Shrewd as snakes, harmless as doves

As children of God, we are called to walk a perilous path.

On the one hand, Jesus tells us in Matthew 10 that we are to be “shrewd as snakes” – keeping an eye out for evil potholes in the road.

And, on the other, we are to be “harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16) in the face of evildoers.

How is it possible to live like this?

As Jesus suggests in Matthew 10, we have to trust the Spirit of God to open our eyes and provide the guidance and words we need.

When he tells us to be harmless as doves, Jesus does NOT mean that we are to roll over and let malicious people stomp all over us.

In context, Jesus is talking to his disciples before sending them out – two by two – to preach the good news and heal the sick in the surrounding countryside.

He is warning his followers that they will not have an easy time, but that they will have God’s help in the troubles they will face when he is gone.

Above all, he is urging them to remain true to the faith no matter what happens.  We are to stand up for God and his truth in all circumstances – but we are to do it with a spirit of love, not vengeance.

Speaking personally, that’s hard.  When I am hurt or attacked, I tend to react resentfully or defensively.

Yet, Jesus tells me: “Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!” (Matthew 5:44)

And in Romans 12:14, the apostle Paul says: “Bless those who persecute you!”

Jesus showed us how to live a life that stands for truth while praying for those who hurt him.

He could be angry with people who defiled the temple and with religious leaders who distorted God’s word.

But, dying on the cross, he called out to God: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)

“True blessing spoken over someone or something is describing the way God sees them,” says Kerry Kirkwood, author of The Power of Blessing.  “This is a prophetic insight to see the way someone or something is supposed to be, not how they may appear to be at the moment.”

Kirkwood suggests we bless people as we understand how God wants these people to be – though their lives may be far from him at the moment.  In effect, we are asking God to bless them so that they may become the children he wants them to be.

Not an easy task when we are angry or bitter about the treatment we may have received.

But Kirkwood says we are not agreeing with what someone is doing right now.  We are going beyond our feelings and the current situation and calling on the Lord to do what he clearly wants to do in the life of the person who is hurting us.

Something for me to chew on.

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Trusting God through tough times

It’s tough to trust God when things look bleak.

But I believe God rewards this kind of faith in the long run – in this life and the next.

Great Bible characters suffered – the apostles Peter and Paul, Joseph son of Jacob, Daniel the prophet, Esther.  And, of course, Jesus.

They had their moments of weakness.  Even Jesus who asked the Father to spare him the trial of the crucifixion.

But, in the end, they stayed true to their faith in the Lord and God blessed their trust.  Their impact on those around them was so pronounced that their faith is recorded in the scriptures.

When I look at these people, I realize the trials I have gone through over the years are small in comparison.  I have so much to learn from them.

A men’s Bible study group I belong to has been looking at the life of  Jacob’s son Joseph in Genesis.  It’s a story of ups and downs – hopes raised and then dashed.

Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, was highly esteemed by his slave master and then was then tossed into jail when he was wrongly accused of attempted rape by his master’s wife.  After years in prison, the Lord arranged for him to interpret the dream of the Egyptian king and the king rewarded him with the highest administrative position in the land.

Running through this story is the phrase “the Lord was with him”.  After every setback, Joseph showed he was a responsible, hard-working man.

I am convinced that Joseph’s attitude was fuelled by his faith in God – his trust that the Lord had his future in his hands.

Indeed, he later told his brothers that while they sold him into slavery with evil intent, God meant it for good.  In his new position, he was able to save many from starvation and death in a major famine.

No matter what trial I go through – or my loved ones go through – I must hold on to the fact that God alone is good as Jesus said in Mark 10:18. Not only that, I must remember that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that he loves me and all those who put their faith in him (Psalm 103:11).

As the apostle Paul said, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).

The power of the seed

Sometimes, God’s seed sprouts with vigourous life in what looks like rocky ground.

