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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.

A citizen of two worlds

Every Christian is a citizen of two worlds – earth and heaven.

Sometimes it’s tempting to act as if we believers belong only on earth.  But Wayne McDill says we can’t really hide our true home – with Christ in heaven.

McDill, author of Making Friends for Christ, makes a strong case for being open with our faith rather than hiding it.  The key is establishing close relations with those around us.

Of course, the idea of friendship – or relational – evangelism has been around for a long time.  As McDill says, Christ modelled it for us 2,000 years ago.

I like the way he develops his theme.

He notes that God chose to get personal with us earthlings when the Father sent Jesus to Judea as a man.  A man who was born, grew up speaking the language of Jews in Judea, obeyed human parents, learned a trade, took pity on the helpless, lived and laughed with others, and presented God’s truth in the give-and-take of discussion.

In other words, God did not drop the Bible from heaven and tell us in thundering tones to get with the program.  He met us personally in our messy world.

And that, says McDill, is how we should meet people, too.

In his view, it is a mistake to dump the whole gospel story on people and leave them.  We need to begin by seeing where our friends and neighbours are at in their lives.

As Jesus did, we should listen, learn how they feel, help them with their needs.

But, then we must go a step further as our relationships deepen.  We are here on earth with a mission.  That mission is to point people to reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ.

“[The Christian] does not represent God in the world as a mere observer,” writes McDill. “The purpose of God is his calling.”

Jesus “demanded radical loyalty and sacrifice on the part of his followers,” says McDill.

That challenge is a lot easier for people in the Western world than it is in other nations where Christians are persecuted.

But it remains a challenge for me and many other Christians in our comfortable society.

Enemies

The murderers who killed innocent people in Manchester and Egypt this week probably call themselves warriors of God.

In fact, they are enemies of God.

They clearly believe in a god who kills indiscriminately.  But, that is not the God I know.

Jesus and God the Father are one.  Jesus said that “anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9)

Jesus made clear that we are to love one another – not kill each other.

It is often easier to hate than to love.  Jihadists have chosen the easy path.

Jesus sets a high bar for his followers.  He tells us “love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)

It’s fascinating to see what impact that loving your enemies has had on the world in the 2,000 years since Jesus was born.  Many people became believers because their hearts melted when Christians loved them despite their antagonism toward Christ and his followers.

Godly love is more powerful than hate.

The hate displayed in Manchester and Egypt this week flows from satanic forces.  But Satan has already been defeated by Christ on the cross.  He is lashing out but his time as prince of this world is drawing to a close.

Meanwhile, there is time for Christians to spread the love of Christ and the good news of Christ in all the dark places in our world.

That is what God wants us to do.

He will triumph over this enemies.

When losing is winning

It’s all about winning in the world we live in.

But, in God’s eyes, losing is sometimes better.

Take Jesus’ words in Mark 9 as he deals with the disciples privately arguing about who will be the greatest in Christ’s kingdom:  “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

That turns upside down the normal way we view our world.  We may be surprised by the people we meet in heaven who have received the greatest rewards – some may be the quiet ones out of the limelight in the world we live in.

I recently attended a men’s conference where men who have attended one of these conferences before are encouraged to invite others to come – and to serve them.  The idea is that these people serve at tables, carry suitcases, park cars, and do additional tasks for the general good of others.

Voluntary servanthood involves self-sacrifice – I am called to give up time, money and personal ambition to help others for the sake of Jesus.

As I look at myself, I am ready to help others but I grumble inside if it is likely to cost me anything significant.  I left that conference with something to work on in my own life.

I ask myself, was Jesus not the perfect servant, giving up his life of glory to come down to my world to die for me on the cross?  Am I justified in my grumbling about the little things I am called to do?

There is another area where losing is more important than winning – giving up control of my life to Jesus.

That is one of my toughest battles and I believe it is the same for most Christians.

To begin with, taking the step of faith in Christ means admitting we can’t meet God’s standards for eternal life.  We can never be good enough.

