Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Can you see it?

Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve God and wealth.
Matthew 6.19-24

You are probably stupid

That’s because people are mostly stupid; or, as the bible calls us: foolish.  And what’s funny about this is that fools are insulted when you call them foolish.  Instead of trying to change – to accept wisdom – fools defend themselves and their perceived insult.  Fools never believe they are fools.  And if you were a fool … you wouldn't even know it. 

It’s human nature to pay attention to the wrong things.  We fear things like war and global warming while we kill each other at an alarming rate in our cars.  You know this is true: cars have killed many times more people in the last 15 years than terrorists, and yet we submit to absurd searches at the airport and drive our cars while texting or otherwise distracted.  It just doesn't make sense. 

Spiritually it’s worse.  We care far more about people’s physical health and welfare than we do about their spiritual welfare.  We all know about cancer, heart disease and AIDS.  But can you even begin to name the top five spiritual diseases?  Today mothers will spend tons of time nurturing their children physically, but not spend a moment actually nurturing their kids spiritually.  The whole nation is in “back to school” mode, and they freak if their kids don’t complete their studies and get into college, but fail miserably to teach their kids the wisdom of proverbs.  They’ll know the California Missions, or the US Presidents, but don’t know the difference between Judah and Israel nor any basic bible knowledge beyond memory verses and “rules.”  We make sure they don’t cuss or take drugs and that they attend church … but never show them what it looks like to love God with all your strength, or to love your neighbor as yourself.  Developing kids physically and educationally is WAY more important to us than teaching them how to be effective servants of Yahweh.

What’s weird is that I can go on like this for a long time, offering scores of examples from this life, the miserable failures of churches and their leaders, “Christian” parents, and name just as many mentions of this fact in the bible – but it won’t matter, because you won’t take action.  You have eyes, but cannot see; ears, but cannot hear.  Always learning, but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.  You are stupid.

And that’s why Jesus finished up the SOM the way he did.  He knows that the vast majority of people who heard his teachings wouldn't obey.  In the next section he’s going to teach no less than the secret to living without fear, stress and anxiety – priceless gifts – and yet almost no one will actually live it!  We’d rather see counselors and pastors and get hugs from our friends and drugs from our doctor than simply obey the one we call “Lord.”  

I’ll sign off with an example from our world.  A friend sent me this video because he has eyes to see.  He understands that even though this video is about a true story in the physical world, the message is almost exactly the same as the one delivered by every single prophet in history, and even our Lord.  They all brought us a warning and a solution … and we killed them. 

Consider the lessons of this video, as it is a perfect modern parable. 
He who has eyes to see, let him see:

You have a choice at this point in the SOM.  You can feel insulted, or you can think you already know it, or see it as nice words, etc. - or - you can make up your mind to doggedly pursue obedience.  You can take insults and hardships and all of that, and yet go out of your way to obey Jesus.  

Almost all of you will choose your own path.  You'll tell yourselves that you'd never kill a prophet, let alone Jesus.  And you'll live life like a "good" German who lived down the street from a concentration camp but never attempted to stop the slaughter, and comforted yourself with the idea that you never killed anyone.  

 “A man planted a vineyard and rented it out to vine-growers, and went on a journey for a long time.   At the harvest time he sent a slave to the vine-growers, so that they would give him some of the produce of the vineyard; but the vine-growers beat him and sent him away empty-handed.   And he proceeded to send another slave; and they beat him also and treated him shamefully and sent him away empty-handed.
   And he proceeded to send a third; and this one also they wounded and cast out.
The owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’  But when the vine-growers saw him, they reasoned with one another, saying, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
Luke 20:9-15

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Locate Your Heart

Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve God and wealth.
Matthew 6.19-24

Where’s your heart?  Not the pump in your chest, but the real you. 

Your heart is the home of your passions, your desires and your efforts.  When your heart is the issue in the bible, see it as your true self.  Your identity.

Being honest about what’s in your heart is hard, and getting to know yourself is tricky.  We often don’t like things about ourselves, and so we cover our hearts with layers of deception; even self deception. 

Most Christians spend their lives trying to deny, conceal, and/or control their hearts. 

There are things we want desperately, but we know we’re not “supposed to” want those kinds of things, so we work to discipline ourselves and try to control or handcuff ourselves (and others) with rules and regulations.  But these don’t really work, do they?  Put a drunk in a cell with no alcohol for a week, and he’s still an alcoholic.  Put a child molester away in jail for a few years and even though he hasn't committed this sin for a while, he still emerges with the same desires.  A glutton who has been denied food for a few days is still a glutton. 

