Saturday, August 11, 2018

Why Does God Allow Suffering?


Psalm 107: 28-30 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.

It’s no secret that our world is in pain.

Families are torn apart by apathy, sickness, car accidents, substance abuse, and suicide.  Our nation is plagued by racism, gun violence, and terrorism.  Around the world, even as we speak, people are dying from war, famine, poverty, disease, natural disasters, and a myriad of other terrible circumstances.

One of the most common challenges directed at Christianity by unbelievers is the age-old question:   “Why does God allow so much suffering?”

The argument goes that the Bible presents us with an image of a loving, benevolent God, and yet billions have suffered throughout all of human history.  Unbelievers ask why anyone would choose to believe in a God that claims to be compassionate but permits such grief.

Even believers – perhaps experiencing suffering in their own life or witnessing the misfortunes of others – find themselves struggling with this conundrum.  Indeed, suffering is a great challenge to faith!


Faith in the Face of Disaster


Recent disasters have prompted unbelievers to ridicule believers by mocking their “thoughts and prayers”.  Believers questioning their faith in the will of God sometimes ask why God doesn’t miraculously act to prevent disasters from happening to begin with.

A good starting place for anytime we don’t understand something that God does (or doesn’t do) is to remember:

Isaiah 55:8-9  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Indeed, sometimes it’s difficult to understand God’s will.  Some things we may never comprehend in this life.  Yet, this is what faith is all about, trusting God even when we don’t understand His workings.  We can rest assured in our faith in God.  He knows what He is doing, even if we don’t see the clarity of His plan through the fog of our day-to-day existence.

But at the same time maybe we fail to give God proper credit.  Many will point to disasters as evidence that God either doesn’t care or He simply doesn’t exist.  But that reasoning can be turned in on itself:  Surely the good of this world outweighs the bad - so by the same logic, all the good that happens is evidence for the existence of our benevolent God.

Matthew 5:45 …For He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

In fact, our very sense of justice points to this inescapable reality.

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.  But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.  What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”  – C.S. Lewis

Additionally, we should consider that perhaps God is involved when disaster strikes, maybe even minimizing the damage in ways that we fail to recognize. We have all heard stories of people who have somehow avoided disasters due to seemingly coincidental circumstances.  I always think of the man who reported running late and got stuck in traffic the day that the Twin Towers fell.  Just the other day my wife missed being at the scene of a terrible car accident because she was struggling to fix my daughter’s hair.

Rather than wonder why God allows bad things to happen I find myself often wondering how much worse situations would be had God not been involved at all.  Perhaps the damage would have been greater, the body count higher, all tragedies all the more heartwrenching if God were not present!


The True Source of Suffering


1 Peter 5:8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

When one blames God for suffering they are pointing their finger in the wrong direction.

We live in a fallen world and Satan is a very active force.  He is constantly working behind the scenes to sow discord and malice.  Certainly, the devil has amassed a large number of followers and it is clear to see that most suffering is perpetrated by humanity against itself.

“…In fact, a commonly estimated figure is that as much as 90 percent of suffering in the world comes through human causes:  wars, genocide, human trafficking, murder, torture, racial discrimination, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, rape, and the list goes on...” – Mark Mittelberg

“In the past hundred years or so, the most powerful atheist regimes – Communist Russia, Communist China, and Nazi Germany – have wiped out people in astronomical numbers…  Focusing only on the big three – Stalin, Hitler, and Mao – we have to recognize that atheist regimes have in a single century murdered more than one hundred million people.” – Dinesh D’Souza

One must concede that even the most devastating of natural disasters do not wreak as much havoc as humans have unleashed upon each other...  And in response to this, unbelievers choose to blame God – the very God who warns against and condemns such evils?

But believers can be just as guilty in wrongly assigning blame for suffering...  We’ve all heard of preachers who have declared that a disaster has occurred because of a particular region’s religion, politics, etc.

Luke 13:1-5  Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

We know that various natural disasters occur haphazardly as a result of weather patterns, plate tectonics, and other natural processes.  We do not know the mind of God in these situations and therefore cannot allow ourselves to make such proclamations.  It only serves to disturb and hurt others, making them far less willing to listen to the Truth of the Gospel that we should be proclaiming.  When others are suffering, we should not presume to know God’s will for the situation, but reach out to them and love them as God commanded.

