Truth-telling

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the truth.

But God calls us to tell the truth in love when we’re dealing with other believers – and with non-believers, too.

This morning, my wife and I were attending a Bible study aboard a cruise ship when another group member said failure to tell the truth is a problem in our North American churches.

He suggested the church needs more godly mentors to help people who are struggling.  He seemed to be saying that allowing truth to go unspoken can be damaging – to the church and to the strugglers, too.

I agree, while admitting that I shrink from facing up to difficult issues.

Bill Hybels, senior pastor at Chicago’s Willow Creek Community Church, said in a leadership seminar a few years ago that he now insists on his staff members telling him the truth.  And he has extended the same offer to his congregation.

But he has one proviso – the truth must be shared in godly love, not anger and vengeance.

Hybels says that Christians often resort to gossip, attacking people behind their backs rather than seeking resolution of their issues with the persons involved.  If they’re upset with the pastor or the leadership, they may simply leave without ever resolving their differences.

There are, of course, people who love to fight.  They stand at the opposite extreme.

My wife and I have been part of a church where annual congregational meetings were a battlefield – often between the same two or three people.

Paul and the apostles in the early Church believed in speaking the truth.  But their motives were to draw people closer to Christ – not for personal glory or dominance.

Paul stepped in strongly to defend the gospel and to denounce divisions within groups of believers.

In 1 Corinthians, he was concerned that people were lining up in opposing groups, some claiming Paul as their leader and others Apollos. He pleaded with the Corinthians to see that each had his value, but the church should pull together and focus on Jesus.

In Galatians, he was clearly struck to the heart by the attempt of some Jewish believers to push new Greek believers to abide by the Old Testament religious laws even though they came to Christ by faith.  You can sense his anger at this perversion of the gospel, but all his letters shine with his love for the people he is writing to.

Paul urged believers to deal with serious moral and spiritual issues by discussing them among themselves and working to resolve them in love.

Ultimately, we Christians are to love one another.

May we pursue truth in love.

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Lifeboat Christians?

Paul Ellis says many believers are really just “lifeboat Christians”.

Ellis, author The Gospel in Ten Words, says that “the lifeboat gospel is the idea that salvation is all about avoiding hell and gaining heaven”.

“The problem with this gospel,” he continues, “is that it has sidelined entire generations of believers by telling them the earth is nothing more than a waiting room for eternity.”

They have “opted out” of the current world they live in.  “They want nothing to do with this filthy world lest they get entangled with it.”

Ellis has a point.

Like many believers, I feel the temptation to live only in church circles with church friends.  It seems safer and easier that way.

But that was not the way of Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul.

They stepped out into the highways and markets of the world and talked with people, befriended them, healed them and argued with them.  They saw their role as bringing the kingdom of God into the world – not withdrawing from it.

Ellis pinpoints a major reason why so many Christians have jumped into the lifeboat – they feel life is all about being good enough to get into heaven.  And they are afraid of messing up.

He acknowledges that most evangelical Christians declare that once they have put their faith in Christ, they are guaranteed a place with Christ in eternity.

But, in their heart of hearts, they feel that they must be good enough in their everyday lives to gain God’s approval.  If not, the Lord will be displeased with them at the very least.

However, Ellis argues that the Bible is really about God’s grace which is not about us and our goodness.  It is really about God’s forgiving love in spite of our weakness and failures.

I love this truth.  The apostle Paul hammers it home repeatedly in his letters to the young churches in the first century.

In fact, an entire letter – to the Galatian church – is about calling back believers to their initial joy in salvation through grace and rejecting attempts by others to impose new rules of spiritual life upon them.

Ellis’ view is that we believers can never make God love us more, no matter what efforts we make to be perfect.  He loves us because Jesus died for us so that we would be acceptable to the Father and become his sons and daughters.

When he looks at us, says Ellis, he sees Jesus – not our imperfections.

That should inspire us to love God more and more.

And it should make us want to share the glad news with others.

