Why Should We Be Good?

In his parents eyes there was never a doubt that he had the raw intelligence and ability to excel, but like many kids his age, success in school seemed to be elusive. It was clear that after his first year in High School that something would have to fundamentally change to enable success in his remaining three years.

His  parents rightly understood that the basic issues he faced were related to a lack of focus and clarity of objectives, coupled with the right incentives to help cultivate an internal desire to apply himself and perform at his fullest potential.

They were also aware of studies that demonstrated a correlation between high school GPA  and success in later life. Academic performance in high school had been shown to be directly linked to subsequent success in college and the obtainment of an increased lifetime income. Higher performing students increase their probability of successfully completing a college degree college from 21% to 42%. Additionally, for every point increase in GPA a typical student in high school would expect to see an increase in earned lifetime income between 12% and 14%. (1)

With all of this in mind his parents took a step back in order to devise the best approach to help their son be successful. First they recognized that their son didn’t have the emotional maturity to cope with the distractions found in his current high school setting. Every child is different in their level of maturity and parents need to assess this realistically. Fortunately they understood that there was a difference between chronological maturity and emotional maturity, and that they needed to develop an appropriate plan that considered both of these elements.

To help bring focus and remove distractions they elected to place their son in an on-line learning environment. In this environment all assignments, grades and expectations were clear and transparent to both the student and the parents. Feedback on quizzes and tests were instantaneous.

While this decision helped in terms of focus and clarity of expectations, it still failed to address the matter of motivation of the heart which would be required for their son to succeed.

These parents wisely recognized that motivation to achieve worked best when it came from within. While some level of progress could be made by applying external pressures, the real life-long successes would only come when their child drove himself internally to achieve.

To address this they devised a simple set of rewards that provided quick feedback in practical terms. The on-line education program had a combination of quizzes, mid-terms, and finals as the principle sources for grades. For each type of evaluation his parents created a sliding scale that linked grades to tangible near term financial rewards.

The rules were simple, they were printed and placed on the wall next to his desk. Only grades “C” and above would be eligible for a payment each Friday at the end of the day for the previous week’s of work. Quizzes were worth less than mid-terms, and mid-terms less than finals.

Inside each test category, the financial rewards were structured such that a “C” grade merited a very modest payout, a “B” grade was considerably more, and an “A” would be exponentially more. (Typically 2X the “B” grade.)  This model  recognized that it would take considerably more effort to move from a “C” to a “B” then likewise from a “B” to an “A,” but the rewards were structured to reflect the commensurate effort required as the student advanced to the next higher level of grade performance.

In the first year under this approach his parents saw modest yet consistent improvements across the board. Not only in grades, but in their son’s level of self-direction and discipline to get things done. During this time trust was built as he found that the payout was real each week. He readily spent his earnings on lots of little things and found himself wanting in terms of needing additional cash.

During the second and subsequent years until he graduated from High School, the strategy changed by his own volition. He recognized how much money he was leaving on the table by settling on  “C” and “B” kind of performance and started to aim for “A” level performance.

Interestingly by his own request he elected to not take cash each week, rather he wrote his cumulative earnings on a white board that hung on the wall next to his desk. The growing balance soon became its own source of encouragement and the grades he earned were no longer the goals, they simply became a by-product of his focused efforts, discipline, and perseverance in studying.  At the end of each school year his parents gave him the full balance of his reward and the process repeated itself the next year.

During this period his parents no longer had to manage his homework assignments at a tactical level. He was able to manage his own time and meet all required deadlines on his own. They told him that if he needed help to study or needed to escalate something beyond a teacher to get resolution on any matter, then they were there for him to help him succeed. In the last two years he operated at a near 4.0 GPA!

In some ways many believers and followers of Christ are a bit like that high school student.

In our case God serves as our heavenly parent and much like this boy’s parents, God deeply loves us and desires for us to be in a healthy and successful relationship with him.

The wonderful news is that once we have placed our faith in Jesus Christ we are adopted into God’s  family forever.  Our salvation is secure, even if we subsequently elect to live a life that’s less than honoring to God.  Our eternity is covered by God’s grace and not subject to revocation.  No where in the scriptures are there cases where believers are “un-adopted” by God.

Given the certainty of our eternal security, what then is our motivation to honor God in the way we live out our lives in the here and now?  Why should we be good?

The answer lies in God’s own reward system for us.

Much like the young high school student who watched his rewards grow on his white board as he made healthy choices to do what was right in school, similarly we can be assured that God is keeping our treasure in heaven stored up and safe as we do the right things for God’s kingdom.

Jesus said:

“But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:20, NIV)

It turns out that God has devised a means of rewards that will directly impact our standing and scope of responsibilities throughout eternity. The scriptures tell us that he maintains a record of all of our deeds in this life, and that God knows our hearts and the purity of our motives in the things we choose to do.

The bible speaks of a time when each of us will come before God to be judged. During that time God will first check to ensure that our names are written in the “Book of Life.” It’s here that the names of every believer are recorded. Those whose names appear are granted to join God in eternal life. If not, then they  will be forever banished from God’s presence, sentenced to a place that the bible calls Hell for all of eternity. For those of us that are listed in the “Book of Life” there will also be a review of our Earthly lives and how we lived them out.

The Apostle John mentions in the book of Revelation of other “books” in addition to the “Book of Life:”

“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done.” (Revelation 20:12–13, NIV) –Emphasis mine

Unlike the “Book of Life,” these “books” have recorded within them all the deeds we have done in our lives. These deeds will be evaluated to determine the type and quantity of our reward that God will give to each of us.

It’s critical to note that with respect to this part of judgement, where God looks at the deeds of our life,  that our eternal standing is never in question. Once our names are written  in the “Book of Life” they are never erased. Our God is thankfully a God of grace beyond our own understanding or comprehension.  We cannot loose our salvation because we dropped the ball in terms of how we lived out our lives after receiving Christ as our savior. Rather God’s  review of our life deeds will be used solely to determine the type and amount of our eternal reward that God will give to each of us. The apostle Paul spoke of this idea in his letter to the church in Ephesus:

“Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.” (Ephesians 6:7–8, NIV)

Here we see the idea of God rewarding believers no matter their social standing or occupational standing in this earthly life. Notice too that the rewards given are given to the the individual. That each person will be evaluated based upon individual conduct. There are no group or team rewards given.

In another letter,  Paul writes to the church in Corinth where he shared additional details regarding the day of judgement that each of us will one day face.

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10, NIV)

Observe in this passage that the tone continues with the idea of rewards for conduct. No where does Paul suggest that a believer’s salvation is contingent upon our conduct. This makes perfect sense if we understand our salvation to be entirely based upon God’s grace and not on any contribution on our part:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9, NIV)

Paul speaks of God reviewing both the “good” and the “bad” things that we did while alive in our bodies as believers. He never states that our salvation might be in jeopardy based upon the “bad” things we might have done as believers.

Matthew recorded Jesus’ comments on the subject of rewards:

“For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” (Matthew 16:27, NIV)

Here we can see that those who honor God and who properly use their gifts and resources in this life to further God’s kingdom will be rewarded in his future kingdom.

When speaking on the topic of living out our lives in righteousness, Jesus warned that our motives for doing good things must be pure. God will not reward those whose motives and hearts are not genuine:

“ ‘Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.’ ” (Matthew 6:1, NIV)

Jesus spoke again as recorded in Matthew on the topic of rewards. In the following statements we can see that not all rewards are equal.

“ ‘For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.’ ” (Matthew 25:29, NIV)

Charles Stanley in his excellent book, “Eternal Security: Can you be Sure,” shared the following:

“The kingdom of God will not be the same for all believers. Let me put it another way. Some believers will have rewards for their earthly faithfulness; others will not. Some believers will be entrusted with certain privileges; others will not. Some will reign with Christ; others will not (see 2 Tim. 2:12). Some will be rich in the kingdom of God; others will be poor (see Luke 12:21, 33). Some will be given true riches; others will not (see Luke 16:11). Some will be given heavenly treasures of their own; others will not (see Luke 16:12). Some will reign and rule with Christ; others will not (see Rev. 3:21).

A careful study of these passages reveals one common denominator. Privilege in the kingdom of God is determined by one’s faithfulness in this life.” (2)

Several points come from Stanley’s observations:

  1. Some believers will be very rich in God’s kingdom and others will be comparably poor. (Although even the poorest in God’s Kingdom would be better off than anything they might imagine in their Earthly life.) “ ‘This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.’”  (Luke 12:21, NIV) “ ‘Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.’ ” (Luke 12:33, NIV)
  2.  Some believers will be given true riches because they have demonstrated that they were responsible for all that God gave them when they lived out their lives. “ ‘So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?’ ” (Luke 16:11, NIV)
  3. Some will be given “heavenly treasures” to own themselves and others will not. “ ‘And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?’ ” (Luke 16:12, NIV)

Given God’s perspective and his revealed reward plan for each of us, it’s pretty plain to see that it’s in our best interest to seek genuinely from the heart to honor God in all the ways of our lives. He will reward those that truly seek to place him first in this life. The good news is that it’s never to late to start.

