Friday, November 29, 2013

Honoring Number One

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:2-3 ESV)
All of God’s commands are important, but this is number one.

To keep the commandment to worship the Lord our God and no other god, we need to know him as he has revealed himself. When our view of God is skewed, it isn’t quite the one true God we are holding in our minds when we worship. To the extent that our view of God is different than his self-revelation, we are  “exchanging the truth of God for a lie” (Romans 1:25)—and that's idolatry. This is why the Westminster Larger Catechism lists ignorance and misapprehensions of God right beside unbelief and misbelief in the list of sins forbidden by the first commandment.

We can't excuse our ignorance of God by thinking there's no use trying to understand what he is like him because he is incomprehensible. It is true that God is incomprehensible. He’s infinite and we have pea brains. R. C. Sproul says we are like infants struggling to understand a genius.1 We will never, ever, not in a million years or eternity, understand the whole of who and what God is.

But God identifies himself to his people immediately before he gives this command. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt . . . .”  The incomprehensible God tells them something about himself, something he has done for them, something they can understand, so they can focus on him when they worship. They could know him, not fully, but truly, because of his self-revelation.

We have even less excuse for ignorance than the Israelites did, because in all of scripture, God is defining himself for us. In the Bible, says Sproul, the genius is speaking to the infant in the infant’s own terms.2 God condescends to speak to us in language we can understand. We can know him, never fully, but truly, because he tells us about himself and his works.

It’s always worth the effort it takes to understand God’s revelation of himself, because the more we learn of his character and actions, the more we are able to see him as he really is. The more we know, the more it is the one true God we hold in our minds when we worship. 

Have you ever heard someone say that obedience matters more than theology? I have—and it's a silly statement. Commandment number one makes knowledge of God, or theology, fundamental to obedience. Obedience starts with theology—knowing what can be known about God, what he has shown to us (Romans 1:19)—so there is less idolatry and more truth in our service.

1R. C. Sproul, Truths We Confess 
2Same as above

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Astonished

He was astonished. The New American Standard says he was "amazed."

Paul, the apostle, after a very brief introduction, jumps right into his letter to the Galatians with the declaration that he was astonished.

Astonished by what? He was astonished, he says, "that you are so quickly deserting him who called you into the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel" (v.6).  Where was this false gospel coming from? Troublemakers, those who wanted "to distort" the gospel (Gal. 1:6-9).

He gets even more forceful, ending this paragraph (v.6-9) with the impassioned words:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Two times he uses the word "accursed." The NIV says, "under a curse." It's basically calling down an anathema on anyone who preaches a false gospel; serious business.

Whose gospel did the Galatians believe? They believed God's gospel, given by Christ to the apostles, including Paul himself. Paul spends the remainder of this chapter and part of chapter 2 defending himself against charges that he did not preach the real gospel. The opponents of Paul wanted to add something to the gospel, in this case, adherence to the law. Paul reminds them in Gal. 2:15-16 that no works of the law will save anyone. In fact, he repeats this sentiment three times in verse 16 alone.

Would you recognize a false gospel if one were presented to you? False teachers are generally quite subtle. They don't walk up to you and say, "Hey, want to buy into a distorted gospel?" John Stott reminds us that the danger is actually within the church:
The church's greatest troublemakers (now as then) are not those outside who oppose, ridicule, and persecute it, but those inside who try to change the gospel. It is they who trouble the church.
The Galatians received the gospel verbally through the apostles. We receive the gospel today through the apostles' teaching as transmitted through the Word of God. The long and short of it is that if you don't know the bible, you won't know the gospel. We either believe the gospel as revealed in Scripture or we believe in a false one.

Do we know the gospel well? Would we be able to discern whether or not someone was adding something to it? Would we add something to it ourselves?  Do we let our pet moral behaviours, or our cultural preferences become extra requirements for our justification?

