Monday, January 28, 2013

Word Play: To Love versus To Despise

In a few short weeks, American households will overflow with hearts, flowers, stuffed animals, jewelry, and cards with words meant to make us feel loved.

But if you can look past the materialism, the continued existence of this holiday implies that people need a reminder to show and express love to others.  The reason?  

Love doesn’t come naturally.

And a totally selfless love like Jesus showed us on the cross?  Well, that is an impossible love on our own.  As Christians, even with the Holy Spirit residing within us, we struggle against our flesh to love other humans as Christ first loved us--with selfless abandon.

And if we have trouble selflessly loving the talking, walking bodies around us, you can bet it’s even more difficult to love God with our everything when we can’t even picture His actual face or hear His audible voice.

As such, it is difficult to fully obey the command to: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27).

Loving is difficult.  But despising the Lord?  That’s easier than you might think.

A few years ago, I wrote on King David and his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. David was a man whom God labelled “a man after My own heart” (Acts 13:22). He was a man who walked with God in such an intimate relationship that the book of Psalms lays bare a level of love for God that I envy.

Yet, in the midst of loving God, David loved his flesh more. He saw, took, and impregnated Bathsheba in an act of adultery. And when his sin was about to be discovered, he sent her husband, Uriah, to the front lines, sealing that man’s death before taking Bathsheba as his wife.

How he thought he’d get away with it is beyond me. And in the depths of his heart, I think he probably didn’t. But outwardly, David was proceeding through life as if nothing had happened, as if he weren’t guilty of adultery and murder. So, God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David.

Nathan didn’t pull any punches either: “Why have you despised the word of the LORD by doing evil in His sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon. Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife” (2 Sam. 12:9-10, my Italics).

Here, God used "despised" twice to describe David's sin, a word that means “to hold in contempt…to hold in disdain, to disrespect”*

God used this same word earlier in Scripture when talking about those who sin “intentionally” or “defiantly.” He said, “the person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the LORD; and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt will be on him" (Num. 15:30-31, my Italics).

To willfully, intentionally sin when knowing it goes against God’s commands—that’s what it means to “despise” God.

Ouch. Our culture doesn’t want to use such harsh words like “despise.” We want to call our sin a “mistake,” a “lack of self control,” or a “lapse in judgment.”  But God doesn’t play the politically-correct-pass-the-buck game. His words are precise and accurate, even if they make us squirm in our seats.

Any time we intentionally go against God’s commands, we are choosing to despise God.

Can you grasp the severity of that?

In Malachi, God asks a question that easily applies to Christians today: “A son honoreth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honor? And if I be a master, where is my fear? Saith the LORD of hosts unto you, O priests, that despise my name” (1:6).

In Christ, we are a kingdom of priests.  We are those who despise the name of the Lord with our lack of reverence and fear of God the Father.

We must be careful to not let our concept of sin be influenced by the world’s attempt to “rename” sins. It may sound more palatable and less personally convicting to minimize our sins—to call adultery an “indiscretion,” to call homosexuality an “alternative lifestyle,” to call lying “a partial truth,” or to call blasphemy a “slip of the tongue.”

But God calls it sin. God calls it despising Him.

What we call it doesn’t matter.

*The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament. AMG Publishers, 2003: 125.

Monday, January 21, 2013

To Run the Race Set Before Us

I took P.E. during my ninth and tenth grade years to get that requirement out of the way.  As a teenager, the idea of sweating for fun, well...wasn't.  The only thing I did like about P.E. was the huge fan the coach plugged in at the end of almost every class.  With a steady hum loud enough to muffle a murder, this big box on wheels towered above my 5'2" frame as its blades blew hurricane force gusts at a group of sweaty girls trying to cool off so their make-up wouldn't run.

In south Louisiana with 90 degree days even in December and an open-air gymnasium, sweating was a given.  Yet, amidst units on gymnastics, rollicking games of dodge ball, volleyball, and flag football, one of the worst had to be the unit on running.

Unlike the other sports where we got points just for dressing out and taking the field, this sport had requirements.  To earn an 'A,' I had to run a mile in under 15 minutes.  Every thirty seconds under 15 would earn me 10 bonus points.  

