A Personal Relationship With Jesus Christ

At my Facebook atheist/theist group, one of the atheists posted a question of sorts, asking Christians to describe their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, because, he said, if the thing is not demonstrable, then there’s some question it even exists.

I’ve thought about the question a bit. The thing is, I don’t think an atheist can understand my answer. How does a believer explain the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? Or the peace that passes understanding?

As I thought about my answer this morning, I left out the “demonstrable” part, as in, what I assume he was asking for—something other people can observe.

I can say that because of my relationship with Jesus, I read the Bible and pray. The Atheist Guy (AG) would likely answer that I was reading myths and saying words to the air. Because he can’t see Jesus.

My Christian friends, those in real life and on the web all know that reading God’s word is reading words of life and praying is the greatest expression of our thoughts and needs, or potentially can be so, to Him who loves us most. But how can those outside the faith knows this?

Another thing that is “demonstrable” is my going to church, but then people without a relationship with God through Christ might also attend some place of worship. That’s just a religious thing if you aren’t hearing the truth and if you aren’t meeting with God and with His people.

I could list service things or career things, but the atheist can once again point to people of other faiths or no faith who do good and some who even alter their career to serve others. So what does knowing Jesus do that nothing else does?

It’s not really something anyone else can witness. The first thing that came to my mind as I pondered the question is a tag line from a friend’s Christian fantasy: “Never alone.” Because the Spirit of the Living God dwells in my heart, I literally am never alone. He’s with me when I see the snow-capped mountains or a rosebush bursting with blossoms. He’s with me when my friend needs prayer because of a surprise medical condition or a death in her church family.

God is with me when I read His word or listen to the preaching of it. He nudges my heart into realization that the Bible is living and active. It’s not distant and irrelevant or old-fashioned and culturally flawed. It’s vibrant and powerful, and the Holy Spirit, who is with me, brings the truth of Scripture to bear in my life and my circumstances.

I know the AG won’t get any of that.

He won’t get how important it is for me to sit at the Lord’s table or how God gives me living water, how His presence comforts me in times of sorrow and grief. How He quiets my fears, and certainly not how I can turn to Him any time of any day and know He hears my cry.

The AG can’t know how God answers my cries for help, sometimes by sending godless strangers to bail me out of a pickle, sometimes by giving a friend words of wisdom, sometimes by directing my reading to a certain article or book, sometimes by speaking to me in my spirit.

Are these things that an atheist will be able to see and understand as God working in my life because we have a relationship? I doubt it. Most often I’ve heard, “coincidence” or “imagined” in conjunction to God’s answered prayer.

The thing is, whenever I think of living without God, I can’t imagine going on. I don’t mean that to sound moribund. But I don’t understand what an atheist does when they hear a loved one is sick or has been in an accident or if he loses his job. Who do you turn to for help, I wonder. How do you get through the death of a loved one, if you have no hope and no comfort? I can’t imagine going on.

I can’t imagine life without worship. What do atheists do during the proverbial “minute of silence” in a public gathering? Who do they thank for a glorious sunset? Who do they turn to when disaster devastates a community?

The old adage is, There are no atheists in foxholes, which is kind of true if we look at the response of Americans immediately following the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The problem is, as quickly as people turn to God for rescue in crisis, they turn from Him in times of security.

A real relationship with God means we aren’t foul-weather friends—we don’t just care about Him when times are tough.

I can hardly talk about a relationship with God through His Son Jesus without mentioning joy. But how can I explain that sense of well-being and contentment and satisfaction and an awareness of being completely loved, even at the most desperate times?

How can I explain how freeing it feels to be completely forgiven? How can I show AG how different Jesus Christ has made me and is making me as the years go by? How can I explain that my relationship with Him colors my whole worldview, and influences what I write, what I do, how I vote, what I watch on TV—all of it.

I guess what I’m really asking is, how can I make “demonstrable” new life in Christ?

I’m a new creature, I want to shout. Old things just aren’t appealing any more. I don’t have a certain set of ethics because I have to but because I want to. I serve God in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter of the Law.

None of this is “demonstrable,” but all of it marks me as God’s child, His heir, because I’ve been adopted into the beloved. It certainly is enough for me to be sure about my personal relationship with Jesus Christ, even though others may not see it.


God Helps Those Who Help Themselves?

888698_my_new_bicycleI’m not sure where the adage “God helps those who help themselves” got its start. It sounds very American, very responsible, very “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”—and God would approve of this, so He’ll lend a helping hand.

