Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The "Whatever You Do" Virtues


Christian author, Charles Colson tells this story in his book, The Body: Being Light in Darkness, p.163 -- one time, theologian Francis Schaeffer, shared a platform with former politician and urban leader, John Gardner.  Mr. Gardner spoke on the need to restore values to our culture.  After he finished speaking, a Harvard student asked him – “On what do you build your values?”  Gardner, usually articulate and confident, paused, looked down and said, “I don’t know.”  Colson says, “I have repeatedly encountered this same reaction when I have contended before scholars and college audiences, that…in a secular, relativistic society, there is no basis for ethics.  No one has ever challenged me.  In fact, in private, they often agree with me.”  I would affirm -- I am not certain what other answer could there be.  Without some set standard, such as that found in the Word of God, then there can be no set standard for values.  When this is the case, every individual is his or her own standard…so, there can be any number of millions of standards.  This is the kind of pluralistic world that we are living in today in many respects.  But, before we through dirt on a Christianity that some have settled in a six foot box, let’s not forget that the power is with God, not us. Humanism has no definitive answers to life’s big questions, but...God does.  People’s doubts and fears will be erased when they trust in the God that “shows up” when we least expect it, but who also is always there.

Paul shares with the Colossian believers (Colossians 3:12-17) that, in Christ, they have been blessed with distinct values, a set of standards. The challenge is to continue to live according to these values that are revealed.  Paul wants the Colossian believers to live holy, “set apart” lives, (the original word, which we are probably familiar with, is hagios).  There are some important motives for doing such, based upon what God has done for all of us.  God has chosen His people through His Son, Jesus Christ.  He wants for all men to come to salvation.  For those who “choose their chosenness” in Christ, these are able to find salvation in Him.  And as we have indicated, believers who have given their lives to Christ also have been set apart from the world and unto the Lord.  We are not our own, for those of us who are in Christ belong completely to Him. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) This is certainly a growth process for all of us, but I appreciate what Kyle Idleman says about this subject…that we do not get “to go to a ‘spirituality’ buffet” to pick and choose what we want and what we do not want.

We are motivated by love…by such unbelievable, yet believable love, that we have a Father in heaven who would give up His Son on our behalf, so that might be able to live eternally.  Related to this is another motive for Christians to understand -- forgiveness.  In Christ, God’s forgiveness is complete and final…it is not conditional or partial.  God is able to forgive guilty sinners (which is all of us), because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. He has forgiven us for the sake of Christ. (Ephesians 4:32)  And because of this love, we should live lives of love of gratitude, thankful for what God has done.  As we grow in our love for God, we also grow in our desire to obey Him…walking in a “newness” of life in Christ.

Now, based upon these motives, believers have a solemn responsibility before God. Following are eight spiritual values that we need to grasp and apply:  Tender mercies – we live with compassion (love) toward others.  The word is, once again, one of my favorites in the original, splanchnizomai…we feel deeply, an anguish for people, as from the bowels; Kindness – because of God’s kindness toward us, we likewise need to live with kindness toward others; Humility – while the pagan world of Paul’s day admires pride and domination, Jesus exemplified humility…thinking of the Father and others first, rather than Himself; Meekness – is not weakness, rather it is “power under control”…like “healing medicine,” such as the plasma that Kent Brantly is donating to Ebola victims in order to speed their healing process; Long-suffering – literally means, “long-tempered,” which is to forbear with difficult circumstances, people without retaliating…in other words, it is patience; Forbearance – which we just mentioned means to “hold up” or “hold back”…to be patient with one another.  God holds back judgment because of His grace. As with God’s virtue above, we also exercise -- forgiveness. Unlike the Father’s love, our love is frequently conditional and partial. But the more that we grow to understand and apply God’s love to our lives, we understand that this is not acceptable. We love and forgive those who offend and hurt us.  We do this because we come to understand how much we have been forgiven, and that we have no room to be carrying such fleshly baggage around as envy, anger, worry, hate.  It is simply not enough just to endure, but we must be active in our forgiveness.  Finally -- love is the most important of all Christian virtues and values.  All of the other qualities flow out from this, as if it is the headwaters.  Love binds all virtues together.

