesus alone is where we will find the answer to all our longings.  But is it true? Let’s talk about that. And to do so we’re going to study a section of the Bible, Galatians chapter 2.

Since we are jumping right into the middle of a passage, let me give you at least a little bit of context about what we are studying.  Galatians is an ancient letter, written by one of the Christian church’s earliest leaders and missionaries, a man named Paul.  Not too many years after Jesus died and returned to heaven, Paul traveled around the Roman Empire preaching the good news about Jesus and as a result people who heard his preaching became followers of Jesus.  Paul would group them into local churches in the various cities and towns.  Sometimes he stayed in a place for just a few weeks, sometimes months, but rarely would he stay for as much as a year.  Once he felt they were ready, he would install leaders in the church, but then he would move on to keep preaching and start more churches.  But he didn’t forget them. He would write letters to check in on them, advising and teaching them.  This letter is called Galatians because it was written to a group of churches in a region of the First Century Roman Empire called Galatia.  Paul was very concerned about what he was hearing through the grapevine about these churches.  How do we know Paul is concerned?  We just need to look at three verses in the letter.  One before the passage we’ll be studying, and two after it.

Look at Galatians 1:6.  There Paul says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel which is really no gospel at all.” 

Now turn to chapter 3, verse 1.  Here he gets even more intense: “You foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you?” and then, staying in the same chapter, skim down to verse 3, “Are you so foolish?  After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”

In those verses Paul is bewildered that the people in the churches in the region of Galatia have veered from what he taught them.  He calls what he taught them, “the gospel”.  But now, he says, they are turning to a different gospel, which is actually no gospel.  The word gospel means “good news.”  It is the story of Jesus, his birth, life, death and resurrection, and the message connected to his teaching and his victory over sin, over death and over the devil, that there is a new hope in him and him alone. 

As we will see in chapter 2, even a revered church leader was being swayed to follow a different gospel.

What I would suggest is that you start by reading Galatians 1:11 through 2:10 because I want you to hear the story of how Paul came to follow Jesus.  It is amazing.  Originally Paul was not one of Jesus’ disciples.  In fact the opposite is true.  If you like, pause reading this blog and read Galatians 1:11-2:10.

What we learn in that section of the letter is that Paul was originally persecutor of the church, but God saved him, and he became a missionary for Jesus.  Take special notice what he says in chapter 2, verse 4.  What he says there gives us a clue as to what Paul is so concerned about in this letter.  In that verse he says some false brothers had infiltrated the church to spy on the freedom they had in Christ Jesus and to make them slaves.  He doesn’t mean physical enslavement.  He is talking about spiritual enslavement, which has some very physical ramifications.  He means that these false brothers didn’t believe the part of the good news story of Jesus that taught that people are free to follow the new life of Jesus.  Instead those false brothers believed that Christians still needed to follow the rules and regulations of the Old Testament Law, and thus Paul saw that as an enslavement to the Law.

Paul goes on to say that after he started following Jesus, he eventually met with the leaders in Jerusalem, famous guys like the disciples Peter and John, and the brother of Jesus, James, who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and they give Paul the right hand of fellowship, which means they welcomed him and accepted him. 

But then Paul describes a serious problem. You can read about the problem in Galatians chapter 2, verses 11-14.

It’s a bit of a shocker.  Paul says that Peter was behaving contrary to the gospel, and even Barnabas was led astray.  Peter and Barnabas were two pillars of the church.  In stature and history it doesn’t get any higher than Peter.  And yet here is Paul describing Peter as swayed by what people think.  As I thought about it, though, it struck me that this was not the first time Peter did this.  Consider his denial of Jesus three times before the rooster crowed at Jesus’ trial. But what did Peter do this time that has Paul so concerned? 

We’ll get to that in the next post!

Why did the US death rate jump sharply in recent years? – First Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 1

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If you could say in one word what you want more of in life, what would that be?

What this question gets at is longing.  This Advent, we are talking about longing. 

