Video Game Spotlight: A Hero’s Sacrifice

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

~Philippians 4:8

In the last chapter of The Hero and the Dragon: Building Christian Character through Fantasy Fiction, I recognized the fact that many secular stories, movies, and games contain wonderful, virtuous elements – even if the source itself is not “Christian”.  I recently discovered one such example in a rather surprising place: the video game series of “Halo”.  I certainly would not say that these games are something I would promote for the development of Christian character in young people, since the theme of the series is violent combat (although against clearly evil, non-human threats) and some of the characters use language that is not exactly Christ-like (although this improves throughout the series).  However, despite these shortcomings, there is a shining star in the midst of these games that provides an incredible example of faithfulness, hope, patience, endurance, humility, and a willingness to sacrifice everything for those around him – even those who hate him.

The main character of the series is known as Master Chief.  Only a few know him by his real name and officer number: John 117.  This is our first glimpse of the hero behind the mask in this series.  John 1:17 in the Bible says, “ For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  The alien forces who threaten mankind in this series are known as “The Covenant”.  While we know that the old covenant under the Law of Moses could promise only death for sinful man, it was Jesus Christ who saved us by overcoming sin, death and the devil through His death and resurrection, establishing a new covenant through His blood.  Halo players quickly surmise that Master Chief is the only hope humanity has against the alien threat which promises destruction for all mankind.  When he appears on the scene, the hopeless, demoralized, embattled troops of earth know that with him, there is life and hope.

Master Chief is never once arrogant or proud, despite knowing that he is all that stands between human beings and utter extinction.  He moves steadily onward, never neglecting his duty for our sake.  In John 11:7, Jesus turns to His disciples and tells them that the time has come for him to return to Judea.  They try to prevent Him, reminding Him that His enemies are waiting there to kill Him.  But the Son of God knows that His path leads to Jerusalem and Golgotha, and nothing will stand the way of His accomplishing the mission for which He was sent.  Likewise, Master Chief is marked by a character of pressing ever onward, even when his path means certain death for himself.  No matter the cost, he will complete his mission to save humanity.

There are so many rich elements that we could connect with as Christians in this story that I suspect someone on the game’s writing staff must have been a Christian.  A new threat is introduced soon into the game, a vicious, all-consuming race of parasites known as “The Flood”.  The key to humanity’s survival from this new threat lies in a hidden place called – you guessed it – “The Ark”.

As Master Chief travels on through the series and resolves each crisis toward humanity in turn, many look to him for hope in the darkest of times, trusting him to save them as they know only he can.  However, there are those who doubt him.  In fact, there are even those who hate him.  They reject him as the hero who will save mankind and even seek to get rid of him.  His response?  He fights with all the more determination to save those who have spurned him.

For this Good Friday Video Game Spotlight, I want to present my readers with a description of a scene that I think you will recognize.  The forces of evil have gathered thickly upon a bleak hill outside a city.  It appears the battle has turned against our Hero.  As his body is lifted for all to see, his followers cry out in despair.  How can this be?  He was our only hope, the only one who could save us!  As they gaze upon his lifeless form, all courage vanishes.  Some beat the ground in hopeless rage.  Others flee in terror now that their annihilation is certain, pursued closely by the monsters who seek to devour them.  Some simply hang their heads in anguish and await the inevitable end.  From the host of evil, a triumphant tumult arises.  The Hero is defeated.

Or is he?

Click here instead if you have a few minutes and want the full experience.

The “Why” and “How” of Teaching Obedience to God

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” (Deuteronomy 4:5-6)

We all know and believe that obedience to God is important. We see that God’s law is not only for our earthly good, but that our obedience serves as a light and a witness to those apart from God. God does not make His blessings and salvation to the Israelites contingent upon their obedience. God has given them the Promised Land. Now they in response are to show obedience to Him, thereby glorifying His name to those apart from the covenant community and drawing them unto Him.

Of course the Israelites would not follow God in perfect obedience. If they had, what need would there have been for the promise of Jesus, the Savior? But the obedience that they did have – where did it come from? I think verse 7 holds the answer: “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray?”

You see, God did not draw close to the Israelites because of their perfect obedience. You don’t have to read much of their history to understand how true this is. Rather, the obedience that they showed to God was a response to His having drawn near to them, loving them, and redeeming them from oppression and slavery.

We are not redeemed because of our obedience. Obedience follows redemption. This was, is, and always will be the proper order. “Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees” (Psalm 119:134-135). God does not love the writer of this psalm because of his obedience. Rather, the psalm writer obeys God and gladly learns His decrees because he loves God. Why does he love God? Because God has first loved him saved him.

