A Prayer Worth Praying

My friend Malcolm Woody once sent me an e-mail that included an awesome prayer. The prayer came from John Baillie, the Scottish theologian who wrote the classic book A Diary of Private Prayer. The prayer goes like this:

Teach me, O’ God, to use all the circumstances of my life today that they may bring forth in me the fruits of holiness rather than the fruits of sin.

Let me use disappointment as material for patience.

Let me use success as material for thankfulness.

Let me use trouble as material for perseverance.

Let me use danger as material for courage.

Let me use reproach as material for longsuffering.

Let me use praise as material for humility.

Let me use pleasures as material for temperance.

Let me use pain as material for endurance.

The idea behind this prayer is that everything that life brings our way can be harnessed and used in God’s service. There is no circumstance that can’t be redeemed. Good days, bad days, ups, downs, joys, and heartbreaks can all produce what Baillie calls “the fruits of holiness.”

Romans 8:28-29 says:

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. (N.K.J.V., emphasis mine)

Those verses mean that God doesn’t waste anything. He repurposes all things (disappointment, success, trouble, danger, reproach, praise, pleasures, pain, etc.) by making them work together for a very specific type of good in the life of the Christian. And what is that specific type of good? It is the conforming of the Christian to the image of Christ.

You see, a life filled with nothing but disappointment will conform a Christian to some of the image of Christ but not all of it. Likewise, a life filled with nothing but success will conform a Christian to some of the image of Christ but not all of it. It really does take the whole gamut of human experiences to conform a Christian to the complete image of the Savior.

Someone once asked a certain Christian, “Why do you work so hard at trying to be like Jesus?” The Christian answered, “When I get to heaven I will at last be made completely like Him, and I don’t want the change to be such a shock to my system.” That’s the idea! The more we are conformed to Christ’s image in this life the less radical the completion of the conformation will be in the afterlife.

And how do we become more and more conformed to that image in this life? We allow God to use ALL of life’s varied circumstances to mold and shape us. That’s why John Baillie’s prayer is so worth praying. So, Christian, why not pray it today? Better yet, why not make it a part of your daily praying? After all, it’s really not all that hard to memorize, and it will help you to truly grab hold of the teaching of Romans 8:28-29.

Posted in Adversity, Courage, Disappointment, Fear, God's Sovereignty, Humility, Loneliness, Persecution, Perseverance, Personal Holiness, Prayer, Problems, Sanctification, Sickness, Suffering, Trials, Trusting In God, Waiting | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Sin & Church Attendance

Can you imagine getting drunk Saturday night and then going to church the next morning? Can you imagine rolling out of a bed you share with your live-in lover, getting dressed, and going to church? Can you imagine having beer on your breath as you attend a church service? Can you imagine not paying a bill you owe and then trying to worship with the person to whom you owe it?

As a pastor, I’ve seen professing Christians do these things. Each time I was left to wonder about the mentality that could create such behavior. I’m sure that Ananias and Sapphira would have some thoughts on this subject. They lied about their level of commitment to the Lord and were struck dead after bringing their offering to the apostles (Acts 5:1-11). Nadab and Abihu would have some thoughts, too. They were devoured in flames as they attempted to perform their priestly duties while under the influence of alcohol (Leviticus 10:1-11).

The hard, cold truth is that if God still imposed such high standards for worship, we’d be seeing a lot of funerals in our churches today. The current status quo reminds me of the worshipers of Amos’ time. Even though the northern kingdom of Israel was wicked to the core, the citizens were still faithfully attending their supposed “worship” services at Bethel and Gilgal. Amos sarcastically mocked these services by saying, “Come to Bethel and transgress. At Gilgal, multiply transgression” (Amos 4:4).

Far too many Christians seem to have the idea that sprinkling church attendance onto their sins makes those sins more acceptable. Do they not realize that a rotten egg is still a rotten egg no matter how much sugar you pour on it? Going to church might ease your conscience a little and make you feel better about yourself, but it won’t impress God. You can attend a hundred different services in a hundred different churches and still not do any substantive business with Him until you repent of the sins that characterize your life Monday through Saturday.

1 Samuel chapter 15 will preach. That chapter records how God spoke through the prophet Samuel, commanding King Saul to utterly destroy the Amalekites. That meant that every Amalekite man, woman, child, ox, sheep, camel, and donkey was to be put to death. Saul, however, didn’t fully carry out that command. Instead, he took Amalek’s king as a prisoner of war and spared the best of the sheep, oxen, fatlings, and lambs.

Samuel went out to see Saul, and Saul boasted to him, “I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” With words dripping of sarcasm, Samuel responded, “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of oxen which I hear?” When Saul explained that he planned to offer the animals as sacrifices to God, Samuel told him, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than to sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.”

Samuel was teaching Saul that no amount of “worship” can make up for rank disobedience. You can “play church” all you want, but God will never ignore the fact that He hears the bleating of sheep and the lowing of oxen in your life. As Saul described the spectacular sacrifices he was planning to offer up as “worship,” Samuel might as well have said to him, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you because the fruits of your disobedience are drowning out your voice.”

1 Peter 4:17 says: “For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God…” Peter wrote those God-inspired words sometime between A.D. 63-65, which is over nineteen centuries ago. Needless to say, if he could truthfully make that statement in his day, how much more can we make it today?

Tragically, our churches have become infected with what has been called (at best) “casual Christianity” and (at worst) “sloppy grace.” Additionally, this problem is compounded by the fact that we live in terror that people will quit church if we rebuke them over their sinful behavior. That’s why we acceptingly wink at all kinds of blatant sin.

Our acceptance of these sins, however, kills our credibility with lost people. You see, lost people instinctively understand that professing Christians should conduct themselves in a manner that bears a fair degree of resemblance to the personal holiness that marked Jesus’ life. Consequently, when even they can look at our lives and recognize that we have far too much bleating of sheep and lowing of oxen about us, why should they show an interest in accepting the Savior whom we call “Lord”? After all, if He can’t clean up our lives by helping us repent of our sinfulness, who’s to say that He will do any better with their lives?