Do we know more about culture issues, church government issues, contemporary worship issues, or gender issues than we do about the gospel? It's okay to know about those things, but they aren't the gospel. Understanding the gospel is a life or death matter; eternal life or eternal death. More than ever, in a day when competing "truths" abound, we need to uphold the truth of the gospel. We need to know it, and protect its purity. We need to be bold, like Paul.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Blank Check

In the youth small group I help lead, we’ve been working through Follow Me by David Platt. It’s been a good study so far.

A recent lesson talked about giving God a blank check with our lives. It’s a biblical concept. If God is God, and we owe everything to him, we must be willing to follow him wherever he leads. It’s picking up our crosses and dying to ourselves.

But once again, I was struck by how instantly we assume “blank check” equals “big ministry.” Part of this is the metaphor, but we tend to make these assumptions regardless. I surrender all. Here am I send me! And when we say that, we assume that we will be sent.

Most of us aren’t, though. We push the blank check across the counter to God, only to be miffed if he writes “nursery duty” in the line. We tend to assume we will be sent to do something public, but most of us will be quite ordinary. We are making casseroles for new moms and preparing the communion trays. So many little tasks need to be done for the church. So many ways we need to love those in our local church body. So many people in our neighborhoods and towns who think Christianity is just a list of dos and don’ts, who need to be told the good news of the gospel.

I’ve written on this before, and I’m sure I’ll write on it again. Anywhere, anything. Even if it’s humble, and even if it’s never noticed. But it’s never unnoticed by the One who calls us.

I like how Nate Palmer puts it in his book, Servanthood as Worship:
The call to servanthood is a call to worship God by serving others with joy, even when we are not thanked, even if we are mocked, and sometimes even when it seems our service does no actual good. In the absence of recognition, reward, or results, we can be satisfied with what God has done already, what he has promised to do, and whatever he may choose 
to do in the future. With regard to ourselves, God’s ultimate treasure and reward—eternal salvation—has already been given to us through Christ. Can we really ask more of God than this? With regard to those whom we serve, God has promised to make our efforts fruitful in his own time and his own way— one plants, another waters, but God gives the increase.
Our satisfaction should come from God, not in whether our ministries, however humble they may be, are noticed or even, to our assessment, as fruitful as we hope.

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:7)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Being in the Word every day

It's the kind of email every Bible teacher loves to receive from one of her students. "I have a question for you," it read. "I struggle with being in the Word every single day. Is there any direction you can offer me to help? I'm open for all suggestions."

Back last summer, a friend and I were tossing ideas back and forth about what I could teach for the upcoming fall session of Bible study. We kept returning to the prophets and I expressed doubt--well founded doubt--on my ability to adequately teach such an intimidating subject. Finally, my friend and I decided that our goal for our particular group was a simple one: to encourage women to love the Word of God. If just one woman, we agreed between ourselves, if just one woman leaves a lesson on on the prophets curious to know more about the Word then, well, we will consider our time well spent.

So I get this email. And I pause and in great humility I praise the Lord for His grace and faithfulness--this is what we asked Him for!--and then I type my response. Here is how I sought to encourage this sweet, eager student of the Word...

