The Synergy Of God And Man

One of the things I find inexplicable is God’s choice to work in and through us humans. I mean, the infinite chooses to use the finite, the perfect, the imperfect, the omnipotent using the weak, the holy working through the sinful. It’s too transcendent for me to grasp, but apparently, according to Scripture, God is pleased to include us.

First He gave us the God-like responsibility of dominion over the rest of creation.

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:26-28 – emphasis mine)

After the Fall and the flood, He worked through individuals such as the judges He sent to liberate His people from their oppressors, and He worked through nations such as Egypt who provided a safe haven for His people as they grew stronger.

More astounding, He worked through prophets who relayed His messages, given through visions or direct communication. Similarly He worked through a variety of men to produce His word, the Bible, and this is perhaps the best illustration of the synergy of God and Man.

God inspired the Bible. Put another way, the Bible was God-breathed. According to one Biblical scholar,

inspiration is the act of the same Spirit controlling those who make that knowledge known to others
(see commentary from the Blue Letter Bible)

Peter had this to say:

As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. (1 Peter 1:9-10 – emphases mine)

The prophets prophesied but the Spirit of Christ predicted.

Each author retained his own personality and wrote from his own life experience, in his own style. Hence, the Bible is God’s word but Moses was the author or David or Joel or Paul or John.

This unique hand-in-glove way of working, stronger than “partnership,” gives us a picture of salvation, too. God gave His Son, imputes righteousness, provides grace and mercy, and yet Man is to repent and believe. He is to “lay hold of that for which also [he] was laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12b).

(For more on how this synergism works in respect to salvation, see “Monergism, Synergism, and God’s Image, 2 of 2.”)

As believers we have the experience of having the Holy Spirit living in us, such that we are His temple, and yet we aren’t “possessed” by Him. We can quench Him (1 Thess. 5:19) or grieve Him (Eph. 4:30) and we’re commanded to be filled with Him (Eph. 5:18), as if this is a volitional thing on our part.

In addition, God gave us work to do. He commissioned us to go into all the world and make disciples. In much the same way, Jesus commissioned his disciples to go to the towns and villages where He Himself would come, but they went ahead, teaching and healing and casting out demons.

Our pastors will often say we are the hands and feet of Christ in our world. It’s an image Paul created in Colossians (see 2:19) and elsewhere — Christ is the head of the church, we are the “joints and ligaments,” the ears and nose. And the point is that we, as incredibly inefficient as it seems, are to do God’s work here and now.

In using the finite to show grace and forgiveness, the Infinite One receives glory. It’s an amazing plan, and I am so in awe that He would deign to use the weak, the marred bits of pottery, that He might even use me. What a great God!

Published in: on August 21, 2015 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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What Are We Believing If We Believe In Jesus?

reading-the-bible-835822-mThe Bible says in John 3:16 that whoever believes in God’s Son will have eternal life. Jesus Himself spoke those words.

The Gospel writers sprinkle evidence throughout their books that Jesus was that Son. Consequently, we would be accurate to say that whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life. But what exactly are we to believe about Jesus? That He existed? That eternal life is in Him? That He is God’s Son?

Perhaps we should start by saying what this phrase does NOT mean.

We are not to believe that Jesus was a good example. Yes, He was, and we are to follow Him, to live as He lived, to obey what He said. But doing all that is 1) not possible apart from supernatural power; and 2) not going to give us eternal life. We know this from the totality of Scripture.

Let’s use a sobering example. Say a married man is unfaithful to his wife just once, but in that one act of infidelity, he contracts a venereal disease. No matter how faithful he acts from that time forth, he will not cancel out his faithless act. His fidelity is what he owed his wife all along, and giving it to her before or after his adultery does not scrub out the faithless act or its consequence.

So too, if someone says he believes in Jesus as a model for how to live, good for him. If he could actually do so, he would now be living as he should have all along. But this new behavior would not scrub away the life lived in contradiction to Jesus’s example. In other words, living as Jesus lived cannot bring that eternal life John 3:16 promises.

Believing in Jesus also does not mean believing that He will make this life more comfortable for us or that He will fix our heartaches, keep our loved ones safe, help us to get a better job, or make us better wives or husbands. He may do those things. But the truth is, He wants to do more.