Teaching obedience is important. We want our children to have peaceful, happy, orderly lives. We want them to be lights and witnesses to the Lord our God. We want to equip them with the full armor of God, so that they may be able to take their stand against the devil’s schemes (Eph. 6). We want them to be able to quell the wickedness that comes from their own human hearts (Mark 7:20-23).

So where do we start? We start by helping them to realize that they don’t always obey God’s law. Sometimes their lives will not be peaceful and orderly, and they will not be content. Sometimes they will fall victim to the traps and snares that Satan sets for them. Sometimes the wickedness of their own hearts will rise up and spill forth in their thoughts, words, and actions.

But then comes the best part: showing them that Jesus Christ came to earth for them, lived the life of perfect obedience that we could never achieve, and finally died and rose again so that we might also enter the Promised Land by His grace. Redemption.

We do not begin teaching our children obedience to God by telling them to obey. We begin by teaching them love for God through the story of our redemption in Holy Scripture. As they grow to understand and appreciate just how much God has done for them, we see the beautiful and natural response in their lives: obedience. And when this obedience inevitably fails, they will know it. Then it is our joy once again to point them back to God’s Word, to the cross, to the waters of their baptism, to their redemption through God’s love and grace.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, help me to teach others love for You through sharing the Gospel of what you have done for them.  Guard my heart from doubt and disbelief when I fail to obey Your Law.  Send Your Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament to bolster my faith, through Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.

IN UMBRA, IGITUR, PUGNABIMUS

“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” (Psalm 91:4)

The title of this devotion is a Latin phrase which my family recently came across in their studies and shared with me.  Literally translated, it means, “So much the better, we will fight in the shade.”  Allow me to share with you the story behind these words:

The Roman orator Cicero (hence the Latin) retold Herodotus’ account of the battle of Thermopylae, where the Spartan king, Leonidas, led a mere 7,000 men against over 100,000 Persian invaders.  When asked to report, a scout betrayed his sense of despair at seeing such a tremendous force with these words to Dienekes, a Spartan soldier: “Their arrows will blot out the sun!”

To which Dienekes replied, “IN UMBRA, IGITUR, PUGNABIMUS!”

“So much the better, we will fight in the shade!”

Friends and fellow warriors, the darkness is gathering more thickly each day in our world.  Many of our former comrades have fled or turned against us, succumbing to the approaching terror and abandoning the truth of the Gospel for the sake of preserving their own temporal well-being.  As we stand near the battle-lines and survey the vast host of the armies of darkness that have been arrayed against us, paralyzing fear grips our hearts.  What is our response to this seemingly insurmountable threat?

Very well, then.  We will fight in the shade.

And indeed we will.  I do not mean to say that Satan’s hordes could ever blot out the light of God’s truth with their onslaught of fiery darts; truly, it shines all the more clearly in the face of darkness and adversity.  However, we will be shaded by the wings of our mighty and caring Heavenly Father.  His love, His mercy, and His strength will form a shield around us to protect and preserve our faith even in the face of every evil that comes swarming against us, no matter how dark the days may become.

“And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife,

though these all be gone, our victory has been won;

The Kingdom ours remaineth.” ~Martin Luther (A Mighty Fortress is Our God)

Yes, my friends; the battle belongs to the Lord.  Our faith rests securely in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, sealed and delivered to us in faith solely through His grace.  What have we to fear?  “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).  Thanks to Christ’s sacrifice as the mediator between God and mankind, God is and ever will be for us and with us, sheltering us beneath the wings of His love.  Though all the adversity of this world rails against us, it cannot prevail against the ultimate victory that we have through the cross.  Christ Himself tells us, “In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

King Leonidas himself was approached by the Persian ambassadors before the battle at Thermopylae began.  Knowing the odds against this king and his lowly army, and expecting him to immediately comply, they commanded him to lay down his arms.  To which he replied:

“Come get them.”

Do not despair, my friends.  Our eternal equipment will see us through whatever battles may rage in the days to come.  The Word of God, the Sword of the Spirit, is strong to save.  Let Satan come and once more taste the Blade which brought about his destruction.  Though the hands that wield this supreme Weapon are frail and weak, the foe will never pry it from our grasp, for the Sword itself is invincible, and One who forged it and delivered it to us is ever by our side.

Does Satan come roaring against us?  Fine.  Come and get it.  Do the evils of the world gather more thickly with each passing day?  Very well.  Then we will fight in the shade.  Our Lord Jesus Christ has overcome the world and all its troubles.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus.  Give your Church the everlasting rest she longs for.

Until that time, we will fight.