Paul moves from character to conduct. When we live according to God’s will, we experience the peace of Christ.  When we are not at peace, it is likely that we have somehow disobeyed the Lord. But, if we have peace in our hearts, then we will also be at peace with fellow-believers.  As seen in the parallel passage, Ephesians 5:18-19, we are likewise encouraged in other spiritual pursuits by living according to the Word – teaching, admonishing, singing, and praising are all able to take place in our lives if we are living to please the Lord and not ourselves.  As Christians, we bear the name of Jesus Christ…and it is His name that has authority.  Whatever we do in our spiritual walk needs to reflect that there is salvation in no other name, but Jesus. (Acts 4:12)

A few years ago Dr. Nick Stinnett of the Univ. of Nebraska conducted a series of studies in an attempt to discover what characteristics were common in strong families. He and his researchers discovered six qualities. And the first quality and one of the most important to be found in strong families was that of appreciation. They concluded that families which were strong were strong because family members expressed appreciation for what each member DID and for who they WERE. In a similar study another researcher looked into the effect of praise in the workplace. His study showed that the ratio of praise to criticism in the workplace needed to be 4 to 1 before employees felt that there is a balance - that there had be 4 times as much praise as there was criticism before those employees felt good about their work and about the environment they worked in.  (Both studies were reported in Richard J. Fairchild’s "Gratitude-A Necessary Attitude" 2001)

People need appreciation…they need praise. And they need to receive this four times as often as they receive criticism in order to have a healthy environment at work or home.  One of the things that Christians are often accused of is that they often do not look or act any different than those who live in the world…this is a problem. The Lord calls the Colossians…and us…“holy.” Once again, “holy” means “set apart for a special purpose”. People that are set apart for a special purpose live differently from the rest of the people around them.  God chose us in Christ because He sees great potential in us. Do we really want to be like everybody else, or do we want to be special and reach the great potential that God sees in us? Do we want to “live out our salvation”?  If we want to reach the place that God has for us, we need to recognize that we belong to a different family.  We must dress in the wardrobe of that family. We are to wear white clothes that have been given to us by our Savior.  We do not want to stain these clothes with sin, or even by living in the gray areas of life.  We need to have the “whatever we do” characteristics at work in our lives – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and love.  If we are in the Word of God, if we are at peace, by the grace of the Lord we will strive and thrive as His special people…and be thankful.

Blessings, Don

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Recognizing the Voice of God


Dennis Marquardt offers this -- A hunter had a very unusual dog and decided he wanted to show it off to one of his not so up-beat friends.  As they waited, a flock of ducks finally flew overhead and the man shot one.  It fell into the water and the man told his friend, "Now watch this remarkable dog of mine fetch that duck,” he snapped his fingers and the dog took off. The dog ran on top of the water all of the way out to get the duck...and all of the way back!  Certain that his negative friend would be amazed he asked him, "What do you think of my dog now?"  The fellow replied, "Dumb dog…he can't even swim!"

Nothing grips the heart more than misery.  And as the saying goes, misery does love company. Sometimes people, including you and me, are tempted to fall into a trap of living in “unbelief.”  It is one thing to need some “blessed assurance” from time to time in our lives. But, living lives of doubt and negativity can lead to greater mental and spiritual maladies, such as depression.  We talked about this last time in relationship to what Elijah was going through in his life. (1 Kings 19:1-8)  Depression is a crippling disease for many people, and believers are not immune to it. It can be a physical issue that leads to depression.  But so often, it is the result of one of Satan's most effective tools against believers, and this is discouragement, which can lead to many sins.  This, or it at least incapacitate believers to be unproductive, resentful toward others, and angry at God and man.  When this happens, rather than drawing closer to God and His people, such ones tend to withdraw, which is the most damaging thing that they can do.  We do not need to give in to the temptation to isolate ourselves, but learn even more so to trust in the Lord.

When we last left Elijah, he was about to begin a long journey of about two weeks on foot from Beersheba in southern Palestine to Mt. Sinai.  He may have been in a hurry to flee from the wicked queen Jezebel, but he must have made a number of pit stops along the way, as it took about forty days. (19:8) It is likely that the Lord was directing his steps to lead him to places where he needed to minister and to rest.  And there may be something symbolic in the fact that the 40 days could represent the 40 years that Israel spent in the same wilderness region.  It is also probably not so ironic that it was Israel’s unbelief that caused them to wander in the wilderness for forty years (Numbers 13-14)…and it is Elijah’s unbelief and fear that have led him on this journey.  And did I also mention that the Lord also spent 40 days in the wilderness when He was tempted? (Matthew 4:2) We can understand that there is some spiritual, symbolic significance to all of this.

