Sunday, March 29, 2009

Approaching a Holy God

This week, I was driving quietly along without my children, listening to Nichole Nordeman’s This Mystery. Although I’ve heard the songs on this album many times over the past couple of months, the words of her song “Tremble” suddenly caught my attention. The two verses of this song question how we approach God:

“Have I come too causually? / Because it seems to me / There's something I've neglected / How does one approach a Deity / with informality / And still protect the Sacred? / 'Cause you came and chose to wear the skin of all of us / And it's easy to forget You left a throne….What a shame to think that I'd appear / Even slightly cavalier / In the matter of salvation / Do I claim this gift You freely gave / As if it were mine to take / With such little hesitation? / 'Cause you came and stood among the very least of us / And it's easy to forget you left a throne.”

Then, in between these verses, her chorus rings out, “Oh, let me not forget to tremble / Oh, let me not forget to tremble / Face down on the ground do I dare / To take the liberty to stare at you / Oh, let me not, / Oh, let me not forget to tremble.”

Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Fear of God was very real throughout the Old Testament—even pagan nations feared the God of the Israelites. But, fear of God isn’t something you hear too much of in America today. Modern-day Christianity has focused so much on God’s mercy and love that it has failed to help Christians understand God’s complete character and all His attributes. Fear of God isn't popular. Yes, God wants a personal relationship with us where we call him Abba Father; He wants us to love Him. But what most of the pulpits of America don’t say is that God also desires and commands our respect and reverence.

Our God is holy. There are so many verses in the Bible espousing this particular attribute. Psalm 145:17 says, “The Lord is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works.” I Samuel 2:2 says, “There is none holy as the Lord: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God.” I Peter 1:16 says, “Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.” But, do we really know what “holiness” means? Do we really know how or why this particular attritube of God should affect our approach to Him?

Merriam-Webster defines holy as “exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness.” How should we approach A God who is completely worthy? Completely good? Completely righteous? The answer—with respect, reverence, fear, and trembling.

In the Old Testament, the best example of this comes Isaiah 6:1-5. When the prophet Isaiah has a vision of the Lord enthroned, he trembles at God’s holiness: “In the year of King Uzziah's death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory." And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts" (my italics). Did you notice that the very foundations of the temple trembled at God’s voice?

The New Testament continues to impart our need as Christians to approach God in fear and reverence. In Luke 12:5, Jesus, Himself says, “But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: ‘Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.’” 1 Peter 2:17 says, “Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.” Acts 9:31 tells us the first church was “walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost.

Fear, then, should be a part of every Christian’s relationship with God. A healthy fear of God should lead us to revere and respect Him. In fact, Merriam-Webster says one definition of fear is just that: “as to have a reverential awe of.” Love of God and reverence of God are not mutually exclusive ideas. God demands both. Granted, 1 John 4:17 says, “perfect love casts out fear,” but here, John is merely saying that Christians don’t need to be afraid of God. This does not mean we as God’s children don’t have to obey Him or that we are on equal terms in our relationship with Him…or that we don’t need to respect and revere Him, to “fear” Him. God is still holy and the sole authority.

If you do not have a sense of reverence and awe about God, ask yourself why not? Without proper fear of the Lord, you cannot have the relationship with Him that He desires. A healthy fear of God should leave you in such awe of His holiness and His saving grace as well as an understanding of your total sinfulness without Him that you desire to serve Him, to follow His commands, to accept Him as the sole authority over your life. Ask yourself this week if you truly fear God. Are you following all His commands out of love and reverence?

Oh, let us not forget to tremble.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dress Rehearsal

When I was ten, my parents decided to send me to manner’s school at Dillards’ Department Store. This wasn’t my choice—they made me go. “White Gloves and Party Manners” was a six week Saturday course that taught me skills like how to use “please” and “thank you,” how to properly sit and stand up straight, and how to set silverware on a table. The culmination of the class was a style show where each little girl wore a Sunday dress and promenaded down a stage to demonstrate her newly-learned good posture. As a very shy young girl, I would have preferred digging up a whole row of muddy peanuts by hand instead of being made to walk down that runway where I knew all eyes would be upon me.