Advent is a season of longing.  Ancient Christians created the season of Advent as a four week long preparatory time for the great celebration of Christmas.  Advent means “coming,” and it looks back to the first coming of the Messiah, when Jesus was born.  It also points forward to Jesus’ second coming.  As Jesus taught us, we need to be ready for his second coming.  There is a sense, then, in which Advent is a period focused on longing for Jesus to return, and so we would do well to evaluate our longings.  Are we longing for the right things?

I read an article this week in which the author asked the same question of her readers that I asked you: in one word, what do you want more of in your life?  This is just another way of asking, “What do long for?”  Nearly 800 people responded, and the results were fascinating.  I’m going to list the top 8.  What do you think nearly 800 people in our society said they want more of? 

  • 8 – Confidence
  • 7 – Fulfillment
  • 6 – Balance
  • 5 – Joy
  • 4 – Peace
  • 3 – Freedom
  • 2 – Money
  • 1 – Happiness

People have many longings.  This is no surprise.  What is alarming is that there seems to be a growing sense in our culture of longings going unfulfilled.

Another article I read talked about this.  The article studied the death rate in the USA from 1959 through 2017. The general trend: the death rate improved a great deal for several decades, particularly in the 1970s, then slowed down, pretty much leveled off and has recently reversed course after 2014, increasing dramatically since then.

The article reported sharp especially among those in mid-life, ages 25-64.  The report showed the trend to be true both genders, all races and ethnicities.  By age group, the highest relative jump in death rates between the years 2010 and 2017, a jump of 29 percent, was people age 25 to 34. What is going on?  The title of the article is “There’s something terribly wrong.” 

One person in the article said:

“Whether it’s economic, whether it’s stress, whether it’s deterioration of family, people are feeling worse about themselves and their futures, and that’s leading them to do things that are self-destructive and not promoting health.”[1]

This is alarming because, we are the richest country in the history of the world.  We’re not in a major war.  Our health care is amazing.  We have loads of connection through social media.  We are more educated than ever before.  We have so much opportunity.  Yet there is deep despair in so many in our culture, leading to self-destructive behavior.  What is going on?  Perhaps at the root is a epidemic of unfulfilled longing.

As I answered for myself the question above, “What do you want more of in life?” I’ll admit that “peace” and “money” were the first two words that came to my mind.  Let us consider this: How many of us thought of Jesus?  How many people are longing for Jesus? 

We might actually find that a bit odd.  “What do you mean, ‘longing for Jesus,’ Joel?” What I am referring to is the long-held Christian idea that in Jesus and Jesus alone is where we will find the answer to all our longings.  But is it true? Keep following the blog, as our next few post will look into that.


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/theres-something-terribly-wrong-americans-are-dying-young-at-alarming-rates/2019/11/25/d88b28ec-0d6a-11ea-8397-a955cd542d00_story.html

Three practices to overcome fear – Characters: David & Goliath, Part 5

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In this series of posts about the story of David and Goliath, we have seen the Israelite army running in fear from the intimidating giant, Goliath. To best understand the question I am going to ask next, I encourage you to go back and read at least the previous post, if not all four, staring here. The reason is that the story of David and Goliath is almost always described as an underdog story, and I’ve been saying all along that it is not that at all. In Part 4, I tried to show from a perspective of human anatomy, medical research, and studies into ancient warfare, it seems that this was anything but an underdog story. David, though he was much smaller, younger, far less experienced, and with no armor, actually had some important advantages over Goliath. Was it speed? No. Well, then it had to be that David had God on his side, right? The obvious answer to that is Yes, but the text gives us no indication that God intervened and performed a miracle on David’s behalf. Yes, in the previous chapter, 1 Samuel 16, we read that God’s Spirit had empowered David, but in the story of David and Goliath, if you read David’s action closely, there is no mention of God guiding him, strengthening, or helping him in any way. So you might ask, “But doesn’t this remove God’s involvement from the story?”  Not at all.  David still shows amazing trust in God.  Look at what he says in 1 Samuel 17, verses 45-47.