I picture a parent running along side his son or daughter who is learning to ride a bike. The dad has a hand just behind the seat, keeping the bike in balance until the child gets the hang of it and takes off. Then Dad lets go, stands back, applauds when Daughter weaves her way back to him.

God is like that, right?

No, He’s not.

First, He does not exist for our sake; we exist for Him. He isn’t our bodyguard, cheerleader, or fix-it man. He is God!

Amazingly, He wants a relationship with us—friendship, familial interaction, shared love. He also wants us to obey Him, worship Him, serve Him, glorify Him. He, in turn, wants to shepherd us, strengthen us, even exalt us at the proper time.

But help us?

Not surprisingly the Old Testament wisdom literature, particularly Job and Psalms has a great deal to say about God as our help. In any number of verses, the writer says he cries to God for help. In other passages, God is praised for being a help.

A number of different words are used, most conveying the idea of “succor”—assistance and support in times of hardship and distress. Psalm 27:9 is a good example:

Do not hide Your face from me,
Do not turn Your servant away in anger;
You have been my help;
Do not abandon me nor forsake me, O God of my salvation (emphasis mine)

There are also verses that state God’s intention to help His people:

“For I am the LORD your God, who upholds your right hand,
Who says to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you.’ ” (Isaiah 41:13)

Is it significant that this concept is almost non-existent in the New Testament? I think so. When Jesus walked on earth people asked Him for help—mostly to help a physical ailment, but even to help with the problem of unbelief.

He explained to His disciples that when He went away, He would send a Helper, a paraklÄ“tos. According to Strong’s, the term is used

of the Holy Spirit destined to take the place of Christ with the apostles (after his ascension to the Father), to lead them to a deeper knowledge of the gospel truth, and give them divine strength needed to enable them to undergo trials and persecutions on behalf of the divine kingdom

No longer, then, do those who are God’s own need to plead for Him to help. He already has, by giving us the Helper to live with us and in us.

It seems to me, the times I plead for God to help—and there have been times—I am less aware of God’s presence and provision. Of course, in emergencies, it’s hard to keep a level head, to think through the truths of God’s word. I suppose that’s the very reason it’s important to “practice the presence” of God daily.

I’m not sure I really like that phrase. It seems as if I have something to do with God being with me or not. The truth is, whether I am aware or not, He is with me. But my awareness influences my decisions and my attitude. I am much less inclined to worry, for example, when I remember that God is with me, that He is sovereign and omnipotent and good.

All this to say, God isn’t running along side me as I struggle on my own to accomplish whatever I wish, so He can be available if I cry out when I’m about to crash.

Rather, God has taken up residence in my life. I am His. I don’t need Him to help me—I need Him! He is sufficient no matter what my circumstances. In fact, because He is infinite God, limitless in His attributes, He loves and gives, provides and protects like no one else could.

That includes anything I could do for myself. 😉

This post is the final article in the short series of Evangelical Myths, first appearing here in June, 2013.

Published in: on February 6, 2018 at 4:38 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Peace Of Christ

The peace of Christ is more significant than I once thought. For one thing it is unique to Christians, which of course makes it hard to explain to those who don’t believe in God. They undoubtedly think Christians are making something up or imagining it or tapping into that “religious” part of the brain.

Actually the peace of Christ is a real thing. That’s why a member of my church who endured an illness that caused chronic pain can write the following:

In the midst of God’s response to my pain, my identity as His child is confirmed. Who am I in this pain? I am a son of the Father! One of the deepest and most influential of relationships (a father to a son) is witnessed to and I am reminded in my soul that I am not alone, abandoned, and neglected in my pain, but I am a privileged son being trained by a loving Father. It this presence of the Father that keeps me leaning forward as I endure through storms. (James Hampson, First Evangelical Free Church devotional, Ears to Hear, 11/16/17)

Do Christians always walk in light of our relationship with Christ? No, most of us will admit we don’t. We want to, but the reality is, times of doubt and disappointment and even despair can cloud our vision. In those times it’s a great help to hear from other believers who have persevered, or to read something in Scripture that reminds us we’re not alone or that God is indeed faithful to His promises.

Interestingly, the peace of Christ is most important during the storms of life. When everything is going smoothly, we aren’t as aware of a need for the peace of Christ. We aren’t thinking, “I have this great job, and I get along so well with my co-workers and my boss. How stressful! I can’t stop thinking about work!” Or it’s unlikely that we’re ringing our hands when our children receive academic awards in school, make the basketball team, bring their friends over to the house so we can meet them, ask for a new Bible to replace the one that’s starting to look beat up. Such children are hardly the cause of sleepless nights.

