The Peace of Blamelessness

Over the past week, I have watched and listened to the news and have noticed that our American news reports are more about social networks, than about what is happening in the world. Determined to know what is going on globally, I brought up websites like bbc.com/news, Aljazeera.com, and allafrica.com to balance what I saw from US sources. I learned that there is a sex scandal in Seoul, continuing struggles with Brexit in the UK, a seaweed infestation at Mexico’s beaches, a dispute about Rwanda’s human rights report, and very different views on whether the Arab peace initiative for Palestine and Israel will see any success. What did all these issues have in common with all the scuttle on social media and the US news media? They were all about conflicts, which is how the news media makes money, (in addition to reporting on gossip and unsavory items). No disputes, no news. Since life today seems to revolve around conflict, it’s no wonder that we’re stressed out and always trying to escape from it with entertainment, food, drugs, alcohol, shopping, online games, sex, and, well, you name it. But these are temporary distractions; where do we find true refuge?  

Peter offers hope for believers in the second coming of Christ. He reminds us that politics, the stock market, homes, beauty, health, success, children, and ideas about popularity will be burned up at any time. But, “The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3:10-13) Christ’s return and the ensuing events are not good news for those whose faith is in people and politics to make a better world since this world is corrupt and broken beyond the ability to be fixed. It must be destroyed. A better one is coming, a perfect one in which we will live with perfect righteousness and peace. To that, we say Hallelujah! In the meantime, though, we live in this broken, corrupt world; although it is not our spiritual reality, it is our context and physical reality now. Paul Tripp writes: “Discouragement focuses more on the broken glories of creation than it does on the restoring glories of God’s character, presence and promises…God knows what you too are facing. He sees well the brokenness that is all around you. He is not in a panic, wondering how he’ll ever pull  off his plan with all these obstacles in the way. Don’t be discouraged. God has you exactly where he wants you. He knows just how he will use what makes you afraid in order to build your faith.” (1) 

The apostle Peter’s solution to the conflicts we face until the new earth comes with Jesus’s second incarnation is this, “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.” (2 Peter 3:14) Wait, how are we to be without any imperfection and at peace in this world? When we combine Peter’s exhortation with Tripp’s statement we realize that the best fear is that which focuses on our tendencies toward sin and ungodly attitudes, thoughts, words, and actions. These we can control, or at least confess, asking God to help us begin to work on them. It’s crucial that we hold onto this idea because “blamelessness” is challenging, and we might misinterpret this idea if we don’t read carefully. For example, Matthew Henry writes: “Never expect to be found at that day of God in peace, if you are lazy and idle in this your day, in which we must finish the work given us to do. Only the diligent Christian will be the happy Christian in the day of the Lord.” (2) If we know the man and his theology, we know that he is not suggesting our ability to be perfect in this life. We can quickly go off-track here and must be careful to remember our role in Jesus return, which is precisely the same role in his first incarnation—that of a passive recipient. Lately, some people have asked me if I subscribe to the idea that everyone on earth must hear the gospel before Christ will return. My answer is that although we are called to reach out to all the world with the gospel, we have no control over Jesus’s second incarnation, it is a work of God. (See Mark 13:32-33) 

There is only one way for Christians to grow in holiness and to be “without spot and blemish,” and that is through confession and repentance of our sins. The grace of personal confession is a gift that results in our peace with God and leads us to be peacemakers with others. Sanctification is a work of God that requires our cooperation. John Gill offers this helpful commentary: “[It] should be the concern of all that look for the glorious things here spoken of…enjoying that peace of conscience which he himself gives, and which flows from his blood, righteousness, and atonement…they will look for these things with great delight and satisfaction: in peace one with another; for peace makers and keepers are called the children of God, and so heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ…sanctification is imperfect, and many are the slips and falls of the saints, though their desire is to be harmless and inoffensive, and to give no just occasion for blame or scandal.” (3) We proactively work to crush our sin by the Spirit’s power and live the new life Christ has given us. The Holy Spirit helps us to confront our hearts, recognize our idols, and our own difficulties in our relationships at home, work, church, and in the community. He gives us the desire to humble ourselves and empowers us to be holier today than we were yesterday. “Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” (1 John 3:20-22) 

In 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, Paul offers this encouragement: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” Our perfectly faithful God will sanctify us completely, in our whole being to be perfect. If we truly embrace this truth, we will not shrink back from confronting our sin. Instead, we will employ the Spirit’s power in us to fight it with all our strength by acknowledging our sin in confession, asking the Lord to give us the ability to change (repent)–no matter how many times it takes over many days, weeks, months, or even years. Only then will we be blameless in the Lord’s eyes, by not accepting or “giving permission” for sin to in our thoughts, emotions, bodies, words, actions, or choices. Peace through confession leads to soul cleansing that supplies our joy in the Lord, releasing us from the guilt that will otherwise enslave us, the way news headlines color our world with broken images and stressful information. What might you need to confess today, for greater peace?

