COLOSSIANS #16: GROW LIKE A TREE, NOT LIKE A WEED

man in white shirt using macbook pro
Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

Sometimes our  Christian culture can give us the idea that we ought to be constantly having amazing spiritual feelings and experiences. But at best, that idea is distorted. The message of this text – the message of the Bible – is that a lot of the growth we have in Jesus takes place below the surface. A lot of it is kind of ordinary. It is quiet and deep, and maybe even slow. This applies to both churches and individual Christians. Growth is something Jesus does in us and for us. He uses simple, straightforward means to grow us, and anyone can participate in those means.

COLOSSIANS
To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Colossians Part 16

Colossians #16. Colossians 2:7

Remember last time, we considered the very important phrase: “as you received Christ as Lord, so continue in him.” Verse 7 is connected to that thought:

You have been and will continue to be rooted in him. You are being firmly built up in faith, you are being established in accordance with what you were taught, and you overflow with thanksgiving. (my own translation/paraphrase from Greek)

The verbs here are all present tense, passive voice. What that means is that they are describing something that is being done to you, and that continues to be done to you. We talked about how we received Jesus not by doing good things, but by trusting that he has already done them. So he is also rooting us (that is connecting us deeply to him). He is building us up in faith, he is establishing us – that is giving us a firm foundation in Christ. All of this is according to what we were taught, that is, according to the Bible. And it results in joyful gratitude on our part.

As we think about all this, a few things come to mind. First, in our mortal lives right now, following Jesus is something of a process. We are being rooted in him, built up in faith and established. It is ongoing. It isn’t that one moment we are godless pagans, and the next we are ready to be missionaries or monks. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is working to enlarge our spirits, to wean us away from our sinful flesh, and to draw us more and more into His abundant life. We should also make sure to understand that these words apply not only to individuals, but also to church communities. People in those days were just as likely to think of themselves in terms of “us” as often, or more, as “me.”

The words used to describe the process are not dramatic. Instead they indicate patient, deep growth. First, we are being rooted. If you think about the plant world, you can’t even see roots growing. That all happens beneath the surface. Roots are vital to the survival of any plant, but roots are not flashy. They are not quick. They grow slowly and hidden.

When we think about the next one, being built up, we can see something happening in that process. However, in Paul’s day, before modern technology, buildings took a great deal of time to take shape. In the ancient Mediterranean world the majority of the buildings would have been made out of stone. The stone had to be cut by hand, hauled by hand, or horse, and put in place by hand. The ingredients of the mortar had to be ground (perhaps with the assistance of a some sort of primitive mill) and mixed by hand. So, though you can see the results of building up, that too, takes a lot of time.

Then we come to being established. Again, this is something we can’t really see. Being established, in this context, means that we are firmly set in Jesus. An established business is one that has been there for a long time, and has roots in the community, and strong financial and marketing practices. An established fact is one that is not in doubt. When we are established in Christ, We have strong spiritual practices (reading, praying, serving), and a meaningful connection to Christian community (church). When we are established, whatever comes, we won’t be shaken from the foundation we have in him.

Being rooted, built up and established is all in accordance with what we were taught. Paul is referring to the teaching of the Apostles, which, these days, we call “The Bible.” The Bible is one of the primary places in which we get to know Jesus, and by which we give him access to our lives. The other ways are based upon the Bible: the sacraments (especially communion, since it happens regularly) and Christian community. If we cut ourselves off from any of these three (The Bible, The sacraments or Christian community) it will interfere with the growth that the Lord wants to provide.

I want us to understand what good news this is. In the first place, these are all things being done to us by the Holy Spirit. We aren’t rooting ourselves, or building ourselves. The Spirit is doing it. All we have to do to receive it is to trust Him.

Now he does use certain methods to root us and establish us in Jesus. But these are not complicated. And if we really do trust Jesus, at least a part of us will actually want to do these things. Anyone can read the Bible, or listen to it in an audio version. Anyone can receive the sacraments. Anyone can be part of a church. It doesn’t require something exceptional on our part to grow in Jesus. We don’t have to be a certain kind of person. We don’t have to have certain kinds of experiences or emotions or passions.

Sometimes, our present Christian culture in the Western world seems to push toward having big, exciting experiences, filled with wonderful feelings. It seems like we are supposed to always feel these amazing emotions toward God. We are supposed to be continually blown away by what God is doing in our lives. Think of a typical worship video. There’s a huge crowd. The people on stage are raising their hands and singing with deep emotion. The music creates a big atmosphere. Cut to the crowd where people stand with their hands up, tears streaming down their faces or kneel, shaking with feeling.

I don’t think that sort of thing is bad in and of itself, but it tends to send a misleading message. It encourages us to think we should move from one high to the next. We think maybe there is something wrong if we aren’t moving in a huge, obvious, upward spiritual trajectory. We think we must be terrible Christians if our faith doesn’t look like those YouTube worship videos.

But that isn’t the case. The message of this text – which is the Bible, not a worship video – is that a lot of the growth we have in Jesus takes place below the surface. A lot of it is kind of ordinary. It is quiet and deep, and maybe even slow. I have amazing spiritual experiences once in a while. Probably not more than once or twice a year, probably less, and they last only a few minutes. And it might be that Jesus gives me them that often because I’m not normally an emotional person, and he wants me to grow in that area. These spiritual experiences are great. But they are not the substance of my faith. I would grow even without them, because it is Jesus who causes me to grow.

This is really important. Yes, we should be growing as Christians. But the pace and type of growth are up to Jesus. The growth comes not because we earn it, but because we trust him. We may not even be able to see some of it. Think about roots again. You don’t really know how good the roots of a tree are until a storm comes. Then, and only then, you can tell if a tree’s roots are strong or not. If you are worried about the rate of your growth, trust Jesus. Ask him to cause you to grow, and trust him to do it. Don’t fight with him about basics like reading your Bible, and praying, and being involved with Christian community, but understand even if you do all that, you won’t grow unless Jesus makes it happen.

I also want you to think of these things in terms of your local church. It is easy to get impatient with your church. But here, spiritual growth for both individuals and churches is described in terms that are slow, gradual and patient. Yes, there are big, exciting churches out there. It is not my job to judge them but I realized years ago that spiritual reality can be very different from how things look on the surface. Not every big, exciting-seeming church is spiritually healthy or pleasing to the Lord.

I want to consider the next piece: overflowing with thanksgiving.

I think it is clear that thankfulness also has great power to transform our attitudes and thoughts. It is very difficult to be both bitter and thankful at the same time. It is hard to thank God profusely for what he has done for me, and, at the same time, be angry at him. When we thank God, it helps us to focus on what is good, and ultimately on the Good Giver. Being thankful to the Lord for all things, including my pain, has been part of the transformation for me of turning my struggle into a blessing.

