Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Peaches or Pits?

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  John 15:5

As a wide-eyed, ambitious, college graduate, I was ready to conquer the world for the sake of Christ.  As Dr. Paul Conn delivered the commencement address for the 1989 graduates of Lee University, I envisioned the grand mission that God had laid out for me.  I believed that I was destined for greatness and I could hardly wait to get started!

In time, however, I quickly realized that the course of my life would not necessarily line up the way I had planned.  Does it ever really?  I had intermittent seasons of professional fulfillment and fruitful involvement in ministry; however, these were interspersed with periods of disillusionment and unfruitfulness.  During those times, I felt so let down!  Would I ever become the woman I dreamed I would be?

I considered myself an industrious performer, but perhaps that was my problem.  I was all about performance, recognition, and chalking up points with God.  I was more concerned with what I did for Him than I was about my relationship with Him.  Then, when I fell short of what I felt was expected of me, I became paralyzed with guilt and feelings of inadequacy.  I worried that God was disappointed in me and that my family and my colleagues would not view me as a success.

Relying on my own strength left me in the pits!  Even though I did a lot of great things, I could never seem to do or be enough.  I was so hard on myself and set impossible to reach standards. I also became frustrated by life’s interruptions that blocked my goals, and I threw in the towel too easily.

I must admit that my season of motherhood far surpassed anything I had ever imagined!  What love and fulfillment I experienced during these precious years with my children!  However, since I had placed my career and ministry on hold for the sake of putting my children first, I wrestled with feelings of inadequacy and a struggling self-worth during those years especially.  I knew I was being faithful to the convictions God had placed on my heart, and I have no regrets of being home with them, but I felt that I needed to be doing something more to feel good about myself.

“Doing something more?”  “Feel good about myself?”  Where did that come from?  Had I bought into the lie that my self-worth was dependent upon my accomplishments?  Did I have to be doing something in order to be of value?  I knew who I was in Christ.  I was certainly productive in the most valuable way possible in nurturing my children, but would others see my choices as valuable?  Was I wasting my years of college?  Would I be held accountable for not reaching the masses for Christ while “hiding out” at home?  Wasn’t I made for more?  These questions alone show how confused I was!

As my children grew up, and I had more freedom to pursue teaching and ministry, I starting pouring myself passionately into my work.  I don’t know if I was trying to make up for lost time or if I was trying to check off some imaginary checklist, but I noticed that I felt better about myself the busier I became.  That is until the stress wore me plumb out!  I was too busy and exhausted for what really mattered, and I had spent myself ragged on things of lesser value.  I was either doing too much or not enough all the time, and my self-image climbed up and down the scale accordingly.

Why was I so mixed up?

Somehow, while I was trying to amass accomplishments to feel good about myself, I had strayed from the truth that my worth is determined by the very One who created me and gave his life for me, not by what I do.  I knew that, so how had I forgotten?  

Yes, I had a relationship with God, and ultimately, I knew that all I was doing was for Him, but I failed to understand His love, grace, and acceptance of me apart from my works.  I did not have to earn my way with God; He was more concerned with my "being" than my "doing."  He just wanted my heart, and then I would be in the position to experience true fruitfulness in connection with Him.  I had it turned around.  We must seek relationship first, and then works will follow, not the other way around.

What made the most impact on my flawed thinking was to read John 15:1-8.  The Holy Spirit brought this Scripture so alive in my heart, and it became my theme for an entire year while my thinking and my life were being transformed.  For one, I learned the difference in being busy merely chalking up works as opposed to being truly fruitful.  Fruitfulness, or productivity, is not about doing, doing, doing all the time.  Fruit is produced in us only when we are connected to the vine. 

As humans made in the image of God, we have a natural desire to do good works and be fruitful because God put that desire in us.  Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  In our limited mortal strength, however, we can only tally a string of dried up, lifeless deeds that will not have lasting value.  On the other hand, as we are connected to the life-giving source of Christ within us, and we allow the Holy Spirit to live through us, we will find the satisfaction of bearing much fruit that will bring glory to God.

One more correction I needed to make was to understand that my goal was no longer to affirm my own self-worth or to feed my ego, but my purpose is to display the glory of God in every aspect of my life.  Once I learned that, I found the peace and fulfillment that I could never seem to achieve in the past.  I thought I had been working for God’s glory, but my perspective had been skewed.  The only fix was to apply the truth from God’s Word.  As a matter of fact, that is the remedy for every single error or problem in our lives!