Perhaps you surrendered your life to Christ many years ago and have since not lived a life that you know best honors the Lord. If that’s the case, then come to the Lord in prayer, confess, and then renew your heart. Purpose to live out your life in a way that best reflects God in all that you think, do, and say each and every day.

Do this with the full knowledge that you and I must ask God for the strength to live out such a life; we cannot do so of our own strength and willpower alone. There’s a strong connection between our ability to live out Godly lives and the amount of focus we expend on Christ. The more we focus and invest our lives in Christ, the easier it becomes for Christ to have control over every part of our lives.

Keep in mind that in all of this your salvation is non-negotiable. You and I worship a God that keeps his promises no matter what.

“The Lord is trustworthy in all he promises and faithful in all he does.” (Psalm 145:13b, NIV)

His grace and love are beyond anything we could possibly comprehend. The Apostle Paul reminded us:

“if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13, NIV)

When it comes to our conduct in this life, our eye should be on the eternal rewards that God has for each of us. While God will evaluate each of our lives, we can be confident that he will do so without bias or poor judgment. He will do so with all the facts including our heart motivation. He is a just God and the evaluation will be based upon his standards, and done on an individual basis.  He will not compare my life choices to someone else’s, rather he will judge my heart, my actions, my thoughts as my own. In the end God wants to reward us!

If this idea of rewards is new to you or resonates in some way and you want to move forward with your best effort, then the best time to start engaging is now!

As soon as you’re done reading this devotion, take a moment and pray, commit yourself to a life that seeks the rewards God has for each of us. These rewards are eternal and everlasting in nature; make the conscience choice to stop looking to other people for significance in this life, instead seek to be significant in Christ’s eyes and in so doing build a life that allows you to store up your treasures in heaven.

 

 

 

 

===== Notes ======

(1) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/05/20/heres-how-much-your-high-school-grades-predict-how-much-you-make-today/?utm_term=.7bfa1648e914

(2) Charles F. Stanley, Eternal Security: Can You Be Sure? (Nashville: Oliver-Nelson Books, 1990).

 

Copyright FullLifeWord 2017

 

A Life Empowered

The hike was her first. At age six she needed an occasional hand from her Mom, Dad, or Grandpa to climb over some of the larger rocks and logs that were sometimes encountered on the steep mountain trail.

After an hour of walking on the tree covered trail the path finally flattened out. Tall Ponderosa pines whispered above the four hikers as gentle breezes found their way through the tree’s lofty branches. After a few more minutes of  hiking, the crude trail opened up to a beautiful lush green meadow. Nearby, a small wooden bridge leading to the meadow traversed a little creek that gently gurgled along its banks. Tiny yellow and white flowers dotted the the lush mountain oasis, tended by numerous songbirds, which added to the cheery scene as they sang and chirped while darting with flashes of bright colors through the gently swaying grasses.

This regal meadow scene was surrounded by soaring snow covered mountain peaks that rose like rocky edifices from the earth. The sound of cows mooing in the distance were complemented by the lazy clanging of their cow bells. Evidently a herd of cattle spent the better part of their Summer grazing upon the rich supply of food and plentiful mountain water.

Grandpa leisurely walked the way across the meadow with his granddaughter. Mom and Dad sat near the little bridge on the skirt of the meadow under the shimmering Aspens, taking pictures and watching as the two started their walk across the meadow.

About midway the into their walk, the cows who had been grazing on the other side of the meadow, spotted the two hikers. Being curious creatures, they gradually moved as one group towards them. The little girl watched with fascination as the cows steadily closed their distance.

In time the two were surrounded by fifty to sixty cows, each wearing a copper colored cow bell that clanged with each step they made. Close up the animals were huge! The little girl appeared dwarfed by their presence.

Her Grandpa paused and took her picture with the cows while the animals milled about in the background. The cows kept their distance while looking curiously at them. Soon the little girl pulled out a small yellow disposable camera from her pink backpack, something her parents had given her prior to her big hike to the meadow. She evidently wanted a picture of her Grandpa, ideally just like the one he took of her. He dutifully followed her every direction so that she could get him framed in the perfect picture with the cows as the backdrop.

All the while this was going on, she never once was afraid or concerned about the presence of these enormous animals. Occasionally an independent minded cow would get a little to friendly and try to approach them; but Grandpa was used to being around such animals and would shoo them back a bit.

In her mind why should she be concerned? She was with Grandpa, a man that loved her, who would never place her in harms way. He seemed to understand all the things in the world that she didn’t know about. Certainly he knew they were safe standing on the dirt path in the middle of a mountain meadow surrounded by a bunch of curious cattle. The experience was one she would always remember.

As believers and followers of Jesus Christ, we too should have a similar degree of confidence in our Heavenly Father, just as this young girl did of her grandfather.

For believers our encounters with God are through the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, the one whom Jesus promised would come after his death and resurrection. In our case, we most likely met the Holy Spirit during the period leading up to our saying “yes” to Jesus; for it’s the job of the Holy Spirit to bring about conviction of heart that leads to conversion (John 16:8-11). Conversion is the human’s turning to God. It consists of a negative and a positive element: repentance, that is, abandonment of sin; and faith, that is, acceptance of the promises and the work of Christ.”(1)

From the moment of our decision to follow Christ in faith, we are assured of our place in Heaven. Like Jesus, and because of His work on the cross, we too have overcome death. With death behind us it’s now possible for us to look forward to life in the future with confidence and peace. Charles Wesley once wrote the following lyrics in a hymn that captured this powerful realization of Christ’s work for us. In part he wrote: “Where, O Death is now thy sting?…”(2) Indeed we have much to celebrate when it comes to our decision to respond to the entreating’s of the Holy Spirit and to place our faith in Christ.

Thankfully the Holy Spirit doesn’t simply leave us hanging after we’ve made the choice to follow Christ, He remains steadfast in our lives each and every moment. Jesus told his disciples that through the Holy Spirit they would be enabled and empowered to do works far greater than even He had done in his earthly ministry (John 14:12).

That same empowerment extends to you and I today, as the Holy Spirit is present within each believer. He empowers us to do things that would normally be beyond our natural capabilities and strengths. Yet when we look back through the milestones of God sized assignments in our lives, we can’t help but to acknowledge that our apparent accomplishments ultimately found their roots in God’s empowerment via the Holy Spirit.

One need only to look at the lives of the disciples to see this to be true. In the scriptures we are presented with twelve individuals that accomplished incredible feats in just a few years after their encounter and choice to follow Jesus. They could not have by their own strength managed to have shared the gospel and carried the message of Jesus such that over two thousand years later, the gospel and good news of Christ is still changing millions of lives. Their success was not a function of their own innate abilities, rather it’s origins were from the Holy Spirit. These individuals were associated with the initial spread of the Gospel throughout the entire Roman empire! (3)

Scriptures record that thousands of Jews placed their faith in Jesus (Acts 21:20), and these were not ordinary Jews, they were committed Jews sold out to their own way of life. Luke recorded that these were people that were “zealous for the law.” This would have meant that a choice to follow Jesus was one that likely came with a steep price. Many may have had to give up respected social positions, they were likely rejected by their families and suffered great economic hardships for their choice in following Jesus. Despite the costs they embraced the message of the gospel.

It would seem unlikely that these hardcore steadfast individuals would have given much heed to the message of the gospel were it simply delivered to them by uneducated fishermen, a hated tax collector, and a former Jewish leader (Paul) that abandoned his place in society to follow Christ. Yet they were moved to follow Jesus. Why? Only the Holy Spirit could account for such empowerment. The Bible tells us that many other prominent members of society outside of Jewish circles also believed and placed their faith in Christ (Acts 17:12).

That same Holy Spirit that empowered these normal everyday people is as available to you and I today as it was for the disciples then. I would strongly encourage you to embrace the peace that comes with knowing for certain that death no longer has hold of your life. You need not fear it.

We as believers are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, who is God, and the Bible tells us that God has his best in mind for you and I, and that his best includes God sized assignments that you and I could never accomplish without direct empowerment from the Holy Spirit.

Are you in the midst of a God sized assignment? If so, take a moment and ask God to empower you to accomplish whatever it is that he has set before you. Trust him to give you the abilities and resources to accomplish that which he has desires you to complete.

It is the desire of Jesus that we live our lives and live them to the full (John 10:10) We can only do that if we are in total reliance upon the Holy Spirit to empower us and that we genuinely believe that the work of Christ was sufficient to overcome the “sting” of death.