But thankfulness is more than just a way to manipulate us into a positive attitude.

Thankfulness is both a result of, and a means to, trust in Jesus. The more we really believe what he has done for us, and learn about it, the more grateful we will be. On the other hand, thankfulness helps us to receive in faith what Jesus has given us. You can’t touch forgiveness with your hands. You can’t touch love, or hope, or grace or joy. But when we thank God for these things, we receive them more deeply in our hearts. Thanking him helps us receive, and also strengthens our connection to the One who gives.

I am not naturally a grateful person, perhaps because I have had so many good things handed to me during my life. But I have found that if I can find some way to start thanking God, even for something quite small and insignificant, it gives the Holy Spirit a crack to work with. Then I gradually become more and more thankful, for deeper and more important things. So I might start as I shower, thanking the Lord for hot water, or even just running water. Then I might thank him that I have the ability to stand up and take a shower. I’ll thank him for water. That might remind me of my baptism, and so I thank him for adopting me as his child and giving me the Holy Spirit. And so on.

Some thoughts for application:

  • Have you been tempted to be impatient with yourself or your church because growth seems so slow? How does this text address your impatience?
  • Have you thought that your spiritual growth all depends on your own efforts? What does this text say to you about that?
  • What are some things that you can be thankful for? Take ten minutes (time yourself!) to thank God for various things, big and small.

COLOSSIANS #15: GRACE FOR THE CHRISTIAN LIFE

achievement confident free freedom

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Our lifestyle of being in Jesus is based on exactly the same facts as our salvation. We now live in the same way. We stop trusting in our own efforts to perform well. We trust that Jesus is, and will be, at work within us according to his promises, and that his work, not our own efforts, will make us into the people that God desires us to be. Trust does require a sort of surrender, that is, we need to lean into Jesus, to learn to rely upon him more and more. But we walk in Him the very same way that we came to him in the first place: by trusting in his grace for everything we need.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Colossians Part 15

Colossian #15  Colossians 2:6-7

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

Colossians 2:6-7 is easy to read, but there is a wealth of grace, wisdom and knowledge in this one sentence. It is important for us to pause and understand the huge significance of it says, and what it means.

As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.

We have two, almost opposite problems when it comes to verses like this. But the solution to both problems is the same. In the first place, sometimes people act as if receiving Christ as Lord is no big thing. Some people may think of receiving Christ as Lord as sort of like something on our to-do list:

  • Fill the car with gas
  • Reserve Hotel for Vacation
  • Accept Jesus as savior
  • Take out garbage

It is something we have to do, we think, of course. But it’s just one of many things. We have busy lives, after all. So we “walk in him,” the same way as we received him, which is, he doesn’t really have much to do with anything in our actual lives.

My Dad tells a story about when we were living in Papua New Guinea as missionaries. A friend of his was teaching on the Island of Karkar. The island is basically just a large cone-shaped volcano sticking out of the ocean. It was a very active volcano that occasionally killed people with poison gas. While this missionary was teaching, there was an earthquake, and they could see ashes and gasses spewing from the top of the cone. The missionary paused and said, “Why don’t we pray about the volcano?”

The island’s residents were puzzled. “Pray to God? About the volcano? We don’t pray to God about that. For that, we pray to the spirits of the volcano.”

The missionary was puzzled. “Well, what do you pray to God about?”

They shrugged. “White people stuff. Missionary stuff.”

They had somehow got the idea that Christianity was not about real life, not about all of life. Instead, they believed in God just for one narrow purpose. It did not affect how they lived the rest of their lives.

We can laugh about primitive people praying to a volcano, but sometimes, we do the same thing. We believe in God for heaven, and for church stuff. It’s one narrow thing: our eternal future. When we have this attitude, Jesus doesn’t have much to do with the way we live. But that was never the case for the first Christians. It is not the teaching we get from the Bible. Receiving Christ as Lord changes everything. Everything we do is now related to the fact that we have Christ as Lord. Our relationships are now lived out in the context of the fact that we belong to Jesus. Our decisions are deeply influenced by the life of Jesus in us. Life becomes about receiving from Him, and loving him back. Jesus becomes the primary influence in all of life.

Receiving Jesus is a bit like getting married. You don’t get married, and then just go off and live the way you did before. No, after you get married, you do life alongside your spouse. You are no longer just a “me,” you are half of an “us.” Some things remain more or less the same, of course. You still go to work. You still do a lot of the things you used to. But now, another person enters as a major factor in all of your decisions. You can’t just decide to take a job in another state; no, you have to talk to your spouse and listen to what he or she says. You don’t just spend the evening however you please without first talking to your spouse to see how he or she would like to spend the time. Ideally, a lot of that time is spent together. You love your spouse, and you like being close to him or her, and so you try sincerely, but not perfectly, to live with your spouse in a way that make him or her happy. Usually, when I do that, I find that my life is happier also.

By the way, this is one of the reasons that the Bible tells us marriage is so important. It is a picture of our relationship with God. When we don’t value marriage as a solemn, joyful, lifelong commitment, we start losing our understanding of what it means to be in Jesus. Even as I write this, I know that some people don’t “get it” when I use the illustration of marriage. This is a terrible tragedy. Married people owe it not only to themselves, not only to their children, but to all people, to make their marriage more important than anything but God. When we do so, it is a beacon to others, showing what it is like to be loved by Jesus, and to love him.

So it is with Jesus. When you receive him as Lord, you are not longer just a “you.” You are now in the family of God, in a way that only comes with receiving Jesus Christ.

10 He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. 11 He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. 12 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. 13 They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. (John 1:10-13 NLT)

Now, you no longer just live however you please. You “do life” with Jesus, and with his people, who are now your brothers and sisters. Jesus is now a major factor in all your decisions. You talk to him and listen to him (through the Bible, and other Christians, and His Holy Spirit) before you make major decisions. You love Jesus, and you like feeling close to him, so you try, though not perfectly, to live in a way that makes him happy. Thankfully, doing that also makes you happier.

If you don’t really understand all I have written so far, go back and read it again, slowly. If you still don’t quite get it, please contact me, and we can have a conversation about it. This is vitally important.

Now, there is another, vitally important part to this. Some people do take receiving Jesus as Lord seriously. We know what a big deal it is. But then somewhere we get the mistaken idea that we are saved by grace, but after that it is up to us to perform well. In other words, God gives grace to save us, but daily living in Christ comes about mainly by our efforts.

But once more, listen to what Paul says: As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.

How is it that we received Christ the Lord? There is only one way that people can receive Jesus: by trusting him. When we received Jesus, we stopped trusting in our own efforts to perform well. We stopped thinking that we could somehow manage to behave well enough to please God, or make up for our sins. Instead, we believed that what Jesus did for us was enough, and that it is the only thing that is enough to make us right with God, right with ourselves and right with the world and other people. We gave up on ourselves, on trying to control outcomes, and trusted Jesus with our eternal future, and also our present life here on earth.