“Through you we push back our enemies; through your name we trample our foes.  I put no trust in my bow, my sword does not bring me victory; but you give us victory over our enemies, you put our adversaries to shame.  In God we make our boast all day long, and we will praise your name forever.”  (Psalm 44:5-8)

See also 2 Chron. 20:12-19

Prayer: Heavenly Father, arm us with Your Word, that we may go boldly forth and proclaim the Good News of salvation to all who are in the clutches of sin and darkness.  Keep us steadfast in faith against the attacks of Satan, this world, and our own flesh.  Preserve and sanctify us by Your Holy Spirit, holding us ever in Your strong hand, that we may come at last to everlasting life and rest; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Commander, King, and Friend.  Amen.

 

From the pages of Building Christian Character through The Hobbit – Now available!  Click the “Books Available” tab at the top of this page to preview chapters 1-4 or to order a copy.

 

Chapter XIV – “Fire and Water”

 

“The dragon is inevitable – and let it come!  I repeat it, sir, let it come.”

Like the colonists living in Patrick Henry’s day, the people of Esgaroth have been living in the shadow of terror for too long.  Until they face the dragon that looms over them, they can never truly be free.  The dwarves and Bilbo have awakened the dragon’s wrath and stirred up his malice toward the men of Lake-town, but that is just as well – especially knowing that Smaug is destined to die in this battle.

Mr. Henry goes on in his speech to the Virginia Convention in 1775: “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace – but there is no peace…What is it that gentlemen wish?  What would they have?  Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it, Almighty God!”

The people of Esgaroth are so focused on their present suffering and the destruction of their town that they fail to see the wonderful, miraculous fact that seems so plain to us: Smaug is dead!  The monster of the north has been slain and the people of this region are now free from his centuries-long reign of terror.  While they may curse Thorin and Company for causing their present hardship, they ought to also recognize that the dwarves set into motion the chain of events that would lead to this great victory.

People have a way of delaying the inevitable.  As Christians, we often put off unpleasant battles in the hopes that the threat will just go away on its own, or remain sleeping beneath the mountain.  But the truth is, the monster is growing in size and strength with each passing day and year that we avoid confronting it – and the best we can hope for is that it will be our children or grandchildren who will have to combat the beast someday.  What terrible cowardice!

There are many difficult issues in our society that Christians are often reluctant to grapple with.  At best, we engage in minor skirmishes, hoping that it will be enough to stave off the threat without risking open war.  We make concessions to our faith and values, hoping that these compromises will reconcile us to the world.  They won’t.

So let it come.  Let us be the ones to wage spiritual warfare in our nation and world over issues of life, social values, and religious freedoms.  Let us boldly confront the evils in our society, even though it may mean a breach between Christianity and secular complacency.  Old alliances with those who undermine all that we believe and stand for may need to be cast down as we fend off the Dragon’s assault.  But it’s better that we take our stand now – while yet free to speak up and armed with the Gospel – than to relegate the task to our offspring who may be shackled and fettered with oppressive laws and a government that silences truth and wisdom.

We need to sound the alarm and take up arms against the Dragon right now, because he comes swiftly toward us breathing out deadly lies and fiery deceptions.  Christians at this time must especially take a stand on who God is and what He came to do.  There are many today calling themselves Christians who preach that Jesus came only to teach morality and self-enlightenment; that He was merely a wise teacher who set an example for how to live.  The battle-lines must be drawn here and now.  We must preach Christ crucified; that Jesus Christ is the true Son of God who died and rose again to atone for the sins of the world.  On this, there must be no compromise, because this is the truth and the difference between eternal life and everlasting death.

This will be a fierce battle.  We may risk much of what we have built up in times of prosperity to face the Dragon on this issue right now.  It will cause division and discord within our communities and country, because the world does not want to hear that Jesus is the only Way to the Father.  We will be condemned as intolerant – the worst possible sin of in postmodern society.  But the longer we postpone this battle, the stronger the Dragon will be when we finally face him and the more divided the Church will become, leaving the conflict to our descendants to fight with less hope and less strength than we currently possess.

We cannot afford to let sleeping dragons lie.  We must proclaim God’s Word – Law and Gospel – in truth and purity; even if it awakens all the fire-breathing menaces of every pagan religion, every secular humanist philosophy, and every false prophet that preaches any other Jesus than the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  We mustn’t allow our cowardice to hand down this great task to our children for the sake of a false sense of peace and unity in Church and world.  We must fight.

 

The Dragonslayer’s sacrifice…

He spoke harsh words that were difficult to hear and were rejected by many.  He warned the people of the approaching doom, and fought on their behalf so that they could have life and freedom.  He was a descendant of kings, and the only one who could know the secret to defeating the evil monster.  He stood alone at last, enduring the flames of the dragon’s wrath, scorned by many and abandoned by his companions, because he alone could defeat the menacing beast and save them all.  He gave up his life to defeat the dragon, quelling its fierce might forever, but falling under the death-throes of his terrible enemy.  And when all hope had faded, he rose again victoriously and was exalted as king.

