Higher Ways

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

God’s ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts. There wasn’t always such great a difference between them. When God first created Adam in his image, Adam did not know everything God knew, but he never found anything God did or said hard to accept. His mind and will were in perfect harmony with the Lord. Whatever the Lord decided was just fine with him.

That’s not true of us anymore. Sin has introduced a gap, a vast canyon between God’s ways and our ways. Only the Lord in his grace can lead us back across. Sometimes we would like to shake our fists at God in anger, or turn our backs on him in frustration. Our careers, families, or ministries don’t go the way we plan. We are no better than Elijah, so full of self-pity when he defeated the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. It failed to turn the whole nation around. It failed to change the heart of the king and queen. So he ran away into the desert and asked to die.

We are no different than Peter, who took Jesus aside and rebuked him for all this talk about suffering, humiliation, and death. He saw his own dreams of glory and power flushing down the commode. Jesus’ words about denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following him don’t fill us with giddy joy, either. Maybe you have a spot in your office or in your home where the carpet is worn into a path from pacing when problems come up. I do. That’s not a path I created because I am getting my way so much of the time.

But doesn’t the Lord share this truth for our comfort? Thank God we don’t get our way. Who of us would have had the gall to ask the Lord, “Excuse me sir, but would you take your only Son, the one you love with a perfect, unfathomable love; your Son whose love and will are perfectly united with your own; and would you kill him for me? Before you kill him, could you torture him first with all the pain, horror, and forsakenness of hell my sins deserve? And I know that have despised and defied you millions of times. But could you treat me like my sins never even existed?”

Who of us would have even thought of the way of salvation God had been planning from eternity? Even if we did, who would have dared ask him for it? God’s promise of forgiveness, life, and love in Christ is something we would never have imagined. Things about it surpass our understanding. But it is God’s promise just the same, far above anything our little brains could conceive. Blessedly, thankfully, God’s ways are not our own.

Grace not Judgment

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James 5:9 “Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door.”

People say that “charity starts at home.” The same is true of patience. Nothing requires more patience of us than putting up with the people who are closest to us, the people who are fellow members of the family of God. Living and serving together with our brothers and sisters in the faith can test our patience for several reasons.

Sometimes we are tempted to grumble and complain because others are breathing down our necks. When we volunteer to serve in some way, the joy of Christian service is lost to the pressure others put upon us to perform. They criticize (sometimes only whispered behind our backs) when our service doesn’t live up to their expectations. “I’m not a professional. I’m just a volunteer doing my best,” we think to ourselves, and our patience grows thin.

On the flip side, we become frustrated when others don’t take their responsibilities seriously. Their work never seems to get done. Plans are laid, and projects are started, but the necessary follow through is missing. Maybe it makes more work for us. Maybe it keeps us from being able to finish the things we want to do. Maybe we just feel frustrated when the work of the church stalls and fails to go forward. It doesn’t take too many dead ends like this before the grumbling begins.

Perhaps you are one of those who faithfully presses ahead despite the pressures or the letdowns. But when the task is done, nobody seems to notice. It’s not that you are looking for a special awards ceremony, but it would be nice if at least someone noticed something happened. Everyone goes on their way as though you and your offering of time and ability never even existed.

Add it all together, and maybe we find ourselves in the same state of mind as a church council member of a congregation I served for a short time. He stormed out of the meeting after single-handedly planning the church picnic, arranging the activities, purchasing all the supplies, taking care of the publicity. All that the other council members had to say was that he chose a bad location for the volleyball net.

James isn’t warning us about grumbling about each other here to approve of the shabby treatment we receive. His point is this: our grumbling about each other involves us in loveless judging of each other. This sin opens us up to God’s judgment. Every day we live under God’s own grace to us. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. Let’s be so patient, too, and live in a state of grace in our relationship with one another.

Where To Look

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Hebrews 12:2 “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God.”

People look in many different directions to find the secret to a successful life. Some fix their attention on making money. Everything in their education, in their career choice, and in even in their personal relationships is driven by making as much cash as they can.

But you can’t buy God’s love through life. There are no “for sale” signs in front of the mansions in heaven. King Solomon’s proverbs are still true: “Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil. Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.”

Some people try to make their lives meaningful by turning to a life of activism. They take up every cause to try to save the planet, but they end up a champion of every cause except God’s own. I don’t want to discourage you from a life which shows a proper concern for God’s creation and the people who populate it, but finding God’s kind of success demands that your attention be focused someplace else.

Fix your eyes on Jesus. Remember that he is ahead of you. If you want to stay in God’s race, if you want to stay in the Christian faith, doesn’t it make sense to keep your eyes on faith’s author? Our faith has a source. It’s not something our bodies naturally produce, like the pigment in our skin or the wax in our ears. Faith looks to Jesus for its life. Not only did he author and create our faith. He is the one who perfects it. He is the one who makes our faith complete, and intense, and enduring, so that it can keep us close to Jesus through this life and on to the next.