You are not alone! I think we all struggle with consistently spending time studying and meditating on God's Word. I know I do! I'm not sure exactly what you are looking for, but here's a couple of things I do/have done. 
Read through the Bible. There are all sorts of Bible reading plans out there! Just a simple google search will turn up tons. So many times we put this off until January 1 but there's no magic in beginning at the new year nor even in beginning in Genesis 1 for that matter! There are plans that are just the gospels, just the New Testament, two year plans, six month plans, etc. Find a plan that appeals to you and begin today. Just reading the Word and gaining a "big picture" perspective as well as increased familiarity have been greatly encouraging to me.
Work through studies and books that have a daily Scripture reading and questions. Here are a couple I'm familiar with and highly recommend:
Memorize Scripture. This is something I'm not very good at but really want to be better. When I do try to be more diligent, I use Desiring God's Fighter Verses app for my phone but again there are probably multiple scripture memory helps out there. I like that there are several memorization tools within the app as well as various tracks to choose from. For instance you can memorize whole sections of Scripture and the app breaks it down into weekly memory verses. 
Remember what your goal is. Sometimes I get so hung up on checking the little boxes for my daily reading plan or memory verse and feeling so guilty when I miss that I tend to just give up altogether. I have to ask myself: is the point really reading Bible through in a year...or is it to know the Word and thereby to know God and to love Him more? If its the second then I can repent for missing yesterday (and the day before and the day before and...) and set my heart to seek Him TODAY. True confessions: I totally dropped the ball for a couple of months this summer. Ok, more than that. I picked back up with October's reading (totally skipping all those books of the Bible I was supposed to have read before) and, yet, still, today I read the entry for October 27. :) But there is grace, much grace, and the Lord promises to meet the seeking heart with Himself. He is so good! 
Hope that helps! If not, email me back and ask me more questions. I love questions like this and it encourages me more than you know!

How much do I love God's Word and how much do I love seeing others grow in that same desire! May the Lord grant us all a hunger to grow in the knowledge of Him through the diligent study of His Word!

What encouragement would you offer to someone eager to spend time in God's Word more consistently?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Hospitable Heart

I was recently convicted about my hospitality or lack thereof. I find it intimidating because I associate it with having a large home, a big dining room table, a love for decorating and cooking, and being an extrovert. Based on this ideal, which is largely a product of Martha Stewart phobia and Pinterest insecurity, I've failed because I don't fit any of those categories very well. So I guess I have an easy out, right? No. The Word won't let me off the hook that readily:

Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Romans 12:13
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace. 1 Peter 4:8-10

Notice the Bible says nothing about the picture-perfect quality of the hospitality, but it does talk about loving and serving the saints. And this is where my problem lies. I've been focused on the outward and lost sight of what drives hospitality - the heart.

When I think about God in terms of hospitality, He is the ultimate host of hosts. We weren't fit to sit at His table, and what does He do? He sends His Son to bear the punishment for the sin that separated us. Jesus lived the life we could never live so we could stand before God clothed in His righteousness. We aren't even invited as guests for a bit and then sent on our way. God has adopted us as His own to live with Him forever.

So if I keep the gospel in the forefront, then hospitality is nothing less than showing God's generosity in Christ to others. 

This is freeing, isn't it? It frees me from keeping up with the Marthas because there's something greater I can offer than the fanciest gourmet meal or the poshest home. God has poured out His love into my heart, and by His grace, I can share that same love even if it's with a cup of cold water in Jesus' name. This also frees me from the comparison trap. You may be able to prepare a wonderful feast for 50 and a 9 x 13 tater-tot casserole may be more my style. But if our hands are fueled by God's love in our hearts, that's what matters. 

And if I may say so, it's a good thing.

Monday, November 18, 2013

What About Giving Thanks?

My childhood home was always the last in the neighborhood to be decorated for Christmas - or so it seemed. We had two neighbors who decked their halls and yards on the day after Thanksgiving every year. Other families would watch them in wonder, silently judging their premature and gaudy decorations. Even though our decorations were modest, our home still seemed so different at Christmas. I would plead with Daddy to allow us to decorate before December 15th. I don't remember that he ever relented.

The abundance of  gaudy decorations my neighbors displayed would be considered sparse by today's standards. Decorating the day after Thanksgiving is customary, but even waiting that long seems to be going out of fashion. Black Friday dawns before sunset on Thanksgiving Day. Radio stations begin playing Christmas music on November 1st.

As the Christmas season has been extended, the season for giving thanks has been pushed aside. Who can blame retailers? Thanksgiving doesn't boast the magic of elves or the fun of dressing up to collect candy. Tucked quietly between the two largest commercial holidays of the year, a day set apart to purposefully remember our blessings seems provincial and prosaic.

