Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Syllabus For Life

"And he [Paul] trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise and go....and it shall be told thee what thou must do.”  (Acts 9:6)

A syllabus is a summary or outline most often used to describe a course of study. At the beginning of the school term, it is customary for a teacher to furnish his or her students with a syllabus, so that the student will have some idea where the teacher is headed, and what information will be covered. I thought once, while looking over a syllabus for a class I was taking, that it would be helpful if God furnished such a document to each of us as we began our Christian life, so that we, too, might know what lies ahead. That was my first thought. Here are some of the ones that followed:

In the first place, there are plain commandments in the Bible that one can and should systematically apply to his or her life, if he or she has any desire to fulfill the will of God. Some are even defined as being “the will of God,” and may be taken personally, without ever fearing a misstep. For instance, moral purity (1Thess.4:3); a spirit of gratitude (1Thess. 5:18); and civil obedience (1Pet.2:13-15), to name a few. Beyond this, God deals with each of His children with the same individuality any good parent would. He provides a framework of principles in His Word; counselors to offer sound, practical suggestions; providence to nudge us in the right direction; and, ultimately, the Holy Spirit to say “This is the way, walk ye in it” (Isa.30:21).

I had occasion to offer spiritual counsel to a young woman once, who had (what seemed to her, at least) pressing questions concerning the will of God. I’ve noticed that the devil often takes something good—the will of God, in this case—and uses it as a weapon of  torment. He likes to suggest to us, as he did to Eve, that God knows something He selfishly does not want to share with us (Gen.3:5). But as I wrote to my young friend,

“The will of God is not a deep, dark secret. It’s just not always far-seen. It’s easy to become anxious about our place in His program, rather than looking for day-to-day guidance in the place we are now. So much so that we are in danger of overlooking what may very well be some necessary stepping stones to that program.”

At the time of his dramatic conversion, Paul the Apostle’s question to God was, “Okay, so now what do I do?” Beyond Ananias’ message to him that his ministry would be one of suffering, and that he would preach to groups as widely diverse as Jews, Gentiles, and kings, the only direction he received was to get up and start, and God would let him know what to do next. As my husband would say, “Do the next thing!” Don’t you imagine that if God handed out to each of us a personal, detailed game plan, we’d just “take the ball and run with it,” seldom, if ever, checking with the Captain of our Salvation?

No, God does not hand to us a personal syllabus when we begin our walk of faith, going back to the academic metaphor. Instead, the One who called us unto Himself—He, who is the only truly trustworthy Guidance Counselor—takes us aside, shows us the spiritual gifts with which He has equipped us, and gives us our first assignment. For you see, the will of God is not a once-sought-for-and-acquired revelation. At nearly the same time I heard from the young woman I mentioned, I also heard from another—more elderly—Christian friend, who had some of the same questions she did. One thing my husband and I have been learning in the service of God is that the ministry or place of service may change, but the call to follow Him is life long, and only He knows where and when we will be of greatest use to Him in the battle, at any given time.

I rejoice to know that there is a plan for my life—a syllabus, if you will. I also rejoice that, although I don’t have it, I know Who does. And He will share it with me on a need-to-know basis. This keeps God and me in close contact. And come to think of it, that's not a bad thing.

"Lord, what wilt thou have me to do…today?"

Monday, December 28, 2009

Faith Makes It Work

" For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe." (1 Thessalonians 2:13)

Reading the Word of God, or hearing it preached or taught, brings an awesome responsibility. It may not be heeded, but it will have to be reckoned with. How we hear is just as important as what we hear.

As I see it, the verse above presents both an absolute and conditional promise. Paul promised those who were wise enough to receive the Word of God he preached for what it actually was, the very Word of God, that they could be absolutely sure they were right. There are those who may consider the Bible to be only the writings of men; but that doesn't change the fact that it is not. It is what it is. The only thing their doubts change is the outcome of its effectiveness in their own lives. This is the conditional promise. Unless one is willing to accept it for what it is—God's Word to him or her personally—it is powerless to open to them the Way of Life.

And unless we, as children of God, come the Bible with the thought that God is bringing to us personally a message of hope, instruction, or rebuke, we should not expect it to work at full capacity in our lives. Remember, it only works "effectually," the verse says, "in [those] who believe." Just as "faith if it have not works, is dead" (James 2:17), practically speaking, the Word of God without faith is just as dead, as least as far as its efficacy in our own lives is concerned.

The Bible: Divine authorship makes it true; but faith makes it work. It's the Word of the Living God to you. Appreciate it...appropriate it...then apply it.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Immaculate Conception; Miraculous Birth

“Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.” (Matt.1:24-25)

We are not told directly in Scripture that Joseph was instructed by the angel not to engage in marital relations until Mary was delivered of her Child, so I think it would not be out of order to speculate why he declined to avail himself of the pleasure of her love, as long as we realize it is just that: speculation.

We might think it was because he wanted there to be no doubt in anyone’s mind that this Baby was virgin-born. But if that was his only motivation, it was a waste of his abstinence, as it turned out. The majority of people in their day considered Jesus to be his son, born too soon for legitimacy (Luke 4:22; Jno.8:41). I realize, too, that had Joseph taken advantage of his rightful privilege as a husband, Jesus would have had an “immaculate conception,” but it would not have been a virgin birth.

Aside from the doctrinal and prophetic implications, however, I wonder if there was not a holy impetus that came into play here. When the angel appeared to Joseph (v.20), one of the first things he made clear was this: “[T]hat which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.” It would seem to me that this good man possessed a reverence for God that made him shrink from anything that might besmirch what had now become a holy womb, by virtue of the “holy thing” (Luke 1:35) that had been planted within it. I can understand that.

