Wave the White Flag: Winning by Losing

Whether we want to admit it or not, most of us are at war with God. Intuitively we know this but consciously, we want to convince ourselves that we’ve always been on the good side–God’s side. After all, we love his music (when we are not listening and dancing to something else), we praise him at church (just before we throw shade at the member who didn’t call us by our title: Grand Imperial Poobah ELDER), and we preach powerful sermons about him that make people stream to the altar in tears then we hurry home and cheat on our taxes, overeat, or watch pornography. Even if we don’t do these things, lying of any kind; ungratefulness; proud, haughty attitudes and behavior; unkindness; and fearfulness are listed in scripture as lake-of-fire offenses to God. Hence, according to Paul in Romans 8: 6,7, we are at war:

“For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” 

Here Paul uses the word enmity. To get a sense of the word’s meaning, look at the synonyms for enmity: hostility, animosity, antagonism, friction, antipathy, animus, acrimony, bitterness, rancor, resentment, aversion, ill feeling, bad feeling, ill will, bad blood, hatred, hate, loathing, odium; malice, spite, spitefulness, venom, malevolence. These synonyms make it clear that our carnal or natural mind that is not transformed by God hates Him and is in mortal conflict with him. As I wrote in another post, “. . . our struggle against sin is rarely a struggle against sin; it’s usually a struggle against God! If you’re honest, the agony is in knowing that something we want so much is wrong. We identify with it–we can taste it, feel it, we’re stimulated to the breaking point by it and God is saying no. At that very moment, our minds and bodies are screaming yes! Ask yourself the question: At that moment, are you frustrated with sin or with God? In the middle of a porn movie, do you want to talk to your pastor about ministry? Do you want to read Counsels on Diet & Food as you are eating your cheesecake?” 

This is the shape of the war between man and God. Our love for the pleasures of sin, our enslavement to habits, our fear that we cannot go a minute without succumbing to the temptations that prey on us, lead us to wage war to maintain our status quo of “normal”. Sin may be our captor, but we know him well and have grown comfortable with him as our dance partner. God, we don’t trust him. He’s trying to take away the joys of normal life. He wants to strip us bare and humble us (read humiliate us). His joy is not funny, sexy, spicy or fattening! God’s way, in our minds, is abnormal, bland, lifeless, tasteless, straight-laced and, worst of all, unsustainable. It’s the sure road to pain and defeat; why bother to start since we’ll be back at the doughnut pile in no time! In our sin-twisted thinking, we believe that God hates what we love and hates fun! He wants us to be out of style and out of touch–not cool. So we have to duck him, discredit him, obliterate him from our minds so that we can be normal, acceptable and comfortable in this world. In our minds, He stands only for what we can’t do. This is why Paul says the carnal or fleshly mind is enmity against God.

Natures and Browser Tabs
BUT, there is also this crazy dynamic that Paul tried to explain in Romans 7 that presents the complexity of the war between man and God and why the white flag must come into play. Listen to Paul’s description of our internal battle in Romans 7: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

Did you catch it? We have two warring natures living inside of us. There is a spiritual nature that yearns after God and his way and hates the sin and enslavement that comes with it. Then there is that ugly sinful nature that rages against God and anything like Him. Think about it, at any given time we want to both win the war against sin and win the war against God. One way to look at this is to compare it to what happens when we have two browser tabs running videos at the same time. We’re watching one tab, but the audio from the other is playing loudly and the mixture of the two is confusing. This is why many of us feel that we have always been on the good side–we have. It’s just that the bad side has been running in the other tab with the volume up. One browser, two tabs; one life, two competing natures. But that nature running in the bad tab is sucking the life out of the good tab. It’s putting you in a position that has you loathing the good tab but feeling compelled to keep it open because it’s where you belong even if your soul is wishing the bad tab was acceptable. The duplicity and mental conflict are exhausting. Sooner or later you’re going to hit the X on one of the tabs. It will most likely be the good tab. Your addiction to the bad tab will eventually cause you to feel that you are a hypocrite and there is no use pretending you’re a Christian anymore: Close the good tab; it’s not real! Continue reading

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More than shouting: but something to shout about!

