The Parable of the Foolish Branch

Text: John 15:1-17

Once upon a time there was a great Vine with a very foolish branch.  One day this foolish branch was thinking about how strong and thick he was, how green and shiny its leaves were, and how plump and juicy fruit always grew on its stems.  Seeing all this, he decided that he didn’t need the Vine anymore.  So he cut himself off from the Vine and set off on his own.

The foolish branch experienced all kinds of wild, exciting things in the days to come, and he knew that he had made a very wise decision.  After all, these were experiences he had never had before, in places he had only dreamed of visiting.  He felt sorry for all the other branches back in the vineyard, stuck firmly in place, rooted to the Vine.  Oh, if only they knew what they were missing!  A wave of superiority flooded over him as he compared his newly enlightened lifestyle with the boring, mundane life of his old friends.

However, these new experiences were taking their toll on the foolish branch, which he soon began to discover.  His delicate leaves weren’t used the abuse of gallivanting all over the countryside, and he noticed after some time that his foliage wasn’t quite as thick as it had been when he was attached to the Vine.  Many of his fine, shimmering leaves had fallen or been knocked off during his adventures outside the vineyard.  He wisely concluded that he would just have to be more careful – but this was no crisis too terrible for one such as him.

At first, the foolish branch didn’t even notice the parching thirst that came over him – he was so distracted with all the fun he was having away from the Vine.  He was not accustomed to this lack of water.  All his life it had constantly been supplied to him through a constant and invisible mystery; but that was when he had been attached to the Vine, and its distended veins allowed the sweet, life-giving liquid to flow steadily into him.  But now, his few remaining leaves lost their sheen, growing dry and brown around the edges.  The foolish branch knew that he must find a water source on his own if he was to survive, but without the strong, deep roots of the Vine, this was proving very difficult indeed.  When he finally did manage to locate a filthy little mud puddle, he was shocked to learn that the healthy veins that had connected him to the Vine were steadily closing up, as though an invisible firebrand had cauterized the place that had once secured him to life and health.  The foolish branch became worried.

As the branch trudged along, no longer reveling in the liberty and excitement of his enlightened lifestyle, he stopped to rest against the fence behind the barn.  Peering across the field, he saw something strange; the vineyard workers carried sad, dilapidated bundles of something brown and twisted.  Squinting, the foolish branch recoiled in horror as he realized what it was; it was the branches that year after year produced no fruit and had been cut off from the Vine.  When he had seen them last, they looked healthy enough; true, they had no fruit on their stems, but their leaves had been green and lustrous as his own…

He looked down at himself and almost withered on the spot.  He was no longer bearing even the slightest bit of fruit.  His leaves were wilted and dried up.  Everything about him bore a striking exactitude to the branches now being carried by the vineyard workers, to…where were they taking them?  The branch’s eyes were drawn toward a thick billowing cloud of inky black smoke on top of the hill.  His eyes continued to follow the workers as they approached the burning heap, stopped, and promptly cast the great burden into the waiting flames!  The horror, the shock of seeing it sent the foolish branch reeling.  What was he doing here?  Why did he leave the Vine in the first place?  Who did he think he was?  He was a branch, grown to produce fruit – not amble about the countryside idly enjoying the sights!  There was only one thing to do; he must produce fruit, and now!

The foolish branch thought that perhaps he could produce fruit on his own, without the Vine.  Yes!  That’s it!  The branch hunkered down where he lie and squeezed with all his might.  He pushed and grunted and heaved, but it was no good.  He suddenly came upon the terrible realization that he had no idea how to produce to a single grape.  Sure, he had produced thousands before, while still attached to the Vine, but back then it had just sort of…happened.  Now, now that he must perform this feat for himself or be destroyed, it was simply impossible.  The same life-giving waters that the Vine had poured into him had been the very source of the nutrition that produced each and every grape on his stems.  He realized now that – by himself – he had never been able to produce any fruit to begin with.