It’s difficult to think of a Biblical example of one who lost as much as Job did, and yet through all of the hardships and loss that he faced, we see that even he recognized that God was not the source of his suffering.

Job 1:22  In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.


Blessings in Suffering


We simply have to accept that suffering is a part of life.  In fact, Jesus spoke of this truth on a number of occasions.

John 16:33 These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation…

Basically, as long as we live here on Earth, a fallen world, we will face hardship.  Yes, Jesus didn’t sugarcoat it, but he also offered His assistance in dealing with suffering.

John 16:33 …But take heart!  I have overcome the world!

It’s strange to think that heartache and grief brought on by suffering could yield any good, but God is able to do just that.  Let us examine three ways in which God blesses us through suffering…


1.  Suffering can bring out our Best

Romans 5:3-4 And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.

If you’ve ever exercised in your life, you’re probably familiar with the cliché: “No pain, no gain.”  To word it a bit more eloquently:

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet.  Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” – Helen Keller

Many have pointed out the process by which caterpillars change into butterflies, sand into glass, and coal into diamonds, it is through time and pressure, adversity that these things turn out so beautiful and stronger than their beginnings.

1 Peter 1:6-7 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Our faith is tested by the fire of suffering, but in the process it is purified like a precious metal.

James 1:2-5 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

Sometimes our suffering is brought on by our own failures or even by our own sin.  In this way suffering can make us examine our faults.

No matter what the cause of the suffering we face turns out to be, ultimately God will turn a bad situation to good if we allow Him to.  Suffering can force us to mature as Christians.  The testing of our faith produces patience, perseverance, and a stronger faith in God.


2.  Suffering makes us Appreciative

Paul suffered much in his journeys to spread the Gospel, yet we see that even when he was imprisoned that he had a deep appreciation for those around him.

Philippians 1:3-8 I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ; just as it is right for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart, inasmuch as both in my chains and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers with me of grace. For God is my witness, how greatly I long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ.

Suffering can make us more thankful.  It puts things into perspective and makes us recognize God’s blessings, causing us to truly appreciate all that God has done for us.

As a byproduct of that appreciation, suffering can also teach us how to pray more genuinely.  We sometimes fall into the habit of saying the same prayers over and again.  But when we suffer we pray more earnestly and more frequently.  In those difficult moments we are praying because we want to, not because God wants us to.

Ephesians 6:18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.

Romans 8:26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

Suffering causes us to rely on God and acknowledge that He is the source of our strength.

Romans 8:35-39 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.


3.  Suffering helps us to be Sympathetic

We couldn’t understand the hurts of others without going through some manner of suffering ourselves.

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

By going through suffering ourselves we are better equipped to help and comfort those around us who are going through rough times.

Of course, it is important to remember that Christ can sympathize with us because He Himself suffered too!

Hebrews 2:17-18 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Christ’s suffering is probably the definitive example of God being able to bad to good.  God could even bend the evil of Christ’s crucifixion into the ultimate act of love and mercy!

It’s truly amazing to consider that God, through Jesus, loves us so much that He would be willing to humble Himself and suffer as one of us just so He could save and comfort us!

Hebrews 4:14-16 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.


4.  Suffering keeps this World from becoming too Attractive

It’s only natural that we consider this world our home; it’s all we’ve ever known!

But when suffering rears its ugly head, we’re reminded that it’s a fallen world.  In times of hardship, it’s a wonderful comfort to know that our ultimate goal is Heavenward.

Philippians 3:20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…

We would do well to be mindful that we are “just a’passing through” and that if we are faithful that Heaven can indeed be our home once we’ve left this mortal plane.

Hebrews 11:13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.


God Promises an End to Suffering


As we’ve learned through this lesson, suffering is something that we will all face.  Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why we’re going through dark times and we may even question God in trying moments.  However, it’s important that we remember the true source of suffering in this world is the devil and his agents, more often than not, other people.

As difficult as it may be, we should look at suffering as being a blessing and recognize that through Christ trials can actually strengthen us by making us more thankful to God and more sympathetic to others.  Through it all, we need not lose sight of our final objective:  A home in Heaven, a place that is free from suffering.