The week before, I diligently and daily practiced walking slowly with my head held up straight and “turning” at the end of the runway. My practice was a bit obsessive because I was sure I would stumble, fall, and make a fool of myself in front of everyone. In the end, I was still terrified, I walked faster than I should have in my rush to get off the stage, and my turn was more like a hurried spin, but my practice paid off—I completed the task, I didn’t fall, and my parents were proud of me.

Our lives as Christians are lived in God’s classroom, and just like many parents require their children to learn lessons, God requires His children to learn His lessons. While we may be able to read the Bible and easily learn & automatically apply some of God’s lessons, experience is many times the best way to learn and apply a tough concept, so God sends us trials to hammer home the point as He seeks to conform us to Jesus’ image.

James 1:2-3 tells us, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (my italics). 1 Peter 1:6b-7 also says, “…though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

As my pastor always says, a Christian is in one of three states: about to enter a trial, in the midst of a trial, or coming out of a trial. While we may not have the choice of whether to experience the trial or not, we do have the choice in how we respond to that trial. One reason our response to any trial is so important is that we don’t know how many eyes are upon us, how many people are watching to see if our Christianity is real and worth having. Sometimes we trip over our humanity and fall flat on our faces. Other times, we choose to fall flat on our faces in prayer, sometimes crying out in agony to God because of what He’s requiring us to go through.

Our goal in any trial should be to glorify God in our response, learn the lesson He is trying to teach us, and thereby make our Heavenly Father proud of us. But, if you’ve ever been through a serious trial, you know that’s easier said than done. So, how can we increase our potential for success in a trial if we don’t know exactly what’s coming? Well, when we know a real storm is coming, we may not know exactly the extent of it, but we prepare for the “big one,” so the same should hold true with life’s metaphorical “storms.” The best way I know of to be a success is to prepare before the trial comes by collecting or memorizing specific Scriptures and being secure in what we really believe in our heart of hearts. Just knowing in general that the Bible is full of verses which will help isn’t good enough because when a trial comes, you may need a specific verse N-O-W.

Some people choose to write their verses on notecards and carry them with them. I personally keep a running computer document filled with Bible verses that speak God’s answers to what I should do when I fear, when I have unbelief, when I feel worthless, when I am in despair, and many other spiritual strongholds. They remind me of what I already know God has said and what I have chosen to believe. In the hardest trial of my life where I honestly didn’t know how I could face another day on this earth, I took the Bible literally when it says, “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul… You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deuteronomy 11:18a, 20). Every doorframe and mirror in my house had Bible verses taped to them to remind me that God is soverign and that although I may not have felt like it that day, I would survive and become a conquerer in Christ Jesus.

My challenge for you this week is to start your own collection of Bible verses. Consider this your dress rehearsal for trials you know will come. Be prepared.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Darkness of Assimilation

When Wyatt was about a year old, I would attempt to silence his fussing by bursting forth with all the childhood songs I remembered, making up the words when I forgot a phrase or two. One song in particular that Wyatt liked was “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” In fact, he would dissolve into adorable chuckles when I would sing the verse “Hide it under a bushel?” and loudly say, “No! I’m gonna let it shine.” I never got past the “Won’t let Satan blow it out” verse because when I stopped blowing into his face to “foof out” the candle, he would begin saying, “Sing!” meaning I needed to repeat those two verses again.

While this may be a mere childhood song, it holds a very adult truth. Jesus told Christians in Matthew 5: 14-16, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (NASB).

It’s rather obvious when I walk into a room or a building where there are no lights burning; therefore, if I am a child of Christ and obeying His commands, it should be very obvious to those around me that I am a Christian. A true Christian should not be able to casually, anonymously blend in with the masses but should seem as a blinding light in the very dark America we live in today. True Christians should dress differently; act differently; have an overall positive, hopeful attitude; frequent only those establishments which, if someone else sees them there, will not cause that person to stumble; speak differently; use their money differently; and spend their extracurricular time differently than non-Christians.