Posted in Backsliding, Character, Church, Church Attendance, Discipleship, Disobedience, Doing Good, Faithfulness, Holiness, Obedience, Personal Holiness, Repentance, Sanctification, Sin, Worship | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Idolatry in Early Bloom (A Word about Youth Sports)

When you are the parent of a child involved in youth sports, you know more than you want to know about gyms, football fields, baseball diamonds, and soccer fields. You know how time consuming those places are. You know how much gas it takes to get to them. You know how much it costs for your kid to not only be there but be wearing the cool garb all the other kids are wearing. You’re life is not your own. You lost it all over again when they handed you the latest schedule. Of course, it’s been so long since you had it, you barely remember those days anyway.

A Christian with any degree of spiritual discernment can understand that college sports and professional sports have reached the status of idolatry in this country. But what many don’t understand is just how far down into the age brackets the idolatry has worked itself. A World Series in which the President throws out the first pitch and each player on the field is a millionaire is just the tip of the iceberg. A Super Bowl that offers Bruce Springsteen as halftime entertainment doesn’t paint the full picture. Neither does a Final Four where hundreds of fans have spent a couple weeks worth of paychecks just to sit in the nosebleed section of a dome and watch the games on a big screen. The fact is, the idolatry is in early bloom all the way down into the youth leagues.

The same parent who doesn’t mind calling in sick for work over a mere sniffle turns into Indiana Jones to get a kid to a game early Saturday morning. “Here’s your assignment, Dr. Jones, should you choose to accept it: Drag your child out of bed over protest (no bullwhip, please), get a uniform on the deadhead, grab a few Pop Tarts (the real breakfast of champions) on your way out the door, climb into the family truckster, exceed the speed limit, commit at least two cases of road rage, get to the site one minute after you were supposed to be there, watch the game and see your kid not do what he has been coached to do, drive back home as you fuss at the kid for not doing what he has been coached to do, and then spend the rest of your Saturday collapsed around the house trying to recover from the assignment.” Any takers? The hands of parents go up all over the countryside.

You say you are up for a sequel? Fine, let’s toss around a few more ideas. We could have Indy be forced to hunt down and buy a new, expensive football helmet because the one they gave his kid for standard issue looks like something Dick Butkus turned in at the end of the 1967 Chicago Bears season. Or we could have the coach of Indy’s kid suggest that Indy buy a lighter bat for the kid because the team only has three bats and none of them is light enough. And then, after Indy has shelled out $250 for the new bat, we’ll have three or four other kids on the team want to use it. Now we’re talking! And Indy will have to teach his child the lesson of sharing with those who haven’t contributed one dime to the cause.

If I sound like I have an intimate knowledge of youth sports, it’s because for years Tonya and I moved through our calendar year by rotating from one youth sport to the next. In the spring and summer, it was baseball. In the fall, it was soccer or football. In the winter, it was basketball. I was a head coach and an assistant coach. I was a parent and a fan. I experienced everything from recreation-league teams to travel teams to middle-school teams to high-school teams. One of my sons even played some college baseball. And what did all of my experience teach me? I point you back to my earlier assertion: Youth sports is oftentimes nothing less than idolatry in early bloom.

I really don’t know what else to call it. One of the definitions that Webster’s Dictionary gives for “idol” is: “Any object of passionate devotion.” Similarly, one of the definitions it gives for “idolatry” is: “Excessive love or veneration for any person or object.” You see, an idol doesn’t have to be a graven image standing in your backyard. It doesn’t have to be a golden statue in the midst of an elaborate temple. An idol can be anything upon which you pour an inordinate amount of time, energy, money, and zeal.

Show me a father who won’t put a dime in the church offering plate but will gladly pay $200 for his kid to have that hot new pair of Nike basketball shoes, and I’ll show you an idol-worshiping father. Show me a mother who won’t volunteer to do anything at church but thinks nothing of working the concession stand at the ballfield or baking cookies for the fundraiser for her child’s soccer team, and I’ll show you an idol-worshiping mother. Even if that father or mother is a Christian, it’s hard to deny that their purest worship goes to youth sports, not to Jesus.

Just as some churches have “children’s church” or “wee worship” to train their children how to worship in the sanctuary with the adults, our society does the same kind of thing with the worship of sports. We use youth leagues to get our children ready to worship at the larger athletic stages. When a child never sees a parent praying but often sees the parent arguing umpires’ calls, the child gets the message: Arguing umpires’ calls is important; prayer isn’t. When a child never sees a parent reading the Bible but the parent knows the league rulebook from A to Z, the child gets the message: Knowing the rulebook is important; knowing the Bible isn’t. Kids aren’t stupid, and they pay more attention than we realize. It doesn’t take them long to figure out where our priorities lie. Once they’ve done this, all they have to do is embrace those same priorities and grow up. That’s how you build adults who worship sports more than Christ.

So, what should you, as the Christian parent of a child involved in youth sports, do about this problem? Let me suggest three things. Bear in mind that I don’t pretend this is an all-inclusive list. I offer it merely as an attempt to help you put on your thinking cap.

First, do an honest-to-goodness self-evaluation and be real as to how big the problem is in your life. Truthfully, I’ve seen some Christian parents who genuinely had youth sports in a right perspective. On the other hand, I’ve seen others who were way out of the banks on this issue. So, where are you? Compare what you do for youth sports to what you do for your Savior. As the old saying goes, the first step is admitting you have a problem.

Second, sit down with your child and ask questions you never ask. “Do you still enjoy playing this sport?” “Are you playing because you want to play or because you think I want you to play?” “Do you dread going to practice or the games?” “Has playing this sport made you happier or sadder?” You might be surprised at the answers you get. Never take away a sport your child enjoys playing, but don’t make the child keep playing if the experience has turned painfully sour. It’s true that kids sometimes need to be pushed, particularly kids who are naturally lazy. But it’s also true that some parents keep their kids playing because to let them quit would be embarrassing to the parents, not the kids.