So, once we have trusted Jesus in this way, how are we to live? What comes next? The answer is quite simple: we continue in the same way. In the same way that you received Jesus for salvation, now continue to walk in Jesus; that is, continue to live, continue a lifestyle.

Our lifestyle of being in Jesus is based on exactly the same facts as our salvation. We now live in the same way. We stop trusting in our own efforts to perform well. We trust that Jesus is, and will be, at work within us according to his promises, and that his work, not our own efforts, will make us into the people that God desires us to be. Trust does require a sort of surrender, that is, we need to lean into Jesus, to learn to rely upon him more and more. But we walk in Him the very same way that we came to him in the first place: by trusting in his grace for everything we need.

I have said before, and I will say it again, probably until my dying day: belief comes first, and then behavior. In other words, we behave based upon what we believe to be true. If we believe we are saved by grace, then gradually we will begin to become gracious people. We will eventually begin to behave according to character of Christ because we believe that Christ is, in fact, doing his work in us. The more we trust him, the more we become like him.

There are many verses in the New Testament telling us about how Christians should behave. You may not have noticed this, but almost invariably, those verses come only after we learn who Christ is and what he has done for us. This is true in our present book, Colossians. We’ve been taking things slowly, let’s remind ourselves what Paul has already said:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Colossians 1:15-23, ESV, italic formatting added for emphasis)

Christ has reconciled us to himself. We are presented as Holy and blameless. We live as we were saved: by trusting that Jesus has already done it. We have nothing to prove. Jesus has done all of the proving already. The “if indeed you continue in the faith…” comes only after “you…he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.”

And in this text today, we learn how to continue in the faith: the same way we began it: by trusting in the grace of God given to us freely in Jesus Christ.

For me, there is no greater deterrent to sin than being close to Jesus. When I lean into his grace I don’t have to work hard to avoid sin – I just don’t want to sin so much. Please understand, I am not claiming to be without sin myself. I know I am a miserable sinner, no better than the worst person alive. But I find that this miserable sinner is slowly, imperfectly, sinning less and less as he trusts Jesus more and more.

Let’s think about marriage again, marriage as God intends it. It is a sacred covenant relationship. Marriage is not just finding “the one” who will fulfill all our needs. That idea has led to countless divorces, once one partner stops meeting the needs of the other in the way the other demands. It isn’t a contract that can be broken or renegotiated. I have no idea whether, after 27+ plus years, Kari has done more for me, or I more for Kari. I hope neither one of us ever thinks that way. We love each other. We entered a sacred covenant, and it is not about keeping track of who owes whom.

In love, we do seek to fulfill the needs of the one we marry, but it is because of love, not obligation. Now, it is true, there are times when being married is work. That is because, like following Jesus, marriage requires us to die to ourselves so that we can love another person. We find many opportunities in marriage to do something that is loving and pleasing to our spouse. This sometimes means not doing something we might otherwise be inclined to do. We put their needs in front our own: we die to ourselves. Sometimes, as I have said, this is hard work. But even though it is hard, we do it out of love. Whether we always feel it or not, we recognize that we can help the happiness and well being of our spouse. So we do it. And we are not doing it in fear that otherwise we will be divorced. We work hard out of love. And there is tremendous payoff in living with your spouse like this. After almost 28 years, I can say the joy and satisfaction we have in our marriage is wonderful. Not perfect (no marriage is) but very good. It has been a labor, but a labor of love, and that labor of love has benefitted each of us.

So it is with Jesus. We enter into a sacred covenant relationship with him. We follow him, we do the things that the Bible talks about, not because we are afraid, or because we feel that we owe him (though we do owe him our very existence), but because we love him, and because we are secure in the knowledge that he loves us. We don’t keep score anymore, in order to know if we are doing OK. Instead, we trust his love for us.

And ultimately, we know that he wants us to do these things because he also wants the best for us. And we cannot doubt his love for us. He didn’t just die to his own desires for a moment. He literally gave up his own life for us.

When you are concerned about whether or not you are being good enough, remember: we walk in faith the same way we came to Jesus in the first place. That is, by trusting that he has done all that is required from us. The more we really believe that, the more we will act like we are indeed, in a covenant of grace with God, a special relationship, almost like a marriage. And the more we see it that way, the more we live as God intended.

I need to make sure this is very clear: Even “living as a Christian” comes about not by us trying harder, but by us trusting even more in God’s grace for us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COLOSSIANS #14: THE WISDOM THAT COMES ONLY FROM TRUST

woman lying on area rug reading books
Photo by Renato Abati on Pexels.com

True wisdom comes from trusting Jesus Christ, and anyone can do that. It is a wisdom imparted spiritually, first to our hearts, not our brains. As we trust Jesus, His wisdom and knowledge begin to come out in our decisions, and the way we treat other people, and in our understanding of the Bible.

I don’t mean to say that there is no value in thinking rationally, or getting an education. Those are good things. But we can receive a practical, heart-wisdom from Jesus that the most educated person will never have without Jesus. And our understanding of God, and of his love, begins not when we “figure it out,” but rather, when we really trust him

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Colossians Part 14

 

Colossians #14  Colossians 2:2-5

1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. 5 For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. (Colossians 2:1-5, ESV)

Last time we concentrated on verse 1, and examined Paul’s struggle, and how his words about struggle might apply to us. The struggle is real, but it also has a purpose, and, according to the scriptures, we can confidently expect that the struggle will eventually accomplish its purpose.

Paul’s struggle for the Colossians (and others) was for this purpose: that their hearts would be encouraged; that they would be bound together in love; that they would absorb the incredible value of Christ himself, and all that is found within Christ. In addition, this purpose results in something else: if we understand and grasp the incredible value of Christ, we will not be easily led astray. We can live in full assurance of faith, firm, and confident, even in times of trouble; even in the face of those who might want to deceive us.

I don’t suppose there was a worldwide epidemic going on when Paul wrote these words. But it wasn’t terribly long after Paul wrote these words that Christians in this area of the world began to be persecuted. Paul is telling us that if we can truly grasp Christ Himself, and all that is found within Him, we can be firm and secure, no matter what goes on around us, no matter what plausible sounding arguments are used to try and sway us from our faith. That’s the big picture, the framework. With that understanding, let’s take it apart and see everything we can today.

Paul believes that our hearts can be profoundly encouraged. The Greek word there includes the idea of comfort and counsel, of someone walking alongside us. When we know Jesus, in something of the same fashion that we know another person that we are very close to, our hearts receive deep, real encouragement. When we take that “trust fall,” and agree with Jesus that no matter what we see or think, He is in control and He has our best interests at heart, then we receive a deep sense of peace and encouragement.

