Friday, February 27, 2009

Fragrance or Stench?

. . . if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chron. 7:14).

I had never thought about this Scripture in the way that Shirley—a fellow church member—expressed it last night in prayer meeting. She said that when we share the gospel with someone or stand against corruption in our community, but have ungodly attitudes or behavior in ourselves, we hinder our listeners from accepting what we say and what we stand for. Of course! Why would a person take seriously our message that they need to change if there are obvious ways in which we haven’t allowed the Lord to change us?

Shirley further pointed out that this verse lists several things that God requires of us if we want him to heal our land: 1) humbling ourselves, 2) praying, 3) seeking God’s face, and 4) turning from our wicked ways. We tend to concentrate on #2, she said, and ignore the others. No wonder we don’t see more answers to our prayers!

As I have considered these four mandates, it becomes clearer and clearer to me why all four are essential. If we are not seeking God’s face—really getting to know him, learning how he sees things, and letting his attitudes rub off on us—we won’t even pray the right prayers. For example, we might very well be praying for God to destroy “those wicked people” who are perverting our community. But the Lord is not willing that any should perish. He wants us to pray that they will be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Or we might pray the right thing out of a wrong motive. For example, have you ever prayed for someone to be saved so that they will not be so hard to get along with? If so, do you really love them in a way that will draw them to the Lord?

Also, when praying about the wickedness of others, what about the humility to recognize that we ourselves are not perfect? Is that not critical? Have you or I ever lied to smooth a situation over instead of solving it? Have we ever looked out for our own interests and ignored those of others? Have we ever struggled with moral issues? Then are we so different from lying politicians, self-serving bosses, and immoral people? If we do not remember that we too are captive to sinfulness without the grace of God—if we are not willing to confess and leave behind every bad habit and wrong motive of our own, we will not give off the sweet aroma of the nature of Jesus. Instead, we will give off the stench of hypocrisy.

Shirley’s final insight was this: If all we see in 2 Chron. 7:14 is that WE SHOULD PRAY for revival in our land, then we are thinking that OUR efforts (our prayers) are the most important factor in bringing change. But this verse says that GOD will heal our land. What is our part in this? Well, we don’t really have a part unless we recognize that we too need to turn from our wicked ways, to be forgiven and healed! When we humbly remember what God has had to redeem us from in the past and admit that we still fall far short of what honors him, then he can forgive us and continue the transformation into his likeness. Then we will know how he wants us to pray, and we will be a help, instead of a hindrance, in changing the world around us. In short, it’s not about our herculean efforts to help God save the world. It’s not even about realizing our own sins and trying to be better. It’s all about looking to his great grace*—to transform us, and then to change the world.
*The best definition of grace, in this instance, is:

“Grace is the divine influence upon the heart, enabling us to do the will of God.”

As the hymn title “Grace Greater Than Our Sin” implies, God’s influence on our hearts is more powerful than the stranglehold of our sinful habits and attitudes. Let's quit hanging on to them. Let's quit struggling to improve ourselves. Let's put ourselves into his hands, trust and cooperate with him, and let him complete the work he started when we first believed in him.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The best gift

If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:13).

This is how Jesus concluded his response to his disciples’ request to teach them how to pray. First, he gave them "The Lord’s Prayer." He followed that by an illustration of a man successfully receiving assistance from his neighbor by persistent entreaty. He applied that to prayer by instructing his disciples to be persistent in asking, seeking, and knocking. Then he highlights the willingness of earthly fathers to give their children the good things they ask for, rather than something harmful. Finally, he concludes with the statement that God, who is far better than an earthly parent, will surely give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.

I must admit that this statement has mystified me. I wonder how much Jesus’ disciples knew about the Holy Spirit and whether they had the remotest intention of praying to receive the Holy Spirit. I’m sure there were many other things for which they were interested in praying.