 

 

 

 

**************************************Notes************************

(1) Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 795.

(2) Logos Hymnal, 1st edition. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995).

(3) G. W. Bromiley and J. Orr, “Christianity,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 661.

 

 

 

 

Copyright 2017 FullLifeWord

 

Peace

Work was only hours away…the little numbers on my bedside digital clock pierced through the darkness, the electronic digits advanced without mercy. A glowing dot on the clock face pulsed with each passing second like a symphony conductor keeping the tempo of time.

As I tried to fall asleep, I could hear the jangle of night sounds emanating from outside of my bedroom window. Periodically cars would drive by, their presence betrayed by the ever-increasing reverberation of their tires as they drew near and then as they faded into the cool night air after the sound of their tires reached its zenith just outside of my bedroom window.

At times these sounds would be supplemented by the “clip-pity-clop” sound of the occasional late night skateboarder as they rolled by on the nearby sidewalk. I thought to myself; Why are so many people awake!? “Doesn’t anyone in this town sleep?

I asked myself; “Where are all these people going and what are they doing awake in the middle of the night? Why aren’t they home asleep?

I considered the possibility for a moment that perhaps they were part of a throng of sleepless zombies; people like me who found sleep elusive.

I wondered if I would soon be joining them.

At long last, after several hours of wakefulness, my eyes became heavy. I sensed I was soon to be enveloped in a blanket of sleep. I felt an inner joy as I became aware of my gradual release from the conscience world. My soft pillow and I merged to become one as I drifted towards peaceful bliss.

Suddenly I was startled awake and wrenched into reality by the raucous barking of my neighbor’s dog!

I was wide awake again.

Oh the frustration!

With all this time on my hands, I found myself thinking once again about work, finances, and waxing philosophically about life.

It seems we have so much to worry about.

The world outside was one filled with ongoing wars and threats of more wars, unstable economics, college bills, debts, health issues, social upheaval, infringements on our ability to speak and worship freely, and the battle of so many contrary ideas that have simply been caught and brought without any real discussion.

Yet there must be a way to find rest in such times. I had to find a way, because I’d come to the realization during my sleepless state of mind that the turmoil of our times were not likely to lessen.

It would be sometime later, while investigating the topics of peace and rest, I found that I wasn’t alone in my sleepless misery on that particular night. After studying the matter I came to the conclusion, at least in the United States, that we’re a driven, over stimulated, and stressed out bunch of people.

In 2016, the American Psychological Association’s annual survey of stress in America had its first statistically significant year-over-year increase in stress levels since it launched its stress measure a decade ago.(11)

In 2015, we were more likely to have experienced extreme stress than in prior times. (a rating of 8,9 or 10 on a 10-point scale). Twenty-four percent of adults reported extreme stress levels, compared to 18 percent in 2014. This represented the highest percentage reporting of extreme stress since 2010. (2)

How are we as a people generally coping with all of this stress?

As you might surmise…we’re not doing a very good job.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 23.5 million people are treated each year for abuse of drugs and alcohol in the United States.(10) Our coping through such means costs our nation dearly at many levels. Translated into dollars, it’s been estimated that our poor coping behavior costs our nation $700 billion dollars a year.(9)

How are we to manage? Where do we turn for a lasting solution? Are we alone in this walk or has someone already shown us a way to experience peace within a world of sustained extreme stress?

It turns out that the problems of extreme stress and the search for peace are not new ones.

Throughout history people have struggled with the pressures of economics, security, and threats of war. Such was the case for ancient Judah.

Between 601-604 BC the Southern Kingdom of Judah found itself in the unenviable position of being under the thumb of King Nebuchadnezzar, the absolute ruler of the Babylonian Empire.

In return for not being squashed and destroyed by the Babylonians, the king exacted a yearly tax, or tribute from his subject states. Such was the case for Judah. If a state failed to pay-up on it’s yearly obligation it was seen as an act of rebellion, and he would send his armies to deal with the recalcitrant country.

During this time the Egyptians and Babylons had been constantly at odds. Judah was often caught in the middle of their power struggles. In 601 BC the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco prevented Nebuchadnezzar from invading Egypt. In due course the leaders in Judah perceived that the Egyptians would ultimately prevail and they made a bet siding with Neco and chose to stop paying its tribute to Nebuchadnezzar.

Things didn’t turn out the way they planned and Nebuchadnezzar didn’t take the news of Judah’s lack of tribute very well. He responded by laying siege to Jerusalem (598-597 BC). When it was over, the Babylonians plundered Jerusalem taking the temple treasures and forcibly deporting many of the Jewish leaders relocating them to Babylon. These were tense, tough times for the people and families that lived in Judah.

Fortunately for most of the population, Nebuchadnezzar allowed them to remain in their homes. The city was basically left intact under an appointed governor by the name of Zedekiah. During this time the people of Judah were under tremendous pressure, living in a volatile place with a great deal of uncertainty and stress.

In times past, when the Kingdom had been under King Solomon, there had been security and certainty. One could plan their future with some degree of confidence. God had blessed Solomon and the people benefited from the resulting peace. But that was then, now under Zedekiah they found themselves in very uncertain times.

Zedekiah didn’t remain faithful or grateful to King Nebuchadnezzar for very long. Things went sour and in 587 B.C. Zedekiah decided to spawn yet another rebellion against the very Babylonian King that had appointed him as governor. Once again, Judah’s faulty decision making was inspired by the Egyptians as they advanced against Babylon, this time under Psammeticus II.

Again Judah bet wrong. The failure of Judah to pay its tribute the second time pushed Nebuchadnezzar over the edge. In 586 B.C. he responded by once again laying siege to Jerusalem. This time he didn’t stop at just laying seige to the city, he sacked it after it surrendered, destroying the entire city and it’s fortifications. He burned the temple, palaces, homes, and deported large portions of the remaining population back to Babylon. (12)

The years rolled by and the Judean captives that had been deported to Babylon had adapted to a relatively secure life, yet it was not a real life of peace for many. They still remembered their past and what it had been like living in Jerusalem and worshiping in the temple that had been the glorious center in the City of David. Their lament over this spiritual separation from their past was evident and expressed from the heart in Psalm 137:1.

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”

By 539 B.C. the Persians under Cyrus had come to power and invaded Babylon under the banner of liberator. In keeping with this theme, Cyrus ordered the restoration of ancient temples while suggesting the possibility of the return of dispersed peoples to their homelands.

In 538 B.C. Cyrus did just that, by issuing an edict allowing the Jews to return to Judah and ordering that the Jerusalem temple be rebuilt. He even contributed some of the funding for this project from his own treasury. (Ezra 1:2-4;6:3-5;2 Chr 36:22-23) In general, most historians painted Cyrus as much more tolerant towards peoples in his empire than his predecessors the Assyrians and Babylonians.

A fellow by the name of Sheshbazzar, who was of a royal Davidic lineage, was appointed governor and entrusted by Cyrus to the return of the silver vessels taken originally from the temple by Nebuchadnezzar. Under his leadership the foundations of the new temple were laid.

By 530 B.C. Cyrus had been killed while fighting in the northeastern areas of his kingdom. His son Cambyses took over briefly before dying in 522 B.C. . His death left Persia in a state of chaos for two years while rivals fought for control of the throne.

Darius I ultimately emerged as the winner and took his place on the throne to rule the Persian Empire.

It was shortly after this time that the Prophet Haggai preached in Jerusalem, during the second year of Darius’s rule, encouraging the Jews to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. It was believed that Haggai was an older man by this time and may have remembered Solomon’s Temple in better times. (Hag 2:3) Haggai shared the following to the people:

“‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”” (Haggai 2:9, NIV)

In the aftermath of war, invasion, deportation, hardships that one could only imagine, the people of Judah simply wanted and desired peace. Through Haggai God promised that He alone would grant such peace.

Many theologians believe that Haggai, in speaking of the peace that God promised, was pointing to the future glory of Christ and the eternal peace that Christ would ultimately bring.

Years later, the apostle Paul wrote of peace in his prayer at the conclusion of his letter to the church at Thessolonica:

“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.” (2 Thessalonians 3:16, NIV)

God is the author and giver of peace and the one solely capable of giving us real peace. Our God always wants to give us good things, and one of the good things He desires to give us is genuine peace.

Much like the times of Judah, we too face turmoil and unrest. Threats from powers outside of our country and division within our country. We are in a state of constant agitation which makes peace, and subsequent rest problematic.

At this point it might help if we try to better describe what peace actually is and what the these passages tell us about peace.

Much of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the Hebrew word used most commonly for peace was the word “shalom,” which has the sense of “health”, “wholeness”, and “salvation.” It’s not simply the absence of strife, which is the most common view of peace that we hold today.