Sound familiar?  The triumph of Bard over Smaug is a striking parallel to the victory of Jesus Christ over the Devil.  While Bard may not be a perfect Christ-figure throughout the rest of the book, this particular instance provides an awesome image of the Son of God come to save those who had rejected Him.  And all in all, Bard serves as a great example of Christian virtue contrasted with the greed and hypocrisy around him.

Bard was condemned by his contemporaries for prophesying “gloomy” things; not that anyone disputed the truth and veracity of his claims, but it just wasn’t very pleasant to listen to.  Similarly, Jesus lost many followers and was rejected by a number of would-be disciples because of his hard teachings; things like being willing to give up earthly possessions and duties to follow Him, being “born again,” forgiveness based on faith by God’s grace, eating and drinking His body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, and even His own death at the hands of His enemies.  Like Bard, Jesus would eventually be vindicated in all of His claims.  Those who rejected His words didn’t do so based on evidence to the contrary, but rather simply because it was easier for them to believe something else.

Just as Bard is the last descendant in the line of Girion, Lord of Dale, so Jesus was the Promised One in fulfillment of the Messianic line, reaching back to King David, Abraham, and all the way to Adam – the first recipient of the Gospel promise.  Being of the race of Dale, Bard was the only one who could understand the thrush and unlock the secret to defeating Smaug.  His black arrow that had been passed down from his father and “came from the forges of the true king” would prove to be the key to Smaug’s downfall.  Jesus, as the only begotten Son of God, was the only One whose blood was free from the curse of sin and who knew the way to defeat Satan, the great Dragon.  He was “from the True King,” and the black arrow of His divinity would be the shaft that would pierce the Dragon’s heart and bring him crashing down in ruin.

In the end Bard stood alone, abandoned by his companions, and faced the dragon while surrounded by the flames of his wrath.  Jesus’ companions all fled to save themselves, though they had sworn to stay by His side – even if it meant death.  He faced down the dragon, enduring the agony of the very flames of Hell as the Devil’s malice was poured out upon Him.  He fought our battle upon the cross so that we could enter the lifeboat of His Church and freely obtain life and salvation through the waters of baptism, just as the people of Esgaroth fled to safety through the waters of the Long Lake while Bard battled Smaug.

Jesus certainly did not escape the battle unscathed.  Just as Smaug came crashing down upon Bard in his last throes, so too did Satan strike the heel of Jesus with physical death and the torments of Hell even as he fell in utter defeat.  But like Bard, Jesus emerged victoriously amidst cries of mourning to claim His rightful title of King and Lord, claiming the honor of defeating the Dragon and freeing the people from his reign of terror – and of securing all the treasures of heaven on our behalf!

Drunkenness, Orgies, and the Like – Indulging Sinful Sensuality

“Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” (2 Timothy 2:22)

Our sinful nature constantly wages war upon us.  Our selfish will defies God’s good decrees and vainly seeks temporal pleasures instead.  The corrupt flesh holds such power over us that we willingly forfeit true peace and lasting happiness for fleeting physical gratification.

One the one hand, as redeemed children of God, we deeply and sincerely desire to serve and glorify Him for the great gift of salvation He has given us through His only Son, Jesus Christ.  But on the other hand, our wicked impulses drive us to flout the commands of our great God and Father, bringing shame and trouble upon ourselves and rendering our ministry flimsy and hypocritical at best.

We know that our own good works have no power to save us – that victory is complete and final, by the power of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and triumphant resurrection.  And yet, as God’s chosen warriors in a world filled with darkness and despair, we earnestly yearn to please Him through thankful service that extends the fruits of His love to those around us.  Paul tells Timothy that “cleansing” is necessary if the Christian soldier is to be set to serve: “If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (2 Timothy 2:21).

Paul doesn’t say, “Do this in order to be saved” – he says, “Do this in order to serve.”  What child in a loving family doesn’t wish to please his or her parents?  What student wouldn’t want to please and honor his wise, kindly teacher?  What noble soldier wouldn’t willingly go above and beyond the call of duty for a faithful and caring commander who has saved the lives of his men time and again?

Perhaps you, like many others, long to do what is pleasing in the eyes of God, but find that your sinful flesh often gets the best of you.  Some may even be at a point where they find very little desire to do what God wills, and are wondering what that means for their spiritual state.  In either case, the answer can be found in the same place: the Word of God.  The Law convicts us of wrongdoing, guiding and directing us in the way we should go.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ shows us that God has taken our sins and placed them upon the cross of our Redeemer, making us free from the terrible eternal consequences of our sin and releasing us from the power it holds over us here and now.