Through the years, I’ve reasoned that Jesus was pointing out that if one has God, one has everything. That is, if one is rightly related to God, one can “come boldly to the throne of grace, [to] obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

But today, my thoughts on this statement of Jesus’ took me somewhere else entirely. I had been reflecting on the joy-to-be-alive, security, sense of direction and purpose, fulfillment, and love that fill one’s inner landscape when living in communion with the Lord by his Spirit. I realized that this inner landscape is where we really live. Outer circumstances cannot override what is in one’s spirit. The best of circumstances cannot put a smile on the face of an insecure, grasping person; and the worst of circumstances cannot take the song out of the heart of a person whose “mind is stayed on [God]” (Isa. 26:3 NKJV).

The writer of Proverbs had a similar thought when he said

The spirit of a man will sustain him in sickness,/But who can bear a broken spirit? (Prov. 18:14 NKJV).

Truly, the glorious presence of the Holy Spirit within us is gift enough. He is a better answer than we usually ask for.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Main Event

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

"And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt. 6:25-33).

“. . . all these things (food and drink to sustain life and clothes to adorn the body)will be ADDED to you”—in other words, they’re NOT THE MAIN EVENT—they are add-ons. The main event, according to verse 33, is:

· God’s kingdom—cooperating with God’s will coming to pass on earth as it is in heaven.
· God’s righteousness—allowing God to make things right on the inside of us and in the world around us, by letting his good and holy Spirit operate freely in and through us.

Steven Covey, in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, identifies four kinds of tasks that face us every day: tasks that are 1) not urgent and not important (like reading the comics sometime today), 2) urgent but not important (like catching a TV program that is coming on in 5 minutes), 3) not urgent but important (like teaching one’s children safety rules), and 4) urgent and important (like taking an injured child to the emergency room). [All of these examples are mine.] Covey points out that an effective person prioritizes. He puts first things first. He does not do the unimportant first so that there is no time left for the important. He makes the time for important things—even the ones that don’t have to be done yet.

When I read Seven Habits, I was appalled to recognize that I wasted a lot of precious time creating things over again because I did not have a good enough filing system so that I could find my creations the next time I needed them. I found the time to get organized, and was rewarded by a less frantic life, with more leisure to do things creatively and well.

How does this apply to Matt. 6:33? Most of mankind—even Christ-followers—have succumbed to investing almost all of their time and energy into what Jesus categorizes as not urgent and of lesser importance. According to his statement, “earning a living” will happen as an add-on if one puts one’s best time and energies into the Father’s business. This is hard for most of us to believe. It seems to be irresponsibly leaving the matter of providing the necessities of life “up in the air.”

Here’s an example I read years ago of putting first things first, Jesus’ way:

R. G. LeTourneau* was struggling one evening with a design problem. One of the machines that was essential to performing a task the next day, needed to be fitted with a part that would enable it to function differently. What kind of part would it take?

It was almost time for a weekly meeting at church [I believe it was with a group of young people that he was leading], and he was no nearer to a solution than he had been all day. The design was urgent. He had to have an idea to implement by tomorrow. But, finally, he decided to honor his commitment to the Lord and to the church. . . . As he started home, later that night, the needed inspiration burst into his mind. Sitting down to his drawing board, he quickly sketched the perfect design.

Obviously, we each need to ask the Lord exactly what the balance should be in our individual lives between godly priorities and earthly tasks. But one thing is certain, we will never get around to obeying God’s call to be about the Father’s business unless we purpose in our hearts to put that first.
* Available through God Runs My Business; The Story of R. G. LeTourneau. by Albert W. Lorimer and 77 (Paperback - 1941).

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Being known by him

Bob Sorge, in his life-changing book, Secrets of the Secret Place, arrested my attention with these words:

Someone once asked, “Do you know God?” But there’s a question that is far more important: Does God know you? The issue on the great day of judgment will not be whether you know God but whether God knows you.1

This is the issue in the last three verses of the parable of the ten virgins. Two blogs ago, I investigated this parable in an effort to discover the secret of “THOSE WHO STAY FILLED.” I concluded that their secret is avoiding “second-hand religion” but instead drawing near to God and living by his Word—for themselves. In the next blog, I explored what it means to truly know God and stay alive in him, the way the five wise virgins were able to do. Now we come to the last three verses of the parable, which expose the critical matter of being known by God.