Third, get your worship back into proper alignment by rededicating yourself to Christ. This will knock youth sports off the throne of your life and give Jesus back His rightful place. If you will make this one big decision, it will take care of so many little decisions. Does Jesus want you to make a fool of yourself by arguing with an umpire? No. Does He want you to pull your child away from church Sunday after Sunday because your travel team plays in weekend tournaments that keep you constantly on the road and out of town? No. Does He want you to make your child keep playing a sport simply because if the child doesn’t keep at it he will never make the high school team? No. You see, once you have rededicated yourself to Jesus, that familiar question, “What would Jesus do?” takes on a whole new importance. If Jesus wouldn’t do something, you shouldn’t do it.

Perhaps by now you’re thinking that I’ve been reading either your mind or your mail. I haven’t. It’s just that, as I said, I know this subject very well. And despite the conclusion you may have already drawn about me, I do know that sports doesn’t automatically equate to idolatry. Sports is fine when kept within acceptable parameters. For that matter, it can even be a great thing in that it promotes exercise, teaches teamwork, and rewards hard work. It’s only when sports gets taken to the point of fanaticism, craze, and downright absurdity that it becomes idolatry. In that case, it has no place in the life of the Christian.

In the end, I certainly don’t expect our society to repent of its idol-worshiping ways anytime soon. For example, there will still be stadiums full of people, on Sundays at 1:00 p.m., in frigid weather, cheering wildly at Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers games this fall. Needless to say, those folks won’t all have just come from Sunday morning church services, either. We Christians, however, must reserve our worship for Jesus. More than that, we must show our kids just how devoted we are to Him. If that involves adjusting our mindset, so be it. If it involves missing a game, so be it. If it involves the extreme of quitting a sport, so be it. We must do whatever is necessary to bring every area our lives, including the area of youth sports, under the lordship of Christ. This won’t just help our kids; it will help us as well. And, after all, aren’t we the ones who are supposed to be molding and shaping them?

Posted in Children, Choices, Christian Liberty, Church Attendance, Discipleship, Family, Fatherhood, God's Will, Idolatry, Motherhood, Parenting, Personal, Priorities, Sports, Worship, Youth | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Lunchroom Trays & Jesus

You remember those lunchroom trays from your childhood, don’t you? They were so compartmentalized. They were the epitome of “a place for everything and everything in its place.” The cream corn wasn’t supposed to spill over into the mashed potatoes. The apple sauce couldn’t get out of its banks and make the roll soggy. The peas and the Salisbury steak were strictly prohibited from mixing and mingling.

Such trays are nice things to have around when you are feeding kids. Give a seven-year- old a smooth playing surface with his food groups and you just might get some strange artistic endeavors. I think about Randy, Ralphy’s little brother in that classic movie A Christmas Story. Randy was the kid who wouldn’t eat, the one who worked his mashed potatoes into the shape of a volcano and threw his peas into the side of it, making an explosion noise each time he did it. That probably wouldn’t have happened if his mother had used a lunchroom tray.

But the problem with lunchroom trays is this: When we are kids, those things become so ingrained in our minds that we carry the mental imagery of them the rest of our lives. In turn, that causes us to imagine our lives as being sectioned off into the neat little compartments of work, home, family, leisure, and religion. Consequently, we assume that the contents of each compartment must remain completely isolated from the contents of all the other compartments.

For example, we shouldn’t take “work” home because that is a spilling over into “home” and is therefore wrong. Likewise, our “leisure” has no place at our “work” site because if the two run together we’ll get fired for goofing off. As for “home,” it is for making the beds, sweeping the floor, mowing the yard, and cleaning the basement. It can sometimes walk hand in hand with “family,” but when “family” requires a trip to ball practice, piano lessons, dance recital, or the orthodontist, “home” must be left to stand alone in its own compartment. Along the same lines, “leisure” can be neighborly to “home” by way of television, dvds, video games, and internet sites, but “leisure” and “home” can never fully join up because “leisure” must frequently abandon “home” to travel to the golf course, the lake, the campsite, the beach, or the amusement park.

And what about “religion”? Well, for the average Christian, “religion” primarily means going to church. Church, of course, is a wonderful thing until it becomes something we merely drive to and back from. If that’s the case, church isn’t much more than a confined building where we sit and check off the program that is printed in the bulletin:

  • Opening prayer? “Listened to that. Check.”
  • Hymn of Praise? “Sang that. Check.”
  • Announcements? “Sat through them. Check.”
  • Offering? “Paid my dues. Check.”
  • Special Music? “Heard that. Check.”
  • Sermon? “Got through that. Check.”
  • Invitation? “Not for me. Check.”
  • Benedictory Prayer? “Listened to that. Check. Now it’s time for me to leave church and go to another section of the tray.”

Let me assure you, however, that “tray living” is not what God has in mind for the Christian. Note carefully the following two quotes from the apostle Paul:

“And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (Colossians 3:17, N.K.J.V.)

Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31, N.K.J.V.)

Now, tell me, can you think of anything that isn’t a “whatever”? I mean, “whatever” doesn’t just cover a lot of territory; it covers ALL territory. It is a Ziploc bag big enough to seal in your entire tray! It means that the Christian must do his job, conduct himself at home, interact with his family, enjoy his leisure, and do his church attending all in the name of the Lord Jesus and to the glory of God. What a concept!

Can you imagine the implications of living in such a way? The Christian would be the best worker at his job site because he’d work as if Jesus was standing right there beside him. His home would be a well-kept place because it’s hard to have knee-high grass, filthy floors, and unmade beds to the glory of God. His treatment of his family would be exemplary: no spousal abuse, child abuse, or dysfunction on his part. Sin wouldn’t enter into his leisure time, either, because you just can’t engage in internet pornography, a gambling addiction, alcoholism, or drug use in the name of the Lord Jesus. And church attendance would be an awesome thing, too. It would be vibrant, exciting, and uplifting, the kind of experience from which a person can launch out victoriously into the world.

