Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Religious vs. Spiritual? .......... Parables 692

November 14, 2000

A critic defines a book by saying, “It’s not religious but it is very spiritual.”

So what’s the difference?

Webster says both words are adjectives. Religious means “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.”

It appears that ‘religious’ is about people. They might be Roman Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, or pagans bowing before a carved stone statue, but the fact that they are ‘religious’ is measured by the depth of their fervor in relation to whatever they worship.

Webster says “spiritual” can refer to things of a religious nature but it also means “of, relating to, or consisting of: spirit, sacred matters, or supernatural beings or phenomena.”

‘Spiritual’ (by that definition) is not so much people as it is the unseen world or at least a person’s interest in that which cannot be seen. This can be God, but also angels or evil spirits.

The difference between the two words is slight. Some might say a person is a ‘religious’ fanatic but not usually a ‘spiritual’ fanatic, but most are not sure why except that being ‘spiritual’ seems more okay than being ‘religious.’

It is my observation that media often uses ‘religious’ or even ‘religious nuts’ as a put-down of Christians. They suggest it is ‘spiritual’ is better because spiritual people know how to keep their thoughts about the unseen to themselves. I wonder what these critics would think of the biblical definitions for those words?

Scripture doesn’t say much about religion or being religious. The New Testament book of James does make it very practical: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

The word ‘spiritual’ is far more common yet narrower by definition than Webster. God’s Word uses it to describe people who are connected to Him in a vital, life-changing relationship through their faith in Christ.

The ‘life-changing’ part is important. Notice Paul’s admonition to the Christians in Corinth. “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ . . . . You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?”

In the mind of God, spiritual people are not mere ordinary folks who have an interest in unseen things. Rather, spiritual people are under the control of the Spirit of God. They live as God intends them to live — in humble submission to Him and each other.

Paul defines ‘spiritual’ further. He says God’s people speak spiritual truths taught to them by the Holy Spirit. He adds that people without the Spirit do not accept those words because they are foolishness to them. They cannot understand what spiritual Christians say. He finishes that section by saying that spiritual people are different because they “have the mind of Christ.”

The Bible is clear that being God’s spiritual person means a changed life, a devotion to Christ that is so deep that whatever He says is gladly obeyed, no matter the cost. It also means being misunderstood by those who do not follow Him.

‘Spiritual’ is far more popular than ‘religious’ yet I would like to challenge those who support the one over the other; close your dictionary and instead get your definitions from the Word of God.

Monday, January 15, 2018

How to be Contented .......... Parables 691

November 7, 2000

The story is told about a complaining woman who griped about everything. Music was either too loud or too soft. Weather was either too hot or too cold. Other people were either too friendly or too aloof. She was never happy with life in general or any of its specifics.

Finally her pastor determined to find something that would bring a positive response. One Sunday morning, he stood at the door of the church shaking hands as the congregation departed. He noted a clear blue sky without a cloud or breeze. The air was perfect, not too warm nor too cool. Birds were singing but no flies or mosquitoes could be seen.

As the complaining woman approached, he remarked, “This is just a perfect day, isn’t it Mrs. Jones?”

Mrs. Jones frowned and said, “Oh, but I am certain it is raining some place.”

Mrs. Jones may strike our funny bone, but who likes being around a person who is always grumpy? These folks assume that contentment is within their reach only if everything around them is perfectly pleasing. Given the nature of life, little wonder they spend most of it griping.

The Apostle Paul said something interesting about contentment: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

Notice that he said he ‘learned’ contentment. We are not born with it. A dry, well-fed baby is content, but it complains just as soon as its tummy is empty or its diaper is full.

Yet even Paul was not always content. Before he met Christ, he was so upset by the people with this new faith called Christianity that he determined to have them all arrested and executed. After he became a Christian himself, his life was seldom trouble-free, yet somehow, he learned to be content.

Note he also said that contentment is a secret, but as important as keeping secrets might be, Paul had no intention of hiding this one. He wanted others to be content too.

In 1 Timothy 6, he warned that falling in love with money would not do it. He said, “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”

Paul had an eternal perspective. He realized that no matter how much we accumulate, we cannot take it with us. We should be happy with the basics.

In another place, he said: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’”

Paul was absolutely certain that God was on his side. He knew that no matter what kind of situation he found himself in, the Lord would be there to see him through.

This ties with the rest of the first passage quoted above. Paul finishes it by saying, “I have learned the secret. . . . I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

Those who know Christ know His presence and His power. They know that God is for them — more stuff, more friends, better weather will not do it. Paul looked much farther than that. For him, and for others too, God was with him – and that made everything else a non-issue.