Revelation 21:3-4  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

In the meantime, we can rely on Jesus to be our strength in times of weakness, to comfort us when the grief is too much to bear, to remind us that our sufferings are only temporary and when we are with Him in Heaven it will all have been worth it.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

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References:
“Why Does God Allow Suffering” a sermon outline by Steve Burdine
“The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask” by Mark Mittelberg

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Citizenship in the Kingdom


A citizen is a person who legally belongs to a country and therefore has the rights and protection of that country.  Citizens adopt the culture and practices of the nation or kingdom to which they belong.
As believers, we aspire to be citizens of God’s Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven.

Philippians 3:20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…


Exiles from the Kingdom


Some subscribe to belief that we as humans have inherited “original sin” and are born as sinful creatures.  However, I would argue that all of us are born into God’s Kingdom, but lose our way at some point (Why would Jesus tell His followers to “become as little children” if children were born sinful?  See Matthew 18:3).

We are not born fallen, yet we are born into a fallen world.  It’s from the moment we learn right from wrong yet choose to do wrong that we are first guilty of sin and are thereby exiled from God’s Kingdom.

Isaiah 59:1-2 Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, That it cannot save; Nor His ear heavy, That it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; And your sins have hidden His face from you, So that He will not hear.

We must realize that this is a self-imposed exile; God desires that we remain innocent and free from sin, yet being imperfect, we all fall short.

Romans 3:23 …For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…

Enticed and seduced by the temptations of the world, we become servants of sin.

Romans 6:16  Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?

We may even live our lives unaware that we’re outside of the Kingdom of God, in exile so long that we forgot where we truly belong.

Philippians 3:18-19 For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.



Entering the Kingdom


Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way!  Though we deserve judgement and destruction for the wrongs we willingly chose to commit, Jesus came to save us from ourselves.

Ephesians 2:1-6 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),  and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.

Thus, we have the ability to once again become citizens of God’s Kingdom.

Ephesians 2:19-21  Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…

How do we attain citizenship in God’s Kingdom?  Just as earthly nations have procedures for naturalization for immigrants, so do believers seeking citizenship within the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Bible provides a clear pattern for those seeking to become part of the kingdom:


1.  Hearing the Gospel

Acts 18:8 Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized.


How can travelers even begin to migrate to a new country if they do not know the way?  In the same manner, it stands to reason that one could not believe in Jesus if they never heard anything about Him!  It may sound kind of redundant, but faith can come no other way!

Romans 10:17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.


2.  Belief

Acts 2:36 “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”


Recall that Jesus is the ruler of God’s Kingdom.  Just as an earthly citizen puts their trust in a king or president, we must have faith in Jesus.  Indeed, faith is essential!

Hebrews 11:6 But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.


3.  Repentance

Acts 2:38 Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

When travelling from one earthly country to another, we understand that laws may be different from one side of the border to another.  What is legal in one country may be illegal in another and vice versa! If we truly seek to be citizens of God’s Kingdom, we must commit to obeying God’s Law.  This starts by renouncing our former lawless ways of sin.

2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.


4.  Confess Jesus

Acts 8:37 Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

The United States, as part of the naturalization process, has immigrants recite an “Oath of Allegiance”.  The confession of Jesus before men is kind of like an oath of allegiance.  In confessing Jesus as our Lord are essentially swearing loyalty and obedience to our new King!  Furthermore, this is something that we commit to from this point on in our life as a citizen…  We should be proud to proclaim our Lord before others!

Matthew 10:32-33 Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.


5.  Baptism

Acts 22:16 And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’


A final part of the “naturalization process” required for entrance into God’s kingdom is baptism for the remission of sins.  This is not a “work” that negates God’s grace in the process of salvation, but rather a God-ordained, symbolic reenactment of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Through baptism we are cleansed from sin, our former life of the flesh is put to death and we are reborn to begin life anew.  Upon being baptized become a citizen in God’s Kingdom!


Rights and Responsibilities in the Kingdom


Once an immigrant has officially joined a new nation they become entitled to the rights and/or freedoms allowed within that country's borders.  Additionally, they also may have a set of responsibilities and civic duties as citizens.  Let us examine rights and responsibilities within God's Kingdom:


Rights

As American citizens we have a multitude of rights and freedoms, including:  Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, the right to a trial by jury, the right to vote, and the freedom to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

As citizens of God’s Kingdom, we also enjoy certain rights and freedoms, including: Freedom from sin, and a God-granted right to eternal life.

