Wednesday, October 15, 2014

It's Time to Dust Off an Old Spiritual Discipline

With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes!
Psalm 119:10-12 (ESV)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Colossians 3:16 (ESV)

Today I want to challenge you (and myself) to practice a long lost form of spiritual discipline that Christians rarely do anymore. (I am ashamed to say it has been a while since I have done it.) Let's memorize some Scripture! Before we start though, allow me just a few words in the two beautiful passages above.

There are many benefits to Scripture memorization. The psalmist highlights it as a means of avoiding sin. If we memorize God's commands, then we can avoid unknowingly transgressing against them. Storing up Scripture in his heart is a way for the psalmist to show his whole-hearted devotion to seeking the Lord. It's fitting that Psalm 119:11 should be considered the well spring of the spiritual discipline of Scripture memory because this chapter is not only the Bible's longest at 176 verses but is also one long acrostic poem dedicated to the goodness of God's Word. Colossians draws out a different benefit of committing the Word to memory. The believer should let the word or message of Christ dwell in her richly so that she can teach and admonish other believers, even by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs containing the same truths. I contend that there's no better way of letting Jesus' message dwell in us richly than for us to roll it around in our minds day after day until it is committed to memory. So what are we waiting for!

I suggest that you memorize any or all of following passages of Scripture:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment."
Matthew 22:37 (NIV)
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it."
Luke 9:23-24 (NIV)
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”
Lamentations 3:21-24 (NIV)
Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat— for he grants sleep to those he loves.
Psalm 127:1-2 (NIV)
The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.
Psalm 145:8-9 (NIV)

For further help consider the following:

  • Write a verse that is meaningful to you on your mirror so you'll see it automatically every day.
  • Write the passage out on a note card and carry it with you. Then you can work on memorization wherever you may be. Waiting in line at the store or waiting for a meeting to start at work.
  •  Say the verse out loud repeatedly. Hearing it will help you memorize it.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Crouching Tiger, Devouring Sin

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
Genesis 4:6-7

One only needs to read the first four chapters of the Bible to get a clear picture of how dangerous sin is. Already in Genesis 3 we have been told that sin entered the Garden of Eden in the form of a cunning snake we know to have been the Devil. Now just one chapter later, sin is described as a ferocious animal lying in wait outside a door waiting to pounce upon and devour its! No more fitting a simile for sin than this can be found. Although the Lord speaks to Cain in this passage, His message is just as true for you and me. We must never forget what sin's design is for our lives. In the original language "it desires to have you" is closer to "it craves or desires to devour you." Sin feeds on our destruction. We would do ourselves much good by simply remembering this. So often sin is peddled as fun, as stress relief, as really living it up. So remember this saying out of the mouth of God Himself. In reality sin is a ferocious animal lying in wait to devour you at its first opportunity. Don't believe Satan's cheap sales tactics. For your own good, avoid sin!

The Almighty continues to give Cain a suggested course of action. Literally God tells Cain that he must rule, or exercise dominion over, sin. He cannot allow sin to master him; he must rather master it. This is an interesting phrase given that God gave man dominion over animals at creation. Now after the Fall, increasingly men will have to exercise that dominion with great effort to tame and control animals from harming people. When you stop to consider how much intentional effort and planning goes into exercising dominion over a dog, a horse or even something as grand as a tiger, you get some sense of how difficult it must be to master sin.

We can all think of prominent news stories in which a supposedly tame (mastered) wild animal broke out and killed or maimed its owner, trainer, or some innocent bystander. Whether it's chimpanzees, lions, or horses over and over again we have been reminded not to get too confident in the idea that we have fully mastered any animal. If it is this difficult to master an animal, how much more so with sin.

It isn't until many years later in the New Testament that man would learn that only Jesus can ever truly exercise dominion over sin. For the rest of us, try as we might, we can never fully master it in our own power. Yet those who are in Christ, who have been filled with the Holy Spirit, have been set free from the bondage of sin (Acts 13:38-39Romans 6, & Romans 8:1-4). Sin no longer has mastery over the Christian. Yet, we too must heed God's words to Cain so we do not give in to sin again. We must continually remind ourselves of the dangers of sin, and we must plan and put forth an intentional effort to master this enemy in our lives.