If you desire to be prepared to serve God as a loving child, a faithful student and a noble soldier, turn to God’s Word for the weapons of faith.  In an amazing, miraculous way, the Holy Spirit equips us with all of the spiritual armaments we need to fight evil wherever it may lie; in our world, in our nation, in our community, in our household, and in our own hearts.  Through weapons like the love, peace, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control which the Spirit imparts through the Word, God adds to the joy of our salvation by showing us true meaning for our lives in service to Him.  And when faced with the most deadly attack that can be directed at our souls – the ugly accusations of Satan himself over our failures – our defense is in much more capable hands; it rests securely upon the breastplate of Christ’s own righteousness and the helmet of His salvation.

“The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:8)

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:11-14)

Prayer: Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me – help me to know the fullness of Your love and mercy, that I may ever serve You joyfully; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Witchcraft – Who’s in Control?

“Keep on, then, with your magic spells and with your many sorceries, which you have labored at since childhood.  Perhaps you will succeed, perhaps you will cause terror…That is all they can do for you – these you have labored with and trafficked with since childhood.  Each of them goes on in his error; there is not one that can save you.” (Isaiah 47:12;15)

Witchcraft?  Really?  “Surely, not I Lord!”

Like idolatry, it’s easy for us “upstanding Christians” to feel rather untouched by the Bible’s warnings and condemnations of sorcery and witchcraft.  The only “casting” I do is with a fishing rod, my “spelling” doesn’t involve wands or incantations, and although I might “brew” up some trouble occasionally, it’s never in the form of magical potions.

In fact, sometimes we might even sit back and shake our heads sadly at those poor, deluded pagans and their ridiculous rituals.  What’s the point of it all?  Just a sad attempt to maintain the illusion of control in their spiritual and earthly lives.  But now, we would never stoop so low…

The rebellion behind witchcraft lies in trying to grasp our own salvation – both now and eternally – rather than letting God take the reins and keep them.  In the temporal sense, our lack of complete trust in God sometimes leads us to seek ways in which we can “shape our own destiny” rather than letting the Holy Spirit guide us in life through whatever trials and troubles God may allow.  God would discipline and prepare us for greater faith and service, but we would prefer the easy road.  God would bless us by growing spiritual gifts in our hearts and bringing us closer to Himself, but we rebel and cling to our earthly pelf and prominence, preferring to remain “knit to this world” as C.S. Lewis would say.  Perhaps we don’t look to demonic powers to surmise the future and avoid God’s plans, but we don’t have to; we simply look to ourselves to “know” what’s best for our lives instead of humbly following God’s Word and will – and worship of self is idolatry just as worship of demonic powers is.

Witchcraft belies a lack of trust in God and His control over our lives.  We do not believe He is loving, faithful, and gentle, so we are afraid to give ourselves over to His will.  Our trust in God for this life goes only so far.  When it really comes down to it – when my job, my house, or my money is on the line – trusting God just doesn’t always make sense.  Sorry God, I know what your Word tells me here, but I think I know what I’m doing better than you do.

Our lack of trust in God translates from temporal, earthly matters even to our eternal salvation.  We don’t like being completely at the mercy of the Holy Spirit.  We want some ownership of what’s happening to our souls.  Again, we try to maintain the illusion of control by believing that our works, our worship attendance, and our lengthy prayers are building up “brownie points” with God.  We turn our faith into a ritual, where if we say just the right magical words and make all the proper motions, we will end up in heaven.  But as Isaiah says, all of our works and words and powers have the ability to bring only terror as we examine our hearts and see how utterly short we have fallen of God’s perfect law; “there is not one that can save you.”

We need to let go.  Let God take the steering wheel, and He will bring you through fields of blessing and rich abundance the likes of which you would never have known this life to contain; maybe not money, fame, or earthly prosperity, but all the treasures of a heart and mind that finds everything needful in Him.  Let go of everything you have been holding on to – sin, doubt, and shame – for Christ has taken it all upon Himself on the cross and left it buried in the tomb, that we might rise triumphantly along with Him.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, help me to trust You more deeply, that I might commend my life and soul to Your loving hands alone; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

From the pages of “The Hero and the Dragon: Building Christian Character through Fantasy Fiction” regarding witchcraft:

Common Christian Pitfalls

“For where God built a church, there the Devil would also build a chapel.” ~Martin Luther

Christians, even those who have never touched a fantasy fiction book in their lives, aren’t immune to the subtle influences of witchcraft in the way they think and act. Christianity can be twisted and perverted by pagan practices that have invisibly worked their way into the fabric of our faith. Without even realizing it, people sometimes fall into habits that reflect ideas that are not at all inspired by God’s Word, but rather by secular, pagan, or even occult messages and philosophies.

