COLOSSIANS #10: FILLING UP WHAT IS LACKING IN SUFFERINGS OF CHRIST

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When we Christians suffer well, trusting God and his purposes, even when we don’t understand them, it is a powerful testimony to the world. It shows the world that there is something so good, so powerful that even suffering is redeemed. It shows the world that suffering and love can, and do, go hand in hand. When we suffer well, it is like we are teaching the world about the sufferings of Christ.

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Colossians #10. Colossians 1:24-26 (Part B)

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. Colossians 1:24-26

This is the second sermon on the same set of verses: Colossians 1:24-26. If you have not read the first sermon on this passage (Colossians #9), please go back and do that now. Some of what we learn in this sermon absolutely depends upon what we already received from the previous one.

We began last time by examining Paul’s words: “I rejoice in my sufferings.” Those are powerful words. Until we understand how it is possible to rejoice in our sufferings, we cannot understand this next phrase: “I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

If you stop and think about it, this is a very puzzling phrase. What does it mean to fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ? How can Christ’s afflictions be lacking? Does this mean that the death of Jesus is not enough, and we need to suffer in order to be saved?

Paul uses some unusual language in this little phrase, but there is one other place that uses almost exactly the same Greek wording. That other verse comes in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The Philippian church collected some money and sent it Paul  to help support him as he worked for the kingdom of God. Paul was in Rome at the time, a long way from where they lived, so they sent the gift with a man named Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus arrived in Rome with the money, and he also assisted Paul in the work, but at some point, he got sick, and almost died. Paul says that he considered this sickness of Epaphroditus to be suffering for the sake of Christ, and he wrote this:

Therefore, welcome him in the Lord with great joy and hold people like him in honor, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up what was lacking in your ministry to me. (Philippians 2:29-30)

The phrase “to make up for what was lacking” is almost exactly the same in Greek as our verse today where he says, “I am filling up what is lacking” in Christ’s sufferings.

In the first place, it is interesting to note that Epaphroditus was not persecuted.  “He came close to death for the sake of the Lord” because of an illness. This should show us that anything and everything that happens to us as we try to live for Jesus is “for the sake of the Lord.” His suffering was no less suffering for the Lord, even though it was not persecution, but “ordinary sickness.”

Next, let’s consider how Epaphroditus “made up what was lacking” in the ministry in the ministry of the Philippians to Paul. He didn’t raise the money himself. Also, Paul does not mean that Epaphroditus added the last, needed twenty dollars. What was lacking in the Philippian gift was a person to deliver it, to make sure that Paul got it. Epaphroditus made up for that lack. He provided the delivery, and the personal touch. He personally represented the love and fellowship the others felt for Paul.

So when Paul says he makes up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ he does NOT mean that the suffering of Jesus was not enough to bring forgiveness of our sins. The whole New Testament is quite clear that the death of Jesus was entirely sufficient to forgive our sins, to make us holy and restore our relationship with God:

11 Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. 12 But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 13 There he waits until his enemies are humbled and made a footstool under his feet. 14 For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy. (NLT, Hebrews 10:11-14, bold formatting added for emphasis)

18 Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. 19 Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous. (NLT, Romans 5:18-19)

1 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. 2 And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. 3 The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. 4 He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. (NLT, Romans 8:1-4)

So, the sufferings of Jesus are entirely enough to save us. We cannot add to the salvation that Jesus obtained for us. His sufferings are not “lacking” in power to save us. But there is one thing that Christ did not accomplish while he was here on earth. He did not tell every human being about himself. He gave that assignment to the apostles, and to the whole church. Therefore, what “is lacking” in Christ sufferings is that not everyone has heard about those sufferings, nor understood what they mean. Just as the Philippians needed someone to deliver a generous gift, so Jesus needs Paul – and us – to bring the good news of his gift to the world. What is lacking is, in essence, the delivery of the gift.

Paul, and the other writers of the New Testament, take it for granted that bringing the good news to others will involve suffering.  Epaphroditus became physically ill while serving Jesus, and it is counted as suffering for the sake of Christ. So, in essence the sufferings of Christ – in his body, the church – will not be complete until all the world has heard the good news.

John Piper puts it like this:

What is lacking is that the infinite value of Christ’s afflictions is not known and trusted in the world. These afflictions and what they mean are still hidden to most peoples. And God’s intention is that the mystery be revealed to all the nations. So the afflictions of Christ are “lacking” in the sense that they are not seen and known and loved among the nations. They must be carried by the ministers of the Word. And those ministers of the Word “complete” what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ by extending them to others…

…Paul exhibits the sufferings of Christ by suffering himself for those he is trying to win. In his sufferings they see Christ’s sufferings. Here is the astounding upshot: God intends for the afflictions of Christ to be presented to the world through the afflictions of His people. (John Piper, Desiring God)

Let me give it to you in a different way. When people suffer, mostly, they just want it to stop. Suffering is seen as universally bad. Suffering creates problems for most people. Many people even turn away from the idea of God, because they feel that a good God would not allow anyone he loves to suffer.

Certainly, the Bible says that God the Father loves his Son, Jesus Christ. Yet Jesus Christ experienced a terrible, eternal quality of suffering that we can only begin to guess at. However, The suffering of Jesus was an act of love, because it saves those who trust him. The suffering of Jesus also shows us that Jesus was looking beyond temporary pain into eternal glory.

When we Christians suffer well, trusting God and his purposes, even when we don’t understand them, it is a powerful testimony to the world. It shows the world that there is something so good, so powerful that even suffering is redeemed. It shows the world that suffering and love can, and do, go hand in hand. When we suffer well, it is like we are teaching the world about the sufferings of Christ.

I am utterly convinced that many people have been encouraged by seeing me navigate this life of pain in faith. I think it has had a deeper impact on both me, and others, than there would have been from a miraculous healing. When people see that even in my suffering I find Jesus to be a good, all-sufficient savior, then I am, in a sense presenting the sufferings of Jesus to them. Because I am a  member of the body of Christ, it is not my suffering, but the suffering of Jesus.