(1) Tripp, Paul David, “New Morning Mercies,” June 25, Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2014.

(2) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” 2 Peter 3:24, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/2peter-3.html

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” 2 Peter 3:14, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/2peter-3.html

Walking Peacefully in the Spirit

“I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do…The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self- control…If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:16-17, 22-23a, 25)

It’s summer in South Texas, which means temperatures in the upper 90s and above in the afternoons most days. Morning and evening walks are the way better than those in the middle of the day. As simple as that statement is, it assumes that I’m speaking of a healthy person who has no trouble walking—no balance, leg or foot issues, no medical condition that would prohibit enjoying God’s beautiful creation instead of having to worry about whether or not a fall is a possibility. Recently our gravel path, along the creek where I live, was paved so folks with walkers and in wheelchairs would be able to navigate it, making it possible to enjoy the sound of the water, the squirrels and birds, and the shade of the trees with minimal hindrance. When God’s Word uses the picture of walking with Him, which it does innumerable times, it never assumes that this is a natural, effortless thing to do—to obey God and live in him, for him, and through him—which is why we need the Spirit’s help. As we continue to explore what it means to walk, step by step, with the Holy Spirit, we grow in our ability to resist seeking peace from the desires of the world. 

Paul wrote Galatians for God’s people, who were having a hard time resisting the teaching of Judaizers who instructed them to be circumcised, rather than come to Christ as Gentiles, with circumcised hearts, not flesh. Here he sets up the accurate picture of the conflict between our earthly desires and the Spirit’s desires in us. It is so easy for us to fall into legalism, reducing the grace of the gospel to a list of rules—do this, don’t do that. Circumcise your flesh, don’t drink, don’t dance or go to bars, pray only on your knees, go to church three times a week, give more money to ministries, etc. Nowhere in the Bible are we encouraged to shaming and pressuring ourselves into loving God, since that is impossible. Instead, we are to turn away from and control our earthly, temporal desires in favor of the desires of the Spirit. Only then can we enjoy God’s peace to its fullest extent. We will never accomplish this perfectly in this life, but the longer we live as Christian, transformed in our hearts, minds, and souls, the more we will walk with Christ, step by step. Every time I walk on our new path by the creek, I notice more things to appreciate among the rocks in the water and the trees surrounding it. 

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church, he urges them to “not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 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.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18) Walking with Christ is not automatic or straightforward, as if we experience and demonstrate all the fruits of the Spirit easily and quickly. Paul wrote his epistles from a context of affliction, seeing it as an advantage to himself and all Christians. Problems and human limitations have several benefits: they remind us of Christ’s suffering for us, keep us from pride, cause us to look beyond this brief life, prove our faith to others, and give God the opportunity to demonstrate his power. (1) When life is tough, overwhelming, challenging, and discouraging, we don’t lose heart because we have God’s Spirit working in us. He speaks to our hearts, reminding us of all Jesus taught and did for us through his historical gospel-centered life, atoning death, victorious resurrection and ascension, and his continual heavenly intercession on our behalf. 

The Spirit produces fruit in us, and more as we participate with him in his work of sanctifying us for God’s glory and our enjoyment of walking with the Lord. In Galatians 5:22-23 Paul expounds nine fruits or blessings of the Holy Spirit in us, produced through our God-given faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps, you, like me, have studied the fruits of the Spirit many times, and usually because we realize how little of them we experience and demonstrate. With peace as our focus, I couldn’t help but notice that in Paul’s list, love and joy appear before peace, while all the others come after it. Having no scholarly commentary on this, but only my own observation, based on my Christian experience, I wonder, are love and joy are prerequisites for peace and do the other fruits (patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) have peace as their prerequisite? Just a question. We know from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that the greatest graces are faith, hope, and love, “but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13) Godly love, like all the fruits of the Spirit, is not something we manufacture, but given to us by Christ, increased in us as we learn to live through God rather than through our own strength or determination, loving Christ, his Word, his people, and others whom he puts in our lives. Second in the list is joy for the salvation Jesus has provided, for fellowship with him, his forgiveness, and the hope of our life to come eternally. The more I love, the more joy I have in Christ, the more peace I have in my life with him. Of course, God being perfectly complete, the more peace I have with him, the more joy and love I also have. The point is that all these work together and not independently. When I don’t love walking with the Spirit, desiring joy in him, my flesh takes control, and my peace with God and with others is elusive at best. 

Where do you like to walk, or wish you could walk if you could—along a river in the countryside, on the beach, or through the trees on a mountain? Imagine walking in your ideal place and the peace you may have, surrounded by the sounds of nature and sight of the foliage or sky, water or sand. As you walk, you love the way the Lord has glorified creation and have joy in the simplicity of observation. You are at peace. From your peacefulness, as you approach others, patience, kindness, goodness, and gentleness flow easily from you. As you return home to reenter your usual routines, it’s a little easier to practice self-control when tempted by ungodly desires. Is this a daydream or a reality? God’s Word testifies that it is the way we walk in the Spirit, by his power and grace as believers in Christ. We are patient when we accept God’s providence and timing and endure, without fear, challenges of relationships; kind, good, and gentle when we have sympathy toward others without worrying about losing out on personal time or interests. Our humility reflects that of Jesus Christ because peacefulness permeates our lives. 