When the Lord told Haggai that he was going to “grant peace” to the people that had came to restore the temple, he used the Hebrew “Shalom.” He was speaking of a deep underlying peace present even in the most difficult of circumstances.

The people that had come back to restore the temple faced a daunting task. After so many years they could not start the restoration of the temple right away because the place had become completely overgrown. Additionally they needed to build shelters and homes for themselves. Add to the whole problem the lack of resources and other logistical challenges, one could see how they might have become very discouraged.

We’re not much different ourselves today. The Evil One never wants us to have peace. Instead he would rather have us to live in a state of perpetual strife and angst. One could make the case that peace and rest go hand-in-hand. Without peace it impossible to rest; and yet rest is what we often find ourselves seeking in order to have peace.

Paul reminded us that when God grants us peace, it’s a peace for “all times” and in “every way.” God’s peace is not a peace that comes and goes. The author of eternal living peace can only be found in Jesus, the ultimate author peace. The scriptures attest to the degree of peace that’s associated with Jesus.

Recall if you will the scene in the Gospel of Luke:

“One day Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side of the lake.” So they got into a boat and set out. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”” (Luke 8:22–25, NIV)

Imagine the scene. Waves were crashing around the the boat, the disciples were panicked believing that they were in imminent danger of sinking. Through it all what did Jesus do?

He slept.

Only a person totally at peace in the midst of a raging storm could possibly sleep under such circumstances. After Jesus calmed the storm with divine power, He asked them; “Where is your faith”? He did so because he was reminding them of how much God cares for them and that even in the midst of a raging storm, Jesus’s silence as he slept did not equate to a lack of awareness and love for His disciples. We should take solace in this wonderful example of God’s expression of love. He loves us even in the midst of the torrents of the storms of life, and that love translates as peace in the moment.

The truth is, his love is the only love that can give us the peace that will allow us to rest in the midst of the tensions and stresses and challenges that this life can dish up. Someone once said that “the legacy of Christ is not advice about peace, it is peace.”

During the that night in which I had so much trouble sleeping, I pulled out my Bible. It was during that wakeful evening that the Lord impressed upon me though the scriptures that authentic and lasting peace can only come from Him, and that if one accepts this fundamental propositional truth, then rest will come. And it did and continues to do so for me.

Has life got you down? Are you having trouble finding the peace that seems to so allude so many? If so ,I would like to suggest that you take a moment and look at what Jesus has to offer. The Prince of Peace has enough peace to give you and anyone who desires it, the gift of peace and the deep rest that follows. His peace is a lasting peace, in fact he offers it as a gift to each of us. His peace is an eternal peace.

C.S. Lewis shared that God and peace are completely interwoven, they’re one. In the end he concluded that “God can’t give us peace and happiness apart from Himself because there is no such thing.”

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(1) https://www.cdc.gov/features/dssleep/
(2) http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2015/snapshot.aspx
(3) https://www.instapaper.com/read/894555129
(4) http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/september/are-us-christians-really-persecuted.html?start=2
(5) https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2016/preliminary-semiannual-uniform-crime-report-januaryjune-2016
(6) https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=76
(7) https://studentloanhero.com/featured/effects-of-student-loan-debt-us-economy/
(8) https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikepatton/2016/03/28/u-s-debt-is-heading-toward-20-trillion-where-its-been-where-its-going-and-why/#57a60a197a25
(9) https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics
(10) https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/treatment-statistics
(11) https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/05/01/stress-negativity-mindfulness/100989170/
(12) Thomas V. Brisco, Holman Bible Atlas, Holman Reference (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998); p158-186

 

 

Copyright FullLifeWord 2017

An Imaginary God

While on-line the other day, I saw a meme that I thought was interesting, thought provoking, and worthy of comment.

The picture was of an old American flag, and written across it was part of an early version of the Pledge of Allegiance. Over the years the pledge, like our Constitution, has been revised to one degree or another.

The caption below the picture read: “I want to challenge everyone to repost (sic) our country’s flag. With the Pledge of Allegiance as it was written.”

Conspicuously absent from this version of the Pledge of Allegiance was any mention of God. (“God” was added during the Eisenhower administration)

Someone added a comment to the post: “The original pledge made no reference to any imaginary being.” (Emphasis mine)

It’s clear that the person positing this particular viewpoint was philosophically apposed to the idea of the existence of God.  Their quick dismissal of  the existence of God belayed their lack of understanding and instead yielded only a personal opinion, which according to William Bullard “is the lowest form of human knowledge; as it requires no accountability, no understanding.”(1)

Sadly we live in a time where opinions often remain unchallenged and are instead  “caught and brought” by the average person without a second thought. Social networks and our society would rather shout down others rather than discuss differing perspectives maturely and intelligently.

It would appear that those whose primary tools are shaming and shouting  are also wholly lacking in the requisite skills of critical thinking. We should not then be surprised to see that God has been reduced to an “imaginary” being without so much as one thought as to why this might be so.

Still it is disturbing, because an opinion left unchallenged soon becomes accepted as reality, and our beliefs about reality, however erroneous they might be, ultimately drive our behaviors. In this instance the consequences are huge and eternal in nature.

Perhaps we might take a step back and engage our brains and do some critical thinking on this matter of an imaginary God.

Let’s look at the view that God is “imaginary.” We might propose a hypothesis to test. Perhaps our simple hypothesis is the statement: “God does not exist.”

To test our hypothesis we should start by defining several key words for purposes of clarity.

1. Imaginary: “having no real existence but existing in imagination”(2)

2. God: “The Supreme Being; Jehovah; the eternal and infinite spirit, the creator, and the sovereign of the universe.” (3)

3. Natural Selection: That process initially described by Charles Darwin in his 1859 book “Origin of The Species” in which organisms evolve by passing on beneficial mutations to their off-spring. Today we describe this as “Natural Selection” or “Naturalism.”

There are many evidences and proofs that have been written over the years that demonstrate reasonably that God is very real and does exist. Whole volumes of philosophical and scientific writings are available that point to the existence of God. So numerous are these that I could not possibly hope to cover them in this space, nor do I desire too. Rather I want you to explore and settle that question for yourself.

The balance of this essay will only tackle a couple of examples in a very brief summary form. I hope that these two basic topics will at a minimum cause you to think and possibly explore this topic in depth on your own.

In the end I fully recognize that it is not mine to change your mind, that I leave to God himself to do. Having said that, it is our responsibility to be certain of what it is we believe, as the stakes are high and the consequences for failing to do so are very serious.

Most of us have probably looked up into the night sky at one time or another and pondered the vastness and beauty of the heavens that surround us. The expanse before us is more than we are able to comprehend and goes on as far as we can see. It’s a humbling experience when one thinks about it.

Our universe has been around a long time, and its a dynamic place. It’s neither eternal nor existing in a static state.

It has a beginning.

This statement sounds like such a simple thought; but it’s a profound thought when one stops and seriously considers its implications.

Interestingly the idea of a beginning of time for our universe was not always so. Until relatively recently, scientists believed our universe to be in a steady state and that it has always existed. Scientists surmised that it had no beginning or end, it just is. In recent years the steady state view was challenged by new scientific evidence that points us to a different model of the universe, an expanding universe that came in to existence suddenly at a specific point in time.

Despite today’s evidence for a dynamic expanding universe, some scientists like Fred Hoyle, a well known English Astronomer, steadfastly rejected the notion that our universe came into existence suddenly and is expanding in all directions.

This sudden appearance of our universe has became known colloquially as the “Big Bang Theory.”  Hoyle worked diligently to support his “Steady State Theory to avoid the conclusion of a Creator.  Years later, Hoyle would ultimately conclude that given ‘the incredible complexity of even the simplest forms of life necessitate a Creator.’ Having calculated that the chances for first life emerging without intelligent intervention at 1 in 1040,000, Hoyle acknowledges a Creator of life.”(4)

The Big Bang Theory, held by most scientists today, offers the best evidence for a universe that has a beginning point in time and is expanding outwards in all directions from a central source or origin.

To date no viable scientific alternatives have been proffered  that offer a better explanatory statement about the start of our universe than the Big Bang Theory.

Even Robert Jastrow, both an agnostic and an astronomer,  concluded in his book “God and the Astronomers,” that “three lines of evidence—the motions of the galaxies, the laws of thermodynamics, and the life story of the stars—pointed to one conclusion: all indicated that the Universe had a beginning” (5)

But if the universe had a beginning, and the evidence is overwhelming in this regard, then one would have to explain the origin of matter itself. At some point before the advent of our universe there was no matter or energy. Just nothingness.

Physicists and astronomers alike have concluded that matter cannot simply come into existence from nothing. Yet for our universe to have a beginning necessitates exactly that event. Thus the effect of matter being created must ultimately be rooted in a cause. Given no known scientific evidence to assert the creation of matter from nothing via any known natural cause mechanism, one can reasonably conclude that the creation of matter from nothing likely falls into the purview of the supernatural.