As a general rule, though, Christians’ lights are burning pretty dimly. Our daily actions aren’t setting us apart from the rest of the world. conducted a study of 1,402 adults who had not attended a religious service at a church, synagogue or mosque in the previous six months. The results: “A full 72 percent of the people interviewed said they think the church ‘is full of hypocrites,’” LifeWay Research director Ed Stetzer said. “At the same time, however, 71 percent of the respondents said they believe Jesus ‘makes a positive difference in a person’s life’ and 78 percent said they would ‘be willing to listen’ to someone who wanted to share what they believed about Christianity.”

For almost ¾ of unchurched people to believe Jesus makes a difference in a person’s life but to also believe church-going Christians are hypocrites tells me Christians are not fulfilling their calling to be sanctified in Christ, to be set apart, to be a light in the world. This isn’t a new struggle. In the book of Esther, we’re told the story of a young Jewish girl, Esther, a descendent of the exiled Jews who were held captive in Babylon and then who chose not to return to Jerusalem with 40,000 other Jews after King Cyrus of Persia overthrew Babylon. The story’s suspense hinges on Esther keeping her heritage unknown even after she is crowned Queen of all Persia (Esther 2:10) and all the Jews in Persia’s provinces are sentenced to death by King Xerxes’ new law. Throughout the story, she successfully keeps the secret that she was a Jewess, that she is of the chosen people of God, and her heritage is only revealed when she, herself, spills the beans. The law of Moses in the Old Testament is full of restrictions for a Jew’s diet, speech, dress, and customs. Thus, Esther’s ability to blend in anonymously tells us how well the Jews had assimilated into the Persian, pagan culture.

I believe the Jews didn’t mean to become so assimilated into a pagan culture—it just happened. One small “it’s no big deal” concession here; one small, “why not” change there; one compromise for the sake of friendship the next day; one change in an attempt to be politically correct the next—and before they knew it, the pagans and God’s chosen people could both look in the same mirror and not be able to tell one from the other.

How well assimilated are you into the world? Do you stick out like a sore thumb? Does everyone you meet see Jesus in you? Can everyone see the difference? It is difficult to live daily as a “light” in a world that is constantly trying to suck us into participating in the darkness. But, we should strive each day to shine the light of Christ within us. Assimilation is easy. Being different is hard. Make a covenant with God this week to be different, to be set apart for His glory.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Underestimating the Power of Prayer

This week, I thought I’d be writing about Joseph, but tonight, God showed me I needed to share with you my testimony about how He has worked in my life through the power of prayer & how prayer can make just as powerful an impact in your life. In the spring of 2004, three years after we married, my husband and I learned I had a disorder that makes getting pregnant extremely difficult. At this point, we did not ask for prayer from anyone except our parents. I was embarrassed and afraid of what others would think.

In April 2005, I became pregnant, and we were thrilled. Then, two weeks later, I began to miscarry the baby. I remember spending many days at home, crying out to God and asking why He was taking this baby from us. In December 2005, I became pregnant again, only to miscarry almost immediately. At this point, after a year and a half of treatments, my husband and I began seeking God’s will as to whether He wanted us to start the adoption process. After going through more tests and learning there were other medical conditions to hinder us from having a child, it seemed God had given us His answer—we were at the end of our road to have a biological child of our own.

Although we were sad at God’s answer, we were excited about the prospect of adopting. A few weeks into the new year, I went to see my doctor one last time for tests to make sure the miscarriage was complete. To my surprise, my doctor sat down with me and said that I had been given some wrong information. He explained that he believed there was still a very good chance we could have a baby. I laughed, thinking that God has a great sense of humor. Just when I thought I’d figured Him out & had accepted His decision, He changed the plans.

In January 2006, I went to the prayer conference at my childhood church. We were told to name out loud to God those things that we wanted most, even things that we had been too ashamed to mention to anyone else. For the first time, in my small group, I asked everyone to pray for me to conceive a child. That day, we prayed for a miracle. Then, I shared with my church’s ladies Bible study group, and they began to pray for that miracle. My mother’s prayer group learned of our desire & prayed weekly for that miracle. And all our families prayed daily for that miracle.

