God uses ALL things, even the ‘Beast Within’

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I heard a sermon where the pastor made reference to Paul’s lament of not being able to control his inner beast:

Romans 7:21 – 24  So I find this law at work:  When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Those most honest with themselves, especially Christians, will sometimes despair, like the ‘Super Apostle’ Paul, of ever being rescued from the struggle.  I think we ASSUME that eventual sanctification will rid us of this ‘can’t be me version!’.

Johnny Cash

 

Even contemporary cultural icons like Johnny Cash could recognize the battle within:  His song ‘The Beast In Me’  chronicles his struggle to tame the evil self within.  Lyrics to his song

 

 

My beast came out in a hurtful way a couple of days ago.  My mother-in-law is with us this week.  Driving back from a lovely outing to Biltmore, she and I were dancing around social issues and lightly touching the topic of her denomination when one of its prominent former leaders came up.  She made me chuckle when she called him a name that I would NOT have expected from the lips of an 85-year old dignified lady!

My choice when I got home was to:

  • tell Mike privately so he could share my smile
  • tell Mike in her presence as we were fixing dinner

Even though I KNEW that by raising it publicly I risked opening up a can of worms – i.e. discussion about areas of disagreement between Mike and his mom, the beast within me carried the day.

And the pattern I predicted bore its sour fruit.  My dad used to call what I did – ‘pulling wings off of flies’ (that deliberate engaging people in their soft spots with the intention of provoking and hurting them.)

As Mike and his mom engaged, his emotions got the better of him and the tenor of his voice changed in intensity and volume.  His mother criticized his MANNER of discussing the issue and he reacted to her criticism like he was a teen at home and the atmosphere got awkward.  I changed the subject feeling remorse and shame, knowing all along that I had deliberately set Mike up.

As you might have surmised, this is not the FIRST time I have deliberately stirred the pot with my poisonous words.

*

But God…!!!

Those wonder-filled, power-affirming 2 words:  as I repented and asked for forgiveness from my heavenly Father the next morning on my walk, I started praying for my husband’s heart and for his relationship with his mom.  I could tell that he had gone to bed bothered and sad.  We hadn’t talked about it.  But I know him.  And worse….I KNEW what I had done.

Later during that next day, I asked him if he were alright.  And he mentioned he was still bothered by the previous night.  As I had been praying for his heart, I just offered the suggestion that if he were to approach his mom and apologize for raising his voice, she might be so startled at this new behavior. And who knew just how God might use that softer side of Mike?  I offered this glimpse of his mom’s possible reaction and a way to clear the air as a suggestion.

He later reported to me that he had done the very thing….and felt better.

*

I re-learned two facts:

  • I need continually to be praying that only what is KIND, true and necessary be what comes out of my mouth. The corollary to THAT is that I must not forget that my first inclination at times is to do what is NOT loving and pleasing to my Father.
  • God IS able to use all our sin for our good and His glory.  Not that we should sin on freely, but that we don’t have to despair each time the beast pops his ugly head out –  unbidden.

Returning to Paul’s admission of his personal on-going struggle with his wicked nature, the comforting reminder in Romans 7 picks up with his question in verse 24b – Who will rescue me from this body of death?

verse 25 – THANKS BE TO GOD – THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD!

God works all things

 

 

 

 

 

 

*I’m thankful that I still have a few more days to practice kindness with my mom-in-law, relying on God to give me both the desire,  the will and the strength to keep the beast tied up!

‘Dem Bones’- what’s connected to your mouth ‘bone’?

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Knee to thigh to hip bone and so on

Jesus has harsh words about body parts and their connections.  And He isn’t talking about bones!

Matthew records Him directly criticizing the spiritual heads of the Jews –

        You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matt 12:34)

It’s pretty clear, what we put into our heart, comes out of our mouth.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been horrified at the remarks that have slipped out of your mouth.  It’s like they bypassed the sentry at the gate, or the guard wandered off AWOL!

“Where did that expressed sentiment come from?”, you wonder.

Actually, from your heart.  What we think……. about we talk about. It’s pretty simple.

The Bible uses the the ‘heart’ to refer to our mind.  So it’s what we think about, that produces feelings that spill out as words.

How have MY thoughts damaged relationships?

  • I’ve uttered hurtful remarks to various family members and friends
  • I’ve divulged confidences and passed on criticisms ABOUT family members and friends…all because I was meditating on those thoughts
  • I’ve lost a potential  job because in the stress of an interview, I burbled something stupid that actually WAS in the background of my conscious mind (Note to self – you can’t push thoughts far enough back)

But we can’t help what we think, can we?

Yes and no.

  • Thoughts DO pop into our conscious mind unbidden.  When they are sinful, we need to yell out to God, “HELP!!!” What we can pray is something like this: Father, remove this thought from me.  It’s NOT kind or helpful or true.  Give me something to replace it – and PRONTO!”

  • We can practice ‘tasting and seeing that the Lord is good’ (Ps 34:8) and then thanking God FOR all His creation.  Today in church, Patrick explained that the remedy for NOT getting drunk on wine (Eph 5:18) was to move toward a positive action.  “Be filled with the Spirit” (i.e. the Truth).  Exhorting yourself to STOP DOING THAT BAD THING! never works.

I’m sure you can think of lots of verses that speak to how our thoughts, feelings, words and circumstances bear on one another.

My birth date Proverb is 23:7 (23 July) ….For as a man thinks within himself,  so he is;

……and I would add, so she speaks out to others without a filter!!!

What verses about the heart or thoughts or words are dear to you?

Christianese – even the Bible is ‘guilty’

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I used to get so mad at my mother! 

She was one of those happy Christians (this was in the days when I was NOT a believer) who would spout:  “The joy of the Lord is my strength!”  Those words seemed to make sense to her. Not only did I have NO idea what they meant, her enthusiasm just pissed me off. (Sorry for the irreverence!)  She seemed naïve and Pollyannaish.   Did she mean:

  • The fact that the Lord has joy…..that…. somehow…. translates into strength for me?
  • If I can somehow tap into and siphon off some of the Lord’s joy…..I, too, can feel strong?

What in the heck is the connection between joy and strength?

Turns out that her saying was NOT just a catch-phrase; it’s an actual Bible verse, i.e. Nehemiah 8:10

Even after I became a Christian, I still didn’t know what it meant…… really!

Only in the last couple of years have I come to understand:  

–setting aside of worries or troubling situations to focus on what I have been given as an adopted member of God’s forever family IS the ONLY path to joy.( Going round and round gnawing on my problems doesn’t produce joy!!!)

— and that being content or happy about the sheer FACT of being in UNION with God produces strength for any circumstance.

–‘glad and glee-filled’ to belong to Christ puts me in a different category above my problems.

— from such a different plane/angle (I KNEW 10th grade geometry would come in handy!)  I am equipped with a qualitative different perspective.

Therefore, the problems either diminish in power/severity…… or disappear, hence STRENGTH.

There are many other snippets of Scripture that are like that: code words without apparent interpretive amplification to connect them to a meaning.  Take for instance this one from Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi, “To live is Christ, to die is gain” (1:21)

We can figure out the 2nd clause without much trouble: when we die, we gain Christ’s visible presence because we’re with Him.

But what do those 4 words signify: TO LIVE IS CHRIST?

I was helped this month by an article in Tabletalk Magazine (June 2013, pp 64-65).  The author, Trip Lee, is a Christian rap artist with Capitol Hill Baptist church who talked about all the other idols one could have that provide meaning for life: wealth, worldly success, sex, family, physical fitness, social justice…..But what, in fact,  provides ANY and ALL meaning is Jesus.

That made sense!  (Check – another Bible phrase deciphered!)  It’s like saying, ‘the meaning of my life is Jesus; the organizing principle of my life is the person of Jesus; what I live for in life is Jesus.’

When I got to talking with Mike about this, I suddenly understood that ‘back in the day’ of parchment, scrolls were rare and limited; you HAD to write in an efficient manner – kind of like our tweets.

I’ll close with one of my favorite short scripture nuggets that I recite to myself each morning as both comfort and anchor for the day.  Christ in me, the hope of glory: (Col 1:27)

What does that mean?

“We have this hope as an anchor for the soul” Hebr 6:19

  • “Christ in me” – as a qualitatively new creation (spiritual DNA got changed at the New Birth), I have God in me, as much as if my molecular structure was permanently altered.
  • “the hope”- since God is IN me, I am assured, I have a 100 % God-backed guarantee (God does NOT lie, or else He wouldn’t be God) that I will be with Him.
  • “…of glory” – not only will I be face to face with God’s glory, I will also somehow be a partaker/ sharer in this über-celebratory love feast.  I will be…..  fêted, praised, appreciated, fussed over, lavished with abundant love & attention in quantities that are overflowing – hence glorified.

What are some of YOUR Bible phrases that you have translated or are still puzzling you?

My anti-stress mantra

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Psalm 19:14 – May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer

God is allowing me to struggle again this school year. It’s my 20th year teaching French.  I’m realizing that my presupposition has been that teaching French should be easier as time goes on.  Maybe I was set up to adopt this premise by observing my student-teaching supervising teacher.  She had taught French for 35 years in the SAME classroom, in the SAME school.  I remember her description of lesson planning.  Driving the 12 minutes to school in the morning, she would settle on her lesson plans for the day.  And she taught FIVE levels of French! I thought that must be what ‘good’ teachers do.

Yet here I am, clipboard in hand, plans typed out, driving into school praying that I can pull it off another day, with 4 different levels and keep everything straight.  And that is after 6-7 hours of thinking and planning for the week.  I’ve gotten quite good at creating my own anxiety.

Last week, on Friday, a new thought came to me as I was angsting.  “I actually have some students who do VERY well in French, DESPITE my daily inadequacy dance.”   I kept that thought in the forefront of my mind.  And you know what?  YES!  I had a very good day.

Before I became a Christian, when I was at the University of Virginia, I used to purposefully power down the anxiety by reminding myself repeatedly before a major test, “Ten years from now, the results of this mid-term or final won’t even matter!” and that thought was enough to calm me down.  Now if God offered me that kind of stress-relieving thought as a pre-Christian, don’t you think that all the truth I now have access to in His Word might be as if not MORE useful?

If consistency is important, then my inward practice should line up with my outward.  I’m thinking of how we are to treat others following Ephesians 4:29 as a rule of life, “Say only what helps, each word a gift” (amplified version).  Our self-talk falls under that umbrella, wouldn’t you agree?

I’m with 12th grade girls twice a day at my school.  This is a very high-stress time of year.  They are applying to colleges, retaking the SATs, getting their résumés together, coming face to face with, for some, a less-than-ample harvest of time scattered or wasted over the past 4 years of high school.  Today, some were sick from pushing, pushing last week to get everything turned in at the close of the 1st marking period.  They are just as needy as I am.  We cannot do all things in our own strength.  So maybe this is why God is allowing me to continue to flail, when all along, He offers iron-clad lifelines of truth.

Thank you, Father, for directing my thoughts.  Do not leave me to my own mental gymnastics.  Make me lie down in your green pastures, lead me beside your still waters, take my hand and pull this little errant sheep back onto the path of righteousness for your Name’s sake.  Amen

“My God would never….”

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Have you ever heard someone exclaim indignantly or self-assuredly, “My God would never send anyone to hell….”?   This person’s god usually is the kind of god that would NOT do whatever he/she finds troubling.

But we are not invited to pick and choose or craft a god that fits our personality or meets our needs or conforms to our worldview.

This tendency is akin to someone saying, “I don’t like triangles that have pointy ends.  From now on I will only accept triangles with soft, rounded ends.”

Well then, Mister, what you have is no longer a triangle.

I know this example is silly, but that is what we do with God when we edit out distasteful aspects like his wrath (how primitive!), or his prohibitions against certain sexual behaviors (how antiquated!), or his command to leave off worrying (how unrealistic!).

If we chop off the unpleasant bits of God, He is no longer God.  For by definition, God is ALL the attributes mentioned in the Bible.  If we remove even one of his attributes, then it is no longer God we have.  Sure we can arbitrarily remove the crust from a pizza and still pretend and call it a pizza.  But it’s not a pizza despite our saying otherwise.  At this point, it’s just a glob of sauce.  You may call it pizza.  But then you are using language in an irrational manner.

So be honest, say that you are having a difficult time reconciling God’s justice with his love, or his promise of real joy with the presence of evil.  But don’t go changing the ontological nature of God.   We are called to love the Biblical God with all our mind, heart and strength.  We don’t get to invent the god of our own choosing.

PS:  just as a prayerful exercise, here is a start to some of the many attributes of God.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but represents an organized way I employ to praise Him.  I’m sure you can add to each letter.  What you cannot do is take any of these away and still have God.

I praise God that He is:

A -abundantly able   B – before all time  C – caring/ chooses me  D -dependable                           E– eternal  F – faithful  G – giver of all good gifts  H – holy   I – immutable  J – just     K – kind  L – loving and lovely  M – merciful  N – never late  O– omnipotent/omniscient  P – powerful Q-quiets me with His presence R-righteous  S – saves me/ supplies me/ succors me  T-Truth  U – understands me/ is underneath me   V-victorious  W – wise    X – (e)xceedingly glorious  Y– yearns for me  Z – zealous for my love

 

The sin of fear and how to fight it

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A young Christian woman I met confided that she had recently lost a baby at 28 weeks and that was after 2 previous miscarriages.  She asked that I pray for God’s help in dealing with her persistent fear that she might lose other precious members of her family:  her 3 yr old daughter or her husband.  My heart lurched when I read her email.  What pain! Imagining what she might be going through made my heart sink.  I could well understand her fear, her drawing back and throwing herself in front of her husband and daughter as a brave ‘warrioress’, shouting:  “No further, Angel of Death!”

John Piper gave a talk at a recent Passion weekend to college students about why we should memorize scripture.  He reminded the audience that the Sword of the Spirit, i.e. God’s Word, is the ONLY offensive weapon we have.  He said that when we talk, announce, declare, shout out God’s promises which are ‘alive and full of power’ (Hebr 4:12) we wage active war against our sin.  And the first sin he mentioned was FEAR.

Fear and its cousin, anxiety, are ever-present enemies.  They are sins because they replace our trust in God.  John Piper who has battled depression and fear throughout his life has a useful acronym.  I shared it with the grieving mom and thought it would help all of us.  It is:  A-P-T-A-T

A – admit you have a need and are helpless, whether it is worry, lack of wisdom, money problems, ANYTHING that you can articulate. Spell out the problem.

P – pray and ask for help from God (remember that we have not because we ask notJames 4:20)

T – trust God that He will provide.  Pick a particular promise and make that your friend.  I googled ‘verses to fight fear’ and found a whole list. Here’s a good one from Deuteronomy 31:6   Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them (i.e. fearful, anxious thoughts); for the LORD your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.”   When the fear thought pops in to your mind, you can say, “No!! I will not fear.  I WILL be strong and courageous for God is my Lord; He is THE ONE who goes with me.  He will not leave me or forsake me….and…(you can add other truths like – He is Jehovah Sabaoth – Lord of the angel armies)

A – act and do what you have to do, counting on the Holy Spirit to be with you and provide what He has promised.  We have to move out despite the fear.

T – thank God for what He IS doing and has done to slay that sin.

And I would add an RAPTAT and Re-APTAT…as in, when we succumb to the sin of fear, anxiety, lust, idolatry, self-centeredness (and the list goes on…) that we REPENT and start again.  Even if we have to use this tool multiple times a day, it doesn’t matter.  There is ‘NO (SHAME or) CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).  It’s pure pride to give up and say, “That’s just the way I am, I am a worrier, I am a fearful person, I cannot overcome this sin of ______!”

Let’s put on our boxing gloves, and fight the good fight of faith, using the ONE weapon God has given us, His Holy Word.

If you want to hear the talk by John Piper on God’s word as a weapon and the power of memorizing scripture, here’s the link:

John Piper’s talk

 

The Scarlet Letter

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‘You are/ it is’ precede ‘you should/ it is necessary that…’  A basic understanding of grammar comes in handy.  In the Christian world, God tells us facts before he commands us to obey him.  He tells us what IS (his character, his accomplishments, his power, his plans and goals) before he tells us what to DO.

When we fall into the sin of legalism, it’s because we’ve harnessed the proverbial cart before the horse, i.e., the imperative (do this) before the indicative (what is).

Here’s how using the indicative can help in our own lives. My thesis is that unless we keep telling ourselves Truth, then we fall victim to feelings which can lead us around by the nose.  Imagine you’re in the car, impatient to get home when someone cuts you off.  If you’re like me, you’re likely to criticize that other driver and think the worst about him.  But if you knew an indicative, a fact, your feelings would likely change.  What if you knew that in that car was a young husband desperately speeding to get his very pregnant wife to the hospital.  Imagine her in labor, in pain and him feeling helpless and mindful of only one thing, his precious wife. Would that change how you feel about him cutting you off?  Of course!  You would offer him some slack.  More information changes your assessment, hence the conclusion you draw and feed yourself, hence your feelings.

This example came to mind the other day when I was meditating on Hebrews.  In chapter 10, the author says that if the people knew that one sacrifice would wipe out their sins once and for all, they would no longer feel guilty for those sins. (Hebr 10: 2b ….for the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins.) That verse caused me to realize that I am not supposed to feel guilty for sins already forgiven.  The information that a sacrifice not only cleanses me, but takes away the guilt was new information.  And Jesus performed the one and only necessary sacrifice for sins AND for guilt.  When I still feel guilty after having been forgiven, I am forgetting a fact, an indicative.  Reminding myself of the fact that my guilt is taken away MAKES me feel differently.

The current message I’m receiving from the Bible and from sermons by RC Sproul and Tullian Tchividjian is how important the gospel message is to believers.  We need a steady daily diet of Gospel indicatives.  Our minds and hearts need to be saturated by the radical and scarcely-proclaimed message (one that is NOT intuitive, nor picked up by osmosis) of God’s grace and love. Culture daily bombards us with all the stuff we should do.  Guilt comes naturally in our culture.

I was brought to tears the other day listening to Tullian talk about the wonderful news of God’s grace.  He was illustrating it with an example of a student so stressed out by a high school honors class that she can’t perform.  In response the wise teacher guarantees her an A for the semester.   This A is contingent on NOTHING the student does, just on the kindness of the teacher.  From our perspective, this is an outrageous risk.  What if the student takes advantage of the ‘pre-destined A’?  Apparently that is a risk the teacher is willing to take.  In this real-life illustration, the high-school junior ended up relaxing and working hard and probably earning the A.  But she worked with peace of mind.

So too, we, have been given this ‘Scarlet Letter’, this predetermined grade of A, purchased in blood by Jesus.  It is a total gift.  We don’t have to do anything to earn it.  Furthermore, God won’t take it away from those he has given it to.  We can relax and learn from him.  We can trust this yoke, that it is easy.  Yet we chafe.  We would rather FEEL WORTHY.  Why is that?  Pernicious pride!  It offends us to have our opportunity  to earn WORTH taken away from us.  Somehow intrinsic value (totally up to God) doesn’t satisfy us.  This twisted thinking needs to be redeemed.  Only the daily drip method of life-giving Gospel truth can transform our minds.

The next time I start manufacturing pressure for myself, I need to pause and reflect.  Why am I feeling anxious?  What truth, fact, promise, and info about God do I need to remember?  What false conclusion am I drawing?  What am I trying to DO out of guilt or out of the idea that THIS is how ‘good’ Christians should act?  It is great news that I don’t have to DO anything.  I just have to ‘abide’ in Christ.  That means:  stay connected, keep my eyes on him, feed on him, hang out with him, be the Mary at his feet, rather than the Martha trying to get Jesus on her side against the ‘lazy ones’.

I want to wear this Scarlet Letter with pride!

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