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The Value of a Vertical Focus

The blank wall in our backyard was unremarkable for years. We had ideas for how to spruce it up, but never seemed to find the time. And then one spring afternoon, my husband got inspired. Returning from a trip to the hardware store, he set to work installing small bolts up the wall at evenly spaced intervals. Once he finished, he uncoiled a spool of wire and wound it around each bolt. By the time he was finished, we had a perfect grid ready for a vine.

Strategically digging holes at the base of the latticework, we nestled tiny plants into them. After a few months, they began to grow tall enough for my husband to wind the small tendrils around the wire, training them to attach to it and grow upwards. At first the latticework looked a little lonely and bare, but over time the lush foliage filled in. Now, five years later, the once bare wall is the most noteworthy aspect of our yard. Getting it to look that way took time, patience, and discipline (for which I can take no credit whatsoever).

Every few weeks, new growth and foliage need to be pulled from the wall and either trimmed off or wound around the wire to continue the upward growth. Without human intervention, the wall would be a messy jumble of shoots and leaves with no pattern. It would be unruly and undisciplined.

For some reason, a picture of our latticework wall came to mind as I read a question in Beth Moore’s Entrusted Bible study this week. At the close of Week 1, Day 1, she asks readers “What brings you to your side of this page”?  In other words, why are you doing this study?

If my life was that vine growing up our wall, then God’s Word is what keeps me tethered to the wire when I want to stray out on my own. It helps me to keep a vertical focus so that my worldview, actions and attitudes come from God and not from the standards of our ever-changing culture. Consistently engaging in Bible study for most of my life has allowed healthy patterns to emerge and God’s handiwork to show in my life. His Word grounds me in truth when the world bombards me with lies. It is a firm foundation in unsteady times. It is a plumb line that keeps my thoughts and perspectives aligned with God’s ways instead of the world’s. It is the mirror that shows me my true identity as God’s beloved child when I’m tempted to measure myself by the fickle standards of the world.

When I’m not fighting against Him; when I’m patient over the long haul; when I trust Him even when I don’t understand why He’s allowing a certain hardship– He can do beautiful things in and through me. He sees the whole picture where I see only a small part. He has laid out plans for me, intentionally going before me to stretch out the wires on the wall that beckon me to grow to heights I could never achieve on my own. As I allow His loving hands to wind the tendrils of my life around His latticework, I see that His ways are higher and better than mine.

For me, completing a study guide isn’t a task to be checked off a to do list. We call it “homework” at Bible study, but in reality it’s the gateway to life transformation and the thing that continually keeps my focus exactly where it belongs: on God. And that is what brings me back year after year.

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Colossians 3:1-2 (NIV)

“Word of Life” by Jeremy Camp is a song that celebrates Jesus as the Word that became flesh and the truth found in God’s Word. Click on the link to hear it.

 

 

Pouring Out What’s Been Poured In

Clutching her hand, my voice quavered as I looked up, pleading. “Tell me again, mom, tell me again.” Leaning down to kiss me goodbye, she handed me my lunch and reassured me gently, “Jesus is holding your hand. Just remember, even when I can’t be with you, He can. Even if you can’t feel Him, you can trust that He’s there.” The lump in my throat slowly shrank and my courage returned as I pulled on my backpack and joined my siblings for the car ride to school.

Starting first grade at a new school in a new town hadn’t been easy. Every night as I climbed into bed, my stomach twisted in nervous knots. Every morning I fought back tears as my dad dropped me off. But all of that had changed once my mom started reassuring me about Jesus’ love and care for me.  She was the first person to entrust me with the good news of the gospel. Throughout my childhood, she used her gifts to share God’s Word-whether it was reading stories to me from Scripture or teaching  neighborhood kids at an after-school Bible class in our home.

As I got older, other people came into my life to shape and encourage my faith as well. There was Micki Ann, my wise small group leader during high school who patiently poured into a gaggle of teenage girls despite having a toddler and a newborn of her own. Later in my college years, I had a string of mentors who entrusted me with God’s Word and coached me to become a leader among my peers. Julia, Kim, Stacy and Kelly each left an indelible mark on me during that season by encouraging me to stand apart from the crowd and follow Jesus. In young motherhood, there was Melinda, who taught me how to be a godly wife and mom and Courtney, who helped me to understand my identity in Christ and the importance of healthy boundaries.

And of course, throughout adulthood there have been mentors I didn’t know personally who have shaped my faith by entrusting me with Biblical truth: Kay Arthur, Beth Moore, Priscilla Shirer, and Kelly Minter, to name a few.