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) L. Berkhof writes, “The mystical union with Christ also secures for the believer the continuously transforming power of the life of Christ, not only in the soul but also in the body. The soul is gradually renewed in the image of Christ, as Paul expresses it, “from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.’ II Cor. 3:18…Being in Christ, believers share in all the blessings which He merited for his people. He is for them a perennial fountain springs into everlasting life.” (2)  I don’t know about you, but this is an almost unimaginable gift and blessing that I have only started to appreciate—that I am continually being transformed into the image of Christ. Most days, I view myself and my life as pathetic examples of a changed person, instead of having abundant joy in my transformation. Where is the peace in that? But “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:17) I am trusting God to help me appropriate his love and joy for greater peace and fruit. Will you join me? 

(1)    Life Application Bible, New International Version, 2 Corinthians 4:17, Tyndale House Publishers, 1991.

(2)    Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology, “The Mystical Union,” Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993June 19, 2019

The Holy Spirit’s Peace

“I have a low tolerance for people who complain about things but never do anything to change them. This led me to conclude that the single largest pool of untapped natural resources in this world is human good intentions that are never translated into actions.” (Cindy Gallop, an English advertising consultant and founder of “IfWeRanTheWorld”) (1) 

I think we would all agree that our good intentions will never fix anything or solve our problems unless we act upon them. As far as peace and gospel living go, most of us have intentions to be faithful to our calling as Christians. But acting on our intentions is a different matter entirely. Implied in Gallop’s statement above and her work with her foundation is her belief that we can do what is necessary to fix things if we would only translate our good intentions into observable behavior. You and I have probably spent enormous amounts of time trying to do what is right or good, especially in our relationships, and have failed on many of those occasions for various reasons. One reason for our failures is trying to independently to achieve something only God can do, especially when it comes to living in harmony with others. Our relationships with family members of differing ages, friends with alternative beliefs or opinions, tired and overworked co-workers vying for success, neighbors whom we don’t really know, or church members who bring all different experiences with them from different churches and backgrounds are often complex and challenging when we would like them to be pleasant, agreeable, and enriching.

Peace is something we all value; those parties who must debate and negotiate are thrilled when amenable terms are reached. We bring out the champagne (or ice cream) and sign contracts, or remind each other of what we just agreed upon, getting onto the business of life. We want peace. We seek peace. We pray for God’s peace. Unfortunately, we desire peace mainly because we want to avoid trouble and conflicts. But James reminds us that this peace must start inside us. “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1) God wants us to be at peace with him, and at peace within ourselves, but we know that as long as we are alive here on earth, our flesh’s’ desires will war against our spirits’ renewed longings. We are like the people described by Paul in Ephesians 4:14, “…children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” In “The Art of Thinking Clearly,” Rolf Dobelli writes about how “Why We Prefer a Wrong Map to No Map At All” in Chapter 11. (2) I was led astray by someone who gave me wrong directions, rather than just say, “I don’t know” when traveling on dirt roads in Africa, looking for a school in the bush. Dobelli makes a good point, but his worldview is godless and based only on man’s limited wisdom. I could cite hundreds of other people, books, and articles that point to man’s ineffective ways to fix our thinking, our problems, and our relationships. But we have another resource for resolving our differences, and not only to avoid turmoil. We have the Holy Spirit’s help, so we don’t have to seek just any solution that seems better; he gives us the courage to dive into the mysterious waters of our bewilderment and conflicted desires, with his presence for our peace.

Why does God desire our peacefulness? We are called to maintain the unity of the Spirit, to attain the unity of faith and knowledge, no longer being easily influenced by wayward ideas, doctrines, or schemes, to grow in Christ as a body that works properly and is built up in love. “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all…to attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:1-6, 13-16) “Peace is what the saints are called unto in the effectual calling: and what is suitable to God, who is the God of peace; and to Christ, who is the Prince of peace; and to the Holy Spirit, whose fruit is peace; and to the Gospel, which is the Gospel of peace; and to the character which the saints bear, which is that of sons of peace.” (3)

The Holy Spirit is the source of our “soul” peace; he can permeate our lives and our desires for unity in the body after he establishes God’s peace in us when we are regenerated. At that time, the Spirit enters our hearts and lives to help us “feel [our] dependence on Christ in the very depths of [our] being, —in the sub-conscious life. Hence [we are] incorporated in Christ, and as a result experiences that all the grace which [we receive] flows from Christ. The constant feeling of dependence thus engendered, is an antidote against all self-righteousness.” (4) When our friend expresses her strong political leanings that are in direct opposition to ours, rather than try to prove that we are right in our opinions, desires, viewpoints, or actions, the Spirit gives us the desire and ability to be at peace and find our unity in the person and work of Jesus Christ. When a family member disagrees with our parenting style, God’s Spirit walks with us, bearing with others, eager to maintain our unity in Christ, and possibly using our differences as an opportunity to share the gospel. When our brother or sister at church questions our response to a biblical statement, the Spirit may convict us of their accuracy and we grow together. One of the most effective graces for peace is our corporate worship, Bible study, and prayer through our local churches. These are avenues for the Spirit to work in us, teaching us to love each other more than ourselves. “The consideration of this should engage [us] to unity, because a contrary conduct must be grieving to the Spirit of God, unsuitable to his genuine fruits, and very unlike the true spirit of a Christian.” (5) 