How things have changed since Gorham D. Abbott penned these words in 1833:
"When first New England was planted, the settlers met with many difficulties and hardships, as is necessarily the case when a civilized people attempt to establish themselves in a wilderness-country. Being piously disposed, they sought relief from Heaven, by laying their needs and distresses before the Lord in frequent set days of fasting and prayer. Constant meditation, and discourse on the subject of their difficulties, kept their minds gloomy and discontented; and, like the children of Israel, there were many disposed even to return to that Egypt which persecution had determined them to abandon.

"At length, when it was proposed in the assembly to proclaim another fast, a farmer, of plain sense, rose and remarked, that the inconveniences they suffered, and concerning which they had so often wearied Heaven with their complaints, were not so great as might have been expected, and were diminishing every day as the colony strengthened; that the earth began to reward their labors, and to furnish liberally for their sustenance; that the seas and rivers were full of fish, the air sweet, the climate wholesome; above all, they were in the full enjoyment of liberty, civil and religious. He therefore thought, that reflecting and conversing on these subjects would be more comfortable, as tending to make them more contented with their situation; and that it would be more becoming the gratitude they owed to the Divine Being, if, instead of a fast, they should proclaim a thanksgiving. His advice was taken; and from that day to this, they have in every year observed circumstances of public happiness sufficient to furnish employment for a thanksgiving-day, which is therefore constantly ordered and religiously observed." (source, italics mine)

We have forgotten how to give our humble thanks.

Instead, we move from Halloween straight to Christmas, spending countless hours and untold sums of money on celebrations that shout Look at me! and Give to me!

We're so concerned about getting more that we fail to give thanks for what we already have.

Social media is brimming with posts expressing gratitude for being able to serve others (e.g., "Today I'm thankful I can cook dinner for my friend who just had a baby AND watch her twin toddlers all afternoon. #thanksgiving").  The right hand tells not only the left hand, but the entire world, what it's doing. (see Matthew 6:1-4)

A narcissistic culture is quick to call attention to and appreciate itself.

Yet there is but one source for all our blessings.  "Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change." (James 1:16-17)

Does our thanksgiving acknowledge Him? Not just the holiday, when we stuff ourselves with food and football. Does our giving of thanks demonstrate our awareness that without Him we would be utterly lost -  physically, emotionally, and spiritually?

I love Christmas. The lights, the decorations, the carols, and the evening rhythm of Advent readings all bring joy to my soul. I can hardly wait to celebrate the Incarnation. What better way to usher in that season than to take time to earnestly and deliberately give Him thanks? 

And as Lisa wrote so beautifully, "...may this discipline of thanksgiving mark us as God's people and may we be a grateful people whose joy extends far beyond the month of November."


Some people seem to think that if they set apart certain definite days for praise, it is enough. For example, they will be grateful for a whole day once in the year—thinking that this is the way God wants them to show their gratitude. But the annual Thanksgiving Day is not intended to gather into itself the thanksgiving for a whole year; rather it is intended to give the keynote for all the year's life. Life's true concert pitch, is praise. If we find that we are below the right pitch, we should take advantage of particular thanksgiving seasons to get keyed up. That is the way people do with their pianos—they have them tuned now and then, when the strings get slack and the music begins to grow discordant—and it is quite as important to keep our life in tune as our piano. - J.R. Miller (source)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Vocational Thanksgiving

Two years ago I did a short study of the doctrine of vocation, which teaches us that all labor is a divine calling and a means by which God works his providential care for creation. It changed my attitude toward my own work. Who can resent a task that is God's chosen way to do his benevolent work in our world? Even my  routine chores have meaning if they are a calling from God.

What's more, understanding the doctrine of vocation changed how I think about those whose jobs provide a service to me. Yesterday, for instance, the Purolator man delivered a parcel to my place. It was addressed to my son, and heavy—too heavy to ship by Canada Post. He wheeled the parcel to the garage door and left it there, because he knows that the big stuff goes in the garage/shop that houses my son's business. Later, the mailman delivered two more packages, a book for me to review, and a tool for my son. These are two people whose labor make my life—and the lives of those around me—better.

