Contentment

The apostle Paul said he learned to be content in all circumstances – bad or good.

For us, it seems impossible as we struggle with personal problems or the fear of terrorism or war.

Yet Paul was beaten and jailed, stoned frequently, shipwrecked, and often without food.  He was constantly harassed and always on the move because of his enemies.

So, how did Paul learn to be content in every situation?

Dictionary.com defines contentment as “satisfaction, ease of mind”.  Paul was satisfied with the circumstances in which he lived – any circumstances.  He had ease of mind – he wasn’t anxious.

Why?

There are clues in his letters to the young churches in the Roman empire.

For one thing, he knew what his mission was and where he was going.

He states this simply in Philippians 1:21: “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

He goes on to say that he is longing to be with Christ in heaven – his destination.  Death is not a terror for him for he will spend eternity joyfully in the presence of his saviour, Jesus.

But, at the same time, he declares he wants to be with believers in the churches he serves so that they will grow in faith.

He is totally committed to Christ and what Christ wants from him.

Paul says in Galatians 2:20: “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.”

He had complete faith in Jesus and knew that the Son of God would be with him and take him through whatever troubles lay ahead for the glory of God.

What does that say to me?

It tells me that I must stop plunging into despair when bad things happen in my life. Trouble is normal.

I must remember that I belong to Jesus and he is with me as I confront problems.

And I must cling to the truth that whatever happens to me is nothing compared to the wonders of being with Jesus forever.

Above all, I must put my relationship with Christ and his mission for me before everything else.  As Paul says, Jesus loved me and gave himself for me.

I’m happy that Paul used the phrase “learned to be content”.

Even for Paul, it didn’t happen instantly.

It takes time, a willing heart, and a loving Lord to get there.

Vital questions

 

God-questions move into centre stage when we face major world crises – like a potential nuclear disaster.

The current standoff between the West and a belligerent, nuclear-armed North Korea make hundreds of millions of people feel helpless.  It seems out of the control of any single person.

That’s when questions about God have real impact.

Questions like David’s in Psalm 19 as he gazed at the greatness of God and his creation and asked: “What are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?”

David responds in faith, glorifying God for being intimately involved in the lives of human beings and giving them authority over his earthly creation.

But there are many others who ask: “Why should humans bother with a figment of the imagination like God?”

For them, mankind is the centre of the universe and God is an invention of weak or deluded minds.

How we see God affects our mental, emotional and spiritual response to great crises.

David believed that God has”established his throne in heaven and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19).  He sought God’s counsel and direction in war and peace.

But he also believed that God is more than a great general – he is a loving Father who knows our weaknesses and failings and is merciful and compassionate (Psalm 103:8-18).

Christ has promised his followers that, whatever may happen to us on earth, he has prepared a place for us with him in heaven (John 14:1-3).  Our eternal future with a loving God is assured.

Those who refuse to believe in God are left to their own devices.

Experience teaches us that no human being is fully trustworthy.  If we can’t trust someone human to take us through tomorrow’s uncertainties, who can we trust?

In my view, the only answer is God.

Jesus promised us that we would face troubles.  But he also said he would walk with us through the troubles.

For the believer, physical death is not the ultimate horror.

The ultimate horror is being lost without God.

 

 

My gardener

God is my gardener, pulling out the weeds and refreshing the soil in my life.

I admit, I fight the weeding he does.  And some of my weeds – particularly, self-centredness – are very resistant.

I was thinking of this as I was weeding clover from our lawn this morning.  The reason I pull the clover and other weeds is that I want a green, flourishing lawn.

God wants me to become more and more like Jesus (Romans 8:29).  So the weeds in my life have to go.

Jesus used the gardening picture long ago in John 15 to make another point – he wants me to bear spiritual fruit (John 15:5).

To do that, he says, I must abide or remain in him as a branch clings to the vine.  He pours life into me and I simply rest in connection with him.

What happens if I don’t abide?

Jesus says that I will become unfruitful and God will prune me (John 15:2). 

He also says that if a branch is completely dead, God will cut it off.  In my view, he is speaking here of someone who never believed in Christ because he says elsewhere that once we commit ourselves to Jesus we belong to God forever (John 3:16).

Still, the pruning activity can hurt.  I know it hurts.

I hang onto some sinful and hurtful practices – knowingly or unknowingly – and the Lord has to remove them.

 

As Jesus says in John 15:5, there is one thing I can do: I can submit to God and let him change me.

“If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

While weeding and pruning hurt, God is also busy watering and fertilizing my life.  Through the Holy Spirit, he is giving me the strength I need to grow.