Ellis is calling us – as God calls us – to jump out of our lifeboats and reach out to people struggling in the troubled waters around us.

Cracked pots

The apostle Paul says believers are just jars of clay – nothing special by themselves.

But what lives inside them is very special – the Spirit of God.

“We have this treasure (the Holy Spirit) in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us,” says the apostle in 2 Corinthians 4:7.

Paul is telling his readers that he is not despairing despite all the troubles he faces because the power of God is working through his very human self.

“We have become convinced that God wants to use ordinary, broken, sinful, weak, foolish people, just like us and just like you, to advance his kingdom,” say Mike Pilavachi and Andy Croft in Everyday Supernatural: Living A Spirit-led Life Without Being Weird.

Pilavachi and Croft say that in Paul’s day, people kept their money in old cracked pots because there were no banks and they figured thieves would search the best pots for their treasure.

That puts an extra shine on the apostle’s words about God putting his treasure – his Spirit – in us “cracked pots”.

“The history of the church has never been about great men and women of God,” the authors say. “It’s always been about the great God of men and women.”

Indeed, we need only look at people like Jacob and David and Moses and we can see their human weaknesses.  But God used them powerfully because they turned to him in their need.

Pilavachi and Croft offer stories where they felt God asking them to do things they really didn’t want to do.  But when they obeyed, God acted in wonderful ways in the lives of the people they were dealing with.

“God wants to pour his treasure into your cracked pot,” they write.  “He wants to use you – even when you feel weak, broken, vulnerable, fearful and confused – to bring him glory.”

I find that encouraging.  I am weak but God can still use me.

God or Satan?

Who is winning the battle for the minds and hearts of North Americans – God or Satan?

On the surface, Satan seems to have the edge.  But I believe there is more to this than meets the eye.

It is true that there is a major assault on Christian values such as the sanctity of life.  It is also true that the Christian church is declining overall in numbers in North America with many young people abandoning church.  A lot of churches are closing.

But it is within the power of God to turn the tide – if we believers turn to him.

This week, our church joined with four other churches to pray for our city.  This was part of the third annual city-wide week of prayer in January for the people and institutions in our area.

One of the pastors at our meeting pointed us to the well-known passage in 2 Chronicles 7:14 where God tells Solomon that trouble will come to Israel if the people reject God.  Then, he adds these wonderful words of hope:

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

This declaration is aimed at followers of God.  We need to examine our own hearts, confess our sins, turn back to God and pray.

Then, God will act.

God responds to people with repentant, humble hearts throughout the Bible.  And we have seen the same through many revivals over the centuries since Christ ascended to heaven.

Like many believers, I find the growing anti-Christian wave alarming and even discouraging.  From Christian history, I know that the once-dominant church virtually died in North Africa and parts of the Middle East over the centuries – leaving only a few vestiges behind.

But in recent times, there are reports of many people turning to the Lord in Muslim-dominated countries throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.  Some observers say it is the greatest ingathering of new believers in these areas since Islam toppled the church more than a thousand years ago.

The apostle Paul said that the real battle is not an earthly struggle of kings and presidents, but a behind-the-scenes battle in heavenly places between God and the dark forces of Satan (Ephesians 6:12).

Paul tells us that we should arm ourselves with spiritual armour such as the word of God – and pray!

Many Christians are now taking up this challenge in Canada and the United States.  They are putting aside denominational differences to pray together to our all-powerful God.

Praise God!

Clueless

It has taken me all my life to discover how clueless I am.

It’s a kind of blindness – spiritually, emotionally and psychologically.

I don’t think I’m alone.

I’m glad, though, that I have found this out.  I believe it is Christ working in me.  He is changing me.

I am forever grateful that Christ opened my eyes almost 60 years ago to the most important truth in the universe – he is the only way to God.  As he said, he is the way, the truth, and the life.

It is not unusual for young people to feel that their way of looking at things is the only real way.  I was one of those.

But adults are not immune from this tunnel vision.