We sometimes fall into the ways of “animism,” thinking that I need to “work my way up the spiritual ladder” and earn my way into God’s good graces, forgetting that I’m saved by grace alone in Christ crucified. Other times, like “shamanists,” we place our faith in objects, rituals, or other people instead of God alone, forgetting that “there is one God and one mediator between God and man,” Jesus Christ. Sometimes, we even act like members of the “occult,” reveling in our “secret knowledge” and forgetting that Jesus Christ died for all, and we have been sent to share the Gospel with everyone we meet.

The most prominent of these distortions today is what is commonly termed “prosperity theology.” The basic premise is that people can “manipulate” God into giving them whatever they desire by saying the proper prayers, doing the right actions, or achieving the right frame of mind. This doctrine has enjoyed some popularity for the last hundred years or so, but has become increasingly popular since World War II and especially in the last thirty or forty years.

It doesn’t require a real thorough inspection to see how this idea contradicts God’s Word and reflects the pagan influences of ritualistic witchcraft. When God tells us to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well,” it isn’t a recipe for fiscal success. God’s will for our life is good and loving, and He desires that we be happy, healthy, and successful. Obeying His commandments and precepts naturally leads to prosperity, but not necessarily as the world sees it. In this sinful, fallen world, many Christians have to sacrifice worldly success for the sake of adhering closely to the Father’s will. They are scorned and ridiculed for their faith, and some even lose their reputations, property, or lives because of it. Jesus warns that persecution will be a natural result of discipleship, not financial and physical well-being.

When we try to make God into a pagan deity who can be controlled and manipulated through silly incantations, empty rituals, and hollow servitude, we miss out on the most tremendous blessings He has in store for us. Our Heavenly Father wants so much for us in our lives, and not just sports cars, delicious foods, and fancy jewelry. He wants to craft us, to mold us, to make us more like Him, so that we can understand just how wonderful life can be when we walk together in unity – despite whatever suffering or difficult circumstances we may be going through at the time.

The prayer of Jabez in the Bible has been misused by thousands of men and women hoping for a “genie-in-a-bottle” phenomenon. That’s fine. Ask God to bless you, by all means. But you should also realize that sometimes God blesses us through pain, loss, and sorrow. Sometimes He gives us the best things in life in a way that will make you want to curse His name during the process. Sometimes cancer will be the blessing you ask for, or unemployment, or loneliness, or any number of fears, doubts, temptations, heartaches, and tragedies. Because the greatest blessing we could ever have, and the thing God desires most for us, is to be closer to Him. Bless me, Lord. Thy will be done, not mine. Give me a stronger faith. Take away all trivial distractions and help me to walk with you. Amen.

My Apologies for the late post today – I had some “technical difficulties” last night (although technically, the difficulties were with my brain and not the computer).  Thanks for your patience!

Self-Control – Fortified Against Evil

“Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.” (Proverbs 25:28)

Benjamin Franklin tried to be a moral man.  He decided one day that he was simply going to stop sinning.  After all, he was an intelligent man, possessed of a spirit of unusual industry and determination.  He knew what society considered to be moral flaws, and he knew exactly how and when he was falling victim to various vices.  So he set up a schedule of these flaws and vices, from least serious to most grievous, and went to work eliminating them from his life one at a time.

He didn’t get very far, I’m afraid.  He began to realize that human nature is exceptionally weak, and as soon as he would move on to conquering a new vice, the “old” ones would flare up again.  His own power was insufficient; the walls of his personal self-control were too thin and frail to stand up against the barrage of attacks from the world, the Devil, and his own sinful flesh.  Perhaps this is why he periodically gave up the “morality” struggle, turning – in later years – to various indiscretions and even trying at times to redefine which things are “moral” or “immoral.”

As Christians, we have many reasons to be sad about our sins: the awful price exacted upon our Lord to pay for our redemption; the estrangement from God that results from our sin; the dishonor to Christ’s name and the weak, flimsy testimony that often results from our sinful words and actions.  Our “inability” to control our sinfulness hurts everyone.  It becomes even sadder when we realize that it isn’t an “inability” at all – we continually choose to do evil despite God’s intervention: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.  And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

The amazing, incredible news is that all of these depressing facts about sin shouldn’t be cause for despair in the life of a Christian – they should be cause for rejoicing!  God has always known the rebellious hearts of His children, and yet He sacrificed His own Son to provide a way out for us.  In light of this glorious truth, we can be strengthened and fortified in our faith.  If our salvation was up to us, we would either despair over our complete failure or insanely deny any wrong-doing.  But because Christ has paid for all of our sins, we are freed to fearlessly love and serve God and neighbor.  His love for us fortifies our self-control, protecting us from the many threats and temptations that assault our faith each day – including the temptation to despair over our sins or disbelieve God’s promises.