Romanian Christian Richard Wurmbrand, author of Tortured for Christ, tells amazing stories in post-World War II Romania of Russian Communist soldiers eagerly putting their faith in Jesus despite a steady diet of athiesm throughout their lives.

This confirms to me that even a casual word about Jesus – accompanied by love – can have a lasting impact.  All it takes is the courage to speak when the opportunity arises.

I admit I have let many such opportunities pass.

Wurmbrand suffered unimaginable tortures during 14 years in a Romanian Communist jail after the Second World War.  His wife also spent years in a women’s prison and their young son had to fend for himself alone.

Wurmbrand had the distinction of being beaten and tortured under both the Nazis and the Communists because of his work preaching the gospel.  He saw the best and the worst of Christians in prison, many of them dying for their faith.

In one case, the prison guards tried to get a Christian leader to inform on fellow believers by torturing his teenaged son in front of his eyes.  When the leader was on the point of giving in, his son said: “Father, don’t do me the injustice of having a traitor as a parent.” The boy died,  the father did not break, but he was “never the same after seeing this”, says Wurmbrand.

Despite all this, Wurmbrand loved the Russian occupiers – not their brutality, but them as people and their openness to God.

“God will judge us not according to how much we endured, but how much we could love,” he writes.

The wonderful thing about Wurmbrand and other Romanians in the underground church was their desire to share the good news of Christ with the invaders, no matter what.

One story gives a flavour of the inspiring stories he tells of Russian soldiers becoming believers – seemingly out of the blue.

A Russian officer had no knowledge of Jesus but was referred to Wurmbrand by a Romanian Orthodox priest who could not speak Russian.  Wurmbrand could speak Russian and used it constantly in witnessing to Russians.

Wurmbrand read to him the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of Jesus.

“After hearing them, he danced around the room in rapturous joy proclaiming, ‘What a wonderful beauty!  How could I live without knowing this Christ!'”

Then, Wurmbrand read to him the passion and crucifixion of Christ without preparing him for it.

When he heard this, “he fell into an armchair and began to weep bitterly.”  He had believed in a Saviour and “now his Saviour was dead”.

“Then I read to him the story of the resurrection and watched his expression change.”

Wurmbrand adds: “Again he rejoiced, shouting for joy, ‘He is alive! He is alive!” He danced around the room once more, overwhelmed with happiness!”

What a story!  What a God!

Faith-building stories

Recalling God’s amazing answers to prayer feeds faith.

It’s true in the Bible and it’s true in our world today.

In one case, Bill Johnson says a healing miracle led to several more of the same kind after people heard about the first healing.

In his book Releasing the Spirit of Prophecy, Johnson writes that he and others at a Minnesota conference prayed for a woman who had injured her leg in a car accident.  She was in pain, had pins in her leg, was wearing brace, and had a number of other complications.

As the group prayed for her, the pain left and she got movement in her leg.  The next morning, she discovered a whole part of her calf muscle, that had been destroyed in the accident, had grown back overnight.

After she mentioned this at the conference that evening, another woman came forward saying that after severing her achilles tendon, part of her calf muscle had atrophied and had withdrawn up into the leg.  She believed that if this could happen to the other person, it could happen to her.

It did. She was healed too.

The same evening, two other women were healed of the same problem.

Johnson went on to meetings in two other places during that same period and other people were healed of atrophied calf muscles.

The same thing happened at other meetings where Johnson mentioned these stories.  People saw atrophied calf muscles grow back.

For Johnson, it is important to remember – and tell – stories of God’s miraculous activity.  It builds faith for God to carry out more miracles.

Our prayer group last week discussed how the miraculous story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt is repeated elsewhere in the Bible.  It was a key event in the history of the Israelites and strengthened their faith in later times.

As well, other great leaders in the Bible purposely built stone monuments where God had acted in their lives.  They wanted future generations to remember these great events.

It’s important to remember – and celebrate – God’s working in our lives.

