COLOSSIANS #26: LIVING THE CHARACTER OF CHRIST IN YOUR CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

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Christian living is all about allowing the character of Christ to emerge in our lives. By grace, through faith, God has cleansed us from sin, and put the character of Christ into us. These verses, and others like them in the New Testament, show us what the character of Christ looks like in terms of how we behave and how we treat others. Now, all this might raise a type of question. If God has put the character of Christ into us, why do we have to “learn” anything at all?

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Colossians #26.  Colossians 3:1-14, especially 12-13

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Colossians 3:12-14

We are now deeper into a section of Colossians that tells Christians how we are to act. But we need to remember the basis for the way we act. It is not in order to get God to let us into heaven. It is not to prove our worth in any way, or get God to be pleased with us. Instead, we behave in certain ways because God has already forgiven us, and imparted to us the character of Christ. This section of Colossians shows us what the character of Christ looks like in each one of us. Particularly for this time, it shows us what the character of Christ looks like as we live in community with other Christians.

In several key places Paul has given us reminders that our behavior should be the result of what God has already done for us:

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him Colossians (2:6)

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (2:9-10)

​If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (3:1-4)

So again here, Paul gives us the reason for our changed behavior:

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on…

We relate to one another as the New Testament tells us to because we are God’s specially chosen people. He has made us holy, and he loves us dearly. Therefore, this is what it looks like to reflect the character of Christ that God has already given us.

Christian living is all about allowing the character of Christ to emerge in our lives. By grace, through faith, God has cleansed us from sin, and put the character of Christ into us. These verses, and others like them in the New Testament, show us what the character of Christ looks like in terms of how we behave and how we treat others.

Now, all this might raise a type of question. If God has put the character of Christ into us, why do we have to “learn” anything at all? Since Jesus is now in us,  through the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t we just sort of “naturally” behave according to God’s intentions? Why all these verses about what to do, and what not to do?

I think there are three things that might help us with this question.

In the first place, in this mortal life, before we enter the New Creation, we live under the influence of the devil, the world and our sinful flesh (1 John 2:15-16). In other words, we are not in neutral territory. There are other influences on us, telling us lies, making us feel left out, encouraging our sinful impulses. Even if we “naturally” know how to live in the character of Jesus Christ, there is tremendous pressure to live for ourselves, or for the things the world values, or according to the lies of the devil. With so many voices speaking loudly against the things of God, it is important for us to have clear guidance about how to live, so that we know what is true, right and good, and what is not.

There is another thought. Picture a dog with its food. Imagine trying to train the dog to share its food with other animals, or even just other dogs. For many years we had a wonderful dog, named Mario. He was a truly sweet-natured animal. He was kind and protective, not only toward the humans in our family, but also toward all of our (many) other animals. I had no qualms leaving him alone with our three year old daughter, or even little babies. But there was one thing that brought out savagery in Mario, and that was if any other animal approached his food dish when he was eating. My point is, it would be difficult to train most dogs to share their food. It’s unfortunate, but true, that really the only way to do it would be to make the dog so afraid of what will happen if it doesn’t share, that it obeys the master’s command to share. In other words, the dog never actually learns to want to share. It merely learns that it is more painful to be selfish than it is to share. To put it another way, the nature of the dog does not become sharing. The nature remains selfish. Only its behavior is conformed to the master’s desire.

In contrast, picture training a young child to share her toys. This is also challenging, and in some ways, much more difficult than training a dog, because you don’t want to use fear or coercion, and you want not just a changed behavior, but also a changed attitude. However, there is something in the child’s nature that is not in the dog’s. It is possible for a child to learn to enjoy sharing, to want to share. But even though that potential exists in her nature, it takes teaching and training to bring it out. So, our nature, because of Jesus, has been changed from one like a dog’s, to one like a child’s. Even so, we still need teaching and training to learn how to use the potential of our new nature.

Here’s one more analogy that may help. The entrance requirements for the United States Air Force Academy are extremely high. You have to be smart, and prove that you can do well academically. You have to prove that you have leadership potential. You have to prove that you are person of character and integrity. You have to have sponsors – including a member of congress. Now imagine a young cadet. He has the smarts. He has the leadership potential, the character, and the sponsorship. He is fully qualified. He has what it takes. He has applied, and he has been accepted. So now, he is cadet in the Air Force Academy. The fact that he has what it takes is now taken for granted. However, he must now learn how to use what he has. Even though he is accepted as a cadet, he must learn to apply what he “has” to being an officer in the Air Force. And the process doesn’t end when he graduates. Once he graduates, he becomes a commissioned officer in the Air Force. He has the commission, he is an officer. Even so, has really only just begun to learn how to work and live like an officer.