I am in pain as I write this. I don’t know what the future holds: it might be another forty years of pain. But I have taken the leap of trust, and I know, deep in my heart, that he loves me, and that if it is to be forty more years of pain, that pain will be far outweighed by the grace I receive, both during the pain, and also when it is finally over and I stand with him face to face. My heart is encouraged. Yours can be too. I think however, that it is probably necessary, if you want receive that encouragement, to surrender control to him, and trust, often in spite of the evidence, that He loves you, and is doing for you what is ultimately good, ultimately best.

This is the path to grasping all the riches of knowledge and understanding in Christ. If you think about it, it almost has to be this way, otherwise, only smart people could get knowledge and understanding from God. But if the way to get it is simply to trust, then anyone and everyone who is willing to trust can have the same knowledge, wisdom and understanding.

If that sounds foolish to you, read on. Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians:

18 The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. 19 As the Scriptures say,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise
and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.”
20 So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. 21 Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. 22 It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. 23 So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.
24 But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.
26 Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. 27 Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. 28 God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. 29 As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18-29, NLT)

True wisdom comes from trusting Jesus Christ, and anyone can do that. It is a wisdom imparted spiritually, first to our hearts, not our brains. As we trust Jesus, His wisdom and knowledge begin to come out in our decisions, and the way we treat other people, and in our understanding of the Bible.

I don’t mean to say that there is no value in thinking rationally, or getting an education. Those are good things. But we can receive a practical, heart-wisdom from Jesus that the most educated person will never have without Jesus. And our understanding of God, and of his love, begins not when we “figure it out,” but rather, when we really trust him. If you are having a hard time grappling with something in the Bible, the best place to begin might be to make sure you have fully surrendered in trust to Jesus.

Paul does encourage us to use this heart wisdom, and combine it with thoughtfulness. He says that he does not want the Colossians to be easily deluded by plausible arguments – that is, tricked by lies that sound good. I want to identify just two of the plausible arguments that are common to our culture and time in the United States in 2020.

Some of our big “plausible sounding arguments” are quite similar to some of what the Colossians heard in their time and culture. For now, I’ll cover just two. Here’s the first one:

  • Big Lie #1: It is OK to worship Jesus, as long as you don’t claim He is the ONLY path to God, goodness and “heaven.”

In other words, “it’s fine if you choose Christianity as your path, but you can’t claim that it should be the same for everyone.

This was something the Colossians faced, also. Eventually the Christians were persecuted not because they worshipped Jesus – people worshipped all kinds of gods, and they didn’t care. But the culture did care when the Christians worshipped Jesus alone, and claimed that everyone else ought to do so as well. In this day and age, that is also true. People are fine with you being a Christian, as long as you don’t claim that Jesus is the only way for all people. But Jesus himself claims to be the only way for all people.

6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6, ESV)

10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:10-12, ESV)

Shortly after these verses, Paul is going to teach about exactly who Jesus is. If Jesus is indeed God in the flesh, then He is the God for all people and all times. If He is not, then He should not be the God for anyone.

It’s almost like saying: “2+2= 4 is not always right, for me. That’s your way of doing mathematics. My way of doing mathematics is different.” That’s ridiculous. If mathematics is what it claims to be, then it is true for all people in all times. If it isn’t, then it isn’t actually mathematics.

  • Big Lie #2

Happiness is found by focusing on yourself, and pursuing the deepest desires you have within you. If you have a desire, no matter how weird or different, you should follow it. If you have an attraction or impulse, you should act on it. Nothing you deeply yearn for should be considered wrong. The only wrong thing is to suggest that anyone should control themselves, rather than giving in to what they want.

This lie is at the root of all the debate about Christian sexual ethics; the arguments about homosexuality, sex-before-marriage, gender identity and so on. We Christians have not always relied upon the wisdom and knowledge that is in Jesus. The wisdom of Jesus teaches us to get to the heart of the issue. And the heart of the issue is this: Is Jesus your King, or isn’t he? Does he have the right to lead you down a path where your sinful flesh would prefer not to go? Does he have the right to lead wherever and however he chooses, or not?

The reason our culture hates Christian sexual ethics is because, even in heterosexual marriage, we are called to surrender our desires to Jesus, and allow him to limit them. Our culture wants no limits, and it even views self-imposed limits with suspicion.

But it is a lie to believe that to live with self-discipline is wrong. It’s a lie to believe that we shouldn’t trust that God wants the best for us when he prescribes limits for us. It is exactly the same lie that led Eve to commit the first human sin. There was one limit in the garden of Eden: don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The devil came to Eve and convinced her that God was withholding something good from her, that this limit was evil. Our temptations to live for whatever “feels right” to us are exactly the same temptations, and they come from the same source.

If we surrender to Jesus in trust, that means that he has the right to ask anything of us. It means our choices are defined not by our own desires, but by what Jesus desires for us.

Far too often, people think they want to have Jesus, and also want to run their own lives however they please. They want to have Jesus, but they don’t want to give up things they think are just as important, or even more important (in their minds) than Jesus. Jesus encountered a person like that once. It was a rich young man. He was willing to do a number of things to follow God but there was one thing that he didn’t want to give up. Jesus identified it easily:

22 When Jesus heard his answer, he said, “There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.23 But when the man heard this he became very sad, for he was very rich.” (Luke 18:22-23, NLT)

This isn’t a universal command for every person to sell all they have. But it is an example for us, that teaches us that if we want to follow Jesus, we cannot make anything more important than him. We are called to have Jesus as our greatest treasure, and also as our Lord and King. He is patient with us, but if we ultimately insist on withholding from him something that he asks, we will, like the rich man, go away sad.

What Paul is trying to tell us here is that Jesus is worth far more than anything he asks us to give up for his sake. As we learn to trust Jesus, we also learn to value him more than anything else in the world. Paul says that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself spoke in parables about how when we receive him, we get the most valuable treasure in the world, a treasure that is worth more than anything we might give up for it.

 44 “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field.
45 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls. 46 When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it! (Matthew 13:44-46, NLT)

Paul himself made that sort of trade long before. He told the Philippians how it was for him:

7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him (Philippians 3:6-9, ESV)

In Jesus are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. We get that treasure when we trust Jesus, even when we don’t understand. Often, understanding follows trust, and we gain practical wisdom about how to live. When we are surrendered in trust to Jesus, our hearts are profoundly encouraged, and we have the ability to identify the lies of the world and the devil, and to avoid falling into their traps.