You hear a lot about what the Holy Spirit does, but most of it amounts to speaking in tongues, prophecy, or emotional explosions–a form of spiritual catharsis. Here I present a powerful piece on the Spirit that is so helpful that it needs little commentary.

“It is by the Spirit that the heart is made pure. Through the Spirit the believer becomes a partaker of the divine nature. Christ has given His Spirit as a divine power to overcome all hereditary and cultivated tendencies to evil, and to impress His own character upon His church. AG 194.2

While we yield ourselves as instruments for the Holy Spirit’s working, the grace of God works in us to deny old inclinations, to overcome powerful propensities, and to form new habits. AG 194.3

The Spirit of God, received into the soul, quickens all its faculties. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the mind that is devoted unreservedly to God, develops harmoniously, and is strengthened to comprehend and fulfill the requirements of God. The weak, vacillating character becomes changed to one of strength and steadfastness…. AG 194.4

It is the Spirit that causes to shine into darkened minds the bright beams of the Sun of Righteousness; that makes men’s hearts burn within them with an awakened realization of the truths of eternity; that presents before the mind the great standard of righteousness, and convinces of sin; that inspires faith in Him who alone can save from sin; that works to transform character by withdrawing the affections of men from those things which are temporal and perishable, and fixing them upon the eternal inheritance. The Spirit recreates, refines, and sanctifies human beings, fitting them to become members of the royal family, children of the heavenly King. AG 194.5.”

Ellen G. White, God’s Amazing Grace (devotional)

Why Boundaries Matter

Have you ever been rummaging through the apps on your tablet or phone and found something you forgot you had bought? That’s what happened to me recently and the discovery jolted me in a fabulous way that I want to share with you. One evening while touring my iPad, I decided to see what was lurking under my iBooks icon. Immediately, my eyes fell on a book that I bought and had started reading but the book somehow became lost in the shuffle of life. It is amazing to me how the Lord banks important readings for times when we will cherish the treasure of a book’s insights and be transformed by them rather than merely eeking out some small satisfaction for having finished another book.

The book is Boundaries, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Someone had recommended the book to me sometime back and I bought it. Now I highly recommend it because it addresses one of the most serious matters in life. As a matter of fact, if we all had a better concept of boundaries in our lives, our family relations, friendships, church connections and office associations would be far less contentious and much more satisfying. I won’t try to capture the volumes of material I found, but I will share a couple of key ideas that have helped me to have greater confidence and more peace during difficult stretches of life.

The first idea is this: Establishing boundaries is not about setting roadblocks to keep people out of your life; it is about determining who you are, what you are here for and letting this knowledge help you create limits that protect your purpose and your sense of self. Many of us have, at times, become victims of missing boundaries. Much of my life was boundaryless. We spend our lives saying yes to things that have NO written all over them and dreading interactions with people who seem to be controlling us.  Taking the proper steps toward setting effective limits on our practices and interactions can give us that much needed sense of control that reduces stress in our lives.

We all can think of people we know who only do what they choose to do. If you ask them to do something that is not in their plan, They cheerfully say no with no guilt or regret. They never seem stressed–they have boundaries. It’s not that these people are mean or sadistic; They simply have a schedule and a purpose that limits the amount of random activity they allow. If what you ask does not fit their purpose or schedule, the answer is NO. Though hearing that NO jolts and embarrasses us, we secretly admire that level of control. We wonder how these folks can shut down burdensome requests with no appearance of remorse or regret. We sometimes feel horror at the very thought of saying no and find ourselves saying yes to stave off the pain of disapproval. Without boundaries, there is no limit to how much unexpected, unplanned responsibility we will allow the world to plop into our laps.

The second idea has to do with purpose as a way of establishing effective boundaries. This aspect of our effective boundaries provides a filter through which to gauge the worthiness of any request that comes to us. If I have a clear idea of why I exist; if I have a firm grasp on my mission in life then when requests come to me I can run them through that filter and say if it supports my mission and does not lessen my ability to fulfill my other mission commitments, I can do this. But many of us are so disorganized in our approach to life that we do everything in the moment and not strategically. What do I mean by this? We have an obligation of genuine love to move rapidly and deliberately toward organizing our activity in such a way that decision making is a result of coordinated, thoughtful planning and not emotion.