External controls (like rules and self discipline) do not change our hearts!   

“Rick” is prone to anger.  When he unfairly treated, he goes off.  His friends try to tell him sometimes he’s ‘justified’ and sometimes not.  Others want him to learn “anger management.”  But none of these things address the true problem (his heart); they merely occasionally handcuff his actions.  He is still seething on the inside even when he doesn't display it.  

When he thinks back on an episode later he’s upset with himself.  He begs forgiveness from God and others around him, and despite his great intentions, he’s filled with rage the next day. 

Everyone struggles like Rick with something.  Maybe your issue is sexual or material or relational, but we all can understand Rick’s issues.  We wish we were different, but there’s that automatic response that seems to come from nowhere, and no matter how hard we try, it gets us.  And once we stumble, we mask it, justify it, apologize for it, and keep trying to “manage” or “control” our desires, our fears, our struggles.  It’s a cycle.  If we repeat the cycle long enough, eventually something’s gotta give. Some people turn to rationalization or excuses; which is just one form of quitting.  Others wallow in guilt and repeatedly “confess” to purge their guilt.  Some just walk away from God altogether. 

Consider the people you know and how they handle these difficulties.  Some folks are rigid.  They have rules and discipline and structure and they appear to have everything under control.  And often they’re very judgmental.  Others rationalize their sin or have excuses for it, or just plain re-label it as not sin at all.  They are forgiving and kind, and often more forgiving than God. 

Jesus taught a better way

Jesus taught us to control our hearts - rather than our behavior. 

It’s easy to avoid sins you don’t really want to do, isn't it?  I don’t want to inject heroin into my body, so it’s easy for me to never do heroin.  There are lots of sins that aren't tempting to me, and several sins that are nearly irresistible.  For example, I have an ongoing love affair with food.  I’m a glutton.  So I try to control my diet.  But diets are SO hard!  But what if I didn't like food just as I don’t really want heroin? 

Or consider our example above, Rick.  Instead of managing anger, what if Rick could change his outlook so that he didn't get angry in the first place?  There are lots of people who are wronged every day but don’t get angry like Rick does. 

In the same way, there are men who see hot women every day but don’t lust.  There are people who are surrounded by wealth and beauty but don’t become materialistic. And there are great, righteous people who are not inclined to be hateful or judgmental. 

This is what Jesus taught us to do: he taught us how to control what we want.  If you can stop yourself from wanting to do bad things, and only want to do good things, then you can always do what you want - your will and God’s are one!

Can you imagine how great it would be to never want to do bad things, or at least rarely want to do them?  And in the few moments when you were tempted, what if the temptation was very minor and easy to resist? 

Now remember that biblically speaking, your heart is the real you: the home of your desires, passions, fears and ambitions.  If your heart is right, then you will automatically want to do right. 

Like our religious leaders today, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had a list of things designed to control outward behavior.  In Matthew 15 they challenged Jesus because he and his followers didn't follow their rules.  Jesus responded to them with an insult.  But to his own disciples he said:
Everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated.  But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.  These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.”  (Matthew 15:17-20)
 Do you see that our sins proceed from our heart?  While religious people teach us to control our behavior, Jesus taught us to control our desires, knowing our behavior would follow automatically! 

Think about it: how did Jesus live thirty three years without sin?  Of course he was tempted, but because he wanted to do his Father’s will more than anything else, the temptations didn't have the same impact on Jesus that they do on us. 

Heart Management

OK, so how do we control our desires, and align our desires with God’s, so that we won’t even want to sin anymore?  Jesus told us when he said:

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”
If you control your “treasure,” you’ll control your heart.  If your treasure is in the right place, so will your heart be in the right place, and then your behavior will automatically be good! 

This is why Jesus told his disciples not to invest in earthly things, but to invest in heavenly things – it’s because our hearts follow that which we value.  If you invest lots of money and time and interest in a nice car, or in your house … you become “invested” in those things.  You will pay attention to them automatically. 

Consider what people invest themselves in, and you’ll see it’s true. 

