A spiritual face lift

I'll discuss our role in spiritual warfare soon, but first...

Sometimes I have trouble expressing emotion on my face.  Maybe it's an introvert thing.  Maybe I'm just a boring guy, but either way, it's not helpful in my relationships.  Just the other day Rachel came home from work after I had been painting the house from a ladder.  We were both tired.  I was very happy to see her.  It had only been a few hours since we were together, but after being twenty feet in the air for most of the afternoon, it felt good to be alive.  However, there was one problem.  I was exhausted.  And the joy that I felt from her coming home was never talked about and it certainly wasn't expressed on my face.  Everything I was feeling was a waste - only for me to know. 

My expressionless face set the mood for most of the night.  Signals were mixed.  Feelings were hurt.  And it was my face that started it all.  I didn't think about it at the time, but my facial expressions (or lack thereof) told her more than anything I could say.  I was not an effective witness for God during my interaction with her that night.  Intending to show love or thinking about love is not the same as expressing love.  It's meaningless without action.  I wonder if I send the same signals with others.  Do my expressions tell people that I love them?  That I accept them?

After Jesus' resurrection, the apostles were given great power through Christ.  They were able to heal and perform miracles.  "People brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by." (Acts 5:15).  Many disciples of the apostles were being made.  One of the disciples, Stephen, was "a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people." (Acts 6:8).  However, some members of the Synagogue became angry with Stephen and produced false witnesses against him to testify that he was speaking against "this holy place and against the law." (Acts 6:13).  They even said that Stephen preached of Jesus coming to destroy and change the customs Moses hand down. 

After being falsely accused and humiliated, Stephen would surely have a right to be angry.  To show anger on his face.  But he didn't.  Instead, scripture tells us that "[a]ll who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel."  What a great example of witnessing through your face. 

Rachel wasn't attacking my character or falsely accusing me.  In fact, she had done nothing wrong at all.  Yet my loveless face told her things I never meant to convey.  That is scary.  What impressions do people get of me throughout the day?  At the grocery store?  At my work?  At school?  Do I show the love of Jesus through my face?  I think that is something to think about.  We are called to spread the word of Christ, but I rarely think that that can be done by anything other than words.

"Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words."  - St. Francis of Assisi


Spiritual Warfare Pt 1: The Reality of the Spiritual Warfare

This is the first post of a two-part series on spiritual warfare.  First, we will look at the evidence of a spiritual war in the heavenly realms.  The second part will cover what our role, as Christians, is in the battle.  

Of all the mysteries of scripture, spiritual warfare may be the hardest to grasp.  Are there really angels and demons flying around fighting each other?  How does Satan fight God?  Why does Satan fight God when he knows he can't win?

The fight between God and Satan is not a direct fight.  Satan knows he has already been defeated.  Instead, he uses demons to thwart the will of God.  Satan and his demons are constantly tempting us to sin.  He learns our weaknesses and plays on them.  Have a sin that you can't shake?  The devil knows this and takes great pleasure in providing you with plenty of opportunities and thoughts to carry it out.  He is the father of lies (John 8:44) and scripture tells us that he "masquerades as an angel of the light."  (2 Cor. 11:14).  In fact, the more subtle and disguised the temptation, the less likely we are to feel Satan's presence in our lives.  C.S. Lewis describes this tactic in The Screwtape Letters: "The safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."  Satan would love for humans, Christian or not, to believe that he and his temptations are not as evil or extreme as they truly are. 

More evidence of demonic activity is found in the gospels.  There were many instances of demon possession during the time Jesus was on earth.  (Matt. 9:32, 12:22; Luke 4:33-36).  Satan himself entered into Judas before the betrayal.  (Luke 22:3).

But perhaps the most direct reference to spiritual warfare is found in Paul's letter to the Ephesians.  Before discussing methods to defend against the devil's schemes, Paul gives us clear evidence that there is an ongoing spiritual war: "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Eph. 6:12).  Behind anything that is apart from God, there are several ranks of the devil.  Satan and his army exercise this government throughout the world.  And his sole purpose is to separate us from God. 