In other words, the circumstances that are themselves peaceful, don’t require anything special. Who wouldn’t be satisfied with a fulfilling job that pays well and gives you lots of respect from your peers? That situation does not “require” the peace of God to get through it.

What requires the peace of Christ are the circumstances that would normally leave us depleted and clenching our fists. In those circumstances, when we’re scrambling for ways to cope, the peace of Christ can be the life preserver that keeps us from drowning.

Paul said in one of his letters, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts . . .” I conclude from that statement that the peace of Christ isn’t something imposed from outside, but it’s something I can choose to govern my life.

However, Paul also said in Galatians that peace is an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit. Of course he also told Christians not to quench the Spirit. So even though the peace of Christ is kind of supernatural, it’s still something we can choose.

In other words, “the peace that surpasses comprehension” is available to believers—from God, for us.

But how? Paul again:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The first thing is prayer. When we turn our needs over to God, we can trust Him to take care of them in His time and for His purposes and how He chooses. He is a good father and will not give us a scorpion if we ask for a plate of fish.

The second thing is to give God thanks, which acknowledges His involvement in our circumstances even when we can’t see them. I’ve been reminded from Scripture that so often God is at work even when we can’t see what He’s doing.

An account in the Bible tells of a siege against a certain city in Israel, causing a severe famine. All looked hopeless, but a man of God went to the king and told him that the next day food would be so plentiful, the prices of things that weren’t even currently available would be so low anyone could afford them. One of the king’s officials mocked the idea. What he didn’t know was what God was doing in the enemy camp—causing them to flee and to leave all their rations behind.

Giving thanks to God, even when the circumstances don’t seem to be changed, reinforces our trust in God’s plan and in His timetable and in the fact that He will give us only good. Not necessarily the thing that seems good to us as we look at the short term. But good. Really good. The very thing we need to make us more like Jesus Christ.

Which reminds me of something interesting I recently learned about writing fiction. One way to create a story, one instructor says, is to identify the lie your character believes. He builds upon the lie what he wants. So he might think that fame and fortune will make him happy, so what does he want? A job that requires him to work nights, to schmooze with the rich and famous. But what does he actually need to make him happy? A healthy relationship with his wife and kids. His pursuit of fame and fortune, for the sake of happiness, is actually robbing him of the very thing he truly needs to be happy.

Just as the writer knows this about his characters, God knows this about us.

Our giving Him thanks in the midst of tough times is really a statement of trust. God’s got it. He’s got us. He’ll work even these circumstances for the good of conforming us to the image of His Son. And in this knowledge, there is peace.

Hope And The Here And Now – Reprise

westcoast sunsetWhile I acknowledge that this world is filled with disappointment, I also recognize the beauty of God’s handiwork. Yes, there is sadness, but there are also joys. People get married, and babies come into the world. People get promotions and book deals and raises. People go on vacation and spend an evening with friends.

There are so many joys, I can’t help but be hopeful about today.

There are friends, too, bringing laughter and acceptance and companionship. How about family and loved ones—people who don’t care what our hair looks like in the morning and aren’t afraid to tell us if something is hanging from our nose. They love us in such everyday ways we sometimes overlook them, but when we list what we’re thankful for, they come to mind first.

snow_road-winter-xsYes, the joys and the people are part of God’s handiwork, but of course the natural world can’t be left out. Which of the beautiful things tops the list—the white-capped Rockies, the sunset over the Pacific, the snow-dressed forest, the green and golden fields, the woods clothed in autumn finery, the dew-kissed rose, the yellow-breasted song bird . . . the list is endless.

Joy, people, creation. God’s fingerprints are everywhere, and each one brings hope. If things are this good today, can’t tomorrow be just as good? Or better?

The greatest present hope is God Himself. The amazing truth is that God IS, though all else fails. God is the greatest treasure, so I may be poor in this world’s estimation, but if I have Jesus, I am rich. I may mourn, but joy comes in the morning. I may feel defeated, but Christ is the victor. I may be grieving, but not without hope.

Though the fig tree should not blossom
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will exult in the LORD,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
The Lord GOD is my strength,
And He has made my feet like hinds’ feet,
And makes me walk on my high places. (Hab. 3:17-19a)

God, in His great mercy, gives us memorials so that we don’t lose sight of hope. He gives us sun after the rain, spring after winter. He gives us comfort in the midst of sorrow, kindness from unexpected places.

He tells us to remember Him in the broken bread and shared cup at Communion. He established His Church as the “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.” He gave us the Lord’s Day and reminded us to continue gathering together then.