Again, from John Piper:

Since Christ is no longer on the earth, He wants His body, the church, to reveal His suffering in its suffering. Since we are His body, our sufferings are His sufferings. Romanian pastor Josef Tson put it like this: “I am an extension of Jesus Christ. When I was beaten in Romania, He suffered in my body. It is not my suffering: I only had the honor to share His sufferings.”  Therefore, our sufferings testify to the kind of love Christ has for the world. (John Piper, Desiring God)

Suffering is an opportunity. It provides us with a chance to experience the grace of God in a special way. In addition, it allows us to present the worth of Christ to the world in a very compelling manner.

Just a few weeks ago, a prominent Christian singer from Bethel church lost her two year old daughter to sudden death. This was a terrible tragedy. It was also an opportunity for God to give that family special grace, and for them, by trusting that grace, to show the world the surpassing value of Jesus Christ. Instead, they chose to very publicly pray for the resurrection of the child. Though I have my small share of suffering, I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose a young child suddenly. I am not judging them, but I want us to use their example as a thought experiment.

Suppose God had answered their prayer for the resurrection of their child. What then? Yes, it would be a great miracle. But it would also leave hundreds of thousands of other stricken parents wondering why God did not choose to raise their child. It would tend to make people believe that the value of trusting God is mainly in what we can see, mainly in him making our lives better here and now. But that is not a Biblical viewpoint.

What if these parents had responded differently? What if they had immediately leaned into the grace of God to trust, even when they cannot understand? What if they had been able to say, “This is the most horrible thing I have ever experienced – and yet, I find that God’s grace is enough. I don’t understand, but I trust him, anyway.” I believe that would have been more powerful, and more helpful to others, than the resurrection of a single child among the millions of those who die young and tragically.

Between these past two weeks, we have learned that it is possible to rejoice in suffering, and also that suffering is a means by which God’s people can show the world that He is good, and He can be trusted. It would be foolish to go and look for ways to suffer. However, if and when you do find yourself in hard times, press into Him, trust Him. Once more, I leave you with one of my new favorite bible quotes:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (ESV, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

COLOSSIANS #9: REJOICING IN SUFFERING

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Jesus promises a future so good that our present struggles are tiny in comparison. He promises His own presence to be with us, and to strengthen us to endure suffering. He promises to take our present trials, and turn them into future blessings for us. All this means that we can truly rejoice in our sufferings.

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Colossians #9. Colossians 1:24-26.

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. (Colossians 1:24-26)

I am typing this on my laptop computer. The laptop is being supported by a large book called “The World’s Great Religions.” This has me thinking: Christianity is unique among the world’s great’s religions for many reasons. One of the ways Christianity is so different is because of how our faith helps us come to grips with suffering.

Hinduism tells us that suffering is all our own fault. It is karma in action. Every person suffers because of what they did, either in this life, or in some previous life. Buddhism tells us that suffering is meaningless. It is an illusion. We should not let it bother us. Islam and Judaism tell us that suffering is something to be endured patiently. It is evil, but God can help us through it, and we will be rewarded if we endure it well.

Only Jesus Christ makes it possible to actually rejoice in our sufferings. Paul’s statement here that he rejoices in his sufferings is repeated in many other places in the Bible. The bible teaches us not only that Jesus Christ can help us as we suffer, but also that suffering can be a source of joy and blessing:

Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance (James 1:2-3)

You rejoice in this, though now for a short time you have had to struggle in various trials (1 Peter 1:6)

A man who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him. (Jas 1:12)

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part (2 Corinthians 8:1-2)

Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah (1 Peter 4:12-13)

4I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy. (2 Cor 7:4)

I could add a number of other verses. I could also add my own testimony. As I have surrendered in faith to Jesus, my sufferings of chronic pain have become for me a source of blessing and joy. Now, don’t get me wrong. I would love to see the pain end. There are days when it is a real hassle, and I get a little crazy trying to figure out how to cope. But I can also say that I am truly grateful for the pain. It has brought me closer to God. It has broadened and deepened my perspective on many things. I say, without hypocrisy, that my suffering has been a blessing. Though my pain is often difficult, Jesus has removed all evil from it.

One thing that can help us to rejoice in our sufferings is an understanding that this world is not all there is, and because of that, our struggles in this life are not as powerful or significant as the all the good that is coming to is in the future. Imagine you have an old-fashioned scale for comparing weights. There are two sides to the scale. On one side, place all of your struggles and sufferings. On the other side, place all of the blessings that God has given us through Jesus Christ, including our future eternal life. All of the good we have in Jesus Christ far outweighs all of the sufferings we experience in this life. Paul says that there is no comparison between the two:

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NLT)

The good does not always outweigh the bad if we are only looking at this life. We must include eternity in the calculation. That is part of what Christianity is about. We can rejoice in sufferings because we know that this life is not all there is, and what we have coming is far, far better than anything we have yet experienced.

We will indeed find in the future that things are so good, the pain that we experienced in this life doesn’t even matter in comparison. But there is even more. We find not only that the good far outweighs the suffering, but also that the suffering provides some of the “raw material” that God uses to create future good for us. In other words, God doesn’t just “outbless” the suffering, he actually takes it and turns it into goodness for us.

17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.
18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. (Romans 8:17-18)

To share in the glory we must share in the suffering. That means that suffering is not just an evil to get through. Suffering is actually the means to glory. When we suffer as we follow Jesus (whatever the cause of suffering) God actually takes that suffering and turns it into future glory and blessing for us. Suffering  here and now creates blessing for us in eternity.

We have a glimpse of this when we consider the cross of Christ. Jesus Christ suffered terribly for our sins. On a spiritual, or metaphysical level, his suffering was unbelievably worse than we can even imagine, for the Bible appears to suggest that he suffered the eternal torture of hell. But the very source of his suffering – the cross – is the very source of his victory and glory. Without the suffering, there would be no glory. Without the pain, there would be no healing. Suffering and glory are deeply connected.

So we rejoice in sufferings because they are small compared to future blessings. We rejoice also because our sufferings are actually turned in to some of those future blessings for us. There is a third reason to rejoice in sufferings, and that is that God is with those who suffer in a special way. In Philippians, Paul writes:

10 My goal is to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death (Philippians 3:10)

Paul seems to be suggesting that suffering creates a special kind of fellowship with Jesus himself. The promises of scripture never guarantee that we will not have to suffer – quite the opposite. But the bible does promise that when we suffer, he is with us.