Romans 6:6-7  We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.

John 5:24  Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.


Responsibilities

American citizens must respect and obey federal, state, and local laws.  They must pay taxes to the appropriate authorities.

Likewise, as citizens in God’s Kingdom, we have laws we must obey.

Mark 12:30-31 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Micah 6:8  He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

There’s a lot packed in those verses and Christians spend a lifetime working to understand and obey God’s laws.


Forfeiting Citizenship


It’s very rare, but it is possible for a naturalized U.S. citizen to have their citizenship stripped through a process called “denaturalization”.  Sometimes naturalized citizens, for whatever reason, pledge their allegiance to another country by joining their government or military.  Some may even go as far to commit acts of treason.  Through such acts, these citizens willfully give up their citizenship.

Similarly – though far more common and certainly more tragic – citizens of God’s Kingdom can forfeit their citizenship.

2 Peter 2:20-22  For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”

As citizens of God’s Kingdom, we must live faithfully, continue to obey God’s laws remain faithful to God.

Revelation 2:10  … Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Thankfully, God gives us yet another chance at rejoining His kingdom and being renewed.  If we stumble in a Christian walk, He allows us the opportunity to repent once more and recommit to His Kingdom.

Acts 8:22 Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.



Saturday, July 28, 2018

Abundant Life


John 10:10  The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.  I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.

How can we obtain the “abundant life” that Jesus speaks of?

First, it might help to understand what Jesus meant when He spoke of an abundant life.  It’s interesting that in the verse this lesson is based on, Jesus begins by illustrating what an abundant life isn’t, so let’s start our study there.


The Alternative to An Abundant Life


John 10:10 The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy…

I wonder if “the thief” Jesus mentions here is an allusion to the devil.  Certainly, stealing, killing, and destroying sound like the activities that Satan would be involved in.  As the “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4) the devil has deceived mankind by appealing to our worldly lusts.

The worldly pattern for success in life has everything completely backwards.  We are constantly bombarded by the message to “do whatever makes you happy”.  The world trains us to selfishly pursue fame, wealth, sex and ignore the pursuit of righteousness and a relationship with God.  Then the worldly wonder why the home is broken and society is in such disarray!

We could have everything we think we want in this life – only to wake up and discover that we still feel hollow and empty inside. This isn’t an opinion, this is a sad reality.  It’s an endless cycle played out nearly every single time by someone who attains all the world has to offer, and they yet still turn to addiction because they still feel lacking… or they end up losing it all through a gluttonous attempt to attain even more… or they tragically commit suicide to escape the loneliness at “the top”.

If material abundance was what Jesus spoke of, then Solomon should have been the happiest man of all time.  However we read that despite having material blessings available to a man, Solomon actually found life to be meaningless.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-15 He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; Nor he who loves abundance, with increase. This also is vanity. When goods increase, They increase who eat them; So what profit have the owners Except to see them with their eyes? The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, Whether he eats little or much; But the abundance of the rich will not permit him to sleep. There is a severe evil which I have seen under the sun: Riches kept for their owner to his hurt. But those riches perish through misfortune; When he begets a son, there is nothing in his hand. As he came from his mother’s womb, naked shall he return, To go as he came; And he shall take nothing from his labor Which he may carry away in his hand.

No, meaning in life isn’t gained by the pursuit of the things of this world.  It’s found by seeking a higher purpose.

Matthew 16:26 For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?


How Do We Attain an Abundant Life? 


Thus, we understand that an abundant life is not about the material, but rather spiritual abundance.  True fulfillment is found only in a right relationship with God!

So how do we attain an abundant life?  It sounds odd and backwards, but one of the first steps involves giving up your life!

Matthew 10:39 …Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.

Lose yourself to Jesus.  Turn over your will to Him.  Put your faith, your trust in Jesus.  Allow God to be the ruler of your life and you will transcend the cares of this world.

Faith, submission to God, turning your life and will over to Christ…  These are the first steps in having an abundant life.

Submission and obedience are the culmination of faith.  Unfortunately I think a lot of people miss out on the abundant life that Jesus offers because of their failure to submit.  To them “submission” and “obedience” are ugly, archaic words.  The idea of giving in to someone else puts a sour taste in their mouth; even they have a sincere belief in God.  But if we truly have faith in God and seek to please Him, obedience is necessary!