Let’s be honest: many of us say yes to requests without thinking because our missionless lives leave us making decisions based on our desire to be well thought of. With this at the top of our agenda, we revel in the emotional high that comes with seeing smiles and joy over our yes even if that yes in on a collision course with the last yes that is now obscured by the fog of our current euphoria. God is calling us to a higher level of service that transcends warm feelings of selfish gratification brought on by saying yes to everything. We owe the world a no that sets them free from the looming disappointment when we can’t deliver on our ill conceived promises. A firm mission, a clear mission-driven agenda for each day that carefully considers openings and potential conflicts in the schedule will allow us to deliver the effective service that we and the world need. A big part of that service is the effective boundary of NO.

This is the last point. There is a companion reason for not saying NO. That is “fear of their faces”. In Jeremiah 1:8 and in Ezekiel 2:8 God said that the prophets should not be afraid of the faces of the people when delivering their messages. Implied in this is the idea that we often are expected by God to deliver difficult messages to people that will engender a strong negative reaction. In our desire for pleasure and gratification in our interactions, we recoil from the potential pain of rejection and retaliation. We must believe God’s promises to his prophets that if we safeguard our mission by saying no to conflicting or off-mission requests, he will be with us. Moreover, our friends, family and coworkers will make it somehow, even though we said NO. We must learn to endure the faces. If we say yes to escape the sad or angry face, we will see it later when we disappoint due to being over-committed.This is just a small slice of the rich material to be found in the book Boundaries. I hope you get it and discover how to live a richer, fuller life where you have greater control and fulfillment.

Faith to face the storms

ship-storm-pageThe sun sank into the waters of lake Genesaret as the last of the throng strolled out of sight. Praise from satisfied hearts still echoed from the Galilean hills as stars lit the darkening sky. Jesus had long days. Up hours before the sun, he poured passion into saving people. The day now spent, he and the twelve launched out for a night’s journey to the far shore. Before long, the peaceful breeze and rocking water nudged Jesus into slumber. But a sudden storm tore the night, swamping the vessel–threatening to kill thirteen men. Frantically, the twelve rowed against the blast realizing in horror that their efforts were futile. They’d lost control! Then, in the blaze of lightening, the crew noticed something odd—Jesus, asleep! Thirteen men in danger, thirteen men headed for death, and only twelve struggled! Terror was eclipsed by indignity. They labored for life while somebody slept. They could take the unfairness no longer—“Master, carest thou not that we perish?” (Mark 4:38) In other words, “With all due respect, WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE–INCLUDING YOU!! DON’T YOU CARE? CAN YOU AT LEAST JOIN US AS WE GO DOWN, FIGHTING?”

We pity the disciples. Where was their faith? Jesus was there in the boat. Why the fear? Why the indignation? But haven’t we felt alone in our struggles? Perhaps caring for a sick loved one while other family members avoid the responsibility; paying big bills with small money, while those who should help don’t! We nearly loose our sanity over the cruelty of people who take their leisure at the time of our trials. Maybe the disciples felt this way. Jesus needed a wake-up call. Even in church work we sometimes succumb to the pain of seeing others merely worship without lifting a finger to help with church upkeep. The disciples showed bitterness toward Jesus. And we do, as well. Nevertheless, with the same calm that let him sleep on the roller coaster sea, Jesus calmed the waves and chastised the twelve for their lack of faith.

They had seen the greatest demonstrations of power ever displayed to human eyes. They’d participated in healing with the Master himself. How could he say that they had no faith? After all, they had forsaken everything to follow him! The answer is that, though they were dedicated men, when the crisis came they didn’t know who was in the boat with them. They were helping Jesus, and as we often do, they found themselves so busy serving and being valuable that they forgot that they needed him. They saw only that he needed them. Thus, at crisis time, they didn’t look to him, because they were the sailors; Jesus was simply a passenger–and a sleeping one at that. Knowing him as a mere passenger made simple faith impossible!