No doubt about it, self-control is an important weapon of faith in our fight against the Devil and the world’s darkness.  The love of God through the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to produce in us what the Law could not – hearts and minds ready and willing to serve in thankfulness.  The walls of self-control that faith erects around us will thwart the attacks of the Devil as he prowls around in frustration.  These walls can serve as a welcome refuge to all who flee the misery and ruin of a world that has been ravaged by sin and sensuality.  From behind these walls, we will fight on against all spiritual assaults, trusting only in Jesus’ name for the final victory.

“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.  Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.  For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.  For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.” (2 Peter 1:3-9)

“For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.  It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:11-14)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for freeing me from my sins and restoring me in love to Yourself.  Protect my faith by granting me self-control, that I may be able to resist the temptations of this world and serve as an effective witness to Your grace; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – God’s Will Be Done

“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)

Like the prophet Nathan, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego find themselves in a difficult situation that requires them to confront a powerful authority figure.  Throughout history, God’s people have sometimes found it impossible to both serve God faithfully and still follow the strict regulations of sinful earthly authorities.  In these cases, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego have the correct approach: honor God by respectfully confronting the authority with his wrongdoing, continue to steadfastly follow God’s Word, and humbly trust in Him as you accept whatever consequences may come.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego know full well that they are probably going to die for their rebellion against King Nebuchadnezzar.  Their words, “even if he does not [save us from the furnace]” reveal tremendous faith in God’s grace.  Even if they are to be executed for their refusal to worship idols, God has already saved them from death.  They are willing to be thrown into a fiery furnace for the sake of their Lord, because He has saved them from the eternal fires of Hell – and nothing Nebuchadnezzar can do to them will ever change that.

These three faithful warriors of God bravely face their doom, walking in the light of God’s Word and trusting in Him to take care of the end results.  Following this course always brings glory and honor to God, as we have seen time and again.  For some heroes, like Josiah and Samson, physical death is still the means by which God’s name is honored and His love is demonstrated for the world – and they can then celebrate His goodness and mercy in His very presence.  But for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, God’s will is for their temporal salvation first, so that the King Nebuchadnezzar and all his subjects could see the power and majesty of the Lord.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were able to stand firmly against the king’s wicked proclamation because they put God’s will before their own fears and desires.  In this selfless act, they point forward to an even greater Hero who would face down the combined evil of all human sin and wickedness, Jesus Christ the Son of God.  Faced with the threat of shame, suffering, and death, our Lord trusted in the Father’s mercy and put His life into God’s hands, saying, “not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  Although death awaited Him, Jesus knew that the greatest triumph would come later, in His glorious resurrection.  Because of this, we can also face even death boldly, trusting in this same Resurrection.  God’s will is done when we faithfully and fearlessly serve Him, just as it will be done when we are raised to life again on the last day and are reunited with Him forever.  Come what may, let us walk with God and glorify Him, even when His path leads into the fiery furnace.

“Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants!  They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God… Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just.” (Daniel 3:28; 4:37)

Prayer: Lord God, our lives are always in Your hands.  Guide and direct us in Your will, that we may please and honor You with each step of our journey.  Let me always trust You alone and Your Word, seeking strength and courage through the death and resurrection of Your Son, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Joshua – Strength and Courage

“Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous.  Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

Perhaps the fearless warrior Caleb is surpassed in strength and courage only by his faithful companion and Moses’ protégé, Joshua.  God reminds Joshua when he assumes leadership of the Israelites that courageous obedience is a direct command from the Lord, as Caleb had testified many years earlier.

In his “inaugural address,” God tells Joshua three times in as many verses to “be strong and courageous.”  After all, he’s going to need plenty of strength and courage as he faces fortified cities, iron chariots, and warriors of incredible stature.  God knows that the tasks He is giving to Joshua are difficult indeed, and He therefore blesses him with strength and courage.  God’s Word is powerful, and it does what it says.  When He says, “Let there be light,” there is light.  When He says, “Lazarus, come out!” the dead man comes forth.  When He says, “Be strong and courageous,” he imparts strength and courage.

At the same time that God is blessing Joshua with the gifts he will need for the journey ahead, He is also emphasizing obedience to His Word: “Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left…Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it…”  Even in this strict command, however, we find God’s grace at work in the form of promises attached to these orders: “…that you may be successful wherever you go…Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1:7-8).

God’s Word always does what it says.  In the law, God promises strength, courage, and success for those who follow His commands; success in our most vital struggle of life – drawing ever nearer to Him.  But we don’t always follow His commands and obey His good and gracious law.  The good news is that He also promises something else: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).

Yes, God’s Word is powerful and effective, and it can be trusted.  When He says, “Your sins are forgiven,” there is cleansing and renewal.  When He says, “I am with you always,” His presence is real and immediate.  Knowing this, we His warriors can venture forth with genuine strength and courage.