We have evidence of the spiritual war being waged against Christ and his followers.  Now, what do we do with that knowledge?  It is not enough to realize the devil's tactics and that he is using us to fight a war against God.  We have to be ruthless in our strategy to defend our relationship with God.  Fortunately, the bible gives us clear direction as to how this is done.  The next post will address our role in this spiritual war.


God's timing.

There are so many questions we have as humans.  Our inability to understand agitates our minds.  Lack of understanding, for humans, is akin to hunger.  It can affect our mood, focus, etc.  Think about it.  This is especially true when we try to understand God's timing.  We ask for things from God and want them immediately.  But then we cannot understand why we don't receive them immediately.  I actually don't believe there is anything wrong with asking for immediate blessings.  I pray just before an exam that God will help me remember what I have studied.  A doctor may pray for steady hands just before surgery.  We should expect God to answer our prayers. (Matt. 7:7).  The problem we have is when God doesn't hand over those blessings right away.  Or worse, when God says no. 

The one thing we know from experience (and scripture) is that we are incapable of understanding God's timing.  I say incapable, maybe the right term is not allowed to?  Whatever it is, God is clear about where we stand on understanding him.  "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority."  (Acts 1:7).  There's not much else to say about this verse.  God's knowledge surpasses time and space.  Trying to understand his plan for our lives is like a dog trying to understand chemistry.

So, what can we use from this verse?  Why does this post even matter other than to tell you that we're stuck with being incapable of understanding God's timing?  One truth that comes to mind as I read this verse is that I am not in control.  And when I really think about it, I don't want to be.  Would you want to know when you are going to die?  Or when others will die?  Or when you will have kids or get married or move or get a new job?  You would spend every second of your life excited or worried about dates in the future.  The present would be wished away.  The future would be feared.   And opportunities to introduce Christ to others would be overlooked, even more than they are now.

This verse gives us a small glimpse of the mystery of God.  Just as a father and mother take care of their child and do things for which the child knows nothing of or can understand, our father in heaven is taking care of us.  He goes before us in time (which he created, by the way).  He works in ways we cannot comprehend, but then allows us to understand only a glimpse through the holy spirit.  (Eph. 3:4).

Waiting on God can be difficult, or as we see in James, a trial.  But scripture tells us to "[c]onsider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."  (James 1:2-4).

The next post will be about spiritual warfare and our role in it. 


Transferring the trust.

We have started a three-session discussion at the law school in which we explore some of Christianity's toughest questions in a group setting.  One of the questions posed during the first discussion was "What does it really mean to believe?"  The purpose of the event, like most of our events, was to just get people thinking about their faith.  But during the discussion, I gained a new perspective on the concept of actually trusting God. 

Believing not just on an intellectual level, but as an act of the will. 
We started off our discussion with a question.  What would you say to Jesus at heaven's gate? Why should he let us into heaven?  One  of the most common answers to that question is "because I believe that Jesus died for my sins."  That is a great answer. And there is no doubt that scripture tells us that we are saved by grace. (Eph. 2:8).  We know the Christian lingo and what we are supposed to say.  But what does it actually mean to believe and more importantly, how can we make our belief practical?  To understand the logistics of belief, there are three phases leading up to true belief that need further exploration.  

Notice:  First, we notice or acknowledge the scripture.  For most of us, this happens when we are young.  This phase consists of learning bible stories and memorizing verses.  In other words, we are consuming knowledge about Christianity.  It is obvious, as a Christian, why we can’t stop at this phase.  Even the devil knows and can quote scripture. (Matt. 4:6).  This is just the beginning of belief.  To be sure, it is not a requirement.  In fact, I would venture to say that there are a lot of Christians who believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, but have little to no knowledge of the bible itself.  However, learning the scriptures is learning the character of God, which we'll discuss below.  

Assent:  Next, we agree or accept that the scriptures are true.  This is the phase that most of us are in.  We come to a point where we actually believe that Jesus walked the earth, physically died for our sins, and defeated death through the resurrection.  This belief gives us eternal life, but what do we do with our belief?  How can we make it practical?  When a Christian begins to ask this question, they are entering the third phase to belief. 