Do you see how David’s trust is rooted solidly in God’s presence and provision? In the middle of what appears to be insurmountable and impossible, David reminds us that we have a God of the possible.  David clearly believes this, and acts accordingly! David’s trust in God enables him to see the possibilities that no one else could see, and to have courage to step forward and act when everyone else was crippled by their fear.

The rest is history. 

David uses his sling, and in one shot drills Goliath in the forehead, the fast-moving heavy stone penetrating Goliath’s forehead, either killing him instantly or knocking him unconscious.  Goliath falls forward and his body crashes to the ground. David runs to him, grabs Goliath’s sword and cuts Goliath’s head off.  The Philistine army freaks out and retreats, and the army of Israel pursues them, slaughtering many.  It is an astounding victory.

The story of David and Goliath is not an underdog story, but a story of blindness.  Not only was Goliath likely suffering from poor eyesight, but he was certainly blinded by his pride and arrogance.  He probably never lost a hand-to-hand battle.  And he assumed he would just keep winning.  Israel and King Saul were blinded too, by their fear.  They couldn’t see anything other than loss and devastation. 

One person in the story can see.  David, trusting in God, is the only one able to see the truth. 

How can we have David’s clear-eyed trust in the midst of our seemingly impossible situations?  It is amazing to me that David, just a young man, has such a trust in God.  Was his confidence a youthful naiveté?  We don’t know.  But there it is.  And it was real, as it can be for us.  We can have God’s vision of the seemingly impossible situations in our lives.  We can see his truth in the midst of fear.   

So let me ask, how do we develop this trust?  What do you actually do to take that step of faith in God?

Remember how David was a poet?  We are blessed to have many of his poetic writings that we can still read today.  In the Bible, there is a collection of poetry called Psalms, and of the 150 included there, 73 are attributed to David.  Some even mention the events of his life.  While none of his psalms mention his battle with Goliath, Psalm 27 clearly relates.  I encourage you to pause reading this blog post and read Psalm 27.

What we see in David’s bold confrontation of Goliath is one who reflects, remembers and responds in the face of fear.  He reflects on who God is.  God is victor, God is stronger, and God is faithful.  In Psalm 27:4 David says that the one thing he seeks is to gaze on the beauty of the Lord.  He spent lots of time as a shepherd with sheep, but clearly he also spend lots of time reflecting on God.  For example in verse 8, he says, “seek his face!”  David is a wonderful example to us of how important it is to spend time seeking God.  I’ve been trying to daily set a timer for 10 minutes and just quietly think about God.  In this I seek to make a habit of the practice of reflection. In Psalm 46, not attributed to David, we read in verse 10, “Be still and know that I am God.” That is my goal in my quiet reflection, to train my mind to go back, over and over again, to the truth that I can be still knowing that God is who he says he is, even in the face of what seems to be impossible. Worship music can be very helpful for this. So is gathering with God’s people.  This is why participation in gathered worship, prayer meeting, small groups, and such, is so vital.  Of course so is spending time meditating on God’s word, reading it, studying it, memorizing it, seeking to apply it to our lives.  What will it look like for you to open up more time for reflection on who God is?

Next David remembers what God has done in the past, giving him victory over the lion and the bear.  Remember how God has shown his faithfulness to you.  There is something incredibly empowering when we remember God’s provision in the past.  The work of reflection and remembering is what opens our eyes when they have been blinded by fear.

Bolstered and strengthened by this reflecting and remembering, David steps forward to respond.  This teaches us that can face our fears. We need not be blinded into inaction.  Reflection on the truth about God, and remembering his faithfulness removes the blinder of fear and helps us respond by courageously stepping forward in obedience to him.

What fear do you have in your life?  Is your response more like Saul or more like David? Take the time to reflect on who God is, to remember what he has done in your life, and what he has done in history, then step forward to face your fear.