2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:2-3)

God is with us when we suffer. Jesus was the only one who had to suffer alone. On the cross, in order to carry our sins, he was entirely alone. All others are comforted, if they are open to it, by the presence of God with them in suffering.

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I want to add another thought. Some people are not sure what sorts of suffering “count” as suffering for Christ, and what is only ordinary hardship that is found in this life. Let’s do a thought experiment to help understand this.

Imagine you are an American, and you take your family to Indonesia to be missionaries. You are there because you are serving the Lord. While you are there, you get malaria. Is that suffering for the Lord? It seems reasonable to say so. You are in Indonesia because you are serving the Lord, doing what he has called you to do. Following his call on your life led you to be exposed to malaria. If you had rejected his call on your life to be a missionary in Indonesia, you would not have been exposed to it.

Now, what if you are a Christian who was born and raised in Indonesia? You are following Jesus, and he leads you to be a carpenter, raise your family in faith, and be the Light of Jesus to your friends and neighbors. While living your life in your own country, surrendered to Jesus, you get malaria. Is that suffering for the Lord? I would again say yes. You, too, are serving the Lord the way he has called you to. You too, are living a life of surrender to Jesus. When we belong to Jesus, everything we do, and everything we experienced occurs in Jesus, and for Jesus.

The apostle Paul lived his life for Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 11:16-29, he mentions some of the ways in which he has suffered for Jesus. He certainly includes various persecutions in his sufferings. He also mentions being shipwrecked. He counts dangerous river crossings as part of his trials endured for the sake of Christ (2 Cor 11:26). He adds danger from robbers, from wild animals, from cold and exposure, and from traveling through the wilderness. He counts hard work as part of his suffering for Christ, as well as sleepless nights and going without food and drink.

When Paul was in prison in Rome, the Philippians sent him a gift. The gift was delivered by a man named Epaphroditus. After Epaphroditus arrived in Rome, he got sick. He became so ill that he nearly died. His sickness was not the result of persecution. There is not mention of the fact that it came from some moment when Epaphroditus was doing some amazing act of ministry. It was just “ordinary sickness.” But Paul describes it like this:

29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me. (Philippians 2:29-30)

Epaphroditus was living his life in surrender to Jesus. Therefore, when he got seriously ill, Paul describes it as nearly dying for the work of Christ.

My point is this: If you allow it, God will redeem all suffering. It isn’t just special, “holy circumstances” that count as suffering for Christ. Whatever trials come your way as you live in Christ are counted as suffering for Christ. And these are the trials – often ordinary, everyday hardships – in which we can and should rejoice.

Let the Spirit speak to you about this right now. Think of some area of your life, or in the life of someone you care about. Picture putting that suffering into some kind of container, and then deliver the container to Jesus. Let him take it. He will walk with you. He will give such a future that this problem seems small. He will take that container of suffering, and change it into eternal joy and blessing for you.

Trust Him.

THE SHOCK-WAVES OF A SINGLE CHILD

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If God really came into the world, we would expect that to create some changes. The event would reverberate through history. In fact, that is exactly what we find.

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CHRISTMAS 2019: THE SHOCK-WAVES OF A SINGLE CHILD

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).

24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25, ESV)

The central claim of Christmas is that at a certain point in time, at a certain place in history, God himself came to earth as a baby. Matthew said that this God-child will be called Immanuel, which means: God with us. It is a stunning claim; if it is true, there are huge implications for every area of existence. Think about it this way: if God came to earth, it would be like dropping a boulder into a still, calm pond. The ripples would go out in every direction and disturb and change the surface of the pond. If God came to earth, it would change everything, and the changes would continue to be felt, long after the event.

So, what do we find? The God-child went around with the name Jesus. Jesus grew into a man who gathered followers, and he taught them God’s truth. Part of the truth that he taught them was about his own identity as God-in-the-flesh. Part of his mission was not just teaching, but also to die on our behalf, and he fulfilled that mission. What effect did all this have on the course of human history? Can we see any ripples in the course of human history?

I’m going to start with something that is frivolous, but actually somewhat remarkable, if you think about it. It is now roughly 2,000 years since Jesus was born. Even today, even in 2019, when we enter the season of remembering the birth of Jesus, millions of people behave better than at other times of the year. Throughout late November and December, people in the Western world are typically much more generous to each other, and to those less fortunate. We do little favors for strangers. We feed the poor. We give to charities. We overlook little offenses because we are influenced by the “season.” I think that the power of that original event can still be scene in how millions of people are a little bit more kind, caring and loving when we remember the birth of Jesus. That little child entered the world twenty centuries ago, and we still feel the shock-waves of it at the end of every year.

There are bigger things, also. One of the central truths that Jesus imparted to his followers was that all human beings are equal in value. Nowadays, we in the Western world take this for granted. But in the history of human cultures, this is a unique idea that came from one source: the teachings of Jesus Christ. Before Jesus, people in every culture, all over the world, took it for granted that human beings were NOT equal. Generally speaking, women were considered second-class. Noblemen were more valuable than peasants. Slaves existed to serve their betters. Adults were better than children. No one questioned this view of the world.

In recent years, as our culture has grown less Christian, some academics have tried to suggest that modern democracy arose only from ancient Greece, and Rome. They don’t want to credit Christianity with anything positive. It is true that the creators of modern democracy found inspiration in some of the writings of those ancients. But even the most enlightened of the ancient Greeks and Romans approved of killing unwanted babies (especially girls); of pederasty (that is men, sexually abusing boys); of slavery; and of the second-class status of peasants and women. They believed in a ruling class that was intrinsically better than anyone else. If there was a country today that practiced democracy in the same way as ancient Athens, that country would be condemned by the Western world for abuse of human rights.

No, the idea that all human beings are equally valuable came from Jesus Christ alone. That one idea has created innumerable ripples throughout human history. The teachings of Jesus on this issue elevated the status of women. His teachings are the source of the idea that children are precious and should be protected.