So it is with us, who have trusted Jesus. Because of Jesus, we have what it takes. We are fully qualified to in God’s kingdom, to manifest the character of Christ. We have been accepted. Even so, we still need to learn how to use what we have been given. We need to learn to live according to the grace we have been given.

We have been  talking about what it means to live out the character of Christ. First, Paul explained some things to put away from us: sexual immorality, covetousness (greed) malice, obscene talk, and so on. Now, he is telling us something to “put on.” So, first, he covered the negative: “Don’t do certain things,” and now he is talking about the positive: “Do these other things.”

The things we are to do are focused on our life together with other believers. It is not wrong to treat strangers this way, but this text, and many others like in the Bible, assume that we belong to small group of other Christians – that is, a house church. The way we treat others begins in the house church. It doesn’t end there – we should treat all people well – but it starts with us learning to live with each other in the love of Jesus Christ. If claim to love “the world” but don’t actually live in loving relationships with other believers, we will be hypocrites. Also, when we understand that this was first to be practiced among a group of other Christians that was small enough to fit in your living room, things make more sense. It is difficult to have a compassionate heart for all of the other 4,987 members of your mega-Church. In fact, when we try to apply it too broadly, Bible passages like this one become meaningless. How can you be kind and humble and meek and patient with hundreds of people whom you don’t even really know? No, Christianity was always meant to be practiced primarily with a small group of others who became your spiritual family. The word “family” is meaningless if we apply it to so many relatives that we are talking about hundreds of people. The things that go along with our understanding of “family”  necessarily mean a fairly small group of people. It should be exactly the same with “church.”

I am not saying it is wrong for mega-churches to exist. But where they do, they ought to get their members into small groups where real-life faith can be worked out together in real community. Many of the best mega churches do exactly that. But until and unless you get involved in a small Christian community where you know everyone, and they all know you, these teachings in the New Testament will be quite difficult to actually apply to your life.

The first thing is “compassionate hearts.” A more literal translation might have something like: “compassion straight from your guts.” The word used for “heart” is actually “internal organs” and it means a deep, powerful feeling. Compassion means that you “feel alongside with” another person. Sympathy means you feel for someone, but compassion is feeling with. Thankfully, other parts of the Bible explain this clearly:

5 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (ESV, Romans 12:15)

But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:24-26)

3 Remember those in prison, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily. (ESV, Hebrews 13:3)

We are supposed to be so connected to the other Christians in our local Christian community (that is, our house church) that we “feel with” them. If they are happy, it should cause us to be happy. If they are suffering, they should know that we are so connected that we hurt too.

Kindness is the next thing listed. There is no mystery here, I think we all know what it is. Again, our biggest need is not to understand it, but to actually practice it with other believers, first, and then, also the world. I think one of the easiest ways to be either kind, or not, is in our words. Sometimes it feels so satisfying, so powerful, to say unkind things to or about another person. But this is not what the life of Jesus in you wants to do. A kind word at the right time can build up a person more than we can possibly imagine.

Humility is all about allowing  God (not ourselves) to defend our “rights,” and to trust him to make sure that we get the recognition we deserve. Even if that doesn’t take place in this mortal life, we trust that God will make it right in the New Creation. With that sense – that we don’t need to defend our own rights, or pride, or honor – we can deal with each other humbly. We don’t need to insist upon our way, nor make snide comments when our way is not taken, and things don’t go smoothly. We can be right without rubbing the faces of others in that fact.

Meekness is a word I’ve struggled to define for many years. The closest I can come is a mix of gentleness and humbleness. Humility and meekness do not mean that we have to look down upon ourselves, or believe that we are always wrong, or not worthy of respect. If you look at the life that Jesus lived on earth, we can see what both humility and meekness look like. Jesus was (and still is) King of the Universe. Yet, he did not insist upon his rights, or his own way. He dealt gently with people who did not respect him – and there was, literally, no one worthy of more respect. He presented the truth clearly, but did not try to force anyone to comply.  He did, at times, force people to make a decision about Himself. Even then, he gently spoke to them until they had to face up what he was saying about himself. At that point, they had to choose to either believe, or not, but he did not force them to believe.

Jesus was, by definition, always right, but he did not rub anyone’s face in that fact. He knew who he was, certainly. He didn’t feel badly about himself, nor have low self-esteem. He didn’t pretend he was wrong. But he didn’t either insist that everyone recognize his rightness, or give him what he truly deserved.

I think we all know what patience is. But I want us to think about what it means to be patient with each other in Christian community. It might mean smiling and waiting it out when someone tells you the same story you’ve heard fifteen times already. It could mean remaining calm and hoping for the best when someone in the group fails to make the best choice – for the twentieth time in twenty days. It means everyone sticking with each other even when it seems like things aren’t going anywhere. It means sticking with individuals in the group when they continue to struggle with the same things for months – or even years – at a time. It means continuing to commit to the group even when there is a season when it feels like you aren’t getting a lot out of it. Your presence there may be the main reason someone else is getting a lot out of it, and what goes around comes around – but not usually very quickly.