Two missionary couples were killed some years ago by Somali pirates. If their belief was in Jesus making them happy, they must have been sorely disappointed when their yacht was captured. I suspect they were not, because their chosen mission was to distribute Bibles. I suspect, therefore, they believed the Bible and knew that their lives were about more than comfort and ease.

Not long after, an LA fireman who died in the line of duty was buried, his funeral televised for all the area to see. His pastor, among others who spoke, gave a stirring testimony of this man’s faith — not in Jesus who would give him a comfortable life, but in Jesus who assured him of eternal life.

Believing in Jesus is also not taking to heart His teaching. Like the challenge to live as He lived, this one is also impossible and insufficient.

What, then, does it mean to believe in Jesus?

First it means to believe in who He is — God’s Son, the promised Messiah, the suffering Savior, the risen Lord, the soon to return King.

Second it means to believe in what He has done — while we were yet sinners, He died for us, bearing the punishment we deserved for our wayward hearts and willful rebellion; then He rose again that we too who were dead in our sins could be alive to God. We also must believe that His sacrifice as our substitute is sufficient to reconcile us to our Holy God. That, after all, is the point and purpose of the promise — eternal life means life with God enjoying his abiding love and fellowship and presence, here in part, after this life in uninterrupted fullness.

Published in: on August 20, 2015 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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Faith vs. Reason

A_starry_sky_above_Death_ValleyToday Some years ago I heard a sermon by Alistair Begg on the life of Abraham (actually, at the time still using the name Abram). At one point Pastor Begg said something like, When faith comes up against questions, then the questions have to go.

He was referring to 75-year-old Abram, having believed God when He promised to give his descendants the land He’d brought him to, confronting questions ten years later: How long do I have to wait? Is this really going to happen? Maybe I misunderstood and this nation will be built through my servant who stands to be my heir.

No, God said, your descendants will be as numerous as the stars.

So, another thirteen or so years pass, with missteps along the way. And when Abram knows it is impossible for he and his wife to have a child, God renews His promise.

What’s Abram to believe? His rational understanding of the way the world works (he knew his body was as good as dead when it came to procreation and he knew his wife was past her child-bearing years), or the promise of God? His reason, or his faith?

“And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness, and he was called the friend of God” (James 2:23).

Abraham believed God.

He didn’t hope something into existence without cause and against all odds. Rather, he believed God was powerful and completely true to His word. He believed God was not limited by what Abraham had heretofore experienced. (I’ve never seen a 99-year-old man father a child, so it can’t happen.)

Oddly, this kind of faith is out of vogue. Well, I suppose it isn’t so odd. After all, Satan, a liar and the father of lies, has been lying about God and His work and plan since those days in Eden. Then along came modernism, buoyed by rationalism. And we have professing Christians saying things like this:

Our earlier understandings of Creation and of most Christian doctrines no longer make sense because we now know more about Creation, that is, we know more about God’s acts as Creator. We’re capable of higher understandings.
– Acts of Being: Updating Thomistic Existentialism

So why, I wonder, wasn’t Abraham justified by reason instead of by faith?

Published in: on August 19, 2015 at 6:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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The People Who Couldn’t Smell – A Story

1417178_yellow_roseOnce upon a time in a country far, far away, tucked into an isolated valley, there lived the Tsiehtas, a group of people with only four senses. They could see and hear and feel and taste, but they couldn’t smell.

One day a visitor from neighboring Htiaf arrived in the valley. He admired the quaint cottages and well-kept lawns and beautiful gardens. But when he stopped beside a rose bush and pressed his nose to a blossom, a smile came over his face.

“This is the most fragrant flower I’ve ever found,” he said. “You have a real treasure in your valley.”

The Tsiehtas looked at the visitor suspiciously. “No offense, sir,” said the lord high counselor, “but there is no such thing as ‘fragrant.’ Certainly we appreciate the beauty of the blossoms, and for that reason we treasure our roses.”

“No fragrance? Of course there’s a fragrance. A sweet, rich scent that lingers even after I move to another part of the garden.”