Fix your eyes on Jesus, who endured the cross and scorned its shame. Do you think that your life is sometimes hard? Consider the race Jesus had to run. Our God was not like some cold, detached scientist in a laboratory, concocting a plan of salvation which would never involve him in any way, and then feeding it to his rats down on earth. Our salvation cost him everything! Jesus not only became one of us and joined us in our world, he made our sins his very own. He endured the agony of the cross for the joy of returning to heaven, not to live their alone, but with each of us as his eternal companions.

Need some encouragement to stay in God’s race? Need to be sure someone cares for you all along the way? Need to be sure it is really worth it? Then remember who’s ahead of you. Fix your eyes on Jesus. He endured the cross just to make you his. You can be certain he has made heaven yours.

The Value of a Name

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Proverbs 22:1 “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”

We put a high value on riches, silver and gold. That is the only way I can explain the great personal sacrifice people make to try to win a lottery prize worth more than a billion dollars. Odds of winning are infinitesimally small. Still, they make long trips across state lines, wait in lines for hours, and even fork over hundreds of dollars in cash for the chance to be rich. If only Christians made such sacrifices for the mission of the church, or to help their needy neighbors!

This proverb is not denying that money is a gift from God. But it assures us there are things so much more valuable. John Jeske once observed that our world resembles a store into which someone has come and switched all the price tags. The cheapest junk is valued the most, and those things which have truly lasting value are treated as though they belonged in the bargain bin. Some people even think that way about their names and reputations! During a scandal in the entertainment industry years ago, I heard a reporter quip that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Today’s celebrities test this theory over and over again. Scandal, at times, seems to be good for business even if it sullies your reputation.

But even our scandal-plagued world understands it can turn out the other way. The “Me, too” movement has cost hundreds of entertainers, businessmen, athletes, and politicians their careers and fortunes. Their own names have suddenly become a liability to them.

Of course, our names have never been worth so much, monetarily speaking, but it’s not merely money which Solomon has in mind. He says a good name is worth more than such things. Our good names, our reputations, provide us with things more precious, and more dear, than money could ever buy.

For one thing, our good name leads other people to trust us. When we are deciding whether or not to get to know people better, or whether or not to entrust some responsibility to them, their reputation, their good name, is usually our starting place. It makes a difference to us what others have to say about them.

That means that our good name is also an important part of our human relationships. For someone whose reputation has been damaged, the world can be a lonely place. You don’t want your children hanging around with children who have a reputation for trouble making. You limit how close you get to others based on their reputation and character. A good name can have a profound effect on our basic human need for love and friendship.

Let’s also not forget that the Lord himself has an interest in seeing to it his children enjoy a good reputation. If others don’t trust us, they aren’t going to listen to what we have to say. That puts up walls which keep the gospel from spreading. God doesn’t send angels to evangelize the world. He has given this task to each one of us, and a good name is a valuable tool for getting others to listen.

Whether we or others make a mess of our reputations on earth, they remain unblemished before our Father in heaven. Jesus speaks up on our behalf. He pleads that our sins and scandals don’t exist. His sacrifice has wiped our record clean. If Jesus has made such a sacrifice for us, and speaks in our defense, then the Lord must esteem our entire selves, not just our names.

From Frustration to Liberation

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Romans 8:20-21 “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in the hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

I have personally witnessed the aftermath of killer tornadoes in Oklahoma and Missouri. Months later debris was still scattered around. Buildings were nothing more than piles of rubble, or simply missing altogether. Pictures of the destruction in the Florida panhandle after Hurricane Michael struck look like ground zero from some atomic blast.

God’s creation doesn’t want to do this. It wasn’t supposed to work this way. It is frustrated when it doesn’t serve God’s people the way God originally intended. The wild, untamed forces of nature are not “free.” They have been subjected by God to work in a negative way because of our sin. Remember God’s word’s to Adam after the fall? “Cursed is the ground for your sake.”

God didn’t do this because he didn’t love us or his creation. He did it because he couldn’t let this world remain a paradise for his sinful people–a paradise that would stand in the way of our return to him. That means God’s love is there, even in the decay and destruction and frustration around us.

We may not know everything God has planned for us, and we may not see all the good he is working for us now. But one thing we do know about our heavenly future: A glorious freedom is waiting: “…the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

Freedom is something for which Americans have long believed it is worth suffering. Remember the last line of the Declaration of Independence? “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Some of those signers like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson went on to become presidents. But some of them ended up losing their fortunes. William Hooper is an example. Others, such as Thomas Lynch and Richard Stockton, even gave their lives for freedom.