John 14:15  If you love me, keep My commandments

Why are submission and obedience so important to God?  And is it really so bad to submit to and obey God?


Honor thy Father and thy Mother


Our relationship with God in many ways echoes our relationship with our parents (or perhaps, more accurately, it’s the other way around).  It’s little wonder then that God calls for us to honor our parents time and again throughout the Bible.  This instruction is one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12).  Jesus reiterated this command in the Gospels (Matthew 15:3-5).  What does commandment have to do with living an abundant life?
Paul explains in Ephesians.

Ephesians 6:1-3  Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”

Let us assume that all parents either were committed to the Lord or – at the very least – had their children’s best interest in mind through the course of their raising.  We know that this is not always the case, but let’s pretend that it is so we can see the wisdom of following God’s pattern.
Parents wish their children well. They want them to be safe, successful, and happy in life.  Parents do not seek to harm their children in any way nor hinder their happiness, although children do not always see it this way.

Parents direct their children in what to do and what not to do.  Whether it’s “look both ways before you cross the street” or “don’t hang out with that group of people”, parents seek to spare children the despair, harm, and consequences of bad choices.  Parents have typically lived long enough that they have gained wisdom from experience and seek to pass on this knowledge to their children.
Isn’t that similar to the relationship between God and mankind?  We’re familiar with the phrases “Mother knows best” and “Father knows best”.  If our earthly parents are wise in their instruction, then how much more is our Heavenly Father?


God’s Commandments are for Our Own Good


In discussing appropriate principles of the marriage relationship, Paul said the following…

1 Corinthians 7:35 …And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper…

Whether it’s proper conduct in marriage or any other commandment given to us in the Bible, unfortunately so much of mankind fail to recognize that God’s instructions are for our own good.  Instead, they indeed see it as a leash.  To them, the Bible is a nothing but a bunch of thou shalt not’s.   They see God’s Law as a long list of restrictions.

Deuteronomy 10:12-13 And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good?

Indeed, some of God’s commandments may require self-denial on our part.  But in the long-run we discover that they have been for our very best all along.  He didn’t give us these commands to burden or harm us, but rather to help us.  It’s when we disregard or rebel against God’s commands that we experience the consequences.  The sooner we realize this, the better chance we have at having a fulfilling life (Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:14).

Matthew 11:28-30 Come to me, all of you who are tired and have heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Accept my teachings and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit, and you will find rest for your lives. The burden that I ask you to accept is easy; the load I give you to carry is light.

Jesus says that His yoke is easy and that His burden is light.  Why not take Him at His word?

Micah 6:8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.



Being Content


We have already established that an abundant life isn’t a life spent in pursuit of the material.  Therefore, whatever our lot is in life, we need to learn to be content with what we have.

Think back to the example of Solomon from the beginning of this lesson and compare his mindset to that of the Apostle Paul.  Solomon had everything on a silver platter, yet felt unfulfilled while Paul, despite his life of hardship learned the value of contentedness.

Philippians 4:11-13  Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me

Isn’t that the kind of attitude we need to have to live the abundant life that Christ offered?

A recent global statistic shows that if one has a roof over his head and a meal on his table he is richer than 93 percent of the world’s population.  If a person wears a pair of shoes he is richer than 75 percent of the people in the world.  And yet in the United States credit card debt averages more than $16,000 per household… and yet the discontentment never seems to be satisfied!  We should always consider and be thankful for how blessed we truly are!

“We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather recognizing and appreciating what we do have.” – Friedrich Koenig

1 Timothy 6:6-8 Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content.

Aside from forfeiting the constant desire for more, there is much to be said about the contentment that comes from being free from worry.  We’ve all experienced stress from jobs or various situations beyond our control.  And yet, in trusting God, we can turn our worries and cares over to Him.

1 Peter 5:6-7  Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.

Believers have a great advantage over unbelievers.  We can put our trust and confidence in God – and while their lives may not be completely worry-free – we have direct access Almighty Creator.  Surely we can rest assured know that He will care for us and that in the end everything will work out!

Romans 8:28   And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.