All of these women and others like them poured into me in the same way others had poured into them. They used their varied gifts to nurture my faith, to draw out my potential, and to help me discover how God could use me. And like them, I’ve had the blessing and privilege of spurring on others in their walks with Jesus. Some have been formal mentoring relationships, others have sprung up naturally over time. Some I still see regularly, while others I rarely get to connect with anymore.

The cycle of being entrusted with the gospel and then sharing it with others has repeated from one generation to the next for over two thousand years. The pages of the New Testament are filled with examples of people pouring out their lives to pour the gospel into others. Their names and surroundings were different, but the cycle remains the same. All followers of Jesus share the call to entrust the gospel to others using the gifts God has given them.

Paul puts perfect words to this when he urges Timothy saying, “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us….And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” (2 Timothy 1:13-14 and 2:2, NIV)

Over the next few months I’m going to spend some time on this idea of pouring out what’s been poured into us.  I’ll draw on inspiration from Beth Moore’s Bible study, Entrusted: A Study of 2 Timothy (Lifeway Press 2016). Whether you do the study or just follow along with my posts, I pray that you’ll be encouraged, inspired and challenged to discover more of what God has entrusted to you and how you’re being called to share it with others.

 

 

 

 

Faith Foundations #10: Choose Your Path Wisely

We’d been on the trail many times before and I assumed my friend knew the way back to the car.  But as we approached the final fork in the road, I realized I was wrong. Veering left on the wide trail that looked like the obvious choice, she looked at me quizzically as I pointed her in the other direction.  The narrow path to our right looked less worn and more treacherous, but I knew it was the fastest way back to the car. She laughed at her poor sense of direction and turned to join me.

The timing seemed uncanny.  All summer I’d been anticipating sending my son to college and we’d had many conversations about the choices that he’d face once he got there. My husband and I had been encouraging him to “pre-decide” what he’d do in potentially compromising or awkward situations. We wanted him to know which path he’d choose when he came to a fork in the road of life choices. The term “pre-decide,” originally coined by author and Bible teacher Lysa TerKeurst, echoes Jesus’ sentiments in Matthew 7:13-14:

  “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Often the ways of the world are like that wide path my friend was heading down without thinking—the route seems obvious, easy and comfortable. The wide road leads in the direction most people seem to be going; it’s the path of least resistance.  If we don’t “pre-decide,” it’s the way we’ll end up taking by default.

The narrow path, on the other hand, isn’t the obvious choice, but it’s the best one. Sometimes we’ll find ourselves walking alone as others abandon us for less challenging journeys.  But if we’re wise, we’ll heed Jesus’ advice to avoid the destruction that awaits us at the end of the wide and easy road.

I’ve spent most of my adult life choosing the narrow path. Sometimes others have joined me or cheered me on, other times they’ve mocked me or distanced themselves from me.  But I’ve never regretted choosing it, whether it’s been popular with others or not. And along the way, I’ve been deeply blessed by those who have joined me on it.

Maybe you’re wondering what it looks like to choose the narrow path in daily life. If so, I hope one of these examples brings clarity:

We choose the narrow path when we care more about honoring God than we do about fitting in with others.

We choose the narrow path when we make the hard choice to do the right thing, even when it puts us at a disadvantage.

We choose the narrow path when we say “yes” to an opportunity that’s going to stretch and challenge us beyond our comfort zone.

We choose the narrow path when we refuse to allow someone to convince us that a sin is “harmless” or “no big deal.”

We choose the narrow path when doing things God’s way costs us more time or money or when it inconveniences us in some way.

We choose the narrow path when we opt to spend time alone rather than being with people who are going to pressure us to compromise our faith, values, or morals.

We choose the narrow path when we stand up for what’s right even when no one else seems to care or notice.

We choose the narrow path when we give without expecting anything in return.

We choose the narrow path when we favor humility over self-glorification.

We choose the narrow path when we forgive instead of seeking revenge or nursing a grudge.

We choose the narrow path when we care more about blessing others than creating comfort for ourselves.

The narrow path may feel daunting at times, but Jesus promises it’s always the way to life. I’d rather trust the One who died for me than take the easy way following the crowd.

“Hard Love” by NeedtoBreathe is a great song to motivate you as you walk the narrow road. Click on the link and let it inspire you.