We are accepted by God because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross and his resurrection, defeating Satan.

But even after that surrender of my life to Jesus, I find myself still trying to take back control of my everyday life, doing my own thing.

Watchman Nee, a great Chinese Christian who died in a Chinese Communist prison camp, wrote a book called The Life That Wins which declares that winning over our character flaws and sins means giving it all up to God.  It means admitting that we can’t do it ourselves.  We have to depend on God to do it in our lives through the Holy Spirit.

In this sense, losing means winning.

Invited to a party

Many people can’t believe that Christ really loves them and wants them to join him in an eternity of joy.

They are like a little child who refuses an invitation to a birthday party because he doesn’t believe the birthday boy wants him to come.

This is certainly true of some non-believers I know who seem drawn to Christ but believe that God cannot accept them because of their past.

In a different sense, some believers have accepted the invitation, but are going to the party still doubting that they are really wanted.

It can be a crippling issue.

This struck me again last weekend at a men’s conference I attended.  The conference was about God’s love for us and who we are as believers in Christ.

During a discussion at our table, one of the men who was not a believer said he does not believe that God could accept him because of the things he has done.  He has had a rough life, including time spent in jail.

I pointed out that many of the Bible heroes did things that were terrible in our eyes, but that God had his hand on them.  They were accepted and loved by the Lord.

Here are some examples: Jacob cheated his brother out of his inheritance; Abraham was ready for his wife to become concubine to another man because he feared for his life; David had sex with another man’s wife and then arranged for that person’s death; and Paul threw believers into prison.

For me, that increases my wonder at God’s love.  It is not because we are worthy that God loves us – it is because Jesus gave himself for us that we might believe and enter the Lord’s family.

I am not saying that God wants us to have sex outside of marriage, or arrange someone else’s murder.  As believers, we are to become more like Christ – not less.

But I confess that I, as a believer, have sometimes felt that God could not possibly approve of me because of my failures and sins.

That’s where the other part of the conference came in – who we are as followers of Christ.  As the apostle Paul says in Romans 8, we are no longer under condemnation because of our faith in Christ and what he has done.

I need to constantly remind myself of Christ’s love and the power of the Spirit available to help me live the life God intended for me.

I am going to the party with gladness.

The power of questions

A question can change an opinion – and maybe a life.

A question such as “Can you tell me why you believe that?” can prompt people to re-examine their views.  Some may even ponder that question afterwards and start on a new path.

I was thinking of this after listening to a brief discussion about religion at a lunch gathering of retired men in our neighbourhood.

It began with one man saying he was less religious than he had been as a young man. He talked about chatting with men from two other faiths on their burial practices which he thought made a lot of sense. Another said 90 per cent of people around the world were good.

They seemed to be implying that all faiths were equally valid or that religion doesn’t matter at all.

I believe your faith does make a difference – if truth has any meaning at all.  And athiesm is as much a faith as any other.  But I did not declare my views for fear of offending.

Afterwards, I regretted not asking questions as a way of raising important points without flat-out offending the other men.

Randy Newman, author of Questioning Evangelism, says a simple word such as “Really?” can start a much deeper discussion after someone makes a declaration.  Questions aimed at learning more about someone’s opinions are not direct challenges but a way of opening minds to other ways of viewing the world.

The apostle Paul was a master of asking questions, sometimes uncomfortable ones.  He used questions to make a point to believers and unbelievers alike.

Our church men’s group looked at Romans 2 this week where the apostle asks Jewish people whether they were living by the Jewish law that they were trying to impose on others.  It is not clear to me whether he was speaking to Jewish believers in Christ who did attempt to impose their laws on non-Jewish believers in the early church.

But the question would certainly force his readers to examine their own conduct.

Newman notes that Paul “reasoned” with Jewish people and with non-Jews, suggesting discussion – questions as well as statements.

The author says discussion does not alone lead to a change of heart.  In the end, it is the Spirit of God that brings people into the kingdom of God.

But a good question, asked with respect, can be a good starting point.