During the 1700s in the American colonies a revival of Christianity occurred. This was known as the first Great Awakening. It was the power of Christianity, bolstered by the first Great Awakening, that led the founding fathers to create modern democracy. Author Dinesh D’Souza writes:

The first great awakening, a Christian revival that swept the country in the mid eighteenth century, created the moral foundation of the American revolution.

…Historian Paul Johnson writes that the American revolution is “inconceivable… Without this religious background.”

Even before the Great Awakening, the political philosophers who inspired the American revolution (people like John Locke) were applying their devout Christian faith to political systems. The very idea of limited government, with rights to individual people, is a result of the teaching of Jesus. To put it simply: one of the ripples of the Christ-child is modern democracy. Millions of people live in freedom today because of that child born in Bethlehem.

In 1785, a British politician became a true follower of Jesus. The influence of Jesus on his life led him to believe that slavery was morally wrong, because, in the sight of God, all people are equally valuable. The name of the politician was William Wilberforce, and his Christian faith led him and sustained him as he created a movement that ended slavery in the British empire.

The abolition of slavery in the United States was largely a result of the second Great Awakening. Again, D’Souza writes:

The second Great Awakening, which started in the early nineteenth century and coursed through new England and New York and then through the interior of the country, left in its wake the temperance movement, the movement for women’s suffrage, and most important, the abolitionist movement.

Another one of the great ripples of this child coming to earth, was literal freedom for slaves. Slaves were freed only in countries where there was a significant Christian presence. Elsewhere in the world, slavery was ended only when Christian nations used their power and wealth to pressure other nations into freeing slaves.

Before Jesus, the Greeks and Romans had a few small facilities to take care of wounded soldiers. However, nothing like hospitals existed anywhere in the world. It was people who were trying to apply the teachings of Jesus who created the first hospitals; hospitals that were open for anyone in need. Even today, there are hospitals that exist for profit, and those that are run as charities (that is, they are not trying to make a profit, but rather simply to serve the community). Christian charitable hospitals outnumber all other charitable hospitals by a crushing majority. The compassion to help the sick, merely for the sake of helping them, is just one more ripple of this God-child.

In fact, there are so many significant ripples, that there really is not time to tell about all of them, nor to go into how they all came about. Universities would not be in this world if it were not for this God-child. Modern science would not have been possible without him. The whole idea of nuclear family, which is the only solid building block for stable, free societies, arose from this God-child. Our economic system, which recognizes human selfishness and manipulates it for human good, and has led to best standard of living the world has ever known, was made possible only by a Christian view of the world, which was only possible because of the child in the stable. Without that child, most of us would not be able to afford the presents under the tree.

Many of us don’t know a lot about history, or about other cultures. We may not have realized just how brutal and unfair life was before Jesus Christ came into the world. But his entry into history has profoundly changed the entire course of human culture. That is what we would expect to find if the claim is true.

Part of the power of this Child is that he not only entered history: he also enters the hearts and lives of all who will receive him. Just as his entry into the world caused profound changes, so also, his entry into our lives, personally, creates deep changes in us. When we invite him in, he brings love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. He changes our eternal future. He brings internal freedom, and wisdom, and compassion for others.

My prayer for you this Christmas is that he will indeed enter your hearts, and that you will continually receive, and rejoice in, the power of God with us. If you allow him to, you will find that it is the best Christmas present you have ever received.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

PREPARING FOR SECOND CHRISTMAS

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Sometimes it can feel like the Christian life might be a bit repetitive and boring. But we cannot live on continual excitement. We have to keep returning to get our spiritual fuel replenished, and sometimes that involves very ordinary, everyday sorts of things. Part of being ready for Jesus involves being faithful, day in, and day out. If we seek Him, he has the resources we need to remain faithful and ready.

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Advent, Week 3. Matthew 25:1-13

Advent is a time for preparation. The original “advent” was a time when many different prophecies were being fulfilled. Magi in Persia recognized an unusual configuration of stars, which signaled something portentous. Zechariah the Priest, and his wife Elizabeth, conceived a child, and Zechariah himself was struck dumb by a prophecy. Augustus Caesar got antsy about his empire, and called a census that made a descendant of King David return to his hometown of Bethlehem, along with his pregnant wife. When we read the New Testament narratives of Christmas, and the coming of the messiah, we get the sense that something big was coming, that the world was filled with anticipation.

In a sense, that was very true. But it seems clear that hardly anyone picked up on the fact that big events were brewing, that God was moving in history. No one recognized the Messiah when he came.

We recognize now that he came. We can trace back to the prophecies in Isaiah and from Moses and others, and we see how Jesus fulfilled them. But back then, very few people caught on. Jesus, while he was still on earth physically, promised that he would come back again some day. And he warned us that the day of his return will catch many people unprepared, just like the day of his birth. In the closing chapters of his book, the Apostle Matthew recorded some of the things Jesus said about his return. Today, we will look at one parable that Jesus used to describe this event. This the the parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13.

Back in those days, weddings were a very big deal. Many people were bone-cracking poor, but a wedding gave them a genuine reason to celebrate. In addition, most people were likely to get a lot more food at weddings than they usually would. In some cases the feast would go on for seven days, so those who were lucky enough to partake, may have counted on a wedding to help them through hungry times. All in all you might say that folks looked forward to a wedding the way we might look forward to… Christmas. Interesting, right?

The “business” of the marriage – the ceremony, you might say – took place between the groom and the bride’s parents, some of it up to a year before the marriage was consummated. After that year was concluded, there was a procession, usually after nightfall. The bridegroom would travel from his house to a place where he met up with the attendants of the bride (not exactly bridesmaids as we think of them, but close enough). The “bridesmaids” all carried lamps, or torches made from oil-soaked rags. Generally, these lights burned for about 15 minutes. When the bridegroom came, they formed a lighted procession around him, which traveled to the home of the bride. While they went along, others joined them, it became kind of a traveling party. They arrived at the Bride’s home, and she joined her husband, and from there, they all paraded joyfully back to the house of the groom. Immediately, the feast and week-long celebration began.

