Saturday, January 29, 2011

Gaps beware!

I see gaps ... I fill gaps.
really don't like gaps.

So when I finished last week's blod on living by faith but felt there was still room for misunderstanding, I decided I'd better linger over a few points in this week's space as well.

The perfect personification of my concern in leaving them unaddressed is a professor I took a class from in college. The class was called something like "Introduction to Philosophy", but I thought a more appropriate name would have been "Irate Rants Against Christianity, Which I Hate - 101".

If he hadn't been what I can now clearly identify as an intellectual bully (captive audience + bitterness - filter = cruelty), he might have made some inroads. As it was, everyone just thought he was a lunatic.

I recall one rant in particular that drove me right to the edge of dropping his class.

He'd read a newspaper article that morning about a youth who was killed by a drunk driver. The focus of the article was the young man's parents, who were incredibly dedicated and well-taught Christians. They were quoted as saying something like, "We have chosen to forgive the man who killed our son. That's God's will for us. He forgave us, so we will forgive him. And as horrible as this is, we also chose to believe that God allowed this to happen. And so, we will continue to give Him thanks and believe that good will come."

Oh boy, did that ever poke the bear!

He spent the entire hour that day expounding on how idiotic faith in God was - as evidenced by those grieving parents. How dare they forgive the man! How incredibly stupid could they be to think that God (Oh yeah, and isn't He supposed to be love??!!) could have allowed such a thing to happen? Etc. The tirade was morbid and disgusting. And pathetic, all rolled up into one.

And this leads me right into my first point.

We know by faith that God allows whatever happens to us. It may not feel good, but by faith we know that it is good.

This point counters the mistaken belief that if we don't like something it must be bad. This is a foolishly self-centered and emotion-based belief. It should have no place in the thinking of a person of God.

Luckily, I got to a experience personal example of this last week.

The opportunity came while waiting for the results of a blood test that would confirm or deny the existence of a fairly serious problem. And it wasn't even for me. Worse by far, it was for one of my children.

Anyone who's done this knows that waiting by itself is bad enough. But even better (ie, worse), while her blood was successfully tested, her test results were misplaced. It took a couple of long, potentially annoying days to get them found again. And during that time, I waited, wanting to do something but pretty much impotent.

Finally, about 24 hours into this, my faith kicked back in. I stopped fretting, let go, and prayed. "Lord, I really want her to be healthy, but if she has this thing, it was your decision. So I know it's for the best. I will leave this in Your hands and choose to rejoice in whatever the outcome is."

I didn't think about it again until the doctor called with a negative (ie, good!) result. And even though I wasn't tested, I sincerely believe I was ready to react with faith, even if it had been positive (ie, bad).

Trusting in God and all that He has revealed must be based on what He has actually revealed.

This point counters our tendency to try and hold God to promises He never made. It may seem like this could go without saying. But it can't. I'm absolutely certain this problem is epidemic, even among true disciples.

Two distinct errors are involved.

1. We decide what we want to happen and then get it in our heads that God couldn't possibly allow any other outcome. We just make up random things like, "Lord, please don't let it snow today! I'm sick of snow. And my shovel is broken." And then we actually get mad at God when it snows!

(Anyone sense that I've been lucky enough to recently experience this point also?)

2. We think if we pray hard enough, believe strong enough, offer enough sacrifice, or "deserve" it enough, we will get what we want. Even if it's nothing God has promised.
Our faith must never be founded on mere positive thinking. Just because we sincerely truly positively believe something, if the idea came from our own heads, God is in no way obliged to comply. 

Now, that said, He certainly might comply. I'm not saying He will never honor a sincere and righteous desire of His children. But we must always be aware that His purposes are infinitely greater than ours, and His scope is a whole lot wider.

The wise Christian will find, memorize, treasure and believe not only God's promises, but all relevant statements and commands as well.

By this, I mean commands like:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

And statements like:

Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.


If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.

Why? Because coming from a loving and omniscient God, commands and statements of fact are exactly the same thing as promises. They are absolutely true reflections of Reality (notice I capitalized the "R"?) and should be taken into account at all times.