The doctrine of vocation teaches me that when they delivered their parcels, these men were wearing the "mask of God," to use a phrase from Martin Luther. We might say God was hiding himself in their work, whether they knew it or not. He was caring for me and mine through them. They are his good gifts to me, along with all the other people whose jobs make my life better.

During this season, as I practice the discipline of thanksgiving, I'm trying to remember to thank God for the ordinary people whose labor serves me. Thinking through my day, besides the two men mentioned above, I'm thankful for 
  • the workers in my grocery store. God provides my food through them. 
  • the farm workers who grow and harvest fruit and vegetables and the truck drivers who transport them to my grocery store. God feeds me through their labor, too.
  • those who maintain our winter roads, who are God's means to keep me safe as I drive.
There are more, but let's make this a cooperative exercise of thanksgiving. What workers are you thankful for? Whose labour does God use to provide good things for you? Tell us, and thank God for them, in the comments.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Two books for newlyweds

These recommendations might surprise you. They aren't the typical books one would recommend to newlyweds. However, they both discuss important issues that will affect marriage and family.

The first is Kevin DeYoung's Crazy Busy.  This book discusses a problem many seem to have: being too busy. It is a very personal book, with DeYoung using his own struggle with busyness as a platform. He is careful to emphasize that he has not figured it all out yet. It is a brief, easy read.

The book highlights seven different things that might contribute to our busyness. The last chapter is an exhortation to be in the Word. Three dangers to being overly busy are: it ruins our joy, it can rob our hearts, and third, it can cover up the rot of our souls. DeYoung is clear: busyness is a heart issue. Everyone has the same amount of time in a day, but the tendency to being too busy reflects what's going on inside.

I really liked what he said here:
Busyness is like a sin: kill it, or it will be killing you. Most of us fall into a predictable pattern. We start to get overwhelmed by one or two big projects. Then we feel crushed by the daily grind. Then we despair of ever feeling peace again and swear that something has to change. Then two weeks later life is more bearable, and we forget about our oath until the cycle starts all over again. What we don't realize is that all the while we've been a joyless wretch, snapping like a turtle and as a personally engaging as a cat. When busyness goes after joy, it goes after everyone's joy.
We cannot be fooled into thinking that as wives and mothers (or even sisters or daughters) that being overly busy won't affect other relationships. It will.

Some others who reviewed the book were disappointed by the last chapter, because it lacked a "how to fix it" section. Instead, it was suggested that to begin tackling the problem, the one thing we can do is to be in Scripture regularly. I was not disappointed by this exhortation; in fact, I thought it was wise. For him to say that he had this issued nailed down may have been very premature. DeYoung did not indicate that he had figured it all out, and finished his book in keeping with that understanding. To provide a prescription for others who battle being too busy really is not possible aside from a very general recommendation, which he gave.

The other book I would recommend is  The Organized Heart, which is by our own Staci Eastin. It dovetails nicely with DeYoung's book. Staci's book, like DeYoung's, addresses the issue from a heart perspective. Just like our tendency to take on things and become busy is a heart issue, so is how we cope with our busy lives. The heart issues which can influence our organization are perfectionism, possessions, leisure, and yes, busyness. Busyness can be why we are disorganized.

In the chapter about busyness, Staci asks the question "What does fear of man have to do with my calendar?" Plenty. Sometimes, our busyness is about being liked:
Women who agree to do too much are often driven by the desire to be liked... Fear of man indicates we find our worth in pleasing others than than pleasing God. Instead of working to bring glory to God, we hope to bring glory to ourselves.
It is crucial that our motive for taking things on is to be obedient to God's calling, and ultimately to bring Him glory, not because of the fear of men.

Sometimes, avoiding the trap of being busy is simply a matter of learning to say "no" without fearing that others will not like it. I realize that sounds simplistic, but I have been in a position where I was too busy.  There are times when it is indeed a matter of just biting the bullet and saying that two letter word.