Bearing with one another. No one is perfect, but when you get to know a group of people really well, you find that they are all a group of especially imperfect people. We need to bear with one another’s idiosyncrasies and bad habits, and socially awkward graces and body odor, and bad cooking and so on.

We have plenty to chew on for this time. Ask the Holy Spirit what he wants to say to you right now? How does he want you to take action on these things? How is he calling you to trust him today?

 

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

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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
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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 #11: THE LIFE!

We don’t live for Jesus. He lives his life through our lives. He expresses his purposes and glory through each of us in unique and important ways. This takes a lot of pressure off us. Mainly, we simply need to trust him to do it, and make ourselves available to him. This is the meaning of: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

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Colossians #11. Colossians 1:25-27

Paul has just said that he rejoices in his sufferings, and that he is engaged in suffering for the sake of the church. He continues:

25 I have become its servant, according to God’s commission 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. 27 God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (CSB, Colossians 1:25-27)

Paul records that God had a special plan for him to serve the church by making known the Word of God. Paul’s call was, in some respects, unique. God called him, and several other apostles, to teach and write the very words that would become scripture to us. But in another respect, there are others whom God has called, in a lesser way, to make the word of God fully known. This is a special call, given to some, not all, to teach the Bible to others. One reason I point this out it because in certain places, this idea has been lost, and it hurts the church. Where I live and minister, it is often called “the Bible Belt,” because Christianity is strongly rooted here. But often, though it is strongly culturally rooted, the Bible is not well understood, and there are many people who take it upon themselves to “become a preacher.” Many of these people are neither called by  God, nor properly equipped, to make the Word of God fully known, and they sometimes do great harm.

Martin Luther and those who led the Protestant Reformation taught about the “the Priesthood of all believers.” This is often misunderstood. What it means is that every believer has direct access to God, and every believer is called to use his or her energy and abilities in God’s service. It does not mean that all believers are equally called and equipped to teach God’s word to others. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul makes this clear.

4 There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. 5 There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. 6 God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. 7 A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. (NLT 1 Corinthians 12:4-7)

29 Are we all apostles? Are we all prophets? Are we all teachers? Do we all have the power to do miracles? 30 Do we all have the gift of healing? Do we all have the ability to speak in unknown languages? Do we all have the ability to interpret unknown languages? Of course not! (NLT, 1 Corinthians 12:29-30)

I think that at times, at least in my area of the United States, these things are not considered carefully enough. If someone is to be a teacher of the Word, he should be called, trained, equipped, and have the explicit approval of a church. In addition, the church needs every kind of gift, not just the gifts of Bible teachers. There are some who seek to become preachers who are depriving the church of their other, better gifts and calling from the Lord. I also want to make sure that we understand every gift is important and significant. Being a teacher of God’s word does not make me better than someone who, for instance, is called to glorify God through his work as a mechanic.

Paul says that part of his call is to make known “the mystery, hidden for ages and generations.” He often uses the term “mystery.” Although we get our English word for mystery directly from the Greek word here (mysterion), Paul’s meaning is slightly different than we might think. He doesn’t mean that it is a puzzle that needs to be solved. He means two things: First, that human beings cannot understand it or know it unless God reveals it. Second, he means it is a truth that has been hidden until a particular God-appointed time for it to be revealed.

Paul is talking about the gospel, and all of the meaning of it. The idea that God would enter the world and die in order to save his people was not something that ever entered the imagination of human beings. But even more, Paul lays out specifically the unique thing that was hidden for ages, and now has been revealed by God’s grace: “Christ in you, the hope of Glory.” This is a very theological phrase, but stick with me. There is something extremely important here, something that can make a real difference in our lives now, and for eternity.

Many Christians use this sort of terminology: “Jesus lives in my heart.” That is true. But sometimes, we get the idea that Jesus is like a roommate. We think of it a bit like this: Jesus is there, relaxing, his arms up on the couch, hanging with us. He’s there to comfort us when we’re down, or give us advice when we remember to ask it. Sometimes, he’ll warn us, other times, tell us we’re fine. Overall we get the sense of Jesus just “chilling” somewhere inside of us. But that isn’t really the Biblical picture. The Biblical picture is that Jesus Christ expresses his life through your life, and mine. That is what the phrase means: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Now, I want to be clear. We aren’t living for Jesus. We are letting Jesus live through us. The first one still relies on our own flesh-based efforts – we have worthy goals that we are accomplishing (or not) by our own effort. The second one is about completely relying on Jesus to do it. We have to give him our response – we have to say “yes” to Him and let him use our arms and legs and words, but we recognize at the same time that it is His Life flowing through our unique body and personality.