There! Now I think the gaps are gone.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Living by faith - but what does that mean?

Welcome to the first ever WIP open-blod test!

There are only two questions here, so each is worth 50% of your grade. But don't worry if you didn't study. I'm going to give you the answers.

The first question is this: How are we saved?

Readers of last week's blod know the answer without any hints. But just in case...

The answer is this:

God reveals Truth about Himself - about who He is and what He has done or will do - and we believe that Truth. We are then considered righteous in God's eyes.

It's all about

  • Taking Him at His word.
  • Putting more faith in Him than in your senses, or your mental abilities, or yourself.
  • Saying (and meaning) that whatever God has revealed you will count as true, no matter how impossible it sounds.

These are the things that God has required of us.

Paul makes it perfectly clear in his letter to the Romans (the quote at the top of last week's blod) that we are considered righteous by believing God in this way.

But an interesting thing happens a few books later. Paul went and used the exact same example of Abraham believing God's promise of a son in his letter to the Galatians, too. Except in Galatians he didn't use it as proof that we are saved by believing. In Galatians it proves another point altogether.

Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit [faith]
are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh [works].... So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.

You see what I mean? 

In this passage Paul answers a different question, which is this: How are we to live our Christian lives day by day?

And his answer is this: By faith.

So, we are to live by faith!

Yes, I suppose we all know that.
But what exactly does that look like?
That's where the rub comes.

If we're not careful, this "living by faith" can become one of those super "spiritual", discombobulatingly nebulous, and absolutely meaningless topics.

But (if you'll excuse my rudeness) that's all worthlessness and hooey. At least in my experience. Nothing too "spiritual" or otherworldly does a thing for me in real life. Nothing I can't solidly put my finger on in the real world will ever change the way I approach tomorrow or deal with today.

So what does it look like?

Well (if you'll now excuse my simplicity), the obvious answer is that living-by-faith looks exactly like being-saved-by-faith looks.

And so:

Living by faith means that in every moment of life we consciously decide to trust God's promises - even when everything and everyone around us tell us they are illogical, impossible and simply not going to happen.

That's it.

You learn the promises, statements and commands that God has revealed, and you hold on to those like a piece of flotsam in the middle of a stormy ocean.

And to make things even more clear, here are a few "starter kit" promises that relate very well to life as we know it.

For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, "In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength." (Isaiah 30:15)

Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. (Psalm 34:19)

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)

God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
Now for question number two: What if you believed these promises were literally, absolutely and invariably true? How would that affect your actions, the way you think about things, and the way you relate to others right now and beyond?

One possible answer is this: It would change your life. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Just a thought - 4

Sometimes the lyrics of a song are so powerful they can take your breath away. In my opinion, this is one of those songs.

The words below enhance, expand, and beautify last Saturday's blod in a way that really warms my heart. (And this is nice, since it's about zero degrees outside.)

In Christ Alone

In Christ alone my hope is found.
He is my light, my strength, my song.
This Cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.

What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease.
My Comforter, my All in All.
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ alone, who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless Babe.
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones He came to save.

Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied.
For every sin on Him was laid.
Here in the death of Christ I live.

There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain.
Then bursting forth in glorious Day,
Up from the grave He rose again.

And as He stands in victory
Sin's curse has lost its grip on me.
For I am His and He is mine,
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me.
From a life's first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny.

No power of hell, no scheme of man
Could ever pluck me from His hand.
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I stand.

Copyright © 2002 Thankyou Music (PRS) (adm. worldwide at excluding Europe which is adm. by All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Saved by faith - but what does that mean?

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? 

"Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness."
(Rom 4:1~3)

God told Abraham he was going to have a son.

This was hard for Abraham to believe.
In fact, he struggled with it for quite a while.

There were several reasons for Abraham's doubt:

  1. He was already an old man;
  2. His wife was well past child-bearing age;
  3. God had originally made the promise two and a half decades earlier, and nothing Abraham had seen in all the years since indicated the promise was about to be fulfilled.

Abraham was no dummy.
The promise was completely illogical, biologically impossible, and if God was going to do it, why in the world wasn't it done already!