“Immaturity in the truths of Christian doctrine makes the church like gullible children tossed helplessly by the waves and wind of cunning and deceitful schemes of false teachers…Some people think that the learning of doctrine is inherently divisive, but it is people who divide the church, whereas the knowledge of the Son of God (both knowing Christ personally and understanding all that he did and taught) is edifying and brings about “mature manhood” when set forth in love.” (6) We know that the Holy Spirit continually teaches us Jesus’s teaching and works; he is the One who gives us Christ’s peace of reconciliation and sanctification. (John 14:26-27) Our calling is to maintain the peace already given and continually supplied to us by him; this is not a one-time event, but an aspect of our eternal life with Christ. 

Do we separate our lives into compartments, so that shopping, having meals with friends, working, parenting, and enjoying entertainment are all “other” things we do when we are not worshipping, praying, or studying Scripture? Or do you depend on the Spirit to supply your peace and help you maintain it in your relationships? Are you trying to fix the world and make your own (wrong) map to avoid the tricky aspects of life? Do we try to fit into the upside-down culture of our times, and the expectations of others to debate and disagree about almost everything? Or do we seek to follow God’s path of true peace? “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions. It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.” (Jude 1:18-21)

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cindy_Gallop.I am not endorsing her or her foundations.

(2) Dobelli, Rolf, “The Art of Thinking Clearly,” Sceptre, U.K., 2013. I do not recommend this book. 

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Ephesians 4:3, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/ephesians-4.html

(4) Berkoff, L., Systematic Theology, “The Mystical Union” (page 452-3), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, Reprinted 1993 

(5) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Ephesians 4:4, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/ephesians-4.html

(6) English Standard Version Study Bible Notes, Ephesians 4:13-14, (digital edition), Crossway, 2008.

June 12, 2019

God’s Sovereign Control Supplies Our Peace

Here’s one thing I learned in Africa: don’t become too attached to your plans, since they may change at any moment. When getting to school or work depends upon finding water for your family, leaving without breakfast, using unreliable, malfunctioning public transportation and walking in the rain, it’s not unusual to be late. It takes diligence, enormous energy, and the right motivation to get to your destination on time. Here in America, we are held to a standard by our doctors or lawyers who charge late fees if we don’t show up for our appointments on time or have to reschedule after struggling with traffic for up to two hours if there is a jam. So there are times when our plans don’t work out as we expect, but in America, many people believe they have a right to get their way even when circumstances are beyond anyone’s control. This week I was in a physician’s waiting room when a couple exploded in anger because the husband couldn’t be treated as expected. No one was in control of the man’s sugar level, and the doctor wanted to protect him from a possible complication of going forward with a procedure. Rather than accept the situation, and appreciate the doctor’s concern, they thought the physician was unreasonable. I don’t know what it took for them to get to the office, but I do know that their intense reaction to their circumstance caused the staff and the patients do lose our peace for a few minutes. It just so happens that I had been working on my outline for this post when the disruption occurred. So by the grace of God and his Spirit in me, rather than worry, I was grateful to be the next to be seen by the doctor, whom I know to be a gentle, loving Christian. We had a lovely conversation about how God might use the man’s experience to help him watch his blood sugar more closely and how doctors are not magicians. Jesus was the One whom he needed to help him with his fears and anger. We were calmed and grateful for God’s plans, rather than man’s. On the way home, I prayed that the couple would later be convicted and thank God for his protection. 

In the Book of Numbers, we find a similar episode, when the leaders of Israel questioned Moses’s and Aaron’s leadership, grumbling after the Lord put to death Korah and his family. So God provided a supernatural proof of his choice of Aaron as their High Priest, to convince the people to stop complaining and opposing His leaders. He instructed Moses to have all the family heads supply a staff to be put into the holiest place, saying that one would bud, proving that he was God’s chosen priest. “On the next day, Moses went into the tent of the testimony, and behold, the staff of Aaron for the house of Levi had sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds.” (Numbers 17:8) Did the people of Israel quiet down and accept God’s will for their leadership? Oh no, they focused only on the restriction that God placed on them after Aaron’s staff was stored in the tabernacle. “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Put back the staff of Aaron before the testimony, to be kept as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against me, lest they die.’ Thus did Moses; as the Lord commanded him, so he did. And the people of Israel said to Moses, ‘Behold, we perish, we are undone, we are all undone. Everyone who comes near, who comes near to the tabernacle of the Lord, shall die. Are we all to perish?’” (Numbers 17:10-13)