Trust:  Finally, real faith is practical - far removed from sermons and bible studies and blogs.  It is the daily relationship with Jesus that builds trust.  In this phase, we take ourselves out of just knowing what Jesus did for us and accepting it as true, to believing that he can still take care of us in even the smallest areas of our lives.  

I have noticed that a good indicator for lack of trust in the Lord is stress.  Even as I type these words, I am stressed about a mid-term exam.  You could say that I am stuck in the "Assent" phase.  I completely believe the truths of scripture, but right now, I am not trusting God.  So, we see that the real question we need to ask ourselves during stressful or even difficult times is - Do I trust you Lord?  Do I trust you with __________?   Fill in the blank.  If we're honest, the answer is probably no.  Otherwise, we would not feel the burden of knowing the right thing to do.  Or in my case, having the right answers for the mid-term.  I am not saying, of course, that God will give me the answers to an exam if I just trust him.  He could.  Nor am I comparing a school exam to some of the much bigger issues that you may be facing.  But I am sure of one thing he promises us - peace in all circumstances.   

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."  (Phil. 4:6,7).

Practical application. 
I believe there are a few ways to get practical with this knowledge:

(1)  Read the bible.  The first thing we all need to do is get in the word.  Just sit down and read your bible.  Pick a book and read a chapter or a few verses a day.  It may not seem like you are getting much out of it at first, but I guarantee you it will get into you.  You'll start to understand the character of God.  Don't limit yourself if you've got the time.  Nor should you pressure yourself to read more if you can't.  It's not about quantity.  

(2)  Talk to God daily like you talk to your friends, wife or husband.  Talk to Jesus out loud if you want to.  You may want to do this alone in your car for obvious reasons.  But seriously, would you be able to trust someone that you only talked to occasionally?  The more you get to know someone, the more you know whether you can trust them or not.  The same is true with our relationship with Christ.  The more we get to know Jesus personally through reading his word and talking with him in prayer, the more we can trust him.  And when we start to figure out he actually will take care of us in all things, we really get to know a deeper side of Jesus.  

(3)  Talk about your faith.  This should not to be confused with sharing your faith, which is also something we are called to do as Christians.  But that is not what I am saying here.  When you discuss your faith with other believers, you start to gain an understanding of why you believe what you believe.  Your confidence builds in the thought of actually sharing your faith with non-believers.  But in the beginning, talking about your faith with another believer helps you solidify your beliefs.  


Turning fears into peace (a refreshing prayer from Stephen Arterburn)

"My God, You know my fears.  Help me pray and experience the truth of Philippians 4 - that my petitions and praises can shape my worries into prayers, as I let You know all my concerns.  I trust that I will know Your wholeness, that all will work together for good.  I believe in the goodness that occurs when You displace the worry in the center of my life with Your peace, hope, and joy."  


Expect Persecution.

We have looked at God's truth and instruction about our past, but what about our future?  After we decide to try to live a godly life, then what?

Expect persecution.  One truth that we, as Christians, tend to skip over in the bible is the reality that, if we are living for Jesus, we will be persecuted.   Not might or could… WILL!  Paul could not say it any clearer: “[E]veryone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…” (2 Tim. 3:12).  According to Webster’s dictionary, to “persecute” means to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; specifically, to cause to suffer because of belief.

That’s tough to think about.  Really think about that for a moment.  When you choose to live for Christ, you are choosing a life of certain persecution.  No, it’s not likely that we will be enslaved, tortured, or even killed for our faith, but persecution can come in many forms.  We may be left out of some friend circles or work outings.  We may be slandered.  Jesus says Christians may be “betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends” because of him.  (Luke 21:16). 

So, why then would anyone want to follow Christ if we’re promised this persecution?  What made most of Jesus’ disciples live and die for him?  Those who have been persecuted for their faith know why.  In fact, the apostles had a radical view of what it meant to be persecuted.  The bible tells us that “[t]he apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering in disgrace for the Name.”  (Acts 6:41).  Were they nuts?  Or did they realize that through suffering, God placed his stamp of approval on their work?  They had become more like Christ in their suffering. 