Imagine what steps a man would take if he knew a wild animal were crouching at his door ready to devour him. He cannot stay in his house forever (Proverbs 26:13-14). He must eventually slay the beast. But he will not walk outside with a spatula or a rolled up newspaper. He'll plan carefully and give his best effort to master the enemy or he may die. Dear Christian, even though your soul is secure with the Lord, your life and all that God has planned for you hangs in the balance when you engage in sin. You must seek to master it by learning to walk in the freedom and power that Christ has given you. Do not think that you can embrace sin and somehow avoid its bite. So let me ask you... what ferocious animal, what sin are you inviting into your home, into your life? What sin do you find lying at your door each morning waiting to tempt you when you awake? And what is your plan to avoid it, to master it?  

For further reading...

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Lessons in Philemon: The Gospel Changes How We Live

I am sending [Onesimus]—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.
Philemon 12-17

It's clear that Onesimus had taken great pains with considerable effort to escape slavery in the house of Philemon and head to Rome. So why in the world would he now willingly march right back to his old master? This is a puzzling thing to do! The only thing that has changed since Onesimus has been gone is that he has been saved. I think it's safe to say that Onesimus still shuddered at the thought of being re-enslaved, so how can we make sense of him returning to his old master?

In Paul's letter to Philemon, we have been learning that the gospel changes everything. It changes who we are, how we relate to other people and it also must change how we live. Philemon had an economic claim on Onesimus. An unjust claim to be sure, but a legal claim by the laws of the time. He owned him. Thus, when Onesimus ran away he had, at least in some sense, robbed Philemon. Now that he has become a Christian I believe Onesimus realized that he has wronged a brother in Christ and therefore sinned against God. I know it is hard for us to think this way because Philemon has wronged Onesimus in a far greater way by enslaving him. Yet, the Bible teaches clearly that Christians are not to return evil for evil. We are to turn the other cheek and if someone wrongs us by taking our shirt then we should willingly offer to give them our tunic as well. (Matt. 5:39-40) Having been forgive by God of his sin then, Onesimus cannot fathom willingly sinning against Him in any way. So in one of the most awe inspiring examples in all of Scripture, Onesimus chooses to do the right thing even when it is incredibly difficult.

This is admirable. Clearly the early church thought so as well since church history tells us that Onesimus later became the bishop of Ephesus. A willingness to do the right thing at all costs is part of the change that must accompany the life of any believer. It is all too easy to make excuses for our sins. It is all too easy to use God's grace as a license to sin. Onesimus sets an example for us. The Christian ought to be so dumbfounded by God's forgiveness, that he would go to any length to obey His new Master. We must obey God even when it is incredibly difficult. The gospel must change how we live. What right things have you neglected to do because they just seemed too difficult to you? 

Let me tell you the story of one of my own grandmothers. I was mostly unaware of her life story as I grew up, but one night, near the end of her lucid days just before the Alzheimer's kicked in, my sweet grandmother shared with me the story of her marriage. She met the love of her life when she was only a teenager. He was a bit older, and they secretly got married one night without their parents' knowledge. Some time later they revealed their marriage, moved in together and started a life. Unfortunately, my grandfather became an alcoholic and worse still an abusive one. They raised four children and lived a hard life on the farm. But God always provided and they counted their blessings. After some time, my grandmother could no longer allow herself or her now adult special needs son who was living at home to be hurt physically, verbally, and emotionally. So she took her son and left. On the night my grandmother relayed this story to me, late in her seventies, she looked me square in the eye and told me she always loved my grandfather, she just couldn't live with him anymore. But she knew that marriage was sacred. So my grandmother decided to do the right thing even though it was incredibly difficult. "I never looked at another man," she told me. "He was my husband." 