Jesus describes ten bridesmaids. They probably had their lamps lit in expectation of the bridegroom, because he says “they went out to meet the groom.” But he was delayed. Remember, this is a third world country, two-thousand years ago, before the invention of clocks or watches. Things happened when they happened. Usually, they happened on the correct day, but it was very hard to nail people down to specific times. Anyway, while they waited, either their lamps went out, or they eventually put them out. The groom was so long in coming that they fell asleep. When at last he came, they lit their lights again. Five wise bridesmaids had brought extra oil, and their lights were replenished, and ready to burn for as long as was necessary again. But the five others had no light left. By the time they had found oil, it was too late, and they were excluded from the feast.

Jesus tells this story as part of his teaching about his eventual return to earth. Most parables are told just to make a few simple points, and this is no exception.

First, there seems to me to be a strong correlation between “oil” and the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, Kings and Priests were anointed with oil, to signify the Spirit of God. In fact, the word “anointed” came to signify “filled with the Holy Spirit.” I think Jesus was deliberate about choosing a story in which the presence of oil was the key point; and I think he did so because one of his main teachings here is about the Holy Spirit.

The message is here simple, but profound: You can’t get by on a one-time experience with God. Sooner or later, you’ll run out of spiritual fuel, and you could end up missing the Ultimate Wedding Feast, the return of Jesus.

Often, when you start your spiritual life with Jesus, it is very exciting. It changes everything. Sometimes, we experience a renewal of our faith, and that is also very exhilarating. But we can’t live on excitement forever. And it is exhausting to try to artificially generate new excitement to keep us going. At some point, the rubber meets the road. The bridesmaids were thinking, “I thought something was supposed to happen by now. This is dull, and boring.” It’s easy for us to begin to feel that way, spiritually.

However, we need to live what we know, day by day. Sometimes daily grind gets ordinary and boring, but it is where life is lived. Going to work, coming home, running errands, spending time in Christian Fellowship, serving others. It can feel like we get stuck in a rut, sometimes. And sometimes we do get in an unproductive rut. However, far more often, it is not a rut, it is just real life, and we need to be faithful, patient and persevering.

To make it through times like that, we need enough oil for our lamps – in fact, we need the Holy Spirit. If we hang around until the excitement fades, and then go look for more excitement somewhere else, we are acting like the five foolish bridesmaids. While they were out looking for something they had run out of, the wedding procession began, and they were left out of the feast.

Clearly, according to this parable, one experience with God is not enough. Ephesians 5:18 tells us to “keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit.” As we have seen somewhat recently, the apostles in Acts experienced a filling of the Holy Spirit over and over. So how do you get your lamp refilled?

We know the basics, right? We need to be regularly reading, or listening to, the Bible. We need to be regularly connected with other Christians in genuine fellowship, and worship the Lord together with them. We need to allow the Lord to use our lives to serve others. Some of that is what feels like a rut, sometimes, but we cannot hope to keep our lamps full without these things.

There are other things that can be added to these to help us. I think these others things could be different for different people. I can get refilled by reading a really good Christian book – something like “Waking the Dead” by John Eldredge, or “The Pursuit of God” by AW Tozer, or “Abide in Christ” by Andrew Murray. I have also found that the Lord often refills me through new music. I get refilled by being in nature, by thinking and writing.

Other folks get refilled in different ways – by exercising, or by making something with their hands, or writing poetry. For some it comes through times of concentrated prayer and fasting. Fasting is always good to try, if you are really stuck. Others, obviously, find it very useful to listen to sermons on the TV, radio, or the Internet. I am positive that if you ask God how he wants to replenish your oil, he will tell you, and make it available to you. Ask him, and then watch for his answer.

Here’s something else from this parable: No one else can be filled on your behalf. Remember that the 5 wise bridesmaids did not have enough oil to spare for the 5 foolish ones? Jesus included that detail in order to illustrate this point. You have to take responsibility for yourself to get the oil you need on an ongoing basis. No one else can do it for you, any more than they can eat a meal to satisfy your hunger.

Finally the time to replenish your oil is now. One of Jesus stated points is: “Therefore be alert because you do not know either the day or the hour.” Don’t think, “well, I’ll deal with my spiritual issues after Christmas.” Christmas might not come this year. Jesus may come back first. Even if he doesn’t, any person could die at any moment in an accident. Refilling your oil – getting refilled by the Holy Spirit – needs to be a priority.

GIVING THANKS FOR THE BAD THINGS

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THANKFULNESS 2019

This will not be a normal, full-length sermon. I want to spend this week in Thankfulness. Although Thanksgiving is not one of the feasts given in the Law of Moses, it is certainly a Biblical idea. Look at a small sample of verses about thankfulness from the New Testament:

Rejoice always! Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  (1Thess 5:16-18, HCSB)

And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.  (Col 3:15-17, HCSB)

Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving.  (Col 4:2, HCSB)

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable — if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise — dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:4-8 HSCB)

6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-7 NIV)

Literally hundreds of times, the Bible exhorts Christians to be thankful. As we look at the small sample of such verses above, it is clear that Christians are supposed to be people who live with an attitude of continual thankfulness toward God. Taking it one step further, to having a feast-day for thanksgiving is only natural. It should never be consider necessary, however: Jesus has done all that is necessary. But a festival of thanksgiving can certainly be useful in orienting our hearts toward God in the right way.

This year, I want us to spend some time in real thanksgiving. I’ll offer some thoughts to help keep us focused and oriented. Many people have discovered that thankfulness can absolutely transform your life. So, for example, say you have a job that you really hate. But, if you start each day by thanking God for the things you don’t hate, you find that it balances out the negatives in your life, or at least, it does to some degree. I often start my thanksgiving with something small, like hot water as I take a morning shower, and towels, and coffee. The more I thank the Lord, the more I think of other things I can thank him for. Many, many people have found this sort of thing to be very helpful in maintaining a peaceful heart and positive attitude.