The idea that we will stop complaining if we get our way is a product of our corrupted thinking and the sin in our hearts. And yet, we grumble and complain when our plans are disrupted, or someone won’t give us something we have “a right” to receive.* But if we genuinely believe that God is sovereign, good, and trustworthy, which he is, then we would be grateful for every time that he restrains us, prevents us from dangers, or redirects our plans. Twice this week, my plans changed on the day they were scheduled. Both times I saw how the Lord redirected me to do something different, that proved to be hard at first, but a real benefit and blessing afterward. Why didn’t the Israelites get it? Well, for one thing, they didn’t have the Holy Spirit living in them as we Christians do, to help us yield to God’s ways and timing. They also didn’t have the sacrificial atonement of Christ to look back on, to see how His greatest suffering provided the incredible gift of salvation. Having our plans not work out is microscopically inconvenient compared to the immense suffering of our Savior, who prayed “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42) Oh, would we pray this when such small disruptions come our way! 

God used a miracle when he caused Aaron’s dead staff to produce blossoms, leaves, and buds all at the same time, overnight, from dead wood, at a time when almond trees don’t bloom. The fullness of God’s miracles reminds us of the abundance of his grace. We don’t need a miracle to find peace amid change since we already have Christ, who is the object of the miracle—bringing what is dead to new life through his incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. The Israelites could have had great peace, having the matter resolved, by looking to the Lord’s sovereign protection, but they focused instead on their fears. Instead of delighting in the magnificence of Aaron’s beautiful blossoming staff, they were stuck in their obduracy. They might have celebrated God’s grace to provide proof of his presence with them, which would be the opposite of their grumbling and opposition. They were like the Pharisees, described in Luke 15:2, “And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” Wouldn’t it have been better to be like Zacchaeus, who was thrilled to receive Jesus at his home? (See Luke 19:4-7) God’s restraint of the Israelites from approaching his tabernacle reminds us that no one can approach God unless Jesus draws them to himself, and that will always be through death to ourselves, to live for, with, and through him. (See Numbers 1:51 and John 6:44.)

When do you grumble and complain? Keep in mind that grieving, sadness, and regret are not at issue here, but opposing the will of God as he works in our circumstances is the focus. When we doubt God to work for our good and the good of others, we lose our peace and therefore, our joy. But “The hope of the righteous brings joy…” (Proverbs 10:28a) Do you trust God to know what is best? Will you look to Christ and the Holy Spirit to help you accept things beyond your control, supplying the peace you want?

*If you are plagued by your inability to flex when you can’t get your way, you may want to read, “Have We No Rights?” by Mabel Williamson. Although the book is described as one for missionaries, it is appropriate for all Christians. A free download is available at https://manybooks.net/titles/williamsonm2452824528-8.htmlJune 6, 2019

Our Body of Believers Improves Through Peace

This week I was encouraged twice to resist negative people in my life, once in a Facebook post, another in a chapter of a book I am reading by a Christian author.  We hear a lot about avoiding “negative people or energy” these days, and there are probably many ways to interpret the idea. However, in “No is a Beautiful Word,” the author is particular. “Our world is filled with negativity and incivility, and these seem to be increasing exponentially. Here is my challenge. You can refuse the lure of pessimism, toxic attitudes, and never-ending negativism. Choose to fix your heart and mind on what is good, beautiful, positive, and edifying. (Philippians 4:8)” (1) Our culture has a powerful influence on us, so we need to be careful about its interpretation of what is good, especially since so many “bad” things are called right today. Just think of the current slang words used to describe something good, like “dope” or “sick.” But Christians are called to walk with the Lord in a way that builds up the body. That is our primary calling, whether we are living in Europe, Latin America, Africa, or America. Our culture should not determine whether or not we live independently of each other. 

“Grace frees you from the dissatisfying claustrophobia of your individualism to enjoy the fulfilling freedom of loving and serving God…Individualism is not freedom; it is bondage. Living for yourself is not liberty; it is a self-imposed prison…The entrance of sin into the world and into our hearts teaches us that we were not hardwired for independence. It…complicates things. The fall made us all a danger to ourselves. Because of the sin in us, we think bad things, we desire bad things, we are attracted to bad things, and we choose bad things—and we are blind to much of this going on inside of ourselves…It really is true that individualism is a delusion, that joyful submission is the good life, and that Jesus alone is able to transport you from one to the other. If you find more joy in serving God than yourself, you know that grace has entered your door, because only grace has the power to rescue you from you.” (2) 

Every book in the Bible reflects God’s desire that we live as a community. When people ask me what I miss about living in Africa, I always speak of the communal aspect of life in sub-Sahara Africa that I miss. In developed nations, however, people are inclined to live independently, having little contact with those outside of their small circle of family, friends, and co-workers. Yet we have the opportunity to develop a community life that reflects biblical principles which I learned in the African community and experienced in the churches there. In Kenya, a women’s guild of the local church started a home for children with AIDS/HIV. In Ghana, 200 church members came to our village to gift us with food for the children living there. In Liberia, a church is the main sponsor of a home for severely disabled children. These churches are made up of individuals who use their peace and well-being to assist others in a big way. This is how the body of Christ is meant to work. We were not created or designed by God to be independent of him or each other, but to live as a well-functioning body for his glory and pleasure. (See 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:4, 12-16.)