“Ha-ha! You have a rich imagination … unless you are trying to intentionally propagate deception.”

A crowd begin to gather.

The visitor raised his voice. “Please believe me. I’m not making this up. The scent is so strong it overpowers that of the newly cut grass.”

“You think grass has a scent, too?” the lord high counselor said.

The crowd laughed, but one small boy dropped to his knees and buried his face in the grass. “I do think I smell something,” came his muffled voice.

“Nonsense and fairy tales. We have no evidence that ‘scent’ exists,” said the lord high counselor. “Show me this fragrance you speak of.”

“How can I show you that which is invisible?”

“And how can we believe in something without any proof?”

“I’m your proof! And so is my young friend here.” The visitor patted the little boy’s shoulder. “The fact that we can smell these scents is evidence they exist.”

“Hardly. Another visitor might arrive tomorrow and tell us the sun smells disgusting. Should we believe him, too?”

“What about this boy, one of your own?”

“You said yourself, he’s a boy. He’ll grow out of his fantasy.”

Sadly the visitor from Htiaf turned away. “How can I convince the Tsiehtas the scent is real when they can’t smell? If only I could give then the sense they are lacking!”

Published in: on August 18, 2015 at 6:00 pm  Comments (7)  
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The Oregon Christian Writers Conference

Agent Sally Apokedak at Red Lion Inn at Jantzen Beach, Portland, Oregon

Agent Sally Apokedak at Red Lion Inn at Jantzen Beach, Portland, Oregon

I number of years ago, I had an editing client, Carol S. Fitzpatrick, from Oregon whom I met when she and her husband were down in Southern California. They came to church with me, then took me out to lunch. We had a delightful time and became friends. I not only edited her middle grade novel but a nonfiction project she had—a help for classroom teachers in their task of teaching reading.

More than once she told me that I really needed to go to the Oregon Christian Writers Conference. Even after we both attended Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference (which I love), she told me how wonderful the Oregon one was and how she was sure I’d like it.

As it happened, another couple friends, agent Sally Apokedak and author Jill Williamson also raved about what a good conference OCW is. Well, I finally got my chance to go, and they were all right. The carrot on the top, though, is that I attended as a presenter, not as a conferee.

From start to finish, the conference was wonderful. Several weeks before the event I received a handwritten note from the prayer team with a beautiful, detailed prayer for this newbie. I suspect there’s a standard template they use from year to year, but that doesn’t minimize the effort, thought, and prayer that went into that note.

I had a very disruptive email glitch right about the time that Things Were Due for the conference. Except, I didn’t know that these things were due, nor that the things I was sending hadn’t gotten through. In spite of this, the organizers of the conference, in particular director Lindy Jacobs, were kind, professional, and unruffled.

We worked around the problem while I discovered what was happening with my heretofore exceptionally reliable email provider which I’d long recommended for its attack on spam without disrupting legitimate communication. (Needless to say, my faith in my email provider has taken a hit).

The overall feeling I have of this conference is calm. Yes, there was an air of excitement among the writers as they registered that first day. You could tell they were anticipating the conference with joy and expectation, but there wasn’t a frantic rush to get the attention of the top agents (there were more agents in attendance than I’ve found at any time at Mount Hermon).

There was a variety of “Coaching Classes”—morning instruction by a single writing professional centered on a particular topic. Sally Apokedak taught “Middle Grade and Young Adult Novels That Sell,” for instance, while Karen Ball taught “Taming the Most Common Fiction Dragons” for beginning writers, Jane Kirkpatrick taught “Weaving Story Threads in Fiction” for intermediate writers, Nancy Ellen Dodd taught “The Language of Screenwriting” for screenwriters, and Randy Ingermanson taught “How to Be an Insanely Great Indie Author.” There were others, some fiction, some nonfiction, some on marketing. The point is, there really was something for everyone.

On top of these great Coaching Classes, the afternoon included a wide variety of workshops (including “Blogging And Blog Tours—The Whys And Wherefores” by yours truly). There were also a couple panels—an editors’ panel the first day, then an agents’ panel on day two.