Every morning for weeks, I would double knot my tennis shoes and make four laps around the cushioned black oval.  I was motivated to earn that A (and those bonus points), so I sweated, ran until I had side stitches and thought my lungs would burst, then walked until I could run again.

It was horrible.  In the end, I did make an A and earned some bonus points, but I learned nothing about the benefits of pacing myself.

After that day, I didn't run again unless it was after/towards one of my runaway, screaming, bleeding children. I walked. Everywhere.  Sure, I walked brisk 14-minute miles, but still, it was walking.

Then came the opportunity to raise my three children with a different attitude about running by entering them into the Louisiana Kid's Marathon.  Even as I typed my name into the application, I was terrified, not that they couldn't do it but that I couldn't.  I routinely walked 8-10 miles a week, but that was walking.  This was running.

In Scripture, Paul speaks several times about running a race.  Honestly?  I've always hated those verses about racing because they've always made me feel like a loser, me, the woman who doesn't run.

Yet, after nine weeks of training, I have realized that running a physical race isn't really that much different than running a spiritual one...and that kind of spiritual running?  I do every day whether I call it running or not. 

In  Hebrews, Paul says, "Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Heb. 12:1-3).

To the Corinthians, Paul writes, "Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:24-27).

In both these Scriptures, Paul reveals several characteristics of physical running that apply equally to our walk (or run) on the narrow path to becoming more and more like Christ.

1.  There's Always an Excuse to Stop Running.  It's too cold, I have a scratchy throat, my feet hurt, supper will be on the table late, the laundry won't get folded. 

These same excuses can interfere with our prayer-life, our Bible reading, our commitment to any particular ministry.  And before we know it, we are encumbered, entangled by our excuses so that we stop running the spiritual race to become more Christlike, to deepen our relationship with the Father.  We must ask the Spirit to help us recognize the excuses for what they are and lay them aside so our focus is on Christ and Christ alone.

2.  Fix Your Eyes on Jesus.  My daughter learned this the hard way.  She would turn to see if her brother was catching up to her or would look down an extra second at a brightly colored leaf or interesting rock...and in that second when she took her eyes off the road ahead, she would trip and fall flat on her face.  

The same is true of our spiritual pilgrimage.  It is all too easy to allow our eyes to drop down to the troubling circumstances of life.  If we focus there on ourselves, it is all too easy to fall flat.  How will we make ends meet? What if the kids get sick again? How will I find another job?  No matter how difficult the path may seem, looking down at ourselves won't keep our feet moving.  It will only make us fall faster.  We need to fix our eyes on Jesus so He can help us put one foot in front of the other.

3.  Consider Your Goal or You Will Grow Weary and Lose Heart. 
When my children grew weary, I would remind them of the medal to come at the end of their 26th mile.  I would talk about how it would sparkle, about how they could show it to everyone.  In the midst of colds, viruses, and the stomach flu, this goal kept them going.  

As Christians, we, too, must strive to keep the state of the world or our circumstances from discouraging us.  We must keep up the pace, remembering that our goal is found not just here in material wealth or success in this life but in eternity to come.  On this side of the veil, our goal is to become more like Jesus not have a cushy 401K and retirement plan; to grow closer to Him with each passing season so that one day, we will achieve our ultimate goal of life in eternity with Him. 

4.  Discipline yourself with self control.
The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak--oh how I understand this.  I've caught myself thinking, "Just one day of not reading my Bible.  It won't matter.  I can just make up for it tomorrow by reading both lessons."  Or maybe it's more like, "I feel too tired to go to church this morning.  Surely they can find someone else to help with the children's lesson."  Or perhaps you've thought, "It's too cold to prayer walk today.  Those tracts probably wouldn't do any good anyway."  This goes back up to #1--our  minds can find an excuse for anything.  

The key is apply techniques learned in physical racing, such as pacing and disciplining ourselves.  Pacing ourselves means we need to not take on too much just for the sake of doing; we need to discern where God would have us do His kingdom's work and plug ourselves in there versus spreading ourselves thin doing everything and anything.  Likewise, disciplining  ourselves means making Bible study, prayer, and any other kind of ministry God has called us to, a routine.  