British astronomer Stephen Hawking summed it up well: “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator.”(6)  Jastrow said that “there are what I or anyone would call supernatural forces at work is now, I think, a scientifically proven fact”(6) The only known source of supernatural power that has the express ability to create matter from nothing is God.

The universe is a tough topic to wrap our minds around when evaluating evidence for the existence of a Creator. Alternatively we could also look closer to home for additional evidences that God in not simply a product of an over active imagination. Examining biological life itself strongly suggests an intentional, powerful, and intelligent element in the origins of life.

Natural Selection, a theory popularized by Charles Darwin in his 1859 book “Origin of the Species,” suggested that life came about and exists today as a result of a series of gradual unguided processes that depends upon the transmission of advantageous random mutations from generation to the next.

Darwinian Natural Selection Theory has failed to adequately explain the complexity of life as we know it today.  In 1859 Darwin had no idea about the inner workings of a cell, DNA, molecular biology etc.

There are many complexities about life that scientists are only just now starting to grapple with, particularly with respect to Natural Selection. In his book “Darwin’s Black Box,” Biochemist Michael Behe observed that certain cell structures have many interdependent components that are reliant upon one another so that a cell might function and survive. Should any one of these components fail to exist or operate properly, the entire organism would cease to function or would never have come into being in the first place.

He described this observation as “irreducibly complex” and defined this state as a “single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.”(8)

He observed that such systems would have to have all their components produced simultaneously in order for the organism to survive and carry any beneficial trait into subsequent generations. His observation of the existence of such systems in life are in direct conflict with the well versed theory of Natural Selection, which  depends upon individual changes happening in a series of successive and gradual generation to generation modifications over time.

To illustrate irreducible complexity in a simple way; think of an old fashioned  mousetrap as a simple system that is irreducibly complex. A basic mousetrap has a spring, the metal mouse whacker that actually dispatches the mouse, a small bar to hold the metal whacker, a trigger, a staple to hold the metal bar in place, and of course a piece of square wood that would be sized to fit the above mentioned components.

In this example, if any one of the components did not exist or failed to function properly, the mousetrap could not “survive,” if we define survival as a functioning mousetrap.

Individually these parts have no capacity to carry out the function of trapping mice. In fact there is no “advantage” of  survival to the mousetrap organism in having one or two of these individual parts. It’s only when they come together simultaneously that the trap will function properly and survive.

Behe points to several specific biological examples of this type of irreducible complexity that defy a naturalistic explanation in living organisms. There are many, but a few he mentions include vision, the blood clotting cascade, antibodies, bacterial flagellum, cilium, and many other complex biochemical processes that are too numerous to elucidate here.

The massive advancement of science and knowledge since Darwin’s publication in 1859 have demonstrated many areas of biology that cannot be adequately explained by the simple model of  natural selection alone.

With all of this in mind, it’s perplexing to think that one could dismiss out of hand the idea of a Creator. From a cosmological view we are dealing with a power so fantastic that it could create matter from nothing, and in a moment in time our entire universe was brought into existence. The magnitude and enormity of  that moment cannot possibly be grasped. Not only did our universe come into existence, it did so in a way that defies all known laws of physics.

From a biological view, how can the simplicity of natural selection, a theory based upon the scientific knowledge of 1859, explain the design and complexity of biological life as we know it to be today? How do we explain design in living systems? After all, the only known  source for design is intelligence. Design does not originate from any other known cause. The complexity of life could not happen in an unguided, random chance process as proposed by those that believe in a naturalistic view of life.

There are of course many other evidences for the existence of God and I would encourage you to explore these in detail.

These include but are not limited to:

1. The Anthropic Principle
2. Information Theory and DNA
3. The Kalam Cosmological Argument
4. The Thomist Cosmological Argument
5. The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument
6. The Moral Argument

In the end each of us must weigh the data and decide for ourselves. The stakes are high, in fact they are eternally high. This is not a simple philosophical and intellectual debate for which there are no consequences. Don’t allow peer pressure, social media, or political correctness to stand in the way of applying the raw intellect that each of you poses to resolve this for yourselves.

In the end all roads lead to a choice, and each of  you will make a choice and live with the eternal consequences, either positive or negative. The fork in the road will be in the person of Jesus Christ. The choice is either to accept Him or to reject Him; its that simple.

For each of us our decision will be a willful and intentional one.  God will judge each of us solely on the question of his Son when we stand before him one day. Our ability to enter Heaven or to be condemned to eternal separation from God, will hinge on the entirety of God’s grace and your personal decision regarding Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

=================Notes===============================
1. https://themindsjournal.com/tag/bill-bullard/ , viewed Feb 22, 2017.

2. Inc Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1996).

3. American Dictionary of the English Language, Noel Webster, Foundation for American Christian Education; Facsimile of 1st edition (June 1, 1967)

4. Frederick Hoyle. The Intelligent Universe. London: Michael Joseph, 1983.

5. Jastrow, Robert. God and the Astronomers. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. p.111

6. S. Hawking. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

7. Jastrow, Robert. God and the Astronomers. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992. p.15, 18

8. Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; Apollos, 2011), 306.

 

 

 

Copyright FullLifeWord 2017

 

 

 

Bringing Positive Change by Seeking to Understand First

Some years ago there was a young lady who traveled for the first time to a very poor part of the Dominican Republic. Her name was Rebecca, and she went with a group that volunteered their time to build homes for the poorest of the poor. When I speak of “homes,” keep in mind functional simplicity. The finished product was a basic structure built upon a crude concrete slab, hardly a home by most standards, little more than a shed in most places. But for many of the recipient families, these structures might be the first reliable and safe homes they have ever known.

In recalling this first visit to the Dominican Republic, Rebecca shared that she knew very little Spanish at the time,  but each day she made every effort to communicate and practice her language skills as she went about her duties during her stay. One day, while walking to a job site, she encountered one of the many children that played in the streets. The young girl was about ten years old. She asked what Rebecca’s name was, so she told the little girl that her name was “Becca,” thinking it would be easier for her to pronounce than “Rebecca.” The little girl looked perplexed and said “Bocca?” Rebecca replied; “Becca with an ‘eh’,” she told her. The girl seemed surprised as her mouth slowly formed “Bocca” again.  After a “conversation” that was part verbal and part sign language, they parted ways each going about their respective day.

The following day they once again met, but this time at the work site. On this particular occasion there where a bunch of kids that had joined the little ten year old to watch Rebecca help build a  house. During the course of the day, Rebecca noticed that every time she walked by the kids, they would ask her her name and then whisper “Bocca.” Immediately thereafter, everyone in the group would break out in uncontrollable laughter. The laughter would soon die down until she had to walk by the group again, and the entire process would repeat itself.

Finally, in mock anger, Rebecca tossed down her gloves in frustration and asked “what does ‘Bocca” mean?” One girl looked at her and slowly replied, “Cow.” That’s when it hit her, they where saying “Vaca,” Spanish for “Cow.” It was then that everyone, including Rebecca, broke out in laughter. It was an amusing moment and illustrated for her how difficult it was at times to understand some of the nuances of  language. But it also proved to be a learning experience for her as well, and in the end this clarified understanding of her name resulted in a deepening bond between her and the families she was serving.(Reflections: A Journey to the Dominican Republic)

One of the greatest challenges we often face in life is in the ability to simply understand accurately what another person is attempting to communicate. While we may not always agree with what someone might share, it’s important that we at least ensure we understand and can articulate their position back to them. In this way they we might confirm our understanding of what they just shared to us.

Over the years I’ve found there are times when I’m not the best listener, and I don’t always practice good communication skills like feeding back the topic to the speaker to ensure I actually understand their perspective. I have a feeling I may not be alone in this regard.

As followers of Christ we are actively living in a culture for which we and others we encounter may not always agree. If we are to influence our culture positively, we need to start by first ensuring that we understand and can distinguish our own views from that of the popular culture around us. This first step is necessary so that we know upfront where we are in agreement and where we might be out of alignment with popular ideas.

Scripture says that just as we have been brought into a right and healthy relationship with God through Jesus Christ, we’re to help those around us see the same love and grace that God has bestowed upon each of us, and to communicate His desire to be reconciled with each person. In that way, we are to be  “ambassadors” for Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

Our credibility for engaging the culture around us must be founded in our genuine love for those with whom we engage. Jesus said that our love for one another would be the way in which others would know that we are followers of Christ. (John 13:35 ) The scriptures share that if our love for others is not real, than we’re no better than a loud gong or clanging symbol. We’re just another voice in an already noisy world of erroneous beliefs. (1 Corinthians 13:1 )

When we encounter a contrary cultural viewpoint, we should always start our conversation by asking the Lord for wisdom and knowledge on how best to respond. Secondly, we need take the high road and not plan on “winning over” the person for whom we are in conversation. Rather, our goal is to hear out the other person’s position completely without interruption, and then to respond in a manner that leaves them with something worthy of consideration that cannot be easily swept aside.