The evenings included excellent talks by our keynote speaker, Pastor Ed Underwood (Church of the Open Door in LA), followed by Night Owls—a pitch session one night (led by Jill Williamson, teaching writers how to pitch their books to editors or agents), a critique clinic the next (led by me, giving writers the opportunity to have the first three pages of a manuscript critiqued by a small group), and an autograph party following the awards ceremony on the last night.

Meanwhile, writers could sign up to have 15 minute appointments with agents and editors to pitch their work or ask questions.

The thing that I think set OCW apart from others I’ve attended were Mentoring Appointments. These were half hour writer-to-writer meetings. I had the opportunity of serving as a mentor and realized after a few appointments how great this aspect of the conference is. The other writers weren’t pitching me something. They simply needed someone to listen, offer advice, and pray with them.

To be honest, they were similar to the parent-teacher conferences I participated in during my years as a middle grade teacher. Then I was answering questions about how a parent could help his child do better in school. In the mentoring appointments I was offering advice about how the writer could help his writing project in one way or another.

That’s a bit of an over-simplification, but the point is, people often need a neutral individual with some experience to give them guidance. These mentoring appointments offer that opportunity to conferees.

Would I recommend the Oregon Christian Writers’ Conference? Absolutely! Would I return as a presenter? In a heartbeat if I were asked. It was a wonderful experience and I met some great people, reconnected with others I’ve met throughout the years. For instance, Sally Stuart, founder of The Christian Writers Market Guide, was there, and I was able to thank her in person for endorsing my first writing book, Power Elements Of Story Structure.

Author Jill Williamson, winner of the 2015 OCW Trailblazer Award

Author Jill Williamson, winner of the 2015 OCW Trailblazer Award

I was sitting with Jill Williamson during the awards when she won the 2015 Trailblazer Award. I attended Sally Apokedak’s Coaching Classes. I met Ben Wolf for the first time and was able to congratulate him for his engagement and for winning the book award in speculative fiction. I had a delightful dinner talking with Susan Maas, a long time member of the Oregon Christian Writers Association responsible for the conference. I met Sherrie Ashcraft and Christina Tarabochia who founded Ashberry Lane, the publisher whose author Angela Ruth Strong won the Young Adult/Middle Grade Book Award for The Snowball Fight Professional.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Great time hanging with writerly people. Such a wonderful conference.

The Cost Of Loving A Neighbor

The_Good_Samaritan007Once upon a time “roadside assistance” consisted of some kind stranger stopping to help a person in need. I grew up watching my dad pull over to help a needy motorist with a flat tire or to give him a lift to the nearest gas station.

Once when we were crossing the desert (The Great American Desert, somewhere between Los Vegas and LA), my sister called for my dad to stop the car. She’d seen a little boy on the side of the road, she said. The “little boy” turned out to be a young man, but he was indeed out in the desert alone. With some hesitancy my dad agreed to invite him to join us.

Those were, in fact, changing times, when hitchhikers might actually be robbers or worse. The common wisdom had shifted. Motorists were to be wary of strangers. Someone who looked like she was in need of help might actually be bait for nefarious schemers planning to take advantage of kindhearted people.

More and more, “kindhearted people” began to disappear.

Now it is news when a stranger acts selflessly on behalf of someone in need, when a “finder” doesn’t turn out to be a “keeper” but a “returner” instead.

What society seemed to discover was that there was a cost to helping others. Not only were fewer and fewer willing to pay the price, we actually had public service announcements warning us not to try to be heroes. Don’t try to stop the robber or pick up the hitchhiker. Let the professionals handle it. Because getting involved is costly.

Then came the day when Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York with thirty-eight witnesses ignoring her screams for help. She lived for fifty minutes after the first attack. A more recent retelling of the event suggests that only fourteen people actually witnessed the attack and that several phoned the police, to no avail. Still, the horrific event stirred people’s conscience and had them asking whether we had become too disconnected from each other.

Some have even referred to the case as the antithesis to the Good Samaritan.

Which is precisely the point.

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in answer to the question, Who is my neighbor? The story revealed that the hated Samaritan who went out of his way, spent his own money, risked his own life, made himself religiously unclean, was in fact the one who acted like a neighbor to the mugging victim.