Believing the impossible

Jesus said that “with God, everything is possible”.

The whole history of God’s people is littered with stories of the Lord turning desperate situations into spiritual victories.

That’s something I need to cling to as I look at the hard times some people are going through around me.

My wife and I have been looking at the story of Moses recently.  For me, it reveals how God works and it gives me hope.

Moses had a tough early life.  His enterprising mother put him in a basket and hid him among reeds at the river bank because the Egyptian king had ordered all male Hebrew babies to be killed.  She had her daughter keep an eye on him.

The daughter of Pharaoh – the Egyptian king – found him, kept him and had his mother nurse him.

He grew up in Pharaoh’s court, but incurred the wrath of the king when he killed an Egyptian who was abusing the Israelite slaves.  He had to run for his life.

He wound up far away, herding sheep in the Midian wilderness for decades.

Then, out of nowhere, God appeared to him, speaking from a burning bush and commissioned him to lead the Israelite people out of slavery and Egypt.

Quite understandably, Moses was appalled.  He felt completely unqualified.  He didn’t want to face the Egyptian king and demand freedom for the slaves.

But God displayed his power to Moses in a couple of amazing miracles.  And he assured Moses that he would be with him.

The rest of Moses’ story is one of crushing trials and astounding miracles.  Through it all, Moses was just a man with human failings.  But he grew in faith and spiritual stature as he depended more and more on God.

During his lifetime, Moses accomplished a great deal.  The hesitant shepherd led his people out of Egypt and won significant victories.

He did not achieve his final goal – leading his people into the promised land.  But he prepared his people for that great day under his successor, Joshua.

Moses’ secret was persevering through the tough times – trusting that God was with him and could do what he could not do.

That faith was small to begin with.  But it expanded as Moses continued stepping out in obedience to God’s leading.

I’m sure Moses did not know how the future would unfold as he obeyed God’s command to lead the Lord’s people out of Egypt.  When he looked at his own resources, he must have felt this was an impossible task.

But he had God on his side.  And that was enough.

Moses suffered.  But God moulded him into a powerful man of faith.

God valued him so much that he sent him to stand with Elijah and Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration before Jesus’ awed disciples (Matthew 17).

I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

But I know God is with me and my loved ones.

And that is enough.

Speak God’s words

Jesus spoke God’s words to defeat Satan.  Can ordinary Christians do the same thing?

I believe we can.

I used to be skeptical about this idea.  It sounded more like wishful thinking – a kind of self-brainwashing.

But I am convinced that the scriptures uphold this truth.  Jesus did it when Satan attacked him in the wilderness.

In Matthew 4,  Satan tried to destroy Jesus’ ministry at the very beginning by offering him power under the evil one.  He even used scripture – improperly, of course.  But Jesus resisted by quoting God’s word accurately and the devil had to withdraw.

As believers, we know that Jesus lives within us.  So, it follows that we are empowered to speak God’s words with impact.

Of course, this truth was made clear by the prophet Isaiah long before Christ was born as a human being.  In Isaiah 55:10-11, the prophet says God declares that his word will not return to him empty but will “accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it”.

In Genesis, we read that God’s words led to something – light, earth, animals, people – being created out of nothing.

“When God speaks, his words contain the authority of his majesty, which all creation obeys,” writes Kyle Winkler, author of Activating the Power of God’s Word.

In John 6:63, Jesus tells his followers that “the very words I have spoken to you are spirit and life”.  They are life-giving.

In Hebrews 4:12, the writer says that “the word of God is living and active”.

So, how does this apply to us believers in our every-day lives?

The apostle Paul urges us in Romans 12:2 to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Along with many Christians, I often felt defeated as a believer.  I came to recognize that I allowed wrong thoughts and beliefs to affect me.  Many of these stem from Satan, the accuser, who uses mistakes and comments from others to condemn us.