Jesus lived this way in his own relationship with the Father, while he was on earth. He said:

 “If you know Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.”  (John 14:7, HCSB)

The one who has seen Me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)

Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me? The words I speak to you I do not speak on My own. The Father who lives in Me does His works.  (John 14:10 HCSB)

In that same passage, Jesus himself gives us a clue that he will live the life in us, just as the Father lived the life in him:

“I assure you: The one who believes in Me  will also do the works that I do. (John 14:12)

We often think this means we will imitate what Jesus did. I think, in light of the rest of the New Testament, that it means Jesus will live his life through us.

Either Jesus will do it as you let him, or you are on your own. Letting Jesus live through you calls for faith that in our passage today: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” So maybe you are in a situation where God is calling you to speak and act in love toward another person. You don’t feel very loving. Maybe some people wouldn’t even pray. They’d just grit their teeth and try to be loving. Maybe others would pray something like this: “Lord, give me the strength to love this person right now.” But that isn’t exactly right either. That means we are still living the life ourselves, even if it is with God’s help. I think our attitude should be more like this: “Lord, I don’t feel loving. I can’t love this person right now. You do the loving through me. I am willing for you to do that. I make myself available to you for that.” And then we trust Him to come through.

Maybe you need to forgive someone for something they have done to you. This is often one of the hardest things to do and let go of. Many times, we try to do it on our own strength. Sometimes, we begin to get a glimmer of a clue, and we say, “Lord help me to forgive them.” Again, the focus of that prayer is still myself and my own performance.

Remember what Jesus prayed for those who crucified him: “Father forgive them…” We often think of this as Jesus asking the Father for forgiveness on our behalf. And perhaps that is what it was. But what if it was the human-nature of Jesus, who was dependent on the Father to live his life through him, asking the Father to do through him what he, the human-nature of Jesus, could not do on his own? Given the verses in John above, that is a real possibility – this was Jesus, praying in dependence that the Father would continue to work through him and speak through him even in this extreme and terrible situation.

And so we can say, “Jesus, I feel bitter toward this person. I can’t forgive him myself. Even so, I give you permission to forgive through me right now. Lord forgive him – through me.”

Do you see how this could change everything? Our performance could never, will never, achieve our salvation. Jesus did that on our behalf. But our own performance will also never be enough live the Christian life either. Just think of it: It is the CHRISTian life. It is his life. He is the one who will live it. Our part is to allow him to; to respond when he speaks through the bible or in our hearts; to let him have our arms and legs and mouth and thoughts and the rest of us, so that he can life our life. This is why Paul puts it like this:

 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.  (Rom 12:1-2, ESV)

We are to present our bodies to Jesus, so that he can use us. We are to let him renew our mind, to transform us from the inside out so that we can hear and respond to Him living his life through us.

One of the wonderful things about this, is that we do not lose our person-hood when we do this. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the goal is to completely lose yourself into a kind of cosmic one-ness. But the Bible teaches that as we become one with God, we retain our individual personality, and in fact, he has plans and purposes for our unique individuality. This is where we come back around to the first point: we all have unique callings and giftings. Each one of us is important and significant.

Jesus wants to express his life through all these unique people. No one personality could possibly show all the many facets of Jesus’ power, His creativity, His person, His purposes. That’s why Paul says “we are the body of Christ, all of us parts of it.”

Jesus wants to live his life through me because he can show others some of his words and thoughts in a unique way through me. He can think and write through me in a way that he can’t through anyone else. Jesus wants to live through Kari because he can make a unique kind of music through her, songs that he can’t make through anyone else. I’m not saying we are better than anyone else. But we are different from everyone else. So are you. You get the picture?

He can show his compassion to people through you in a way that he can’t show it through anyone else. He can make a beautiful painting through you that he can’t make through anyone else.

I’m a poor craftsman, but at times I am forced to do farm or home-improvement projects. I have  dozens of tools. Each tool is there to do my work. They all express my will and purpose (or they would, if I was any good), but each one expresses it differently. The saw expresses my purpose in a way that looks completely different from the hammer. But they are both used to create what I am building or repairing. A tool that tried to be both and hammer and saw at the same time probably wouldn’t be very useful for either task. Even the hacksaw has a task that is different from the wood saw.

I am not asking you to try to be good on your own. I am asking you to trust Jesus to live his life, to express his life, through you, as you. You don’t have to become someone or something else – Jesus has already done all the becoming for you. He wants to use the unique person that he has made you to be. Your part is to trust that he wants to do it; to let him do it; and to trust that he is doing it, and the results are up to him.

FOUNDATIONAL TRUTH

complex answer

Truth provides the context for love. Truth is where love can thrive. This also means that love can only thrive where there is truth.