Greg Koukl, author of numerous resources on apologetics, suggests that our primary tool in separating fact from fiction in any conversation is “reason.” In his book, “Tactics” he pointed out that the Apostle Paul often appealed to reason and other practical approaches to engage others around him. (Acts 17:2-4) Koukl also suggested that our conversations should be handled fairly, reasonably, and with a high degree of grace. In fact, we should allow enough room for our own views to be challenged with evidence, reasoning, and from Scripture.

The bottom line is that when discussing cultural values that run contrary to God’s desire for those whom he loves, we need to keep in mind that our goal is to testify by word, deed, knowledge, and reason. We’re not to take personal responsibility to change a person’s heart. That’s the job for the Holy Spirit. Heart change is something that happens from within, and only God can move a person’s heart. But that movement often starts by engaging the mind. That’s our job.

Don’t be discouraged when conversations don’t go as planned. Each encounter is an opportunity for us to learn. Accept that we personally may not succeed in seeing a person’s perspective change immediately, instead remember that in love, and as an ambassador for Christ, the purpose of our conversation may simply have been to lay the groundwork for positive change in that person’s life for some time in the future.

Spiritual Identity Theft

In our home we have a nice file cabinet where we file away our receipts from bills we pay each month. We retain this level of detail for a few years and then once a year we dispose of an entire year’s worth of old receipts. For security reasons we don’t just toss these documents in the trash, they’re shredded first. Shredding paper is not exactly a speedy task and I really don’t like to spend my day doing it. Fortunately my son loves to watch the paper get shredded and when he was old enough, he wanted to do the shredding for me. With that in mind I have learned to call upon him when its time to get rid of a bunch of old files.

This year as he was shredding some old records, we were talking about why we have to shred all these papers. Our conversation lead me to think about an incident that occurred a few years ago.

One day while driving to work, I took a few minutes to stop at a local service station near my home to buy some gas. After pulling up to the pump, I got out of my car, located my debit card, and inserted it into the card reader to start the purchase process. Instead of the normal prompts the reader came back and informed me that my card was declined.

“How could that be,” I thought to myself. “There’s plenty of money in the account, I wonder what’s going on?”

I ended up using my credit card to complete my purchase. After arriving at work, I took out my debit card and called the 800 number on the back to speak with my bank and find out what was going on with my debit card.

After several minutes of proving who I was, they informed me that the bank’s anti-fraud software had determined that my debit card had been compromised in the early morning hours.

My card had been used in another city at several locations where I had never visited before. I was told my card had actually been physically duplicated by a special counterfeit machine that can make cards from data that identity thieves are able obtain in any number of ways. In most cases these thieves never actually need to see your card to duplicate it and use it fraudulently, they only need the number that’s printed on the card. Typically they can obtain these numbers from anyone that handles cards and are willing to commit a crime to sell the numbers to identity thieves. (Today’s cards have embedded chips which greatly reduce the ability to duplicate credit or debit cards in this manner.)

In the end the bank issued me a new card and informed me that I would not be liable for the fraudulent charges that had been incurred.

As I learned more about identity theft and fraud, it turned out I was one of the lucky few. Many people have had it much worse, loosing a great deal financially.

In 2015 there were 13.1 million victims of identity fraud. Over the past six years fraudsters have reportedly stolen $112 billion, that’s about $35,600 per minute in fraudulent transactions. An absolutely staggering figure!

With the right personal information, fraudsters can wreak havoc on the lives of their victims. All of this has made detecting fraud a multi-billion dollar business unto itself.

Businesses and government agencies are constantly tasked with determining if the identity of the person in front of them is valid and trustworthy.

As believers we too have an important task in front of us. Protecting our own spiritual identity. Our spiritual identity is under constant attack by the one of the greatest fraudsters of all times: Satan himself.

Jesus described Satan as the “Father of all lies” and as one who’s native language is the lie. (John 8:44)

 It turns out that one of the greatest and most ingenious acts of deception ever foisted upon humanity is the belief that Satan does not exist.

A nationwide survey conducted by the Barna Group and published on April 13, 2009, revealed that 40% of individuals who profess to be Christians believe that Satan “is not a living being but is a symbol of evil.” (Barna Group, 4/13/09)

The fact that such a lie has managed permeate mainstream Christianity is a testament to its deceptive power.

What’s even more interesting is that the same study reported that about “half (47%) of the Christians who believed that Satan is merely a symbol of evil nevertheless agreed that a person can be under the influence of spiritual forces such as demons.” (Barna Group)

These are disturbing statistics and they suggest that God’s people and the church body have failed to take steps to prepare themselves adequately against this most fundamental level of spiritual identity theft.

Max Anders, author of the “Holman New Testament Commentary,” shared that we as believers need to be able to recognize when deception is at play in our spiritual lives.

He suggested that in some ways we need to follow the model of the banking industry. Anders shared that banks often train employees to recognize a counterfeit bank note by having them only study real bank notes. They never study counterfeit currency. This approach trains their minds to easily spot the counterfeit when it shows up.

It follows then that believers need to study God’s word, and meditate on His word with such frequency that they will easily be able to identify and address erroneous statements, viewpoints, opinions, or worldviews.

Of course facts themselves are not enough to ensure adequate protection against spiritual identity theft. We must also be in a close relationship with Jesus. We worship a God that invests Himself personally in our lives. (John 3:16) Relationships take work to be successful. We need to have such a close relationship with God that we are able to quickly hear and know his voice when we hear it. Jesus said; “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27)

It’s important that we be able to hear and be able to discern God’s voice with confidence when He speaks to us through the Holy Spirit, scriptures, prayer, fellow believers, and through life circumstances.

In the end our true spiritual identity is rooted in the fact that God created people to live in fellowship with Him.

The scriptures share that when God created humanity, he did so by creating us in His own image.(Gen 1:26) In this way we are inextricably linked to our creator.

Our challenge then is to not allow anyone to steal that which God desires for us. Protecting our spiritual identity is not without work and investment on our part. We need to become so familiar with scripture and God’s very character and nature, that we will immediately recognize when Satan is floating a fraudulent concept past us.

There are at least five things we can do to protect our spiritual identity:

1. Read the Bible daily: Pick a reading plan of some sort or use one of the many “read through the Bible in a year” resources that are available.

2. Study the Bible: It’s one thing to simply read the Bible, but another thing to study it. There are numerous resources available, many through local bible based churches. Dedicate a once a week deep dive study session for yourself.

3. Pray daily: Prayer is a time to connect with God in real time. A time to speak and to listen to God.

4. Connect with a church: Plug into a local church family where their foundation for faith is based upon the Bible.

5. Participate in Bible studies: Engage with a small group Bible study group or Sunday school group.

These are only a few ways in which you can deepen your relationship with Christ and your understanding of God’s word.

It is my prayer that at a minimum you would take the above ideas to heart, and overtime become mature enough to be able to discern for yourself those instances where ideas and proposals are in opposition to God’s very nature. And in so doing, protect your spiritual identity.

Of Streetlights And Clouds

I found that as I moved towards adulthood that I started to trade my wonderment for God’s creation for the knowledge that I gained about the world God has created around us.

The sensation of this process was akin to coming to a specific knowledge of how a certain magic trick was performed. Suddenly the wonderment is gone. I feel like I need to work harder in life to retain my sense of wonderment, curiosity, and amazement of God’s creation around us. It speaks volumes of who He is.

Kids are the best at trying to explain God’s world around us. Often their innocent explanations are something that we as parents smile at in our hearts as we ponder their view of the world. My son shared with us when he was six years old that he had concluded that the evening fog that would move into our area each night, and then retreat in the morning, was generated nightly from the top of streetlight poles as everyone slept. Even as an adult he still doesn’t recall how he came to this insightful conclusion. But it was funny nonetheless.

At times I take great personal joy in viewing the world around me with such a simplistic perspective. The other night I stepped outside to an unusually clear night. I could see the stars scattered about, dotting the night sky; each pinpoint of light shining it’s way toward our humble planet. The scene reminded me of a passage from the Psalms:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.”  (Psalm 19:1-4)

The perfect placement and precise operation of all the planetary bodies that taken together represent the creative genius of our Heavenly Father. Indeed I was humbled as I stood there and observed the night sky. It is the most beautiful masterpiece of creation and it shows up every night. I thought to myself how much more I need to stop at times and really pause to appreciate the amazing world that God has created for us.

I hope that after you read this that you might take a moment tonight, step outside and look up into the night sky and enjoy the greatest light show ever made. If you miss out tonight, I guarantee that there will be another show tomorrow.