Of course, with creation we are hoping for an entirely different freedom. God doesn’t set us free to indulge our personal desires. He sets us free from the desires that control our lives. When he finally returns and takes us to glory, we will at last be free from every trace of sin left in us. Together with that freedom from sin we will find freedom from all the frustration, death and decay sin brought along with it. That is the glorious freedom waiting for us children of God. That is the freedom God’s creation hopes to enjoy along with us.

We don’t suffer now to deserve freedom later. The one does not equal the other. Rather, we are on a journey. As long as we are traveling the straight and narrow way to heaven, as long as our time spent in this world is time spent in faith in Jesus, suffering is part of the landscape along the road. It doesn’t get us where we are going, but it is part of the country through which we are traveling.

Once we arrive at our heavenly goal, the suffering will all be left behind.

Someday, Sons You Can See…

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Romans 8:19 “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.”

Who are the sons of God? They are the people, both men and women, whose sins have been washed away in the blood of Jesus Christ. They stand before God without a single stain of sin or imperfection, not because of any holiness they have produced themselves, but because Jesus has beautifully dressed them in the radiant love of his own holy life. By faith God has made them his own children. He promises to give them all the joys and pleasures that are part of the family home in heaven. They are you and me and countless other Christians who call Jesus Savior.

This is reality, but let’s be honest–these sons of God are not easy for us to see now. We don’t look much different than the general public. Our skin doesn’t shine with an other-worldly glow. We haven’t sprouted halos. Little glimpses of the new life of love and faith inside of us shine through in what we say and do, but the better we get to know other Christians, the more involved we become in working together with fellow members of our church, the more we realize that the same pride, prejudices, selfish ambitions, and resentful feelings that dominate our world still cling to the sons of God.

Why should God’s own children suffer so? Might we not expect that those who call God their Father and heaven their home have life a little easier than those who don’t?

But remember, reality is more than we can now see! We are God’s children, his sons right now, together with all the blessings of God’s love and grace that go along with it. Though this may be difficult to see at the moment, we look forward to the day when God promises it will be clearly revealed.

Do you know what else we cannot see? We aren’t the only ones looking forward to that day. The whole creation waits in eager expectation for it. Paul’s words actually picture the creation craning its neck to see, like little children in a crowd getting up on their tiptoes and stretching themselves as tall as they can to see the parade, or the playing field, or the stage.

The day of our Lord’s return, the day he comes and ends this world’s misery, impresses many people as a day to dread. The whole creation teaches us to expect it eagerly. It’s the day our place in God’s family will be clear for all to see.

Suffering in Perspective

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Romans 8:18 “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

Don’t get the idea that Paul is here offering his opinion. When he says “I consider,” he is using a word from the commercial world of business and finance. It is a conclusion which has been reached based upon a careful examination of the facts, not guesses or assumptions. The figures have been added up, and the sum total has been established.

Paul knew how things could add up on the suffering side. In his travels as a missionary, he constantly lived with some unknown painful condition he could not get rid of. “My thorn in the flesh,” he called it. He had received the same skin-ripping whipping that Jesus received before his crucifixion 5 times in his life. It was such an agonizing experience, it was considered a punishment just short of the death penalty. A number of years ago our government protested the “caning” of an American vandal in Singapore as cruel and inhuman punishment. Paul received this sort of beating with a rod at least 3 times during his journeys for no good reason.

Perhaps the suffering in your life rivals that of the apostle. Mine does not. I point this out not because our suffering counts for less if it doesn’t add up to what Paul experienced. I only want us to understand that he was not speaking from some ivory tower. Paul knew pain personally.

He also knew that it is an unavoidable part of life for those who follow Jesus. We’ve made such enemies here by following him. The Devil would like to take your illness, your loss, your grief, your anxieties, or your struggles, and use them to squeeze the spiritual life out of you. He wants to convince you God has turned against you, if he exists at all. He knows many Christians will do almost anything to escape their misery or distress, even if it means compromising their faith or denying their Savior. This side of heaven, we suffer.

I don’t need to convince most of you. Our suffering is self-evident. And yet, unpleasant though it is, Paul promises that these present sufferings “are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Is that hard to believe? We know our sufferings well. We experience them every day. We know much less about this future glory. Paul doesn’t describe it in detail. On the whole, the Bible has relatively little to say in a detailed or descriptive way about that glory. It rather tends to dwell on the troubles that will be left behind in heaven. How could that future glory outweigh our present sufferings so far, that not only does it make up for them, it really exceeds any comparison at all?

First of all, God considered this glory so important for us, such a precious thing for us to have, that he placed all the guilt for our every single sin upon his only Son, and he sacrificed him on the cross just to give us this glory. Our possession of this gift is worth the life of Jesus.