Serving God through Serving Others


Matthew 23:11-12  But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

In a roundabout way, mankind has created its own morality.  It’s sad and ironic that society looks down on and disparages Christianity, yet embrace so many of Christ’s teachings despite attempting to bypass Christ Himself.  Even these unbelievers have come to recognize the psychological and emotional benefits of helping others.  Contributing rather than consuming:  Giving time, money, and energy to charitable causes is a fulfilling act that gives purpose to life.

But to the Christian, we recognize that in serving others there is an even deeper meaning.

Matthew 22:36-40  “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Through serving others, we our fulfilling our God-given purpose!   In showing love to our neighbors we are introducing them to Christ!  The abundant life is about lifting others up, supplying their needs and thereby emulating the example that Jesus set.

Matthew 20:28 …Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.


Living Redeemed


Romans 6:23  For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ.

While this verse applies to eternal death and eternal death, I think it is appropriate to apply it to life on this Earth.  Sin is a heavy burden to bear.  Who would want to go through life having to bear the guilt and regret of past mistakes? Thankfully, Christ offers us an out, a chance to be forgiven and go forward with a clear conscience.

Hebrews 9:14 …How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

So many people live life looking backward and dwelling on past mistakes, but if God forgives us we can forgive ourselves.  And if God forgives us, that’s really all that matters.  Once again, we can move forward in life with the assurance that God is on our side; if that’s the case, then who could be against us?

Romans 8:31-39 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: “For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What a blessing it is to be forgiven by God and have a second chance at life!

Psalm 32:1-5 Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, And in whose spirit there is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones grew old Through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was turned into the drought of summer. Selah I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” And You forgave the iniquity of my sin.

Christians living the abundant life enjoy not just in this world, but also – more importantly –  the next!


Heavenly Hope


Another major advantage that believers have over unbelievers is the assurance of a home in Heaven with Jesus.

John 14:1-4  Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know.

We know that this life is short and that whatever hardships we may face are temporary.  When this life is over we will linger on.  Though we ultimately aspire to a home in heaven, we can enjoy the blessing of living that abundant life in the meantime!

Acts 3:19 Repent then and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.

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References:  
https://www.gotquestions.org/abundant-life.html
https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-contentment.html

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Amazing Grace


John Newton was born in London in 1725.  His mother died when he was only 7.  He was sailing at age 11, accompanying his sea-captain father on his journeys.  During this rough life at sea Newton had a wild, profane youth of rebellion and drinking.  Despite his debauchery he ended up enlisted in the British navy.  He attempted to desert not long thereafter and was stripped of his rank in disgrace.  Newton would then serve on the ship of slave-traders.

He got heavily invested in the odious practice of buying, selling, and transporting his fellow humans.  However, in a strange turn of events he was at one point left behind by his crewmates in West Africa.  There he found himself enslaved, sold to an African royal.

He was rescued some time later, but the ship taking him back home was caught in a terrible storm that began to sink just off the coast of Ireland.  It was in the midst of this terrifying situation that Newton prayed to God and pleaded that he would be spared.  Miraculously, some of the cargo in the lower level shifted just enough to plug up the hole in the hull.  The ship made it through the remainder of the storm and Newton survived.

Taking this as a sign, Newton converted to Christianity.  Years later, Newton became a priest who would actively denounce the slave trade he was once profited from.  Concerning his former involvement in the slave-trade, Newton once wrote, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”  Indeed, he was a profoundly different person in his latter years.

Newton would go on to write an impressive collection of around 280 hymns during his time as a priest.  In 1772 he wrote the words for one you’ve probably heard and sang countless times.

Yes, John Newton was the writer of “Amazing Grace”.

Side Note:  Interestingly, the song was originally more of a chant.  The tune wasn’t applied to until 1835 by William Walker.  Apparently, “Amazing Grace” is sung to the tune of another song called “New Britain”. 

Despite being two hundred years old, the song has not diminished in popularity and it’s not difficult to see why it has endured for so long.  The melody is beautiful.  The lyrics are stirring.

It may be one of the most translated songs, as it has been interpreted into a multitude of languages including Spanish, German, and even Cherokee.  The song was featured in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.  It was later used as an anthem by African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement “to define racial equality as a moral and religious pursuit.”

Another Side Note:  Harriet Beecher Stowe is credited as the writer of the last verse of the song; the line “When we’ve been there ten thousand years…” doesn’t appear in Newton’s original text.  Apparently Stowe added the line when she wrote the song into “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.