Simple faith is an uncomplicated trust that God has your life in his constant gaze, and that he is not overmatched by modern-day storms. It’s giving him the command of your ship. Jesus said, “And this is life eternal: that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” (John 17:3) In Roman 10:17, Paul says that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word about Christ. Jesus says, in John 15:5, that without him we can do nothing.

The picture is clear. Faith is only obtainable through a continual interaction with God through His word and prayer. If we don’t have time for these, we don’t have time for faith. The word immerses us in God’s thoughts, and prepares us to receive His spirit. One evening, Mary and Martha threw a dinner for Jesus. Martha could really entertain, and was determined to give her best for the Master. Mary, meanwhile, curled up at His feet to listen. Like the twelve in the storm, Martha becameSailboat in Distance indignant. She saw herself rowing alone in the kitchen, so she rushed to Jesus with a complaint similar to that of His men: “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone?” Mary didn’t doubt that Jesus cared, Martha, the faithful worker, did—as did the twelve toiling in the tempest. In terror they worked for the Master, but he wants us to work and trust! The simple truth is this:
Those who invest great time in knowing Jesus trust Him.

Lest thou learn his ways

There’s a psychological concept called mirroring. The way it works is that as we become very close to or familiar with a person’s actions and traits we can begin to instinctively mimic what they do and how they do it. Couples who have grown close over a lengthy relationship can be seen mirroring each other’s words, gestures and expressions. Close observation for both positive and negative reasons can lead to this behavior. In Proverbs 22:24-25, Solomon warned about becoming changed by association with people who have evil attributes. He said avoid the association “lest thou learn his ways.” But we don’t have to be friends with poor examples to learn their ways. We can get sucked in by focusing on negatives in people with whom we have limited contact. Have you become so focused on the bad traits of someone in your life that you can’t wait to report his or her latest evil or stupid move? Beware: continual fixation with the other person’s issues may lead to mirroring.

I remember a song I used to hate: Goin’ Up the Country.” It was the dumbest song ever written. I’m sure that it is loaded with deep social, philosophical and every other kind of meaning. When YOU listen to it, you’ll probably fall on your knees and cry out that your life is changed. When I heard it in 1969, it was dumb. It was so dumb that I couldn’t stop imitating how dumb it sounded. Before long people thought I was dumb because here was this black, city kid singing this atonal, country twang mess, by The Canned Heat and it only had a few words to it. By focusing on what I hated I became obsessed with it and started to mirror the very thing that repulsed me. Are you doing this with anyone? The boss, the neighbor, the church member: are you so fixated on rehashing their failings that you are becoming more negative by the minute? In fact, are you becoming more like the people you hate by replaying their bad ways to the point that these bad ways become yours? It’s not the behavior that needs to stop, its the attitude! You need to confess to God that you are obsessed with the negative about people and it has reduced you to a level below the people you hate. You need to be set free and transformed before you lose your salvation to mirroring evil. There’s no 12-step plan. Go to God and lay this problem at his feet. Cry out to him because the problem is deeper than you think. He is able to change you if you will let him.

Sleepwalking

sleepwalk copyIn Matthew 25, Jesus had some critical points he wanted to make before he ended his earthly ministry. He wanted take his disciples down the corridor of the future to help them understand a phenomenon that his people would face prior to his return. It is a story we love to share and dissect; the story of the ten virgins. The crucial element of this story develops early in the narrative. Let’s take a look:

Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept (Matthew 25:1 – 25:5 KJV)

Note that neither the wisdom of the wise nor the foolishness of the foolish affected whether the virgins slept. They all zonked out! We’re asleep. (Not bad: writing in my sleep!) We feel very much awake but when it comes to the deep implications of the eternal, we are knocked out with our eyes open. Jesus makes it clear: just before his return his people will be unconscious of the things we lose consciousness of when we sleep: time, location and danger.