He knew that contentment is not about having everything; it is about having God.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Fully known and fully understood .......... Parables 690

October 24, 2000

Laptop computers are small enough to tuck into a briefcase. For that convenience, they are also a target for thieves, until now.

A Vancouver company has developed a unique software package. Computrace is reasonably priced and now able to catch crooks within days of their heist. This program is so effective that the FBI is using it in the United States.

When installed, Computrace is foolproof. Even if the hard drive is reformatted, a unique IP number or Internet fingerprint inside the computer cannot be erased. As soon as a thief connects to a phone line, an easily-traced signal is sent to a monitoring station, then reported to the police. Through the marvels of technology, computers now have fingerprints and can be as unique as the people who own them.

No two fingerprints are alike just as no two people are alike. We were unique without special software. While being individuals is important to our sense of value, it can make us feel isolated, as if no one really and fully understands us.

Yet there is one who does. Hebrews 4:13 says “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

If we consider that God is all-knowing, we can understand that He knows what we are doing, where we are going, even what lies ahead in our lives. It takes a bit more faith to accept Jesus’ words, that He “knows the number of hairs on our head,” however, if God is all knowing, He must know even what seems like trivia to us.

The verses prior to Hebrews 4:13 challenge us to even greater faith. They imply that God also knows “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” A friend or close relative may know many things about us, even our dreams and hopes, but they cannot be absolutely sure of what we are thinking or exactly how we feel.

Psalm 139 is David’s cry to the all-knowing God. He says, “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my laying down; you are familiar with all my ways.”

He goes even farther, ending in worship: “Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. You hem me in — behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.”

Years ago, a strange pair of women began reading my thoughts, even the very words I was thinking. I was terrified. A godly man told me that they were likely demon-controlled. I had to agree. My experience as a child of God has shown me that when God gets into my head, it may be startling but it does not terrify me. His all-knowing power is a comfort for several reasons. 

One, I need someone to help me figure myself out. I act or respond to situations and then cannot always understand what I did or why I did it. God does and His insights are always helpful.

Second, He knows my sorrows and pain. People who know and understand how I feel can be a comfort to me, but what goes on inside me is unique. Besides, some difficulties cannot be shared with other people. Because God knows my heart, I do not feel alone.

Third, when I am misunderstood by other people, I know that God understands perfectly. He knows what I cannot seem to explain. Nothing is too complex or too vague for Him. I am comforted by His knowledge.

Most important, I can trust Him to deal with sin in me that I do not see myself. I can pray the same way David did: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Computrace is pretty good but it cannot do that!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Heaven is an exclamation mark! .......... Parables 689

October 17, 2000

When writers scan newspapers, we notice things like typographical errors, spelling mistakes, and articles related to words, writing and grammar. A few weeks ago, I noticed one about punctuation. It was brief. It said, “The exclamation mark comes from a vertical version of the Latin word ‘Io’ meaning ‘joy.’ The vertical stroke was the ‘I’ and it was placed above the ‘o’ which eventually became a dot.”

That same week, while preparing to lead a Bible study on ‘heaven,’ I came across this quote: “In heaven, all our questions will straighten up into exclamation marks.” (Vance Havner)

I believe that in the economy and power of God, there are no coincidences. He juxtaposed these two thoughts to reinforce a biblical truth; heaven is a place of great joy. Since Christians also experience deep joy here on earth, I wondered if our joy has anything to do with heaven?

The Bible uses the word heaven in three ways. 1) the visible starry expanse above us, 2) a higher created reality we cannot see but where God is praised and served, and 3) the sphere or space of God’s very being.

Jesus said that the will of God is done perfectly in heaven, yet He came from heaven and brought heavenly blessings to us. Those who trust Him expect a heavenly heritage and look for a heavenly city where we will dwell with God forever, yet Jesus says that those who belong to Him also fellowship with God here on earth.

While we use ‘eternity’ and ‘heaven’ interchangeably, it seems eternity is entered through death and is a ‘leap’ from what we know here. Eternity has no limitations of time and space, and as long as we live here, we cannot know the eternal realm. However, there is a sense in which heaven is available to us right now. We can know the presence of God and even be included in the kingdom of God. Jesus described telling a Jewish leader named Nicodemus that, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

Nicodemus was a religious man yet he was not wise about eternal things. For him, the invisible heavenly realm would remained invisible unless he was made into a new person. But that was not all that needs to happen before people could understand heaven.

Right before His death, Jesus told His disciples that He would go away and prepare a place for them. Some think He meant taking that ‘leap’ of death into eternity so He could prepare heaven while He was gone. Yet Jesus did not remain dead. Instead, He was talking about going to the cross. In dying for our sins, He would prepare a place for us. His death opened up to us the realm of God, preparing that place and making it available to all who believe.