Secondly, the fact that even the Bible writers struggle to describe this glory is for our comfort. It so far exceeds any good thing we know on earth, that there is little to compare it to. The German settlers in the part of Minnesota where I grew up made a rich breakfast food called “gritwurst.” It’s so unique I don’t have anything to compare it to. I could give you the ingredients, but that would make you wrinkle up your nose, when in fact it has a wonderfully rich flavor. On an infinitely grander scale, heaven so far exceeds anything we have experienced that God simply assures us it will be pure joy.

Thirdly, in 2 Corinthians Paul describes these same sufferings as our “light and momentary troubles.” Even if our lives are sheer misery for 70, 80, or 90 years, the pain will come to an end. It is momentary compared to eternal glory. And if this glory is eternal, that means that it can’t be numbered by years. How can you compare something in time to something eternal? Our suffering doesn’t compare to what is coming. This helps us to keep our present sufferings in perspective.

Forgiven Forgivers

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Matthew 6:12 “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

When we pray about forgiving those who have sinned against us in Jesus’ prayer, we aren’t trying to cut a deal with God. All the peace that comes with his forgiveness would quickly disappear if we believed that, in order to have a sin forgiven, we had to find an occasion to forgive someone else.

Rather, this reflects the effect of God’s forgiveness on forgiven people. Our relationship with God is not the only relationship sin destroyed. It has exactly the same effect on our relationships with each other. When someone sins against us, they fail to pay us the love they owe. Our own debt to others grows when we sin against them. Anyone who has ever had a bill collector pestering him knows what has happened to the relationship between himself and those he owes. Anyone who has ever been owed money that is not being repaid in a timely way knows the strain this puts on a friendship. You begin to resent the person who owes you. The person who owes may begin avoiding you. The relationship may be destroyed. This also happens when the debt is not a debt of money, but of love. Unforgiven sin not only drives us from God. It drives us from each other.

It was God’s forgiveness that restored our relationship with him. That love has had a profound effect upon our hearts. It moves us to desire reconciliation with the world the way God does. We aren’t just servants, slaving away for our divine master. Jesus told his disciples before he died that they were no longer servants, who don’t know their master’s business. They were friends. He made them (and us) part of his family business. We share our Father’s concern. That means we joyfully forgive those who owe us, who trespass against us.

In this way God has given us a wonderful medicine for dealing with the hurts we dish out to each other. It is true that we have been hurt–we can genuinely say we have been sinned against. Others have not paid us the debt of love they owe.

But we don’t have to live with the misery of grudges and resentments constantly seething underneath our skin. As you know, the key to any good relationship is communication. The key thing we must learn to communicate to each other is forgiveness. That is the key thing our Savior has communicated to you and me.

Forgiven Too Much?

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Matthew 6:12 “Forgive us our trespasses.”

This isn’t a prayer taught to the world out there. It is you and me, the Christians, who need to ask God to forgive our sins. We need to ask him regularly. Sometimes people wonder if we really need to bother about forgiveness after we have become believers. Wasn’t that all taken care of at the cross thousands of years ago? Didn’t I personally receive my pardon when I first came to faith? The answer to those questions is, “Yes, of course, God has already forgiven us.” But have our new sins become any less serious?

Repentance isn’t a one-time experience. It is a way of life, an ongoing way of regarding sin. If we continue to see our sins the way that God sees them, we will want to hear that they are forgiven. They are frightening. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us, forgive us, forgive us,” every time we pray his prayer.

This prayer also humbles those who use it. It puts us all in the same boat. We may be tempted to look around and see others we believe are just a little less sanctified than we are. But when we pray forgive us our trespasses, we all drop to the same level. Their sins are lumped together with ours, and we stand together as people deeply in debt to God, in desperate need of his grace.

Jesus’ words also teach us about God’s place in the relationship. He is eager to give us all the things he teaches us to ask for in the Lord’s prayer. Sometimes we pray for things we can’t be certain God wants us to have. But when Jesus teaches to pray “forgive us our trespasses,” he isn’t an insecure parent dropping hints about a gift he has chosen for his children: “Wouldn’t it be nice if you had one of these? Wouldn’t you like to get this or that for your birthday?” He is flat out telling us: “Ask for this! This is exactly what your heavenly Father wants to give you!”

Can there be any doubt he wants to forgive our sins? Look at what he was willing to pay to get us this gift! Would God give up his own perfect Son for us if he was not fully devoted to forgiving our sins? More than the diamond on your finger, or the car in your driveway, or the house in which you live, or the job that pays your bills, the most expensive gift that we have ever received is the forgiveness of our sins. God’s Son died on a cross for it. As gifts go, it knows no equal.

Is it any wonder that he wants us to take this gift out and enjoy it again and again? We might sooner get sick of breathing air and drinking water. We might sooner grow tired of being loved and cared for. God’s children live for the forgiveness of sins. Take everything else we enjoy away. If we have only forgiveness for our sins, God has taken care of our every need.