Many people invest themselves in their children.  They put family first, and so everything is focused on the kids until the kids are grown, then they expect their kids to invest back in them, and so it goes.  Many in our culture put family ahead of God.  And most of them actually believe it’s the right thing to do, even though Jesus specifically taught against it. (Matthew 10:34-39; Luke 14:26)

For others, it’s their retirement savings.  They will be frugal and focused and invest wisely so that they can retire in comfort.  These people watch money more than they watch God.  And this in spite of the fact that Jesus explicitly taught this was a sin. (Luke 12:16-22; 16:19-31, etc.)  

Others are all about how they look to other people.  They want to look good, dress well, have lots of shoes or spend time in the gym or do all the things one needs to do in order to be popular or cool or well-liked.  Fear of being alone can drive people crazy. 

The human heart is all over the place.  Our example above (Rick) wants respect and fairness.  Others want companionship.  For others it’s sensual, and for some it’s pride. 

So … what is your heart’s desire?  Do you want to be “reasonably” wealthy?  Do you see that as “security”?  Do you want to be surrounded by great friends and family?  Do you want the coolest toys, or the best spouse, or the smartest kids? 

If you control your investments, your heart will follow.  Jesus came “to seek and save the lost,” (Luke 19.10) and Paul did his work so that he could save as many as possible (1 Cor. 9.22-27). So they invested their “talents” (Matthew 25.14-30) accordingly.  Their desire to rescue others from slavery to sin drove ALL their actions; their actions became their investment, which turned their hearts, etc.  That is the cycle they were on, unlike our sin/guilt/rationalization cycle. 

What if you focused on finding someone at work to rescue, instead of focusing on climbing the corporate ladder or being a good employee?  What if you took your children to do God’s work instead of focusing on the kids themselves, making them the center of the world?  What if you and your spouse worked for others, gave to others and focused on rescuing others?  What if you worked to see how much you could make and give away, instead of making it and saving it for your own selfish desires or need for financial “security”? 

You will invest yourself in something today.  And when you do, your heart will become more attached to that thing.  I’m writing this on a Sunday.  This morning some of you will go to church.  That’s an investment.  Some people are so invested in their church, they can’t see the difference between that and God, and they excuse the bad things their church or leaders do, and shout the good.  Heart follows investment. 

Others will watch political news programs, and invest in the political struggles of the country.  I know some people who are so invested in conservatism they can no longer distinguish between earthly politics and their Christianity.  They are more invested in the USA than they are in God’s kingdom, and their hearts will follow. 

Still others will invest themselves in the NFL (or MLB or NBA).  As they spend time watching the game(s), their hearts will follow like a baby duck follows its mother. 

And so the list goes.  Do you golf, surf or go rock climbing?  You are investing in that – and so your heart will follow. 

Make this your mantra ... repeat it again and again until you know it automatically: 
"Actions follow the heart, my heart follows my investments - therefore to reduce temptation, I must invest wisely" 

The Goal: Christ-like investing  

Jesus told his followers to invest in heavenly things.  Heavenly things are those things that cannot be destroyed or taken.  They are not impressive to other people, but are very impressive to God.  Investing in heaven will not make you popular or wealthy.  All the prophets were hated, so were the apostles, and so was Jesus; and none of them had health insurance or retirement plans or even several pairs of shoes.  But they also had far more security than we do, for they had real security – an eternal home in glory!  They had nothing, and so had nothing to lose. 

They invested in helping the poor, teaching the ignorant and giving all the glory to God.  They spent more time comforting the sick than they did dining with the elite.  They never watched TV, and you’ll find precious little time devoted to politics, let alone hobbies or fashion.

When crowds followed Jesus, he didn't swell with pride; he saw the poor widow who had just lost her son; or felt the touch of a sick woman. 
When falsely accused, he did not defend himself.  
When insulted, he didn't return it.  
When he was hurt he didn't cry, when he was hungry he didn't stress, and when attacked by a violent storm at sea, he slept.  
When people wanted to make him king, he responded the same way he did when his hometown village wanted to murder him – he slipped away. 

The Challenge: Replacing investments

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.  Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”  (Matthew 13:44-46)

If you want to change your heart and invest in heavenly things, then you must start by “selling” all your current treasures to buy the pearl of great price. 

Or as Paul shared his own attitude:
Whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and consider them mere trash so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in him … that I may know him, the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained it or have already become teleios, but I press on….  I don’t regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are teleios, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you.  (Philippians 3:7-15)

Turn your back on the past and start over.  Leave Egypt.  Throw your current way of life into the garbage, sell it, or whatever you need to do in order to stop – STOP investing as you have been.  The investments you've made in the past have led to your current desires.  STOP IT!