It is much easier to prevent becoming too busy than it is to find oneself buried under, and having to climb out. This is why I would recommend these two books. They both encourage the reader to evaluate his heart. Busyness doesn't happen because we're married; the seeds are there when we get to the altar and will be brought into the marriage. Young couples can be encouraged to think about these things before they become problematic. There is a lot more to planning for marriage than putting together a wedding and setting up housekeeping.

We don't have to do it all. God doesn't expect us to. But what he does expect from us is to be good stewards of what he gives us: our homes, our families, our children, and our vocation. If we consider those things at the beginning of our married lives, it might not be so hard to manage later.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Testimony

When I was about ten, a friend of mine asked me why Jesus died on the cross. I repeated the answer I had heard countless times, "Jesus died on the cross for our sins."

She heaved an exasperated sigh. "I know that's what the answer's supposed to be, but what does that mean?"

Her question stumped me, because to be honest, I didn't really know. But I didn't want to admit that to her. "You know," I bluffed. "He died for us. For the forgiveness of sins."

The thing is, both of us had grown up in church. Both of us had heard the gospel countless times. But we couldn't explain it at all—other than parroting back an answer we didn't understand.

I continued like that for quite awhile. While I did start to understand that Christ's death was a punishment that I deserved, I didn't let that truth change my life. If I ever felt convicted for my sinfulness, I took a quick tally of "good" things I had done. Like many people, I hoped that the good would somehow outweigh the bad. Like a lot of teenagers, I believed it would be easier not to sin when I grew up. And if I did meet some tragic fate, I also hoped I would have time to ask forgiveness before I breathed my last. Just in case.

And then in college, things quit working for me. It seems absurd to type the things that were going wrong at the time, but for my relatively charmed life, they seemed big. The boy I liked transferred schools and forgot about me before the college had faded in his rearview mirror. A fraternity picked my closest friends as their sweethearts but didn't pick me. Even then I knew that these things weren't real tragedies, but I no longer had anything to distract myself from the facts: I was a sinner, and I couldn't seem to fix it.

One Sunday in the midst of this dull, gray semester, I went to church. I didn't see much point in it, but I was a nice girl, and that's what nice girls did. And sometime during the sermon, I got it. I realized that if I could stop sinning on my own, then Jesus wouldn't have had to die. I understood for the first time the meaning of a word I had known and sung about my whole life: grace.

It's common for people like me to assume that the first time we accepted the gospel was the first time we heard it. But I know better. I was no doubt told the gospel hundreds and hundreds of times. I even remember thinking that it couldn't really be that easy. Surely there's something that I need to do. But no, I just needed to accept the gift.

Now I teach the youth at my church. Every now and then I'll ask them questions. How many of you think it will be easier to stop sinning when you're an adult? How many are worried that you'll die before you get a chance to ask God to forgive you? How many of you try to remind yourself of good things you've done when you feel bad about the bad things you've done? Sometimes a brave soul will even raise her hand.

But always, every chance I get, I tell them. I tell them that yes, they are sinners and they can't fix it. There is a solution, though. It's Jesus. He lived the life they should have lived and died the death they should have died. But he gives grace. It's a free gift that they just need to accept.

Some of them accepted this truth long ago. I rejoice for them, and remind them of the gospel they still need to hear. Some of them probably don't get it. Some of them might decide someday that they were never told. But sometimes, a hurt, humbled heart will be sitting in front of me, and they will be ready to hear why what they're doing isn't working. And since I don't know when that day will be, I tell them every chance I get.

Friday, November 8, 2013

#novemberthanksgiving

So it's November. Leaves are falling, basketball season beckons, and stores are pushing all things...Christmas?

Poor Thanksgiving. It's the forgotten holiday, at least in terms of retail marketing. On Facebook and Twitter, however, there is much giving of thanks in this, the month of November. Some of us are deliberate in our thanksgiving, listing a blessing a day in the days leading up to Thanksgiving itself. Others of us share our thanksgiving more spontaneously, tweeting that for which we are grateful with the hashtag #novemberthanksgiving. Others of us have been more careful with our thanksgiving lists, cataloging thousands of gifts not just in November but throughout the year.