And I know he will not give up on me.  The apostle Paul tells us that God is working in us, giving us the desire and power to do what pleases him (Philippians 2:13).

God has unlimited compassion and love for his children (Psalm 103).

Praise the Lord!

Blind

Sometimes, I feel like a blind man feeling his way in the dark.

And maybe that’s a good thing.

Because that’s when I really have to trust God.

Like most people, I like certainty.  I like to look at the future and plot my way to a logical and satisfying conclusion.

But life doesn’t always work that way.  There are things in my life – and in the lives of my loved ones – that I can’t control.

The Bible is full of stories where things are completely out of control.  And people have to throw themselves on the mercy of God.

That’s when God’s children discover that their Father in heaven is the master of the unexpected.  And that’s when they learn that they are part of a much bigger plan.

Let me talk again about Daniel as I have before.  I’m fascinated by him.

The Book of Daniel tells us he was a slave, part of a conquered nation taken into captivity in Babylon.

Despite his helplessness, he remained true to God in the most threatening of circumstances.

God gave him the gift of wisdom and a supernatural understanding of dreams and visions.

Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had a bad dream and demanded his astrologers tell him what it meant – but there was a catch: They had to tell him first what the dream was. The penalty for not telling him his dream was death.

That was seemingly an impossible task, but God told him the dream and the interpretation.

Eventually, Daniel’s enemies tried to discredit him in front of a new king, Darius.  They accused him of not bowing in prayer solely to Darius, but rather worshiping God.

For that crime, he was thrown into a lion’s den – but the lions left him untouched as we was guarded by angels.

Daniel survived these and other perils because he put his trust in God.  He did not know what was coming in his life, but the Lord did.

God also gave Daniel some visions of the future, giving him a glimpse of the Lord’s plan for mankind and the kingdom of God.

Of course, there were other great men and women of the Bible who were killed because of their faith.  But, as we are told in Hebrews 11, they died still trusting in God’s ultimate triumph through Jesus.

The lesson for me is that it is good when I feel weak and helpless.

That’s when I turn to God and pray fervently, realizing that my situation is beyond my ability to solve.

That’s when I place my problem in the hands of a God who knows everything and can do anything.

God can change us

I believe God can change me – and anyone else.

The key – as our pastor said this morning – is obedience.

He was talking about the miracle of filling Peter’s boat with fish – and James’ and John’s boat, too – after a night of fruitless fishing and despite Peter’s doubts (Luke 5:1-11).  Peter was awestruck and worshiped Jesus and confessed his sinfulness in the face of such holiness and godly power.

Then, Jesus commanded the three men to come follow him and he would make them fishers of men.  They obeyed, and left everything, and followed him.

Does it take a miracle to change you and me?

I don’t think so.  I can see that I am a different man than I was 57 years ago when I first became a follower of Christ.  But I have changed very slowly.

A large part of the change has come from small steps of obedience.  And the major reason for the mountain still to be climbed is disobedience.

Perhaps you believe you are a hopeless case.  Or, there is someone in your life that you think can never change.  I am convinced you are wrong.

The Bible is full of people with faults who were used by God.  In fact, none of the great men and women of the Bible were perfect.

For instance, Jacob was a deceiver who was always trying to pull a fast one on others, particularly his brother Esau.  But he learned through a life of problems that he needed God’s blessing and help before meeting his brother again after years apart.  He was a changed man, relying on someone greater than he.

The apostle Paul was a persecutor of Christians, jailing them and watching as Stephen was stoned to death.  But Jesus stepped in dramatically in a vision and Paul submitted and obeyed him and became a giant of the young church.

Tough times can force us to confront our disobedience.

But it is still up to me to choose to obey.  And the same is true for you and the people we think will never change.

God will change us if we react the way Peter did when Jesus commanded him to follow him.

Are you a Gideon?

Are you a  young Gideon?  Or a mature Gideon?

Like the young and fearful Gideon, do you feel defeated by the world around you?  Do you feel there is no way God can change your world and the broader world outside?

Or, are you the maturer Gideon that God coaxed into trusting the Lord and his great power?  Have you put your hand into God’s hand and done what he has asked of you?

I really like the story of Gideon in Judges 6-8. One reason I like Gideon is that I am naturally a fearful person, afraid of taking the large leaps in trust and obedience that other believers have.

But, in my heart of hearts, I do believe God can do the impossible and the unexpected.  I believe he has in the past and I believe he is changing the world today.