Loving a neighbor costs. Sometimes in rich western societies, it’s easy to throw money at hurting people. Certainly money can be a help to someone who can’t pay the rent or who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. But I wonder if that isn’t the easy out. We can write a check and don’t have to get our hands dirty or our schedule disrupted.

The fact is, the needy person might not be a random stranger, but the person across the street. The help might be weekly visits to a lonely person or doing grocery shopping for someone elderly. It might be volunteering to mow a lawn or to take on the watering. It’s hard to think about adding someone else’s needs to our own already overly busy schedule. How can we possibly love our neighbors as we love ourselves when we really don’t have time to do all we know we should be doing in our own family? After all, love costs, and sometimes the price just seems too high. After all, those people across the street are strangers . . .

Published in: on August 14, 2015 at 6:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Compelling Quality Of Love

People write songs about love — usually the romantic kind — and make it the centerpiece of a great deal of fiction. Christ said there is one chief commandment but another close behind, and both of them involve love.

Paul narrowed things down to faith, hope, and love, only to conclude that the greatest of those is love.

Jesus said the greatest love was for someone to give his life for another:

Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

Donald Maass in his writing instruction book Writing The Breakout Novel identified two character qualities that “leave a deeper, more lasting and powerful impression of a character than any other” (pp. 121-122). One trait is forgiveness and the other self-sacrifice.

Maass, who to my knowledge doesn’t profess to be a Christian, went on to say, ” As for self-sacrifice, is there a higher form of heroism? It is the ultimate expression of love and as such is about the most powerful action a character can perform” (p. 122 – emphasis mine).

Love draws us. It lures us and entices us, woos us and wins us. We are moths to its flame. If we can’t look away from an accident, we can’t stay away from love. It is compelling.

The world is moved by amazing love. Some years ago Kent Whitaker, a man I met at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference, appeared on Oprah to talk about Murder By Family, the book he’d recently published.

Kent’s wife and son had been murdered and he himself had been wounded in the attack. In the days that followed, he came to realize that he needed to forgive the man who had taken those he loved. Only later did he learn that this person was his surviving son.

What caught Oprah’s interest in his story? Was it the irony? The tragedy? Or was it the amazing forgiveness of a man who knew himself to stand in need of forgiveness too.

Oprah Winfrey used Kent Whitaker’s story to highlight forgiveness even under the worst possible scenario. If Kent Whitaker could forgive his son for murdering his family then surely we can learn to forgive those who’ve done much lesser evils. (from “Kent Whitaker on the Oprah Show”)

But this brings us to the point I want to make. As compelling as love is, trying harder doesn’t make it possible for us to forgive.

Corrie ten Boom testified to this when she came face to face, after World War II and during her talk on forgiveness, with one of the guards involved in her Nazi internment.

Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’

And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course — how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.

‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out — ’will you forgive me?’

And I stood there — I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven — and could not forgive. (excerpt from The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom)

Of course the story doesn’t end there. Corrie could not forgive, but God did. What’s more, He could provide Corrie with the wherewithal to forgive as well, and He did that too.

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion — I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then. (excerpt from The Hiding Placeemphasis mine)

Love is compelling, but a self-sacrificial act or the forgiveness offered to the sinner who has wronged us does not come from within the human heart. We can’t try harder. We can’t learn it through a twelve step program or even follow the example of someone else who’s forgiven greater things than we know.

What comes naturally to us is pay back. When we’ve given as good as we got, then we’ll forgive. But that’s not forgiveness at all. That’s retribution.

Sometimes we’ll “forgive” because we’re not the one who suffered. We think it’s time to let a criminal out of jail because he’s getting old and probably won’t hurt anyone any more. So out of a magnanimous sense of mercy we let the prisoner go free. Apart from the most general sense of being wronged because we’re part of the society whose laws were broken, we’re not the injured party and therefore not in a position to actually forgive.

It seems to me, the best we can do humanly speaking is tolerance. We don’t have in us the selfless kind of love that sacrifices or forgives, so we tolerate. And we preach tolerance as if it is an answer to the hate of the world.

