Thursday, October 16, 2014

Exiles on Earth

Far too often Christians regard the commands of God as burdens from which we have been set free. Christ lived the life of following God’s commands for us, and then died in our place so that if we place our faith in Him, we have forgiveness of our sins. Though this is true, it is not where the Christian life ends, but merely where it begins. To place our faith in Christ means that we begin to follow Him, and He is in the complete opposite direction of sin and death. Since logic dictates that one cannot go in two opposite directions at once, we must turn from our sin in order to follow Christ. This is known as repentance, and it is required for the Christian life. I am not advocating a works-based salvation in saying this, but only repeating what scripture teaches (Acts 3:18-19; Acts 20:21). Repentance is not a work that saves us, but is the natural visual representation of our following Christ.
            Therefore, we have not been freed from God’s commands just because salvation is by grace alone. It is true that because of what Jesus has done we are no longer under the civil law dealing with high priests and offering sacrifices, but we are still expected to uphold God’s moral laws. It is important to note that God’s commands are not just some decree that He laid out, but it is the reflection of His holy character. When we become a Christian, we are to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), who is the exact imprint of the nature of the Father (Hebrews 1:3). To say, then, that we are freed from God’s commands is synonymous with saying we are free from God Himself. This is an appalling thought to any true Christian. No, we must strive for holiness in order to experience a deeper relationship with God. These works are done, not to earn our salvation, but to grow us in spiritual maturity.
            Since we are not capable of turning from our sin on our own accord, repentance could also be considered an act of faith. Faith that, by the Holy Spirit, we will be sanctified. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Also, it is written that, “the righteous shall live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4).” It is by faith that we do what the Father calls us to do, not necessarily knowing what the outcome of the specific action may be, but fully trusting Him who is leading us to that outcome. Hebrews 11 lists many examples of Biblical characters that exercised great faith in the Lord. Noah, for instance, had no empirical proof that water would fall from the sky (a phenomenon now known as rain, which had never happened before at that point in time). This water would cause a flood, the Lord warned Noah. Therefore Noah built an ark as he was commanded to do. God’s word held more weight with Noah than his own understanding. Likewise Sarah was, logically speaking, too old to have a child. Yet instead of considering the logic of the situation, she considered the faithfulness of the One who promised. This same faith is what led Abraham to leave all he knew, for the Lord promised him a greater inheritance. This exact promise is true for us today, but just as Abraham had to no longer count Haran as his home to receive his inheritance in a foreign land, we can no longer count the earth as our home. This is why Peter refers to Christians as “elect exiles (1 Peter 1:1).”
            To consider the Lord’s commands as burdensome demonstrates a lack of faith in our future inheritance. The men and women mentioned in Hebrews 11 were not commended on leaving behind earthly pleasures, or the works they performed, but on their faith in God that led them to leave these pleasures behind and to perform these good works. Since faith is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” this means that they truly believed the Lord’s promises to them and viewed Him as far more valuable than even the tangible comforts and desires of the flesh that were directly in front of them. Therefore, they left it all behind to follow the Lord. They did not consider returning to their old land or old ways of life for they saw that their inheritance in the Lord is far superior. Why should this be done out of grief or sorrow? To be sad to leave behind the fleeting pleasures of the world demonstrates a lack of belief in the superiority and permanence of a relationship with God. Matthew 13:44 says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
            Following Jesus is not an easy thing to do, but it brings immeasurable joy. There is no doubting that it will bring about persecution and suffering on this earth, but that is because a Christian lifestyle is so far from the world’s preferences. For God’s character and the wickedness of the world are always in opposition. When we become followers of Christ, we become exiles on earth; when we become exiles on earth, we partake in the promises of God for a greater inheritance. Therefore, we can have peace for “…this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen (1 Corinthians 4:17-18).”
            The Christian can face suffering with joy. The loss of earthly possessions is a reminder of our permanent home in eternity; the loss of loved ones, relationships, and friendships are reminders of our permanent relationship with Christ FOR eternity. The Christian life is often depicted in scripture as a race to be run. This analogy shows that we are just passing through as we make our way to the goal. If we can truly view it like this, then God’s moral commands are no longer the burdens in our lives of which we feel obligated to obey, but they are part of the goodness of our destination. Sins then become the burdens that keep us weighed down in this life, and we must continually remove them from our lives. For sin is of this world, and to refuse to leave sin behind is to call the world our home. Though giving up a sin is almost always difficult, it has never once been regretted by a true follower of Christ.
            We must now realize that apart from God we could not run this race in the first place. Because of our inheritance of sin (Romans 3:10; Psalm 14:3), this world would have been our portion, and hell our final destination. But because of Christ’s work on the cross, we can place our faith in him for our salvation and begin the race of the Christian life. We can also know that Jesus Himself can sympathize with us in our present persecution as we anticipate the coming Kingdom of Heaven. For “…Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).”
            I would now like to encourage any Christian who may be reading this to find a small group of brothers or sisters in Christ so that you can exhort one another daily and hold each other accountable in your fight to become more like Jesus. Tom Wright wrote that “justification is not an individualist’s charter, but God’s declaration that we belong to a covenant community.”