In the same way, as far as I am concerned, the highest motivation for holy living in my own life has been the knowledge—and recognition—of the Holy Ghost of God that resides within me. Peter says in chapter one of his first Epistle, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever” (v.23). The conception that culminated in my New Birth was germinated with “incorruptible seed,” the Word of God that lives forever. Therefore, it was an immaculate conception, spiritually, just as much as Mary's was, physically. And I, like Joseph, find myself recoiling from anything that would besmirch the residence of a Holy God.

But, unlike Joseph, I do not always exhibit the same restraint. And when that happens, neither God nor I am pleased.

The wonder of Christmas is not only that God came to earth "dressed for the part," as a babe in the womb; but also the fact that Mary's Immaculate Conception, that culminated in a Virgin Birth, can be replicated spiritually in sinful man when an immaculate conception culminates in a New Birth.

This is the wonder and glory of Christmas. Immaculate Conception and Miraculous Birth...Mary's and ours!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Power Walking

"Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith: who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross..." (Hebrews 12:1-2)

According to passages in Romans eight and Galatians five, the Christian life is a walk. Yet, the writer of Hebrews encourages us to run, insisting it's a race, not a leisurely stroll. Well, when you and I are walking at the upper limits of our pace, as fast as we can, we say we are "power walking." And, indeed, that is exactly what Paul instructs us to do in Galatians five: walk in the power of the Spirit of God. Power walking, if you will!

It is usually assumed that the "great cloud of witnesses" referred to in the cited verse in Hebrews is made up of the men and women of faith mentioned in chapter eleven, which seems reasonable enough. But if they are watching, it is safe to say, all of Heaven is, too. And it would be just as safe to say that they are not watching in a judgmental capacity, for there is only one Judge. Rather, I see them as a huge cheering section; who, having finished their own race, are now leaning over the battlements of Glory, calling out such encouragement as, "Go on!" or "Get up!" or "Keep going; don't give up!" or, in my case, "Oh yes, you can!"

In this race—the race of life— it is obvious that any weight that would slow one down should be laid aside; and the truly serious runner will always heed the admonition. In addition, we are not running against anyone else, so we need not gauge our speed against his or hers. It is an individual course "set before us" personally, laid out by God Himself. It must be run "with patience," because it's not a 50-yard dash; it's a cross-country run from this country to a heavenly one.

Best of all, our goal is really not a place, but a Person: Jesus, "the author and finisher of our faith." He was there at the start of our race, and He will be there at the finish. Remember when we used to race as children, and someone would stand at the end with both hands outstretched to the side? When you touched one of his or her hands, you knew you had finished the race. Well, I will know I have finished my race, when my hand touches the nail-scarred hand of the One who "endured the cross" for me."

Till then, by the grace of God, I run!

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Cotton Candy Life

"And he gave them their request; but sent leanness unto their souls." (Psalm 106:15)

It would seem to me that much of life is a trade-off—especially for a woman. If it's God's will for you to marry, as is generally the case, you will have to decide whether you are willing to trade independence for intimacy. If He blesses you with children, you will, most assuredly, exchange privacy for pandemonium! And, spiritually speaking, if you disdain the counsel of God (v.13), lusting instead for the things of this world's system (v.14), God may very well grant your request. But the trade-off will not be worth it. For as one preacher has characterized the people in this text, "They got what they wanted, but they lost what they had."

The resulting leanness of soul that follows a life lived independent of God and Jesus Christ will leave one so hungry that nothing in this world will ever relieve the pangs. It would be like giving cotton candy to a starving man. It might look inviting, exciting even, but it's still just air, sweet to the taste but useless to the body.

Who in their right mind would settle for a good time, when they could have a good life?

This is a terribly sobering verse; or, at least, it should be. We can never alter God's ultimate order, but we can limit His power in our lives, in the present (Mark 6:5). For although we know God is Sovereign, He has chosen to allow us to override His good judgment at times, in order to give us something we think we want. When that happens, you and I have made a poor trade—leanness of soul in exchange for the world's cotton candy.

"Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread...hearken diligently unto me, and eat that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness." (Isaiah 55:2)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Belated Repentance

"Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders." (Matthew 27:3)

I'm quite sure Judas had not thought it would come to this. We can know this because when he realized Jesus was actually going to be condemned, he "repented himself." Perhaps he had thought by bringing Jesus to this confrontation, he could force His hand, so to speak; and He would be obliged to vehemently press His Kingdom rights, thereby vindicating all those who had followed Him. Instead, Jesus was going to die, along with all Judas' hopes for political promotion. And, regrettably, he had been the instrument of His betrayal. And, as we know, his repentance, as sincere and severe as it seemed, was too little, too late.

Here again, we have an example of the awful seriousness of some decisions. We see them as merely precipitating immediate results; but, in reality, they are often the catalyst for unwanted—and worse, yet—irreparable consequences. It is safe to say, I think, that people who postpone repentance until they are backed in a corner, lack the genuine change of heart that repentance requires. This may not always be the case, but often enough to deflect much challenge. Think of Esau (Heb. 12:17). Those who opt for "one more night with the frogs," as Pharaoh did in Exodus 8:9-10, show more tolerance for "frogs" (i.e., sin) than desire for change.

Before we make a decision to embark on a course away from God and righteousness, thinking it will only be a temporary detour from the path of obedience, should first ask ourselves this: "Can I picture myself doing this, or in this situation, a few years from now...without regret or shame?" If not, I shouldn't be in this picture at all. Because, like Judas, our regret may be, well nigh, more than we can live with.

If delayed obedience is disobedience, what is delayed repentance?