“Amazing Grace” has been featured on over 11,000 albums by a variety of artists including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, and Elvis.  From 1970-1972 the two-centuries-old song even spent 68 straight weeks on the record charts, peaking at number 5 with Judy Collins’ version.

Today “Amazing Grace” is a staple of musical worship in church houses around the world. The hymn is more or less synonymous with the Gospel singing; it very well may be the quintessential song of Christian worship.  It is estimated that the song is performed some 10 million times annually.

Colossians 3:16  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

For this lesson, I’d like to break down “Amazing Grace” verse by verse and examine its themes as they relate to Scripture and our spiritual journey.


Verse 1 – God’s Amazing Grace


“Amazing Grace!  How sweet the sound!  
That saved a wretch like me!  
I once was lost, but now am found; 
Was blind, but now I see.”

The song begins with the declaration:  “Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound!”  Certainly, it’s difficult to think of a better adjective to describe God’s grace than “amazing”.

Grace is defined as “free and unmerited favor.”  Indeed, God’s grace manifests itself in so many wonderful ways!  Just think of all the physical blessings he so freely gives:  our homes, our families… the very air we breathe!  Indeed every minute of life we enjoy reveals the grace of our Creator.

Additionally – and far more importantly – God also tends to our spiritual needs.  He lifts us up when we are weak, provides us with refuge when we are afraid, and nurtures the very core of our being.  It’s God’s grace that provides us with a way out of the grave we dug for ourselves through our former sinful life.

As Newton said, God’s grace “saved a wretch like me.”  We don’t deserve to be saved, but God recognizes our value.  He loves us so much that He was willing to send His Son to die in our place in the ultimate expression of His grace.

John 1:14  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Through his selfless sacrifice, Jesus saved us from our sins, allowing us to be reborn.  Newton alludes to this by referencing parables and miracles of Jesus.  “I once was lost, but now am found” recalls the Parable of the Lost Coin, son, etc…  while the line “was blind, but now I see” likely draws inspiration from Jesus’ miraculous ability to heal the blind.

Certainly, when one dedicates their life to Christ they recognize and regret all of the years they wasted wandering, spiritually directionless.  But they also realize that that is all behind them now, that Jesus has opened up a door to a new, purposeful and fulfilling life full of hope.

Of course we must be sure to remember that aforementioned definition of grace – “free and unmerited favor”.

Ephesians 2:8-9  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

If we got what we truly deserved, it would be death in exchange for our trespasses against God…

Romans 6:23  For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

But the Gospel is “unfair” in our favor:  We get what we don’t deserve!

Ephesians 2:4-5  But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)… 

This is what makes God’s grace so amazing!

Therefore, as we go about serving Christ we must be careful to remember that is nothing we can do to earn the salvation He offers; it’s all a freely given gift from God!


Verse 2 – Trusting God


The theme of the second verse seems to be one of conversion and repentance.

“”Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, 
and grace my fears relieved.  
How precious did that grace appear, 
the hour I first believed!”

It may sound odd to a nonbeliever, but the fear of God is actually a positive thing.

Proverbs 9:10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

The kind of fear mentioned in proverbs isn’t mortal terror as one might think, but rather a deep respect for God and His authority.  When we come to appreciate the scope of God’s power and humble ourselves before Him, we start to see the wisdom of His ways.

James 4:6  But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: “God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.”

It sounds strange, but this one kind of fear can drive out all other fears.  The fear of God, actually serves to embolden us!  We no longer have to fear death.  In submitting to Jesus we are turning over our will to the only one who can defeat death!  Therefore, we no longer have to fear death nor eternal punishment.  Jesus has set us free from all of that!

Pslam 56:11  In God I have put my trust; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?

This knowledge we gain from the fear of God allows us to put our trust in Him fully.  A spiritual awakening wells up within us and we start to recognize our need for forgiveness, which leads to our repentance, the renouncement of a life dedicated to sin.  We turn away from that former life; humble ourselves give Jesus the power over our new life.

Romans 6:14  For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.


Verse 3 – Faith Under Fire


“Thru many dangers, toils, and snares 
I have already come.  
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, 
And grace will lead me home.”