What inspires me about Gideon’s story is that God was patient with the young Israelite, taking him step-by-step past his fears and doubts into his role of valiant army commander.

When the story begins, Gideon is threshing wheat out of sight of the Midianites who dominate Israel.  An angel of the Lord appears and tells him that “the Lord is with you, mighty warrior”.

Gideon expresses doubts about what the angel has told him and demands proof.  The angel sets fire to Gideon’s offering and disappears.

God then asks Gideon to tear down the altars to the Midianite gods which the Israelites have erected – probably out of fear of the conquerors.  He does this at night, not wanting to be discovered by the townspeople.

After this step of obedience, Gideon rallies the people to oppose an army of Midianites and Amalekites.  But he still doubts that God will defeat the enemy and so asks for proofs which the Lord grants him.

Then, the Lord tells him to send only 300 men into battle against tens of thousands of enemy soldiers.  The reason?  To show that God will win the battle, not the Israelites.

Gideon and his men win a major victory at night as the confused enemy soldiers turn on each other.

In the end, it was not Gideon – but God – who won the victory over the Midianites. Gideon’s role was simply to obey God’s commands.

Gideon’s story suggests that there is hope for every one of us.

As the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 6, our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the dark forces of Satan.  We are called to trust God, obey him, use the spiritual armour God has given us – and pray.

We can begin with small faith steps to do what God wants.  And he promises to grant our prayers if we pray according to his will.

Gideon did it.

The same path is open to me – and to every follower of Christ.

Joy in the morning

Many centuries ago, the psalmist David wrote: “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

It is good to remember this when we are going through trials.

As David said in Psalm 30, we may go through rough spots – sometimes very rough – but God gives us times of great joy, too.

Sometimes, there can be joy even in the midst of sorrow and suffering.

There is the great example of Paul and Silas singing hymns to God while bound in chains in a Philippian jail (Acts 16).  They were singing praises to God even though they had just been savagely beaten.

God’s response was to send an earthquake, breaking the prisoners’ chains and leading to the salvation of the jailer and his family.  As David said in Psalm 8:2, praising God can silence Satan – the “foe and the avenger”.

Indeed, praising God can revive our spirits, bringing godly joy and strength.

I recall reading of a missionary woman in China fleeing Chinese rebels in the early 1900s, a rebellion targeting Christians as well as the Chinese imperial forces.  The missionary woman told her husband and a friend to go on without her because she had reached her limits and just wanted to lie down and die.

But her Christian friend knelt down beside her and began singing praises to God.  The exhausted and unhappy woman revived and was filled with a new strength and carried on.

The apostle Paul asks us to do something seemingly impossible in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

What is this joy?  Is it being happy that we are suffering?  I don’t believe so.  It is a deeper joy, a joy in belonging to God who is ultimately working out all things for our good (Romans 8:28).

Does this mean that we will be able to see a Hollywood ending to all our troubles in our lifetimes?  Again, I don’t think so.  We may see amazing God-given answers to certain problems, but there may be others that remain unresolved.

Yet, there are two things we can always count on.

First, Jesus has promised that he will always be with us through whatever struggles we face in this life.  As an old hymn says: “What a friend we have in Jesus!”

Second, Jesus has prepared a place for us with him in heaven, a place where there are neither sorrows nor tears.

Those are joys no one can take from us.

Anti-Semitism and Christians

I believe Christians are called to defend Jews from anti-Semitic attacks in Canada and other Western countries.

Of course, we should stand against vile physical and verbal abuse of people of any faith in our land.  But Jews are particularly vulnerable.  They are small in number and no threat to anyone.

Small Jewish communities are under siege today in several European countries.  And even in Canada, there has been defacing of some Jewish synagogues and other anti-Semitic acts.

As Christians, we must remember that the Christian church was first created by Jews.  And Paul, the leading evangelist in the early church to non-Jews, was himself a Jew.

Unfortunately, the Christian church has a history of persecuting Jews over the centuries in Europe and elsewhere.  There were violent “pogroms” – killings – of Jews in Russia and Europe for many centuries, often led by people who called themselves Christians.

Many point their fingers at Nazi Germany for the horrible holocaust but there was discrimination against Jews in Canada as well in the first half of the twentieth century.

I remember growing up in the 1940s and 1950s and learning that Jews were banned from membership in the golf club in the town where I lived just outside Montreal.

And, of course, the Canadian government refused to accept Jewish refugees from Germany aboard a ship carrying them to North America just before the Second World War broke out.