The point in all this is that Jesus refuses to be compartmentalized. He wants everything the Christian says or does to come under His Lordship. If it is a “whatever,” He demands jurisdiction over it. He refuses to stay behind in His pew at church and wait for you to rejoin Him there the next time you come. Instead, He stands up with you as the benedictory prayer is prayed, and then He has the gall to walk with you out the door, get into the car with you, and ask He climbs in, “Where are we off to?”

By the way, in case you think I’m pushing things too far in depicting Jesus as being beside the Christian all the time, let me remind you that the Bible takes the idea even further than I have. Passages such as Romans 8:10, Ephesians 3:17, and Revelation 3:20 teach that Jesus, by way of the indwelling Holy Spirit, literally lives inside the Christian’s body. You can’t get any closer than that! What better Christians we would be if we would just get hold of this idea. There you are, tempted to undermine your boss at work, play the slacker around the house, cut your spouse to shreds with cruel words, do something seedy and call it leisure, or daydream in church, but you don’t dare do it because Jesus is right there watching you.

This is why, Christian, you should purge the concept of “tray living” from your mind. Just get it settled that there are no sections, compartments, or categories of your life. There is only Jesus, and He’s with you everywhere, all the time, expecting you to do everything in His name and to His glory.

Yes, this is a radical way of living. No doubt about that. But it’s a Biblical one. Furthermore, I guarantee you that your entire existence will be changed if you live like this. Your work site won’t be the same place. Your home life will get an upgrade. Your family life will be taken to a higher level. Your leisure will become good, clean fun. And your religion will become something so much more than mere church attendance. Actually, it won’t even be religion anymore. Instead, it will be a second-by-second relationship with Christ. You see, Christian, that’s the way Jesus wants you to live. He wants you to turn in your tray and start thinking of your life in a completely different way. The only question left to be answered is, “Will you do it?”

Posted in Church Attendance, Commitment, Discipleship, Dress and Appearance, Entertainment, Family, God's Will, Obedience, Personal Holiness, Sanctification, Separation, Work, Worship | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Walking Civil War

William Barclay wrote, “Every man is a walking civil war. Within him there is the tension, the division, the battle between right and wrong, between good and evil, between passion and reason, between the instincts and the will.” Truer words were never penned.

While this idea of an individual being “a walking civil war” can be applied to anyone, it is especially true in the case of the Christian. Whereas the war within the non-Christian comes from the inner struggle between the person’s sin nature and the person’s conscience (Romans 2:14-15), there is a third element at work within the Christian. Not only does the Christian have a sin nature and a conscience, he also has God the Holy Spirit living inside him (Romans 8:9-11).

Long before William Barclay ever wrote, the apostle Paul described the civil war that rages within the Christian, and he used himself to illustrate his point. In Romans 7:21-24, he says:

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (N.I.V.)

Paul had an inner desire to do good, live for Christ, be holy, and keep God’s commandments. But when he reviewed what was actually taking place with his eyes, ears, arms, legs, hands, and feet, he saw evidence of another desire: the desire to commit acts of sin. That’s why he said, “This other law that is manifesting itself in the members of my body is warring against God’s law in my mind and making me a captive of sin.” Just how bad was the situation? It was bad enough to make him exclaim in exasperation, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

That question was Paul’s admission that he would never be free from his inner civil war as long as he was living in his human body. For the inner war to cease, he would have to be delivered from his sin-defected body. Only then would the various parts of his body stop counteracting his desire to live a life pleasing to the Lord. But prior to that eternal deliverance, his mind would occasionally flash sinful thoughts, his heart would send out ungodly emotions every so often, his hands would do the work of the flesh in too many instances, and his legs would sometimes take him to places that God didn’t want him to go.

You say, “Oh, come on, Russell. We’re talking about Paul here. What sins could he have committed?” Well, I don’t know for sure, but I feel safe in saying that he was prone to at least one sin: covetousness. I say that because of Romans 7:7-8, where he writes:

…I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire… (N.I.V.)

I ask you, Christian: Do you have a “pet sin”? I’m talking about a sin that causes the civil war within you to rage even more violently? If you do have such a sin, that makes you normal. It doesn’t make you okay, but it does make you normal. It means that you can relate to Paul’s problem with covetousness, and it means that you can understand why William Barclay wrote what he wrote about you being a walking civil war. Unfortunately, however, it also means that you will probably struggle with that particular sin all of your life.

There is some good news, though: If you know Jesus Christ as your Savior, there is coming a day when He will at last deliver you from your body of death. Going back to Romans 7:21-24, right on the heels of asking, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul gives the answer in Romans 7:25. He says, “Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Therefore, Christian, you should take heart in the promise that you won’t always have to deal with your inner civil war. Once you leave this world and go to be with Jesus, your war will be over as your sin nature will be permanently laid to rest. So keep your eyes fixed upon that day, and in the meantime do your best to let the indwelling Holy Spirit win every battle inside you.

Posted in Addiction, Backsliding, Choices, Comfort, Covetousness, Disobedience, Doing Good, Encouragement, Eternity, Heaven, Man's Freewill, Obedience, Personal Holiness, Rebellion, Salvation, Sin, Temptation, The Holy Spirit, War | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Word to Parents

One day a man happened upon the cocoon of a budding butterfly. Realizing what the cocoon was, he became excited at the prospect of getting to watch a beautiful butterfly ultimately emerge from it. And, sure enough, he only had to wait a couple of days before the butterfly began its struggle to free itself from the cocoon.