[I need to stop here and note the obvious fact that we should not seek out suffering, nor should we avoid it.  The point of this post is to help us remember that we will be persecuted in some way for Christ.]

So, we see that Christ followers endure suffering to be more like Christ, but there is another truth that comes along with suffering:  our reward in heaven.  God promises great rewards in heaven for our persecution on earth.  Jesus himself tells us that “[b]lessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  (Matt. 5:11-12). 

What I am saying here is not some revelation that you’ve never thought or been taught.  It is, however, a truth that just needs to be remembered.  Remember, the purpose of this blog is to help think about and renew our faith.

Before I go, I want to leave you with one more verse.  It’s a verse that if thought about deeply enough, can scare you and inspire you all at the same time.  And, perhaps, may be the biggest reason to endure persecution for Jesus Christ.  In Matthew, Jesus tells us “whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.  But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.”  (Matt. 10:32-33).  


A Christian's Past

Before we begin discussing Christianity in a practical and honest way, there is one thing we need to address - our past. As you read these words, memories of something you have said or done in the past may haunt you, but more importantly, they keep you from sharing your faith or your thoughts about faith. One of the most effective tactics of the devil is to remind you of your mistakes when you have minor moments of bravery in stepping out for the kingdom of Christ. Satan launches fiery (memory) arrows that pin you back to the ground, making you scared to speak or act for fear that someone will call you out on your past behaviors. Most of the time, that someone is you. I used to be like that. And when I say "used," I mean even a few minutes ago, before I started writing this post. It never really leaves us. The only way to dodge the arrows is to ask for God's strength in stepping out. Ultimately, we have to trust him.

So, how do we trust him while we're stepping out into faith? What does that look like? To put a spin on Apple's slogan, there's a verse for that, a few actually. In 1 Timothy 1:12, Paul thanks Jesus for giving him strength and thinking him worthy of his service. Immediately, we see that God gave him the strength to make an impact as big as Paul made on the world. God had to give Paul strength because he knew the resistance he would meet. What resistance? A lot of people that knew his past!  Sound familiar?

In verse 13, Paul says he was once a "blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man," but was shown mercy. There is less imagery in this verse. To be more graphic, Paul would go from house to house and drag christians to prison. (Acts 8:3). He had christians put to death solely for their belief in Jesus Christ. (Acts 9:1). Yet God uses Paul, the christian killer, to change the world?  Of course.

Who has a better excuse than Paul to hide behind his past? So, why did God use Paul? Could it be that he foresaw the timidity to share the gospel that we all have? Absolutely. God picked the baddest, most ruthless anti-christian alive and used him for his kingdom. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life." (1 Tim. 1:15-16). 
So, we have God's truth and instruction about our past. Now what?


Seeking his truth.

There are truths about Christianity that come to the surface fairly easily.  Virtually every Christian understands that Jesus died for our sins or that we are supposed to love our enemies.  But not many of us common Christians actually seek out the hidden truths of Christianity. 

Yes, Christ died for our sins, but how does that truth carry over into our day-to-day living?  Yes, we are to love our enemies, but how do we do that?   How do we, as Christians, apply this truth?  And more importantly, how do we find more truths like it?  After much studying, talking with friends and family members, and some alone time with Christ, one simple truth has prevailed.  One that, upon hearing, you will respond with a resounding, “duh!” 

That simple truth:  read the bible. 

See, I told you – duh, right?  But how many of us actually sit down and read our bibles (Aside from the few verses listed on the church bulletin every Sunday)?  Just recently, I stayed up until 2:30 a.m. to work on a speaking presentation for law school, yet I cringe when I think of waking up 30 minutes earlier to read from the book of life – a great tactic by the devil.  I need my sleep, right?  I need my down time, right?  It’s mine, RIGHT!?

And so this blog has come about.  I have challenged myself to read, just read the bible.  And as I read and learn, I’ll share what God has shown me.  And if He feels like it, He’ll give me the words to help us see these truths in a way that we can remember.