As you reflect on God’s word today, here are some questions for application:

  • What is your greatest obstacle to trusting Jesus?
  • What lies are you tempted to believe?
  • What would help you to remember and believe that Jesus himself is a treasure greater than anything else in the universe?
  • Think about and describe a time when trusting Jesus has led to practical wisdom or understanding that you might not have had before?
  • What do you treasure about Jesus? What would help you to consistently seek him as your highest treasure?
  • What is the Lord saying to you through the scripture today?

EASTER 2020: MISUNDERSTANDING VICTORY

cross jesus summit cross
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Resurrection Sunday 2020

RESURRECTION SUNDAY 2020  Luke 24:13-49

This is a wonderful  part of the scripture. It is Resurrection Day, the day that the world changed. Everything has gone exactly according to God’s plan. But the disciples don’t know it yet. In fact, it seems to them that God’s plan has come to a screeching, tearing, smash-up end.

Two of them are walking, trying to get their heads around what they see as a tragedy. It is actually not a tragedy at all, but they can’t know that yet. They were so sure that Jesus was the One. He had to be from God. They knew him, and they had never known anyone like him. They heard him, and he spoke like no one had before. They saw him do genuine, honest-to-goodness miracles, so blatant that they knew he was sent by God.

But now the same old story was repeating itself. It was just one more crushing defeat in the long war against evil. This bright star, this man unlike anyone they had known, had been killed by the powers-that-be, who felt threatened by him. It was over.

Except, a Mary Magdalene had come this morning with a strange story, and even Peter and John had backed her up. Jesus’ body was missing, and they all said angels had spoken to them. But people don’t rise from the dead. It was probably just Peter, who was never good at accepting things as they are, and Mary, carried away in false grief-induced hope. Poor Peter. Poor Mary. Sooner or later they’d have to accept it.

As they walk and talk, a stranger joins them. They can’t remember exactly where he had come from, but he is there now. Impossibly, he seems to be ignorant of the stir Jesus had caused, and how the events surrounding his death had unsettled all Jerusalem.

After they tell the story, the stranger begins to talk. He talks especially about the scriptures, and what they say about the Christ. It sounds like he thinks Jesus was the Christ, after all. The way he tells it, the Christ had to suffer and die, and scriptures seems to back him up on that. Their hearts are filled with a kind of fierce joy as he reveals the scriptures to them. They don’t understand how they could ever be joyful again, but this stranger has a way of talking that gets to them.

They arrive at their destination, and though the stranger seems reluctant, they convince him to stay. As they recline at the table for a meal, the stranger takes bread, broken and gives it to them… and suddenly they see him. Jesus. The Messiah.

And just as suddenly, he is gone.

They run all the way back to Jerusalem to tell their story to the others. The others have a story of their own. They say that Jesus has risen from the dead and has appeared to Peter. While they talk excitedly about all this, suddenly he is there again. But is he? Isn’t this just a phantom, or some kind of mass hallucination?

The phantom speaks. He says, “Yes, it is really me. Here, look at my wounds. Feel me – phantoms don’t have flesh and bones. All right, how about this? Give me something to eat.” And Jesus eats a piece of fish. No phantom could do such things.

Now, once again, Jesus unpacks the scriptures to them. He reminds them how the Bible is all about Him; it is to show us Him. He points out that if they had understood and believed, none of this should be surprising. It has all been according to plan. And then he gives them a mission: In his name, preach repentance from sin, and forgiveness of sin. In His name, bear witness to Him to everyone you meet.

There is so much here in this poignant passage of the Bible. Like everything else, it there to reveal Jesus to us.

Let’s start with the beginning of the story. The Resurrection has happened. This was absolutely necessary. Jesus claimed to forgive sins – something only God could do. In his time ministering, he talked and acted like he had the very same authority that God had. He told people that were supposed to follow Him – not God, but Him. He even said people should make him – Jesus – more important than anything else in life. So if he wasn’t God, he was the very worst kind of egomaniacal demon. But he didn’t act like a demon either: he healed people, he treated people with compassion, he taught people to love one another. He also predicted that he would die, and that he would rise again.

So if he did not rise from the dead, Jesus was a fraud. If he didn’t rise from the dead, his words about forgiveness and following him, and loving others were all meaningless. And that’s what it looks like to the disciples on resurrection day. Jesus has already risen, but they haven’t seen it yet. They can’t quite believe he was a fraud, but what was he then? Even in the moment of wildest victory, they think they are defeated. They only see tragedy, even though the reality is wonderful, amazing victory. I think we are like that so often. We don’t understand what Jesus has been up to. We are focused on things in the world, and we miss the eternal promises that are offered to us: promises that will never spoil or fade, never be destroyed by age or the limitations of this mortal life. I love this line from the story:

17 Then he asked them, “What is this dispute that you’re having with each other as you are walking? ” And they stopped walking and looked discouraged. (Luke 24:17, CSB)

They were profoundly discouraged, because they couldn’t see Jesus. They had been hoping he was going to deliver Israel from the Romans. That dream was now dead. But Jesus was up to something far, far bigger than they had ever imagined. He wasn’t there to deliver one small country from the Roman Empire. If he had been there merely to fulfill their earthly dream of delivering Israel, where would that leave us today? No. He was there to open a door to something eternal and lasting, something much better – infinitely better – than any thing they, or we, could hope for in this mortal life. The reality is, they had nothing to be discouraged about. Something even better than all of their small hopes has been realized in the man who is standing in front of them. But they can’t see him, not yet.

Instead of revealing himself as the man in front of them, instead, he shows them the path that all Christians will have to take in the centuries to come:

27 Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted for them the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures. Luke 24:27

There is a reason he did that. He would not always remain on earth, and he was teaching them the best way to find Him whenever they wanted to. This is now the path to seeing Jesus: the Bible. As he reveals himself to them through the scriptures, their hearts burn within them with a strange fire.

Then, they reach the house and start the meal. Finally, he reveals himself to them. Again, he shows himself in a particular way. He does it in the breaking of the bread – that is, what has become communion. Once more, he his showing the way for all generations afterwards – we can find him in the breaking of bread.

They are thrilled beyond measure. Though he leaves them again, they run, full of joy – all the way back to their brethren in Jerusalem. They are met with more tidings of joy, for Jesus has shown himself to Peter also.

Now, Jesus comes to all of them at once. I love this next part. Two of them spent several hours with him earlier, and finally knew him at the breaking of bread. Peter has seen Jesus earlier also. Now, he stands in their midst…and they think he is a ghost!

Doubts are normal. Even after he had appeared to them on the road and revealed himself to them at the breaking of bread, when he appeared to them again, they thought it was a ghost. With him standing right in front of them, they doubted. Doubt is not a sin. Jesus understands it. He makes them give him a piece of fish. He makes them come touch him, and look at his scars. He understand that what he asks us to believe is improbable. The resurrection is wildly improbable, even though he told them it would happen.