He gave us His word that is sharper than any two-edged sword—the perfect weapon against the false teaching our adversary throws at us. He taught us to pray and gives His Holy Spirit to interpret when we don’t know what we ought to say.

This is the same Holy Spirit that lives in us—which is why we can truthfully say we are never alone. He is the One Jesus sent when He left earth, promising that it was to our advantage that He go.

God’s presence in the form of His Spirit, His communication with me through prayer, His word, His fingerprints all over the world—these are things I have now that fill me with hope.

Though our society is far from God, why not revival, I think. God changed my heart. He can change anyone’s heart, even atheists putting up anti-church billboards—Nebuchadnezzar was just such a man, and God brought him to his senses. Even people killing others in some mistaken view that they’re doing God’s work—the Apostle Paul was just such a man, and God opened his blind eyes.

With God, there are no limits.

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth
Does not become weary or tired.
His understanding is inscrutable.
He gives strength to the weary,
And to him who lacks might He increases power. (Isaiah 40:28-29)

To him who lacks hope, I daresay, He gives that, too.

This article originally appeared here December 2014.

Published in: on November 3, 2017 at 4:39 pm  Comments (8)  
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The Difference Jesus Makes

Moses010When God chose Abraham, He entered into a unilateral agreement, promising to give him land, make him a father of nations, and yes, the father of His chosen people.

Later this agreement expanded into a conditional one–if Israel did certain things, then God would bless them and make them fruitful, but if Israel did the opposite, then God would bring their actions down on their heads.

In part the conditional agreement was based on Israel keeping the Ten Commandments and participating in the sacrificial system God launched when Moses finally led the people across the Red Sea, ready to be on their way to the land God had promised.

After escaping a confrontation with the Egyptians and surviving the crises of no water and not any food, Israel spend at least a year on hold, waiting as Moses received instructions from God and then as they carried them out. Through Moses, God transmitted the plans for a worship center and laws about their relationship with Him, with each other, with their stuff.

Over and over in all those laws, His call for them was to be holy because He is holy. But the problem was, they weren’t. He knew it and they knew it. When Moses was getting ready to meet with God to receive His instructions, the people were warned not to come near the mountain where God’s presence would be. The place was cordoned off, but God had Moses retrace his steps and warn the people again that if they tried to break through and come up to God, they would die.

Yes, die.

Later, God spoke to the people, and He so terrified them, that they begged Moses to act as their intermediary from then on rather than dealing directly with God.

I have to admit, I find all this stunning. I understand how great God is, how awesome His power, how far above any human He is in might and majesty. I even understand Peter’s command for believers who call God, Father, to “conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth” (1 Peter 1:17b).

But understanding all this is purely head knowledge.

I know God to be a just Judge who will one day separate those who follow Him from those who reject Him and will mete out appropriate rewards for both. But my experience with Him is far removed from these things I know.

I shake my head and think, how can I be relating to God as one of the living stones who is being “built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices” when the people of Israel couldn’t even stand in His presence?

They wanted God to go with them, but in order for that to happen they had to abide by that elaborate system of sacrifices and purification. In contrast, I offer no sacrifices, undergo no purification rites, and have the Holy Spirit of God make His dwelling in me. Not with me. In me.

I know Him as a child knows her father, as a sheep knows its shepherd, as a friend knows his best friend. How can this be???

It’s Christ.

He makes all the difference. God is still awesome in power, but I never have to fear that He will turn His vengeance on me because He turned it on Christ. I never have to fear God’s just judgment for my failures to obey Him because He already judged Jesus.

As a result, I can enjoy God’s presence–not as one trembling on the outside of a boundary line staring up at the top of a mountain in the hope of catching a glimpse of His glory. Rather, I have the Holy Spirit with me, guiding me in all truth, comforting me in sorrow and grief, producing His fruit when I feel inadequate and fruitless.

It’s such a dramatic difference, I can hardly comprehend what life must have been like for those who lived without the Holy Spirit in their lives day after day. Even during those times when I quench the Spirit or grieve Him, it’s not the same as not having Him in my life. It’s more like a fight with someone I love who I know I still love and who will still love me. It’s ugly and painful and sometimes costly, but it’s not permanent and it’s never complete separation.

What a difference Jesus makes!

This post originally appeared here in September, 2013.

Published in: on September 26, 2017 at 6:02 pm  Comments (1)  
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Satan – Is He Real?

wolf_on_alertIn discussing God with other people, I continue to come up against views about Him that contradict how He has revealed Himself. Where do those come from? After all, if I tell you about myself, you have no particular reason to think I’m distorting the truth. If I tell you I live in Southern California, I doubt if those visiting this blog automatically think, HA! a likely story! I suspect most people believe what I say about myself until I give them reason to believe otherwise.

