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Great expectations

Christians are as likely as anyone else to expect too much of other people.

An easy example: I’m a fan of a National Football League team and I eat up everything I can about that team.  If my team isn’t doing well, I’m disappointed.

In fact, I realize I get too consumed by the fortunes of my team.

Expecting too much of family, friends, workmates and church leaders is a common problem.  No one except Christ was ever perfect.

A glance through the Bible reveals that Bible heroes had their weaknesses.

David the King was a man after God’s own heart.  But he engaged in adultery and arranged for the death of Uriah whose wife he coveted.

Abraham claimed Sarah, his wife, was really his sister because he was afraid.  He feared that the Egyptian pharaoh might be attracted to Sarah, who was beautiful, and would get rid of Abraham so he could have his wife.  Pharaoh did take Sarah into his household and was angry when he discovered Abraham had deceived him and sent Abraham and his wife away.

Jacob was a congenital liar who deceived his own father to get the inheritance belonging to his older brother.

These men had their weaknesses – they sinned.  But God used them because they were people of faith.  They believed in God and were ready to do what God planned for them to do.

Great expectations of others can become an issue if we turn bitter and angry if they don’t live up to our hopes.  As others have noted, we will only find perfect bliss in heaven when we rejoice in the presence of God.

But Kerry Kirkwood, author of The Power of Right Thinking, says there is one place where we are justified in having high expectations – our faith in God.

God makes a number of promises to believers in the Bible.  Because they are God’s promises, we can be sure they will be fulfilled – in his timing.

“When expectation is based upon the Word of God, it’s no longer an assumption – it becomes a personal word direct to your heart,” writes Kirkwood.

He adds: “Wishful thinking is not faith; daydreaming is not faith.  Faith is tied to the Word of God, not a whimsical feeling.”

When we pray God’s words in scripture, we know we are praying his will.

And his will will be carried out.

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Renew your mind

The apostle Paul calls on me – and all believers – to renew our minds.

That means changing the way I think and the things I think about.

The reason is simple: Satan uses my mind to fight a war with God.  He is trying to turn me away from listening to God and acting on what he wants me to do.

Paul knew well that our minds are often preoccupied with anything but God and godly things.

Paul’s words about renewing our minds have long caught my attention.  He says in Romans 12:1-2:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

This tells me that:

  • I must give myself up to God completely – my ambitions, my desires.  This is an act of sacrifice which pleases God – it is worship;
  • To do this, I must turn away from all wrong thinking – thoughts of lust, revenge, greed – and seek a new God-centred way of thinking; and
  • Finally, I will find that I can hear God and know what he wants me to do.  I will find out what his will is and be able to act on it.

As all followers of Christ know, this is hard to do.  We are human and want to please ourselves first.  We are naturally self-centred.

But we can turn things around by focusing on who God is and how much he loves us.

Kerry Kirkwood, author of The Power of Right Thinking, says Christians need to know God better through studying the scriptures so that they can fight the wrong thoughts that Satan drops into their minds.

This means we need to ask the Holy Spirit to cleanse our minds; to understand God’s love for us; to meditate about God; and to deal with thoughts of disappointment, anger and revenge by looking at these issues through God’s eyes.

Understanding God’s love for us is a major step in combatting Satan’s lies.

Christian author and counsellor Neil Anderson has found that asking people to review regularly scriptures describing how God sees them has helped them gain new hope and spiritual strength.  For some, it has been life-changing.

May the Holy Spirit inspire us to seek his help in renewing our minds.

Endurance

A few days ago, I was struggling grimly on my bicycle up a small hill when I recalled that endurance is a virtue.

In fact, we miss a lot when we give up short of our goals – whether it is in sports, business, or anything else in life.

That’s particularly true of the spiritual goals that we receive from God.

To be honest, I can’t say I look forward to suffering.

But the heroes of scripture and Christian history often gave up everything – sometimes even their lives – for God.

They did it because they believed in God and were convinced he had a mission for them in this life.

In Jeremiah 20, the prophet says he was upset with God because people ridiculed him for the prophetic words from the Lord that he shared with them.  He was a laughing stock among the people.

“But,” says Jeremiah, “if I say ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones.  I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.”

What a compelling picture!

Jeremiah endured ridicule and physical abuse for telling the Israelites about God’s warnings about their rejection of him.  And during his life, he did not see the Jewish people turn back to the Lord.

Joni Eareckson is a modern-day example of endurance through suffering.

An active 16-year-old, she was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident decades ago.  She has never recovered.