Staying in Step

When I was a growing up one of our family traditions was to vacation in South Lake Tahoe in the Summer. We would stay for a week or or two in a small two bedroom house that my parents would rent from a friend.

During our stay one of our favorite activities was to visit the beach. The beaches on South Shore at Lake Tahoe are beautiful, the coarse tan colored granite sand is warm and doesn’t blow in your eyes, and there are plenty of places for a kid to run and have fun.

The shoreline itself has a very gradual drop off which allowed us kids to wade and play with our inner-tubes and float toys in relative safety. Given it was a lake, we were also absent strong currents and large waves. Of course my parents always kept a watchful eye on us and didn’t allow us to wade out further than we could stand.

The snow pack fed water itself is cold and crystal clear. It remains cold even on the hottest of Summer days.

As a kid I remember that it was a process to initially get into the water and get comfortable with the cold.The warm sand would feel so nice and toasty on our feet and taking that first step in the water was a real eye opener. But we gradually would wade in, and and the longer we remained in the water the more we grew accustomed to its very cold nature. Soon we would find ourselves swimming, splashing, and snorkeling looking for whatever would catch our eye, completely oblivious to the cold water and the potential dangers of hypothermia.

Thankfully my parents recognized the importance for us to get out of the water and warm up periodically. Usually after about thirty minutes or so they would call us out of the water and have us sit on our beach towels in the warm sand and get warmed up again.

At times we would practically be blue and freezing and yet we would insist through our chattering teeth that we weren’t cold and “could we pleeeessse stay in the water a little bit longer? “

Like my parents, my Heavenly Father loves me and wants the very best for my life. He wants me to live my life in a way that will maximize my relationship with him and allow me to receive His many blessings and gifts. His Word is our guide and helps us to discern how to make wise choices and how to avoid poor or even dangerous choices in our lives.

I was thinking the other day about how easy it is to gradually fall into ways of thinking and living that God desires to protect us from. Thankfully, God has provided us with direction and guidelines in the scriptures for how we as believers should live out our lives in a way that is consistent with God’s nature while promoting health and well being.

In the end, life is a balancing act; on the one hand we are to live in this world and engage authentically as believers, but at the same time we must guard our spirit to live out our lives in ways that are pleasing to God.

The following passage from the Psalms caught my eye because it not only illustrated so well the ease by which we can get out of step with God, but it also prescribed the means by which we can stay in step with God and be sensitive to His direction in our everyday lives.

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:1-2 ESV)

If we look carefully at this passage we can see a progression that the Psalmist is attempting to warn us about. In our pluralistic culture today, it’s easy to shift from viewing life through the lens of God to viewing life from the lens of those around us who may not even know or value God.

As we read this passage from the Psalms observe the progression of movement away from God as three steps:

1. “counsel of the wicked”
2. “stands in the way of sinners”
3. “sits in the seat of scoffers”

Lets take a look a the progression of each one of these steps.

“Counsel of the wicked”

Here the term “wicked” speaks directly to those that are ungodly. In other words those that either don’t know God or are actively opposed to God.

We are constantly bombarded with counsel from those who have no place for God in their lives. We receive such counsel through personal conversations with non-believers, magazines, social media, email, television shows, movies, news channels, schools and universities, and even well meaning but misguided or ignorant fellow believers.

How many of us have had the experience of receiving advice or accepting a perspective on a topic without having taken the time in our busy lives to test the validity of the idea being shared with us.

Many pop cultural ideas are simply caught and brought without a second thought. They seem to make sense of the surface, they fit our cultural norms and are politically correct. But perhaps they’re really not what they seem if we dig a bit further.

It’s amazing how group think can give validity to an idea, and once it gets going it takes on a life of its own. No one stops to think and say “hey…does this really make sense?”

To put this in real down to earth practical terms let me share with you the following true story.

I had an acquaintance of mine that was very well educated, a believer and a real all around nice guy. But he had one weakness…he loved the idea of getting rich quick and making a fast buck.

Some years ago he invested money in a financial organization that was making consistently above average returns. These were substantial returns, one that common sense should have sounded on as being suspicions.

But a combination of relying upon himself, pride, and failing to take a moment and really seek out God on the wisdom of this investment, all came back to haunt him a couple of years later when the investment went belly up. He lost most of his life savings. It turned out the investment was a classic Ponzi scheme.

By the way, none of us are immune to such things, that’s why it is so important to stick close to the Lord. We must be constantly alert and pay close attention to ideas and who they come from. Lets face it, many people in this world do not know the Lord, and in fact, many actively oppose God whenever they have an opportunity to do so. It’s really up to us as believers to take that extra step and seek out God’s wisdom.

Don’t just accept an idea or a proposal as true, no matter how popular the belief in this idea might be without first slowing down, praying about it, and asking God to show you if the idea or proposal makes good sense.

If you think this is a new issue, think again. There was a was a time in our world history where people universally believed that the Earth was flat and that if one sailed long enough they would simply sail off the end and fall into oblivion.

Popularity or social acceptance of an idea does not make and idea true. It’s got to be backed up by something. Ask the Lord to reveal to you through his word, through the Holy Spirit, and through the counsel of Godly men and women if an idea should be embraced as true.

“stands in the way of sinners”

The word “way” might be better translated from the Hebrew as “in the manner of” or “to be like” something or someone in our actions.

At this point the Psalmist moves us a little deeper into the water that takes us further from God.

It’s one thing to listen and act on advice that is in opposition to God, but yet another to adopt a way of life or follow a life pattern of someone other than our Lord Jesus.

I have always found it interesting that there are times I will encounter a person who claims to have a personal relationship with Jesus, but when I see their life choices, it’s clear that they’re not modeling them after the things that God desires for his children.

In fact I have met a number of people for which I would never have known they attended church or had any affiliation with God had they not said so directly to me. There was nothing in their actions or views that suggested to me of an existing relationship with God.

I once knew a salesman who worked for a company that sold equipment to a variety of customers. I personally had a very hard time relating to him because he was rather offensive, often making inappropriate and off-color jokes and comments about others. He frequently would use God’s name in vain in his conversations as though he where just talking about the weather. Nonetheless I would live out my life as authentically as possible doing my best to represent the Lord. One day the Lord opened up an opportunity to share about spiritual matters. You can imagine the shock I had when he shared at one point in our conversation that he was a member of a particular church and considered himself as someone who believed in Christ.

His lifestyle would never have testified to me in supporting his claim to be a follower of Jesus. We can’t live in both worlds; either we love the Lord or we don’t. Jesus said that if we love Him we would keep his commandments.  (John 14:15)

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15, ESV)
The only model we should ever rely upon for our lives is Jesus. We should never look to others to modeling our lives after.

“sits in the seat of scoffers”

A scoffer is one who derides or mocks another for what they believe or value.

When we look at the term “scoffer” we see a person that has become proud in themselves and in their way of thinking.

To “sit in the seat” suggests a person that has now fully and intentionally aligned, adopted, and is prepared to defend a life that in is opposition to what God values. Even to the extent of mocking fellow believers.

This person has been “taken captive” by the values of the world around us. Paul, in a letter to the church in Colossi, which was directed to believers and followers of Christ, said the following:

“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8, ESV)

Here he’s warning us that even as believers we are susceptible to being taken captive. We must always be on guard.

Paul reminds us that as we live out our lives, that we remember we are in effect a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. When we live in this way we are actually expressing our love and worship for our Heavenly Father.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  (Romans 12:1, ESV)

In what way can we learn how to live our lives in a manner that is acceptable to God?

The Psalmist gives is a couple of clues:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”  (Psalm 1:1-2 ESV)

1. Delight in the Law of the Lord

2. Meditates day and night

Delight in the Law of the Lord:

The “Law of the Lord” speaks of the teachings or instructions from God. Psalm 119 makes it clear that the Law refers to the whole truth of God and is not limited to just the literal ten commandments.

The scriptures are not so much a book of rules, rather they teach the principles of God’s word. We see some of these principles expressed in many of the parables that Jesus shared to the early believers.

For example, Luke recorded that Jesus taught the principle of prayer and the relational nature of prayer and the importance of our attitude when we pray. He concluded this parable in Luke 18:1-14, ESV.

“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14, ESV)

The principle being taught here is one of humility before God when we pray. We can apply this in our own lives as we approach God in prayer.

When you and I are seeking advice and counsel on any matter, our backdrop needs to be the scriptures and God’s teachings. It doesn’t mean that we should never consider advice from non-believers, but when faced with a decision as to whether to follow such advice, we should consider whether or not we are acting consistently with God’s character in mind.