At some point, Elijah comes to a cave where he waits on the Lord. (1 Kings 19:9-14) This is something of a “retreat” center – a retreat from the realities he is facing.  The Lord shows up and…He does not rebuke him or instruct him…but he asks him a question – “What are you doing here?”  The prophet’s reply doesn’t really answer the question.  The indication is that Elijah is not necessarily “retreating” in order to solve some problems and get closer to the Lord.  In reality, he is depressed and willing to give up his calling and his life.  Elijah says he has experienced many trials and hardships in ministry, but that he has been faithful to the Lord.  Elijah’s reply seems to reveal a certain pride and self-pity.  God commands him to stand on the mount at the entrance to the cave, but it doesn’t appear that he does this until v.13. Or, he may have stepped out of the cave, only to flee back into it when the Lord shows up with manifestations of His power.

“The Lord passes by” reminds us of Moses’ experience on the mount (Exodus 33:21-22).  All Elijah needs is a fresh vision of the power and glory of God to get him going, right?  First, the Lord causes a great wind to pass by, a wind so strong that it breaks the rocks and tears up the mountain.  Then, the Lord causes a great earthquake that shakes the mountain, and finally the Lord brings a fire.  The technical word for these manifestations of power is “theophany”, which means “God appears”.  But, there is no direct message from the Lord in any of these manifestations.  What does God seek to do in Elijah’s life by means of these awesome and frightening object lessons?  For one thing, he is reminding His servant that everything in nature is obedient to Him…He doesn’t lack for a variety of tools in order to accomplish He work.  Yet, after the dramatics, there is a “still, small voice” which is translated, “a gentle whisper, or a tone of gentle blowing.”  This reference might remind us of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, concerning the power and working of the Holy Spirit. (John 3:1ff)  In fact, “still, small voice” is still a reference to the Holy Spirit that we use today.

When Elijah hears the voice, he steps out of the cave to meet the Lord. The mighty power and great noise of the previous displays did not stir him, but when he hears the still, small voice, he recognizes the voice of God.  And now, Elijah hears a repeat of the same question that the Lord posed in v.9 – “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  And Elijah, once again, repeats the same evasive answer. In essence, God seems to be saying to Elijah – “You called fire down from heaven, you had the prophets of Baal slain, and you prayed down a terrific rainstorm, but now you feel like a failure.  But, you must realize that I don’t usually work in a manner that is loud, impressive and dramatic.  My still, small voice brings the Word to the listening ear and heart.” This is an important message to consider.

In this day of mammoth meetings, loud music and high pressure everything, it is difficult for people to understand that God rarely works by means of the dramatic and the colossal. When he wanted to start the Jewish nation, He sent a baby – Isaac; and when He wanted to deliver that nation from bondage, He sent another baby – Moses; and when He wanted to teach His people a lesson in faith and trust, He sent a young boy named David to defeat a giant named Goliath. And, when God wanted to save a world, He sent His Son as a weak and helpless baby.  This offers some perspective for us when we consider God’s work among humankind.

Clashes at Ferguson, ISIS, Ebola, wars and rumors of wars…there is certainly plenty to occupy people’s thinking and give them reason to worry.  But, the environment we live in today in America, particularly, still does not approach the vile nature and culture of what Christians had to deal with in the first century.  Even in places in the world today where it seems that things are spinning out of control, much as Elijah thought his world was spinning out of control, there is still only one solution that truly matters – listening the God’s still, small voice.  What if God does want our attention?  What if God just wants to speak to us from the ruins that are left after disaster has passed us by?  What are you doing here in a nation that is fast forsaking its God?  What are you doing here when there is talk about removing the nativity from Christmas? What are you doing here in a nation that is so consumed with the rights of every religion that Christianity barely has any right at all?  The still, small voice calls out to you and to me -- "What are you doing here?"  One thing is certain -- listening to God, trusting in His Son, and being led by His Holy Spirit is the only way to peace and spiritual prosperity, whether we are in a disaster or in the calm.

Blessings, Don