At first, she wanted to die when it became apparent she would never be healed.  Instead, God reached her heart and her faith grew.  She launched a charity which provides wheel chairs to crippled people around the world.

Her vibrant faith has touched many lives since then, spiritually and in other ways.

Yet, I heard her say in a video that she still cries “Help” to God when her suffering is almost too much to bear.

So, what is the benefit of enduring suffering?

Our suffering may be a gateway to someone else’s spiritual benefit or healing as it has been for Joni Eareckson.

But the benefit may simply be for the sufferer.

The apostle James says in an often-quoted passage in James 1:2-4:

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

God is concerned about our character as believers.  He is shaping us into the image of Christ.

And, ultimately, we will be rewarded for our faith and steadfastness by the Lord in eternity.

Wounded healer

You can help others heal if you have suffered yourself.

Henri Nouwen calls this the “wounded healer”.

I like this idea.

Of course, a lot depends whether you want to help others heal.  If you do, you may have the experience, wisdom and knowledge to bring spiritual and emotional healing to a needy friend.

A friend who has suffered for years from an undiagnosed illness says that no one knows how he feels.  He feels alone.

It reminds me of Job whose friends gave him lots of advice, even suggesting he was suffering from some sin.  But it turned out they did not know why Job was suffering and their advice was more hurtful than helpful.

In his book The Wounded Healer, Nouwen writes: “Our own experience with loneliness, depression and fear can become a gift for others, especially when we have received good care.”

“The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?'” he says.  “When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

Nouwen points out that “Jesus is God’s wounded healer: through his wounds we are healed”.

“Jesus’ death suffering and death brought joy and life.  His humiliation brought glory; his rejection brought a community of love.”

Nouwen was himself a good example of the wounded healer.

He suffered emotionally during his life and he used his pain to help others.

In his last years, he served the intellectually and developmentally delayed at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hill, Ontario.

A silver lining

There is a silver lining in the dark clouds threatening the church in North America.

The silver lining is God.

At different times in history, God has spoken to lost societies and turned them around.

I believe that is happening now.

I’m reading a fascinating book at the moment  – Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World by James Emery White.  He’s a former president of an evangelical seminary and currently pastor of a North Carolina church whose membership is made up of 70 per cent people with no previous church connection.

He gives a well-researched look at the generation born after 1995 which now accounts for about one-quarter of the American population.

It’s a generation that overwhelmingly doesn’t care about God, doesn’t even think about God.

To a large extent, it is a generation that has received very little parental guidance.  And, as many others have noted, it is addicted to electronic devices and everything that goes with that, including exposure to adult material such as pornography at very young ages.

Generation Z has also grown up in a period of social and economic turmoil – including terrorism and the Great Recession of 2008.  It’s a generation where young people feel they will have to manage – or struggle – on their own.

This generation doesn’t know much about God or Christianity.

White says he once spoke about “the Lord’s supper” in his church and a young unchurched woman who had been attending for several months texted him to say how excited she was by the church and finished by asking what food she should bring to the Lord’s supper.  In some ways, it’s a funny story for Christian believers, but it is a telling point – we are speaking to people today who know nothing about Christ.

But here’s the silver lining: People like White are tackling this problem and finding ways to reach the vast unchurched world outside our church walls.

As others have said, we are in a world much like the early church in the Roman empire.  It’s a world where we have to tell the story of Christ as if we were telling it for the first time to people who have never heard of it before.

If it depended entirely on us as human beings, I would despair.  But we are not alone.

There is a great passage in Nehemiah 8 where Ezra reads the books of Moses to the Israelites and they break out weeping as God’s word touches their hearts.  That was the power of God working through his word.

In Isaiah 55:11, God says that his word “will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I have sent it”.

As long as Christians are faithful to God and his word, the Spirit of God will take the word of God and transform lives.

And nations will be changed, too, as they were in biblical times and as they have been in the 2,000 years since Christ’s ascension to heaven.

Let them see Jesus

A vision of God led a Pashtun tribal elder to give his life to the Lord in Pakistan.

The elder, who was fleeing the war in Afghanistan, watched a worship service across the border in Pakistan and it moved him, says Terry Law author of The Power of Praise and Worship.

He approached a Pakistani pastor and asked him what it was about the Bible that the pastor had given him a week before.

“Every time I open it,” he said, “I see a vision of a Lamb standing by a glorious throne in front of millions and millions of people.  When I close the Book it goes away.   When I open it up, it comes back.  What is this?”