Like many other believers, I came to feel that my view of Christ and the church was the right way.  I was suspicious of other views and approaches.

I believe that there are completely wrong ways of looking at God and the world around us – views that have no scriptural basis.

But there are areas which are much less certain – opinions which should not keep believers apart.  Christ wants all believers to be one in the Spirit.

Perhaps the most difficult areas for me to see well are in the areas of the mind and the heart.

Gradually, the Lord has worked through others – particularly those I love – to show me that my way of thinking is not the way everyone else does.

The Bible certainly makes that clear.  Jesus was always dealing with people who disagreed with – and even denounced – him.  Most did not understand him.

Over time, I have learned that I should listen and ponder other ways of looking at things.  And sometimes I have started changing how I live.  In this area, I realize I have a long way to go.

This leads me to my heart.  With my mind, I know what God wants of me, but I still resist in some areas.  This is a heart issue.

But I am hopeful.

I seize on the words written by the apostle Paul in Philippians 1:6: “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”

He was writing to the Philippian church which was actively sharing Jesus’ love and words with others.

But I believe this is true of everyone who loves Jesus and is committed to him.

 

Outsiders

How are we Christians to live in an alien world?

Do we fight it?  Do we conform to it?  Do we withdraw from it?

The apostle Peter says in 1 Peter 2:11 that we believers are “outsiders and wanderers” or “pilgrims” in this world.  Our home is not here.

And yet we live here until we go to be with Christ in eternity.  While we’re here, we face a society that is increasingly non-Christian and sometimes hostile to what we believe.

The magazine Christianity Today confronted this issue with a series of articles in November 2015.

In essence, the articles acknowledged that Christian values no longer dominate our society.  But they debated how closely we should work with non-believers who may object to our values.  They offered different thoughts on how we can help the most vulnerable in our society and how strongly we should defend our values.

This make me think about the prophet Daniel, a person I admire greatly and often write about.

Young Daniel became a captive of the Babylonians – a slave.

Almost immediately, he faced a tough decision.  He and three young Jewish slaves were chosen to serve the Babylonian king after a period of training – but to eat only Babylonian food which Jews found against their faith.

With respect and wisdom, he asked the king’s chief of staff to allow these Jewish slaves the right to eat their own food during a trial period and see if they did as well as others.  The chief of staff was reluctant not to carry through his master’s orders, but God was at work and he agreed.

Daniel gained a reputation of wisdom in Babylon and served the king well.  But King Nebuchadnezzar had a bad dream which none of his wise men could interpret.  He pledged to execute them all if they could not tell him what the dream was and interpret it for him.

Daniel took the issue to God who revealed to him what the dream was and gave him the interpretation.  Nebuchadnezzar was astonished when Daniel told him the dream since the king had told no one.  He made the young Jewish slave one of the highest officials in the land.

Many years later, Daniel’s enemies conspired against him during the reign of a later king.  They knew that he prayed three times a day to the Lord in the window of his home.  They convinced the king to agree to have no one pray to any god other than the king himself and whoever broke that law would be executed.

Daniel continued praying to God and was hauled before the king and thrown to the lions to devour.  But, again, God stepped in and shut the mouths of the lions so he was untouched.  And the king responded by telling his empire that God was the living god and everyone should tremble before him.

The lessons I draw from these events is that we must serve others well, wisely and with respect.  And we must depend on the Lord to guide us in all our dealings with people who hold different views and values.

Like Daniel, we should stand for what we believe.  Sometimes, that will lead to persecution.

The early Christians behaved that way – loving others while remaining true to what they believed.   And they had a gigantic impact on the Roman empire.

In our own small ways, we, too, can have an impact on people around us.

Evangelism and the power of God

Stephen D. Elliott says evidence of the power and presence of God is more important than great church programs in bringing people to Jesus.

Elliott says in his book By Signs and Wonders: How the Holy Spirit Grows the Church that he reached this conclusion after pondering why the Christian church is declining in North America.