It’s not. Love is the answer. And there’s only one source of true love. He who knew no sin, He who gave Himself up for us all. He who IS, also is love.

The Accommodation Of Hedonism

From what I read, Christopher Hitchens, the renowned atheist who passed away from cancer a few years ago, would not have shied away from the label hedonist. After all, Wikipedia notes that he referred to himself as an Epicurean.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hedonism as “the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life.”

Not many people would quibble with the idea that it’s right and proper for a sane person to go about finding satisfaction of desires. I mean, are we supposed to look for unhappiness instead? Are we supposed to search out opportunities for slavery or deprivation?

Actually the fact that so few Americans would find fault with a life lived in pursuit of pleasure clarifies the guiding philosophy of our day. We are, quite frankly, hedonists.

I shudder at the thought because I remember studying hedonism in school in connection to ancient Rome where toga-wearing Caesars were fed grapes by scantily-clad slaves, where they would gorge themselves then throw up so they could continue “enjoying” the feast, where orgies were routine. Drunkenness and debauchery seem the most appropriate words to describe what I thought of in conjunction with hedonism.

And now, hedonism is us.

Little did I realize back in those school days that in my lifetime young girls would binge and purge, that drunkenness and debauchery would describe a lot of college life, that “threesomes” would become a TV joke, that “dating” would be replaced by one-night stands and marriage by “relationships.”

As if all this isn’t bad enough, I look at the Church, and I see many professing Christians accommodating hedonism. Some do so in an unapologetic, aggressive way, saying that God has promised His children good gifts so we ought to be holding Him to His word by naming and claiming what we want.

Others are more circumspect, involving themselves in political movements that would ensure a continuation of the privileges of living in a wealthy, capitalistic society.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not an advocate of socialism in any form, but neither do I believe the Church should take up the fight to preserve capitalism. The truth is, one system is built on laziness and the other on greed, so it’s a little like picking your poison.

Except, with our hedonistic beliefs these days, not so many people recognized the poison of greed—unless, of course, it’s corporate greed. Corporate, that great nameless monolith that we can blame for all the ills of society, because goodness knows, Man certainly can’t be to blame.

In a round about way, this brings me back to my beginning—that innocuous definition of hedonism in the dictionary, the one so few people would mind being associated with. It’s hard to call someone greedy when they are simply trying to satisfy their desires, the same as everyone else.

There’s an unspoken understanding that people should play fair in the process, and those who don’t such as Fanny Mae and Bernie Madoff, deserve our wrath. But those racking up millions by playing baseball or basketball in Southern California? Glad to have you here among us. And wouldn’t we like to be just like you!

The problem for the Christian in accommodating this attitude, even in our subtle ways, is that we no longer imagine satisfaction without the pleasures of life, as if somehow God isn’t enough to satisfy us—just He, Himself.

How ironic when Paul says that to live is Christ. In a short passage to the Colossians he refers to knowing Christ as wealth, riches, and treasure. I wonder what we the Church in America would name as our wealth, riches, and treasure.

Published in: on August 12, 2015 at 6:00 pm  Comments (7)  
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To Please Or To Become Pleasing, That Is The Question

Three CrossesThe distinction I am making is between doing good works to become pleasing to God (works done because of law) and doing good works to please God (works done because of grace).

There’s nothing I can do to become pleasing to God. Not only would my motives be wrong in doing good, my efforts would be futile. My nature is sinful, and all the cleaning up I do amounts to rearranging dirt, not genuine washing.

For the person who believes, the work Christ did on the cross changes everything. Before, as Romans 7 says, the wanting to do good was in me, but the doing ended up being that which I hated—and that which God hated, I might add.

Because of the new nature God gave me, because of the Holy Spirit in me, and because of the strength Christ provides me, I can now do the good I want to do. And why do I want to do good? To earn points with God? Get jewels for my future crown? Earn a spot closer to the throne?

No. The issue is still not about be becoming good or better or pleasing. Who I am in Christ is fixed. But because of what Christ has done, my response, as is true in any love relationship, is to want to give in return for what has been given me.