So too with God … I would think. But a study of history shows this is not the case. From the earliest moments, there in Eden, Eve, when given a choice to believe God or not, opted for Not. Why?

Quite simply, a second source introduced a contradictory view, and Eve had to choose what to believe. One statement was true, the other false. One statement came from God, the other from a beautiful creature that told her what she wanted to hear.

Well, that last part is my interpretation. It seems to me that a good deal of temptation feeds into what a person would like to be true, with disregard to what actually is true.

So in Eve’s case, the beautiful creature before her asked for verification that God had put a restriction on what Adam and Eve could eat in the garden. Eve answered that they could eat from all the trees except for one, and that God said they would die if they ate from that tree.

The beautiful creature’s response? “You surely shall not die.” Essentially he promised her she could eat her cake and not suffer any consequences, although God had said just the opposite.

I suppose in part you’d have to say I’m taking God’s word for the fact that this beautiful creature, elsewhere described as an angel of light and the tempter and a roaring lion and a dragon, the serpent of old, really exists. The thing is, the truth of his existence explains a lot. Sure, the presence of sin in the fabric of Mankind’s nature also accounts for evil in the world, but the unanswered part of the equation is, How did the creation God made good, become tainted by evil?

I don’t know how atheists account for evil, or for good, for that matter. I mean, apart from believing in a moral right and wrong, behavior just is. No one judges an eagle for swooping down and gobbling up a field mouse. No one faults a shark for going after the nearest seal.

But clearly we humans believe in wrong.

Some years ago when the Lakers won an NBA championship, “fans” took to the street, looted a store, started fires, threw things at passing buses. Most of us shook our heads and said, That is so wrong.

CEOs run their institutions into bankruptcy but take for themselves million dollar bonuses, and most of us say, That is so wrong.

A state governor tries to sell an important appointment to the highest bidder, and most of us say, That is so wrong.

So evil is here, in this world and in the human heart. Its presence confirms a source. The Bible points to Satan as the source.

Oh, yes, the Bible also identifies Satan as a liar and the father of lies. So the lie he told about Adam and Eve not dying … well, it was true to his nature, but it certainly was not true. Humans have died ever since.

Is Satan real? I suggest death proves he is. I suggest the fact that people tell lies, proves he’s real. I suggest the fact that any number of people question God’s existence, proves Satan is real.

Because, you see, he loves to delude people.

He also doesn’t want us to see he is behind the curtain pulling the strings. That’s why he appears as what he is not. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, for instance. A talking animal, for another.

Jesus had a face to face encounter with Satan, and the old liar even co-opted Scripture to try to use against the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus rebuked him and he backed off, but the encounter is another piece of evidence that Satan is real.

Satan is a rebel on top of everything else, and he does what he can to undermine and erode God’s plan and purpose. Death is his tool, but he also tries to accuse God’s people before the throne of grace.

Jesus answers every charge on our account.

But the war rages on. That’s why Paul tells us in Ephesians to put on the armor of God. We don’t war against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers—Satan and his followers.

If Satan weren’t real, wouldn’t God’s will reign on earth, here and now? Who could oppose the power of God’s Spirit?

Not that Satan is winning, though he undoubtedly wants to give that impression. But there simply would not be a fight. For His own righteous purposes, God allows Satan latitude here on earth. He can test and tempt and oppress and possess. He can manipulate events and people and even nature to do his bidding—all allowed by our sovereign God.

God created, Satan seeks to destroy. God breathed life into the humans He brought into being; Satan looks to kill and steal and destroy.

Yes, Satan is real, an adversary not to be taken lightly, but also one not to be feared because greater is He who is in you, Christian, than he who is in the world.

This post is an expanded and edited version of one that first appeared here in June 2009.

Published in: on February 1, 2017 at 5:14 pm  Comments (2)  
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Christmas History

christmas-tree-presents-1171095-1280x1920From time to time much is made of “keeping Christ in Christmas.” The interesting thing is, for four centuries Christians didn’t celebrate Christ’s birth. In fact, to this day no one is sure what date or even what year Christ was born.

Many people speculate that His birth likely occurred in the spring rather than in winter because the shepherds were staying out in the field. But Judea is in the Mediterranean climate zone. Their temperatures would likely have been akin to Southern California, and therefore mild by the standards of those in a northern region. Certainly the colder nights wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Jesus was born in the winter, but we have no evidence one way or the other.