Now, the difficult thing for us is that Jesus is not standing in front of us. The Bible explains clearly why. If he remained in physical body, most humans would never get a chance to spend even a few seconds with him. So he sent his Holy Spirit instead. But the fact remains, we don’t get to touch his body, see his scars and watch him eat. He spoke to them then, and what he said was for our sake – for us, who never saw his body:

44 He told them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you ​— ​that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. 46 He also said to them, “This is what is written: The Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, 47 and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. As for you, stay in the city until you are empowered from on high.” (Luke 24:44-49, CSB)

He isn’t revealed to us in a physical body any more. But he is revealed to in the scriptures. The purpose of the Bible is to reveal Jesus to us. If you want to know Jesus better, read the Bible. Start in Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Read a chapter a day, or less, if you need to. Keep on through the New Testament. After a month or so of regular reading, you will have more of Jesus than you did before. After two months, even more.

He is also revealed in the breaking of the bread – what we call communion.

Finally, we have something that the disciples did not yet have on resurrection day: The Holy Spirit. This is what Jesus is talking about when talks about “what my Father promised,” and “until you are empowered.” We have Jesus within us through the Holy Spirit. This is even better than having him as a person we see and touch. This is why Paul could write:

20 I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, CSB)

When we live like that – by faith in Jesus – then Jesus can express himself not through one human body, but through every person who trusts him. I can see Jesus through you. You can see him through me. Maybe I can see his laughter and humour through one person, and his thoughtfulness and depth through another, and his care and compassion through yet another. Maybe, perhaps, you can see a little bit of his suffering through those who suffer. I don’t want to gloss over this too quickly. In the Western world, we Christians have often forgotten the importance of seeing Christ in the community of believers. This is part of his gift to us. We can catch glimpses of Jesus in one another. I hope you can see that obviously, this applies to all Christians, not just pastors and leaders.

We also find Jesus within us. I don’t mean we are little specks of God, or any similar nonsense. I mean that when we repent and trust, we are forgiven, and the Holy Spirit makes his home in us, and we can access him for guidance, grace, hope and comfort. We don’t have to go to a temple, or kneel on a rug facing east, or anything like that. If we have repented of our sins (which means being sorry, and having the best intentions to not continue in them) and trusted in Jesus then he is right there, all of the time. I began my own walk of the faith even before I can remember. I was very young. And so, I cannot recall a single day in my life of feeling truly alone. This is because Jesus has always been there through the Holy Spirit. I’ve had one or two crises of faith where I thought maybe I didn’t believe anymore. But each time, I couldn’t escape the fact that He was still with me. He is with us always, just as he promised (Matthew 28:20).

All of this was made possible by the resurrection. It is all available to you and I. It isn’t cheap – it cost Jesus dearly – but it is free to us. So today, three things:

First, if you have not ever consciously repented and trusted, why not try it now? Repentance is not about feeling guilty all the time – quite the opposite. The process I am talking about removes our actual guilt and should lead to far fewer feelings of guilt. I don’t say “no feelings of guilt,” because I am being realistic: some of us had guilt drummed into us at an early age, and though we are declared “not guilty” when we repent and trust Jesus, we still carry it around in our minds. But when we do truly repent, and then trust, those guilty feelings are reduced, and some people, as time goes on, find that even the feeling of it is almost entirely removed. Whether or not the feeling goes, the reality is that when we repent of our sin and trust in Jesus the actual guilt is removed. Our sins have been fully punished – but in Jesus, not in us.

A second thing:  this is all very good news. And Jesus, even as he assured them of the fact of his resurrection, called them to be his witnesses to that good news. All Christians are called to be witnesses. A witness simply tells what he or she knows. We don’t have to argue anyone into the kingdom of God. We bear witness to Jesus as we have come to know him through the scripture, through communion, and through other believers.

Finally Resurrection Day is something to celebrate. Though our culture makes Christmas the premier holiday, in fact, Resurrection is the biggest day of all for us who trust Jesus. This is the day that Jesus made good on all his promises. This is the day he opened the way to eternal life, to better hopes and dreams than anything we could find in this life. This is the day he triumphed over the powers of evil.

This is the day. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

DO YOU HAVE ANY OF MY OLD MESSAGES?

Greetings, my dear friends!

This is a short post to everyone asking briefly for your help. I had a backup hard drive, on which I kept my old sermons, especially the audio files. That drive crashed, and I was unable to recover the data.

I was wondering if any of you had downloaded any of my previous audio messages, and if so, do you still have them somewhere? I have the book of Matthew, Living in Reverse, and the book of Revelation, Overlooked Letters and the current series Colossians.

I would dearly like to recover my audio sermons from 1-2 Samuel, John, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Understanding the Bible, and Genesis.

Thanks for your help! I pray that each of you stays well, and that you hear the Lord as he opens up new opportunities to grow closer to him and to touch the lives of others during this unique time.

Pastor Tom

COLOSSIANS #13. THE STRUGGLE IS REAL: AND SO IS OUR HOPE.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Colossians Part 13

Colossians #13  Colossians 2:1

 1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2:1-3, ESV)

As I write this, the covid-19 craziness is spreading all over the globe. Italy, Spain and several other countries are in full lockdown. There is a lot of uncertainty about the future. Even if you don’t fear getting the virus for yourself, the extreme measures that have been taken could seriously affect our lives for some time to come. I have been suffering a surprising and inexplicable pain for more than five years. If I have learned anything from it, it is that if my hope is truly, fully grounded in Jesus, suffering, uncertainty and hardship will be used for my good. I can deal with whatever comes, if my hope in Jesus is solid.

One of the ways to cultivate that hope is by immersing ourselves in God’s Word, the Bible. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate, I think, to take this time to do that every day on our own, and every week together.

With that in mind, let’s continue in Colossians chapter 2.

Paul has been talking about how he is working, and yet it is Christ who works through him. In chapter 2 verse 1 he assures them that his toil is for the sake of the Colossians, also for the other Christians in their region (Laodicea was nearby, to the north of Colossae, a journey of a day or two). I want to make sure we don’t rush over something here. Paul says that he has a great struggle for these Christians. His struggle did not involve physically being with them. It did not involve him working with them personally. It’s not like he is there personally leading them closer to Jesus. In fact, he freely admits that he has never met any of them face to face! How then, can he be struggling on their behalf?

I think that there are three pieces to Paul’s struggle. In the first place, Paul’s ministry was always aimed to benefit the entire church of Jesus Christ, wherever they were. He taught people who could teach other people, so that men and women that he didn’t even know could hear the gospel from someone besides himself. He was building not one local church, but a whole movement.