But many Christian writers have pointed me and others to look at what God says about us.  They urge us to meditate upon these scriptures and speak them out because the act of speaking aloud anchors them in our minds and hearts.

The scriptures tell us that, in ourselves, we are not perfect.  But God forgives us our sins and failures because of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and victory on the cross over sin and Satan.

It is through faith in Christ and what  he has said that we can get God’s view of who we are.  We are his much-loved children and we are new creations.

Writers like the Christian author, pastor and psychologist Neil Anderson urge us to read, meditate upon, and speak aloud often the qualities of the redeemed believer as declared in scripture.

Anderson has seen many lives changed as believers recognize who they are in God’s eyes.

Guilty? Or not?

Many Christians feel so much shame for their sins – real or imagined – that they doubt that God could possibly love them.

And yet there are scripture passages declaring that God loves his believing children even when they mess up.

How can we square these two conceptions of God?

This week, I read an enlightening piece on guilt and grace in Grace That Breaks the Chains by Neil T. Anderson, Rich Miller and Paul Travis.

They assert that God indeed loves and cherishes his children and, at the same time, does not approve of sin.  Yet, he does not reject us when we sin because he forgave us eternally when we put our faith in Christ as saviour.

So, what about sin?  What effect does it have?

The authors say we must first distinguish between real sin against God and guilty feelings.

For example, other people can make us feel guilty because we do not measure up to their standards of what they consider good behaviour.  At one time, many churches insisted it was ungodly to go to movies.

As well, we can be made to feel guilty for not conforming exactly to the social customs of our parents – or our peers.

Among many others, the authors call this “false guilt”.

Then, what about real sin in God’s eyes?  Does God just ignore it?

No, they say, God doesn’t ignore it.

However, God doesn’t level a charge of “guilty” against us and impose a penalty.  Instead, the apostle Paul speaks of “godly sorrow” which drives us to repent of what we have done.

In 2 Corinthians 7, Paul says that he is pleased that a reprimand he gave the Corinthian church for their ungodly behaviour led to repentance.  He notes that “you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us”.

There is, of course, yet another kind of guilt – an instrument of Satan against us.  Satan tries to make us feel that we are no good and that God has turned his face away from us in disgust.  One name for Satan is “the accuser”.

Paul deals with that problem magnificently in Romans 8 where he says “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death”.

Nothing, says Paul, can separate us from the love of God.

Amen.

The lamb and the lion

The Book of Revelation paints a marvellous picture of Jesus as both the lamb of God and the lion of Judah – lamb and lion.

As we celebrate Easter, we rightly spend time contemplating Christ as the lamb who gave his life for us.

Yet Christ is also the lion of Judah – containing within himself tremendous power which he will use as judge and leader of the forces of heaven in the war against the evil one and his followers.

The two aspects of Christ are both essential to God’s loving plan for his children.

I love the way the apostle John sketches this image in Revelation 5.

In his vision, John hears an angel ask who is worthy to open a scroll in the hands of God the Father.  When no one steps forward, John weeps.

Then, an elder tells John: “Stop weeping!  Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David’s throne, has won the victory.  He is worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

You would expect to see a great and awesome figure step forward, huge and daunting.

But John continues: “I saw a Lamb that looked as if it had been slaughtered . . .”

It is Christ the sacrifice who stands before the throne and everyone in heaven and earth breaks forth in song, exalting him and worshiping him.  How awesome that will be!

It is because Jesus died for us that he has the right to open the scroll and the seven seals of judgement against the forces of darkness.

And if Jesus had not died for us, we would all be condemned to eternal death.  No one would be spared because no one would have turned to Jesus as saviour.  But thankfully hundreds of millions – perhaps even billions – have taken the step of faith in Christ.

The symbol of the lamb is an image of gentleness and humility and sacrifice.  As the apostle Paul says in Philippians 2, Jesus gave up his position of power and glory in heaven to descend to earth in the form of man, humbling himself and becoming “obedient to death – even death on a cross”.