As the man watched the process of nature play itself out, he was shocked that the butterfly had to endure such a long, hard struggle to achieve its freedom. The creature worked for hours and hours but made such little progress that the man finally decided to help nature finish the job. To do so, he took a pair of scissors and carefully made the cocoon’s opening larger. That allowed the butterfly to crawl right out.

But that’s all the butterfly ever did: crawl. What the man didn’t know was that the intense pressure that is involved with a butterfly emerging from a cocoon is designed to push all-important juices into the butterfly’s wings. Without those juices the wings end up deformed and unusable. So, in the man’s attempt to help the butterfly, he had actually ruined it by condemning it to a pitiful existence of crawling around on the ground.

Parent, hear me when I say that you can do this same kind of thing to your child. One of the surest ways for you to produce a weak, morally challenged, emotional cripple is to always come riding in and save your child’s day. You see, if you are determined that your child will never know trials, troubles, sufferings, and hardships, you are virtually guaranteeing that your child will know such things.

Study the great men and women of the Bible, the people who were God’s choicest servants. Any study of their lives will show that their character was forged in excruciatingly difficult experiences, just the kind of experiences that many parents try to prevent their children from ever knowing. Abraham and Sarah had their decades of waiting on God to give them a son. Joseph went through a veritable hell on earth before becoming the second-in-command of all Egypt. Job knew what it was to lose everything. David had to face a giant all by himself, and then he had to spend years on the run from King Saul. The apostle Paul had arrests, whippings, shipwrecks, a “thorn in the flesh,” and a whole list of other problems on his resume. The apostle John was banished to the Roman penal colony on the island of Patmos. On and on the list goes.

What am I saying? I’m saying, parent, that just as a butterfly needs to complete its struggle to break free from its cocoon, your child needs those vitally important juices that only the pressures of life can produce. That’s why you must resist the urge to rescue that child from all of his or her problems. Just remember that even though it is always hard to watch a loved one struggle, God can use your child’s struggle in infinitely greater ways than He can use your attempted rescue. I realize this is not something that us parents want to hear, but what I hope you realize is that it’s something that oftentimes we really do need to hear.

Posted in Adversity, Character, Children, Disappointment, Fatherhood, God's Omniscience, God's Sovereignty, Motherhood, Parenting, Perseverance, Problems, Trials, Youth | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Is There Life on Other Planets?

Does the Bible say anything about intelligent life on other planets? The short answer is: No, it doesn’t. But let’s talk about it.

Some people try to make the case that the four living creatures of Ezekiel chapter 1 are aliens. Clearly, however, they are angels. Other people read the stories of how Enoch (Genesis 5:21-24) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-11) were taken up to heaven and say, “Maybe they were carried away by spaceships.” No, they weren’t. Each story makes a point of saying that it was God who did the taking. A handful of others run wild with the fact that Jesus said, “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold” (John 10:16). But there’s absolutely no doubt that the “other sheep” were the Gentiles, not aliens on other planets.

Rather than hinting that there is life on other planets, the Bible lays out a pretty open-and-shut case that there isn’t any such life. Let me give you a few thoughts to consider on this issue. Mull these over in your mind and just let the Bible say what it says.

First, Genesis 1:1 says: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That word “heavens” covers all the other planets out there in space. This means that all those other planets were created on the same day (day 1 of the creation week) as the Earth. That directly contradicts the idea that hypothetical aliens would be more advanced than us due to the fact that their planets supposedly have been around so much longer than the Earth.

Second, Romans 8:22 says: “For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.” This verse tells us that all of creation, not just the earth but also the other planets, was affected by Adam’s sin. This means that when God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground for your sake” (Genesis 3:17), evidently that curse extended to all creation. Therefore, it seems unlikely that there are any pristine planets out there that are even more life-sustaining than the earth. Along these same lines, a friend of mine once pointed out to me that in view of all creation being fallen, it wouldn’t have been fair for God to punish other intelligent life — if such life was out there somewhere on another planet — by cursing that planet simply because a guy named Adam sinned on a faraway planet called Earth.

Third, Jesus became a human and died in a human body. Likewise, He arose from the dead in a resurrected, glorified human body. Even after that resurrection, He bore the marks of His death upon that body (John 20:24-29). Thus, Jesus is the eternal “God-man.” He is not the eternal “God-martian” or whatever. He has chosen to align Himself eternally with mankind by eternally existing in a glorified human body.

Fourth, the church, which consists of humans, is Christ’s eternal bride (Ephesians 5:22-32). If He has another bride, one that consists of a group of intelligent beings from some other planet, that makes Him a bigamist and an adulterer (Matthew 19:1-6). In light of this fact, the question then becomes, “If there are alien civilizations, are they without sin and without need of Christ’s redemption?” To believe they are sinless is to believe that God gave them a better shot at remaining sinless than He gave Adam and Eve, and it’s hard to give any real credence to that possibility.

Fifth, the Bible calls Adam “the first man” (1 Corinthians 15:47). While it can be argued that an alien from another planet wouldn’t necessarily have to be classified as a “man,” it is worth mentioning that Adam was without doubt the first human. The point is, if aliens are the “humanoids” that many people purport them to be, that is getting awfully close to contradicting the fact that Adam was creation’s original human.

Sixth, according to the Bible’s teaching about how life began, the theory of evolution is a lie. And how is this relevant to the possible existence of aliens? Well, you show me someone who believes that intelligent life originated on a planet besides Earth, and I’ll show you someone who believes that it happened by means of evolution. Obviously, then, if the whole notion of evolution is a crock, there’s no way that life began on another planet by means of what evolutionists call “spontaneous generation” (life springing forth from non-life substances) and then evolved over millions of years to a state of intelligence enough to produce a flying saucer by which to visit Earth.

Seventh, Genesis 1:14-19 says that God created the sun and the moon to serve the three-fold purpose of giving light to the Earth, dividing the day from the night, and functioning as the engines for the cyclical process that allows the inhabitants of the earth to experience different seasons. In other words, the sun and the moon were created to make life on Earth better. They were part of the “detail work” that God exclusively did for the Earth, a planet that was covered in darkness and deep water when originally created (Genesis 1:1-2). It was all this “detail work” (Genesis 1:3-31) that differentiated the Earth from all the other planets and made it and it alone suitable for life.