Time
Though the ten realized the coming of the bridegroom was imminent and a major event which involved them in a significant and personal way, they each held varying ideas about how soon imminent was and what could be and needed to be done while they waited. In this sense they were unconscious of the reality of the promise. They acted on the apparent urgency of the moment not the sureness of the word. But here’s where the split happens. Five of the virgins decided to believe the sureness of the word and prepare. The other five got ready for what they felt was a reasonable wait based on their best time estimate for the arrival of the bridegroom and traveling with him to his place where they would no longer need their lamps. Looking at verse 5 we see that the bridegroom tarried. This is a critical point. Several of Jesus’ parables deal with delay. Have you noticed that? Usually in those stories the people waiting develop attitude issues related to the delay. They stop preparing for the return of the key figure in the story and start living as though the promised return was a fable or lie. According to these stories, the most serious manifestation of their unbelief is their unloving treatment of their fellow men. As a matter of fact, they preface their attitude shift with the words “Our Lord delayeth his coming!” Many of us today have a faulty understanding of the timing of Jesus return. Like the five foolish, we see ourselves having passed the reasonable wait time for a second coming. Many today are waiting for a second coming with no preparation for a life with Jesus. Their faith was built on the idea of a powerful cosmic event whose nearness was clearly outlined in charts and prophetic timelines. Time has become a form of anesthesia because we have been lulled to sleep while looking at our watches.

Location
It’s a sad thing to know where you are going but not know where you are. Back in March of 1971 astronauts Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell were on the moon hiking to the rim of Cone Crater. These highly trained astronauts made some disturbing discoveries on their trek. First, they learned that distance is difficult to gauge on the moon. On earth, atmospheric haze helps us determine relative distances. Things far away look bluer and mistier than things nearby. Whoever wrote America the Beautiful was looking at those craggy brown mountains from a distance that made them look purple and majestic. On the moon there is no haze so it is hard to tell how far something is from you. Plus, you can’t tell how far something is from the horizon. Second, the lighting on the moon makes understanding the terrain tough. So as the astronauts ascended the side of Cone Crater, the rolling terrain made it difficult to tell where they were relative to the top. After hours of traveling on foot, they had to head back to the Lunar Module. Later when scientists studied the data and looked at satellite photos showing their tracks, it was discovered that they were only 30 meters or 98 feet from the rim. Shepard and Mitchell knew where they were going; they were dedicated to their mission but they could not tell where they were and with 100 feet to go they turned back. How many of us today are turning back on our spiritual trek, not because we don’t know where we are going or because we have no sense of mission but because we can’t tell where we are anymore. The world has changed and the church has changed and the rolling terrain of the religious universe has us wondering if the foundations of our faith are still relevant.

Danger
When you are in deep sleep you are oblivious to what’s happening around you. During the REM stage of the sleep cycle, for a certain time the motor functions are inhibited and we are paralyzed. The interesting thing about REM or rapid eye movement sleep is that this is when we have those dreams that are so real. Sleep researchers report that the eye movement appears to be tracking the action and drama of the scenes in our dreams. So though we are unconscious of the happenings of the real world, we are deeply involved in the dream world. Someone could have a loaded gun at your head, but you would be showing fear of the mad pit-bull in your dream. Like the ten virgins, we are asleep but few would know it. We function in day-to-day activity but we don’t hear the danger alarms sounding from God’s word. Like sleepwalkers we walk about, send email, deal on Facebook and Twitter, go to work and church and look quite alert but we keep drifting closer and closer to the spiritual cliff with no sense of the dangers before us. Ungodly music, hurtful foods, pornography, profanity, alcohol, and questionable movies erode our spiritual alertness but we see no dangers. Satan’s gun is pressed against your temple but you are more afraid of Bible doctrine than the bullet.

Asleep: that’s where we are. Though we have trouble discerning the nearness of Christ’s return and though we find it difficult to tell where we are on the journey, and though we fail to see the dangers as we careen toward the spiritual cliff, the good news is  we will wake up soon. The hope is, that though we are all asleep, we are preparing to live with Jesus and not just waiting for his return.