“So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.  You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace” (Isaiah 55:11-12).

Prayer: Heavenly Father, be with me on my journey this day.  Preserve my faith, keep me ever mindful of Your promises, and grant me true strength and courage to do Your will.  Wipe away all of my failures and restore me to service to You and to those people around me.  Let me always proclaim the source of my joy and peace; the promise of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord!  Amen.

Caleb – A Fearless Warrior

“Only do not rebel against the Lord.  And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up.  Their protection is gone, but he Lord is with us.  Do not be afraid of them.” (Numbers 14:9)

One of the ongoing themes in this devotional series is the fact that no matter how great our spiritual victories and accomplishments may seem, we must always realize that it is the Lord’s hand at work in our lives, not our own strength.  God gives His warriors strength to win their battles for two reasons: because He loves and cares about our well-being, and because doing so brings honor and glory to Himself (something that aids the spread of His Gospel, bringing others to repentance and salvation, bringing us back to the first reason yet again…).  God does not give anything to us for the purpose of inflating our own self-conceit.  God’s purposes always move toward bringing people closer to Him.  Displaying a trust in self rather than in Him takes us and others further away from God.

At a time when his fellow scouts were proclaiming doom and gloom about the inhabitants of the Promised Land to which God had led His people, Caleb remained confident of victory.  He knew that their strength lay not in their own numbers or size or weaponry, but in the promise and protection of God Almighty.  He reminded his comrades that no matter how fearsome the enemy, God is greater by far.  And he also pointed out that courage in the face of hardship and trouble isn’t just a mental health exercise, or a positive thinking tactic, or some other “feel-good” approach to life; it was a command given to them by the Lord Himself, and to disobey meant open rebellion.

God takes our well-being very seriously – especially our spiritual well-being.  He’s not about to sit idly by while we get into a habit of fear and doubt regarding His promises to us.  After all, those promises are the foundation of our life and salvation.  If I doubt that God will give me strength to bear my trials and burdens in life, or grace to fight bravely against the darkness of this world, what will stop me from doubting His promise to forgive and redeem me?

Like all commands, we as sinners often break God’s orders to act with faith and courage in our lives.  Thanks be to God that He is faithful even when we are not: “if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).  Though we fail to trust many of the wonderful promises that God makes to us – for strength in adversity, for courage in hardship, for help in time of temptation – the one promise that we mustn’t doubt is the central theme of the entire Bible: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).

“The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him” (Daniel 9:9).

Prayer: Heavenly Father, grant me strength and courage in all of life’s trials and temptations.  Give me grace to glorify You before men for the victories unto which You lead me.  But most of all, keep my faith steadfast in Your promise of forgiveness, renewal, and eternal life through Your Son, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Moses – God’s Instrument of Leadership

“The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” (Exodus 15:2)

There are many stories and examples of reluctant heroes who went on to do great things.  They run from whatever task is given them or whatever destiny is laid upon them, thinking themselves unworthy or unable to accomplish it.  These peculiar heroes demonstrate to us that there is a warrior within each of us, waiting for God’s call to adventure.  They teach us the theme that life is not so much about who we think we are as about who God is making us into.

Moses was certainly reluctant to begin the great quest that God had planned for him.  To be a human being living under the curse of sin means to be deeply flawed, and Moses was no exception.  Despite his flaws, God turned him into one of the greatest leaders in the history of the world.

Our loving God cares not only about the “big picture” – in Moses’ case, the Israelites fleeing Egypt and settling in the Promised Land – but also about our personal, individual journey.  The Moses we see after forty years of leading the people of Israel through the wilderness is a very different man than the stubborn, unwilling individual who kept trying to weasel out of following God’s orders.  As Moses walks with God and is led by His Spirit (however reluctantly), God’s power and love change and shape him into the faithful leader and hero God meant for him to be.

Where is God leading you?  How does He intend for you to be a leader in your own life and spiritual journey?  You may not feel like leadership material, but the God who created the universe out of nothing and made the prize of His creation out of the dust of the Earth can certainly make something great out of you.  He has already transformed you from a sinful, rebellious state of spiritual death into a new creation and an heir of His heavenly kingdom.  Whatever other leadership roles God entrusts you with in this life, you can know that your most important one is, like Moses, to lead others to the Promised Land through sharing the Gospel of forgiveness and redemption.

“In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed.  In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.” (Exodus 15:13)

Prayer: Lord God, through Your servant Moses You led your people out of captivity, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land.  Grant us Your Holy Spirit, that through the Gospel we may also lead those who are enslaved by sin to freedom in Your forgiveness; that we may have the strength and courage to face the wilderness of this life; and that we may come at last to the promised inheritance of eternal life, through Jesus Christ.  Amen.