Like many evangelical Christians today, I support the tiny state of Israel.  But whether one supports or opposes Israel, I believe all Christians should stand against discrimination and attacks on Jews in our own nations.

I was heartened this week to read an article in Spur, an on-line magazine in our city, which carried an interview with a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam who jointly oppose anti-Semitism.  See “Anti-Semitism: A growing threat to everyone” at http://www.spurottawa.com.

The two men recently received the Raoul Wallenberg Citation for Moral Courage in the Face of Anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Steven Gartner said that “anti-Semitism is the world’s most reliable early-warning threat to freedom, humanity, and the dignity of difference”.  In other words, attacks on Jews today could lead to attacks on other groups tomorrow.  Hate spreads quickly.

Imam Mohamed Jebara agreed and added: “You can’t undo the darkness by adding more darkness.  You do it by switching on the light.”

Jesus highlighted the rule we Christians are to live by: Love God and love your neighbour.

Loving your neighbour includes standing up for your neighbour when dark forces persecute him.

Superheroes

“Do superheroes meet a need for you?” a local radio talk show host asked her listeners this week.

She was talking about the string of movies about Batman, Superman, Spiderman and now Wonder Woman.

The question struck me as ridiculous.  But then I began thinking about how many of us do put our faith and hope in earthly superheroes.

One of our grandsons was a great Spiderman fan when he was five years old.  He was entranced with Spiderman’s exploits.

What is normal for a five-year-old is hardly normal for an adult.  We generally stop fantasizing about being a Superman or Spiderman as we grow older.

But movie superheroes get replaced by sports heroes, singers, actors and actresses, and even political leaders.

We read about them obsessively, turn out at games and shows to watch them.  We idolize them.

This can even be carried into our relations with loved ones, putting them on impossibly high pedestals.

What is it that drives us?  What is the inner need that we seek to fill with our obsessions?

Augustine wrote more than 1500 years ago that “our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you”.  He was talking about man’s need for God, a need we are all born with.

No one can find lasting fulfillment in what the world offers.  Only God can fill that hole in our lives.

As I have mentioned before, Paul Tripp says in his book Forever: Why You Can’t Live Without It that Christians often put unrealistic demands on loved ones and on their careers.  They expect to find the full satisfaction that only God can give.

Tripp’s point is that we will never be satisfied in every aspect of life until we are with the Lord in heaven where there will be unending joy.

The apostle Paul said: “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)  He lived every day for Jesus – his whole heart was enraptured by the Lord.  But he looked forward especially to be in God’s presence forever in heaven.

He has pointed out the true path for a satisfying life.

A crutch?

Is God a crutch for weak people?

I have been pondering that question after a chat with a barber who was cutting my hair today.

The barber clearly clings to remnants of beliefs he had as a young churchgoer a half century ago.  But he does not see that God matters much anymore.

Science, he said, has called into question the truths of the Christian church.  In his eyes, the only value of religion is to keep some control over human beings – to keep us from going off the deep end.

I suggested that every human being has an inborn desire for something beyond ourselves – as some have put it, “a God-shaped hole” in our beings.  He didn’t disagree.

He did not attack those who believe but he obviously sees no need for God – or for faith in God.

What struck me from our conversation is that the revolt against God in our society is not just a new phenomenon of the millenial generation.  It is a product of a long history of pushing God out of sight in our modern Western society.

For many people, there is no need for God.  Most Westerners feel they can manage quite well without him.

That’s where the idea of God as a crutch comes in.  I believe it has even infiltrated the Christian church.

I think many feel that they only need to call on God if there is a problem they can’t fix themselves.  And they only think of God because there is no other solution open to them.

Part of the problem may be that we in Western nations tend to feel that weakness and dependence on others is a bad thing.  We feel we should be in total control.

But the apostle Paul saw dependence as vital to a close relationship with God.

In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul talks about a sublime vision of heaven that God gave him.  But after that, he received a “thorn in the flesh”, a “messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud”.

He asked God to remove this affliction, but the Lord replied: “My grace is all you need.  My power works best in weakness.”

That is a great statement.  As human beings, we will not see God’s greatness and power until we acknowledge our weakness and our dependence on him.

Our Western world does not see God as he is because our world is man-centred.

So yes, God is a crutch for weak people.  And, like Paul, I praise God that I am weak.

But doubters of God would be amazed to find that the Lord is much more than a crutch.

There is ample evidence of God at work in our world if only we open our eyes.  They range from miraculous physical healings to transformed lives of even the hardest unbelievers.

To get there, it means recognizing – as Paul said – that we are weak and only God is fully strong.