I want to challenge us this year to take it one step further. I speak from personal experience when I say that I have learned to thank God even for things that I really, really don’t like. To do so, is an act of trust. When I thank God for something that I wish he would change, I am acknowledging that He is in control, and I am not. I am reorienting myself around the truth that he knows better than I do. I am agreeing with his Word, that:

We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

This can be tremendously freeing. It can create a vast reservoir of peace and joy in your life. I know this to be true, because I have experienced it. In my struggle with chronic pain, I began to find real peace and joy when I started to thank God not, in spite of the pain, but for the pain. At the same time I began to thank him for all of the other stupid stuff that was going on my life that I wished was different.

When I started doing this, it was  pure act of will. I said, “I think I need to do this Lord. So, I don’t feel thankful, but even so, I am thanking you for this pain.” I went on and thanked him for financial hardship, and several other things. One of the first times I did this, Kari and I did it together. I won’t say we ended by feeling truly thankful, but we did start to feel a little bit more peace.

As it became more of a habit, I can now say that I am truly thankful for the pain (not just in spite of it). The pain is still there. I still have to figure out how to cope with it. But the fact that I am suffering is not a source of angst or frustration with me. God is working through it to create the best possible outcome for me, and I am so thankful for that.

So, this season, won’t you join me? Join me not only in focusing on the good things, but also in thanking God for the things we wish he would change.

I recognize that I didn’t arrive at this point on my own. It was a gift of God, who, by the Holy Spirit, empowered me to begin thanking him in this way. If you are willing, he will give you the same gift. Let’s ask him to do that right now, so that we can begin to experience the height of joy and depth of peace that thankfulness can bring.

COLOSSIANS #8: RECONCILED

 

 

Even though we were hostile toward God, and alienated from Him, he gave his life to restore us to Himself. He is the Lord and Master of the universe, and when we receive him, he also becomes the Lord of our lives. Though this can be scary, we can trust his love for us, because he loved us before we cared about him. Continuing on in faith means that trusting Jesus is not a single, one-time thing, but, rather a lifelong journey that affects every aspect of our lives. When you receive Jesus, the “truest you” has already been made holy and blameless. That reality is more powerful than our experiences of struggle here on earth.
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Paul is moving in a clear direction. He starts with Jesus as the Creator of all things. He is God in a visible form. He holds the highest rank in the universe. Then, Paul gets more personal. Jesus is the head of the body, the church. We are related to him. He is not just chief of the universe, he is our chief, our leader. Paul moves from the impersonal toward more and more personal. Jesus is not only our leader in the church, he is our leader in resurrection. In verse 19, Paul makes sure we understand, once more that if we are looking at Jesus, we are looking at God himself: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” After this reminder, he gets even more personal. Jesus is not just the Creator, not just the highest rank in all creation, not just the leader of the church, but also, it is through Jesus that we are brought close to God. He is the one who has reconciled us to God. He is our savior.

This is the wonder of Jesus – he is both Higher and more Majestic than we can imagine, and yet, at the same time, he  cares for you, personally. He is Lord and master of the universe, and also, the one who loves you, personally. He inhabits and fills the entire cosmos – and yet he also makes his home in your very soul. The very leader of the world is also your friend.

Sometimes people make a distinction between Jesus as savior, and Jesus as Lord. There are Christians who appear to believe that you can receive Jesus as savior, but still not have him as Lord. Paul reverses this. He makes sure we understand that first, Jesus is Lord of all: Lord of All Creation, Lord of the church, Lord of Us – only when we have that straight does Paul talk about Jesus as savior. He is not savior unless he is Lord. If he is not Lord, he cannot be savior – the two go together. What this means practically is this: If you want to be a true Christian, it means surrendering your entire self – your will, your heart, your mind, your life – to Jesus. This doesn’t earn salvation, but it is the only way to receive salvation. If we retain control, we are not trusting Jesus, and if we don’t trust Jesus, we aren’t saved.

Now, I don’t mean that we do this perfectly. But it is our intention to let Jesus have our lives, even if in reality, we sometimes try to regain control. Failing is normal. But you cannot say, “I’ll take salvation please, but I withhold the right to live however I want to.” Salvation involves giving up on ourselves, and putting all our hope in Jesus. Paul makes sure that we know that Jesus is worthy of our trust. He is creator, chief, first in all things. He went through death before us. He went through resurrection before us. He does not ask of us anything that he himself did not do first. We can trust him with our lives, because he has already done all that we needed.

Paul says that the Colossians were once hostile and alienated in their minds. This is true of us, even if we have followed Jesus for as long as we can remember. We were born with a spiritual genetic defect called sin. Our condition at birth was alienated from God, and hostile in our minds. That is every single human’s “natural condition.” Children do not need to be taught how to be selfish, or mean, or angry or how to lose self-control. All of that comes naturally. But children do need to be taught how to be kind, to share, to think of others and how to control themselves. Every single human being is born alienated from God, hostile in mind to him.

God did not wait for us to shape up:

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (ESV) Romans 5:6-11

Here in Colossians, Paul describes that process in more detail:

22 [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

When Jesus died physically by crucifixion, there was something else going on spiritually. In the spirit realm, he included all those who would trust in him in his death and resurrection. When Jesus died on the cross, for all intents and purposes, our sinful flesh was punished and killed along with Jesus. Through faith, this is the truth: we died with Jesus on the cross. Our sin was punished on the cross by his death.

Being born in sin, we were helpless to do anything to make ourselves better. Jesus did that for us. We don’t deserve it. We cannot earn it. There is nothing in the universe more valuable than the life of Jesus, so there is nothing we could possibly earn or borrow or even steal to pay for our salvation. We receive it as a gift, or not at all.

By the way, this is why Christianity is the source of the concept of human equality. The teaching is that we are all equally lost. No one can claim to be intrinsically better than anyone else. And our salvation is not earned, so not even anyone who is saved can claim to be a better person – we are what we are by God’s grace alone. The death of Jesus declares that we are equally helpless. It also shows us that he puts such value on every human being that he was willing to give his own life to save us. At the foot of the cross, the ground is perfectly level.

Jesus reconciled us in order to present us to God as holy, blameless and above reproach. This is already the second time we have encountered this idea in Colossians, and we aren’t out of the first chapter yet. It will come again later on. We live in two worlds at once: the physical world, and also the spiritual world. In the physical, natural world, we look around and say, “I am not holy and blameless. I am not above reproach. So this text must be wrong.” But in the spiritual realm, you already are holy and blameless and above reproach. The bible teaches us that the spiritual, unseen world is greater, and more permanent than the world we see.