These are good practices. I love reading what you are thankful for and I find that your gratitude is contagious. In fact the discipline of thanksgiving has proved to be personally instructive. Here are some of the lessons I am learning as I give thanks this month...

1. As I thank the Lord for His good gifts to me, I am submitting myself to His sovereignty. He is the Giver of all good things and graciously blesses according to His good pleasure. My thanksgiving is meaningless apart from acknowledging that His provision is first of all from Him and not only good but according to His sovereign plan for me.

2. As I determine to identify the Lord's blessings and thank Him specifically, I see the abundance of His grace and I not only revel in it, I rest in it. He is so, so good and my gratitude prompts humble contentment. I am blessed beyond measure; what more do I need? He is enough and He is everything.

3. And so I find joy in the Lord and not in the stuff He has given. This seems a little counterintuitive at first. I mean, I'm acknowledging the stuff He gave, aren't I then finding joy in that stuff? Perhaps sometimes. But as the first point above reminds me, He gives and He is good. Gratitude for His goodness to me causes me to joy in Him, the Giver, and to see that nothing compares to the indescribable gift of Jesus. He is better! The gifts are mere tools that serve the purpose of pointing me to the true treasure of this life, Jesus Christ my Lord!

Whether you post your thanksgiving or tweet it with an accompanying hashtag, whether your gratitude is marked by a list of a thousand gifts or if you whisper your thanks in private prayer, may this discipline of thanksgiving mark us as God's people and may we be a grateful people whose joy extends far beyond the month of November. 



Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The turns in life which try our spirits

Have you ever wondered why believers still struggle with sin? Or to bring it home, why you struggle with sin? It would be so much easier for God and for all of us if we overcame sin once and for all in this life. But is it possible that in His sovereignty, He uses this on-going fight for His glory and our good?1

Here are some thoughts by John Newton:

The Lord appoints occasions and turns in life, which try our spirits. There are particular seasons when temptations are suited to our frames, tempers, and situations; and there are times when he is pleased to withdraw, and to permit Satan's approach, that we may feel how vile we are in ourselves. We are prone to spiritual pride, to self-dependence, to vain confidence, to creature attachments, and a train of evils. The Lord often discovers to us one sinful disposition by exposing us to another. He sometimes shows us what he can do for us and in us; and at other times how little we can do, and how unable we are to stand without him. 
By a variety of these exercises, through the over-ruling and edifying influences of the Holy Spirit, 'B' [the maturing believer] is trained up in a growing knowledge of himself and of the Lord. He learns to be more distrustful of his own heart, and to suspect a snare in every step he takes. The dark and disconsolate hours which he has brought upon himself in times past, make him doubly prize the light of God's countenance, and teach him to dread whatever might grieve the Spirit of God, and cause him to withdraw again. The repeated and multiplied pardons which he has received, increase his admiration of, and the sense of his obligations to, the rich sovereign abounding mercy of the covenant. Much has been forgiven him, therefore he loves much, and therefore he knows how to forgive and pity others. He does not call evil good, or good evil; but his own experiences teach him tenderness and forbearance. He exercises a spirit of meekness towards those who are overtaken in a fault; and his attempts to restore such, are according to the pattern of the Lord's dealings with himself.2
                                                                                                                                         
1. Extravagant Grace: God's Glory Displayed in Our Weakness, Barbara Duguid, P&R Publishing, 2013, pp 51-61.
2. Letters of John Newton, Banner of Truth Trust, 1965, pg. 22. Online letter here. (italics mine)

(Adapted from a previous blog post.)