Sure, anything done just for the sake of doing it won't profit a person.  Yet, I have found that my heart and spirit are willing even when my flesh is weak.  Pacing and disciplining myself in the routine of spiritual disciplines helps my spirit overcome my flesh.

 My children are already asking when we're running our next kid's marathon.  And I?  I've caught myself considering a 5K in the future. 

If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, even if you're a couch potato, you have been set on the narrow path to run the race that has been set before you.  

Let us discipline ourselves, keep our focus, and not grow weary.  Let us run that race well to the glory of God the Father. 

Image: Husband and my youngest son--champions!  For the complete story and photos of our family's racing journey, read here and here

Sunday, January 13, 2013

When God Tells You to Get Out of the Way!!

I got in God's way this morning, just stuck my size nine narrow sling-back heel in there and offered a quick, soothing word to an upset friend--a word I had no right to give.

She caught me by the water fountain as I rushed into worship service.  After dispersing the last of my six children to a parent, I wanted nothing more than to find my seat so no one would tsk tsk over my tardiness.

In hushed tones, she spoke a fear that she had offended someone when she had made a particular point in class earlier that morning.  I quickly brushed aside her worries, assured her that it wasn't a big deal and that I agreed with her Biblical stance.

In my mind, this was one of those issues that even close family might disagree on but still live quite peacefully on the firm foundation of Christ.  "It's no big deal," I smiled before quickly moving away to take my seat.

Hours later, I closed the door for a Sunday afternoon nap.  The day's ever-present noise and rush stopped, fell to the silence of the rain on the windows.  And in that silence, I felt the sudden, chastening hand of God more strongly than I have in quite some time.

Who did I think I was!?  Was I God to convict her of how she should relate to another sister in Christ?

God clearly told me I had gotten in His way, that He was doing a work in my friend's heart and who was I to give her false reassurance that everything was ok? 

In that moment, I felt like the prophets of the Old Testament, those saying what was in their own hearts versus in God's heart; those speaking what they thought the Israelites wanted to hear--messages of peace, restoration, and prosperity--instead of true messages of repentance and judgment.  Jeremiah said these false prophets, "have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace" (Jer. 6:14).

Giving advice is easy to do.  Giving Godly advice is harder.

And what's even harder?  Making sure our Godly advice doesn't impede the Holy Spirit's conviction upon someone's soul.

As Oswald Chambers said, "Conviction of sin is one of the rarest things that ever strikes a man. It is the threshold of an understanding of God. Jesus Christ said that when the Holy Spirit came He would convict of sin, and when the Holy Spirit rouses the conscience and brings him into the presence of God, it is not his relationship with men that bothers him, but his relationship with God."

This quotation is true to the non-believer and the believer alike.  Even once one is saved, his relationship with God is still what bothers him most.

After the Holy Spirit convicts a lost soul unto repentance, the Spirit's conviction still continues to play an active role in the believer's life, albeit this time it is a conviction unto a deeper relationship with God, unto a life where we become more like Christ, unto further repentance.  As Christ told His disciples, "when the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you" (Jn. 16:13-15).

In other words, the Spirit's conviction acts as a guide, making us more like the Father and Son.

When others seek out our counsel, we can unintentionally sidetrack them from what God is doing in their lives if we rush to give a comforting answer above all else (and in all honestly? comfort is what I want to do for my friends). Yet, if we truly have their best interests in mind, we must try harder to speak the truth in love, to not be afraid to say, "Well, if God is convicting you about that, then perhaps you should do something."

And if we do screw up like I did and stick a foot where it doesn't belong?  We must then be courageous enough to go back to that friend, admit our unwise counsel, and thank the Spirit for convicting us so we could make it right. 

Photo credit Michael M. Schwab/Getty Images

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Why the Elf of the Shelf Isn't a Good Quick Fix

Growing up, we had a pair of olive green clad elves that sat on the ledge of our staircase.  On the other treads sat a hodgepodge of fond memories mother disinterred from her blue metal steamer trunk each December--the 3D gingerbread house candle from Avon, the singing red plastic bell, and the twirling, musical white-robed angel with her fifties' hairdo and halo of tiny plastic candles. 