Many in the Christian community would argue that abuse is grounds for divorce, even if there isn't a specific provision for it in Scripture. I am not sure that I am fully qualified to answer that question, but I am certainly not sitting in judgment of anyone who did turn to divorce to escape an abusive marriage. But what I do know is that my grandmother believed staying true to my grandfather was the right thing for her to do. And she did what she believed was right even though it was incredibly difficult. She is just one of many Christians who have lived out this principle for those around them. They loved God enough to do the right thing even when it was incredibly difficult. And even though their names won't be written down in any history books, the impact of their lives is plain to see on those they have inspired. 

For further reading...

  • If you haven't kept up with the devotionals through Philemon you can read the first one here and the second one here.
  • It should be noted that the Bible does not condone slavery in this letter. It is true that Paul stops short of commanding Philemon to free Onesimus, but he does this because he wants Philemon to act from a heart changed by the gospel. His hope is that Philemon would free Onesimus of his own accord. In fact, this is exactly what we believe happened. Otherwise why would Philemon hold on to this letter and later provide it to be included in the Bible? Paul's tact in this letter is in line with the stance the New Testament church as a whole took on slavery. They sought to indirectly undermine it by commanding believing slave masters and slaves to love one another as brothers in Christ. In time this love created a climate in which slavery could not continue to thrive. Slavery in the ancient world was mostly eradicated as Christianity's influence increased.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lessons from Philemon: The Gospel Changes How We Relate to People

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.
Philemon 12-17

Last week we learned about Onesimus, Philemon's runaway slave. Though his name meant useful, he was anything but useful as a slave. In fact, after some time he ran away, potentially stealing from his master to fund the journey. Onesimus fled to Rome to disappear into the crowds. There he met the Apostle Paul who shared the gospel with him. Onesimus was saved and was forever changed by the gospel. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he began serving others of his own free will. Through Onesimus' conversion story we learn that the gospel changes everything. In fact the entire Christian life can be summed up as the ongoing process of allowing the gospel to change us. This week we see that the gospel must change how we relate to other people.

In the passage above Paul asks Philemon to do a remarkable thing. Paul sends Philemon's runaway slave back to him and he asks him to receive Onesimus no longer as a slave but as a brother in Christ. Moreover, Paul requests that Philemon receive Onesimus as if he were the Apostle Paul himself. Now by the common perspective of the day Onesimus, being a runaway slave, was a criminal. Philemon could have him whipped or worse. Yet, Paul expects better of Philemon based on the gospel. He tells Philemon that his relationship with Onesimus has been changed by the power of the gospel. No longer are they merely master and slave. From this point on, throughout eternity, they are first and foremost brothers in Christ. Whatever else factors into their relationship, this must be considered first.

Has the gospel changed the way you relate to people? Do you continue to manipulate and use people to get your way? Are you stuck in your old racist habits? Or has the gospel thoroughly changed your relationships? Simply put the gospel should be the primary determining factor in how we relate to other people. If a person has accepted the gospel then, no matter what else they are to us, we must relate to them first and foremost as a brother or a sister in Christ. Now this has a whole host of implications for the lives of believers, but here are two. First, it means we must forgive other believers. If God has seen fit to forgive them, how can we refuse?! Second, it also means that we must treat those we date with respect. Hopefully you know the Bible commands us to date only believers (2 Cor. 6:14-15). If the person we are dating is first our brother or sister in Christ then you can't use that person for personal gratification. You must respect them and honor them as a child of God. 

What about those who aren't believers? The same principle holds. The gospel should be the primary determining factor in how we relate to other people. If a person has not yet accepted the gospel then, no matter what else they are to us, we must relate to them first and foremost as a lost person in need of the gospel. Even if they are cruel or mean to us, we must remember that they desperately need someone to show them the grace and love of God. Our every interaction with them ought to be colored by this need. One implication of this truth for today is that even as many Christians experience fear that sharing Jesus with Muslims might put them in danger, we must remember that first and foremost they are people in need of the gospel. Regardless of what happens we must share God's love and grace with them. We dare not return evil for evil. We must overcome evil with love. 

Which of your relationships needs to be changed by the gospel?