As to the year, the Romans didn’t start numbering their calendar AD 1 because they heard rumors of a new king born in Judea. The system of numbering years before or after Christ’s birth came much later, devised by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus in the sixth century. Based on his calculations, then, the years following the date he assigned to Jesus’s birth began from 1 forward.

However, historical and Biblical scholarship suggest that Jesus was actually born some two to seven years earlier, depending on which of several questionable dates a person accepts. The process requires taking context clues in the Bible and reconciling them with known historical data. However, the “known historical data” isn’t always precise, and in some instances it’s contradictory.

For example, the Bible clearly states that Jesus was born in the days of Herod the king (Matt. 2:1). History doesn’t agree when precisely Herod died. If he died in BC 4 as many scholars have thought, then clearly Jesus had to be born earlier—perhaps two or three years earlier since the magi may have seen the birth star the night Jesus was born, then began their trip that may have taken as long as two year.

The point is, we don’t have a precise date. Scholars have looked at the calculations of a number of early church leaders who mostly suggest Jesus was born between BC 2 and BC 3. But the point I want to make here is, Christ’s birth was not something the early church thought was so significant that they needed to mark the day and institute a celebration.

Nowhere in the Bible is any mention of celebrating Christ’s birth.

What Jesus Himself instituted was the commemoration of His death with the celebration of communion.

The Bible is pretty big on commemorations, though, which means, God is big on commemorations. He instituted several key feasts and celebrations—holy convocations—the Jews were required to celebrate: Passover, Pentecost, Tabernacles. There were daily worship activities and weekly ones. There were commemorative stones, and a celebration that required the people to build booths they lived in for a week. On and on God gave His people objects and events intended to remind them of Him and their relationship to Him.

So no surprise that Jesus, upon establishing the New Covenant, instituted the celebration, the commemoration, of His death.

But what about His birth?

I certainly don’t think God would forbid believers to set aside a day as “Jesus’s birthday,” but He also did not command us to keep such a day. How then did the Church create the tradition of celebrating Christmas?

Apparently in the fourth century in Europe (before Dionysius Exiguus had made his calculation—or miscalculation—about the year of Jesus’s birth), Pope Julius I chose December 25 as the official day to celebrate the Advent. His reasons seem to have involved bringing people into the church and taming some of the raucous pagan celebrations that occurred in December.

The middle of winter was a time of celebration in various places around the world, some because of the winter solstice, some as part of worship of a pagan god. For instance, in Germany the honored Oden and in Rome, Saturn.

The early Church was most likely affected by Saturnalia, a four week period of raucous hedonism in celebration of Saturn. Also around this time the Romans held a festival celebrating children, and another one to celebrate the birthday of Mithra, “the god of the unconquerable sun . . . For some Romans, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year” (“History of Christmas“).

The establishment of Christmas, then, seems to have been a “Christian version” of the pagan festivities. The practice spread. By the end of the 8th century the celebration of Christmas had found its way as far north as Scandinavia.

Not until the seventeenth century—after the Reformation—did Christmas take on the religious nature Christians generally associate it with today.

No surprise, then, that the culture has worked hard to reclaim what was once theirs.

I’ve thought more about the merging of the religious with the secular of late, in part because of my reading in I and II Kings. Compromise was the watch word of those years. Worship, God, sure, but also worship Baal and Molech and the Ashtoreth and Chemosh. Sacrifice to Yahweh in the temple, but to Baal on the high places.

The path of Israel’s departure from God is a litany of disobedient acts, prompted by a desire to be like the nations around them.

Human nature being what it is, we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that today professing Christians are moving toward our culture in our behavior, more than we are moving toward God in a desire to be holy because He is Holy (see 1 Peter 1).

We see it in Christmas. We shouldn’t expect our culture to celebrate Christmas the way believers do, but we’ve been handed an opportunity to make Christ known.

If we’re obnoxious and demanding and short-tempered, or if we see Christmas as another excuse for a party, how are we different from that which we’re not to conform ourselves to? But if we live according to the Spirit who dwells in us, the world can learn of God’s patience and love and forgiveness.

And our celebration can go down deeper. We can proclaim the name of Jesus, God Incarnate, God with us, God Who left His throne to reveal Himself to us, that we might be born again. There’s a gift worth giving away.

Published in: on December 16, 2016 at 7:11 pm  Comments (6)  
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Who’s In Charge?

Psalm 103:19
“The LORD has established His throne in the heavens,
And His sovereignty rules over all.”

It’s a great truth about God. The last line basically says, God’s sovereignty is sovereign. I think we need that reminder. At least, I know I do. So I’m re-posting this article from three years ago that addresses the subject.