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Extravagant Love

I often hear the phrase, "good things happen to good people." For some reason I hate this phrase, I guess because it is completely opposite of what the Bible teaches. We hear from false teachers that if you give to their "ministries" the Lord will bless you beyond what you can imagine. This is known as Karma. So if your faith is Hinduism or Buddhism your present state of existence determines what your future existence will be like. Prosperity gospels and majority, if not all, of other religions in the world's basis of salvation is determined by your actions, also known as... Karma. I want to hit on this topic because I believe when compared to the Gospel of the Bible it makes the love of God even more radiant because we realize there are no "good people," but there is a good God.

What good people?
Let's start in Romans 3 and Psalm 14. In Romans 3:12, Paul agrees with what David says in Psalm 14:3; "All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one." (Isaiah also hits on this in Isaiah 53:6). So if you claim you are a Christian, you have to also claim that there are no good people because Christians believe the Bible and the Bible says, "no one is good." Ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden our default nature has been set to wicked. And to for your deeds you think are good, let's go back to our pal Isaiah and see what he says about this. In Isaiah 6:5, Isaiah is delivered to the Presence of the holy God and the first thing he says is, "Woe is me for I am ruined." Now I have no Masters of Divinity and I am certainly no Biblical scholar, but what I have do have knowledge that Isaiah is a man of God. He is a major prophet whom God uses to instruct sinners to repentance, so I am willing to bet that Isaiah is further along in his process of sanctification than anybody reading this article and the first thing he says is not, "Oh hey God, boy I'm glad to see you. Look at all these great things I have done." No, he falls to his knees in awe of the holy Creator of the universe and says, "Woe is me for I am ruined." To sum up what is going on here, Isaiah does not go around sinning. He is a man after the Lord, but when he becomes transparent to the holy God, even something he thought was a "small" sin is enough for the wrath of God to be unmercifully poured out on you. That is how holy God is, that even one "little" fib has stained you. I'm closing on the bad news with this, even our best works are still "filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6). So even our best acts of service to others and God are nothing more than a stained rag to Him.

"But God, Who is rich in mercy"
Good thing is that the Bible doesn't stop there. It goes on to point us to even though we are bad people, there is a good God. So now since sins has entered the world, God looks down upon us with grace, not out of obligation, but out of delight and makes a Way for bad people like you and me to be righteous. That Way is Jesus Christ. So this is why the love of God is so immeasurable. To Him, we have absolutely nothing to offer Him. Let's say the boss of a painting company came to me and said. "I want you to work here. I'll teach you all the skills you need to do this job." I would say to him, "Sir, I have no idea how to hold a paintbrush, much less how to use one. If I worked for you I would cost your business a lot of money." Then he replied, " That's alright, I want you to work here, no matter what it costs me." That is how to love of God works.

"Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." - 1 John 4:10 

What this verse is saying is that God loves us despite all of our failures. How amazing and extravagant does that make His love!? Even though there is nothing He needs from us to benefit Him, He still decides to love us, even in our wickedness, He chooses to have mercy and lavish grace on us. I don't know about you, but when somebody wrongs me or does something to make me mad my initial reaction is rarely, if ever, patience and love. But this is God's character. His mercy, love, faithfulness, holiness, and compassion are found in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Jesus lived the perfect life, which He then imputes to those who believe this with the fullness of their heart. I'm not talking about just believing facts that there is a God. I'm talking about believing that there is a God with a love so vast beyond all measure that He would send His Son to die for a human race that has nothing to offer Him, except for a repentant heart that says, "I am a sinner deserving of an eternal hell, but praise be to You for the making the Way to eternal life through Jesus Christ!"

Thank you for reading. Love you guys!


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Mystery of Suffering and how Christians Sorrowfully Rejoice.

Pastor John Piper says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” Which I think most Christians can agree with this when life is going like it should. We do this well when everything is easy and comfortable, but what about when life becomes hard. What is our mindset when loved ones die, a miscarriage occurs, or someone you know is diagnosed with terminal cancer? How can the glorification of God relate to suffering and the pain of this life? Can the Gospel really offer us joy in times of death, heart aches, disease, war, and tragedies?

Why does God allow suffering?