 

Joyfully Sad

It’s the little things that catch me by surprise—the lone toothbrush on the counter where there used to be two, the neatly made bed that wasn’t slept in the night before, or the empty hamper that used to be overflowing no matter how often I did the laundry. From my description, it almost sounds as if we’ve had a death in the family. And although we are grieving the absence of our first born, he’s not only alive and well, but thriving as a freshman in college. I wasn’t prepared for the conflicting feelings that would accompany his departure: the deep ache of knowing that our family will never be quite the same contrasted by the deep joy of watching our son launch into adulthood.

I braced myself for his departure during his senior year. Tears flowed at different milestones: making his last school lunch, waving as he and his brother drove off together on the final day of school, watching him cross the stage at graduation. The intensity of emotions increased at the end of the summer when we flew 1500 miles from home to get him settled at college.  Toggling between the joy of watching him embrace his new surroundings and the sadness of leaving him felt like a wild ride on a wobbly see-saw.

Since returning, we’re slowly adjusting to setting three places at the table instead of four. I miss swapping sections of the newspaper with him at breakfast and the camaraderie of working side by side at computers in our office. It doesn’t take much for a lump to form in my throat these days. I could easily wallow in sadness thinking about the magnitude of this change in our family. Lamenting about how things will never be the same can feel like swimming in an overcoat—I could easily drown in sorrow. Letting the tears flow is healthy and good, but lingering too long in sadness is not. It will only wear a groove in my brain that leads me down the same negative path over and over again.

With my son’s departure, I’ve been reflecting on my own college years. My parents laid a solid foundation for me in the first eighteen years of my life, but I had to launch from home to continue building on that foundation. They had to take a lesser role for me to mature fully. I wouldn’t want to deny my son that same experience. And really, isn’t that the whole point of parenting?

Our children arrive in our lives as tiny, needy little people. They start out relying on us for everything. But with each stage of development, they take one step closer to independence. We cheer for them when they first crawl and later walk. We’re relieved when they begin to eat, dress and bathe on their own. They start school and we coach them toward taking responsibility and doing homework without being reminded. At each stage of parenting, we’re teaching them a little more about how to navigate the world without us. A friend recently coined the term “joyfully sad” to describe the paradox of this season. It perfectly describes the tangle of emotions that arise when grown children are finally ready to launch. They will always be our kids, but that hands-on parenting of their first eighteen years is no longer needed. And this is good and right.

Part of what makes childhood something to savor is that it doesn’t last. There is beauty in things that are fleeting—whether it is a delicate flower, a vibrant sunrise, or a newborn baby. There’s no time to take them for granted because they fade and change so quickly. Instead we enjoy them while we can.

My husband and I soaked in every moment with our son during our last few days with him at his new school. Before the dreaded time came to meet him on campus to say goodbye, we clasped hands to pray in our hotel room. Amidst the tears of joy and sadness, we thanked God for entrusting him to us and giving us the privilege of raising him for eighteen years.  And then we gave him back to the God who knew him, loved him, and chose him especially for us before time began. Our son was entrusted to us for a season and we relished every moment of his childhood. He will always be our precious boy. We know we have many milestones yet to share with him. And as the next leg of his journey begins, we are learning to adapt to our changing role.  Although we no longer see him daily, we rest in the knowledge that God remains at his side for this season and all the others that lie ahead.

 

Faith Foundation #9: Trust Brings Peace

Digging in my paddle against the current, I pulled hard. Choppy water slapped against my board and threatened to topple me as the afternoon breeze gained force. What had started as a relaxing jaunt around the bay had quickly turned into a punishing workout. With my knees bent and my head low, I gritted my teeth to get through the most exposed part of the harbor. Between the large boats chugging by and the lack of protection from the wind, it felt a little like riding a scooter on the freeway. Rounding the final bend, the calmer waters between two islands finally came into view.  No matter how rough the main part of the harbor got, I could always count on easy paddling through that peaceful little channel.

It wasn’t long before I saw the connection between that experience and one of my favorite passages in the Bible: “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” (Isaiah 26:3, NIV).  It took determination to paddle against the strong current toward calm water.  We need to use that same kind of steadfastness in our minds when we’re struggling for peace. Every moment our thoughts can draw us further towards it or further away from it, but a steadfast mind is resolute and unwavering. It isn’t deterred by the wind and waves of circumstances, nor is it overwhelmed by them. Trusting God enables us to see beyond our present situations to the One who is more powerful than the strongest current or the fiercest wind.