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2 John #1:Truth & Love

I want to engage in another short series, this time, one centered on three often-overlooked books of the Bible. If you have followed my sermons for very long, you know that I believe that everything in the Bible is there because the Lord has chosen to put it there, and he can (and does) use every part of it to speak into our lives today. Two verses that remind us of this are Hebrews 4:12, and 2 Timothy 3:16-17

12For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart. (Heb 4:12, HCSB)

 16All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:16-17, HCSB)

But there are three little books of the New Testament that seem to me to be generally ignored, at least in comparison to the rest of the New Testament. These are the second and third letters of John, and the letter of Jude. I cannot recall reading or hearing a single sermon that was based on one of these three books. And yet, these three books are part of the inspired Word of God. Therefore, I will do my part to explore what the Lord might have to say to us through them.

Let’s start with the second letter of John. First John, of course, is a well-known, often-preached-from book. All common-sense New Testament scholarship agrees that there is a high probability that the Apostle John (as in, “Peter, James & John,” or “John, son of Zebedee”) wrote the gospel of John, and all three letters that are attributed to him.

I think it is likely that 2nd John and 3rd John (as they are called) were written fairly late in John’s life. One reason I think so, is because he calls himself “the Elder.” There were of course, many “elders” in many local churches, long before the apostles passed away, and have been ever since, and even so, today. So who could claim to be “The Elder” and expect to his readers to know who he was? The logical answer would be “the last living apostle.” By apostle, I mean, “those who personally knew Jesus.” It is widely accepted that John was the last apostle to die, therefore at some point, when he was old, John would have been in a unique position as the pre-eminent elder of the entire Christian movement.

John writes to “the elect lady, and her children.” When we read the rest of the letter, it becomes fairly clear that John is not talking to a specific person, and he is not writing a “personal” letter, but one that is to a community of people. It seems clear enough that  the “elect lady” is a church, or group of churches in a particular place, and “her children” are the members of the church/churches.

Please pause right now, and read through all of 2 John – it’s only 13 verses. Then, ask the Lord to speak to you as you read this message, and meditate on what the verses say.

John’s major concern in this letter is that these Jesus-followers believe, and live, in truth and love.

Love and truth  are foundational to Christian belief. They are also foundational to Christian living and behavior. This is because truth and love are fundamental parts of God’s character, as revealed in the Bible.

I want look at 2 John in three parts. First, we will look at the importance of truth. Second, we will consider some practical things about how to apply truth. Third, we will look at what John says about love. However, even though I am dividing the book into three sermons, I want us to understand that truth and love can’t really be separated like that. They go hand in hand.

John shows us that by the way he begins the letter:

1The Elder: To the elect lady and her children: I love all of you in the truth — and not only I, but also all who have come to know the truth — 2because of the truth that remains in us and will be with us forever. 3Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love. (2John 1:1-3, HCSB)

He says that he loves them “in truth.” John sometimes employs double meanings, and I suspect he is doing that here. I think, in the first sense, he means that he truly loves them. I think he also means that his love springs from the fact that they are all living “in The truth,” that is, according to their common faith in Jesus Christ. Truth provides the context for love. Truth is where love can thrive. This also means that love can only thrive where there is truth.

So what is this truth that John talks about, and what is his concern about it? A few verses from John’s other writings can give us the idea of what he means by “truth.”

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

 8If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1John 1:8-9, HCSB)

 10The one who believes in the Son of God has this testimony within him. The one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony God has given about His Son. 11And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. 13I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1John 5:10-13, HCSB)

So, by “the truth,” John means:

  • The Person of Jesus Christ and faith in Him
  • The teachings of Christ, and about Christ; in other words: the New Testament

In verses 9-11 of our text today, John explains the importance of remaining in Christ’s teaching:

9Anyone who does not remain in Christ’s teaching but goes beyond it, does not have God. The one who remains in that teaching, this one has both the Father and the Son. 10If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your home, and don’t say, “Welcome,” to him; 11for the one who says, “Welcome,” to him shares in his evil works. (2John 1:9-11, HCSB)

Let’s make sure we understand the background to John’s words here. All churches during John’s lifetime (and for two hundred years afterwards) met in homes. House church wasn’t weird – it was how church was done. So when John says “do not receive him into your home,” we should read: “do not receive him into your church.

So, John is not saying “Don’t invite unbelievers over for dinner.” But he is saying: “Don’t welcome people into your church who claim to be believers, but who don’t have faith in Jesus, and who don’t hold to his teachings.” If someone comes along, claiming to be in the truth, but does not remain in Christ’s teaching (the truth) then that person cannot be included in Christian love and fellowship.