Christ as Lord 2When I was a kid, someone explained how God wanted to be Lord of my life, but I had Self sitting on the throne. I like that picture, but in this day of democracy, we don’t get the king thing like we once did.

Perhaps today the real question is whether God is the CEO of my life. I’m not up on the way business works, but as I understand it, the CEO is in total control of the management of a corporation. This still may not be the best picture of our relationship with God, but one thing I know. He is not a silent partner.

He hasn’t simply put up salvation so that we can then go about living our lives as we please. Nor are we equal partners. I’m tempted to say our relationship is more like that of an employer-employee, except that’s not right either. God clearly states we aren’t any longer servants but sons.

katang_father_and_son_dig_for_cricketsSo children it is. The Father in charge, but lovingly so. And the child imitating the father, involved in family affairs, asking questions, learning, representing the father when away from home.

Except, in our confused western society, fathers aren’t always in charge and they don’t always know best. In fact, until recently, most sitcoms showed dads to be the dimmest bulb on the Christmas tree.

But maybe that picture, and even the one about the Lord or King on the throne is a more accurate depiction of Humankind’s relationship with God than I’d like to admit. They once were respected, they once ruled, but given time and circumstances, kings became titular heads and fathers became figureheads.

Have we done that to God? We say He’s on the throne of our lives, but have we started ignoring Him? Or treating Him as if He just doesn’t quite get how the world works these days. He’s not up to speed with the latest and coolest.

Take the idea of wives submitting to their husbands, for example. What a backward idea in the age of Feminism.

So, is God wrong in such matters? Or did people for centuries misinterpret the Bible when it says, “In the same way, you wives be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the Word they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives” (1 Peter 3:1).

512px-fire_01Or could it be that we have purposefully climbed back on the throne of our lives and are doing what we want regardless of what God says.

It’s possible for Christians to do that. Scripture calls it quenching the Holy Spirit who was given to us to lead us into all truth. It’s a good metaphor since God is referred to often as a consuming fire. We’d need to quench a consuming fire to get to the point where we could go our own way instead of His.

Published in: on November 16, 2016 at 5:35 pm  Comments Off on Who’s In Charge?  
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Joy And The Holy Spirit

Most Christians have probably heard or read that joy is not the same thing as happiness. I think we’re pretty clear about the distinction.

A quick study reveals that joy is grouped with patience, peace, love, faithfulness, and a few other traits to constitute the fruit of the Spirit.

Why, then, I ask myself, do I think I need to manufacture joy?

And since the Holy Spirit is the source of joy, wouldn’t it be fair to say, if I’m not experiencing joy, I must be quenching the Holy Spirit?

I mean, Galatians 5:22-23 doesn’t make joy an optional piece of fruit. If we have the Spirit, we have the fruit. It’s a matter, then, of walking by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25). Or not.

As I’m writing this, the little chorus “The joy of the Lord is our strength” comes to mind. The words simply repeat that line over and over — a line from Nehemiah 8:10.

The returned exiles, struggling to make a go of it in the homeland most of them had never seen before, asked Ezra, one of their leaders, to read the book of the law. He read from dawn to midday. A group of others then explained the text and taught the people what it all meant.

Their reaction? Nope, not joy.

They were weeping and mourning. The Law exposed their sin, and they were undone.

That’s when Nehemiah stepped in. Stop crying, he said. Today is a holy day, set aside for the Lord. Get up and let the feast begin. Don’t grieve. The joy of the Lord is your strength.

And the people calmed down, got up, and celebrated “because they understood the words which had been made known to them” (Neh. 8:12).

Except, two verses earlier, their understanding caused them to grieve. But now? Celebration. How can that be explained apart from the joy of the Lord?

The Spirit convicts of sin. The proper response should be sorrow leading to repentance. And then comes joy, not a manufactured joy or an inauthentic emotion.

The reality was, their circumstances hadn’t changed. They were still returned exiles struggling to get it together. In their own estimation, they were still slaves:

Behold, we are slaves today,
And as to the land which
You gave to our fathers to eat of its fruit and its bounty,
Behold, we are slaves in it.
Its abundant produce is for the kings
Whom You have set over us because of our sins;
They also rule over our bodies
And over our cattle as they please,
So we are in great distress. (Neh 9:36-37)

Under those circumstances, Nehemiah gave them that salient truth: The joy of the Lord is your strength. Not bitterness or complaining, certainly. But not continued grieving, either. And not what we rely on today, a can-do spirit.

Their strength came from what only the Spirit could provide — joy from the Lord.