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Prayer for Monday

MY GOD,
I bless thee that thou hast given me the eye of faith,
   to see thee as Father,
   to know thee as a covenant God,
   to experience thy love planted in me.
For faith is the grace of union
   by which I spell out my entitlement to thee:
Faith casts my anchor upwards where I trust in thee
   and engage thee to be my Lord.
Be pleased to live and move within me,
   breathing in my prayers,
   inhabiting my praises,
   speaking in my words,
   moving in my actions,
   living in my life,
   causing me to grow in grace.
Thy bounteous goodness has helped me believe,
   but my faith is weak and wavering,
     its light dim,
     its steps tottering,
     its increase slow,
     its backslidings frequent;
It should scale the heavens,
   but lies grovelling in the dust.
Lord, fan this divine spark into glowing flame.
When faith sleeps, my heart becomes an unclean thing,
   the fount of every loathsome desire,
   the cage of unclean lusts all fluttering to escape,
   the noxious tree of deadly fruit,
   the open wayside of earthly tares.
Lord, awake faith to put forth its strength
   until all heaven fills my soul
     and all impurity is cast out.


Friday, November 1, 2013

Dying Well with Flavel

The internet is full of articles on dying well. Primarily, what is meant by dying well is having a "good death,"—dying with one's affairs in order, without needless physical suffering, and surrounded by loved ones. This kind of good death happens when this world's problems (pain, loneliness, etc.) are alleviated at the end of one's life.

Aiming for this kind of good death is an honorable objective. I know from my experience caring for a dying loved one that having adequate pain medications, organized finances, and the presence of family and close friends is a blessing to someone facing death.

But when the Puritans spoke of dying well, they were looking beyond the physical realm to the spiritual one. For them, to die well was to die in a state of peace with God, anticipating the joy of being forever with Christ. Dying was something they prepared for by living what J. I. Packer calls "the forward-tilted life"—a life lived with the mind focused on "the ultimate destination."1

Flavel's List
In his book Keeping the Heart, the Puritan John Flavel lists five truths for dying well. He calls them "considerations calculated to help the people of God  . . .  keep their hearts loose from all earthly objects, and cheerfully willing to die."

First, he writes, consider that "death is harmless to the people of God." Yes, death is unnatural: the process of dying can be painful, and in death we will be temporarily separated from our body and from those we love. But Flavel reminds us that for the believer, death will not be a precursor to God's wrath, but the gateway to heaven. "Why," he asks, "should you be afraid?"

Second, bear in mind that "death is necessary to fit [us] for the full enjoyment of God." Paul says "while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord," but once we leave our body behind in death, we will be "at home with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). The way into the fullness of Christ's presence is through the doorway of death.

Third, Flavel writes, "the happiness of heaven commences immediately after death." Yes, we will wait until the resurrection for our glorified bodies, but we will immediately be with Christ, which, Paul reminds us, "is far better" than the life we have now (Philippians 1:23).

Fourth, remember that "by death, God often removes his people out of the way of great troubles and temptations." In this sin-cursed world, every life has its share of difficulties: our bodies fail; we suffer losses; we constantly struggle with sin. Death is God's way of releasing us from "innumerable evils and burdens which are inseparable from the present state."

And last, trust that "God can accomplish by other hands what you desire to do further here." The God who "upholds the widow and the fatherless" (Psalm 146:9) can be trusted with all of our unfinished business.

Learning from the Puritans
I lived the the first forty years of my life in material comfort, untouched by serious illness or death—and that isn't unusual. Our circumstances allow us to ignore death's reality until something catastrophic happens, and then we are caught off guard, spiritually unprepared to be at peace in the face of death.

The Puritans, on the other hand, lived in death's shadow. They frequently experienced physical suffering, hardship, and the early deaths of family members and friends. These constant reminders of the inevitability of death moved them to spiritually prepare themselves for it. Thinking about their "ultimate destination" was more natural for them than it is for us.

But death is as inevitable for us as it was for them. If we're wise, we'll prepare for it, too.
Puritans like Flavel can help us learn how to live a "forward-tilted life"—a life focused on the joy of being forever with the Lord.

1Puritan Portraits by J. I. Packer, page 89.