Out of Shape?

This year, there is a great deal of emphasis being placed upon the importance of the Reformation of the Church 500 years ago. Being repeated so many times, I wonder if the word “Reformation” starts to lose some of its meaning for us when we hear it. To “Re-form” something means, of course, “to form again.” Luther set about his work because he saw that the Church had become misshapen, off kilter, or “out of shape” from what it was when formed originally by the apostles’ teaching of the Gospel of Christ crucified. It needed to be formed once again into what Christ through His apostles had built it.

This gradual falling “out of shape” is not “natural” in a perfect world. At the Creation, God gave us a world where there was no decay, nothing misshapen or off kilter, and things held together the way they were intended. However, with the world cursed by sin, such falling out of shape is an inevitable consequence. We see it in many places besides the Church of the 16th century. Our bodies slow down, our senses deteriorate, our parts settle into unusual positions, and the older we get the more we recognize a general sense of being “out of shape.” Our societies forget or ignore the moral law that God has written upon our hearts, they reject the teachings and traditions of history and our forefathers, and there is a general sense that things are falling apart in our world. Even the family unit can become misshapen and distorted as individual families drift apart through conflict or apathy, parents and children forget their fourth commandment duties to one another, and our world even goes so far as to redefine what “family” is. Let’s face it: everything falls apart in this sinful world.

Thankfully, by the power of the Holy Spirit our faith and hope are in the mercy and grace of the Great Reformer; and no, I don’t mean Martin Luther. Jesus Christ came into this misshapen, off kilter, out-of-shape world to mend what had been broken and lost. He took this world in His mighty, gentle hands and molded it back the way it was meant to be. In His life, we see flashes of Creation restored: the hungry are fed, storms are calmed, the sick are healed, the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the dead rise again. But even greater that all these, we see Him bringing forth the forgiveness of sins through His death and resurrection. We are made alive again in Him, our relationship with God the Father is restored by Jesus’ mediation, and we will live eternally with our Triune God.

The same Potter Who formed the universe by His Word and formed man out of the dust has reformed, restored, and renewed His living Church. In Christ alone is our hope, only by His grace, only by faith, through the power of His Word. To God be the glory! Amen.

By His grace,

Andrew Boll

In His Presence

Sir Robert Stopford commanded a ship in the Royal British Navy at the end of the 18th century. He himself was under the command of Vice Admiral Lord Horation Nelson. Nelson’s fleet was in pretty bad shape; their ships were battered and low on munitions, the food was nearly gone, and the fleet they were pursuing was almost twice the size of their own. Despite these difficulties, morale was unusually high.

When asked about this phenomenon, Stopford replied, “We are half-starved and otherwise inconvenienced by being so long out of port, but our reward is that we are with Nelson.”

The men fighting under Nelson knew the danger they were heading into. They knew that no amount of money could tempt them forward nor recompense what they were about to face. There was only one thing that made it all worth while: They were with Nelson.

Friends and fellow warriors, we know that constant difficulties and hardships will beset us as God’s children. The world does not want to hear the message of Christ crucified for our sins. In some places, Christ’s disciples are mocked and ridiculed. In other parts of the world, they are treated with no less hostility that He himself was when He walked on earth. The path of discipleship is not an easy road to walk. Tragedies and heartache abound in this life; our struggle often leaves us feeling weary, battered, and on the verge of despair.

We can certainly find comfort in the words, “Great is your reward in heaven.” And yet, we have comfort even in the trials of today as we go forward into the uncertain future with the resolve to stand by our Commander and Chief, bearing the full armor of God and wielding the Sword of the Spirit.

We are with Him.

Whatever difficulties we will face are nothing compared to the reward of being in Christ’s presence throughout our fight. He comes to us in His Word, as we hear it preached by faithful servants and as we read it in our homes. He comes to us in Sacrament, as we receive His very body and blood in His supper and as we remember the marks put upon us in our baptism. He comes to us through those who fight alongside us in this spiritual battle, promising that even in those who seem to be least in the body of all believers, indeed, there He is.

Of all the hardships we face, morale should never have to be among them. We have our reward, and it is not a distant, far-off future promise. We hold it in our hand and clutch it to our breast as we recall his words, “Behold, I am with you always.”

Our reward is that we are with Him, and that He is with us.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Prayer: Heavenly Father, grant us the peace that comes through knowing that Your Son has defeated our enemies of sin, death, and the devil.  Be with us in our struggle against the world and our own sinful nature.  Let our joy be ever in You, through Jesus Christ, Your Son.  Amen.