That act won Jesus the victory over death and Satan – a victory which enables us to enjoy eternal fellowship with God.

Still to come is the final eradication of the forces of evil by the Lion of Judah.  Once that is accomplished, there will be no more tears, no more evil – instead, everlasting joy with God.

Humility and righteousness, love and power – we have a great God and saviour.

Through a glass darkly

I love the Bible – it tells me so much about Jesus, ourselves as human beings, and God’s ultimate plan for humankind.

But I also love the apostle Paul’s words that, in essence, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  We will be amazed at the wonders of God when we see him face-to-face.  And we will understand fully the mysteries about our own lives and God’s great plan for the world.

Paul’s words come in 1 Corinthians 13 – the great chapter about God’s love.  In it, he is speaking about the culmination of all things when we see Jesus.

“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror,” he writes in verse 12, “then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

God knows me fully – everything about me – my thoughts, my actions.  But I only have an incomplete knowledge of him.  There is much more for me to learn and to enjoy.

We get glimpses in the Bible as to what is to come.

The apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that we will have new bodies in the life to come.  In Revelation 21:4, we read that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain”.

The prophet Isaiah writes in Isaiah 11 that in the life to come, the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with goat, the calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all.

That’s a picture of peace and contentment and harmony – quite unlike the world in which we live.

We are promised in Revelation that there will be a new heaven and a new earth when Christ returns.

In his book Forever, Paul David Tripp encourages us to look forward to our coming lives with Christ where we will find joy and the perfection we will never see on earth.

Tripp, a seminary professor and counsellor, says that many of our problems can be traced to unrealistic expectations in this life.  We expect too much from our spouses, our children, our friends and our jobs – and our churches.

As believers, we can count on God’s overwhelming love for us – flawed as we are.  He sees Christ who died for us – not our sins and mistakes.

There will come a time when we can shout for joy in the presence of Christ – and understand the mysteries that puzzle us in this world.

Why me?

Why me?

That’s a question we sometimes ask ourselves – and God – when we suffer.

There is a feeling that we – or our suffering loved ones – don’t deserve the trouble we are going through.

Unconsciously perhaps, we may feel that God should prevent trouble in our lives.

Yet, as I look at the great Bible characters, none of them managed to get through life without suffering.  And Christ told his followers that they must expect trouble and persecution.

So, what’s the good of suffering?

I believe God permits pain and suffering as part of a greater plan for us and for the broader world.  But often that plan is not at all clear to us.

Ultimately, it was clear to Joseph, son of Jacob, in the Old Testament.

His story, described in Genesis 37-51, is one of unremitting trouble.

His brothers sold him into slavery because they hated him.  His slave-owning Egyptian master put him in charge of his household because he was so trustworthy.

His master’s wife falsely accused him of attempted rape and he was jailed for years.  Yet he was again so outstanding and wise that he was made responsible for everything in the prison.

God had given him the gift of interpreting dreams and he was freed by the Egyptian Pharaoh after he interpreted that monarch’s frightening dream.  He was then made second-most-powerful man in the country.

As a speaker at our church pointed out, the Bible says God “was with him” throughout.

When his brothers came to Egypt for food during a famine, he revealed himself to them.  They were terrified because they expected him to exact revenge.

Instead, Joseph told them not to be angry with themselves because “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance”.  The brothers had meant to hurt Joseph but God used it for good.

On the other hand, God never revealed to Job why that Old Testament patriarch lost his entire family and endured terrible bodily pain.  Job questioned why God would allow this in his life and the Lord made clear to him that he – God – was in control of all things and his thoughts and plans were far higher than any human being’s.

I am convinced that the apostle Paul is right when he says in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

The man who said those words was beaten, stoned, imprisoned and ultimately executed for his faith.  But, as a follower of Christ, he shook the world – for good.

I must always remember Paul’s words when the thought “Why me?” leaps into my mind.