Three times in Acts, Luke writes how the church grew and improved after a time of trials, during a time of peace (Acts 6:7; 9:31; 16:4). As we look at the early church, we find Stephen stoned, Saul attacking Christians, but then converted. The apostles were confused about his conversion until Barnabas brought him to Jerusalem. The apostles were settled,  but when he spoke against the Hellenists they tried to kill him, so he was sent to Tarsus. We don’t know exactly how it happened, but “…the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” (Acts 9:31) In His exposition of Acts 9:31, John Gill described the effects of the church’s peace, resulting in five particular areas. The church, having “…a godly fear, which has the Lord for its author, is not of a man’s self, but of the grace of God, and is encouraged and increased by the discoveries of his grace and goodness…it shows itself in [1] a hatred of sin; in a departure from it; [2] in a carefulness not to offend the Lord; [3] in withholding nothing from him, though ever dear and valuable, he calls for; [4] and in attending to all the parts of divine worship: [5] and walking in it denotes a continuance in it, a constant progression in all the acts of internal and external worship, which are both included in the fear of the Lord…” (3) 

As I look at these five outcomes of God’s peace on the churches and the body of Christ, I wonder if I manifest these characteristics to others, to encourage them in their faith. Do others know that I resist and detest my own sinfulness? Or do I offend God by offending others by my insensitivity or neglect? Are my hands open to give anything and everything to God, even my “irreplaceable” time and energy without fearing their loss? How do I worship Him, with my whole heart, or superficially on Sunday mornings only by my appearance in church? Is my life worshipful? Do my walk, my choices and decisions reflect spiritual growth and an increased appreciation and love for Christ? What am I doing with the peace God has given our local church, after a time of grief? When my brothers and sisters have peace after a particular struggle, am I aware of their underlying sensitivity and vulnerability, to comfort and help them with God’s Word? 

“Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever.” (Hebrews 13:20-21)  As the Spirit works in you, he works in us for his glory. Let’s welcome the work of God during times of peace, to give us hearts for God and each other, calling us away from the love of independence and individualism.

(1) Harney, Kevin G., “No Is a Beautiful Word” page 146, Zondervan, Kindle Edition.

(2) Tripp, Paul David, “New Morning Mercies,” May 29, Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2014.

(3) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Acts 9:31, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/acts-9.html

Our Peace Should Glorify God

Over the last couple of months, I watched “The Voice” on TV because I enjoy seeing vocalists strive for excellence. I am also encouraged by those who make a public profession of their faith in God, and this season there was one young man in particular who wore a visible cross when he performed and acted as one has God as his Father, giving thanks to him. He is an example of someone who, hopefully, is in the midst of an intensely personal and public project, driven to succeed, for God’s glory as well as his own satisfaction. He came in second, and I am sure that God can use him, if he is willing, in the music industry, as he uses Lauren Diagle, Mercy Me, and others. Some of us boldly speak our faith when the light is on us, and others are shyer. But when the spotlight is gone, the crowd has gone home, and quietness descends, do we find ourselves to be peaceful and motivated to glorify God? It is rare for some to experience shalom in their lives, when they are at peace within themselves, with God, with others, and not undergoing any momentous ventures, family adjustments, trials or struggles physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. You may not even be able to identify the last time you would describe life as peaceful, internally, and externally. Those of us who are retired, without children at home or workplace expectations, have more of these days, although physical challenges and the illnesses of others may creep in to disturb our peace. The question for this devotion is not how much peace we have, but, “How do we glorify God with it?” This is very closely related to a previous devotion, two weeks ago, asking, “How do we use our peaceful times to grow spiritually?” Since our spiritual growth is not for our benefit alone, but to build up the body, it is logical to consider how we bear fruit in our peace, to bring God praise and generate thanksgiving for him.

When David wanted to build the Lord a temple, God revealed his plan to have Solomon, his son, a man of peace, build it instead. “Behold, a son shall be born to you who shall be a man of rest. I will give him rest from all his surrounding enemies. For his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days.” (1 Chronicles 22:9) David’s life was about war—fighting for the Lord—that was how he glorified God. When the wars were over, as King of Israel, David succeeded in organizing all the people to serve in the temple, the finances to build it, ordering the army, and providing leadership for the nation of Israel (See 1 Chronicles 23-29). He used peace to continue glorifying God as King, within the constraints God had provided for him. David didn’t pout over God’s denial of his dream to build a temple, and he didn’t grumble and fight the Lord plan. The Lord gave David and Israel rest from their opposition for a purpose. God did not require David’s approval of his plan; he said, “I will give him rest…I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days.” God will, so Solomon will build the temple. Period. No discussion, no majority vote. The King of kings, David’s holy boss, did not need or want David’s or Solomon’s consent. The Lord had a purpose for removing the non-believers from Canaan—to protect his people’s worship and devotion to him by limiting the influence of idolatrous nations. And so the Lord had a purpose in calling the war quits when he did (although not all the Canaanites and other “ites” had been removed). It was time for the people of God to have a magnificent place of worship. This huge thirteen-year building project required peace. 