But there came a point when somehow Abraham got beyond all that. There came a moment when he must have sighed and bowed his head and said: "Okay. I believe You."

And God replied: "That's all I ask."

Scripture tells us that at that moment, Abraham was justified. That is, whatever his "real" situation, Abraham had become completely righteous in God's eyes.

Paul uses this Old Testament account to explain what happens "behind the scenes" to every person who receives salvation in Christ. 

In my case, the story ran: "Tim believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness."

But just what was it I believed?  
I personally never heard a word about a son (and two girls later, I still haven't...). It was this:
  • God, You can't possibly know and love me personally. But You do. It's illogical, but I accept it. 
  • Lord, You can't really consider me to be perfectly righteous and completely without sin. But You do. It's impossible, but I believe You.
  • Father, I confess I am weak, selfish, foolish, and sinful. You promise to make me like Your Son. I don't see it, but I trust You will do it in Your time.

This is all God asks of us.
The fool (this word is used here literally, not offensively) thinks he has to be good enough for God to save.
The Christian knows she will never be good enough. But that's okay, because God has promised to take away her sin and give her eternal life if she just asks Him to and believes that He does.

Some will say that makes no sense.
It makes no sense? Well, maybe not. But that's what God said. And that's all He requires.

In fact, if you somehow could make yourself "good enough" for God, Scripture tells us it wouldn't please Him one bit. 
I imagine the Almighty sighing and shaking his head and saying, "Yes, that's all very nice. But it's not what I asked for. I asked you to trust in Me. Now, why don't you go back and start at the beginning."

Anyone who's ever taken a test understands this. You can write the most witty, brilliant and philosophically-advanced answer in the history of test-taking. But if the answer is "3", you're not getting any points at all.

If you look around you'll find hundreds of Christian pamphlets with "salvation prayers" in the back. And every week thousands of pastors give altar calls, offering to lead those who come in a prayer to be saved.

The words and phrasing are all a little different. Some are long and complex. Some are surprisingly simple. But when you strip away all the emotion, fluff and grammar, you get the same thing: "Lord, I believe."

God speaks.
I believe.
God is fully pleased.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Same coin, different side

Do all things without grumbling or questioning,
that you may be blameless and innocent, 
children of God without blemish
in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation,
among whom you shine as lights in the world.
                         - Philippians 2:14~15

Have you ever seen that episode of "The Mentalist" where he wins a bet by flipping a coin 20 times and making it come up heads every time? Turns out it was a trick. Had to be. All real coins have two sides.  

And so it is with this topic.

I want to continue along the same lines as last week, because the idea that God wants Christians to stand out from the world around them has two equally important sides.

Last week's blod subtly focused on what our being unique and visible can do for others who are still in darkness. 

We are to be the light, the goodness, the kindness, the comfort, the truth, the hope, the peace, the strength, the community that draws others to our Lord. If we speak, act, react and think just like everyone else around us, we will draw no one. Probably instead we'll push many away. 

The fact is, we have to be different from the world for the world to ask us what makes us different, and then want whatever it is that makes us that way.

So one side of this coin is that we must stand out for the sake of the people around us.

The other side - a side I seldom ever think about - is that we also must stand out for our own good.  We really can't live, mature or rejoice as Christians if we are indistinguishable from everyone else.

This concept is completely biblical (God commanded the Jews to be separate from the nations around them for just this reason) and extremely important, even if nearly forgotten.

One of the best illustrations of this point I've ever heard comes from the novel, The Penitent, by Isaac Bashevis Singer.  

It's the story of Joseph Shapiro, an entirely modern and worldly Jew who suddenly finds himself unbearably disgusted with the life of lies, sex and compromise he's been living. He decides to escape and return to his roots, leaving everything and everyone behind. He literally runs from his home, boards a flight to Israel, and commits himself completely to a life of penance and purity. As the plane takes off, he is hopeful and relieved. Until an attractive young woman sits down next to him. He knows he must be very careful with her, but when the cabin lights go off for the night, things quickly get out of hand. Luckily, the design of the airplane seats prevents consummation of their ultimate goal, but Shaprio is momentarily shattered. After only hours he has already failed. Suddenly, the difficulty of his new life becomes terribly clear. 