As part of his work for the church-at-large, Paul also labored at the writing of letters like this one, so that the true teaching of Jesus could be spread by the written word. The writing of these letters was no small thing to Paul. There was no text messaging, no email, no mass-produced paper or ink. In the ancient world, a letter was a very big thing, and often people would labor for days over a letter. You wouldn’t want to waste ink or paper until you were perfectly sure what you wanted to say.

Let me describe a typical letter-writing process from that time and place. Paul apparently had some issue with his eyes, so typically, one his companions served as an amanuensis (think “secretary”) to do the actual writing. Paul would speak out the words he wanted to say. His “secretary” would  probably have used a large flat container of wax. The words were carved into the wax. Then, it was read back to Paul, and he could decide if he wanted to make any changes, or rearrange any of his thoughts. They would correct grammatical errors, typos, and clarify things. They might make two or three versions of the letter in wax (or sometimes, they may have used chalk and slate, if it was available). After Paul had everything the way he wanted it, the “secretary” would carefully use ink and papyrus to copy out the finished product. The whole process could take days. I can testify myself that good writing is hard work. It isn’t physical labor, like building a house, but anyone who has ever written a book knows that it takes a great deal of mental and emotional energy, and a lot of self-discipline. The word “struggle” certainly applies. I might say, with Paul, “I want you know, brothers and sisters, what a labor and struggle of love it is to bring you these messages.”

Second, Paul struggled in prayer. Later in the letter, Paul writes:

12 Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. (Colossians 4:12, ESV)

The word “wrestling” above is the same Greek word as “struggle” in 2:1. (For language geeks, 2:1 has it in the form of a noun, and in 4:12 it is a verb). I said a minute ago that writing can be hard work. So can prayer. It can, in fact, be a struggle to pray. Paul was deeply engaged in prayer for all of the Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians. He didn’t just say, “Jesus, please bless the Gentiles.” Here is an example of how he prayed for people:

15 This is why, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, 16 I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength (Ephesians 1:15-19, CSB)

 

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21, ESV)

12 And may the Lord cause you to increase and overflow with love for one another and for everyone, just as we do for you. 13 May he make your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Amen. (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13, CSB)

11 In view of this, we always pray for you that our God will make you worthy of his calling, and by his power fulfill your every desire to do good and your work produced by faith, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified by you, and you by him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12, CSB)

4 I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and the faith that you have in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ. (Philemon 1:4-6, CSB)

Prayer is no small thing. Jesus told us to pray, and gave us the Lord’s prayer as format. In case you didn’t know, the Lord’s prayer is not just “a prayer.” It is an outline, teaching us how we should pray. We are told to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Jesus himself spent a great deal of time in prayer, and if He needed to do that, then we need it even more. The early church devoted themselves to just four things. The word “devoted” means that they persisted in it, and were deeply committed to it. One of the four things was prayer.

The apostles believed that prayer was one of their most important responsibilities. When the church came to them for help in ministry to the poor, this is what they said:

2 The Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching the word of God to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2-4, CSB)

Prayer is vitally important, and Paul engaged in it so deeply that he called it part of his struggle.

There is a third element that I think Paul was referring to when he said that he was engaged in struggle for these Christians he had never met. The third thing is this: Spiritual warfare. In Ephesians, Paul writes:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens. (Ephesians 6:12, CSB)

 

8 Be sober-minded, be alert. Your adversary the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour. 9 Resist him, firm in the faith, knowing that the same kind of sufferings are being experienced by your fellow believers throughout the world. 1 Peter 5:8-9

I would remind us who are afraid at the current world craziness, that Christians throughout history have faced tremendously difficult times. This is nothing new, and Jesus is, and always has been a certain, sure, hope in times of trouble. I have been in pain for five years, and you can’t accuse me of having never faced hard times. I know it is easy to say. But I have lived in suffering, and found Jesus to be up to the challenges I face.

Another Spiritual warfare verse:

1 Now the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will depart from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, 2 through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. (1 Timothy 4:1-2, CSB)

In John 14:30, Jesus refers to the devil as “the prince of this world.” There are many other verses like these. Now, the idea of spiritual warfare is not intended to be an excuse. We don’t get to say: “The devil made me do it!” We are still responsible for what we do, or don’t do. However, we need to be aware that we don’t live in neutral territory. The world around us is under evil spiritual influence, spirits that do not submit to God. Our own flesh was born in sin and tends always to rebel against God. And the devil himself, along with his demons, constantly lie to us. They try to discourage us, daunt us and scare us. We are in a war. We should have a wartime mentality against our flesh, against the godless influences of the world, and the devil. We should not be surprised when it is hard to follow Jesus well, and we should not be ignorant of the reasons it is hard.

Jesus said some very important things just before he was arrested. Here is one of them:

3I 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.” (John 16:33, ESV)

If someone says to you that being a Christian is easy, they are either just ignorant, or lying. Jesus himself said we would have trouble in this world. Peter writes that we shouldn’t be surprised at trials. James says we should rejoice when we have them. Do not expect that following Jesus should make life go well here and now.

There is a joy that comes with following Jesus, and a sense of “rightness” and goodness about life. We have vast resources of love and courage and strength that are available only in Jesus. But following him does mean that everything will go well in life. Quite the opposite. The struggle is real, and should be expected. We need to plan and act accordingly.

At the same time, we don’t need to be afraid. We will have trouble in this world, but Jesus also promised that at the very same time, we could have peace in Him. Seek it, and you will find it.

IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL

grayscale photo of man taking shower
Photo by Caique Silva on Pexels.com

I’ve been recently convinced that I need to start writing about my pain. Ultimately, what follows will be a chapter in a book. Perhaps it can be helpful to those who are concerned about what the future holds in these uncertain times. Sorry, no recording this time. This week, this is what I have to offer:

<<<<<     >>>>>

Oh, my brothers and sisters who are in pain and suffering, my heart cries out with you.

I know your confusion, your hurt, your anger at God, your frustration when others don’t understand. I know how insensitive well-meaning friends can be, hurtful without even realizing it. I know the dark lonely hours you spend, wondering if it will end, why it won’t end, why won’t God just do something?

This is for you. This is for me. This is for your loved ones who suffer with you. This is for us.

This is also for those who watch our suffering and don’t understand. You have compassion, but you don’t know exactly what to think, or how to act around your struggling friends.

This is also for those of you who secretly suspect that there must be some reason, perhaps a hidden one, why other people suffer and you don’t. You may not say it, but it crosses your mind that perhaps we suffer because of hidden sin, or because we spoke bad things into our lives. Perhaps we poor souls failed to follow the simple rules for godly living that will result in peace and prosperity for everyone wise and disciplined enough to stay on the path. To you, especially, I say: pay attention. Your souls are in grave danger. Give up pride, seek humility, read on and learn, lest you find your hands empty on the only day true rewards are given. I don’t give such warnings lightly.