You and I often consider our peace a time of recovery and refreshment, which it should be. I think, though, that we stop short and don’t consider how we might use our time more purposefully. Families might think about how they might help another family before beginning their vacation or help an elderly neighbor before going to the movie. We don’t have to forgo our pleasurable enjoyments, but we also aren’t glorifying the Lord if we don’t consider the needs of others along with our enjoyable pursuits when resting from our work or trials. I try to use my rest times (as I sit here with an ice pack on my knee) to write, and perhaps that is one way to glorify God—writing notes to friends or family, remembering those we love with encouraging thoughts, or writing devotions, Bible studies, or even testimonies to share with others. Studying to teach, texting to those who are living alone or going through a difficult time, and calling someone on the phone are all ways to glorify God without exerting ourselves physically. Some mistaken Christians think that a believer’s life is one of ease, without difficulties or struggles. The Bible says no such thing; Jesus stated that we would have “tribulation” in this world. But since we don’t all have it at the same time, it makes sense that we will help others when our trials are minimal or completed. Matthew Henry commented on our passage, “David gives Solomon the reason why he should build the temple…Where God gives rest, he expects work.  Because God had promised to establish his kingdom…God’s gracious promises should quicken and strengthen our religious service.” (1) 

After coming close to burnout twice in my work life, I am a great believer in balance and times of refreshment. It’s almost impossible, though, to think logically and biblically about those “down” times when your body, mind, and emotions are exhausted and in need of recuperation. The Bible contains many warnings about the trappings and dangers of the world, and even Solomon fell to them after building God’s temple and writing scores of wise proverbs that are used by billions of people to remind us of God’s statutes. The Lord named Solomon as the one to build his temple; he has named us believers as those who will bring him praise through our inheritance. “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:11-14) This passage reminds us (twice) that we are saved to eternal life, by God, for the “praise of his glory.” 

Solomon did not stop building after he completed the temple. He erected many other important buildings in Jerusalem and Israel, including his palace with a Hall of Judgement where he met with people to dispense his wisdom and judge between them. In this way, Solomon continued to glorify God with his and Israel’s peace. King Solomon also constructed a water system for Jerusalem and places of defense, a commercial depot, and a military outpost for Israel. It was the “golden age” of Israel, who had the wises king who ever lived. (2) Even the Queen of Sheba, came from far away to hear Solomon’s wisdom. But you and I know One who is wiser than Solomon. “…behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” (Matthew 12:42) We are, hopefully, not in danger of being judged for our unbelief in Christ, the Savior, as were the Pharisees, who were being warned by Jesus in Matthew 12. But we do have the Spirit of Christ in us, who convicts us of our calling to listen to his voice to fulfill our roles in the kingdom, even and especially when we are at peace. 

Quietness and peace allow us the opportunity to hear the Lord’s voice more clearly in our hearts and minds as we open his Word and yield to his Spirit in us. Will we desire this, for his praise without fear that he will require of us more than we can do? Some of us are challenged by the many ideas we have about what we can do for someone or how we could help with a project, which may not be God’s priorities for us. Every time we engage in something from our imagination, we are like David when he desired to build a temple for the Lord. It was not God’s calling for him. Will you wait patiently, and continue resting, before jumping into something new, even if it seems right? How might the Lord want you to serve and glorify him when he gives you peaceful circumstances and a quiet, contented spirit? “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17)

(1) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” 1 Chronicles 22:6-16, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/1chronicles-22.html

(2) Easton’s 1897 Dictionary of the Bible, software version, on “Solomon,” M.G. Easton.

May 22, 2019

Facing Death with Peace

I am dedicating this devotion to the memory of Hannah Ross, Christ’s daughter.