With sin, we cannot enter into the realm of a Holy God. But with our sin forgiven and cleansed, and our lives renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can see and enter into His presence, just as Jesus told Nicodemus. In other words, before that great ‘leap’ of death into eternity, we can experience a taste of heaven right now, and that taste means great joy. An old hymn says, “Heaven came down and glory filled my soul, when at the cross my Savior made me whole; my sins were washed away and my night was turned to day — heaven came down and glory filled my soul.”

The bottom line? Even though we might still have some questions, for those who know Jesus, heaven is already an exclamation mark!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Truth to fight that old Lie and that old Liar .......... Parables 688

October 31, 2000

My old friend walked into the crowded room without looking at anyone. His expression was beyond despair; a hopeless blank daze. His face was swollen, as if he had been crying for weeks. I’d not seen him for a long time yet as I went to him, I wondered what to say.

After a greeting, I asked about his health. He said he was not well but that was not his biggest problem. “It’s depression. I don’t think God loves me. I’ve been raised from a child not to believe it. I know in my head that I am wrong, but that doesn’t help.”

Recognizing severe depression and my own helplessness regarding a ‘quick fix,’ I thanked him for telling me his need, and told him I would pray against that lie. I am praying and it is a lie. God does love us. His Word says so and He proved it.

Besides that, God exposes the liar who challenges His love. In the New Testament, Jesus names him. He is a spiritual character called Satan or the devil. The Son of God called this person “a liar” and the “father of lies.”

In other words, every lie originates with him, beginning with his destructive work in the garden of Eden. There, finding Eve alone, he convinced her to do what God had forbidden by suggesting that God had not given the command at all, and even if He did, it was because He was withholding something desirable from her. In a few words, Satan insinuated that God gave His commands for His own reasons, that He is selfish, that He is not thinking about what is good for us, and that He does not love us.

At that accusation, Eve doubted God’s love for her and immediately disobeyed His one command. She encouraged her husband to do the same. Together, they became alienated from God, not just because they disobeyed but because they thought He no longer loved them.

In one way, this story is repeated in marriages, family relationships and friendships. One person in the relationship thinks the other no longer loves them. Even if it is a lie, the very idea of love gone cold drives a wedge between them. One or both begin to withdraw. One may try to win the other person back or do things to earn or deserve love. What was once a loving relationship becomes something quite different.

On the other hand, knowing someone loves you, no matter what you do, is a powerful force. For one thing, it sets people free to be themselves. All pretense disappears. The true personality begins to rise to the surface. Honesty happens. So does humility and thanksgiving. In spite of what could be negative, being loved actually brings out the best in someone rather than encouraging them to their worst. The love of God is like that.

God’s love is unconditional. The Bible says “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possible dare to die. God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

The love of God also never ends. Jeremiah 33:11 says, “Give thanks to the Lord Almighty, for the Lord is good; his love endures forever.” Others may give up; God does not.

The love of God is for everyone. Jesus said these familiar words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Whosoever is a big word.

My friend is walking proof that we need the love of God. We need to know it, be convinced of it, and allow it to permeate our lives. That love lifts our sense of worth, tells us we are accepted, sets us free to grow and love God and others in return, and even adds to our health.

In contrast, the lie says: “You have to earn the love of God, and look at you . . . your life is a mess. You can’t do anything right.” It says, “God’s love has limits” or “He only loves certain people,” or “Obeying His commands is harmful, not beneficial.” The lie can even make us ill.

Truth says our lives may be a mess or we cannot do many things right, but despite the shape we are in, God says we do not earn or deserve His love, although we do need it. In grace and mercy, He freely offers His love and His love helps us resist the lie and gladly receive His truth, enabling us to respond as all lovers respond to someone who is utterly devoted to them.

Monday, January 1, 2018

What needs to be amputated? .......... Parables 687

October 3, 2000

Sophie tells me about an aunt with arthritis in her leg. Eventually, this woman developed leg spasms and could not walk or move about. The spasms became so severe that she was in danger of injuring herself. She had to be in bed with her leg tied down, preventing all movement.

This woman eventually decided this was not the way to live her life. She insisted that her doctor amputate her leg. He did. She is now mobile, of course with the use of a wheel chair.

Not long after talking with Sophie, I read a section of the New Testament where Jesus talked about cutting off offending body parts. He said, “If your right hand causes offense, cut it off and throw it away.”

Of course I thought of Sophie’s aunt. Her leg definitely offended her — so she cut it off. But after reading the context of this verse, I realized Jesus was not expecting a literal amputation. He had something else in mind.

