Saturday, March 21, 2015

Accepting The Best and the Worst in People

Even as an adult, I find children's books are so comforting to read. The bad guys are always bad.  The good guys are always good.  By the end of the book, evil is soundly defeated, and nobody is sorry when he (or she) is dead and out of the picture.

There is rarely this fuzzy grey area where the good guys do something so off the charts wrong that you recoil from the pages to say, "Woah.  I'm not sure you really are the good guy if you could do something like that"

Reality, though, isn't quite like that.  Humanity isn't at all like that.  People sold out to the cause of Christ and to doing a lifetime of good are still going to shock and disappoint us with actions that are the complete opposite of mercy, grace, and righteousness.

In Scripture, God tries to show us this truth through stories of amazingly righteous individuals who fall flat on their face into the tar pits of adultery, legalism, cowardice, lying, murder, and everything in between.

Even those listed in the spiritual hero hall of fame of Hebrews 11 are far from completely righteous.  These individuals sprinkled throughout the pages believed God, demonstrated their faith time and again in the fruit of their actions....and then they would do something so obviously immoral that we must pause, maybe even question their commitment to God.

We easily remember David who murdered one of his subjects after having an adulterous relationship with the man's wife. We remember Abraham who lied twice, telling both a neighboring king and a pharaoh that his wife was his sister.

Somehow, though, in reading the story of Queen Esther, I have always thought of her as some devout little Jewish girl, one bubble of light growing up in the dark paganism of Susa in Babylon.

Anyone who would say "And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish" and then act on those words to potentially sacrifice her life in order to save all Jews had it all together, surely (Esther 4:16).  And so, I mentally put her in the "righteous" column while firmly placing Hamaan, King Xerxes, and the rest of the pagan citizens of Babylon into the "unrighteous" column.

Never did I once consider that no matter how hard Esther's adoptive parents tried to instill in her heart the Jewish ways of faith in Yahweh alone, perhaps Esther wasn't so lily white.  Perhaps she had materialistic longings like other young girls in Babylon--to be rich, to be loved by the king...maybe to even be queen.

In Angela Hunt's newest book Esther: Royal Beauty, she begins with this assumption that young Esther heard the siren's song of Babylon with all its worldly beauty, color, an pageantry.  Calling her by her Jewish name--Hadassah--she fictionalizes the Bible story through first person narrative, presenting parallel, intertwining stories told through the lips of both Esther and the King's head eunuch, Harbonah.

Hunt's book begins, "You may think you know me, but how could you? Others have related my story, and most of them paint a pretty picture. But unless a woman is allowed to speak for herself, no one will ever fully understand the events of a lifetime..and the secret recesses of a woman's heart" (p. 7).

From page one, she challenges the vision of Esther presented in the popular movie One Night with the King, instead, presenting a more complex girl who struggles to come to terms with the Jewish faith of her childhood and the strong lure of the world of Babylon.

Unlike the Esther held up on a pedestal in my mind, Hunt's Esther is more real.  She is one I can relate to.  She is a girl who wants to be true to God and the tenets of her faith but who, likewise, wants to be a part of Babylon, too. 

In a way, Esther must confront the choice presented in Matthew 6:24: "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.."  

Esther must choose the world of the flesh or the world of the Spirit.

As Paul says, "But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please" (Gal. 5:16-17).

Paul's words seem so easy--Just. Choose.......only it's not as simple.  The fight against the flesh is a life-long endeavor called sanctification.  We will not be free from sin, from this battle against unrighteousness, until we leave behind this life and enter the next realm.

These Bible-time heroes of the faith are as equally human as our modern day heroes of the faith.  When they sin and become mired in their unrighteousness......and when we sin and become mired in our unrighteousness--may we come alongside them in love, extending mercy and grace as we would have them do to us.

Not even the Godliest man or woman has arrived at perfection yet.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Is God Holding Out on You?

"Really? " asks my youngest son.  "Really.....REALLY?" he repeats several more times. 

Over the past week, he has used this phrase with ever increasing frequency, each time his tone communicating how incredulous he is.

It doesn't matter that I have never lied to my children, nor that I don't weekly remind them that mommy will never lie to them even if the truth hurts.  There's just something in my children that doesn't want to believe what someone else tells them, even if that someone else is a loving parent with their best interests at heart.

The problem doesn't just lie with my children, though.  Grown men and women are equally doubtful of others, believing that everyone is forever holding out on them.

In fact, Satan, himself, planted the thought in Eve's mind as early as the dawn of man in the Garden of Eden.  

The book of Genesis says, "Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (3:1).

There it is, a mere three chapters into recorded history--the implication that God, Himself, is secretly lying, is holding out on keeping the best, the naked truth for Himself.

Eve responded, The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die’” (v. 2-3).

But even in her response, that tiny mustard seed of doubt must have already been growing in her mind, for she didn't walk away, didn't leave the conversation.  Instead, she waited there while Satan spun his warped version of the truth: "You will not certainly die!...For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (v. 4-5).  

God is holding out on you.  That blind obedience bit is just a ruse...don't you want to know what He's really hiding behind that threat of death?