You say, “But Russell, you just don’t know about all the potential evidence for life on other planets.” Yes, I do! You aren’t talking to a sci-fi novice here. My interest in science fiction goes all the way back to the mid 1970s when I was watching Leonard Nimoy’s “In Search Of” and reruns of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Trust me, I know all about: Roswell, Area 51, alien abductions, men in black, USOs (unidentified submerged objects), time travel, the loss of time, the Bermuda triangle, crop circles, livestock mutilations, etc. I’ve seen Star Trek, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The X Files, Stargate, and literally every single episode of the t.v. series Ancient Aliens. I myself even once witnessed a flying “something” in the nighttime sky, and to this day I can’t explain what it was that I saw.

Still, though, my problem in believing in intelligent life on other planets always comes back to the same thing: I can’t honestly make such life match up with the Bible. You see, I’ve read the Book, and aliens just aren’t in there. That omission disappoints a lot of people, but I can’t help that.

So, what I try to do is come up with reasonable explanations for all the stories of spaceships and aliens. For example, it’s absurd to think that all the thousands of people who claim to have seen unidentified flying objects are lying. No doubt, many of them really did see something. But what did they see? While I don’t claim to have all the answers, I feel extremely confident in saying that we don’t know half of what our government’s military complex has flying around up there. In other words, secret military aircraft can explain some of the “spaceships.”

As for the sightings of actual aliens, again I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I wouldn’t discount the activity of demons (fallen angels). Ephesians 6:12 says: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Likewise, Ephesians 2:2 calls Satan “the prince of the power of the air.” Who is to say what appearances fallen angels can take? What I do know is that Revelation 12:9 says that Satan “deceives the whole world.” As part of that worldwide deception, could demons (fallen angels) appear as aliens and deceive people into thinking those demons come from another planet? Yes, they could.

But what about all the stories from ancient cultures of how the gods came down from the sky and advanced their cultures? Every time I hear one of those stories my mind immediately races to Genesis 6:1-4. There we find the record of how a group of fallen angels (called “the sons of God”, see Job 1:6 and Job 2:1) once interacted with mankind, even to the point of taking wives for themselves and producing human offspring through them. I’ll guarantee you those fallen angels didn’t show up on Earth and say, “Hi, we’re fallen angels who have been banished from heaven. We’re here to perpetrate all kinds of wickedness and evil upon you. Let’s get started.” No, those demons would have been more than happy to foster the belief that they were either gods who came down from the sky or aliens who came from far across the galaxy.

Of course, chronologically speaking, if that type of thing did happen in those days of Genesis 6:1-4, all evidence of it would have been wiped out in the great flood when God purged the Earth and started civilization all over again with Noah and his family. That doesn’t mean, though, that other fallen angels couldn’t have similarly deceived post-flood ancient cultures into misidentifying them as “gods” who had come down from the sky. As I said earlier, it’s perfectly plausible that demons could deceive humans into thinking the demons are aliens.

At the end of the day, I guess I would sum up my feelings on the topic of aliens by saying that if irrefutable evidence of life on other planets was ever presented (an alien spaceship landing on the White House lawn, etc.) I would revise my thinking and say, “Okay, aliens do exist and God, for whatever reason, just didn’t want them specifically mentioned in the Bible.” And if that ever happens, I promise that I’ll write a follow-up post to this one. With that said, though, I doubt that I’ll be writing such a post anytime soon. To describe that possibility in terms relevant to this post, I think that’s a little too sci-fi for even me to believe.

Posted in Angels, Demons, Life On Other Planets, Personal, Scripture, Spiritual Warfare, The Bible, The Devil | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Got Your Baptismal Certificate with You?

The two ordinances that God has given the church are the Lord’s Supper and Believer’s Baptism. The Lord’s Supper points us to Christ’s death, and Believer’s Baptism points us to His resurrection. Each ordinance hinges upon a right understanding of its symbolism. If we don’t get the symbolism right, the reason for the ordinance will be lost upon us.

The symbolism of the Lord’s Supper isn’t hard to understand. The bread symbolizes the human body of Christ, that physical body that hung dead on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the world (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19). The wine — some Christians prefer the term “the fruit of the vine” as a reference to grape juice (Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18) — symbolizes the blood of Christ, the blood that coursed through His human body. That blood has the power to cleanse sin (Matthew 26:27-28; Mark 14:23-24; Luke 22:20). As Christians eat the bread and drink the wine (the fruit of the vine), we proclaim Christ’s death until He returns (1st Corinthians 11:23-26).

The symbolism of Believer’s Baptism isn’t complicated, either. Baptism is a two-fold object lesson. First, it shows what has happened in the Christian’s earthly existence. Second, it shows what has happened in the Christian’s eternal existence.

Concerning the earthly existence, when the Christian goes under the water, he is publicly saying, “I am now symbolically dying to my old, sinful way of living” (Romans 6:1-3). Then, when he comes up from under the water, he is publicly saying, “I am now symbolically resurrected to walk in the newness of the Christian life” (Romans 6:4, 6-7, 11-23).

Concerning the eternal existence, when the Christian goes under the water, he is publicly identifying himself with Christ’s death and burial (Romans 6:4). Then, when he comes up from under the water, he is publicly identifying himself with Christ’s resurrection (Romans 6:5, 8-10). By submitting to baptism, the believer is saying, “Because Jesus died and arose from the dead, my body will one day be resurrected as well, and I will enjoy my resurrected body throughout eternity.”