If you want to overcome sin and temptation, there are some simple things to do: 

  1. First, recognize your situation 

If you’re not an active Christian, your heart and desires are naturally selfish, and perhaps you see the only reason to follow God is based on whether or not He will bless you.  In that case, you'll never understand the true value of being in God's kingdom. 

We “Christians” are prone to look down our noses at people in the world, and that’s to our shame.  Without God it’s natural – normal even – to be selfish. 

Most of our “Christian” friends are just like religious people of Jesus’ day.  It’s very hard to tell the difference between true disciples and those who merely make the claim.  Jesus called these people disgusting and lukewarm (Revelation 3.14-22).  And he called the lukewarm fakers “tares among the wheat.”  Tares look like wheat, but they don’t produce the good fruit.  They use up the soil and produce nothing.  (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)

Start by examining and challenging yourself.  Are you bearing fruit?  If not, why?

  • If you’re not a devoted disciple – make a commitment to God right now to follow Jesus no matter what. 
  • If you’re a devoted disciple but have not been immersed (baptized) from a repentant heart, then make it so.  When we are immersed in water as commanded in the New Testament, we have our sins washed away and we receive the Holy Spirit.  He (The Spirit) helps us with our struggles.  And without His help, all our efforts to be “good” are in vain. 
  • If you suspect you may be unclear about baptism, contact me immediately, and I’ll help you
  • If you are a baptized disciple but have been making bad investments, read on. 

  1. Recognize your situation
  2. Second: Resolve to Repent

This is the biblical word for “change” or “turn.”  It means that you are going to confess that you've been investing badly, and now want to do better – to be different.  Make your mind up to do this – be resolved. 
Resolve to change as quickly as possible, and yet to be as persistent as necessary. 
Resolve that no matter how many times you fail, you’ll always get back up and keep trying again. 

  1. Recognize your situation
  2. Resolve to Repent
  3. Third: Take Practical Steps

At first, this is a lot like ‘rules’ or ‘discipline.’  This doesn't work in the long run, but rules are necessary when you first start out.  We are all like children.  Little kids need to be taught not to touch a stove (that’s a rule), but as they mature, we teach them how to use, clean, and maybe repair the stove.  So it is with our change of investment strategy.  At first we need to give ourselves some rules. 

I’ll give you a few examples from my own life.  I used to be addicted to politics.  I studied it, watched lots of news and listened to radio shows, etc.  To reinvest my time, I shut off the news and picked up my bible.  When tempted to get political, I went to the bible and studied “politics” in Israel’s history or things Jesus said about his kingdom.  It was really hard at first, but the more I invested in study in the word, the easier it was to forget how badly America is doing.  Nowadays I skim the headlines to see what’s what … but invest very little time other than voting. 

I also used to smoke.  I tried several times to quit.  Finally I found some suggestions from the American Heart Association with tips and tricks and diet changes.  And after several failed attempts, I finally overcame it by God’s grace.  Today I occasionally smell smoke and the craving comes back, but it’s a LOT weaker now than it used to be, and much easier to avoid. 

Notes about the practical steps:
  • Some things are easy to change, others are hard
  • Some are a bigger deal than others (consequences vary)
  • All of us have more than one thing to change

Because those things are true, you must not attempt to fix all of your problems at once, but prioritize.  I used to be a habitual liar.  My lies had much worse consequences than my smoking did, so I worked on lying first, and smoking later.  Doing both at the same time was too much for my weak faith.  So you need to eliminate the easy things and then do the hard things only a few at a time.  If you don’t … discouragement can kill you.  Satan wants us to be discouraged.  It comes from a weak faith, and none of us has strong faith when we first start out.  But as you see yourself succeeding, you’ll eventually develop very strong faith, and so overcome the temptations of the world. 

And remember: the 'rules' and 'fences' and things like that are temporary.  In the long run, they won't work.  When you first start out, use these as crutches or training-wheels and then grow out of them. 


Coach yourself  
Be wise and determined and recognize your weaknesses.  Also recognize the difference in what works for you.  Some people respond well to harsh criticisms, others need constant reinforcement.  Know yourself, and coach yourself accordingly.  If you “yell” at yourself every time you fail, and you keep failing … maybe you need to be a bit more forgiving and patient with yourself.  If you tend to forgive yourself easily when you fail, maybe you need to start yelling.  Don’t quit until you find what works.