I hope you have a whole bunch of questions about that. It sounds kind of shocking to our modern ears, at least in 21st Century America and Europe. Just in case you wondered, however, this is not some isolated teaching found only this obscure little letter. It is a widespread, common teaching of the New Testament. Jesus commanded us to practice what we call “church discipline” in Matthew 18:15-18, which included, if necessary, asking people to leave the church (also Matthew 16:19, and John 20:23). Many other verses command Jesus’ followers to separate themselves from those who claim to be Christians, but do not follow the teaching of Jesus. Just a few of them are: 2 Corinthians 6:14-15; Galatians 6:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, and 3:14-15; 1 Timothy 5:20; 1 Timothy 6:3-5; Titus 3:10-11.

Now, we should be clear, this is about people who claim to be Christians, but do not believe what the Bible says, and/or willfully and persistently disobey God’s moral standards. It isn’t about someone who struggles and is honest in that struggle, and is seeking to believe and live in the truth. And it isn’t about non-Christians. Paul puts it like this:

9I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. 11But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. 12For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? 13But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves. (1Cor 5:9-13, HCSB bold/italic format added for emphasis)

In the churches that I have served, I know for a fact that we have had people who were adulterers, murderers, drug addicts, greedy, gossipers, and a whole host of other things. We even have had people who did not believe in Jesus.

But there are two important things about most of these folks. Most of them are honest about what they have been in the past, and they have given all those things up so that they could enter into the freedom and forgiveness that Jesus offers.

The people who have not given them up, or who don’t trust Jesus, are often honest about that. They are also welcome in our churches, provided they do not pretend to be what they are not. That is John’s big problem with those who don’t hold to the teaching of and about Jesus. In the churches to which he writes, there are people who claim to be Christians – but they don’t believe what Christians believe, or they don’t act like Christians act. These people are problem for churches.

Imagine you  are an alcoholic. You went for a long time without wanting to admit it to yourself. You went even longer before you were willing to admit it to anyone else. But finally, broken, humbled, a little bit afraid, you go to Alcoholics Anonymous. The people there welcome you. You are just beginning to realize that maybe you aren’t alone, maybe there are others who understand, and might be able to help you. Then you meet a guy named Joe.

Joe tells you “You know, I come here because my family wants me to, but it’s all a load of horse-manure. I’m not helpless and broken. You aren’t either. We don’t need this AA junk to fix us. We’re just fine as we are. Say, you wanna grab a beer afterwards?”

The leader comes up, and Joe starts talking like he’s been sober for six months, and it’s struggle but it is so worth it. In other words, he pretends he’s there because he wants to be. He pretends he’s a part of it, when, in fact, he scorns it.

Now, Joe could be right (he isn’t). But even if he was right, everything he is saying and doing is completely contrary to the principles of AA. If the meeting was full of people like Joe, no one would get any help at all. Even with just Joe there, he might derail someone like you, who are just beginning to get the help you need.

Now, Joe is entitled to his opinion. If I was the AA leader, I would encourage Joe to be honest about where he is really at. But Joe is not entitled to try and make AA meetings conform to his opinion, and he is not entitled to come to AA and work against everything AA stands for, and most especially, he is allowed to come to AA and tell lies about who he is and what he thinks. It doesn’t help anyone, least of all himself. If you can see that it is reasonable for an AA group to have some sort of standard, certainly it must also be reasonable for a church.

This isn’t about being perfect. It isn’t about getting your act together before you can be part of a church. Instead it is about living in truth. I already quoted John’s first letter, but it is worth looking at again:

5Now this is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him. 6If we say, “We have fellowship with Him,” yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth. 7But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.

 8If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

 10If we say, “We don’t have any sin,” we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

 1My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father — Jesus Christ the Righteous One. 2He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world. (1John 1:5-2:2, HCSB)

So John is not saying we have to be perfect. But we do need to be honest; that is, we need to be in the truth. We need to believe and admit the truth that we have sinned, and we need to go on admitting it when we sin again. We need to believe the truth that our sin is serious, and our only hope of cleansing is through Jesus. And we need to trust that the love and sacrifice of Jesus does, in fact, completely cleanse us. We need to live in the truth of the fact that we are now forgiven people, made holy by the efforts of Jesus. As we truly trust that, we will find ourselves sinning less, and growing closer to God.

May the Holy Spirit establish you in the truth more and more, this week, and forever!

LIVING THE LIFE OF FAITH

Jesus Comforting Kids

The Christian life continues in the same way as Christian salvation. We keep coming to Jesus with all our inner emptiness, with all our desire for sin, all our hypocrisy, our lack of will-power. He takes us each moment, as we truly are, and his presence, through the Holy Spirit, does the work of forming the character of Jesus within us.