Showers of Blessings

“Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the clouds rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit;
let the earth cause them both to sprout;
I the Lord have created it.”  ~Isaiah 45:8

 

“April showers bring May flowers.”

I think these words give us hope as we stare out the windows at the early springtime weather. It’s wet, gray, sloppy, and at times simply depressing out there. So we have to remind ourselves that the current dreariness will soon produce the beautiful and abundant fruits of the earth. God’s blessings for tomorrow often come in the form of cold and bitter rainstorms.

In our personal lives, it is often the same. I know there have been times in my life where I was very angry with God over some temporary pain, loss, or disappointment – only to feel the sting of shame later when I realized how God was bringing about incredible blessings in my life through that same event. Scripture tells us that affliction leads to perseverance and eventually hope. Strangely enough, none of us jump up and down and get excited when affliction comes our way.

Heavy rain certainly reduces visibility. We tend to be so self-centered and short-sighted that we immediately become blind to the many, many other present blessings that God continues to shower down on us, even as we shake our fists at Him for our current discomfort. Our heads are hunkered down against the stinging cold of adversity, forgetting that it is the same rain that will bring forth fruitfulness, life, and abundance in the near future – but also pushing away all thoughts of other comforts and joys that are ours through God’s grace.

Perhaps this is our present state as we feel a certain amount of disgust toward our culture and society. We get frustrated and depressed over the Godlessness and immorality in our country, and forget the fact that God has graciously preserved our ability not only to worship Him openly, but to speak freely and challenge the empty philosophies of secularism. As we despise the humanistic notions that are running rampant around us, we lose sight of the many joys, comforts, conveniences, and luxuries that we so richly enjoy in our country. And who knows, but that this current shift in culture is not the rain that will moisten the earth and provide the perfect setting for the seed of the Gospel to sprout and flourish in the hearts of millions?

Occasionally, there will be rain showers; financial difficulties, health problems, frustrations and dilemmas in future planning. But we know that in all these things, God is faithful to the work which He has begun. We stay mindful of the hope we have of the growth occurring just below the surface, which will soon spring forth in splendor as God’s Word blossoms in our community and country. And we do not lose sight of the many, many blessings that He continually bestows upon us; the faithful members of our congregations and families, the devoted friends and neighbors, the beautiful children of God who have been entrusted to our care – and most of all, the life and forgiveness we have through Jesus Christ our Savior.

What a blessing it is to be allowed to tend this patch of earth!

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  ~Isaiah 55:10-11

Prayer: Heavenly Father, bless Your Word as it goes forth in our communities, our nation, and throughout our world.  Grant that the seed which is sown will fall upon fertile soil, that the harvest be one of hope in the righteousness won for us by Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  In His name we pray.  Amen.

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!

Dissentions and Factions – By Schisms Rent Asunder

“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)

The army of saints is most effective in spiritual warfare when we move as a single unit under one Lord and General.  Part of our training process is learning to fight side by side with other Christians in humble submission to God’s Word, rather than each faction, congregation, or individual insisting on “having things my way.”

But aren’t doctrinal issues serious enough to warrant thorough study of the Scriptures and – if need be – diligent discussion and debate among God’s people?  Of course.  Can Christian brothers and sisters pursue the teaching of God’s Word in truth and purity without becoming weakened and divided?  Absolutely.

Even the apostles disagreed upon certain issues.  The disciples didn’t always “get it” when Jesus would reveal to them a certain facet of heavenly truth.  Does this mean that they weren’t united?  For all of the frustration that Jesus must have had to deal with in teaching His twelve students, He yet confessed that He was united with them – even at the end of His earthly ministry, while they still did not understand the basic mission that He had come to accomplish: “For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.  They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me…I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world” (John 17:8,14).

Faced with His hour of suffering and ultimate victory, Jesus knew that the unity of the Church today would be a vital part of carrying the message of that victory into the world.  He even spent his last precious moments before being arrested and taken to die praying for us – the Christians of today – that we would be united in Him:

“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me.  May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

Even as we engage in debate and discussion concerning the Scriptures, Christians of all synods and denominations can find unity in the love of God through Christ Jesus.  The Holy Spirit further equips us against the dangers of factions and dissensions by giving us powerful weapons; the joy of salvation through Christ alone; patience, kindness, and gentleness as we lovingly respond to our Christian brothers and sisters; the inexpressible comfort and peace that comes from knowing that God has loved all of us enough to send His Son to suffer and die for our sins.