Build walls around your fences   
If you’re struggling with porn, for instance, maybe you should stay away from any kinds of pictures of attractive women for a while.  It may not technically be a sin to look at the SI swimsuit issue, but for you, it may be a stepping stone to trouble.  I quit cigarettes, but if I have a cigar today it makes it much harder to resist smoking more.  Alcoholics don’t go to bars.  Don’t even go inside.  Gamblers, stay away from even your friends if they gamble. 

Choose relationships that help
Some people make your sin easier to avoid, some make it hard.  I have friends who completely overlook some of my shortcomings – they don’t think it’s that big of a deal, and so they don’t help me.  I must stay away from people who are stumbling blocks.  Even if I like them – if they are family, friends or brothers … if they make my walk with God more difficult, then I will simply not be around them.  I seek fellowship with those who make my struggles easier.  

This is as important as it is difficult!  I had a "friend" who I confessed to and asked for help, and instead of helping, she used it as opportunity to cause me to stumble.  Remember the stories in the Old Testament.  God told Israel not to even make a treaty with the foreigners, not to marry them, and to completely stay away.  If your own spouse causes you to stumble, it's better to be apart.  No one on this earth will ever care for you like God, who gave His Son - so let no human relationship interfere with your walk with God. Don't play with this one, and so delude yourself!  

Help others, help yourself
It’s natural to be judgmental of others, especially if they don’t share our weakness.  It’s easy for me to be judgmental of gay people, because that’s not a temptation for me.  But what if I helped them instead of judging?  It’s easy for lots of women to be judgmental about porn, but what about helping their husbands and friends instead of judging?  It’s easy for husbands to be judgmental of their wives’ materialism and shoe/clothes fetishes.  But we’d all be much better off if we would work together to help without being judgmental!  The more you ‘invest’ yourself in helping another with her sin, the easier it’ll be for you to repent from your own sins.  When you invest your time in helping people … your heart goes right there.

So will you make the effort? 

I know this is a long post – but for those who are willing to actually try to literally invest in heavenly treasures, it can be a life changer.  

Behavior management becomes a never-ending struggle, and one which most people will never overcome.  That’s because our behavior isn't the real problem.  Behavior is a symptom.  Angry words are symptoms.  Fights, hatred, short-tempers, lust, greed, envy … all of these things are mere symptoms of the real problem.  It’s much the same with any sin – sexual sins, materialism, people-pleasing, gluttony – they’re all symptoms, not the real problem. 

The real problem is a heart problem, and it has always been so 
Then Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  (from Genesis 6)

For those of you who are willing to join me in the struggle to “reinvest,” you will find the pathway to be narrow and difficult, but it’s a pathway to freedom.  You really can find the peace that surpasses understanding.  God is faithful!

“So then, brothers, we’re under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.
  For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
(Romans 8:12-18)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Choose You This Day

Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve God and wealth.
Matthew 6.19-24

Now we enter a new section of the Sermon On the Mount (SOM), and this little section is a sort of bridge between what has gone before and what comes next.  This bridge section not only serves a purpose within the SOM, it also can introduce you to (or remind you of) something that can be life-changing.  I’ll try to write a few articles about this, because I hope everyone will really understand it and (more importantly) actually LIVE this way. 

This one teaching has the power to change the whole world – starting with your own life.

First, context.  Jesus just taught them:
Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.
After that theme statement, he gave three examples of “acts of righteousness” (giving, praying and fasting) that are often practiced publicly, but should be practiced secretly.  The issue is one of ‘reward.’  Either you want people to like you, praise you, and think of you as a “good” person – OR – you want God to reward you.  And especially in these three cases it truly is an either/or thing. 

If you pray, give and fast in secret as Jesus said, others won’t even know you’re doing it!  What do you assume about a person who you never see praying, giving or fasting?  Do you assume they’re extra good and doing so in private, or do you assume they just don’t do so at all?  The answer is obvious.  We all assume the same stuff about people, because basically everyone is the same: we do our good stuff where others can see, and we hide our bad stuff.  Since we know that’s what others assume about us, it makes it super hard to obey this teaching of Jesus. 