I deal with many different professionals in my life as many of you may as well. Contractors, doctors, car mechanics, CPA’s, lawyers etc. These folks are very competent in their area of expertise and yet they’re not necessarily all believers. My goal in this life is not to isolate myself from people in our world, after all Jesus certainly didn’t, but to engage the world around us in Truth. God’s Truth. In the process of obtaining professional advice, we’re not to adopt or follow such advice if it is inconsistent with the principles taught in the scriptures.

For example, suppose my CPA advised me to do something a little on the grey side on my taxes so that I could save some money, like pad my donations to make them slightly larger than they really were. If the dollar amount was small, the likelihood would be that if I fudged this a little no one would ever really find out. But in light of the scriptures I would know that in effect I’m stealing.

The Lord knows our hearts. We might be able to hide something from others, but not from the Lord.

“O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from you.”  (Psalm 69:5 ESV)

Violating God’s principles have an extended impact on those around us. By ignoring God’s counsel we compromise the integrity of our witness to others.

What will my CPA think of me now? How will he see me as being anything different than the ungodly? In fact, my refusal to “pad my donations” would itself offer a point of conversation about Jesus. All of that would be missed if I allowed myself to violate God’s principles on stealing by taking the advice to pad my donations.

“Delight”

But we’re to do more than simply learn about God’s teachings, the scripture says we should actually “delight” in the teachings of God.  God’s word should be something we actively seek and want to read and learn from.

It’s like being in love. When we’re in love we want to know about the other person; their dreams, what they think, we want know everything about them, and we want to be with them all the time. That’s the intent of this word “delight” in this passage.

It seems then that if we delight or take pleasure in God’s instruction from the scriptures, that we would also desire to think about them all the time. They should never far from our mind and heart.

“Meditating Day and Night”

The second element of wisdom that the psalmist provides us with is this idea of meditating on God’s word day and night. In other words, we are to constantly keep God’s principles and his word in mind as we go throughout our day. There’s never a time when we shouldn’t think about how life’s choices play in terms of God’s word.

Personally, I enjoy reading and studying God’s word. It’s a joy for which I can find no equal. I am no scholar for sure, but God has provided me with wisdom in many challenging situations in my life. Sometimes I have wondered off the path and taken advice without testing it against God’s word, and when I do I’m quickly corrected.

I trust the Lord, but I’m also a weak human and capable of making poor choices. I’m certainly not above having made my share of mistakes and I know I will make many more before this life is done. But by the grace of God I pray that I will always take the time to seek His face when making choices. I pray that I seek His word and guidance so that all that I say, think, and do will honor His name.

I pray the same for each of you today.

Where Our Treasure Lives

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34, NIV)

My wife is without a doubt my very best friend in this life. Over the many years of our marriage we have traveled through countless life challenges. A great deal of our success in navigating through the storms of life has been our common love for Jesus. It’s been through our common love of our Lord that we have learned to value the things that God values, and in so doing we have benefited as He has poured out His richest blessings upon us.

Over the years I have had the pleasure of learning what it means to “cherish” when it comes to life’s most important of relationships. I cherish my wife and have come to recognize that the things of this life have little value in comparison.

There is a proverb in scriptures that says; “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.” Now I don’t know what a bunch of rubies might be worth these days, but I completely concur with the sentiment of the writer of this proverb. Indeed, whatever they’re worth pales in comparison to the value of my love for my very best friend.

It turns out that our heart priorities are not only important in our earthly relationships but also in our Heavenly relationships.

Our heart is connected most to the things in life where we invest our time, energy, and resources. From this one might deduce what we value most. In terms of my Heavenly relationship with Jesus, I have made the conscience choice to invest and store my treasures in things eternal, in living out my life in a way that most honors God’s heart. My choice to do so is motivated as a simple expression of my gratitude to a gracious and loving God that has always had my best interests in mind.

While it is true that my salvation through Christ is due entirely by God’s grace, and not by anything I could ever do myself, (Eph 2:8-9)  I do make the choice to treasure my relationship in Jesus through prayer, the study of His word, and in living out my faith authentically and practically to those around me. It is my desire that my family, co-workers, friends, and even total strangers see God’s love expressed in the manner in which I live out my life. (John 13:35)

The scriptures remind me that my love for my wife is to be measured against the standards that Christ has established and not my own. Having said that, the scriptures share that I am to love her just as Christ loved the church; with the heart of a servant, unselfishly, and sacrificially. (Eph 5:25) In this way she would know the degree in which I cherish her in this life.

Similarly, in my daily life it is my desire to live out my life transparently and authentically, honoring Jesus in all that I say and do so that others would see His love for them lived out and expressed in practical terms.

Opt Out of the Fear Prison

“So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.” (Acts 12:5)

It’s hard to escape the reality of the news these days. The world around us seems so out of control. Even close to home I sense the stress of a broken society. It’s reflected in our abandoned value systems where we once cherished character traits such as honesty, truthfulness, and honor in our word to one another, along with commitment to respect those in authority over us, whether at work, school or even in our homes. We have become disconnected from a system of values that were ultimately founded upon God’s principles for successful living.

We instinctively sense and the scriptures confirm that “God is not a God of disorder,” so when things are in disorder and disarray we know something is very wrong. Scriptures tell us that when individuals care more about themselves, abandoning Gods values in favor of pursuing self through envy and selfish ambition, “then we find disorder.” (1 Corinthians 14:33, James 3:16)

Such disorder leads to fear, which drives its own set of unhealthy behaviors that are manifested and reflected all around us.

Fear is an interesting topic. There are different kinds of fears in life, and not all fears are bad. Some fears are about the physical world we live in; fear of fire, heights etc. When viewed in context I would characterize these as “safety fears.” They remind us to respect the physical laws of our world so that we lessen the chance of hurting ourselves in our day to day living.

In the spiritual realm there’s something I describe as “reverent fear,” it’s a respectful fear of God, acknowledging His vast creative and saving power in our lives. This type of fear is one that helps us recognize God’s role in our lives, it reminds us of our total dependency upon God’s grace and provision for everything, even the very breath we take.

Then there is what I would call “foreboding fear.” This type of fear is the fear of an unknown, a dread of impending or possible distress or misfortune that might befall us in the future. It’s often founded and reflective of many underlying and deep personal fears within ourselves. It builds until it’s resolved, and until it is resolved, it can grow and become a paralyzing fear. It’s the kind of fear that can isolate us from those around us. It’s also the kind of fear that if left unchecked can take over and overshadow any joy that we might have in our lives.

This kind of fear is a type that the Evil One would desire believers to embrace, because it signifies that our reliance and confidence in the Lord has been replaced by the temporal concerns of this life, even if those concerns are of a great value and weight.

The Apostle Peter faced such fears. He and many others had been rounded up by the government because of their faith in Christ. (Acts 12:1-19)  King Herod saw that the popular religious leaders reacted favorably to the arrest of James, brother of John, and so he had Peter arrested as well.

Peter found himself in prison, alone with his fears, locked and shackled with a bunch of guards to keep an eye on him until after the Passover celebration was completed. He may have been there for several days; plenty of time to think about life and how brief it might soon become.

While he was in prison his brothers and sisters in Christ were praying for him. Prayers are to bring glory to God, and He always answers our prayers, even if we may not always understand the answers at the time.

God had plans for Peter that had yet to be fulfilled. He allowed Peter to remain a prisoner right up to the last minute, until the night before his trial which would have no doubt ended poorly. That night, God sent an angel who freed Peter from prison and allowed him to escape. Not for Peter’s sake, but for the future purposes that God had in mind for His kingdom.

Peter was genuinely surprised by his escape and it was clear that he did not fully grasp what God had in store for his future.

I’ve often wondered what Peter might have been pondering while in prison. Perhaps he reflected on his trust in God for all of the past parts of his life, which included the complete and total forgiveness of his past sins. Perhaps he thought about the fact that he also trusted God for his future, when his physical body would one day die and be received by Jesus into Heaven. Hopefully after all of his pondering and thinking while he was in prison, that he concluded that even in his current state, as hopeless as it might have appeared, that he should feel the peace of trusting Jesus for the present since he had already trusted Him for his past and his future.

Of course such trust for the present can only be possible after we’ve resolved in our minds and hearts that the God we worship is big enough and powerful enough, and loves us enough to always be with us no matter what may happen in this present earthly life.

I cannot say with certainty that either I or my family will remain safe from harm’s way in this world. Even Jesus himself was not kept from death, yet in His death we now find life. But I can say with certainty that I have had to make the intentional choice to trust God for whatever future might unfold for either myself or my family.

Our walk with Jesus is a continuous journey of surrender…and surrender again, and again. Ours is to surrender the very people that we love the most. Our Heavenly Father did exactly that with His son Jesus. He surrendered that which was closest to Him, the person he loved the most. And he did that for you and me and the countless many who would come to follow Christ in the years to come.

My prayer is that the Lord would give you peace and security in your heart and mind, and that in that peace your strength and hope would be renewed.