Onward, Christian soldiers.  Be one in spirit and purpose, united in our assault against the prince of this dark world.  Let our love of God show in the love that we direct to those around us, humbly walking hand in hand – even when we don’t see eye to eye.

“I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.” (1 Timothy 2:8)

“Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace.  And the God of love and peace will be with you…May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:11,14)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, send Your Spirit in power and unity upon Your Church.  Bless us through diligent study of Your Word, that we may come to know You ever more deeply.  Grant that all of Your children may work steadfastly for Your kingdom, united by Your love and the peace that we have in the forgiveness of sins; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Jealousy and Envy – Slaying the Green-eyed Monsters

“But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.  Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.  For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” (James 3:14-16)

Jealousy is certainly a monstrous sin.  It rips and rends our relationship with God our Father.  It goes marauding through our Christian communities, trampling love, devotion, and fellowship underfoot.  Finally, it devours our personal happiness, fulfillment and well-being before shambling off to terrorize new victims.

First of all, jealousy and envy are sins against God.  Like greed and every other vice that focuses on the “Self,” jealousy rips our love, trust, and devotion away from God and places the emphasis on our own sinful desires and rebellious tendencies.  Sometimes I don’t believe that God has given me everything I need.  I often doubt that His withholding of certain things from me is for my own good.  My sinful human heart tells me that I deserve much more than what God provides.

Of course, you and I know what we really deserve when we stop to think about it; nothing more or less than temporal suffering and death followed by eternal torment in Hell.  God has given us so much more (and less!) than we deserve.  We live a life filled with beauty and pleasure.  We need so little, yet God pours out His blessings on us abundantly every day.  And in His mercy and grace, God has placed the scourge of His wrath squarely upon the shoulders of His Son, Jesus Christ, while lavishing us with His love and affection.  Reflecting on these facts reveals the truly petty nature of our common jealousies.

Secondly, a jealous heart opens the floodgates for all manner of wicked behavior toward our neighbors.  We find “every evil practice” in the presence of selfish ambition because we are so easily enticed to sin when confronted by someone who is receiving the goods, attention, or lifestyle to which we feel entitled.  Like the early morning workers in the vineyard (see Matthew 20), we readily begrudge others of the blessings and riches that we deem them “unworthy” of receiving – forgetting that God has been much more than fair with dispensing our own wages.  Our selfishness is quickly inflamed to sin against them in thought, word, and deed because we cast an envious eye upon their blessings – when we should be rejoicing with them and helping to preserve and protect our neighbor’s goods, property and life.

Finally, after the monster of jealousy has reduced our relationships with God and man to smoldering ruins, it will turn upon us and devour our very heart and soul.  As Proverbs 14:30 says, “A heart at peace gives life to body, but envy rots the bones.”  When we willfully refuse to recognize the many blessings that God has showered upon us, life has a way of shriveling up and withering away.  We become consumed by our own bitterness, always pining for those things which the Devil convinces us we need in order to be “happy” but which God lovingly withholds from us in order to reveal the true way to happiness: Walking with Him in humble praise and service.

Jealousy and envy are deadly adversaries, threatening our own personal well-being as well as the larger community of Christians and the witness we bear to the world.  Arm yourself with the mighty weapons God has provided to fend off this green-eyed beast: a joyful thankfulness for all that God has done for us; peace that comes from contentment with God’s physical and spiritual blessings rather than the trappings of earthly pelf; goodness that puts the “self” aside and rejoices in the good fortune of others; faithfulness to our true calling of seeking first God’s kingdom and His righteousness rather than vain pleasures or riches; self-control to hold our bitterness and resentment in check, drowning the old sinful nature and calling forth the warrior to selflessly go and serve.  Jesus’ victory on the cross not only frees us from the eternal consequences of sin, but also from the earthly terrorizing of sins like jealousy, guarding our hearts and minds through His love.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for providing so richly and abundantly for all my physical and spiritual needs, especially for the gift of faith which You have bestowed upon me through the Holy Spirit.  Grant that praising You and serving others would come first in my life and that the doors of faith would be opened for all, that they too might receive the blessings of Christ’s righteousness; in Jesus’ precious name.  Amen.

Discord – Reaping what you Sow

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)

“Men’s hearts ought not to be set against one another, but set with one another, and all against evil only.” (Thomas Carlyle)

What sets one man’s heart against another man?  What causes him to go out of his way to sow discord, anger, and malice between others or incite hatred against another individual?  James pretty much nails it when he says to the Christians of his day, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1).