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Galatians #8 . Chapter 3

You foolish Galatians! Who has hypnotized you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified? I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? Did you suffer so much for nothing — if in fact it was for nothing? So then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? (Gal 3:1-5, HCSB)

In many ways, the things we spoke about last week are also applicable here. Paul is continuing on his theme of living by faith. But here, he makes a clear parallel between being saved by faith, and living by faith. Most protestant Christians understand that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. With our minds at least, we believe that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s forgiveness. We recognize (to some degree) that we can’t address the holiness problem, and Jesus did that for us.

But far too many Christians proceed from there like the Galatians. The Galatians seem to have had some vague idea that it was necessary to believe in Jesus Christ for salvation, but that they had to continue on afterwards by obeying the Jewish law. The idea was this: “OK, Christ gives us salvation. But now that we are part of God’s people, we must act like it by obeying the Jewish law.” In other words: salvation is up to Jesus. Holy living afterwards is up to us.” Many Christians still think this way. Most do not think we need to obey the Jewish law. But there is a moral code, given in the Old Testament and reiterated in the New Testament. It is true that our lives should reflect the moral standards of God’s character. But, too often, we think it is up to us. We think we can get our lives to conform to those standards by our own efforts. We some kind of vague idea that Jesus’ part was to save us from hell, in and in return, our part is to put for the effort to become holy.

Brothers and sisters, that is lie from the pit of hell. I say it is from hell because it leads to the destruction of many lives, and even the destruction of faith. What happens when we believe this depends on the person.

Some people come from a relatively healthy home and are born with a strong will. These folks can push along for quite some time without screwing up in a major way. They don’t have affairs. They don’t get drunk or cheat their employers. They live productive, even giving, lives. Truly, it is better to live this way than not. A good, upright life generally leads to stable, loving relationships and benefits society as a whole. But this is far short of the real holiness that is necessary to stay in the presence of God. Those who do not realize how far short of holiness they still are, tend to become superior and legalistic. They may use their “success” at religion to put others down, and even control them. They put pressure on others to “just do it.” But even when you seem to be able to do it, it is a lot of work and a lot of pressure to feel that it is all up to you to keep on this way. These people are never at peace, never at rest. The closest they come to peace is a kind of smugness.

Other folks seem to screw up a lot more. In despair, they feel like they are poor excuses for Christians. Some of these people pretend they have it together. Then, when they are found out, non-Christians accuse them of being the worst kind of hypocrites.

Sometimes a person who fails at lot at living a holy, Christian, life ends up just giving up altogether. She might say, “Christianity isn’t for me – I just can’t seem to do it. It doesn’t work for me.”

Another person who often fails might say, “Well, I guess I’ll just squeak into heaven by the skin of my teeth. I’m just a dirty rotten sinner, and that’s all I’ll ever be until I get to heaven.” Then that person decides to go ahead and get drunk (or whatever his area of failure is), because he knows he’ll do it sooner or later anyway. He has no hope of seeing the character of Christ formed inside of him during this mortal life.

But all of these people have one thing in common: they are trying to live the Christian life by their own effort. In effect, having been saved by grace, they are now trying to live by law and works. That’s exactly what the Galatians were doing. Paul calls them foolish. He says:

After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh?

In salvation, we come to God as we are: snotty nosed, selfish, dirty and smelling of rotten garbage; unable to clean ourselves up. We come, and he takes us in his arms, snot and smell and all, and we realize that through Jesus, he has transformed us into clean, beautiful children. The Christian life continues in the same way. We keep coming to him with all our inner emptiness, with all our desire for sin, all our hypocrisy, our lack of will-power. He takes us each moment, as we truly are, and his presence, through the Holy Spirit, does the work of forming his moral character within us.

The reason so many Christians struggle to live the Christian life, is because they are still struggling to live the Christian life. What I mean is, they still think they can pull it off. They can’t. You can’t. You live the Christian life the same way you got salvation – through trusting in Jesus. As Paul says, it happens when you hear the word of God, and trust it (Galatians 3:5).

Now, shouldn’t we do the right thing? There are a lot of verses in the New Testament telling us to avoid sins, and to practice good works. But the question isn’t whether we should do them. The question is how. Do we live the Christian life by our own effort (which Paul calls “flesh” in the passage) or do we do we trust Jesus to live his life through us?

This is important, so please pay attention. A lot of folks feel that Christian faith ends up being just another set of requirements that we follow imperfectly at best. It’s true that we Christians aren’t perfect. But the Christian life isn’t about following a set of requirements. It is entirely about trusting a person: Jesus Christ.

We need to admit that we are powerless to manifest the character of God and his holiness. Even after salvation, we are powerless to do this. Then we need to trust God to do it for us, to turn it over to him, and rely upon him daily to live his life through us.

Does that sound a little vague? A little like hocus-pocus religious crap? Tell that to the hundreds of millions of people who have overcome drug and alcohol addictions in exactly this way. I just gave you the first three steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) twelve step program. Not coincidentally, AA was created by a Christian, and the twelve steps came directly from the bible. Alcoholics in AA don’t say, “Well I’m powerless to change on my own, so I might as well just keep drinking.” No, recognizing that they can’t control it, and say, “therefore, I will trust God, rather than my own efforts.”