The occasion was His well known Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew, Chapters 5 to 7. The section that contains this verse about offending body parts is Jesus describing God’s intention when He gave His people the Old Testament Law. Jesus wanted His Jewish listeners to understand that their interpretation was off base. They were concerned with outward observance in a literal sense but failed to consider what was going on in their hearts. That is, they thought they were keeping the Law but they really were not.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

They were startled. They knew adultery is wrong but had no idea that even thinking it was also a violation of God’s Law.

Besides that, Jesus wanted them to know that sin is serious. He continued, “If your right eye causes you to sin (another version says ‘causes offense’), gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”

Did He want them to actually cut up their bodies? No, for two reasons. First, self-mutilation cannot cure lust. Lust is a condition of the heart and mind. A blind person can lust.

Second, the Bible forbids that we make cutting marks on ourselves or mutilate ourselves as the heathen did (Deuteronomy 14:1). God’s people are supposed to be set apart from heathen or worldly practices, and be holy and distinct in the way we live.

Instead, Jesus uses this strong illustration to get across that sin is far more serious than our personal comfort. We are to avoid sin even if it means denying ourselves in some other way. That denial is important. When we sin, we sin against God but we also sin against ourselves. God tells us to stop, not because He is being mean or vindictive but because He loves us and He does not want us to harm ourselves or ruin our lives. His commands against sin are like diets for grossly overweight people. Those restrictions are intended to save their lives, not ruin them.

Sophie’s aunt realized that her leg was ruining her life. To her, living life was far more important than keeping her leg, so she willingly had it cut off. Living the life God intends ought to be just as important to us as it was to Sophie’s aunt. However, we cannot do it and keep our sin too. Whatever causes it must be cut off and since we are not able to do this kind of amputation ourselves, God provided Jesus to help us with the surgery.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Follow the Directions .......... Parables 686

September 26, 2000

A few years ago, one of my articles used an illustration about pruning an apple tree. A friend reminded me of that illustration: “Remember how you told the story about an apple tree, how you first go after it with a scalpel, then a pruning knife, then an ax.”

I replied, “No, Reg. You got it backwards. First you use an ax, then something smaller.”

His face fell, then he laughed. “That’s what I did wrong. No wonder my tree is dead!”

The maxim says, “When all else fails, follow the directions.” Does your eagerness to assemble the product or finish the task tempt you to bypass those complicated instruction sheets?

I often toss directions in a corner too, but when I bought a new desk and saw how many parts and pieces it had, I knew immediately I had to follow the instructions. Even at that, it took my husband and I over eight hours to figure out dozens of steps before finally putting that monster together.

As frustrating as some sets of directions are (such as those in eight languages with English in fine print), we do need them for many assembly projects. Directions come in other forms too, such as recipes and owner’s manuals.

My favorite is the set given to us by our Maker. In that manual, we can find out how we ought to live and how to plug into the power we need for doing so. Scripture also has several trouble-shooting sections that diagnose problems and point us back on the right track.

For instance, when my husband had not yet trusted Christ for his salvation, I didn’t know how to relate to him. He didn’t seem interested in my faith and that put a wall between us. No matter how much we shared, we could not share on a deep, spiritual level.

I turned to my owner’s manual and found instruction about my attitude and actions. It was not a huge surprise to discover that God did not want me to preach at him. Instead, I was to live out my faith without fear, putting my confidence in God.

After Bob became a Christian, I also experienced times when I was not sure how to relate to him. He was still my husband but also another believer. Again, I looked in the Book. There I found all the help I needed about relating to him as a Christian husband. I also found instruction about relating to him as my friend and when neither of these seemed to be precise enough for particular situations, my manual gave me solid principles of how Christians should relate to one another. These principles work well for couples who both believe in Jesus.

Occasionally things go wrong because one or both of us get off track. Scripture offers help with that too. It diagnosis the problem, explains what to drop from our lives, and gives alternative behavior that will bring back harmony and joy.

The Bible offers step by step instruction too. While this may not be the same as assembling a desk, some steps should be followed in a certain order.

For instance, if I say something that hurts Bob’s feelings, my manual says, “If you are offering your gift at the altar (implying giving, but also including offering God worship or service) and there remember that your brother (another Christian) has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

In other words, don’t try to worship or serve God if you know you have offended someone. First go and make things right.

God’s instructions are generally quite clear. They often become more clear as we do what He says. On the other hand, if I go to the manual and can’t make head nor tail of it, then I can be sure I’ve disobeyed something He already made plain or taken a wrong step. This must be remedied.

I notice that the condition of my owner’s manual reveals my condition. If it gets dusty, it shows I am not using it; a sure sign of being out of sync with my Maker. However, right now, it is tattered, like a worn-out road map. Hopefully that indicates that I am eager to find and follow God’s directions and keep my life moving along on the right track.