Once again, we find that old culprit “Self” at blame for the discord and strife in our world.  One man turns against another or sows discord, spreading lies and stirring up evil against his brother, because his self comes first in his heart.  Perhaps it is an issue of wounded pride.  Maybe he simply wants something a certain way and won’t let anyone get in the way of his own comfort or ideal.  And quite often, we feel perfectly justified in our malice and discord directed at one another because we honestly believe that what we are doing is “for the best.”  If someone is liable to get hurt in the process, well, they probably brought it upon themselves by opposing us in our “rightness.”  Besides, doesn’t the end justify the means?

Sowing and practicing discord is a form of idolatry – a blatant raising of the Self above God and His clear commands for us.  My pride, my desire, my way of doing things comes first.  God’s command to love one another gets shoved aside to make way for our selfish motives and hurtful means.  Rather than serving our neighbor in love, we do a great disservice to everyone involved by convincing ourselves that what he really needs right now is to be “put in his place.”  The animosity between us grows, the unity is shattered, and our witness to the world is greatly diminished as others look on in horror at the way these “Christians” treat each other.

So what weapons does God give us to combat this great evil in our midst – indeed, even within our own hearts?  One weapon is singled out as particularly effective against discord, and the Savior Himself hands it to us today; “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” (John 14:27).  Paul encourages us to fight with all our strength against discord and to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).  And James reminds us that the sowing of discord must be countered by God’s warriors with the sowing of peace; “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness” (James 4:18).

As God grants us peace with Him through His Word by the knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ, He can also calm the raging tempest of wicked desires that battle within our hearts.  He shows us the way and gives us the means to have peace with our neighbors; by using the weapons of love, joy, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.  Finally, we can also have peace within ourselves as we find true meaning in living a life as a redeemed child of God and serving Him by loving our neighbor.

God’s love empowers and compels us to sow the seed of the Gospel in peace, watching joyfully while the Holy Spirit raises up a harvest of true righteousness as those who hear it receive the very righteousness that comes through Christ’s own blood.  The world and our sinful nature call us to the sowing of discord and the worship of selfish desires, but God calls us to glorify Him by sowing His Word, that His peace may be harvested in abundance throughout the world.

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:17-18)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for giving me the peace that comes from knowing You have reconciled me to Yourself through the death and resurrection of Your Son, Jesus Christ.  Help me to share this peace with all those around me by boldly sharing the Gospel and by serving them in love.  Amen.

Idolatry – No other gods

“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3)

Idolatry is one of those topics where many of us are inclined to feel rather smug about our spiritual condition.  After all, I’ve never purchased any wooden carvings that depict false gods.  My home is conspicuously free of pagan altars.  And I’ve never once prayed to a little golden pot-bellied man.  So I figure I’m good to go.

Well, Scripture has a much broader view of idolatry than we sometimes do.  Have you ever longed for more money, or for a possession which God has chosen not to grant you?  If so, the Bible says that you are guilty of the sin of idolatry (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5).  As Martin Luther writes, we must “fear, love, and trust God” more than anything else in our life – whether it’s a paycheck, a Porsche, or the fine products of Demetrius’ Discount Deities in Ephesus.  All are the same; a trust and devotion that is directed at something other than God and elevated above Him in our hearts and through our actions.

The cause of greed and the root of all idolatry is a trust and devotion in and with ourselves above all else, including God.  If I am ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, I fear and respect myself more than God – I am an idol-worshipper.  If I care more about fulfilling the desires of my sinful nature than I do about following God’s commands, I love myself more than God – I am an idol-worshipper.  If I spurn God’s commands and doubt His promises, choosing instead to go my own way and stray from the path of His will, I trust myself more than God – I am an idol-worshipper.

A close examination of idolatry and what it means for Christians can certainly knock our smugness level down a few notches.  We are all guilty of idol-worship in many forms.  So how do we fight and defend ourselves against this constant temptation?  What weapons are most effective in our struggle to maintain God’s position of supremacy in our hearts and minds?

Not surprisingly, love is the most prominent weapon of faith against our natural inclination toward idolatry – in fact, the weapon of love should remain unsheathed and in our hands at all times since it is so potent in combatting evil of every form.  As our knowledge of God’s love and His gracious promises for us grows, our own love toward Him will blossom, ripening into all other fruits of the Spirit.  The closer God brings us to Himself through His Word, the less our hearts and minds are set upon earthly things – like ourselves.

Several other weapons can also be brandished in the face of personal idolatry with great effectiveness.  The joy of our salvation will help us set our priorities on what matters most – God’s Kingdom and His righteousness.  The peace that comes from the Gospel will still our fears and doubts that often lead us to “take matters into our hands” rather than trusting God patiently.  And as we are sanctified through the Word in goodness, our evil desires will begin to shift toward the back burner as we yearn more and more for God and all the gracious gifts that He has to offer us through His Son.

The battle against idolatry certainly rages in our world today.  Of all the things that people fear, love, and trust, God isn’t typically very high on the list in our society – look to our attitudes and lifestyles for the proof.  Thankfully, we find forgiveness and restoration even from this treacherous sin in the blood of Jesus Christ.  Satan would have us despair over our failure to place God first in our life as His law demands, but Christ would have us glory in His redemption and forgiveness as we are strengthened and fortified against further attacks.

“Repent!  Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!…Then the people of Israel will no longer stray from me, nor will they defile themselves anymore with all their sins.  They will be my people, and I will be their God, declares the Sovereign Lord.”

Prayer: Heavenly Father, help me to put You first in all that I do as I glory in the salvation that I have in Your mercy and love; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Sexual Immorality, Impurity and Debauchery

“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God…For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5;7)

Sexual immorality is a “twice threefold” attack on our souls.

First of all, it comes from three different fronts.  It can be one of the most common temptations we face from our sinful nature – and one of the most difficult to overcome.  Mind, spirit and flesh often work together against us to draw us into this uniquely powerful sin.  While battling this temptation within our own hearts, we face constant bombardment from a society and world obsessed with perversion and sensuality, making the struggle that much more difficult.  And the Devil is ever on the prowl, ready to use our own weakness and the corruption and permissiveness of a promiscuous society against us by very intentionally leading us into sexual temptation.

Not only is the threat of this temptation threefold in how we are drawn into sin, but also in the effects this sin has on our life.  For one thing, sexual sins open the doors to all kinds of other rebellion and disobedience: deceit, anger, jealousy, slander, and violence to name just a few.  Not only that, but the earthly consequences of sexual sins are generally unparalleled: broken relationships, lack of trust, personal shame, loss of reputation, diseases, and even murder.  Furthermore, sexual sins have the tendency to wreak havoc on our relationship with God as we try to hide or justify our wrongdoing from Him and others, slip further and further into sin and guilt, and eventually reject the need for forgiveness or despair of the hope of His mercy.

There is no denying that this six-headed monster is one of the most powerful foes we face in our daily spiritual warfare.  So what advice does God give to His brave warriors for when they encounter this deadly adversary?

Run.  Flee.  Retreat.  Hightail it out of there.  As Adam Clarke said, “If you parley you are undone; reason not, but Fly!”  Scripture tells us plainly, “Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18); “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).

Which of God’s spiritual weapons can help us to escape this fiend and beat a hasty retreat?  Which armaments will best protect us and keep us from being cornered by this beast in the first place?  As Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians, self-control is an obvious choice for warriors who find themselves embattled with this particular temptation.

So how do we develop self-control in the context of lust or sexual temptation?  Love is the key – not the “love” that we find in modern romance novels and movies (a mere pretext for infatuation and sexual desire), but the selfless love that God teaches us by His own example.  Setting our hearts and minds more on God and less on earthly desires, pleasures, and pursuits goes a long way in avoiding such carnal lusts.  Seeing our neighbors (especially those who have the potential to become the objects of our sexual desire) as God’s precious children and our brothers and sisters in faith will also help us to interact with them within the framework of God’s will rather than our own perverse cravings.  If we truly seek what is good, right, and holy for their sake and put our own wants behind us to genuinely serve them, we will be proof against the combined attacks of Satan, the world, and our own sinful nature.

As Paul reminds Timothy (see above verse), the breastplate of righteousness is also particularly useful against sexual temptation – not only to ward off the Devil’s attacks as we live just and holy lives in God’s sight, but also to defend us from the despair we might face in our failures if we did not have Christ’s own righteousness.  The shield of faith can also block the fiery lies and accusations of the Devil as we look to God’s grace alone for our salvation.  Keeping our feet fitted with the Gospel of peace can help us to be ever ready to flee from earthly temptations and prevent us from stumbling or being swayed by our own sinful passions.  Equipped with these arms, we can escape the threefold ambush of sexual immorality, defend ourselves from falling, and strike back against an evil that rages out of control in our dark world.

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (Proverbs 4:23)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, help me to live a pure and holy life, filled with goodness and self-control.  Forgive me for the times when I have failed, and grant that I may look at others only as objects of Your love and serve them with a pure heart; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.