To my brother and me, the elves were pretty cool, if for no other reason than that in a sea of our mother's "don't touch" precious memories, we were allowed free reign to gently hold these cloth objects with their molded plastic faces.  Few trips up and down the stairs didn't find me untucking their folded knees from their encircled arms and letting their twiggy legs dangle long.

Never did I ever consider that these stuffed objects might be real elves sent by Santa Claus to be sure I was behaving. 

This past year, my son came home from kindergarten with news that an elf had arrived in his room.  He had fun telling me if and when the elf magically moved around the room each day.  And much like my childhood, the elf was just a fun stuffed decoration.

But as the season progressed, I started hearing some parents using the elf as a discipline tool.  As the weeks passed, my Facebook home page literally exploded with pictures of the elf along with comments like, "You'd better be careful, Mikey.  That elf might is watching you" or "Susan was on a tear tonight.  Time for the elf to make an appearance!"

While some parents only used the cute guy as fun, for all too many, the elf became the embodiment of parental discipline, Santa's watchdog, a confidential informant so the big guy in red would know if you'd been bad or good.

Right before Christmas, a lady sweetly asked my son if he had an "Elf on the Shelf" watching to see if he was being bad lately.

Wyatt stood silent, not understanding or knowing how to respond.  Before I could bite my tongue, I blurted out,  "No.  Our house has a Father God who writes down our every action in heaven." 

This is the heart of the problem with the elf fad--teaching children behave in order to please a stuffed creature so they'll be worthy of Christmas gifts.

And now that Christmas is over? What happens now? Who should children strive to please until next December?

In Galatians, Paul speaks of grace and the law, explaining how God's grace that covers sin is not a writ of permissiveness so we can do whatever our flesh desires.  Instead, God's grace at salvation gives us the ability to fulfill the law, something we could never do within ourselves.

He then says,  "But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith" (Gal. 3:23-24).

You know the law of Moses he speaks of--do not murder, do not steal, do not lie, do not covet, do not commit adultery, keep the Sabbath holy, honor your father and mother, don't worship other gods....... Then, there is Jesus' clarification of those laws in Matthew 5 where He teaches that anger in one's heart is the equivalent of murder, where lust in one's heart is the equivalent of adultery.  This is the fullest extent of obeying the law given in the Old Testament.

According to this above passage, before we became followers of Christ, the law of Moses "tutored" us, teaching us to choose right actions and, ultimately, leading us to salvation when we learned we could never keep the law on our own and needed the blood of Calvary to redeem us from our sin.

The point is that this is how we must raise our children--under the law.  Not under fear of an elf but under fear of displeasing a holy God.  We must choose to raise our children under the law until they come to faith in Him, allowing the law to be their "tutor" to lead them to faith in Christ.

Our children must be taught that daily (not just in December), God knows their comings and goings, everything done in secret, every thought they has ever entered their minds.

In our household, I constantly remind my children that God not only knows and sees all, but that He writes all their actions--good and bad--down in His book: "and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds" (Rev. 20:12).

In other words, discipline isn't about an elf.  It isn't about what mommy and daddy want.  

Choosing right actions is about what God wants and expects from them.

In our household, husband and I strive (and fail miserably and strive again) to discipline our children based around the Ten Commandments.  At this age, they're usually guilty of not honoring their parents, lying, coveting as is expressed through ingratitude, murder through anger, etc.   I also routinely walk around the house yelling out the fruit of the spirit at my children when I see them doing something wrong.  "Kindness!!!" or "Gentleness!!!" (Gal. 5).  The result is that just last week, my oldest looked at me before I could say a word and said, "I know, I know.  Patience."

This post isn't an elf bashing.  One day, I'm sure my mother will pass down to me one of her antique elves to sit on my shelf.   But when she does, it will be simply a sweet memory, not a tool for discipline.

Instead, this is about parenting the next generation. 

We parents must choose to instill in our children a healthy fear and respect for God alone.  Respect for a holy God and fear of disappointing a heavenly Father should direct our parenting.  It should propel our children through every season of the year, not just at Christmas time.