Consider this: What if you decide that you want to obey Jesus as much as possible, and so you refuse to pray with your Christian friends in a restaurant?  What will your Christian friends think about you?  You know the answer: they will assume that you’re embarrassed to be seen praying in public, right?  (Or - you’re a ‘bad’ person, or have issues, or that you are just a fundamentalist nut-job)  In any case, if you don’t explain it to them, they will assume things that you don’t want them to assume about you.  Right? 

So … what about God?  If you’re so concerned about what others think … how purely is your heart devoted to God?  You’re not praying because you are really grateful to God for the food, you’re praying to look good, or to “go along,” or whatever.  Isn't that true? 

It also says something about what you believe.  If you truly believe that God (who sees what is done in secret) will reward you, or you don’t.  Or maybe you believe He will reward you, but not enough to be “worth it.”  Or maybe you just believe God will forgive you for being just like everyone else.  It’s time to ask yourself: what do you believe? 

This is the connection to our next section, because it follows the same issue of belief/faith.  
Either you believe that God is real, the bible is true; or you don’t.  If the bible is true, then:
“The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”  (Romans 8:18)
The whole part of the end of the SOM is to confront you with the fact that God and His promises are far more reliable and wonderful than anything this earth has to offer.  If you believe that, you’ll gladly trade short term discomfort for God’s long-term promise.  If Israel had believed that in the desert, they would have ignored the 10 spies (Numbers 13-14), and followed Joshua, Caleb and Moses into battle against giants.  But because they were more afraid of giants and went along with the majority … they spent the rest of their lives wondering around in a miserable desert and never tasted the promised land of milk and honey. 

So is the rest of the SOM.  All of Matthew 6 and 7 can be summed up with one simple lesson:  
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it.  For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7.13-14)
You are going to choose a gate, or a “way” to live. 
Either you’ll choose to trust God, or you’ll trust the majority. 
Either you’ll invest in this life or the next. 
Either you’ll care what others think of you, or what God wants you to do for them.
Either you’ll fear the giants of the land, or you’ll build your house on solid rock and live without fear.

Human beings are slaves – this is a fact.  The only freedom any of us has is to choose our master.  Either you’ll spend your life as a slave to what other people think; or as a slave to your appetites, fears, stresses, worries – or you will take up your cross daily and follow Jesus.  There’s no middle ground (believe me, I've tried). 

And here’s Satan’s big lie: you can either enjoy your life, or you have to force yourself to be disciplined and do the hard thing.  That’s a lie.  Choosing your master isn't a choice between man’s way of wealth, success and popularity or God’s life of austerity and suffering.  The choice is only about one word: surrender. 

You can’t take either world by force.  You are too weak and stupid to defeat Satan, or even your own weaknesses and foolishness.  That’s a fact.  And you certainly cannot manipulate or work or coerce God!  But you can choose one master and surrender to him.  Surrender to God and His will, or surrender to your own folly. 

It’s hard to tell in English, but Jesus’ name is really a short form of “Joshua” – Yeshua.  These final bits of the SOM Yeshua issues the same challenge as his namesake:
“Choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve Yahweh.”  (Joshua 24:15)

Joshua challenged Israel to pick a master.  For them, false gods were the religions of their families and neighbors … and it was the same in Jesus’ day.  The religion of their families and neighbors was the religion seen in the scribes and Pharisees.  And it’s the same with us today: we worship at the altar of the American dream, “family values,” and churches that tell us that worship is something done at their particular building, in their particular way. 

Stress, fear, weakness are the natural realities for everyone who surrenders to someone other than Yahweh.  

Strength, wisdom, resilience, and contentment are the rewards of surrendering to the One True God and obeying His Son.

Whose slave have you been?
Whose slave are you now? 
Whose slave will you be from now on? 

“Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Secret Fasting - Private Struggles

Whenever you fast, don’t put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.  But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting won’t be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.  -  Matthew 6.16-18

Fasting is an interesting concept to some of us.  But even more interesting is the wide variety of understandings and misunderstandings held among God’s people.  If you don’t fully understand the concept, don’t feel too badly, there are lots of misconceptions about fasting and lots of bad teaching.  And this has always been the case. 

Before we get too far into fasting, however, let’s get the main lesson from Jesus here – the lesson he wants his disciples to live: fast secretly.  Again, Jesus’ command about fasting is: do it so that others don’t know.  Fast SO secretly … that you’ll even disguise yourself by primping a bit. 

One big temptation faced by all who attempt fasting is the temptation to receive attention from those around us.  If we are going to go without food - if we’re going to “suffer” voluntarily – we want others to know.  It’s an irresistible urge for some. 