It’s a little bit like the movie, the Matrix. People are living lives, falling in love, fighting, struggling and so on in a world that is imaginary. They are wired to a virtual reality. It looks and feels real to them. But if they could escape, they would find there is a more powerful reality, and what happens there can change everything in the virtual world. For our purposes, the physical world is like the Matrix, and the spiritual world is the “real world.” Paul describes elsewhere like this:

17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (ESV, 2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

The things that are seen (the physical world) are transient. That word means, “temporary, of short duration. Not permanent.” But the unseen world – the spiritual realm – is eternal. It lasts forever. So when we look at ourselves in the physical realm and see someone who is far from holy, we need to understand that such a thing is temporary. Yes, for now, for a short time, we don’t look holy and blameless. But in the spiritual realm, the world that lasts forever, we are already holy and blameless. And that realm is greater, and lasts longer.

Paul ends this section with a final thought:

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. (ESV) Colossians 1:18-23

You are reconciled to God, you are holy and blameless and above reproach before God, if indeed you continue in the faith, not shifting from the hope of the gospel. It is important for us to understand this. Being reconciled to God and being made holy and blameless are things that come through Jesus Christ alone. We receive them by trusting in Jesus. If we were to shift our trust from Jesus onto someone or something else, we cannot receive these things. It is not that we earn them by trusting Jesus. It is not that God punishes us by taking them away if we stop trusting Jesus. But Jesus is the only way to receive these things. So, if we refuse to get them through him, there is no other way to get them.

Imagine a beautiful island in the ocean, with some of the most stunning scenery in the world. There is no bridge to it – it is too far out into the ocean. There is no airstrip on the island. It is privately owned. The owner welcomes guests, and he accommodates them, provides rest and entertainment and delicious food, all for no charge. Regularly, he sends a ferry to the mainland to pick up whoever wants to come. But some people don’t like the look of the ferry: they think it doesn’t look comfortable enough for their tastes. Some people think it doesn’t look seaworthy, and they don’t trust it to keep from sinking. Others just don’t want to travel by sea – they’d prefer to fly. But this island is private property. The Owner doesn’t have to allow anyone at all to come there. If you want to go, he has provided the ferry. If you refuse to take the ferry, then there is no other way to get there. He isn’t mean or exclusive: anyone who wants to can use it. Many have, and they’ve told others that it is just fine. But if you reject the only way to get there, you have excluded yourself from the island. Everything is free, but you can’t receive it unless you take the ferry.

So it is with Jesus. We must continue on in faith, because without faith, we cannot receive all that Jesus does and is for us. Paul says we must continue, because it isn’t a one time deal. It is not all like buying a ticket for heaven, or life insurance. No, if we truly trust Jesus, it changes our whole life. It effects how live and the decisions we make for the rest of our lives. If it does not have that effect on our lives, then I question whether or not we truly believe it. I don’t mean that we will suddenly behave perfectly. But when we truly believe something this big and important, it will have an effect on us. It won’t make us immediately perfect in this natural world, but it will begin to work on us.

For now, I want us to focus on this fact: In the eternal spiritual realm, you are already holy and blameless. You are above reproach. That “you” is more real and permanent than the “you” that keeps failing. Jesus has given those gifts to the spiritual you, and he wants them to define who you are. Trust him!

FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

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FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (ESV) John 8:31-36

 When we talk about following Jesus, there are certain things that we can do that are like opening up channels to the Holy Spirit. If we are serious about the fact that Jesus is our Lord and savior, we ought to do these things, in order to grow closer to him, and be the people that he intends us to be.

I’m talking about things like  reading your Bible every day. Now, don’t sweat if you a miss day, or even two or three, once in a while. But if want to allow God into our lives in greater measure, if we want to grow spiritually and become what we were meant to be, we can’t do it without regular infusions of God’s Word, which we get from the Bible.

Prayer is another one. If  you are struggling in your Christian life, and you never pray, there is no mystery about why you struggle. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says we ought to pray continually. It’s like a long, ongoing internal conversation with God, along with times that are dedicated specifically and only for prayer.

There is also fellowship with other believers. If we don’t have regular Christian community, our walk with Jesus will suffer. The same is true of worshipping God with other believers, and also serving others. All of these are practices and disciplines that are channels between us and God. The Lord can and does use things to pour more of his love and grace and joy and peace and so on into our lives. We really cannot expect to move closer to God without them.

Now, I want to make sure we have this straight. We don’t do them to please God, or to motivate him to bless us. These are means by which we can connect with the Life he offers. He still has to choose to bless us – we can’t make him do it. But he has designed us as human beings to need these things, and also to have them as resources to help us.

If we do these things regularly, it is likely that we will, at God’s chosen pace, grow in our faith, and also grow in the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

However, there are a few situations in which these things are not enough. The first situation is one that I have experienced during the past few years. At times, the Lord calls his people to suffer. No matter how hard we try, there is at least part of life that simply cannot work, because God has given us the honor of growing through suffering. This is a mystery, of sorts, but there can be wonderful grace as we suffer for him. Sometime, I’ll expound more on this.

There are times, however, when we suffer unnecessarily. You see the Bible insists that we are in a spiritual war. Sometimes, we face struggles and hardships because we are not paying attention to what is going on in that war. Listen to some of what the Bible says about this:

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12); the devil stalks around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8-11); the devil has schemes against us (2 Corinthians 2:11) we are waging spiritual war (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).  We are urged to participate in that war:  We should act as soldiers of God (2 Timothy 2:4); we must resist the devil (James 4:7); fight the good fight (1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12) and contend for our faith (Jude 3).

You see, sometimes we think it’s hard to be a disciple because…it’s just hard.  But why is it hard?  Because we have enemies who make it hard for us.  These enemies are not flesh and blood.  Our battle is

against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm (1 Timothy 6:12)

“Rulers” and “authorities” do not refer to earthly government, but to different sorts of evil spiritual entities called the devil and demons.