You see, when you give up hope of doing it yourself and put your trust in Jesus, he can, and he will change your life. Giving up, when combined with trust in God, does not lead to despair or dissolution. It doesn’t lead to more sin and failure. It leads to healing and wholeness, to recovery. It is self-effort and moral self-reliance that leads to failure.

The wonderful thing too, is that in giving up on our own resources and efforts, we can experience tremendous freedom. The burden is lifted. The pressure is off. It isn’t up to you to do it. It is up to you only to trust Jesus to do it.

Just in case, you aren’t convinced, let’s follow Paul’s argument a little further. Remember, the Galatians were kind of wanna-be Jews. They thought you had to be Jewish to be a Christian. Now, one definition of a Jew was “descendant of Abraham.” So Paul says, “Do you want to be connected with Abraham? Do you want to be counted as one of his descendants? The understand, the only way for that to happen is through faith.”

Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, which says that God considered Abraham to be righteous, not because Abraham always behaved well, but because he trusted God. So, all those who have faith in Jesus are the true spiritual descendants of Abraham. They are the “true Jews.” I’m not trying to be offensive to any Jewish people. Paul is pointing out the spiritual heritage of being a descendant of Abraham is not about physical ethnicity, but about trusting God. It isn’t about observing certain rules or rites, it is about trusting God. In verse 11, Paul quotes from Habakkuk 2:4 – the “righteous shall live by faith.” What makes them righteous? What they do? No: they are righteous because of whom they trust.

By contrast, if you want to live by the law, you must live by the whole law. A lot of people don’t realize what this means. They say, “well, I’ve never committed adultery. I’ve never stolen anything. I’ve never lied or murdered.” Come on, people, those are the easy ones. How about this: has anything in your life ever been more important to you than God? If so, you’ve blown the very first commandment, and you are already out of the race. Jesus pointed this out to a man whom we call “the rich young ruler.” This guy came to Jesus and said, “Look, I’ve kept the commandments. I haven’t stolen, I’ve honored my parents, I haven’t lied, murdered or committed adultery.” Jesus said, “Good. Now, how about the first commandment? God in the flesh is standing before you. Put me first. Sell everything you have, and have only me instead.” Jesus was referring to the first commandment, of course. And the young man failed. He couldn’t put Jesus before his money (Paraphrase of Luke 18:19-23). If you’ve ever put anything in front of Jesus, you’ve already failed to keep the law.

So you’ve never stolen. That’s good. But have you ever wanted something that someone else had? If so, you’ve failed to keep the tenth commandment, and you are already out of the race. Folks, if you want credit with God for what you do (that is, for works) you have to do it all, without ever failing once. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. You have a choice. If you want to be self-righteous, then you need to be nothing less than perfect. Or, you can admit your problem, admit your inability to fix it, and trust Jesus to take care of it as you surrender your life to him.

I’m not talking about despair. I am not talking about using our inability to be good as an excuse to be bad. I am talking about giving up hope in ourselves, while at the same time, putting hope and trust in Jesus, who can and will transform you by his power, not your effort.

Recently, a family from our town moved to Florida. I did not know this family, but several friends of mine knew them well. The wife of the family was pregnant with their fifth child. She gave birth shortly after they moved to Florida – just a couple weeks ago. There were complications, and for the past week she has been in a coma, fighting for clip_image002her life. Just a few days ago, she died. A friend posted this heartbreaking picture of the newborn baby with the mama she will never know. The family did all the right things. Thousands of people prayed. They trusted the Lord. But nothing they could do saved this woman from death. We live by trusting, not doing. Yesterday, the husband wrote this note:

Two days ago I spent some time next to the shell of my best friend as she lay in the hospital. While I was devastated, my last words to her were “I will see you in heaven.” These have been the most difficult days of my life and I am facing a huge void that has been created. I wake up in the morning and realize that it is not a dream. Many of you have shared tragedies that have occurred in your life: The loss of a child, parent or a spouse; a painful divorce, or a battle with depression. These things we are going through are all things that as humans we are guaranteed to experience. I will be the first to admit that in the past when I have faced difficult circumstances I have many times tried to shoulder them on my own, or maybe question God and why he would let these things happen. The fact is we live in a fallen and broken world. I want to tell you that I have felt God’s presence in my life that passes my understanding. While I have my moments where I come apart, the presence of the Lord comforts me, putting me back together and assures me that a level path lies ahead.

These are not the words of a man who just happens to be very emotionally strong. These are words from someone who trusts Jesus, who is allowing Jesus to transform him and comfort him. That, my friends, is living by faith.