The first thing we need to make clear is that suffering and evil are two totally different things. Evil can coexist inside of suffering, but please don’t confuse the two. God is not the author of evil nor sin (1 John 1:5), but He does allow sin and evil to live in a fallen world. God is totally sovereign over all suffering, and he ordains it to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11). This means even if Satan is involved in your suffering, the Father still has a hand in it. Ultimately God is in control of the amount of suffering we experience and the boundaries of the affliction to the ones He loves (as it was in Job’s case). Satan has no power or authority to do anything. I think a good many people have a problem with this concept. It usually leads to the question “Why would a loving God allow suffering?” I think C.S. Lewis answers this question best in his book the Problem of Pain. Lewis states:

“The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word "love", and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. "Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created." We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the divine love may rest "well pleased".”

We as human do an awful job of misinterpreting the word love and try to make everything about us. So when things aren’t going the way we want them to go, initially we begin to doubt. We raise our fists in the air and complain because things didn’t go the way WE planned. Why is this our initial reaction? Though we may not admit it, sinfully we prefer a god that we can grasp or understand, or a god that would do what we would do.  So when God does something that we can’t grasp or goes against our plans, we claim he is not fair. But ultimately God’s motives is making himself most glorified, and sanctifying us in the process (and sometimes sanctification can be an extremely painful process.)

God’s Intention for Suffering:
In John 9, Jesus and his disciples spot a blind man on the streets. The disciples begin to ask what sin this man committed to deserve this suffering. The disciples reasoned that because of this man’s personal sin he was being punished. I feel we do that at some regards still today. Somehow in Christian circles we have adopted the Buddhist concept of Karma (my actions in the past will affect my future), which is the exact opposite of the character of God. We tend to think someone must have done something terribly wrong to disrupt them from their comforts, but let’s rationalize why the Christian God does not work on the concepts of Karma. If we truly believed that God works on the basis of Karma then there would have been no point in God bringing his perfect son to die the death we deserved. Why? Simply put, we deserve the death Jesus paid in full. If you looked at the core of the theory, if God really worked on the concept of Karma, He would not trade our sin for miniscule deviances of this life. If we truly got what we deserved, we would all perish eternally and we would have no rebuttal. Isn’t it amazing our God is the exact opposite and that He loves us unconditionally to see past our sin because of the perfect sacrifice of his son? Anyways back to John 9, after the disciples questioned why the man was blind, Jesus answered with weighted words. He said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Jesus eventually healed the man, but his suffering was not in vain. Our suffering is ultimately used to magnify the Lord. Even if we aren’t healed from our troubles, even if depression persists, God ultimately uses the ones he loves to magnify himself during tragic times.
Another reason God allows suffering is to show us our dependency for Him. When we begin to be prideful or start to rely on other things to satisfy us, do not think He won’t strip idols out of our life so we can once again fully enjoy Him. God doesn’t do this because he hates us but on the contrary. Imagine a small boy who wants to pretend to be in the army so he picks up a steak knife from the kitchen and begins running around with it. When his father sees him doing this he immediately stops the child and takes the knife away. The child begins crying because he assumes his father is taking away his fun. The same happens to us. When God takes away our physical health, mental capabilities, relationships, and our temporary pleasures we assume he is taking away our joy, but in the moment, we are blinded to his goodness for us. We can’t see his love behind every motive in our lives, protecting us from things that are hindering us from Him.

Joni Eareckson Tada on Suffering:
 I don’t think anyone had a better understanding of suffering than Joni Eareckson Tada. At the age of 18, Tada was paralyzed from the shoulders down during a diving accident. If anyone had a reason to feel sorry for themselves it was Tada, but instead her tragedy brought her closer to the Lord. In her books, Tada states deep truths about suffering. She says, “Sometimes God allows what he hates to accomplish what he loves.”  Tada goes in depth about the compassion the Lord has for us when we suffer: “There is nothing that moves a loving father's soul quite like his child's cry.” She also realized there was more than just physical healing: “He has chosen not to heal me, but to hold me. The more intense the pain, the closer His embrace.” When tragedies do occur, our Father longs for us to look at Him. C.S. Lewis says, “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” When life is dark and we can’t seem to press forward, we have a God screaming at us to cling to Him.  

Why we can Have Hope in Suffering
It would be hard for me to understand suffering if I believed in a God who never had suffered, but I do not have to wrestle with that because my God has suffered. One of the elements that separates Christianity apart from any other religion is the fact God came down to earth to suffer for the ones he loved. Hebrews 2:9-10 says, “But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.”  So when life throws you a curveball, we can’t scream at God for not understanding, because he has been there. He empathizes with us. He matches us step for step through life. Whatever hardship I go through I can rest in the fact Christ went through it first. Suffering allows us to come to the realization that our time on earth is temporary. As Paul states in 2 Corinthians, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” Our afflictions won’t even make a dent on the surface of eternity, and gives me eager anticipation to be in the presence of Him. I long for the day I can run into his arms free from any more pain. As Christians our time on earth is the worst it gets, but we look forward to the kingdom, to eternity. We shall gladly persevere until that day.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. –Romans 21:3-4