Over the past few weeks I’ve returned to this mental picture of the safe harbor many times as I’ve been preparing to launch my firstborn child to college. It is an intense season in our family on every level—physically, relationally, spiritually and emotionally. My heart aches as I think about my son being 1500 miles from home. The years have flown and it’s hard to believe our family  is transitioning into this new era. More than once I’ve felt like the waves of circumstances and emotions are going to topple me, but then I stop and picture that safe, calm channel.  I remind myself to remain steadfast in trusting God and I invite Him to soothe my aching heart.

Every season of life brings new challenges and new opportunities to trust God. If we rely on easy circumstances to be the source our peace, we’ll often find ourselves without it. But if we trust God, who sees a much bigger picture than we do, we can mentally stay in that safe harbor, no matter how hard the wind is blowing or how rough the water gets.  Learning to rely on Him takes practice, but it brings the only peace that can sustain us over the long haul.

In keeping with the water theme of this post, click on the link to be encouraged by Rend Collective’s song “My Lighthouse.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HA8VtUPgqTc

And if you want to know what the storm in my mind looks like right now, click on the link to hear Nichole Nordeman’s song “Slow Down.” (Don’t watch it if you don’t have tissues handy or if you’re someplace where you don’t want to cry.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clcNB_EUao8

 

 

 

 

Faith Foundation #8: Trust and Obey

She was one of those students brimming with potential. As her freshman English teacher, I was eager to see her tap into it, but she seemed more interested in boys, clothes and popularity. When she did turn in work, it was mediocre at best. And then one day, she surprised me with a new attitude. Handing me a completed assignment, she gushed, “I worked on this all night, I can’t wait for you to see it.” Pleased by her newfound enthusiasm, I leafed through the stack of papers later that day eager to find hers. To my disappointment, the assignment she’d completed didn’t follow the guidelines I’d explained to the class. It was obvious she’d put a lot of effort into creating some beautiful artwork, but none of the other requirements had been met. There was no way I could give her full credit for it. I’d explained the instructions verbally and in writing, but she’d chosen to ignore them and do things her way.

Handing the assignment back the next day, I affirmed her for her effort, but explained why she didn’t earn the maximum points possible. Sadly, no amount of encouragement or explanation I gave her could break through her stubborn shell. She glared at me with arms folded for the rest of the period. As the year progressed, I think she saw me as an unreasonable and unfair task master. Eventually, she just gave up trying. Her stubbornness and pride led her to miss the opportunity to learn from the experience.

While I would never be so presumptuous as to equate myself with God, I think many of us see Him similarly to the way my student saw me all those years ago. We want to approach Him on our terms instead of His. Rather than taking the time to learn how to live faithfully and obediently, we follow our own path and then don’t understand why we don’t feel more connected to Him.

Accepting God’s free gift of grace offered through Jesus marks the beginning of a lifelong process of growing in a relationship with Him. Author and pastor Eugene Peterson describes this journey as “a long obedience in the same direction.” That “o” word (obedience) is a hard one to accept in our culture today. Like my student, most of us want to do things on our terms. We pray hoping God will bend to our wills instead of inviting His will to be done. The idea of obeying Him doesn’t sound nearly as attractive as the free gift of grace.  Yet, the two were meant to go hand in hand.

Jesus taught His disciples about the importance of obedience saying: “If you love me, keep my commands… Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John 14:15 & 21, NIV)

Years after hearing Jesus teach, John expanded on the importance of obedience by explaining, “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says,’I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:3-6, NIV)

The idea is that once we receive God’s grace, we show our love for Him by responding with obedience. Doing this makes His love complete in us over the course of a lifetime. It shows that we trust Him, whether or not we understand what He’s doing.

I’m guessing right now you may be wondering two things. First, how are we supposed to know all of the commands Jesus wants us to obey? Second, how can I ever follow them obediently when I still struggle with sin every day?

The short answer to the first question is simple: you need to read the Bible consistently. The more you study Scripture, the more it will study you. As you discover God’s plan for your life and begin to incorporate His ways into your choices, you’ll begin to surrender different areas of your life that you’ve been trying to control on your own.  As you respond to His Word by trusting Him and taking steps of obedience, you begin walking a new path that puts God in the lead instead of you. Make time consistently to study His Word intently, discuss it with others, wrestle in prayer over the things you don’t understand, and ultimately you will be changed by it.