After we realized that what we were tying to do wouldn't work out, we were left sitting there like two whipped dogs, ashamed before each other....  My journey had now become as meaningless as everything else about me. I began to think about buying a ticket back to New York when I got to Rome. Since I couldn't be a Jew, I must be a pagan. Since I couldn't live in purity, I must sink deeper into the slime. Suddenly a man walked by me. He wore a rabbinical hat, had a wide blond beard, long earlocks, and the front of his coat was open to display a ritual garment with fringes. My neighbor looked at him and grimaced. Her eyes reflected embarrassment and scorn. I realized at that moment that without earlocks and a ritual garment one cannot be a real Jew....  Had I worn such an outfit that night, I wouldn't have been exposed to those tempatations.... If [a Jew] doesn't display a sign, if he doesn't broadcast to the whole world who and what he is, he leaves himself open to transgressions that cannot be resisted.

I'm not suggesting we need to wear ritual garments or earlocks to avoid airplane naughties, but what a wonderful idea it is to make absolutely sure that everyone who sees us knows immediately where we stand. I can think of several great benefits this kind of identification could provide:

  1. We would face fewer unnecessary temptations (like a man in a bar with a wedding ring on)
  2. We would find it easier to walk away from temptations (like a jockey in full gear wouldn't place a bet at the track)
  3. We would have a constant reminder to live what we believe (there's nothing like a "uniform" to remind you who you are)
  4. We would probably find it much easier to speak our faith (since our "cover" is already "blown" anyway)
  5. We would recognize other disciples and know we're not alone

Sadly, cross necklaces & "Jesus Fish" have been rendered meaningless by their adoption into mainstream culture. But I'm sure that, with a little thought, each one of us can come up with a way to make our allegiance perfectly and immediately clear.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Oh, there's Waldo!

Well, we're in luck! My dear wife (always perfectly organized!) was able to find the photo. Now that I see it again I notice it's slightly different than I described (e.g., one non-black kimono), but I think the truly bizarre essence of the scene remains intact!


"Where's [Your Name Here]?"

In an album somewhere lies one of my favorite pictures of all time.

It was taken at my wife's brother's wedding in Japan. And as the oldest son of the oldest son of a very old and noble family, it was a fairly formal thing. So, of course, I wore a nice shirt and tie.

Everyone else, though (i.e., all the non-foreigners), wore more traditional Japanese wedding attire, the men in black suits and the women in elegant black kimono. 

It was also a fairly large affair, since my father-in-law is one of nine children.

The wedding went well and after the ceremony, like they do all over the world, groups formed and photographers did their thing. I was in a couple pictures with my wife and children. And a couple more with the full family. And then I was forgotten.

All was as it should be.

Things went on like this very nicely for a while, until the ladies of the family decided to gather for one shot of just the "matriarchs".  Soon, eleven (all eight aunts, my wife, her mother and her grandmother) middle-aged to elderly women gathered for a dignified photo in their striking outfits.

Obviously in no danger of being asked to step in, I stood off to the side and enjoyed this scene that seemed almost from a different age.

But then something went terribly wrong. They caught me.

If you've ever seen "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" you'll have some idea what kind of irresistible tidal wave of humanity my wife's family can be. Once those women decided I should be in their picture, there was no escaping.

And so, there I am.

A tall awkwardly-smiling white man, brown hair, bright white shirt, back row, left corner.
And all around me nothing but tiny Asian ladies in black silk kimono.

Looking at it now, it's hard to believe I wasn't photoshopped in as a joke.
For years I've shown the picture to people and asked, "Can you find me?!"
It's like the worst "Where's Waldo?" ever.

It's a hoot, for sure.  But this week I found a more practical application for it.

Do all things without grumbling or questioning,
that you may be blameless and innocent, 
children of God without blemish
in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation,
among whom you shine as lights in the world.
     - Philippians 2:14~15

Paul makes it very clear that God wants every Christian to be a tall smiling white man in a group of tiny Asian women.

Well, not exactly.
But you get the picture.

(Pun quite possibly intended.)