Law says the Pakistani pastor turned to Revelation 5 and showed the refugee in print what he had seen in the vision.  He explained that Jesus was the Lamb who was slain for him and now stood by God the Father surrounded by millions of redeemed worshipers.

“The Pashtun elder surrendered his life to Jesus on the spot,” writes Law.  “He had been convicted of his sin and saved to eternal life, not because someone had rebuked the darkness that imprisoned him, but because he had seen the shining light of God’s glory in worship.”

This story strikes a chord in my heart.

I have read of similar visions in other non-Christian cultures.

I heard a tape of renowned missionary Jackie Pullinger describing a talk she gave in someone’s home in an Asian country – Japan, I believe.

One of her listeners fell asleep and missed most of her talk.  But he followed her into the kitchen afterwards and asked her the meaning of a vision he had while she was talking.  He had seen a man at a table surrounded by 12 men eating a meal.

She told him about Jesus and the last supper before his crucifixion and the Asian man put his faith in Christ.

As well, today many people in Muslim countries are becoming believers after visions of Christ.

As I think of this, I realize I have become so wrapped up in evangelistic techniques and formulas that I have neglected the wonders of Christ himself.

Some years ago, Pastor Bruxy Cavey said something that has stuck with me ever since.

When people raise objections to the church today, he nods and then asks: “But what do you think about Jesus?”

In the end, that is the question everyone needs to answer.  And the picture of Jesus in the gospels is so compelling that many have given their lives to him.

People need to know Jesus and how much he loves them.

Disturbed, but hopeful

Like many Christians, I am disturbed by a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Trinity Western University case.

In my opinion, it is a blow against religious rights.  It is a sign of a trend in government against the right of Christian organizations to take a position on social issues that may differ with others in society.

For example, it follows a federal government ruling earlier this year that religious groups must take a pro-choice position on abortion rather than a pro-life stand if they seek government funds for summer interns, many of them helping needy children and others.

The court ruled in favour of the Law Societies of British Columbia and Ontario against accrediting graduates of the Trinity Western University Law School because the evangelical Christian institution had a code of conduct on sexual relations.  The school said sexual relations should only be between a man and woman within marriage.

The majority in the 7-2 court decision upholding the provincial law society action clearly felt other issues were more important than religious liberty.  Some legal commentators reacted by criticizing the decision – one law professor said it was “embarrassing” – and its impact on religious rights.

Some noted that people with different views than Trinity Western could go to other law schools.  And Trinity Western is a private institution – not a public body which has to abide by other values.

Anyway, it certainly seems that religious liberty is considered a secondary value by many administrators and now the senior judges in the land.

As I say, this is a disturbing trend – but not devastating.

The time may come when many things we believers consider rights today are eliminated.

But I know that the Christian church thrives in tough times.

Just look at the early centuries of the Christian church.  It grew dramatically in spite of persecution.

The early church grew because Christians demonstrated the power of God’s love – in word and deed.  They loved each other and they cared for those who needed help.  So, the gospel they preached fell on receptive ears.

Nothing can stand against that.

Always with me

A great thing about God is that he never gives up on his children.

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe he can stick with me.  And I’m sure others feel the same way.

But, Christ promised that he is always with us believers – “even to the end of the age”  (Matthew 28:20).

Jesus’ conversation with Peter in John 21 gives special hope to anyone who feels he or she has failed the Lord irretrievably.

You may recall the exchange between the two after Jesus’ resurrection.

Peter and other disciples had gone fishing.  I imagine Peter was thinking about returning to his fishing career after he had denied knowing Christ just before the crucifixion.

I am sure Peter was deeply ashamed.  He had boasted that he would stand with Jesus no matter what and yet he denied being Jesus’ follower at the most critical moment.

Now, Jesus appeared on the shore and told the disciples to throw out their net on the other side of the boat and they hauled in a huge catch of fish.

When John said “It is the Lord”, Peter jumped into the water and rushed to the shore.  I love the excitement – typical of Peter – and the joy.

Then, while Jesus and his friends were eating fish on the shore, Jesus posed the same question three times to Peter: “Do you love me?”

Each time, Peter said: “Yes, Lord.  You know that I love you.”

And after Jesus heard Peter’s spoken commitment, he said: “Feed my sheep.”

In effect, he was telling Peter that he was being commissioned to go out and spread the good news despite his failure.

God did the same with David and Elijah in the Old Testament.