"Later the others also came. 'Sir! Sir!' they said. 'Open the door for us!'

"But he replied, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you.'

"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour . . .” (Matt. 25:11-13).

These three verses are puzzling to most of us, I venture to say. A great deal of light is shed on them by Bob Sorge’s continued discussion of it:

“But,” someone might counter, “I thought God knows everything about us anyways!”

True, He does. But just because He sees certain dark rooms in our heart doesn’t mean we’ve invited His light into those dark rooms.2

Have we failed to talk to God about our dreams, because we’re afraid he might not agree and might try to talk us out of them? Do we avoid discussing our attitudes with him, because we don’t want to change them—we feel so strongly that “this is part of who I am”? Do we “keep from him” our secret sins or sinful thoughts, because of the shame and condemnation we expect to feel in his presence?

If so, we have completely misunderstood the type of relationship God invites us to. We are operating out of how we have learned to behave in human society. We have learned to reveal only a little about ourselves to other people. And there’s wisdom in that. Who knows what certain people will do with intimate knowledge about us? Who knows whether they will reject us, if they know our weaknesses and our past deeds? Who knows whether they really even want to hear about our dreams and our struggles? But God is different. His love is unconditional. His understanding is complete. Our secrets are safer with him than they are with us. We don’t know what to do with them. He does.

Still, many of us might feel that mentioning ugly things about ourselves to God is as unseemly as wearing stained clothing in public. We may feel that it would be disrespectful to God to “wear our dirty laundry” before his eyes. But the Bible clearly states

He who conceals his sins does not prosper. . . (Prov. 28:13).

If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault . . . (James 1:5)

God is not surprised, shocked, or turned off by our sins and our shortcomings. He is frustrated by our unwillingness to admit the obvious and let him change us by his love and his grace. Being open with God about our sins and our lacks is the way to grow and prosper in our relationship with him. Peter is an example of an honest, transparent follower of Jesus. He blurted out what he was thinking countless times. He undoubtedly was expressing what the rest of the disciples were thinking—but they were too proud and too afraid of Jesus’ rejection to say so. And who prospered the most? Who grew by leaps and bounds in love for Jesus? Who dared to believe that he could do what Jesus did (like walking on water)? Who was admitted into Jesus’ closest circle of disciples? It wasn’t the careful, fearful ones who kept their thoughts to themselves. It was Peter, whose heart was an open book to the Lord.

Consider, for example, an incident after Jesus’ resurrection, when the disciples were at loose ends, wondering what they were to do next. Peter didn’t hang around, trying to figure out the pious response to the situation. He said, “I’m going fishing!” This candor did not put a rift between him and the Lord. It actually set the stage for the Lord to meet him with the miracle of a super-abundant catch—and to commission him to “feed my sheep.”3 The Lord wants to meet us where we are. He can’t meet us when we’re pretending to be somewhere else.

Bob Sorge, in speaking of Zecharias’ vision of the lampstand and the two olive trees,4 says this:

What we really want is wider pipes. The pipes that carry the oil from the bowl to the seven lamps are critical to the degree of light emitted by the lampstand. If the pipes are open and unclogged, oil will flow freely to the flames of our hearts. When this admixture of oil (the word and the Spirit) flows into our hearts and sets us ablaze for Him, the kingdom will advance in and through our lives in staggering proportions. The issue is not, “Work harder!” The issue is, “Get oil!” The secret is: Apply yourself to enlarging your connection to the source of divine oil.5

Opening our innermost beings to the Lord greatly widens our pipes and enlarges our connection to the source of divine oil.

How about it? Will we entrust ourselves to his love and let him know us? Much rides on our decision.
1Bob Sorge, Secrets of the Secret Place (Lee’s Summit, MO: Oasis House, 2001), p. 175.
2Bob Sorge, Secrets, p. 176.
3John 20
4Zech. 4:1-9
5Bob Sorge, Secrets, p. 207.