My advice for a productive and fulfilling life is to read, absorb, and live John 15:1-8.  Make it your life focus to abide in the Vine, or stay connected to Jesus above all things.  Allow the Holy Spirit to lead you and speak to your heart every day.  Trust Him when He prunes unfruitful areas of your life, and even when He prunes fruitful areas so that you may produce more fruit. 

A ripe, fresh, juicy peach is much more satisfying than the hard and tough pit!  In the same way, bearing fruit by remaining intimately connected to Christ is much more fulfilling than relying on our own strength and wallowing in the pits!  Remember, relationship first!

This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. John 15:8

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Don't Just Take My Word For It

“Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Acts 17:11 NIV

It is so important to read and study the entire Bible, not just cherry-picked verses to support what we want to believe.  It is especially important to read within context - not just the verse above and below, but also consider cultural context, historical context, literal context, and accurate interpretation of words.

Here is a perfect example:  I have heard this verse quoted over and over again out of context and used as a foundation to support a gospel of greed.  "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth." 3 John 1:2 KJV. 

I just go nuts when I hear a preacher go there!

Do you not realize that this was written in a letter from John to his friend Gaius, a recent convert?  It was merely a greeting to open his letter, yet it if so often quoted as a direct message to us from God to seek wealth above all things.  John was simply wishing his friend blessings, that everything would go well for him just as his spiritual life was now on track. 

Although this letter was addressed to one specific person, it was also intended to encourage and strengthen the church.  After the initial greeting, the basic gist of this book is to encourage the church to provide for their brothers in Christ who are traveling and preaching the gospel.  Nothing in this letter teaches us to idolize money.

Do not get me wrong.  We can find ample Scripture that does support the fact the God loves to bless us, and He does prosper us!  He really does!  There are too many examples in the Bible not to believe that.  However, He blesses us so that we may bless others and glorify Him, not so we can hoard treasures for ourselves.  The important issue is to keep our hearts pure and not to allow His blessings to become an idol to us. 

In other words, love God; seek Him first; enjoy His blessings; prosper abundantly; but keep a balanced, Biblical perspective, and do not become greedy.

These verses will help to balance this teaching:

“And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” 2 Corinthians 9:8 NIV

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10 ESV

“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” Psalm 23:1 NIV

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:21 NIV

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Matthew 6:24

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:33 NIV

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” 1 Timothy 6:10 ESV

“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5 ESV
 “And he said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’” Luke 12:15 ESV
“For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.” 1 John 2:16 ESV

“He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 5:10 ESV

Please understand that these verses do not decry money itself as evil, but our approach toward money is where the problem often lies.  It is all in the heart.  Greed is the culprit, not money.  As you read in the first few verses, God does not want us to live in poverty or lack.  He generously gives us everything we need and more.  However, we are cautioned numerous times about our attitude toward wealth.  It is not the stuff, but how we react to the stuff. 

We can also read the stories of Abraham, Job, David, Solomon, and many more to see examples of how God loves to bless those who honor Him, but to have complete understanding of this topic, we must search all of Scripture rather than foolishly embracing the shallow and uninformed teaching of the few who manipulate for their own personal gain and lead the sheep astray.  Be wary!

Let us be diligent in researching Scripture and seek to comprehend each message in its full context.  That is the example of the Bereans in the early church.  Rather than merely accepting everything Paul said, they “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Acts 17:11 NIV.

Don’t just take my word for it.  Don’t just read the verses I provided by themselves either.  Take some time and read the contextual message surrounding these verses.  Look into a commentary for the cultural context and the meaning of any words that may be unclear to you.  Compare these verses in multiple translations for the clearest meaning possible.

Now, after considering this approach to Bible study, what do you really think this verse means?  “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” Philippians 4:13 KJV.  Talk about a verse that has been taken out of context and misused more than just about any other! 

I’ll leave you on your own for this one!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Go Back to Your First Love

Have you ever wondered why you just don’t have the passion that you used to have for the things of God?  Have you felt a drifting away from your first love? 