And Eve took the bait.  She chose to disobey the one rule God had put before her because she doubted His truth; she doubted that He had her best interests at heart....she believed the lie that there was something more, that there was something better than what God had given her.

Scripture says, "When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves" (v. 6-7).

As much as we want to look back at this story of original sin and click our tongues in disapproval, I would argue that this scene plays out each day, only now the setting has changed from the pure innocence of the Garden of Eden to this fallen speck of earth in a vastly expanding universe.

Satan's message is the same today as it was all those many millennia ago. And can you blame him?  Why change a sales tactic that continues to work?

"God is holding out on you," Satan continues to say to every man, woman, and child. "There is more to be had in this world than what God offers you.  There is more freedom and pleasure that God is denying you by binding you to the limitations He's set forth in Scripture and The Ten Commandments. You can become your own can know all things, be all things...just reach out and take what you want."

But every word Satan whispers or yells--it's all a lie.  Jesus even said that Satan "was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies" (Jn. 8:44).

God is NOT holding out on you or me.  He isn't trying to take away all our fun, all our freedom by asking us to obey His Word as found in the Old and New Testaments.  Instead, His Word is sent to protect us from ourselves, from the ravaging damage that sin can wreak in our lives.

As James said, "Don't be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights" (Jas. 1:16-17).   Even Paul says we should "put [our] hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment" (1 Tim. 6:17).  Our enjoyment!!!

If we had any questions about whether God was holding back His best gifts or knowledge from us, those questions should have been laid to rest at the foot of the cross where God demonstrated His boundless love for mankind by sending His one and only son to die for every sinful, defiant, doubtful soul.

Yes, even as man continued to believe Satan's lie, God sent the fullness of all grace and truth to us in the God-made-flesh body of Jesus Christ.  And through Jesus' death on the cross, God made a new covenant promise with mankind wherein He reconciled us to Himself so that He could give us an eternal inheritance: "Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance" (Heb. 9:15a).

Satan's sales pitch is persuasive because we can't imagine a God who holds nothing back, who never lies, who wants only the best for us.  But, it's the truth. 

The only more to be had in this life is found through salvation in Jesus.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Realizing There is No Choice "C"

"Well, when I grow up and have my own house..." or "Well, when I have my own kids..."

These are phrases I hear quite often from my three little ones.  In their innocence, they believe the lie of childhood which views the world of adults as a veritable theme park wonderland of freedom and fun.

Being an adult means having to answer to no one but themselves.  It means making their own rules versus following the ones mommy and daddy set forth.  In short, being an adult is ultimate power and control over their lives. 

I just smile, sometimes explaining the impossibility of such dreams and other times just playing along, all the while knowing when they cross the great chasm into adulthood, they will be smacked in the face by a much less brilliant reality.

Most adults know something these children can't possibly understand--everyone is always serving someone, always following someone else's set of rules.

And yet, despite the seeming obviousness of this fact, it seems more and more that I see a nation of adults reverting to this dream of ultimate freedom once again.  The concept of being one's own boss is ever appealing--no time clock to punch, no boss to report to, no rules to constrain.  In America alone, 10 million workers reported self employment to the Census.

The problem with this philosophy is that it is as much a lie as it was when we were children.  Even if we work for ourselves, we still aren't free. We become slaves to ourselves...and much worse.

Scripture reminds us of this very fact that we will always be slaves, that we will never be our own boss.  There are merely two choices as to who we will serve under. 

For those who refuse the headship of Jesus Christ, who have chosen to not make Him the Lord of their lives because they find God's commandments to be too oppressive, there is still no freedom to do as they wish.  Instead, these persons are enslaved by their fleshly desires, which control them.

Paul says, "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts" (Eph. 2:1-3).

The image here is of someone incapable of true freedom because those desires, cravings, and disobedient thoughts are so magnetically powerful that the person has no choice but to follow them, no matter how hard s/he fights against them.  

The lost person is not a leader of his own life, not his own boss.  That is an illusion.  Instead, the above verses show that he is a follower of the world and Satan, "the ruler of the kingdom of the air."  In essence, even though the lost person insists on his own freedom to act as he chooses versus submitting to God as a hard taskmaster, this person is actually under the control of Satan whose spirit is "now at work" in those who disobey God.  Modern vernacular would say that Satan is that person's boss.

Choice B requires a person to follow the commandments of God as set forth in the Bible.  As Jesus says, "He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him" (Jn. 14:21).  

For this person who lovingly submits to the Lordship of Jesus, who gives up his will and rights to himself, who makes Jesus his master--this is the person who finds the true irony of life is that the most freedom is found in the greatest submission to authority.  

No longer will the person be tossed to and fro by the desires of his flesh.  Instead, the person submits to God in order to be freed from the flesh for his ultimate benefit: "But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life" (Rom. 6: 22).

Paul summarizes this choice a person must make in regards to his freedom: "Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness" (Rom. 6:16-18).

A man can be a slave to sin and his flesh or a slave to righteousness and God.  With our every action that we convince ourselves we have "freely" chosen, we serve Satan or we serve God.   There is no "Choice C" in this life.  There is no choice of "Self" as our own boss, our own master.

It is the ultimate irony--only by submitting ourselves completely to God will we achieve the freedom we desire.