Ironic, then, that quenching the Spirit leads to the opposite of what someone going through difficult circumstances needs — strength. The little recap of Jewish history in Nehemiah 9 spells it out:

You gave Your good Spirit to instruct them,
Your manna You did not withhold from their mouth,
And You gave them water for their thirst. (v. 20, emphasis mine)

Indeed, forty years You provided for them in the wilderness and they were not in want;
Their clothes did not wear out, nor did their feet swell. (v 21)

You also gave them kingdoms and peoples … (v. 22)

You made their sons numerous as the stars of heaven … (v. 23)

So their sons entered and possessed the land… (v. 24)

They captured fortified cities and a fertile land… (v. 25)

But they became disobedient and rebelled against You (v. 26, emphasis added)

Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their oppressors who oppressed them. (v. 27)

Listening to God’s Spirit strengthened the people; rebelling against Him, didn’t.

So what was it those Israelites Nehemiah addressed, understood that made it possible for them to calm down, stop grieving, and celebrate?

Not a change in their circumstances, as I’ve noted. Not the promise of a change in their circumstances either. Rather, I believe they understood how faithful the Lord is and how He had not left them or forsaken them, and that He would not. They had the Lord, so they had His joy which gave them strength.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in August 2011.

Decision Making

In light of the upcoming election, it seems to me we here in the US, in particular, we Christians, ought to be thinking about decision making.

Whether we like it or not, we all need to make decisions of one kind or another. Some choices, like when to get up in the morning or whether to shower before heading out the door, don’t seem like decisions any more because we’ve done them so long they’ve become a habit.

Mixed in with those automatic decisions are hundreds of smaller ones we make without realizing we are. Do I stop three feet behind the car in front of me or seven? Do I wear the blue or the black? Do I have a piece of toast with my cereal or not? Do I stop at the post office on my way to work or after? Do I take a jacket? And on and on.

Besides these daily, almost trivial decisions, are the Big Decisions of Life—who to marry, what school to attend, what job to apply for, who to vote for. Then there are the life changing decisions—will I read God’s Word today? Who should I pray for? How should I pray?

Interestingly, the Old Testament gives us three kings of Israel who model different decision-making styles. First was King David. He repeatedly went to God and asked for specific leading. Should he go up against this army, should he stay in that city? In return, God answered him quite specifically, at one point even giving instructions about setting up an ambush.

David wasn’t perfect. He didn’t ask God about how he should bring the ark into the place he prepared for it, for example, and a man died as a result. But on the whole, as God indicated, David was a man after God’s own heart. Despite his sin with Bathsheba and the resulting death of her husband, God said David’s heart was “wholly devoted to the Lord his God” and that he followed the Lord fully.

1 Samuel 17 tells us “the Spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day [of his anointing] forward.” David, then, had the Spirit of God and he inquired of God. He remained faithful to God, loving and serving Him to the end.

His son Solomon who took the throne next, encountered God and when given the opportunity to ask for anything he desired, asked for wisdom. God granted that request, but nowhere does Scripture say His Spirit came upon Solomon. He, too, made mistakes, marrying foreign women and setting up places of worship for their gods. When he was confronted, he did not repent as David had, but remained resistant. In summary, he had God’s wisdom, but he relied on himself. As a result of his decisions, he brought God’s displeasure.

The third king is Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. He was confronted with a decision right away—should he lighten the load of servitude on the people as they asked? He had the elders who counseled his father and he asked them what he should do. Yes, lighten the burden, they advised. Apparently Rehoboam didn’t like that answer because he turned around and asked a group of counselors his own age. Be tougher than your father, they said. And that’s the path Rehoboam decided to follow. The result of that decision was civil war.

Three kings. Three methods of decision making:

  • David, filled with God’s Spirit, inquired of God.
  • Solomon, gifted with God’s wisdom, followed the influence of his wives
  • Rehoboam, provided with the counsel of elders, listened to the counselors who told him what he wanted to hear

The most apparent thing in the decision-making process of these kings seems to me to be whether or not they were filled with God’s Spirit.

It’s instructive to look at a fourth king at this point—King Saul. Scripture tells us the Spirit of God also came upon him, though He did not stay. Why? Saul inquired of God, heard what He had to say, then did as he pleased. In practice he behaved more like Rehoboam than like David.

So what’s the application? I’d say we should pattern our decision making after David. Above all, he had a right relationship with God, and then, more often than not, he depended on God to show him what he was to do. In short, he trusted and obeyed. I don’t think we can go wrong in our decision making if we follow his model.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here under this title in November 2012.

Published in: on August 2, 2016 at 7:01 pm  Comments Off on Decision Making  
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