Perhaps you have noticed that another week has gone by and you haven’t cracked open your Bible even once.  You still love God’s Word, but you can’t seem to find time to read it during the week.  You justify it by telling yourself that at least you are getting fed each week by going to church; however, you constantly fight your mind wandering during the sermon, and you can’t even remember what the pastor was talking about.  Besides, church, or religion, rather, has become so boring!

This may or may not be you, but the truth is that we all fight spiritual apathy at different levels and in various seasons in our lives.  Whether you are one who merely struggles with consistency with spiritual disciplines; or you have gotten out of the habit of going to church altogether and may attend only on holidays or for special events; or you have remained faithful yet do only the minimum that will suffice; no matter where you fall on the spectrum, it all boils down to having a passion and an appetite for God. 

Even for those of us who are on fire for God, there are times our flame seems to dwindle, and we may not even notice the change until our flame has been extinguished.  By then, we don’t know how to get it back.   

Why is it that droves of modern-day Christians merely settle for surface routines or religious rituals and don’t seem to be concerned about a genuine encounter with the living God?  As long as they can do enough good deeds, or appear holy on the surface, their pride is satiated, and they can go merrily on their way.  Just scratching the surface in pursuit of God is enough to feel good about themselves without looking “over-saved” to the rest of the world.

I am jumping all over the spectrum here, but perhaps you have found yourself here at one end or the other.  Perhaps you have recognized a compromise in your heart, and you have participated in things that you would not have dreamed you would ever do.  Or, perhaps you have lost interest or have gotten bored with things that used to excite you. 

What can you do about it?

1.    Go back to your first love.  In John’s letter to Ephesus in Revelation 2:4,5, Jesus told them “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.  Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first…”  How did you become passionate about God in the first place?  This is probably how you will become passionate again.  Fall in love with Jesus all over again!


2.    Get hungry!  One thing I have learned in the dieting world is that we have a tendency to crave the things that we are used to eating.  For example, if we consume a lot of sugar and sweets, we will hanker for more sweets.  If we habitually munch on salty snacks, we will crave salt.  When we eat fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables, we will crave fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables.  If we do not have an appetite for things that are good for us, that is a sure sign that we have been eating too much junk.

The same is true in the spiritual realm.  How are we filling our hearts and minds?  When we regularly feast on God’s Word, and we communicate intimately with the Lord every day, we will hunger passionately for Him.  However, worldly junk will surely spoil our spiritual appetites the same way junk food spoils or physical appetites.  

Jesus said in Matthew 5:6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  We must be hungry before we will be filled.  We also must be on guard about letting the junk in, because it will surely crowd out our healthy appetite.  Proverbs 4:23 reminds us, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

3.    Smash some idols.  Get rid of anything and everything that has taken God’s place in your heart, and remove anything that is a distraction to you.  Whether it is too much TV, Facebook, shopping, a bad relationship, substance abuse – you name your vice!  I am reminded that when Nehemiah led the people of Israel to rebuild the wall, they had to remove heaps of rubble before they could complete the task.  The garbage had to be eliminated before the wall could be erected.

Similarly with us, we must ask the Holy Spirit to reveal and remove extraneous things that are in the way.  Hebrews 12:1 states it perfectly, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

4.    Don’t settle!  Instead, search for God with all that is in you!  Come on; it’s time to get your determination back!  Take a long hard look at your heart and take inventory.  Have you lost your first love?  Have you noticed a root of complacency or boredom?  Are you all in, or is there something missing?  It is time to do something about it.  Don’t try to justify it.  Don’t give in to it. 

Here is what you do:  “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart,” says the Lord in Jeremiah 29:13.   With all of your heart also includes seeking him first above all other things, as in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”  Seek Him first and with all that is in you, and you have His promise that you will find Him.

I am urging you to get your passion back.  Just “taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8).  Talk to Him.  Tell the Lord that you are finished with your old way of living.  Tell Him that you want to know Him intimately, and any less is not enough.  Tell Him that you are tired of the same old religious routines, and you are ready for the real thing with Him.  Ask the Holy Spirit to renew your mind and your life.  Allow Him to saturate your entire being and to refresh you.  He can, and He will if you let Him!

No longer can you endure boredom or a nonchalant spiritual life once you have sampled a genuine, exciting, intimate, and passionate relationship with God. 

You can have it, in Jesus name!