Fasters want others to know that they’re doing something “holy” or “spiritual,” and they want others to refrain from tempting them.  And often, fasters want some leeway for their behavior.  Like when a smoker is quitting, they use their suffering as an excuse to misbehave, and others are expected to tip-toe around them and allow for their grouchy or rude disposition. 

I use smoking as an example, because I think Jesus’ teaching about fasting privately applies to many things other than missing meals. 

Ask yourself something simple: can you deal with a struggle - without grumbling, complaining, or putting on some kind of show?  Can you go without something – anything – and do so in a way that others won’t give you sympathy or excuse you for bad behavior? 

We have lots of these difficulties, don’t we?  Trouble at work or school, challenges in marriage, hormonal issues, even the weather can be an excuse for us to be unloving, unkind, impolite and selfish.  Why do people need to know you’re suffering, struggling or fasting?  So you can get a hug, some sympathy, an excuse or some other kind of attention.  This attention-seeking behavior is so common, most people accept it as a fact of life.

The wealthier and safer the community, the more pervasive this phenomenon becomes.  In my community (Orange County, CA) it’s crazy.  People have become so accustomed to great healthcare, decent families, abundant food, fresh water and safety – any little thing becomes a “tragedy” – a calamity.  We are a people very unlikely to experience a deadly plague, famine, killer storms, war or holocaust.  Most of us are unnerved by a room that’s too hot or cold or a meal that’s a few minutes late or improperly seasoned.  Nothing is too small.  The mere loss of a pet can send some into depression, while others have a fit of rage over a scratch on their car.

This makes Jesus’ teaching on fasting especially valuable to we who are so blessed, for in fasting privately we can grow stronger, tougher, more resilient - without having disaster thrust upon us.  It’s a good thing for us, merely because it helps us to grow into someone who can at least understand that we’re not really “starving” just because we've missed a meal or two or even for a couple of days.  (Yes, there is a huge difference between genuine hunger and craving food)

And so I've suggested one reason for fasting – for personal growth – a voluntary struggle that’s kept privately between you and God.  Learning to trust God and how He can work with you, and getting support from no one but Him – it’s a powerful thing. 

There are other lessons about fasting … I’ll tell you some of my favorite fasting stories from the Old Testament next time. 

But for now, keep the eyes of your heart focused on the idea of private struggle.  Prayerfully consider the idea that you won’t allow any difficulty to become an excuse to misbehave, to get attention or pity, or in any way be selfish. 

getting schooled

There’s something for us to learn here – to experience.  We aren't born with this ability, and our culture certainly won’t support this, but scripture is packed with possibility for us to LEARN and GROW through suffering.  Paul learned it … check it out:
I've learned … to be content in whatever circumstances I am.  I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret … of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.  (Philippians 4:11-12)
Of course the real challenge for us is whether we even WANT to learn this.  Most people don’t want to learn to be strong and selfless.  We love our excuses and rationalizations more than we love strength, and we refuse to accept the idea that we cannot have it both ways.  Get stronger or get weaker and more pitiful – it’s your choice.  And most people will choose to be pitied, so they can be comforted. 

One more thing...

Remember: only the strong can truly help the weak.  Two weak people can cry together and commiserate, but only a strong person can lift up the weaker one and help him or her.  So when you are considering your path, remember it affects those around you.  The weaker you are, the more you suck the life out of those around you.  The stronger you are, the more you’re able to carry your own burdens and also a bit of the burdens of others.  The stronger you are … the more you can give.

That means this kind of strength is actually a kind of love! 

Some will confuse the desire for strength with ego, honor, self-righteousness or earning one’s salvation.  If that’s your motive, then it’s sin.  But when your motive is to struggle/get stronger so you can help others … then you are working to become a great disciple, for then you’re becoming strong like Jesus.  Amen!

examine yourself

Big girls don't cry - they help little girls

For now, just pray about this and start paying attention to your own heart.  Examine yourself and how often you carry the burdens of others vs. seeking attention for yourself and your struggles.  See how honest you can be with yourself and with God.  We’ll dig more deeply next time, and hopefully set you on a right path.

A wife of noble character who can find?
She’s worth far more than rubies!
She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.
When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
She is clothed with strength & dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.  
She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
She watches over the affairs of her household and doesn’t eat the bread of idleness.
(from Proverbs 31)