I began studying for this devotion last Wednesday, one week ago. It is inconceivable to me that the precious daughter of my friends would die tragically a few days later. God has proved his grace and mercy, along with his sovereign omnipotence and omniscience through his guidance this week. He knew that I, along with some of my followers, would need to meditate on his grace to face the death of a loved one. I am single, never married, and without children. I personally know the pain of losing a parent, but I can only feel the angst of losing a spouse or a child through the grief of my friends. After burying ten of his eleven children, John Owen wrote “…a due contemplation of the glory of Christ will restore and compose the mind…[it] will lift the minds and hearts of believers above all the troubles of this life, and is the sovereign antidote that will expel all the poison that is in them; which otherwise might perplex and enslave their souls.” (1) I hope you find comfort in these three passages.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4) Our sovereign Lord sends us into some scary territory in this life, just as he did in biblical times when he sent Abraham away from his home country and sent Moses back to Egypt, where men wanted to kill him. In Psalm 23, David, who confronted his share of enemies, including Goliath and Saul, reminds us that the Lord doesn’t send us alone. He accompanies, protects, and comforts us in these times when we fear for our lives and the lives of others. God helps us not only when we are suffering alone, but when our entire community grieves, as is the case for my friends’ daughter. “God is in the midst of [Israel]; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.” (Psalms 46:5) Being surrounded by our brothers and sisters in Christ reminds us that our believing departed loved ones are in God’s care, and though we may be devastated to lose them, we need not fear for them or ourselves. I am so grateful for our church body and community of love who gathered together today to say goodbye to Hannah and remember her precious, creative spirit. 

Death casts a dark shadow into what feels like a low valley of despair and helplessness. We are the sheep who cannot see our way forward or out of its grip. The Lord, our Shepherd, knows what lurks in the shadows and, with his omnipotent rod, he banishes our demons. He uses that same rod to guide us onward when it is time to climb out. When death confronts us by taking our loved ones or even threatens our lives, our Shepherd eases our fears with his ever-peaceful, constant presence. We need not fear “…since everything…is determined by God, and comes not without his knowledge and will, and works for good, and cannot separate from the love of Christ… in a word, the presence, power, and protection of Christ, in and by his Gospel and ordinances, are what are here intended, and which are the comfort and safety of his people, in the worst of times and cases.” (2) As my pastor said today, in Hannah’s funeral message, we look to Christ for our strength, assurance, and resurrection—this is how we face the “valley of the shadow of death.”

“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55) Death stings. And the worst kind of death is sudden death, which stings like an arrow coming out of the bushes. In Africa, guards in the bush are sometimes trained to shoot arrows rather than guns because it is almost impossible to determine the source of the quiet shaft, as opposed to a loud gunshot. The silence of the arrow as it travels to its destination makes it even more dangerous because the shooter cannot be located. When death strikes suddenly, without warning, or time to prepare ourselves, its sting feels lethal—and is physically for its victim. But for the Christian, death is not a fatal bite of the Serpent, but a temporary trial, since the redemption of Christ, our antidote, is applied to the deep, bleeding wound. We may not relate easily to the idea of death being swallowed up, and I hope you will forgive my mixed metaphors. I appreciate the irony here since it’s usually a snake (serpent) that swallows its victim, not the other way around. However, here we have death boasting of victory, but Christ swallowed it whole on the cross, taking the sting of sin out of physical death for us so that we might have His life in our death and that of our loved ones. Hannah, and others like her, who have died in Christ have left their perishable, mortal bodies to exist in their imperishable, immortal souls fully, and will, in glory, inhabit imperishable, immortal bodies. Oh, how we will cherish our reunion with them! Jesus Christ has swallowed up the danger and pain of Hannah’s death for her as He has done for us, and we will know it when it is our time. As Matthew Henry stated, “Death may seize a believer, but it cannot hold him in its power. How many springs of joy to the saints, and of thanksgiving to God, are opened by the death and resurrection, the sufferings and conquests of the Redeemer!” (3)

 “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.” (Psalm 46:1-3) God gives us evidence of His safety and comfort amid scary events; when the earth trembles, He won’t. The Lord holds onto us as we shake until we can melt into His mighty, loving embrace. The people of Christ are safe and secure even when the ground under us seems to move because God is our security. I almost didn’t write this devotion today because Hannah’s death is too new, our grief too raw, the pain of losing her too close to the surface. But who am I to change God’s sovereign plan for my writing, or question His ability to hold us, to be our sufficient refuge as we mourn and grieve today? And, can we accept that we will be sad but do not have to also be afraid of death, or of going on to live without our beloved? Since God is our refuge and strength, we will not have to tremble in fear. We may indeed be very sad, but we are looking out from under His wings of hope and protection until that day when He also takes us out of this world, and its harrowing traumas. 

The great Christian reformer, Martin Luther wrote, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, and spirits.” In 1529 he composed “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” based on Psalm 46. (4) It is fitting to close with the hymn and its powerful reminder that in God alone is hope, safety, and ultimate peace.

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing: For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate, On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing; Dost ask who that might be? Christ Jesus, it is He.  Lord Sabaoth His name, from age to age the same, And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us; The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow’rs, no thanks to them, abideth; The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth; Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.

(1) Quoted by Reeves, Michael, “Rejoicing in Christ,” Chapter 4, InterVarsity Press, 2015.

(2) Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Psalm 23:4,  https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/psalm-23.html

(3) Henry, Matthew “Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible,” 1 Corinthians 15:54-55,https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mhm/1corinthians-15.html

(4) Morgan, Robert J., “Then Sings My Soul,” Nelson Publishing, 2003.

May 16, 2019