But it is that symbolism involving the Christian’s earthly existence that I want to deal with a little more. Christian, what if the minister who baptized you caught you committing a sin and said, “You are certainly not living up to your baptism”? You would probably ask him, “What do you mean?” He would reply, “When you went under the water that day, you were publicly saying, ‘I am now symbolically dying to my old, sinful way of life.’ Then, when you came up from under the water, you were publicly saying, ‘I am now symbolically alive to walk in the newness of the Christian life.’ However, what I just saw you do looks like your old way of living rather than your new way of living.”

Tell me, if your minister caught you like that and said something like that, how would you feel? Would his stinging words of rebuke and theological logic drive home the point to you that getting baptized is a BIG deal? Would it remind you that the Christian who has submitted to Believer’s Baptism is supposed to shun sin and live differently than the rest of the world? I trust that it would.

Perhaps it would be good if every Christian who has submitted to Believer’s Baptism was required to wear his baptismal certificate around his neck. That way he could constantly be reminded of exactly what it was he committed to when we got baptized. Maybe us pastors need to carry copies of those certificates around — we could keep the saved pictures of them on our cell phones — so that we can pull them out whenever we see a Christian sinning. That would make for an interesting experiment, wouldn’t it? My guess is that it would cut down on the rate of sin quite a bit. And I can tell you that us pastors would hate to see the ministers who baptized us coming, too!

Posted in Addiction, Adultery, Backsliding, Baptism, Character, Christ's Death, Christ's Resurrection, Commitment, Conviction, Crucifixion, Discipleship, Disobedience, Doing Good, Dress and Appearance, Dying To Self, Eternity, Faithfulness, Holiness, Hypocrisy, Idolatry, Lust, Lying, Obedience, Personal Holiness, Racism, Rebellion, Repentance, Sin, Temptation, The Lord's Supper | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Love for Jesus Looks Like

Harry Winston, the famous New York diamond dealer, once heard about a wealthy Dutch merchant who was looking for a certain kind of diamond to add to his collection. Winston called the merchant, told him he thought he had just the stone, and invited the man to come to New York to examine it.

The collector flew to New York, where Winston assigned a salesman to show him the diamond. As the salesman presented the diamond, he pointed out all of its exquisite features. The merchant listened attentively but finally turned away and said, “It’s a wonderful stone but not exactly what I wanted.”

Winston, who had been watching the presentation from a distance, stopped the merchant and asked, “Do you mind if I show you the diamond again?” The merchant agreed, and Winston presented the same stone. However, instead of talking about the stone’s fine technical features, Winston spoke of his genuine admiration of the diamond and what a rare thing of beauty it was. When he was finished, the merchant changed his mind and bought the stone.

While he was waiting for the diamond to be packaged and brought to him, the merchant asked Winston, “Why did I buy it from you when I had no difficulty turning down your salesman?” Winston answered, “That salesman is one of the best in the business. He knows more about diamonds than I do, and I pay him a good salary for what he knows. But I would gladly pay him twice as much if I could put something into him, something I have and he lacks. You see, he knows diamonds, but I love them.”

Our churches are home to all kinds of people who know Jesus. They know about His deity, His virgin birth, His sinless life, His miracles, His teachings, His death on the cross, His resurrection, and His ascension. But so many of these people don’t really love Jesus, at least not in the way He wants them to love Him. What I mean is, He isn’t the all-consuming passion of their lives. He isn’t the singular, driving force that serves as their engine. They don’t seek His will above their own in every decision and circumstance.

The story of how Jesus restored Peter after Peter had denied Him three times is recorded in John 21:15-19. I won’t go into the details of the story, but the fundamental question Jesus asks Peter three times is a simple one: “Do you love Me?” Isn’t it amazing how the answer to that question can change everything about a situation?

A professing Christian is addicted to pornography. Jesus comes and asks, “Do you love Me?” Another is addicted to drugs or alcohol. The question is the same: “Do you love Me?” Another is having an affair. Jesus’ question to that professing Christian is not, “Do you love your spouse?” It is, “Do you love Me?” You see, if the answer to Jesus’ question is an honest “Yes,” the sinful conduct must stop. If it doesn’t, that proves that the person’s love of the addiction, sin, etc. is more than their love for Jesus.

A father asked his wayward daughter, “Do you love Jesus?” The daughter answered, “Yes, I do.” The father said, “Well, suppose you come to me and say, ‘Dad, I love you,’ but then you go out and directly disobey me. Could I honestly believe that you love me?” The daughter, already sensing where the father was headed with his logic, sheepishly answered, “No.” “How then,” asked the father, “can I believe that you love Jesus when I see you do things every day that He forbids?” Then the father put an exclamation point on his line of reasoning by quoting Christ’s words from John 14:15: “If you love Me, keep My commandments.”

I dare say that no text in all the Bible needs to be preached to today’s professing Christians any more than those simple words: “If you love Me, keep My commandments.” You can be a lover of Jesus or a murderer, but you can’t be both. You can be a lover of Jesus or an adulterer, but you can’t be both. You can be a lover of Jesus or a thief, but you can’t be both. You can be a lover of Jesus or a liar, but you can’t be both. You can be a lover of Jesus or a coveter, but you can’t be both.  Let us never forget that Jesus isn’t impressed with lip-service. When He looks for your love, He looks for conduct. To Him, they are pretty much one and the same.

Posted in Addiction, Alcohol, Backsliding, Choices, Commitment, Confession, Discipleship, Disobedience, Doing Good, Dress and Appearance, Drugs, Dying To Self, Faithfulness, Gambling, Gluttony, God's Holiness, God's Will, Holiness, Love, Obedience, Personal Holiness, Priorities, Rebellion, Repentance, Sanctification, Separation, Sin, Temptation | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Blessing of Changing a Sermon

On Sunday, July 1st, 2009, I had in mind to preach a sermon on prayer. Specifically, I planned to preach on the so-called “Lord’s Prayer.” But as I began to ease into my studying and preparing for that sermon, the Lord made it clear that He wanted me to preach something else. He wanted a sermon on salvation.