Parched, wilted, and despairing, the branch crawled its way back to the Vine.  He could see, well up the Vine, the very place where he had cut himself off from life.  The spot was healed over now.  Even if he could reach it – which he knew was impossible – there would be no way to be grafted back onto the Vine at this point.  He was as good as dead.  He lay down on the ground and waited for the inevitable – when the vineyard workers came and made their rounds, picking up the dead branches to be cast into the fire.

Toward evening, he heard steps approaching.  The footsteps stopped just next to where he lay.  He felt himself being slowly lifted from the ground, saw the bundle of brown, twisted, fruitless branches a few yards away, and waited to be tossed atop the pile.  But something happened then that he wasn’t expecting.  As gentle hands turned him over, he found himself looking at no mere worker; it was the face of the very Gardener Himself.  The Gardener just looked at him; looked at him for a long while with a very sad, compassionate look on his face.  He then nodded to himself, took a knife out of his pocket, and trimmed away the crusted surface where the branch had once held onto the Vine.  What was he doing?  The foolish branch looked on apprehensively as the Gardener reached out to his own Vine, the Vine he had loved and cared for all these years, and sliced into the surface of that Vine directly where the branch had cut itself away.  The branch could have cried out for pity’s sake – don’t hurt the Vine!  It’s my fault!  I was the fool!  I deserve the fire!

The branch didn’t understand what was happening, but watched with shame and sorrow as the sap poured out of the Vine which had been wounded because of him.  The Gardener continued to work, pressing the now clean surface of the branch to the freshly-wounded Vine, grafting the branch back in its very own place.  He bound the foolish branch there with strong and gentle cloth, working with care and diligence.  The foolish branch felt life flowing back into it once more through the wound of the Vine.  In time, his leaves began to green once more and luscious fruits ripened and filled on his stems.  And the once-foolish branch never again forgot that this miracle was only possible because of the ever-sustaining Vine and the love and sacrifice of the Vine and the Gardener.


 

My friends, it is a very dangerous thing to cut ourselves off from Jesus, the true Vine.  We know that in Him, and in Him alone, is found life and salvation.  Yet we neglect His Word, always finding something “better” to do with our time than read the life-giving Scriptures.  We fail to pray, to call upon him in praise and thanksgiving, to put our every sorrow and need into His loving hands, opting instead to face the impossible in our own feeble power.  We stray from our worship habits, relishing Sunday mornings as “our own time,” and not even noticing the slow withering of our leaves and the decay of our fruits as we distance ourselves from the Church that would feed and nourish us with His Word and Sacraments, cleansing our sinful wounds through the confession and absolution of sins.

We, like the branch, are all fools.  We go our own way, looking for excitement and adventure even at the very cost of our own destruction.  We cannot produce any good work that is pleasing to God apart from Jesus, for Jesus is ultimately all that matters in this world.  We cannot even take credit for the growth of our faith, just a branch does not decide to grow itself, but starts as nothing and grows up out of the Vine, by its power and discretion.  And when we fall away, it is only through the caring, gentle hands of the Father that we are brought back to life and salvation through the True Vine, Jesus Christ, who poured out His own blood on the cross that we might live in Him and through Him.

May Jesus sustain and nourish you always through His Word, and may you always rest in the loving hands of God the Father.  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.

The Sinful Nature

“For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.  They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” (Galatians 5:17)

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” (Walt Kelly, Pogo)

Sadly, one of the most powerful enemies that Christian soldiers face is themselves.  As if battling trials, tribulations, and persecutions directed at them from the world wasn’t enough; as if the Devil’s lies and accusations didn’t already drive us toward despair; now we must also face up to the awful truth that our own sinful nature is at war against the light of Christ within us.

The good news is that the same Gospel which frees us from the terrible consequences of our sins also trains and equips us to fight back against the temptations of our flesh.  Now that we’ve taken the time to learn about some of the “weapons of the faith,” we will examine some of the enemy’s tactics and strategies for assaulting our faith and undermining our ability to effectively witness in an ungodly world.  God has given us a whole arsenal of weapons and armor, and part of our discipleship is learning to use each of them to combat the evil we face throughout our walk of faith.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the boots of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit; all of these weapons God gives to us, along with His own instructions on how to use them properly.  We can also look to the example of faithful warriors from the Bible, from the history of the Church, and from our own friends and family to see how these spiritual arms can be employed in God’s service.

For every type of assault we face from our sinful nature, there are several spiritual weapons specially designed for our defense which can help us to fight off that particular temptation.  As we grow in God’s Word and are strengthened in faith, let us pray that God would give us the power to employ these weapons effectively in our fight against evil and not fall into temptation.  May He grant us success as we push back against the forces of darkness, ever resting securely on the firm foundation of faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissentions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like…Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:19-21; 24-25)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, in Your grace You have given us mighty weapons for our defense and for the furthering of Your Kingdom.  Mercifully teach us to use these weapons, that we may bring glory to You and show a dark world the light of Your love; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.  Amen.

NOTE: I will not be posting tomorrow, July 4th, as we celebrate our nation’s independance at N. Morrisotwn.  I will begin our examination of some of the temptations of the sinful nature listed in Galatians 5 on Thursday.  Until then, rest and celebrate, praising God for the great country and the freedoms He has given us!  Thank Him by using these freedoms to worship and witness publicly - and thank the men and women of our armed forces for their sacrifices as well!

See you Thursday!

Spiritual Self-Defense

“He will not let your foot slip – he who watches over you will not slumber” (Psalm 121:3)

When I look at my self carefully, I don’t always like what I see.  I see a self that constantly wants to do what God in His love forbids.  I see a self that relies on its own powers and abilities instead of trusting the Lord.  I see a self that is sinful, arrogant, and weak.

I see a self that needs defending.

It’s some comfort to know that I’m not alone in this assessment.  In fact, St. Paul came to the same conclusion when he looked at his self: “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.” (Romans 7:21-23)

So much for comfort.  If St. Paul couldn’t defend his self from the attacks of the world, the Devil, and his own sinful flesh, then I figure I’m pretty much toast.  I know Paul called himself the “chief of sinners” and all, but let me you – there are days when I think I could teach him a thing or two about being a sinner (and not in a good way).

It’s fairly evident that if my self is going to be defended against evil, it had better not be left up to me to get the job done.  I haven’t the strength to resist even the pettiest temptations and attacks that Satan throws at me.  So, who you gonna’ call?  “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1)

St. Paul came to the same conclusion: “What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)  Thankfully, it isn’t up to ourselves to defend our selves in our spiritual self-defense.  My self is protected against all evil by the One who has already rescued me from sin, death, and the power of the Devil.

We may be able to delight in God’s law as we see the inherent goodness and holiness of His will for us, but we could never live up to its requirements, so it brings only death.  But through the power of the Gospel, the Law has been fulfilled and we are saved from the dreadful consequences of our failure.  God’s love, shown though Jesus’ death and resurrection, not only justifies us before His judgment seat, but it also transforms our hearts through the Holy Spirit, empowering us to live as His children and disciples.  And yet our defense doesn’t come from self; it comes from God through Christ Jesus.

In the coming devotions, we will examine many of the individual ways we are attacked spiritually in our walk with God.  Praise be to God that through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, we are daily enriched in faith, strengthened in will, and renewed with the drowning of the Old Adam in us so that we can stand firm against the Devil’s assaults as we minister to the world.

And even so, we will stumble; we will fail to live perfectly and will allow many thrusts, jabs, and slashes to get through our defenses.  But underneath, we have the ultimate protection – the cloak of Christ’s own righteousness that renders us immune to the accusations of the Evil One.  In His incredible mercy and grace, God uses even our failures to testify to His power and goodness through the free forgiveness we have in Christ.  Be blessed by this knowledge, and let it defend your self against all evil.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, teach me to delight in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties.  Give me grace to always point to Your love and forgiveness in every situation.  Strengthen and defend me against all the attacks of the Devil, that I may always honor You before men; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

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.

Gentleness – The Right Way to Fight

“Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.” (Philippians 4:5)

The Sword of the Spirit is the perfect weapon with which we can fight the evil in our world.  But even armed with such a magnificent sword, careless, clumsy warriors can sometimes hurt themselves or hinder and damage the cause for which they fight.

Paul’s reminder in Philippians that “The Lord is near” ought to inspire us to fight with both great care and a sense of urgency.  In one sense, the Lord is near to us physically and spiritually at all times.  While this is a great comfort in our distress and in the thick of battle, it is also exactly the reminder that we sometimes need when thwarted and frustrated in our attempts to spread the Gospel and combat the wickedness in our world.  When we lose our patience, when our sense of peace is diminished, when the joy has gone out of our ministry…at these times we may not realize that fact that we are under heavy fire from Satan, who is trying to undermine our witness and draw us into sin.  Remembering that God is close at hand both gives us the courage to stand boldly and gently, while also holding us accountable to our Heavenly Father for the words and actions we employ in His service.

The Lord is also near in the sense that He is coming soon, and the fervor of our spiritual battle ought to reflect that fact.  He could return at any moment, and the threat of death constantly surrounds all who dwell in this fallen world.  This is a reminder of how important it is for us to fight urgently and pray fervently for those who do not know Jesus or the saving power of His grace.  Because our emotions can sometimes lead us into despair and sin – even as we fight to spread the Gospel promise – God reminds us to do everything in the spirit of His own peace and gentleness.  We can learn to do this from Jesus and His words: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)

God makes gentleness a vital part of our training for spiritual warfare, both in our witness of the Gospel and in our service to one another.  His instructions are clear; we must employ gentleness when wielding the other weapons of faith if we are to be effective and minimize our “collateral damage”:

“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.  Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

“Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.  But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted” (Galatians 6:1)

Arming a warrior for combat is about more than just putting a weapon in his hands.  Training is a necessary part of the equipping process, both for the protection of the warrior and to ensure his combat effectiveness.  God our Commander has given us excellent weapons of spiritual perfection, and in His grace He thoroughly prepares us for the dangers that lie on the battlefield by teaching us how to use these weapons in the way that will best serve and honor Him.  The gentleness that comes from peace in Christ will guard and protect our hearts and minds from temptation as we move forward into battle with the Gospel of salvation.

“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.” (Titus 3:1-2)

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, grant me true gentleness through Your peace as I proclaim the Gospel and minister to my neighbors.  Guard and defend my heart against all anger, wrath, impatience, cruelty, and malice; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Goodness – The Weapon of Virtue

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

What is “goodness”?

That question is becoming harder and harder to answer as time goes on, as it sadly becomes more difficult to point to examples in our world.  “Goodness” encompasses many things; it describes a wholesome quality, a purity of character, a rightness of spirit – all the things we regard as “virtuous” and still more.

Goodness comes from God.  Think Genesis 1; everything that God creates is “very good” – indeed, perfect.  Of course, this inherent goodness is lost when the crowning jewel of God’s creation, man, rebels and falls into sin.  The world is cursed; the land becomes unwholesome, life becomes difficult and painful, and mankind loses his purity, becoming obstinately opposed to God’s good and gracious will.

Any goodness found in this world comes from God: “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5).  Every real and wholesome pleasure, every genuine work of beauty, every noble and decent thing; they all bear the divine fingerprint despite the Devil’s temptation to pervert and misuse these gifts.

In the same way, any goodness in mankind comes from God as well: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).  God’s goodness is so great and powerful that it shines through our own sinful exterior.  The Holy Spirit reshapes the believing heart to be more like God in goodness and virtue, serving and glorifying God through word and deed: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.  Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8-10).

Goodness is a battlefield within our own hearts as we struggle against the sinful nature of the “Old Adam.”  Through prayer and the Word of God, the Holy Spirit strengthens us in faith and equips us with godly virtue and character.  Goodness then becomes a powerful weapon as our wholesome words and deeds help us put to death our sinful desires and combat the darkness of the world around us.  It is a weapon of the Spirit – a hammer of light – with which He batters our will to conform more to God’s and shatters the lies and corruption of this wicked world.  As the Good News of Jesus’ forgiving death and resurrection changes us, so too does God use our renewed spirits to bring that Gospel truth to a world cursed by sin, that through Him all may be made new and perfect once more.

“He has showed you, O man, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, through the redeeming death and resurrection of Your Son, Jesus Christ, I have been made righteous and pure in Your sight.  Grant that through Your Spirit I may daily put to death the wicked desires of my rebellious heart and walk more closely with You, that all who see Your goodness in me will be drawn to the cross of Your Son.  Amen.

Patience – Today’s Battle

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:12-14)

There is a general sense of arming for battle in this passage, and patience is a key element in the protective gear that is being described here.

Unfortunately, our generation has been subtly stripped of this magnificent armor.  What has happened to patience in our world?  Why is it so difficult to bear with one another in love?  How can we receive forgiveness so richly and abundantly every day and be so stingy when it comes to sharing it with others?

Two words: “instant gratification.”

Satan has launched an aggressive campaign against one of our nine chief spiritual weapons, and it has been devastatingly effective.  We want what we want when we want it – now!  Whether it’s material wealth and possessions, earthly success, answers from God, or even compliance from other human beings in our lives, Satan has rendered most of us nearly incapable of wielding patience as a weapon.

Across the country and throughout the world, Christian couples are finding it more and more difficult to overlook offenses and patiently endure the minor (or major) annoyances of their spouses – we’ve seen the casualties in the broken relationships and divorce statistics.  Christian parents have trouble rearing their children gently and patiently in a world that teaches instant results and entitlement.  Road rage, workplace disputes, and all manner of senseless reactionary violence demonstrate the basic inability to brush off even the most petty and insignificant insults and inconveniences.

Satan’s war on patience has perpetuated every kind of evil imaginable.  Truly, a great many of our social ills are caused by the absence of this virtue.  Much of the conflict and tension in every kind of relationship is due largely to a lack of patience.  And do we really think that our witness and testimony to Christ’s cross goes unaffected by our impatience with those to whom we preach – and with the Holy Spirit?

The key to a patient heart is love.  Whenever we feel ourselves losing patience with our spouse, our child, our coworker, or anyone else, we need to look to the cross.  Mindful of Jesus’ patience with our sinful world, we draw from Him the strength to bear with our loved ones patiently.  Love binds the armor tightly together; without it, our protection falls to the ground and fails.  Along with love, the joy and peace we have through Jesus’ righteousness and salvation will help us to patiently resist whatever temptations and attacks the Devil hits us with.  We can once again take up this keen spiritual weapon, strike down the wicked inclinations of our impetuous hearts, and wait with gladness upon the Lord our Savior.  Where the Devil has disarmed us, the Lord our God equips us mightily through the power of His Word.

“But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:16)

“…being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.” (Colossians 1:11-12)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, as You have dealt with me in patience, help me to also deal with those around me in a manner that reflects Your love; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Joy – The Best Defense

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)

It’s certainly no secret that one of the best defenses a Christian has against the attacks and troubles of this world is the tremendous joy that comes from the righteousness and salvation granted by Christ Jesus.

And yet…too often we recklessly venture forth stripped of our joy, weak and vulnerable to the Devil’s lies and the wearisome burdens of everyday life.

There isn’t anything wrong with the armor, that’s for sure.  Ask Paul and Silas, who – armed with the joy of the Lord – turned a seeming defeat at the prison in Philippi into a smashing victory for the Gospel through their joyous prayers and praises.  Ask any of the noble martyrs, whose joy in the Lord enabled them to face even death boldly, witnessing and testifying to the love of God even as they received the fulfillment of their hope.  Yes, joy is the best defense – and it seems that it can serve as a very effective offense as well.

So what’s my problem?  Maybe I’m not strapping it on tight enough; I tend to forget the incredible reality of all the riches Christ has delivered unto me through His death, and without the “belt of truth” my joy and my armor crashes around my feet.  Maybe I just carelessly venture forth without bothering with armor at all, figuring I’ll wait until “things get really bad” to arm myself with the hope and joy of my salvation – then get so wrapped up in winning the battle through my own strength that I don’t find an opportunity later to don my protective gear.  Maybe the flimsy enticements of this world seem to offer more joy than the adamantine Good News of the Gospel, and I stupidly look to shallow, empty worldly pursuits for my strength, joy, and defense against Satan.

I think sometimes we Christians look at our salvation as something far off in the distant future, so we miss out on the joy that it brings for us today.  Like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, we’re “not thinking fourth-dimensionally!”  We forget that the salvation Christ has won for us through the cross is already a reality for us today, here, now! – despite how things appear to us in our present situation.

It’s sad how we can find strength and consolation in the midst of a difficult work week by eagerly anticipating the weekend to come, and yet fail to find the real joy of Jesus’ triumph over every problem in this life.  When compared to the joy we have through the Gospel, all of our troubles and difficulties seem utterly insignificant – even pain and death.  By clinging steadfastly to this joy, we can trust God and avoid the temptations of seeking worldly “happiness” through the transitory pleasures and false securities of this fleeting life.  And as others watch us laugh as the Devil’s attacks bounce harmlessly off our impenetrable armor, they too can see the strength and power of the Gospel and find refuge in the joy of the Lord.

“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9)

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, guard and protect me through the sure knowledge and joy of Your salvation.  Let my joy be evident to all, that they may see the fruit of Your Spirit within me and come to know the joy I have in the hope of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Timothy – Being a One-Man Army

“But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.  Fight the good fight of the faith.  Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (1 Timothy 6:11-12)

If you’ve ever felt like the expectations placed on you are too great, just consider Paul’s young friend Timothy.  Here we find a young warrior left with little ammunition in a battlefield surrounded by enemies.  Paul’s advice?  Fight hard!

First of all, Timothy was facing fearsome adversaries on every side.  All around him were men teaching false doctrines, promoting “godless myths” and sowing dissention and discord among the believers.  Paul commissioned Timothy as the last line of defense between God’s people and these heretics and blasphemers.

As if the spiritual threats of false teachers and hypocrites weren’t enough, Timothy must also face the many worldly assaults that are so prevalent in Ephesus: lies, murder, gossip, slander, sexual immorality, and all manner of illicit and illegal activity.  While combatting the lies and enticements of the heretics, Timothy was also supposed to stand firmly against the evils of his own secular society.

But that isn’t all.  For the sake of the Gospel and the reputation of the Church, Paul also instructs Timothy to carefully monitor and regulate the worship practices of the church in Ephesus.  He was to guide the lives of God’s people there, instructing everyone from the laity to the overseers and deacons on how to live and being accountable for their behavior and actions.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed yet?  Well, too bad.  Because we haven’t even mentioned the fact that in the middle of this battle zone, Timothy will have to grapple with his greatest enemy all the while.  The Devil will use Timothy’s own sinful nature against him, throwing every temptation at him to try and topple this young Church leader from the holy hill whereon he is making his desperate stand against the forces of darkness.  And it won’t be enough to simply avoid falling into sin and shame; Timothy will have to be a model citizen, a pillar of righteousness and worthiness.

Oh yes, and one more thing: there are a host of other social issues that need tending to in your spare time – everything from the treatment of widows to the attitudes of the wealthy in your church and community.  See to it that you take care of these problems for me, will you Tim?  That’s a good boy.

I don’t know about you, but thinking about all this makes me want to sit down and weep while banging my head against the wall.  How is one person expected to manage all this?  Despite the fact that Timothy must have known he couldn’t do all this perfectly, and most certainly didn’t, it still must have been a tremendous amount of pressure – truly, one man against the world.

The scary part is that you and I are called to exactly the same desperate scenario as young Timothy.  We are hard pressed on all sides by false teachings, worldly enticements, and our own sinful desires.  The responsibilities laid upon God’s warriors can be staggering at times as we constantly encounter those in need of spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional help.  There are certainly many times when it feels like “me against the world,” and this couldn’t be more true.  But as we look to the cross of Jesus Christ for strength to fight on and for forgiveness for our failures, we can be encouraged by this excellent promise from our Lord Himself and find peace in His Word:

“In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for the triumph of Your Son over all the adversity I face in this life!  Grant that I may face whatever struggles I am called to confront not only with strength and courage, but also with the joy that comes from knowing You are by my side as I serve You; though Jesus Christ, my Lord.  Amen.