Unfortunately, the journey isn’t over once we rise from the cleansing waters of baptism.  It’s almost as if Satan kicks it into overdrive once we try to turn our backs on him once and for all.  We left behind the sins of our former life and go forth with a clean slate, only to be met with the temptation to return.  In moments of such weakness we feel despair.  At other times we may find ourselves doubting, questioning our faith.  And as if that weren’t enough we may face outside persecution.  The world may ridicule us for our beliefs or worse.

No doubt, it is discouraging to a young Christian to experience trials of faith.  But we must take heart and remember we allow the grace of God to lift us up once more.

2 Corinthians 12:9  And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

1 Peter 5:10 But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.

God’s grace not only has the power to save us, but it also has the power to restore us when we have stumbled.

Romans 3:23-24  …for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…

Hebrews 4:16  Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.


Verse 4 – Looking Forward to Eternity


“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
 Bright shining as the sun, 
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise 
Than when we first begun.”

The final verse looks forward to a wonderful future.  Just imagine:  Being in Heaven, in the direct presence of almighty God, forever illuminated in His glory.

Harriet Beecher Stowe presents the idea of being in Heaven for ten thousand years and it being as if no time has passed at all.  It’s a simple fact of mortality:  We cannot comprehend the spectrum of eternity.  We can’t understand the eternal nature of God – a being who is without beginning or end, who just simply always was and will always be.

However, consider that the Bible tells us that we are made in God’s image:  Perhaps this doesn’t refer to our outward appearance as many interpret, but maybe this alludes to the true nature of our being.  Mankind has always been set apart from the rest of the natural world.  Blessed with intelligence, endowed with dominion over our surrounding God has given so much.  But beyond all of that, God made us in His image; God has granted us the ability to become eternal beings.

However, being trapped within our flesh, we sometimes forget that the spirit that lingers within us is actually our true self and that we will linger on once this mortal life has concluded.  But the Bible tells us as much; we will continue to exist beyond this plane of existence.

Having this knowledge, God allows us a choice:  How will we spend eternity?

One option is to live a life devoid of meaning.  We can pursue our selfish desires and grasp at the shallow pleasures this world has to offer.  But this way only leads to ultimate destruction.  Hell.  Eternal death.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.  And God doesn’t want it to be this way.

2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

The other option is to reject the temptations of this world and look forward to a more glorious future.  We can accept God’s offer to be reunited with Him forever in eternal life.  We can do this by submitting to the grace of God and allowing it to work in us toward salvation!

Titus 3:4-7  But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life

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A Final Side Note:  I realize that there are several versions of this beloved hymn and that it's possible I've left out other verses found in other versions.  It was not my intention to purposefully leave these verses out for any reason other than the fact that this lesson is based on the version found in our congregation's song book.  Maybe one day I'll get around to commentating on those verses...


References:  
“Songs of the Church”  Howard Pulblishing Company, 1977.
https://www.biography.com/news/amazing-grace-story-john-newton 
https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-04-30/complicated-story-behind-famous-hymn-amazing-grace 

Acknowledging a Hiatus

My family and I at the wedding of a longtime friend and sister in Christ.
Little Evie was the flower girl and I was honored to perform the ceremony!

Obviously it's been a while since I have made any posts... I just wanted to let everyone know that I'm still alive!

Poor attempts at humor aside, I assure you that everything really is fine.  God continues to bless my family and I with good health, physically and spiritually.  I actually am still writing lessons and sharing them with local congregations, but I've just been very lax in my posting them on the blog.  Between the day-to-day hustle of parenting and teaching (my full-time employment), coupled with a recent increase in responsibilities within our congregation and - admittedly - various distractions I permit to occupy my free-time I have unfortunately allowed this blog to fall by the wayside.

It's actually a bit of work to share my lessons on here as I cannot simply copy and paste my outlines, but have to often re-edit them to make them more palpable for a blog format.  So not only do I spend time researching and writing out the lessons, but then to share them in this capacity I must set aside additional time for re-purposing them.  It's a fair bit of work!  But enough with the "pity party"...

I'm not sure how much of an audience I have with this blog anymore, but thank you to everyone who has been interested in these lessons from God's Word.  I hope to get back on track and once again begin making posts on a more regular basis in the near future.

Again, thank you, and as always, God bless!

- Jonathan