The text He told me to use was Matthew 7:21-23, where Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” Since preachers are always being told how important it is to grab the listener’s attention with the sermon’s introduction, I opened up with these words: “You can die and go to hell from a seat in church just as much as you can from living in a box in some rat-infested alley, taking your meals out of a garbage can.” Pretty attention-grabbing, huh?

From there, I proceeded to explain that the person who has experienced genuine salvation will evidence that salvation in his or her conduct. In other words, the person’s salvation will show up in the way the person lives. As James 2:20 so succinctly puts it: “faith without works is dead.” While good works can never produce salvation, salvation will inevitably produce good works. While good works can never flow into salvation, they must flow out of it.

This doesn’t mean the person who gets saved will never sin again. Romans chapter 7 is the Bible’s best passage on why saved people (Christians) still sin. In that chapter, Paul explains that the Christian has two inner natures that are constantly at war. On the one hand, at the moment of salvation, God the Holy Spirit comes to live inside the Christian’s body, and the Spirit brings the nature of God to the person. Consequently, that new nature seeks control over the person, a control that will lead to deeds of righteousness. But on the other hand, even when the Spirit comes to indwell the individual, the Spirit’s presence doesn’t eliminate the individual’s old nature (the nature with which everyone is born, the nature of Adam). That nature also seeks control over the Christian, a control that will lead to deeds of sin.

Still, though, despite continuing to have to contend with the old nature, the truly saved person will evidence salvation (to some degree) in his or her life. Some Christians evidence it more than others because they handle the Romans chapter 7 set-up better, but every Christian will evidence it somewhat. That was the core message of my sermon.

As part of the sermon, I walked the listeners through the plan of salvation. I told them that salvation requires a head knowledge of certain facts:

Fact #1: There is a God. (Psalm 14:1: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”)

Fact #2: God is thoroughly holy. (Psalm 47:8: “God reigns over the nations; God sits on His holy throne.”)

Fact #3: You are a sinner. (Romans 3:10,23: “There is none that is righteous, no, not one…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”)

Fact #4: Your sin separates you from God. (Psalm 5:4: “For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness, nor shall evil dwell with You.”)

Fact #5: Jesus (God the Son) left heaven, came to the earth, took human form upon Himself, and ultimately died on a Roman cross for all the sins of the world (and that included all your sins). 1st Timothy 2:5-6: (“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all…”)

Fact #6: On the third day after His burial, Jesus arose from the dead and eventually ascended back up to heaven. (Matthew 28:5: “…the angel answered and said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen…’”)

Once you have these six facts settled in your mind — i.e., you believe them — then it’s time to get your heart involved. It is with your heart that you must voluntarily, willfully, purposefully place your belief in Jesus as your personal Savior. As scriptural evidence of this, in Acts 16:30-31 a jailor in the city of Philippi asks Paul and Silas a straight question: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And the answer they give him is: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Likewise, Romans 10:10 proves that this belief must be from the heart. That verse says: “…for with the heart one believes unto righteousness.”

Interestingly, the Bible uses different terminology to describe this saving belief. It speaks of coming to Jesus, opening the door to Jesus, putting your faith in Jesus, trusting in Jesus, and calling upon Jesus. But these aren’t separate experiences. They are just different ways of describing what it is to believe in Jesus in a saving way. Salvation is not a process; it is a moment-in-time experience.

So now let me get back to my story. What were the results of my sermon on salvation that day? Well, at the close of that Sunday-morning service, I got no response. Naturally, that was a little disappointing, but I thought, “Lord, I obeyed and preached what You told me to preach. That’s all I can do. I’m sure You had Your reasons for having me preach that today.” Then I put the sermon out of my mind and went on about my business.

The next day, Monday, was an especially busy day as I hardly stopped all day. Even at 7:00 that night, I had to have my oldest son, Ryan, at a baseball practice for his all-star team. That practice lasted for over two hours, and by the time that Ryan and I got back home around 9:30, I was whipped.

No sooner had I gotten in the door than Tonya said to me, “We need to talk.” As she spoke, Royce, our eight-year old, was sitting in her lap. I replied, “Oh no, what do we need to talk about?” She said, “It’s nothing bad.” Then we took Royce into his bedroom, where Tonya explained to me that he wanted to get saved. He had listened to my sermon the previous day, understood that going to heaven was far better than going to hell, and wanted Jesus to forgive him of all his sins and be his personal Savior.

And what did I do? Right then and there in his bedroom, I took him by his hand and said, “I’m going to pray and I want you to repeat what I say.” Then I led him through a version of what you might call “a sinner’s prayer” by keeping the focus on the basics: sin, Christ’s death, belief, and forgiveness. (By the way, don’t ever force a child to become a Bible scholar to get saved. Since that child has the rest of his or life to learn all the finer points of Christian doctrine, just keep things simple and anchored to the basics. That will do just fine.)

In the days that followed, I didn’t rush Royce into the waters of baptism. Instead, I talked with him some more and made sure that he really did know Jesus as his Savior before I baptized him. Truth be told, though, I had full confidence all along that the little fellow had experienced authentic salvation that Monday night. What a glorious thing it is for a father to know that both his sons are born-again Christians!

And now, as I finish up this post, let me leave you with a word of application. That word is simply: obey God. Just as I obeyed Him by changing my plans and preaching that sermon on salvation, you must obey Him and do whatever it is He is telling you to do. Even if you don’t fully understand it or agree with it, you must obey. Just know that if God is giving you a specific command, He has His reasons for doing so and they are good ones. I’m not saying that your obedience will lead to someone getting saved, but I am saying that it will surely lead to some type of good harvest somewhere down the line for not only you but for others as well.

Posted in Baptism, Belief, Change, Children, Christ's Death, Christ's Resurrection, Disobedience, Forgiveness, Obedience, Parenting, Personal, Preaching, Reward, Salvation, Seeking Forgiveness, Sin, The Holy Spirit | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment