Eliminating Needless Stress

Stress!!!  We laugh about it to ourselves and to our closest friends.  Some people actually brag about their stress as though it were a badge of honor.  Some people will even squabble with each other over who has the most stressful life.  We find posters amusing that show a completely frazzled person on the verge of a breakdown with the caption reading:  “God didn’t do it all in one day…what makes me think I can!”  In our fast-paced life, we have stress put upon us just by the mere fact that we exist.  That kind of stress is not easily controlled, but, how we let it affect us is within our control.  But the other aspect of stress that we have extreme control over is the stress that we put upon ourselves!

Too many of us have needless stress in our lives…and it’s our own fault.  As a child, we worried (a form of stress) that we wouldn’t get the presents we so desired for our birthday.  As we grew, and matured, we stressed over getting good grades to get into the college we wanted.  While at college, we stressed over finding a mate, and then graduating and eventually fearing going off into the real world.  Once on our own, we stressed about marrying our college sweetheart, finding a job, buying a house, trading in that car that we abused during our college days, and settling into suburbia.  Once we finally got to where we wanted to be…we stressed over what it takes to maintain that lifestyle.  We were willing to work hard, but we stressed over whether or not our company was stable and our jobs secure.  Would we be laid off?  Then, children entered the mix and the stress was ratcheted up several notches higher.  Multiple children meant multiple trips to multiple activities all in the same day, with overlapping schedules!  The cycle goes full circle now.  As your children go through school and college, you find yourself experiencing stress over their struggles with the same things you stressed about when you were their age.  Only now, the disappointment you’ll feel FOR them is ten times worse than any disappointment you stressed over for yourself.  What a life cycle…oh yeah… then you die!

In 2009, a Southwest airline 737 was at 30,000 feet when the roof of the fuselage peeled back from the plane, causing an immediate depressurization forcing an emergency landing.  The culprit was tiny STRESS fractures that were barely noticeable upon inspection.  Several planes in the 737 fleet worldwide were found to have these stress fractures.  Stress affects our body in negative ways as well.  Without getting into too much physiological detail, stress can cause stomach ulcers, irritable bowels, high blood pressure, strokes (caused from the high blood pressure), headaches, changes in your mental status and behavior, heart attacks, and several psychological phenomena including conversion disorder, panic attacks, general anxiety disorders, and depressive disorders brought on by feelings of learned helplessness (when the stress controls you and you give up).

In the Bible, the word stress is not used.  Though, we can find several stories of people experiencing stress, or being in stressful situations.  Some of these people handled the stressful situation well…without stressing themselves, while others seemingly created their own stress.  The difference between these two groups of people was whether or not they involved God in their stressful situation.  I’ll give you four examples (albeit very brief) of people who did not involve God in their stressful situations, and went in “alone,” with not so good outcomes, and I’ll show you three examples of people who had positive experiences to stressful situations by involving God.

In Luke 10:38-42, Martha had invited Jesus into her home to sit with Mary and herself.  Martha began feeling that cleaning the house was more important than taking time to rest, listen and hear Him teach them.  She was stressing so much over this, that she got mad at Mary for not helping and then scolded the Lord over allowing Mary to remain seated while Martha did all the work.  Martha’s stress, like many of us, was caused by misplaced priorities.

In Mark 5:35-41, the disciples were in a boat with Jesus and He asked them to take Him to the other side.  Suddenly, a storm arose and the disciples feared for their lives.  Feeling like your life is in danger is probably the most stressful situation you can be in.  This storm, that the Lord knew was coming, caused them stress because of their lack of faith.  We will have trials that will not take the Lord by surprise, and He’s willing to help us…if we just show some faith.

In Matthew 14:22-33, Jesus had sent the disciples out to sea while He went and prayed.  Again, a different storm arose.  Jesus then appeared to them, walking atop the water.  Peter saw this and pleaded with the Lord to let him walk on the water to meet with Jesus.  A miracle was performed and Peter was doing something that was not humanly possible apart from the Lord’s help.  Then, because Peter momentarily lost faith, his life, again, was in peril.  We oftentimes beg God for miraculous help on our behalf, only to doubt our ability to continue doing this seemingly impossible task, in the Lord’s strength.  We then find ourselves faltering, floundering, and going under.  All the while, we get stressed about it.

In 1st Samuel 21, we find that David was running for his life from Saul.  He backslid so far that he found himself living among his enemies, acting like a madman, sinking to disgraceful lows, to protect himself.  Imagine the stress of trying to protect yourself from those who want to kill you by living a less than godly life among your enemies.  This was brought on by David himself through the telling of two lies earlier, as he fled Saul.  Sometimes we cause our own stress through the sinful acts we commit.

Those were the negatives.  Let’s now focus on the positives!

In 1st Samuel, at a better time in David’s life, while Saul was seeking to kill him, very early on, David relied on God and God made sure that David had an ally who helped him to escape.  David was able to flee, thanks to the help God had provided to him, in the man of Jonathan.  What I want to point out here, though, is the fact that David still found himself in a stressful situation (his life was in danger).  The source of this stress was that David was living a godly life and being blessed greatly, which made others bitter toward him, especially Saul, who was extremely jealous.  Sometimes we’ll find that people will cause us grief because they are jealous of us, and we are doing nothing more than what God wants us to do.  If that’s the case, don’t fret.  God will bring you people to help you get past the hurtful and mean things those who are jealous of you may want to bring upon you.

In Daniel 3:15-30, Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego underwent the stress of potentially losing their lives for refusing to go against their moral convictions.  Their faith in God, however, was stellar.  They essentially told King Nebuchadnezzar that God would spare them their lives, and if not, they would be with Him in Heaven.  They had such faith, that they believed they could have the best of both worlds…having their earthly lives spared or moving on to eternal life with the Lord.  Like these three, we need to realize that if we stick to obeying godly principals, precepts, and commands, we may find ourselves in stressful situations, but God will reward us in one way or another, in front of our persecutors…and it may just draw them to the Lord.

In Daniel 6:1-28, Daniel was faced with a similar situation.  Politically, Daniel was elevated to a high position in Darius’s kingdom.  His life was in danger because he refused to put the laws of man ahead of the laws of God when they conflicted.  His stress was caused by making the Lord truly his Lord.  We’re not going to have an easy time of it in this life, while boldly speaking out against those things which our government decrees that go clearly against the Bible.  Though Daniel nearly lost his life in the lion’s den, we may face the stress of losing our job for refusing to pick up extra time on Sunday, at the boss’ request, so you can attend church.  But again, if we have the faith that Daniel displayed, it will go a long way in ministering to your boss, especially if you are favored by your boss for being a good, godly, and trustworthy employee.  Just like Daniel’s king hated being forced to throw Daniel in the lion’s den, so too may your boss be torn over the thought of firing you.  Trust God like Daniel did, and put nothing ahead of God.

Do you know what one of the consequences can be of succumbing to stress and anxiety?  Remember Martha who was “troubled about many things?”  Because she did not take the time to learn from the Lord that day, she probably missed out on some important teachings that would have helped her to grow spiritually.  Just like the parable of the sower and the seed in Mark 9, the “cares of this world” are one of the things in verse 19 that will stunt spiritual development.  The unsaved will hear the gospel, but be too preoccupied with their busy lives to give it much thought.  Whether Martha was a saved lady at this point, or one that the parable spoke of, stress and anxiety will stunt any spiritual growth.  The unsaved may remain unsaved while the saved will remain unfruitful babes.

Philippians 4:6 wants us to worry about nothing!  But in everything (storms, trials, disappointments, fearful times, and any other stressful situation) we must pray to God for our needs to be met.  Needs, such as help to get through the trial in a godly manner that glorifies the Lord, is one thing we should pray for.  But, we must be thankful at the same time.  Thankful that we have a God that wants to hear our prayers, and answer our prayers.  If we do that, and we pray believing, God’s peace will keep our hearts and minds in ways that the unsaved will not understand.  So as the economy continues to teeter on the edge, and you are worried about finding a job, bring these anxieties to God and find peace in the fact that He is in control of everything in this world.  Cast all your care upon God for He cares for you (1st Peter 5:7).

When you’re called on to minister to someone in need and you don’t know what to say, or your asked to defend your faith, don’t worry about it because God’s got it under control (Matthew 10:19).  Don’t worry about the basic necessities of life like food and clothing, because God’s got that all figured out as well (Matthew 6:25-28).  If you worry, again, your spiritual growth will be thwarted (Luke 8:4; Mark 4:19; Matthew 13:22).

Let’s wrap this up by looking at the Apostle Paul.  In 2nd Corinthians 11:28, we find, at the end of a long list of stressful things, Paul had a healthy concern for the churches.  Even a noble thing like genuine concern for the brethren can be stressful.  The Apostle Paul had many reasons to be stressed…but he never succumbed to the stress.  We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2nd Corinthians 8-9).  Paul knew exactly what to do with the stress he encountered.  Therefore I take pleasures in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake:  FOR WHEN I AM WEAK, THEN AM I STRONG” (2nd Corinthians 12:10).

Paul looked at his stressful situations as an opportunity to magnify the Lord.  Paul knew that getting distressed, depressed, or anxious over the stress in his life would have diminished God to the others he was ministering to.  I guess that’s the point to make in all of this.  We shouldn’t get overcome by the stresses in our lives.  We have a God that is in control of everything, including what’s stressing us.  He is able to sustain us and see us through.  But if we fall prey to the stress in our lives, we diminish God in front of the very people whom we are trying to minister to.  That will be a lousy testimony, and the greatness of God will be hidden…that’s the point I’d like to STRESS!!!

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The “Mind Games” of Christianity

Romans 12:1-2 clearly teaches that there is a mental aspect to being a godly Christian.  “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.  And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your MIND, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”  It’s our mind that plays a key role in keeping us holy, and helps us avoid adopting a lifestyle of the world.

If we adopt a lifestyle of the world, we will have a hard time fellowshipping with God and living any kind of life that would be worthy of His blessings.  James 4:4 gives the reason why, “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?  Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.”  Whether that is the mindset of an individual or an entire family, we risk being disqualified from receiving the blessings of God, as it’s likely that God won’t bless His enemies.

The “Promised Land” that was promised to Abraham all the way back in Genesis, was a very real, physical land that would flow with milk and honey, and was meant to be enjoyed in this earthly life by the Israelites.  This Promised Land was a place where they could live and enjoy the continued blessings of God.  But it is also a place that Christian families can enjoy today, only on a different level.  However, the same stipulations given to Israel for entering and enjoying the Promised Land still hold true today. We have to draw parallels to the Nation of Israel and our family to see what God expected out of that group of people and apply it to what God still expects out of your family…a smaller, but similar, people group.

We have to remember that God promised this land to the forefathers of Israel, but it was only available to those Israelites who were redeemed from the bondage of Pharaoh in Egypt (a picture of Satan).  Through the deliverance of Moses (a picture of Jesus, our deliverer), and under the power of God, Israel was redeemed from the bondage of slavery (sin) and set free.  God had freed the Israelites from a horrific life under the rule of Pharaoh, and set them on a path to get to the Promised Land (blessings).  The only stipulation to entering the Promised Land was obedience.  That was all.  Follow God.  Obey God.  Trust God.  This was available only for saved people.  We, as Christians, have been set free from the bondage of sin, under the power and rule of Satan.  Now, we are able to pursue our Promised Land because of the fact that we are saved.

Sadly, a journey that should have taken less than two weeks to get to the Promised Land, took forty years instead.  Imagine that!  Forty years it took Israel to reach the threshold of the Promised Land.  In a family, that is enough time for babies to be born, and those children to be raised up to adults, to have their own children.  If we’re not careful, we can forfeit God’s Promised Blessings on our families for potentially two whole generations (or more really).  Imagine raising your children for twenty years and then enjoying your grandchildren for the next twenty years, all the while missing out on God blessing your family the way He wants to because your family just isn’t being and living the way it should, and therefore isn’t worthy of God’s blessings.  What a wasted opportunity!!!

But back to the role the mind plays in all of this.  The mind is where most sin and disobedience starts.  For example, if we’re not careful, our minds jump right to a myriad of inappropriate things that only a fool would share out loud:  “A fool uttereth all his mind: but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards” (Proverbs 29:11).  After what does a wise man keep his words in, you may ask.  After he brings into captivity every thought to the OBEDIENCE of Christ (2nd Corinthians 10:5).  In other words, this wise person is not controlled by his mind, but rather controls his mind. This man can then practice the command in James 1:19, to be “…slow to speak…”  And obedience to this brings blessings, such as, “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stirreth up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).  And what’s more of a blessing, holding your tongue and controlling your mind before you speak, thereby avoiding an argument, or shooting your mouth off impulsively and stirring up anger and getting into a fight?  I’d say being obedient to the command to think before we speak brings the blessing of peace in our interpersonal relationships.

The mind will lead us to sin, and Jesus knew this when He was giving His sermon of the mount.  In Matthew 5:28, Jesus goes beyond warning His followers to not commit physical adultery, but also to not even look upon another woman in lust, as that will get the MIND going to places it shouldn’t.  Once the mind is involved, it becomes very easy to obsess over the thoughts one is having and eventually those thoughts may lead us to commit the very physical act of adultery.  Consider another example in 1st John 3:15 where we are told under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that if we hate our brother, we are guilty of murder.  Why?  The reason is that if we think about those feelings of hate against another, it becomes a very small step to committing the actual act of killing that person (for some people).  Another example of the mind leading us to sin is in the Ten Commandments where we are asked not to steal, and then later on, not to covet.  Coveting, or wanting something that is not ours, may eventually lead us to want to steal it to have it for ourselves.  Our minds have the capability of obsessing, and those obsessive thoughts can lead us to commit the actions most explicitly forbidden by God in the Old Testament and Christ in the New Testament.

The heart and mind in many cases are virtually synonymous.  Consider these following verses.  “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he…” (Proverbs 23:7a).  “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).  Whether or not the mind and heart are synonymous in every instance is up for debate (though I do believe there is a small but distinct difference), but CERTAINLY, the mind plays a key role in controlling the heart, whatever the “heart” is.  And in some cases, the mind makes decisions that the heart is not even involved in. I, myself personally, believe the heart is actually the portion of our minds that is capable of being in tuned with the Holy Spirit’s influence.  The part of the mind ruled by the conscience is what I believe the heart is in the Scriptures.

In Deuteronomy 5:29, God stated, “Oh that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever.”  I believe that in this verse, the heart is referring to the part of the mind that is influenced by the Holy Spirit.  In Romans Chapter Seven, Paul talks about not doing the things he wants to do, and doing the things he doesn’t want to do.  There are clearly opposing influences at work here.  Perhaps the mind refers to the fleshly aspect of our capacities to make decisions, where as the heart refers to the spiritual aspect of our capacities to make the correct, God honoring, God obeying decisions…like what He is looking for in Deuteronomy 5:29.

James 4:8 reads, “Draw nigh unto God, and He will draw nigh to you.  Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.”  It almost appears that the mind, according to James, can not only flip-flop in decision making, but also be very much responsible for leading the person to sin.  Very different than Deuteronomy 5:29, where God asks us to obey with our hearts.  So, again, I believe that the heart is the decision making mechanism within us that is influenced by the Holy Spirit and is directed by our conscience…our minds, it would appear, are not that way at all.

Perhaps that is why in Moses’ discourse on the threshold of the Promised Land in Deuteronomy Four, he warned about the use of the mind.  See, Moses knew the mind wasn’t all bad.  It’s the first place information gets processed and the mind is also responsible for remembering.  It is part of the God-created body.  So it isn’t all bad.  In fact, if used properly, it can work WITH the heart.  In Deuteronomy 4:9, Moses pleads with Israel, “Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou FORGET the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life…”  In Deuteronomy 4:23, Moses basically implores Israel the same way, “Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye FORGET the covenant of the Lord your God, which He made with you, and make you a graven image, or the likeness of any thing, which the Lord thy God hath forbidden thee.”  In other words, when the mind starts going, and the tendency is for your mind to lead you to sin, take a moment to stop and think.

In the wilderness, Israel had seen with their own eyes God’s blessings upon their nation for obedience and God’s chastisement upon them for disobedience.  In chapters one through three of Deuteronomy, Moses reminds them of all the things God has done to them and for them as a result of either their obedience or disobedience from Egypt to the shores of the Jordan River.  Chapter four of Deuteronomy is Moses’ call for obedience once inside the Promised Land, so they will be able to enjoy all of the things God has brought them there to enjoy…a land filled with continuous blessings.  A state of being constantly blessed, but for obedience to God’s statutes, and precepts, and principles, and laws.

What Moses knew about the mind back then still holds true today.  Our mind will have the tendency to make us act impulsively and can, in many cases, lead us to sin.  That is why today, before we act, we must do two things.  First, we must stop and pause a moment and evaluate if what we are thinking about doing violates our conscience, and would our heart want us doing those things.  Remember, the mind can lead to physical adultery, stealing, and murder in extreme cases.  The heart doesn’t want us doing any of those things.  Therefore, acting on the thoughts created in our minds act contrary to our heart and conscience and the Holy Spirit’s urgings…therefore…we must bring every one of those wrong thoughts and conform them to the obedience of Christ (2nd  Corinthians 10:5).

Secondly, we must utilize the mind’s capacity to remember.  If we pause to remember all that we have personally seen or experienced first hand, or at least heard about second hand, all the things God has done as a result of obedience or disobedience, it will help us put those thoughts into conformity with the way Jesus would have thought…and eventually done.  And once our minds are in conformity with what Christ would do, the next step is to actually do what Jesus would have done…not sin.  According to 2nd Corinthians 5:21, Jesus never sinned and it’s spoken of Him in John 8:29 that He always pleased His Father.

The takeaway for this lesson is this.  Think before you act.  Don’t dwell on fantasies or daydreams of sinful acts, as that’s a slippery slope to sin.  Be sensitive to whether or not what you are thinking of doing violates your conscience.  If it does, bring your mind’s thoughts in line with the intents of the heart.  Lastly, use your mind’s capacity to remember all the times you personally received a blessing from God and suffered chastisement from God, and that will help you make the right decision.  Once the right decision is made, act upon that decision accordingly.

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A Donkey and an Ox Won’t Get It Done!

The truth I want to share with you, the truth many teens and adult singles and families choose to ignore, the truth that is disregarded in many of today’s churches is the doctrine of being unequally yoked.  The proof text is found in Second Corinthians 6:14-18:  Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers:  for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness?  And what communion hath light with darkness?  And what concord hath Christ with Belial?  Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?  And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?  For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK IN THEM; AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE.  Wherefore, COME OUT FROM AMONG THEM, AND BE YE SEPARATE, saith the Lord, AND TOUCH NOT THE UNCLEAN THING; AND I WILL RECEIVE YOU.  AND WILL BE A FATHER UNTO YOU, AND YE SHALL BE MY SONS AND DAUGHTERS, saith the Lord Almighty.”

Allow me to do a bit of expository teaching here, in an attempt to convey the seriousness of such a doctrine, and why God chose to put such a teaching in the Bible, with both Old and New Testament examples.  If you review the above passage, God makes five contrasts that serve as examples of areas in which two people can be unequally yoked.  Let’s look at them in the order in which they appear in the text.

First, righteousness versus unrighteousness could be explained this way.  Moral versus immoral.  Holy versus sinful.  Should a Christian go to a party where drinking and sexual promiscuity will be present?  Of course not.  So if one is a Christian, one should never accept an invitation to such an event.  That’s a no brainer.  So it’s the parent’s responsibility to know what your children are doing and where they will be while they are out with friends for the evening.  Teenagers, young adults, and everyone else, the Bible clearly instruct us in 1st Corinthians 10:31 that we need to do all to the glory of God.  You can’t go out in mixed company and engage in ungodly activities and obey 1st Corinthians 10:31.  So be mindful of that.

Second, look at the contrast between light and darkness.  Consider this to be referring to the knowledge Christians have of the things of God.  For example, so many churches are getting away from believing and teaching a literal seven-day creation of the world by God as recorded in Genesis.  Churches are beginning to blend creationism and evolution in an attempt to make the truth of God’s Word fit with the lies of evolutionary theory.  These churches call it “intelligent design.”  Basically, there is a god behind nature, but it has evolved under the watchful eye of this god.  Bible-believing Christians ought not to be buying into theories such as these.  Have no part with them.  Separate yourselves from them.  As individuals, our lights need to shine and we need to bear witness to the truths to whomever we are engaging at the time.

A third contrast is between Christ and Belial.  The word Belial may have different meanings (wickedness and the like) but here it refers to Satan.  The same root word is used here as in 1st John 2:13,14.  Whose lordship are you under?  If you’re a Christian, can you claim the name of Christ and still willingly be under the tutelage of Satan himself?  Satan is the god of this world.  Who do you grow in knowledge the most?  Do you spend much of your time learning the precepts of God by reading His Word or do you spend your time watching sitcoms, going to R-rated movies and listening to unholy music until you become desensitized to sin to the point where you say, “Oh, I know that movie scene depicted fornication between two unmarried young adults, but it was tastefully done.”  Or what about this compromise, “Oh, I don’t listen to the sinful ungodly lyrics, just the music.”  God says we ought not to be under the tutelage of the devil.  (It’s probably time I inventory my CD collection).

Fourthly, he that believeth versus an infidel admonishes us to understand that to get together with anyone, whether it’s for business partnership or a romantic relationship, we should be of one accord with respect to faith.  Faith, in this case, refers to the saving knowledge of Christ.  One who has faith in his heart that Christ is the Savior is a believer and those who ignore, disregard, or just plainly reject the Gospel of Christ unto salvation is an unbeliever, heathen, and infidel.  It’s difficult enough for true believers to always be in one accord, even when they all possess the Holy Spirit, but to attempt to have good fellowship on a regular basis with someone who rejects Christ and the importance of salvation is ludicrous.  You may be faced with the temptation to get involved in an unscrupulous business practice, or, in the case of a teenager, you may be asked to engage in immoral activity while out on a date.  Why put yourself in that position in the first place?

Last, we have Paul’s inspired epistle contrasting the temple of God versus idols.  What do we worship?  As Christians, we should be worshipping the one and only true living God.  We should be worshipping the God of the Bible.  We should be in church on Sundays (at least).  We should be attending mid-week services and prayer meetings and fellowships and Bible studies and so forth.  But do you skip church out of convenience or even less legitimate reasons?  I have.  At that point in time I made wrong choices.  These excuses became idols.  Oh, I never bowed down and worshipped them, but on those particular days, they were more important than God.  Christian, do you work six days a week and play golf on Sunday?  Both golf and money are idols and have the pre-eminence in your life if you sacrifice church for the pursuit of those things.  We need to turn down Sunday morning tee times and tickets to the pro football games that are notorious for being held on Sundays.  The world has their idols and we should not be partaking in their “worship.”  Teen, how would you handle the most popular boy in school asking you to go out to breakfast with him on Sunday morning?  Businessman, how would you handle one of your suppliers offering to take you to their luxury box at Gillette Stadium one Sunday for a game?  One compromise can lead to further compromises and before you know it, the world takes precedence over the things of God.

This doctrine of unequal yoking has a very good visual depiction in the Old Testament.  In Deuteronomy 22:10, God instructs that, Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass together.”  Think about it.  As for the task at hand, plowing the field, the ox is far superior for that task than the donkey.  God equipped the ox to complete the task for which it was called on to do.  The donkey, though strong in its own right, and a generally good choice to perform many of the tasks a farmer may have, is no ox.  Here’s where the analogy is so pertinent.  The ox and the donkey are not of equal strength or resolve.  The ox will be held back by the added weight of the donkey, which will not pull and heave anywhere near what the ox is able and willing.  The ox will be less effective because of the donkey.  So too will a Christian be less effective for God in many ways should he allow himself to be yoked up with a heathen person.

You may say to yourself, “If a Christian comes in contact with an ungodly person he should be strong enough to influence that person for Christ.”  That may appear to be a reasonable expectation given the fact that Christ Himself sent us out into the world to teach and preach and make disciples of all men.  However, the Bible clearly warns against being among the heathen in common endeavors that are not godly.  Consider the unity of the church at Corinth that was in jeopardy because sin, though in small amounts, was present in the church.  Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 5:6, Your glorifying is not good.  Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?”  Again in Galatians, Paul exhorts the church to understand that A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump (Galatians 5:9).  If Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write something twice, you better believe it’s important.  A very plain warning that the ungodly can harm the testimony and witness of a believer is found in 1st Corinthians 15:33, Be not deceived:  evil communications corrupt good manners.”  The analogy in Deuteronomy 22:10 is validated by 1st Corinthians 15:33.  If left together, the donkey, though overall less powerful than the ox, will hinder the work of the ox and soon the two will walk and work as one…but at the donkey’s pace.

The implications to this doctrine are too numerous to detail, but here are just a few as they relate to the family from a woman’s testimony about being married to an unregenerate person:

·         If Christ is the center of a believer’s world, it’s not so for the unsaved.

·         If your morals are based on the Bible, you better research upon what your potential mate bases their morals and values.

·         If you marry and have children with an unsaved person, will you have the freedom to raise them as active members of a church?

·         Will you be strong in your devotionals or will you eventually become inconsistent?

·         How are you going to explain stepping out in faith when you believe God has asked you to do something for Him?

·         Will it be easy to give up mutual activities that may not be glorifying to God as you mature?

·         Can you become obedient to God in tithing as a family?

·         What about Sunday morning brunch vs. going to church?

·         Are you willing to risk all these things because you’re sure that over time your potential mate will get saved?

 Just like Israel, God has called us to be separate from the world (Romans 12:2).  Remember the Old Testament illustration of the ox and the donkey in Deuteronomy 22:10?  Consider this twist…to the Jews, an ox was a clean animal and a donkey was considered unclean.  Here, God reiterates to the New Testament believers not to touch the unclean thing, referring back to Deuteronomy’s example.  Interesting how God teaches.  Now let me give this final exhortation to teens, young adult singles, and parents…

We’re to let our light so shine to bring others to salvation.  We can’t do that while getting into improper relationships and putting ourselves into situations where we will have to choose whom to follow…God or the world.  Don’t forget that evil communications corrupt good manners (1st Corinthians 15:33).  None of us are perfect so don’t put yourself in a situation that will only make it easier to prove that concept.  Don’t give the devil a foothold by dating (or allowing your child to date) an unsaved person.

Consider these two examples:  First, Samson, who was a Nazarene and military leader of Israel and was raised in a godly home (Judges 13 finds his father Manoah praying several times).  He was then raised by God to deliver the Israelites from the hands of the Philistines.  But Samson became infatuated with a Philistine woman and married her (Judges 14:1-7).  But he didn’t stop there.  He went into Gaza and spent some time with a prostitute (Judges 16:1) and eventually got caught up in immorality with Delilah who robbed him of all his power by having her servants cut his hair while he lay sleeping on her knees (Judges 16:3-22) rendering him powerless.  One value and moral compromise after another until he was drained of all his power and all he could do was one last mighty act for the Lord, but only by dying in the process.

Then there’s King Solomon.  He had many, many wives.  But these wives were not all Israelite women.  No, many of them were from neighboring countries given to him as gifts in return for political or military favors.  But many of the countries did not worship the God of the Israelites.  He compromised many times over many issues and it eventually cost the entire nation, and Israel’s prominence decreased and the country began to fall on hard times.  1 Kings 11:4-6 tells the story of Solomon’s spiritual demise: For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. And Solomon did evil in the sight of the LORD, and went not fully after the LORD, as did David his father.”

So there you have it…two godly men appointed by God to do mighty works for Him.  But they fell victim to the truth spoken of in 1st Corinthians 15:33.  These men led godly lives but were corrupted by the evil associations they kept (Samson and his women; Solomon and his wives).  If it can happen to these adult godly men, why do teens and young adult singles think they can handle having one foot in the Bible and one foot in the world when it comes to friendships and relationships and potential marriage partners.  And parents…with these two glaring examples before us…how can we not unapologetically get involved in every aspect of our children’s lives that may hurt them spiritually (as was the case with Solomon) or even prove to be deadly (as was the case with Samson).

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End of Life Issues

We all understand that people don’t live forever in this mortal body.  Some people die suddenly under tragic circumstances.  Other people die of natural causes at an age that makes it somewhat easy to accept.  Then there are the other deaths that occur after long illnesses that are sometimes physically debilitating to the patient and emotionally draining to those loved ones going through the illness with the patient.  These deaths are often harder to deal with than the sudden tragic losses.  What’s usually seen in these terminal cases is a decrease in the “quality of life.”  Patients decline physically and cognitively and all those involved begin to wonder what is in the “best interest” of the patient.

It’s around this time that the loved ones have to make decisions.  These decisions are about whether or not to continue life-saving treatments, medications, and other “heroic measures.”  People know it as having to decide whether or not to “pull the plug” on a loved one.  That is certainly a hard decision to make at such an emotional time, so maybe a discussion about these end-of-life issues during a moment of calm and reason would serve us well.

If you’re the person facing a terminal illness such as cancer, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, advancing multiple sclerosis, end-stage liver disease, and many others, there are some things you need to consider as far as what your wishes are once you become too incapacitated to make your own decisions.  For example, deciding not to take chemotherapy for your cancer, when you weigh the prognosis against the other health problems and side effects of chemotherapy, may be a decision you feel is what will give you the best quality of life for the remaining time you have.  That’s different than choosing to end your life via physician-assisted suicide (legal in Oregon and some countries), or self-inflicted suicide.

You may ask what the difference is between choosing not to take treatments that may prolong my life versus hastening my death.  Well, for one thing, it is God that gave you life in the first place (Genesis 2:7; Isaiah 44:2).  We all have an appointed time to die (Hebrews 9:27).  If you look at the account of the fool in Luke 12 who stored up for himself many years worth of harvest to which he decided to “eat, drink, and be merry,” God said, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee” (Luke 12:19-20).  The context of that story is having a wrong focus on materialism, but what I want to highlight is the fact that no one knows the time of their death, so opting for suicide versus letting the Lord progress your disease as He sees fit is arguably hastening your death.

So let’s say, for example, you discover you have a terminal illness and your physician explains to you that the course of the disease is aggressive, and taking treatments will not cure the disease, but may “buy you more time.”  If you choose to allow the disease to take its course, you need to make that perfectly clear to family, especially next of kin.  Go to a lawyer and develop a Living Will and assign someone to be your Durable Power of Attorney.  A Living Will explains to the medical community what your wishes are beforehand so that when the time comes that you are unable to communicate those wishes, they are still able to be carried out.  This Living Will can explain that in the event of respiratory or cardiac arrest, you do (or do not) wish to be revived.  The Living Will can state whether or not you want a feeding tube placed once you become unable to eat.  The courts have continuously upheld the patient’s rights to refuse or discontinue such things as ventilators and feeding tubes.

The importance of a Durable Power of Attorney is that this document goes into legal effect once you become incompetent to make your own decisions regarding, but not limited to, medical decisions.  This is where the difficulty arises for family.  Suppose someone suffers a cardiac arrest and is revived after 45 minutes.  There is brain death now because of the lack of oxygen.  All of a sudden, a healthy individual suffers a catastrophic event, but is still alive, but lacking the ability to make decisions like remaining on the ventilator, and what to do if the person goes into another cardiac arrest.  Does the person want to be revived or not.  Those are questions no family member wants to make at that time, especially not knowing the wishes of the patient.  Not only that, but add to the equation the fact that the decision to “do everything possible” would mean this patient living in a “vegetative state”  for an indefinite number of years going forward.

Here’s a true story that speaks to the need for planning for such occasions.  In 2002, an 82 year old lady from Washington State developed pneumonia.  She already had emphysema, probably from years of smoking.  She rapidly declined in her health.  She soon became unresponsive and unable to make her own decisions.  Some in the family told the medical staff that it was the patient’s wishes to die without any “heroic measures” being taken.  The staff took the patient and put her in a room where the family could hold vigil privately until she passed.  She received no medication, no IV fluids, no oxygen (remember she has emphysema and pneumonia), she ate and drank nothing.  Days later, she rallied and recovered.  She recovered so much that at 83 years old she published a biography.  Now catch this…she was upset when she discovered her family believed she wanted to die.  She most certainly wanted to live.

The problem with putting your family in the position of having to guess what your wishes are is that medical science is not infallible.  There are literally hundreds of cases that have baffled medical doctors.  So to decide to end life-sustaining measures in a comatose or unresponsive patient is a decision based on a medical staff’s best estimation of how the patient will (or won’t) progress.  Do you want to know how heart-wrenching that decision is?  A girl had suffered a traumatic brain injury from a car accident.  She was in a coma for about seven years.  She had been able to breathe on her own all these years, but she had a feeding tube.  With her physical body contorting because of lack of use and her muscles wasting away, for whatever reason, the parents fought in the courts for the right to stop her feedings.  This court battle took three years.  Finally, the parents were granted permission to stop the feedings (her only source of water and nourishments), and twelve days later, she died.  Now here’s the unfair toll it takes on family members.  Knowing that there are some people who recover from comas and traumatic brain injuries, her father was NEVER sure he did the right thing in stopping her feeding and letting her die.  He was so distraught that he hung himself six years later.

I’m not going to give you a definitive answer about the end-of-life issues and how to make those decisions, but I will give you a few of things to think about that may help in deciding what to do, should you find yourself as either the patient or the family member.  The first thing to look at is the “quality of life” issue.  The other thing to look at is the resilience of the body that God created.  Lastly, just what is the role of suffering in the Christian’s life?

What is “quality of life?”  Well, it can’t be quantified because it’s extremely subjective.  People like Christopher Reeve (before his passing) and Congressman Jim Langevin (D-Rhode Island) enjoy a high quality of life even though they are confined to wheelchairs.  In the case of Christopher Reeve, now deceased, he headed foundations, took up causes, acted, and directed.  He was also on a ventilator.  At any point, he could have called it quits.  Ever hear of Stephen Hawking?  He is probably the world’s leading authority on physics and space and advocated combining Einstein’s Theory of Relativity with Quantum Theory (I have no idea what all that means, except that the man has intelligence).  He still uses his intelligence while confined to a wheelchair because he is suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease.  So, in some instances, quality of life has to do with a person’s perception of whether or not they are still productive in some way.  Some infirmed fear becoming too much of a burden to their caregivers.  If you’re a Christian, who’s going to decide if you’re still useful and productive?  God will decide that.  I’ll cover that in the last portion regarding suffering.

Now, what makes medical science so fallible is that God has created a body that is resilient and can overcome some problems.  Not only that, but He created the body so intricately that we have yet to know everything about the body, especially in the realm of the brain and how it works.  Here are a few examples of the resilience of the body.  The liver is an organ that can actually regenerate itself to a certain extent after being minimally damaged.  The heart is amazing in that, if a coronary artery is blocked, and blood can’t supply the heart with adequate oxygen, over time, new blood vessels will grow above the blockage and reach into the areas of the heart that are affected.  This is called collateral circulation (God’s version of bypass surgery).  Lastly, in the case of patients in comas, or “vegetative states,” the brain can, over time, grow new neuron pathways.  People in comas, who have recovered, have stated they heard everything that was said by their bedside, and can recount stories with amazing accuracy.  They are sometimes trapped inside their bodies, unable to respond, but fully aware…some…not all.  And not all will recover.  Annually there are 10,000-25,000 adults and 6,000 to 10,000 children in the US alone diagnosed as being in “vegetative states,” most never awaken and the majority of them die within six months…but you never know…

Let’s look at the final point of end-of-life issues…suffering.  Here’s the truth about suffering.  You can suffer gracefully or you can be absolutely miserable to everyone around you.  Suffering can belong to the patient as they progress through their disease, but it can also belong to the caregivers who face life-changing decisions to care for a loved one unable to care for themselves.  First of all, if you’re the patient who is suffering, consider this; how you handle the suffering during this terminal illness may prove to be the testimony that brings someone else to the Lord.  If you’re a Christian and walk around with a woe-is-me attitude, and you don’t show your desire to lean upon God and draw strength from Him, why would unsaved family or friends want to trust in your God?  And as the caregiver, if you bemoan daily the stress and incredible personal sacrifice you have to make to care for a debilitated stroke patient in your home everyday, it again doesn’t make those around you want to get to know your God.

I don’t want to have a terminal debilitating disease, nor do I want to have to be caregiver for a debilitated loved one, but I’d like to think I would at least recognize that the grace to get through it is available.  Paul tells us in Romans that we have a comforter in the person of the Holy Spirit to find grace in times of suffering.  Paul later, in Second Corinthians explains the source of comfort in times of suffering and why it is so important to find that comfort.  The reason is because as God comforts us in our suffering (our terminal illness or our caring for a debilitated loved one) and we get through it with His help, we are then to comfort others with the same thing that comforted us (the Lord).  This is how we can still be productive and enjoy a satisfactory quality of life despite our current condition…by helping others get through it.  For a more eloquent exposition on this subject, read Second Corinthians 1:3-7.

In a 1992 edition of the Baptist Bible Tribune, the magazine tackled the subject of end-of-life issues, and mainly cautioned the readers to consider the ethics of “pulling the plug.”  But I wanted to show you that there are many more considerations needing to be made BEFORE you reach that point.  What are your wishes and why?  Who knows what those wishes are?  Are those wishes legally spelled out?  What are the ethics and morals of such decisions?  Are you going to go and “pull out all the stops” and display grace during suffering?  Are you ready to die?  Can my loved one in a coma be witnessed to and accept salvation?  If so…what then?  All these questions are difficult questions with answers rooted in philosophy, humanism, social mores, popular opinion, and Biblical truth.  I guess, within the context of the trials that come our way regarding end-of-life issues and the grace we seek to get through them, we must claim James 1:5, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”  The Word of God does not so easily spell out the answer for every question that befalls man, but God’s Word is filled with the principles we need to apply to end-of-life issues to make true, biblical, and Godly decisions as God leads us.

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Beware the “ites” of March

Sanctification is both a passive act done by God and an active endeavor done by us, in concert with God’s assistance.  The passive act of sanctification is done by God at the moment of salvation.  This is the Greek term HAGIOI which means “saints” or “holy ones.”  When we are saved, God sanctifies us and makes us holy so we can be called “saints” the way many of Paul’s epistles’ salutations were written:  Romans 1:7; Ephesians 1:1; and many others.  So, if you’re saved, you are a sanctified person able to call yourself a saint.

Now, during that passive act of sanctification which God did within you and for which you were unable to do yourself or even assist Him in making you holy at that moment, you were sanctified by God through salvation for His use, because sanctified also means to be separated.  Not separated like a child is lost when separated from their parents.  No, we are separated unto God, once sanctification took place at the moment of salvation.  Paul knew this in Romans 1:1, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God.”  Paul realized he was purchased by God and now was set apart to do God’s bidding in the way of taking the gospel to the lost.

Other verses to teach us that we were sanctified by God at the time of salvation and set apart for His use are these:  “Wherefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered without the gate” (Hebrews 13:12).  Paul reminds us in Romans 15:16 that we are sanctified by the Holy Ghost which we receive at the moment of salvation, “That I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost.”  Jesus prayed for His disciples in John 17:17-19 because He recognized that through their faith in Him and who He was, they were sanctified and Jesus was ready to send them out to spread the Good News. “Sanctify them through thy truth:  thy word is truth.  As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world.  And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.

Okay, so that’s a very cursory look at the passive act of sanctification that God does at the moment of salvation.  He makes us holy and sets us apart for His use.  Now then, we play an active role in a portion of the sanctification process.  Sanctification is not only being made holy.  It not only refers to being set apart for God’s use.  Sanctification also means the lifelong process of developing holiness.  That’s where we come in.  There are four aspects to the role we play in the process of sanctification.

First, sanctification is the Will of God for the believer.  “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication” (1st Thessalonians 4:3).  This is God’s Will for the believer, for us to willingly set ourselves apart for God’s use.  Again, at the moment of salvation, God knew He wanted us for His service, and this is known as positional sanctification.  When we choose to willingly set ourselves apart for His use, it is known as practical sanctification.  To abstain from sin is an active effort on your part to separate yourself from sin.  This will allow God to use you because you choose to live your life and present yourself to others as a clean vessel of honor…which brings us to our second point about practical sanctification…

The second point is that practical sanctification is learned.  “That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor” (1st Thessalonians 4:4).  Positional sanctification at the time of salvation is a passive and complete act, but this process of practical sanctification is something that we are to do, but aren’t given the knowledge necessary to pull it off.  This is where studying God’s Word comes into play.  This is why the work of discipleship in your churches is so important.  This is why sitting under good, godly, convicting, and down right uncomfortable preaching is so important.  Those are the ways we learn practical sanctification.

Thirdly, Paul tells the church at Thessalonica that this matter of practical sanctification is to move us toward holiness, “For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness (1st Thessalonians 4:7).  God has called us not only to be separate (vs. 3) and not only does He expect us to learn to do it (vs. 4) but now He explains that it’s to bring us to a level of holiness that He will be able to utilize for His service.  Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy, for I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 20:7).  Did you catch the first part of that verse where it says to sanctify yourselves?  That’s the active role we play in this matter of practical sanctification.  Striving for the goal of increased holiness to be meet for the Master’s service.

The fourth and final aspect of sanctification is that it’s something we must pursue.  “If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified, and meet for the Master’s use and prepared unto every good work.  Flee also youthful lusts:  but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2nd Timothy 2:21-22).  Everyday is a day filled with choices to set ourselves apart for God’s service or to conform to the lustful desires of the flesh.  But Paul tells Timothy to seek after righteous things and deal properly with both the saved and unsaved, exercise his faith, demonstrate love, and offer peace to those who call upon God out of a pure heart.  We should avoid those who we should separate from and seek after those who will edify us and build us up and help us to grow.

It’s this point of purity that I want to focus on.  The whole goal of practical sanctification is holiness by achieving greater and greater purity in our walk with God.  But we all have our weaknesses.  We all have things in our lives that have defeated us in the past and stand to defeat us yet again, and prevent us from living more pure lives thereby fostering a lesser level of holiness.  But those areas of weakness and those sins that continuously trip us up need not have dominance over us.  Sanctification is a process throughout life that comes as God gives us victory over these troubling sins.  Remember…greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world (1st John 4:4).

Now, Israel was chosen of God and sanctified as His chosen peoples.  God was trying to bring them to a place.  This place was the Promised Land.  Here’s the account in Deuteronomy 7:1-6:  “When the Lord thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy on them:  Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.  For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods:  so will the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly.  But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire.  For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God:  the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto Himself, above all people that are upon the earth.  The Lord did not set this love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people…”

Let me just remind you that I just laid a case for the fact that we are sanctified positionally by God at the moment of salvation.  God was reminding Israel before inhabiting the Promised Land that they were an holy people unto the Lord thy God.  Just as God chose Israel to be a special people unto Himself, so too are we, who are saved, special people separated unto God (1st Peter 2:9).  I think it’s interesting to note that the Bible says that God did not choose Israel because they were the most numerous, because they were actually the fewest of all the people.  Though many people claim to be Christian today, true Christians in the Bible sense of the word are probably still today the fewest of all people.  So we can see that Christians today, and Israel share similar characteristics.  So with that being the case, let’s look carefully at the beginning of the passage and see what God demanded from Israel.

First of all, among the land God promised Israel dwelt seven of their adversaries.  These nations had defeated Israel in the past and had the potential to oppress them if not properly dealt with.  Well, God promised the victory to Israel in verse 2.  This was the positional aspect of their being set apart.  Much the same way we gained ultimate victory over death at the moment of salvation.  But for Israel, and ourselves likewise, the potential is there for further ongoing battles to take place in our lives despite us being the ultimate victors.  So what God demanded from Israel is what we need to take to heart and apply in our lives.

Of these seven nations that had either oppressed Israel, or stood ready to oppress Israel, when God delivered these nations to her, she was to utterly destroy them…nor show mercy unto them.  Why?  Well, let’s insert any sin that continuously has dominion over us in place of any of the “ites” in Deuteronomy 7:1.  Let’s consider drugs, alcohol, gambling, immorality, lying, stealing, etc, to be “ites” in our lives.  We are ultimately victorious, as we will one day be in Heaven despite our struggles with these things, but we may lose many battles along the way…unless we do what God told the Israelites to do…utterly destroy them.  What does that mean?  It means this.  Don’t give that “ite” any chance of coming up against you.  Here’s one example…

Many years ago when I worked with people struggling with substance abuse (alcohol and drugs), I often counseled them that they not only needed to stay away from the drugs or alcohol, but they needed to get rid of all things associated with the former life they were trying to flee.  I would tell them that they can’t hang out by the bus station anymore if that’s where all the people they did drugs with still hung out.  I told them to throw out their cell phones and get rid of all the phone numbers of their suppliers.  It’s about creating a “no fail” zone in your life.  It’s about not allowing the devil one little avenue to get back into your life.  It’s about utterly destroying any and all things related to that “ite.”

You’ve got to look at your life and evaluate whether you are where you feel God would be pleased when it comes to your level of holiness and purity and practical sanctification.  For example, music for me has always been a large source of pleasure for me.  I enjoy all kinds of music.  The problem is that I haven’t always had God-honoring music as the only kind of music in my collection.  I would find my CD collection containing hard rock albums with the most vile lyrics sitting on the shelf next to music from the Crown College Choir.  So I have, from time to time, purged my CD collection, but I have always held on to some genres of music that I did not feel had offensive and vile lyrics.  The problem was that I would inevitably have my convictions watered down by listening to those few albums I kept and eventually I would find myself, years later, purging albums that I had purged the previous time.

Israel did not do as God had commanded and eventually those nations rose up again and reeked havoc on the Nation of Israel.  Israel did not utterly destroy them, and those nations won victories when they shouldn’t have.  Much the same way my music collection grows with ungodly music until I find myself listening to that more than wholesome godly music.  I allowed my “ite” (worldly music) to live to fight another day.  God knows how one little bit of something can grow to become a great big something in our lives.

So what are your “ites?”  Remember that we have ultimate victory over these things (positionally in Christ), but we must have no mercy upon our enemies, and ask God to help us utterly destroy them before they destroy us.  Beware the “ites” of March!

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Race, Ethnicity, and the Church

If you read the account in Luke’s gospel in Chapter 2:41-52, you’ll find a story that is inconceivable to us today.  In verse 41-42, we find Jesus, Mary, and Joseph traveling to Jerusalem to take part in the Passover feast.  Then, in verse 43, they left Jerusalem…without Jesus…and neither of them knew it.  They traveled for a day’s journey, which is anywhere from 16-20 miles…by foot and caravan…among many kinfolk and friends.  The custom for the Jewish culture at that time was to treat a 12-year old boy as a young man that needed less intense supervision.  Not only that, but if Jesus were among family and friends, there would have been many eyes that could have been responsible for seeing that Jesus was safe and traveling with the group.  It’s only when they all stopped for the evening and Mary and Joseph went looking for Jesus that they discovered He was missing.  It sounds careless to us, but back then, in that culture, that was the way it was done.  They did not love Jesus any less than we love our own children, and verse 48 says that they had “sought” Jesus “sorrowing.”  So they weren’t what we could perceive as careless…just different in the way that family was constructed and what was actually the norm for that culture.

In today’s society, we have multitudes of families from multitudes of ethnicities, each bringing with them some quirks, oddities, and strangeness.  These families are in the same communities that our churches are in, and, they are the very families we try to invite into the church through various outreach ministries.  Once they come into our church, these families are the ones we want to disciple and teach, and see improve.  We all know the Biblical standards families ought to strive for, but exactly what does that look like?  Is there a cultural mold that each family, despite its ethnicity, must conform to before we can say for certain that the family is exhibiting signs of being a “godly” family?  Just look within a family of four and see how each member may be a godly person, saved, and serving the Lord, but their personalities all express that truth differently.  And that’s just within the same family.  It’s the same with multicultural and ethnic families.  They may be “godly” families, but their unique way of expressing that godliness may seem strange to us, leading us to pass a rather unjustified judgment on them.  Different does not always mean wrong.

Monica McGoldrick, a sociologist, explains:  “Ethnicity patterns our thinking, feeling, and behavior in both obvious and subtle ways, although generally operating outside our awareness.  It plays a major role in determining what we eat, how we work, how we relate, how we celebrate holidays and rituals, and how we feel about life, death, and illness.”  I am an American, but my ancestry is from Canada.  Our holiday celebrations are filled with ethnocentricities straight from the French-Canadian cultures.  The foods Canadian families eat, especially around New Years Eve, are very different from delicacies that might be enjoyed by Asian families.  Food is just one area that ethnicity really shows itself in its diversity.

It’s not uncommon, even in rural churches, to have several different ethnic families.  Asians, Africans, Central Americans, South Americans, and Eastern Europeans are well represented throughout America.  Because of that, we need to be sensitive to the fact that there is a need to know something about the ethnic backgrounds of some of the families in our churches so that we don’t look at their differences and quirks and pass them off as “hurting” or “ungodly” or “lacking spirituality” and so on.  One does not need to become adept in every intricacy of every family of every ethnicity, and all it takes to understand a family’s cultural dynamics is to ask.

The term ethnicity has three distinct meanings.  First, it’s believed that ethnicity is determined by shared physical and cultural characteristics.  Another definition of ethnicity has to do with the differences in the language, religion, color, and ancestry around which a group is defined.  Lastly, the word ethnicity is derived from the Greek word ethnos, which means “nation.”  These would be people set apart by national origins and/or distinctive cultural patterns.  A good example of the intermingling of these definitions is to look at the Jews today.  One could claim to be a Jew because they were born in Israel, or are born of descendants of Israeli lineage (ethnos).  Others will claim they are Jewish because they practice the Jewish faith (ethnicity defined by religious affiliation).  Still others will consider themselves to be Jewish because they adhere to Jewish customs, morals, and principles (ethnic through cultural affiliation).

So, dealing with varying races, ethnicities, and cultures appropriately 100% of the time would be impossible.  Nor is it possible to stereotype every race, ethnicity, and culture with a broad brush and expect to get it right each time you deal with a family of a particular kind.  But there are some things we need to get into the habit of doing if we want to minister to these families and be of the utmost help to them.  Here’s a list of seven things we can do:

  1. With diversity on the rise, and more and more ethnicities and cultures being represented in our churches we need to be open to different conceptions of the family.  Unless their concept of family opposes biblical morals and truths, we should not harbor one definition to be superior over another definition.
  2. Within the concept of culture and ethnicity is how families are to be understood.  You can’t understand an Asian family by looking through your own cultural construct that may be African or Eastern European in origin.
  3. When you do come into contact with a family of another ethnicity, learn as much as possible from them and understand them and don’t be critical based on your own contrasting definition forged by your culture.
  4. Understand that families are structured differently in various cultures within generations and gender-roles, and such.  Accept that, and work with that, so long as, again, it does not violate Scriptural truths and morals.
  5. Many cultures have pockets within our communities where there is a heavy concentration.  Usually, in these areas are professionals (doctors, lawyers, counselors) who are heterogeneous (they are of the same culture) and make up a support system for the families in that area.  This network of people can be an invaluable resource to utilize while ministering to a family.
  6. If we want godly families, and we have a predetermined definition of what that looks like culturally, we need to redefine our goals and what we expect to see as a family grows in the Lord.  The more we understand a family’s ethnicity, the better able we are to recognize that this family is indeed growing spiritually.
  7. Don’t always assume each family will fit its ethnic stereotype.  For instance, a third generation Asian couple and their two children may visit the church.  They have no accents.  Both parents work outside the home.  Their children are dating non-Asians (a big no-no for the Asian culture).  They are, for all intents and purposes, Americans.  They have gone through a process called acculturation, which is a watering down of the culture of origin until the dominant culture (in this case, American) takes over.  Treating this family like an Asian family won’t work in this case.

It’s God’s intention that we embrace multiculturalism.  Consider Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek (ethnicity), there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female:  for ye are all one in Christ.”  The point about neither Jew nor Greek not only helps explain the availability of salvation to all peoples, but the mere fact that all peoples are being reigned in to the Church leads one to believe that they can’t all be of the same ethnicity and do all things the same as everyone else.  Yet, certain aspects of the relationship between the believer and Christ will transcend ethnicity and culture. One day, “…at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE should bow, of things in Heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that EVERY TONGUE should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).

That’s the focus to disciple new families to the church regardless of their cultural background.  Put them under the Lordship of Christ and let the Holy Spirit lead you into dealing with aspects of their family’s culture that are wrong, and leave the rest alone.  For example, Asian ethnicities holding firm to the belief their children should only marry within the Asian culture is not a point that needs to be contested with families.  That’s a cultural preference that may not be against any biblical principle.  In contrast, an Eastern European family drinks wine with their meals.  In European homes (especially the French) children and teens will drink fermented wine with the dinner meals.  That is an example of something that needs to be dealt with, as cultural relativism does not apply in this case because it goes against a biblical mandate to abstain from alcohol.

The Native American culture is another good example.  Native Americans often hold great value in laughing.  They believe laughter relieves stress and brings people together.  Often, at their evening dinners or tribal meals, the food takes a backseat to laughter, skits, and joke and storytelling.  We may find it odd and quirky if we compared their idea of family mealtime with ours, but again, nothing’s wrong with the way they conduct themselves at the dinner table, so long as the jokes aren’t of the Joan Rivers variety.  However, Native Americans are also very spiritual, as a people.  Not only do Native Americans enjoy family ties with blood relatives, it’s likewise not uncommon among tribal people to become members of a family by being “claimed” by that family.  The Native Americans believe family is not only a matter of blood, but of spirit also.  Obviously, that could have moral and legal ramifications to be wary of.

It’s unfortunate that a detailed look at the family dynamics of some of the more common ethnicities in our churches cannot be done at this time.  Instead, I hope you have had your mind opened to the fact that our churches are multicultural.  These families should be allowed to express their cultural and ethnic beliefs and behaviors in complete and total freedom, with the caveat that it does not violate morals that transcend culture.  And, think about the richness that could be gained by opening a closed mind to the wonders of another person’s way of living life.  Just remember, the family who seems odd, quirky, and strange to you…you probably look that way to them.  Without getting to know each other culturally, each family will leave after fellowshipping uttering those words, “I Just Don’t Understand That Family!”

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The Power Behind Godliness

Whether you are striving to develop godliness in your own life or striving for godliness within your family as a whole, I came across an enlightening quote from an author that you may find helpful.  This quote, which I’ll share with you in a moment, was a bit perplexing at first until I found the verse I believe it’s based upon in First Thessalonians.  First the quote:  This statement was made by Major W. Ian Thomas in a book called The Mysteries of Godliness (Zondervan, 1964) and it’s as follows:  Godliness is “the direct and exclusive consequence of God’s activity in man.  Not the consequence of your capacity to imitate God, but the consequences of God’s capacity to reproduce Himself in you.”

Now after reading that, I found myself a tad confused.  I read it and reread it.  It seemed confusing, or, as I stated earlier, quite perplexing.  Godliness does not have its genesis in my ability to imitate God?  Isn’t that what the whole Christian life is about?  Becoming God-like?  First Peter 1:16 says to be holy for God is Holy.  Sounds to me like it’s a command.  A command to be holy.  But I guess it doesn’t mean I’m the one to do it.  It means I need to leave myself open to God’s working within me to bring about godliness and holiness in my life.  And that makes sense if you remember that God is our Father and we are His children.

Recall what Proverbs 22:15 says, “Foolishness is bound in the heart of the child; but the rod of correction will drive it far from him.”  As fathers, we chasten and discipline our children and impose our standards and values upon them that we wish for them to adopt in their own lives.  Otherwise, our kids will never learn it on their own, nor will they develop those standards and values we would like them to, if left alone.  “The rod and reproof give wisdom:  but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame” (Proverbs 29:15).  How are your children to take on your characteristics if they’re never imposed upon them in the first place?

Our children become who we would like them to become only when they allow us to shape their lives.  So too is it with God.  Look, godliness is the capacity of God to reproduce Himself in you the same way your child will become who and what they allow you to reproduce in them.  So…be very careful about what and how you teach and impose upon your children.  Now, the command to be holy has another underlying tenet to it, and that is this…be willing and open to becoming holy…for God will actively produce holiness and godliness in you.  Oh, in the same way children left alone bring shame upon their parents, if we choose to not allow God the capacity to produce godliness in us, we too will be left alone and fall way short of achieving any amount of tangible godliness in our lives thereby lessening our evangelistic opportunities and ruining our testimonies, as we’ll see later.

My favorite verse used to be my favorite for the wrong reasons…I misunderstood its meaning.  “Faithful is He that calleth you, who also will do it” (First Thessalonians 5:24).  I used to have great faith in this verse because I believed that no matter what God wanted me to do, all I would have to do is be obedient, and He would give me the necessary tools, finances, opportunities, or whatever else was needed to fulfill His calling in my life.  If He called me to be a pastor (just an example) I believed that verse meant that He would work out all the logistics to fulfill the calling of a pastor for my life.  Maybe if you felt called to be a parent, God would work out the logistics to teardown every roadblock that stood in your way of fulfilling the calling in your life.  But that’s not at all what that verse means.

In First Thessalonians 4, God calls us to godliness…holiness…sanctification:  “Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more, for ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus.  For this is the will of God, even your sanctification…that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor…” (First Thessalonians 4:1-4).

Now that verse makes different sense as it relates to what Major Thomas stated.  He stated that godliness comes about by God reproducing Himself in us.  Now look at First Thessalonians 5:24 again, “Faithful is He that calleth you, who also will do it.”  God called us to holiness (1st Thessalonians 4:3) and He will achieve it in our lives (1st Thessalonians 5:24).  If you just study chapter 5 of 1st Thessalonians, you’ll see that there are around seventeen different things God expects from us that it’s clear no one in their own strength would be able to achieve.  We are to live peaceably and respect our ministers, pastors, and anyone else who has authority over us and we should do so with humility.  We are to love and help the unruly who disturb the peace and unity of the church, while being willing to guide new believers while not forgetting those who may be spiritually weak and helping them before their wayward ways begin to spread to other morally weak Christians.  Then God says to be patient with these people, as lashing out at them with impatience may hurt them rather than help them.  We shouldn’t seek vengeance.  We should be joyful no matter what happens.  We should be ever vigilant to pray always for the things God has laid on our hearts to pray about.  We should always be thankful regardless of circumstances.  God does not want us quenching the Holy Spirit in our own lives by being cynical of ourselves or another one of the brethren.  Rather, search all things heard and taught and then prove what is good and beneficial to hold to.  Lastly, Paul implores us to avoid all forms of evil, as sin will go a long way in quenching the Spirit (vs. 12-22).

The very next verse, “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Faithfull is He that calleth you, who also will do it” (1st Thessalonians 23-24).  Just study out verses 12-22 and decide if anyone can come close to doing well in their own power and strength.  That’s why Paul reminds us in Philippians 2:13 that “it is GOD which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”  He states in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”  If your house burns down, who will make it so you have an attitude of joy and thanksgiving during such a terrible time?  Will your flesh do it?  Or will God do it?

In Romans 7:13-25, Paul knew that in his flesh he had no strength to achieve a high level of godliness.  Paul even states that “if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me” (vs. 20).  Why then don’t we understand that to achieve godliness and do those things which are holy is no more us that do it, but God’s Holy Spirit working in us?  Why do you think in 1st Thessalonians 5:19 God tells us not to quench the Spirit?  The answer is simple…because it’s the Holy Spirit that’s responsible for helping us to become godly and to display that godliness in ways described in verses 12-18 of 1st Thessalonians five.

In Acts 1:8 Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to empower the Apostles as they began their respective ministries.  In Acts 3:12, after Peter had received the Holy Spirit, he asked a man who was dumfounded at the miracle Peter had just done, “…ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this?  Or why look ye so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we made this man walk?”  Peter knew and wanted others to know that it was the power of the Holy Spirit that brought about the miracle and that it wasn’t by his own power.  When Stephen was arrested in Acts 6:8-15, it clearly states that Stephen was full of faith and power.  We’re not going to be doing miracles per se, but to display godliness amidst a sinful world is no less jaw-dropping to a lost world.  If we can be thankful, joyful, and remain prayerful when our house burns down rather than come apart at the seams, it can only happen one way…by allowing God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to reproduce Himself in you.  That is a modern day miracle to a lost world.

Let’s try to wrap this whole thing up in a neat little easy-to-appreciate package.  If we are saved, the Holy Spirit of God indwells us.  Jesus told the Apostles he would send them the Holy Spirit for one reason:  “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  This power from the Holy Spirit did not only give them confidence and boldness, but allowed them to do many wondrous miracles.  We who are saved have the same Holy Spirit, and we are called to be a sanctified, separated, holy, and godly people, able to demonstrate that godliness to a lost world.  That is one reason we have the Holy Spirit and why God wants to reproduce Himself in us through the ministry of the Holy Spirit…to use us in bringing others to the same knowledge of salvation…to be witnesses no different than those in Acts 1:8.

One final thought about the power God has through which to make our lives effective for Him.  Consider two flashlights.  Both are made with the proper wires, bulbs, and switches.  Each has the potential to be a great shining light capable of piercing the darkness.  Put a battery in only one of them, and that power source makes all the difference, doesn’t it?  Now, the flashlight with the power source is reaching its full potential and is able to be a light in a dark world.  But consider this, as we wind down.  No matter how much each flashlight tries, they can’t make their own bulbs shine.  Even the flashlight with the power source, if it was not willing to allow the power source to do its thing, also wouldn’t light.  Nope, only if the flashlight that had power allowed the power to begin flowing through would be able to give off light.  Now, I ask you, since we are agreed that neither flashlight could shine its own bulb, who is responsible for shining the bulb of the flashlight that pierced through the darkness?  The power source.  The only active decision that flashlight made was to allow the power source to do what the flashlight could not do on its own…and that is to be effective.

Do you want a life that’s effective for God?  Allow the Holy Spirit to do what God gave Him to us to do…make our lights to shine!  Trying to be effective for God outside of His promise in 1st Thessalonians 5:24 is an exercise in futility that will yield little to no fruit.  Yielding fruit is God’s responsibility.  The only requirement for us is to be connected to the vine.  I sum it all up with what Jesus Himself said, “Abide in me, and I in you.  As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.  I am the vine, ye are the branches:  He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit:  for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

Here’s Jesus giving a better analogy than my flashlight story, but the principles are all there.  Without Him, we won’t shine for Him and produce fruit.  No matter how much effort we put forth, without allowing His power to drive us…we can do nothing.  The Christian life is hard enough without expending extra energies with little to show for it in the end.  Do you want to be more effective?  Let God do it…just be willing to allow Him to do it…He’ll soon have you shining.

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