In one of the most amazing aspects of God’s love for us, He who needs nothing from us, asks something of us so that we can joyously give to Him as an expression of our love. Hence, my desire—a growing desire, not a fully mature thing—is to please Jesus.

Here are some of those favorite verses that touch on pleasing God:

I Thessalonians 4:1 – “Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more.”

II Corinthians 5:9 – “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.”

Colossians 1:10 – “so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”

Ephesians 5:8-10 – “for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.”

Pleasing God, as I see it, is all about getting to know Him.

Young people in love do this same thing. Does he like his coffee black or with cream, pie for dessert or cake, the beach or the mountains, football or golf, Hondas or Chevys, and on and on.

Why learn all these things? In order to provide him with what he wants, in order to choose his preferences, in order to please him as often as possible.

When I stand before God washed of my sins, that should spark in me a response—more and more I should like what He likes, do what He does, speak as He speaks. When I do, I am not more pleasing to God, but He is pleased.

Photo: Three Crosses © Mellow Rapp | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Published in: on August 11, 2015 at 6:00 pm  Comments (3)  
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Beyond Plateaus

Mountain climbers are familiar with reaching plateaus. You don’t get to one without a lot of serious work. Often when you arrive, you’ll find a scenic view and certainly a good place to rest. But if you have set a goal for yourself, staying on the plateau will defeat you.

Staying on plateaus can be tempting — for mountain climbers, for writers, for Christians. One of the things the long journey of writing novels and waiting to find an agent and publisher has taught me is to keep working. There was a time I thought my work was ready for publication. In fact I confidently read other books and believed my writing equal or better.

Apparently I was the only one. Yes, I got good responses from critique partners and others in mentoring groups. But there is still that elusive “We want you to be our author” phone call. Something, therefore, needs to be better. It pushes me forward to improve.

But what happens when I don’t have that incentive any more?

Lady Gaga (bet you never thought you’d hear me quoting her here, did you 😉 ) said in anticipation of her next performance, she (mentally) takes the awards she’s won off the wall and stuffs them in the closet. In other words, she’s determined not to let past success affect her goal. She’s not going to stay on the plateau.

I think some writers are content with the plateau. Publishing was their dream. Now they have books out and enough sales to get the next contract. Who cares if they improve their writing or become better at plotting their stories? Who cares if their characters are retreads? I mean, those sales show the fans are there.

I think it would be easy to fall into that attitude, but the plateau isn’t the mountain top.

Plateaus can become traps for Christians in our spiritual walk, too. Our friends all believe pretty much the same way we do. We become comfortable with our church. We tithe and attend, and even participate in special work events in the neighborhood.

God is good. He’s forgiven us by His grace and we’re thankful. So very thankful.

And there we stay.

But look at what Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica:

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. (4:1)

What a statement! You’re doing a good job, now go out and do better!

In the next verses, it becomes clear that Paul has in mind, in particular, their sexual purity. But then in verse nine he turns a corner and commends that church for how they love other Christians. And yes, he follows up with the same admonition:

Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more (4:9-10)

A couple things I learn from this. The Christian life isn’t a “let go and let God” proposition. There is a “work out your salvation” aspect, and that doesn’t deposit us on a plateau at some point, where we can sit back and enjoy the view — not, at least, if we’re to take what Paul said seriously. Rather, the Christian life is dynamic.

Excelling still more is a logical goal for those who stand next to perfection. It’s impossible to rest and think I’ve arrived when I look at God. He is the gold standard of purity and love.

Finally, though I’m an active agent in this excelling process, so is God. Look at what Paul said right before his first “excel still more” statement:

and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints. 3:12-13

The Thessalonians were to excel still more in the area of loving believers, but Paul prayed that God would cause this. The Thessalonians were to excel still more in the area of sexual purity, but Paul prayed that God would establish their hearts without blame in holiness.

It’s kind of like the really serious mountain climbers who are tethered together as they make their way up a rock face. One moves forward but not without the other. The first enables the second and the second supports and secures the first.

We have an incredible God who thinks and plans far beyond the ways we would choose. One part of that would seem to include our enjoying the plateaus He leads us to, but then we must keep going, thankfully, not alone.

Published in: on August 10, 2015 at 6:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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