Going back to the second question above, you may be wondering how it’s possible for an imperfect and sinful person to be obedient and walk as Jesus did. We can’t be obedient to God based on our own will power or good intentions. Jesus knew this, which is why when He explained the importance of obedience to the disciples, He also said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you…the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:16, 17, 26, NIV)

When we accept Christ, the Holy Spirit of God comes to live in us. He is our tutor, our guide, and our advocate. He gives us wisdom when we ask for it, He convicts us when we’re dabbling with sin, and He gently leads us in the way God calls us to go. He speaks to us through God’s Word, searches our hearts, and intercedes for us in our prayers (see Romans 8:26-27 if you’ve never heard this before).

God’s grace gives us access to Him for eternity but our trust and obedience are the keys to living the abundant life He intends for us now. Not surprisingly, there aren’t many popular songs today about the concept of obedience.  There is, however, a great old hymn called “Trust and Obey.” Click on the link to hear Big Daddy Weave’s version of this song and let the truth of the lyrics marinate in your mind.

Faith Foundation #7: Making It Personal

Sifting through the pile of mail, I ripped papers in half before tossing them in the recycle bin when the bold print on one letter caught my eye: “Enjoy a 7-day cruise for two, our gift to you!” Without another thought, I tore up the offer and threw it in with the rest of the junk mail.  Maybe I was missing the opportunity of a lifetime, but I’ve always been taught that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.  That piece of mail started me thinking, though.  How many “special offers” do we discard without checking to see if they’re legitimate? Have I ever missed out on something good just because I didn’t make the effort to redeem it?

If you’ve been following along with my last few posts, you know I’ve been exploring some foundations of the Christian faith. You might remember that God extends each person an offer that surpasses any others we might receive: the gift of eternal life.  I’ve written about some key truths in the Christian faith that paved the way for today’s message:

  • Truth #1 God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
  • Truth #2 There is a problem, sin separates us from God.
  • Truth #3: Jesus Christ is the only way we can have eternal life and experience God’s love.

Many people have heard snippets of these messages but sometimes fail to see the big picture.  They’ve been told that Jesus died for the sins of all people, but aren’t aware of this fourth key truth: Each person must individually place faith in Jesus Christ as Savior in order to receive the gift of salvation and to learn God’s plan for his or her life.

Jesus’ death was not just a blanket insurance policy that automatically covers everyone and saves all people from their sins.  Just like any other special offer, we must choose to redeem it personally in order to receive it.

John 1:12 puts it this way: “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

And Ephesians 2:8-9 clarifies that it is God’s grace activated by our faith that saves us: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Grace is God’s unmerited favor bestowed upon us.  An easy way to define it is by using this acrostic:

God’s Riches AChrist’s Expense

Like the special offer I received in the mail with my name on it, God extends a personal invitation for us to begin a relationship with Him and to receive eternal life through Christ. Jesus says in Revelation 3:20 “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” Eating a meal with someone signifies a relationship– Jesus is ready and waiting to begin an individual relationship with each person, but it’s up to us personally to open the door and let Him in.

Deciding to accept God’s grace and to begin a relationship with Him is not just an intellectual decision or an emotionally charged “spiritual high.” It is an act of the will made by faith. It is the beginning of a new and thrilling journey of trusting God and learning to lean into Him no matter what comes your way. Jesus explained that when we begin a relationship with Him, we are born into a new life. (You can read about this in John 3.) This choice for spiritual re-birth shifts our focus away from self and onto God.

If you’ve never accepted Jesus’ offer for a personal relationship with God and eternal life, you can simply pray something like this:

 Jesus, I want to know You personally. Thank you for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive you as my Savior and Lord. Thank you for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Please take control of my life and make me the kind of person You want me to be. Amen.

Choosing to accept Christ is cause for celebration! Whether you did it for the first time just now, or many years ago, put words to your joy by listening to Jason Gray’s song “More Like Falling in Love.” (And if it was your first time, be sure to tell someone who can help you continue to grow spiritually.)

*Note that the four key truths discussed in my recent posts were all adapted from The Four Spiritual Laws, originally compiled by Dr. Bill Bright. Click here if you would like to read them as they were originally written for the international ministry he founded called Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru.)

*All Scriptures in this post are from the NIV 1984 version

 

Faith Foundation #6: Inclusive Exclusivity

Neatly pressed tablecloths rustled as we walked past them on the way to our table. Starched napkins stood at attention flanked by place settings arranged with perfect symmetry. The hostess smiled as she showed us to our seats and handed us menus. A wall of windows nearby gave us a perfect view of the pristine beach where the club’s lounge chairs and umbrellas were stationed in neat rows. Beyond them, the Pacific Ocean gleamed as the sun sank low on the horizon. Although I’d seen the exclusive beach club from a distance many times, I’d never had the privilege of stepping inside it before. I felt honored and privileged to be there.