Now, there are two mistakes we make in the spiritual war. The first is assume that neither the devil nor his demons are real, or that the threat they pose is not significant. Prior to September 11, 2001, in the United States, Americans were only dimly aware of radical elements of Islam that hated the United States. No one took the threat seriously, and that resulted in tragedy. Let’s not make the same mistake with regard to the spiritual war.

The second mistake is to imagine that everything that ever goes wrong is because of the devil. If you never maintain your car, and it breaks down on the way to church, that probably is not spiritual warfare. Sometimes mental illness is medically based, requiring medications and other treatments. Sometimes, life just doesn’t go the way we planned. It is not necessarily all the fault of the devil.

This is tricky, for instance, when we talk about something like depression. My wife Kari has struggled with depression off and on throughout her life. One time, we prayed about it, and we were convinced that her depression had a spiritual cause. We engaged in spiritual warfare, and the depression lifted for several years. After many years, it returned. We prayed, and we realized that Kari’s life was very hard at that time, and her depression was a natural result of her circumstances, and so we needed to change some things.  A third time, the depression returned, and this time we were led to seek medication, and found that in this third case, there was a chemical imbalance. I encourage you to seek out all possibilities, but do not discount the spiritual one until you have investigated it.

The Bible also tells us that these entities work against us primarily by influencing how we think and feel. The battleground of the spiritual war is in our mind and emotions.

And so, at times, there may be a kind of spiritual block that is interfering in your relationship with Jesus. The Bible calls these spiritual blocks: strongholds.

A stronghold is a place in your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus. Maybe it helps to think of it as a room in your house that is locked off from the rest of the house. Inside that room, it is not Jesus who is in charge. We may think we are the one in charge in that area, but the truth is, if we have locked it off from Jesus, that area will be under the influence of the devil and his demons. If you walk past that room, they can use that as a base to dart out and attack you.

3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (ESV 2 Corinthians 10:3-6)

If there is some area of your life where you seem stuck, where you can’t get victory and you just don’t understand why, there is the possibility that it is because of a spiritual stronghold.

Bitterness and unforgiveness are major sources of spiritual strongholds. In Ephesians 4:26

26 And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 for anger gives a foothold to the devil. (NLT Ephesians 4:26-27)

Jesus himself said that when we refuse to forgive others, we are closing our selves off from God’s forgiveness:

14 “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NLT) Matthew 6:14-15

Now, I don’t think God is being vindictive. I think that unforgiveness creates a major stronghold that interferes with us being able to receive God’s grace. It isn’t God being mean, it is us cutting ourselves off from his grace.

Other strongholds can be created when we make a firm decision – what I call, an internal vow – that excludes God. Perhaps a woman grew up in poverty. At some point, she felt so humiliated by her family’s condition that deep inside, she made a vow, something like this: “I will never, never allow myself to be poor again.” But what if the Lord calls this woman to marry a missionary, or to have a career in some area that doesn’t make much money? Her vow excludes God’s authority in her life, and it will cause all sort of issues later on.

Some people make vows that they will never allow themselves to be emotionally hurt badly again. Sometimes this works in the short term, but usually that sort of thing gives an opportunity for the devil, because God often calls us to self-sacrificing love for others. That sort of stronghold could really play havoc in a marriage. It could seriously interfere in someone’s ability to be close to others.

Addictions often accompany strongholds, or vice-versa. Without consciously saying it, we have decided God can do anything he wants, but he just can’t touch my habit of….fill in the blank.

Any area of your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus will be unfair game to the forces of evil. Any place where you are excluding God can become a stronghold.

There is, however, terrific news. One of the reasons we create strongholds in the first place is because we don’t trust that God will truly do what’s best for us. Or, we think he will do what’s best for us, but we believe that we find that very unpleasant. You will indeed find God’s purposes for you to be troublesome and unpleasant for as long as you hold on to your own right to manage your own life. However, when you surrender to the Lord and receive whatever he wants to do in your life, you can find grace and joy in any situation.

I know what I’m talking about. I have suffered severe, intense pain for the past four years. The short description is that it feels like I have been trying to pass a kidney stone, 24/7 365 days a year, for more than four years. The first two years were horrible in every possible way. I still find it daunting to get through some days. However, I also find a great deal of joy, peace and meaning, even in the midst of this, because I am accepting whatever the Lord is doing. I believe he is good, he is powerful and he loves me. The pain has impressed that into every fiber of my being. So, even that which looks terrible from the outside can become joy and blessing when we surrender to Him.

The good news, we can be free, and the Lord has made it simple to be free.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (ESV Galatians 5:1)

In the first place, Jesus took all the guilt of our sin upon himself at the cross. In Jesus, you are now declared “not guilty” – even of the sins you have committed. Second, through the cross, Jesus defeated the powers of evil:

13 You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. 14 He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. (NLT Colossians 2:13-15)

The spiritual powers of evil – including those which inhabit any strongholds – have been disarmed by Jesus. They have suffered a public defeat. Therefore, when we command them in the name of Jesus, they must go. They go, not because we are strong enough to resist them, but because Jesus will back us up when face them. He will make them go way when we tell them to.

The Lord has already defeated the devil. So, for us, destroying a stronghold has three simple parts. First, we identify the stronghold. Next, we repent of it, and ask Jesus to come and take control there. Finally, we speak a prayer by the authority of Jesus, telling the powers of evil to release that stronghold. I have helped many people clear there lives of various spiritual strongholds. I have cleared a few out of my own life, also. It can be shocking to see how free and joyful we can be when all areas of our lives belong fully to Jesus.

I don’t mean that we are perfect, and we never thwart his will. But a stronghold is a place where we persistently, continually thwart God’s control of our lives. When are free of such things, it makes a tremendous difference.

Really what I am talking about is taking inventory, and consciously allowing Jesus to be in control of every single part of your life. Paul did that, and that is why he wrote this:

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

That life, by the grace of God, is a life of love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. It is also a life filled with tremendous hope.

Take  a moment right now to examine your heart. Pick a time this week when you will spend an hour – or several – thoroughly surrendering every part of your life to care of our loving savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.