David had sex with another man’s wife and then arranged to have the husband killed.  When the prophet Nathan exposed the truth to David, he repented and was punished with the death of his young son.  But God’s hand remained on him and he was used greatly for the rest of his life.

Elijah was one of the few Israelites who stood up to the evil king Ahab and his wife Jezebel.  Yet he lost his nerve and ran away after a great triumph over the prophets of the false god Baal.  He feared Jezebel would kill him.

Despite that, God commissioned Elijah for further tasks before the end of his life and then took him up to heaven spectacularly before the eyes of his disciple Elisha.

If we love God, the Lord can use us.

What a merciful God!  What a loving and forgiving God!

The Jesus way

It was an unlikely match – a group of evangelical churches working with the openly-gay mayor of liberal Portland, Oregon, to meet the pressing needs of that city 10 years ago.

In Kevin Palau’s eyes, it was a return to early Christianity where sharing the good news of Christ was married with loving people who need help.

As the mayor and Palau say, they parked the differences of opinion they had and started working together on matters where they agreed – helping people.

Palau and other pastors in that group of churches haven’t given up their passion for Jesus and for telling others about the good news of Christ.  Conversations about Jesus emerge from contacts between people working together on alleviating the basic needs of the city.

In the process, the local impression of Christians in Portland is changing.  Christians in that liberal city were widely seen as condemning and angry.  It was hard to talk about Christ in that highly-charged atmosphere when Palau and a band of evangelical pastors approached Sam Adams, newly-elected mayor in Portland in 2008.

Some years later, Adams and Palau talked together about their experience in a 10-minute video filmed at a meeting in New York City’s Redeemer Church which you can see at https://vimeo.com/66596545/  It is amazing to hear two people of such different views speaking so positively of their work together.

For Palau, it was the conclusion of a process which began some years before when he began questioning the mass stadium evangelism approach to reaching non-Christians.

He had been working with his father, renowned evangelist Luis Palau, and noticed the declining crowds and hearing local pastors’ doubts about the long-term commitment of new believers.

The Palaus remained committed to large-scale evangelism – particularly, large and joyous festivals in open-air parks – but began talking about other ways of relating to non-believers.

This led to meetings with a large number of like-minded evangelical pastors in Portland, culminating in the offer to Sam Adams to help with the needs the city considered most important.

One of these was schools.

In his book Unlikely: Setting Aside Our Differences to Live Out The Gospel, Palau tells the inspiring story of church members dedicating time and money and God’s love to a down-and-out Roosevelt High School.  They cleaned up and renovated the building, mentored students, built relationships with teachers, and even coached the high school football team which hadn’t won a game in years.

Palau says the motivation for this city-wide initiative – called CityServe Portland – is the example of Christ who ate with and served people despised by the religious leaders of the time.  Jesus stood for truth, but didn’t let that stop him from loving the people he met.

CityServe has also transformed relationships between believers active in this outreach effort.

It’s a great story.

 

Chariots of God

The prophet Elisha’s servant was terrified – hordes of enemy soldiers were massing in chariots outside the prophet’s home in Samaria.

But Elisha told him: “Don’t be afraid! For there are more on our side than on theirs.”

Then, he asked God to reveal his forces to the servant.  God opened the servant’s eyes and he saw a nearby hill covered with angelic soldiers and chariots of fire (2 Kings 6).

Hannah Whitall Smith uses the image of a chariot to make the point that we believers can either be crushed by our circumstances or we can mount them as we might a chariot which will carry us to spiritual victory.

I find this encouraging – even transforming.

Fundamentally, it means believing that nothing happens to us without God’s permission.  And everything God wills for us is for our ultimate good (Romans 8:28).

That does not mean that we celebrate evil.  God is not the source of evil of any kind.

But he will allow us to go through trials so that we grow in faith and depend more and more on him.  That is part of becoming more like Christ.

In her book The Christian’s Secret to a Happy Life, Smith says the problems we face – tough family relations, a hard boss, criticism from friends, even ill health – can be changed into a chariot that takes us deeper into God’s love.

A good biblical example is the apostle Paul’s account of a severe “thorn in the flesh” which he pleaded with God to remove through divine healing.

As you may recall, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12 that he had an amazing vision of heaven but came down to earth with a “thorn in the flesh” – something he called “a messenger of Satan” to keep him from becoming proud.

He called on God to remove it three times, but the Lord did not.

Paul wrote: “Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.”

And Paul goes on to say: “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.”

Paul took the “thorn in the flesh” and made it a chariot of victory for God.

So can I.

So can any child of God.