He himself tried all kinds of programs to reach people for Christ in a new church he and his wife planted in Ottawa, Canada.  The church grew slowly but the surrounding community was growing far more rapidly.

Over time, Elliott began studying the New Testament in depth to determine why the young church expanded by leaps and bounds.

He realized that Jesus and the apostles combined talking about the good news of Christ with demonstrations of the power of God.  These “signs and wonders” – miracles -confirmed the message they were sharing with non-believers.

“The Holy Spirit’s power made all the difference in the evangelistic efforts of the first century.  The reason the Christian message was accepted and spread like wildfire throughout the Roman Empire had everything to do with the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit.”

Elliott says that part of the problem the North American church faces is neglecting the Holy Spirit.  Christians have focused largely on God the Father and Jesus Christ while passing lightly over the Spirit.

But Jesus clearly said that he was sending the Holy Spirit to believers to continue the work he began on earth.

While the North American church is stagnant or declining, the Christian church is multiplying rapidly in Asia, Africa and South America.  In those countries, the work of the Holy Spirit is evident, particularly through miracles.

“I believe the number one reason people go to church is not out of need or desire to connect relationally with others, but out of a deep-seated longing to experience and encounter the God of the universe,” says Elliott.

“When people leave church week after week feeling that they have not encountered God, they eventually grow disillusioned, disappointed, and confused.  This, I believe, is at the root of our failing attendance.”

Elliott and his church leaders changed their approach, putting emphasis on worshiping God rather than focusing on programs.  The gifts of the Spirit began to appear in the congregation.

Some people received “words of knowledge” – gaining insights they could not have had except through God’s promptings.  Others gave “words of prophecy” – revelations of future developments.  And there were healings – mostly minor but some very striking.

Elliott says that the leadership learned that sometimes people said things that were more personal wishful thinking than godly leading.  The church developed methods to filter the wheat from the chaff.

As the church ventured down this path, people began remarking on the worshipful atmosphere in the church and the strong feeling that God was present.

Elliott, who went on to become a Bible College professor, says that some left the church because of the new emphasis but more came in.  The change was dramatic – six to 10 times the previous annual growth with most of the newcomers being converts.

For me, he makes a convincing case: The church in Canada needs more of the Holy Spirit.

Boasting about Jesus

Boasting about Jesus is good for God – and for you.

Joseph M. Stowell says “rejoicing in the Lord” flows from exalting God and his qualities.  The apostle Paul did it all the time.

Boasting is frowned upon when we focus attention on ourselves.  But when we turn to Jesus and away from ourselves, we can erupt with thankfulness and praise for who he is and what he means to us.

“This is what the Lord says,” Jeremiah wrote in Jeremiah 9:23-24, “‘Let not the wise man gloat in his wisdom, or the mighty man in his might, or the rich man in his riches.

“Let them boast in this alone: that they truly know me and understand that I am the Lord who is just and righteous, whose love is unfailing, and that I delight in these things.  I, the Lord, have spoken.”

Stowell says in his book Simply Jesus and You that “rejoicing in Jesus is the liberating response that frees us from the endless task of trying to satisfy and fill our selves with ourselves and our accomplishments”.

“It frees us from the endless torment of worrying about being recognized, affirmed, and adequately appreciated,” he writes.  “It soothes fragile egos that are quickly frustrated and irritated when others don’t live up to our expectations or when we don’t get what we think we ‘deserve’.”

It does NOT mean that we put on a false front when we are hit by life’s tragedies.  Jesus wept just as we do.

However, it does mean we consciously give him – not ourselves – first place in our lives.  Jesus must be preeminent.

We are NOT called to run ourselves down when we do something well.  But “we need to cultivate a reflex response that immediately triggers gratefulness and praise to him for enabling us to accomplish what we do”.

“When we are blessed,” Stowell says, “we need to master the response that takes the spark of joy we feel about ourselves and lets it explode into the joy of celebrating his preeminent provision and grace in our lives.”