Let me begin with my story. To be clear, I don’t think I have suffered more than anyone else. I am not competing with anyone here to see who has it worse. If you want to claim your suffering is worse than mine, I won’t argue one bit. I freely admit that I know dozens of people that I would never want to trade places with. That’s not what this is about. What I do want you to know that, at least in some way, I do know what suffering is. I am in it, even as I write this.

I am in pain.

Physical pain. Severe, constant, relentless, unending pain.

It started with a kidney stone. Not all kidney stones are equally bad. But the worst kidney stones, what I call “the real kidney stone experience,” is generally the worst pain anybody ever experiences in one’s life while remaining conscious. I have spoken with several women who delivered babies without any painkillers, and who have also had kidney stones. They report that the kidney stones are far worse. I’ve spoken to war veterans who were shot, and shredded by shrapnel. They report that kidney stones are far, far more painful than combat wounds. I have had several surgeries, including the kind where they make a large incision, and the post-surgery pain never remotely approached the real kidney stone experience.

A “real kidney stone” produces a pain so severe that if you can’t get relief within an hour, you desperately hope, and even pray, that you will die quickly. It is pain to the point of insanity. This is what I call 10/10 pain. If you have this level of pain, you seek medical help immediately. If you think you can go without medical help, you are not experiencing 10/10 pain. According to some doctors, most people don’t experience that level of pain ever in their lifetimes.

I have experienced it at least five times.

Due to two small tumors that developed when I was about thirty-five years old, I began to pass kidney stones roughly every six months. This went on for more than ten years until the problem was finally detected, and the offending tumors removed. I have passed somewhere around twenty-five stones.

Not every stone I had reached that 10/10 level of pain, but, as I mentioned, four of them did (more on the fifth time momentarily). The others may not have reached that level of insanity, but even a level of 7/10 puts you in a place where most of your energy and time is devoted to dealing with and riding out the pain. At that level, you might be able to watch TV, or play a mindless computer game to try and distract yourself, but meaningful work or interaction is not possible for more than a few minutes at a time. Most people take strong drugs if things get to 7/10. If those don’t work, the next step is the emergency room. By 8/10, and certainly by 9/10, everyone is heading there.

It took weeks at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic to identify and correct my tumor problem. My body finally stopped producing new stones, though, at that point, I still had several more in my kidneys waiting to pass. The Mayo clinic also explained what was causing the continuing pain problem.

All of that severe, intense pain that recurred regularly for more than ten years gradually changed my body. It did two things. First, it caused a rare kind of physical damage that cannot be surgically repaired. Second, it damaged my nerves. The end result is that even though I no longer produce them, I still feel the same pain as if I am passing kidney stone. I feel this pain all day, all night, every day for the past six years. That’s 2,190 days of kidney stone pain, or 52,560 hours, but who’s counting?

Of course I take pain medication for it. If I didn’t, I would have been dead a long time ago. What I have now is a virtual kidney stone that will never pass. That means the pain will never end. Medication does not really remove the pain. Most days I live at a 5/10. That’s halfway to insanity. On an average week, my pain creeps up to 7/10, or 8/10, two or three times. This is while I am taking pretty significant pain medication. Once in a while I’ll experience a few good days, where I might get down to four out of ten. Three out of ten is as rare as the Minnesota Vikings going to the Superbowl. This is not a low level of pain, pain I can ignore. If I take nothing for it, I end up in the emergency room. The last time I waited too long to medicate, I hit 10/10 pain for the fifth time.

If you want to try and experience what I feel on a minute by minute basis, trying lying flat on your back with your knees up. Tuck a golf ball just below your rib cage, two or three inches to the left of your spine. Now, rest all of your torso weight on that golf ball. That might approximate my daily, 5/10 pain experience. I am a strong, stoic person, so I may not be admitting to how much pain I really have. My wife tells me that I typically undersell it.

There is a reason I am emphasizing how bad my pain is, how difficult my daily life is. I want you to understand that what I go through is almost unbelievable, because what I want to say next is even more difficult to believe, but it is far more important.

I am so thankful to God for this pain.

I am closer to Jesus because of this pain.

Now, I don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture. Of course I struggle. Sometimes, I just don’t know how I can get through a day. I write a little. I try to go for a short walk. A car ride of more than forty-five minutes is certain to ramp up my pain something fierce. Sometimes playing a simple computer game helps distract me enough push the pain back just a little. I spend most of the time sitting or lying with a hot bag of rice on my kidney, which is the only thing that sort helps, besides medications that I should only take when I’m desperate. And I get desperate too often. I worry about getting the medications that keep me sane – many of them are controlled substances, and sometimes doctors make mistakes and that leads to lapses in getting what I need.

I want to be writing. I want to write this book. I want to finish the fifth in my mystery series. I want to write a book about house church. Meanwhile, I know I am called to feed the sheep of Jesus by teaching them Word, and by teaching them how to learn the Word for themselves. How can I do these things, things to which I feel strongly called, if all I can do is writhe in pain?

I need to remind myself to stop thinking in days. I need to remember to think moment by moment. Now is a good moment. A combination of things is keeping it at 5/10, and possibly I’ve had a few minutes of 4/10. I’ve just written five hundred words in one sitting. Before the pain, that would about a quarter of what I would have called a decent writing session. Maybe I should call that win for these days. Even now I feel the pain, crouching like a menacing shadow just beyond the light. It is growing. This good moment clearly has an expiration, and it isn’t far off. Soon it will be back to the grind.

But before I quit, I want to make sure you understand something of earth-shaking importance: There is something greater than the pain, something so good, so true, that even though the pain does not become less, it becomes less important.

Because I have been afflicted, I have experienced the love of God in a more deep, intense way. I am more certain than I have ever been of his love for me, and of mine for him. Experientially, I belong more fully to Jesus than I have ever before. This is not in spite of my suffering, but because of it.

I recently heard someone comment on the hymn, “It is Well With my Soul.” She said, “I wish I could have that. It just wish that it could be well with my soul, no matter what is going on.”

Brothers and sisters, today I do have that. It is well with my soul, in the middle of this moment-by-moment struggle, in the middle of five years of disappointed hopes and dead ends, and unanswered prayers. It is well with my soul as I cannot help but grunt or sigh in agony. It is well with my soul, though the prayers of thousands on my behalf have not been answered as asked. It is well with my soul as I toss and turn and squirm and try desperately to get comfortable to grab few hours of restless, unfulfilling sleep. It is well with my soul as I watch my writing career slowly grind down and lose momentum, because I do not have the energy to fight with this pain and do everything else I want to.

What I am about to say might require some major readjustments in your thoughts and attitudes. Especially, it  might require some adjustments to your heart.

It can be well with your soul too.