In April 2006, I became pregnant a third time. This time, we were cautious in our excitement, but as the weeks turned into months, I knew this was God’s answer to my prayers as well as to the prayers of so many others. On December 29, 2006, Wyatt Douglas was born. Almost two years later on October 27, 2008, Amelia Rose and Emerson John were born. They are the light of my life and a daily reminder of what power we have in Christ when we are surrounded by a circle of others’ prayers.

Please understand the message I’m intending to share with this testimony—God does as He wills and His ways are perfect even if we do not understand them. As Scripture tells us, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9). I do not understand why He grants some of my requests but denies others, why He heals some people and allows others to die of their illness. But, I still believe in prayer’s power and that Christians in general seriously underestimate that power.

When was the last time you were daily beating down the door of your prayer closet? 1 Thessalonians 5:17 tells us we should “pray without ceasing.” If we truly believed prayer worked, if we truly believed God heard & considered our prayerful petitions, we would obey this command and be facedown every day, several times a day.

Know that even when God doesn’t answer our prayers as we desire, prayer will always change our hearts as we develop a close, right relationship with Him and as our desires begin to conform with His desires for us. But, prayer can sometimes change God’s heart (2 Kings 20). I know of a young girl who just last year had a seizure and her initial tests showed a dark spot on her brain, but a subsequent test showed the spot had disappeared. Those of us who prayed for her received a blessing to know we had been a part of God’s miracle. Think of the blessings we miss out on when we don’t pray: God still works His will, but our lack of prayer excludes us from participation in His works.

If Jesus, himself, thought it important to pray so often throughout the New Testament, shouldn’t that tell us something? Focus this week on laying your petitions before God’s throne.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Freedom from Fear

The Psalms repeatedly describe us as sheep. In Psalm 100:3, “We are…the sheep of His pasture.” In Psalm 119:186a, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep.” And in the infamous Psalm 23:1-2, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Each time I read these verses, I remember how dumb sheep are, so God is not exactly complimenting us here. As a result, the whole devotional this week could look at the parallel between the really dumb things we do as we stumble along our path to knowing, loving, obeying, and serving Christ with everything that is in us. But, that’s not the lesson God has brought to my heart. Instead, maybe because I’ve had a sleep-deprived week and need rest, He’s been causing me to focus on the “He maketh me to lie down” part of Psalm 23.

In A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Phillip Keller says that to truly rest, to “lie down,” sheep need to have four basic needs met. First, they must be free from hunger—we discussed that last week, so I hope you’ve been consuming God’s Word all week long. Next, they must be free from friction with other sheep and free from pests (flies, parasites, etc.). And finally, they must be free from fear.

Freedom from fear. Did you know the most repeated command in the Bible is “Fear not.” But, why would God spend so much ink on telling us to not fear? Why not spend more time telling us to fulfill the Great Commission? Or to love one another? Aren’t those more important instructions? I think God’s telling us not to fear is connected, in part, to our being sheep who need to lie down and rest in peace in Jesus. If we have fear, we can’t rest. And ultimately, if we are not well rested and free from fear, we’re not going to fulfill the plans God has for us.

What do you fear? Losing your job? Losing your spouse or children…or never finding a spouse or having children? Not having enough money to pay your bills? Contracting a terrible disease? Dying? Or maybe your fear is completely different. Maybe you aren’t fulfilling God’s commands because of fear—do you fear being rejected when you share your faith? Not knowing what to say? Having God call you to missions in another part of the world? Being too embarrassed to ask another’s forgiveness? Whichever is the case, know this—fear can consume you and can keep you from fulfilling your destiny in Christ. If you don’t give them to Jesus, whatever fears you have can keep you from true rest in Him and will keep you from fulfilling the plans He has for you. So, spend some time this week asking God to reveal your hidden fears and consider how those fears are keeping you from His great plans for you (Jer. 29:11). Then, lie down and rest in Him.