Paul recognized that his power in preaching and working signs and wonders came from God.  He saw Gods handiwork in his life during good times and bad.  He knew God was working things out for good in his eternal plan for Paul and the world (Romans 8:28).

Let’s boast in God.

Pathway to godly success

Most of us hope to make a success of our lives – perhaps through our careers, our marriages, or our good deeds.

But, do we think about success from God’s viewpoint?

Jesus says in John 15:5 that we can do nothing worthwhile in God’s eyes apart from him.  In that chapter, Christ tells us that we must “abide” or “dwell” in him if we are to bear godly fruit.

The apostle Paul says in Ephesians 2:10 that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”.

But how are we to determine the works that God wants us to do?

The answer, says Robert J. Morgan, is to know God well.  And to know him well, we have to soak ourselves in what God says in the scriptures and do what he says.

“We learn the Truth of God so that we can better know the God of Truth, and a primary way that happens is through meditation,” says Morgan, author of Moments of Reflection: Reclaiming the Lost Art of Biblical Meditation.

He supports his case for godly success by pointing to such great Bible figures as Joshua.

In Joshua 1:8, God tells the new Israelite leader:

“Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.  Then you will be prosperous and successful.”

Morgan notes that it is interesting God did not give Joshua a detailed military strategy to invade the land of Canaan at this initial contact with the new leader.  Instead, he urged him to meditate on God’s words and live by them.

As we meditate, the author says we “begin to see things as he [God] does, and the inevitable result is success”.  But it is “success as God defines it – a joyful life that bears fruit”.

Morgan said he was a shy college student with low self-esteem when he began to meditate on scripture to find out more about God and what he wanted him to do.

So, he trained himself to read the scriptures daily, memorize selected verses, and meditate on them throughout the day.  He would think about Bible passages as he got up in the morning, as he worked during the day, and as the evening came.  He sought God’s help to obey what he learned.

“That was my part, and the rest – the success and prosperity and fruitfulness and blessings – were God’s promises and represented his part of the equation,” says Morgan.

As I noted in an earlier post, Morgan declares that this approach helps to rewire our minds, turning us away from angry, lustful, destructive thinking and towards our loving and just God.

May this be so in my life.

Transforming words

Some years ago, a young university student picked up a stray pamphlet on public transit in Montreal, Quebec, read it and started on her journey to Christ.

I forget the details but I remember her smiling, joyful face as she told her story on a Power to Change campus ministry video a year or so later.  The word of God had awakened her heart to Jesus and faith.

I love stories like this.  It demonstrates the power of the word of God.

I became a Christian when I was 20 after months of reading through the gospel of John with a friend in a boarding house in Ottawa.

I began these evening studies and discussions with no understanding at all.  The good news of Christ was foreign to me.

But, as I read the gospel of John, God began working on my mind and heart.  He opened my eyes to a completely different view of the world and what really mattered in life.

That is the wonder of God speaking personally to each one of us.  He knows us as individuals even though there are billions of people in the world.  He wants us to know him as a person, too.

Many people consider the Bible an historical document, or a description of how people should live, or even a book for academic study.

But that is not how God sees it.  It is God speaking to us and we need to pay attention.

The writer of Hebrews says in Hebrews 4:12: “The word of God is alive and active.  Sharper than any two-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

That’s powerful!

That passage tells me that God’s words can change me.  They strike right to my heart.

Of course, I can reject what God is telling me.  I can even laugh it off.  But I do so at my own peril.  God means what he says.

I thank God that he is patient and compassionate.  He knows me – the good things and bad things in my life.

He doesn’t expect me to know everything instantly or become perfect in my lifetime.  But he does want me to grow as a follower of his.

As I read and ponder God’s word, I learn something more about him every year.  I have come to see that he is overwhelmingly loving, kind, forbearing – but also the essence of integrity and truth and justice.

When I think about that university student in Montreal, I ponder God’s great statement in Isaiah 55 where he promises that his word “will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it”.

God’s word is at work in my heart and in the hearts of many multitudes around the world.