At the time, I was in college and had been invited to a birthday dinner for a friend whose parents belonged to the club. Because of her, I’d been allowed access to all of the amenities enjoyed by the members. As her guest, the staff treated me warmly and attentively.  I felt welcomed, included, and accepted, at least for the night.  I knew full well that if I’d returned the next evening on my own, I wouldn’t have been allowed past the front door.

Have you ever had a glimpse into an exclusive place that you knew you couldn’t gain access to on your own? Ever known that your only way to get acceptance was riding on the coat tails of someone with more clout than you?

Well, if you know how that feels, then I have good news for you: God made it possible for you to gain access to the one place that is more exclusive than any other.  It is a place reserved only for those who are perfect, holy and sinless. Anyone without these qualifications would simply be destroyed. Where is this place, you ask? It is in the presence of God for eternity.

If you’ve been following along, you may remember that the last few posts in my Faith Foundations series have been discussing four key truths that are crucial to understand in the Christian faith. Here’s a quick review:

  • Truth #1 God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
  • Truth #2 There is a problem, sin separates us from God.

Today’s post explains Truth #3: Jesus Christ is the only way we can have eternal life and experience God’s love.

Romans 5:8 explains our pitiful state and God’s solution to it: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  And Jesus says it clearly in John 14:6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In our pluralistic society, saying there is only one way to connect with God is outlandish and even offensive to some people.  The irony, however, is that God’s grace makes the Christian faith more inclusive than any other religion.  God knew His standard of perfection could never be reached by sinful humans. No matter how “good” we try to be, we will never be good enough to “earn” a place in heaven.  In human terms, this makes God’s “club” the most exclusive ever, with no one being allowed entrance. And yet, because of His desire to be in relationship with us, God made a way into His exclusive “club” through His Son, Jesus. For anyone seeking a direct relationship with God and hoping for eternal life in His presence, Jesus is the only conduit.  All we have to do is admit we need Jesus to save us from our sins. This is God’s grace, His free gift to us. Anything “good” we do after we accept Christ is simply an expression of our gratitude, not an act done to earn God’s love or to rack up spiritual brownie points.

Thinking back to that night I was a guest at the beach club, I smile as I remember the name of the friend who took me there: Grace. Just as my relationship with her enabled me to experience the pleasure and privilege of her parents’ exclusive club, a relationship with Jesus enables us to receive the joy and honor of knowing His Father.  Anyone that comes to God through His son receives grace, forgiveness and acceptance. He is indeed, the one true God who made a way to be inclusive despite His exclusivity.

The song “One True God” by Steven Curtis Chapman elaborates on this idea and uses some key phrases from Scripture to show Jesus as the one true path to salvation.

For further reading on this topic, consider one of the following:

  •  The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
  •  More Than a Carpenter by Josh and Sean McDowell

Photo courtesy of www.pixabay.com, Scriptures from the NIV translation

Faith Foundation #5: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

Have you ever wondered why, exactly, Jesus had to die for us? Ever thought, “I didn’t ask for a Savior, so why do I need one?” Maybe you’ve questioned if “good” people really deserve to be labelled as “sinners.” My last post explained the first of four key concepts: God Loves You. Today’s post explores the second truth: There is a problem, sin separates us from God.

The Concept of Covenant

Before we can answer these questions, we need to understand the concept of a covenant, which defined simply is “a binding relationship based on a promise.”  In his book The Marriage Ref, pastor and author Tyler Scott explains: “In order to fully appreciate the meaning of this new covenant [made by Jesus in the New Testament], we need to understand what the old covenant meant.  The old covenant first began to take shape in Genesis 2.  There, God makes a covenant with Adam in language that is strong, clear and definitive:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.’” (Genesis 2:15-16, NIV)

The Covenant is Broken & Sin Enters the World

Genesis 3 describes Satan in the form of a serpent tempting Adam and Eve to break their covenant with God, thus bringing sin into the world.  He planted seeds of doubt about God’s goodness, and caused them to think He was holding out on them by not letting them eat from a certain tree in the garden.

The choice Adam and Eve made to sin and break the covenant with God had a ripple effect that changed the world for all time.  The consequences of their choice changed the relationship between God and humans and forever altered the course of human history.

Author Josh McDowell explains, “The Bible indicates that God created man and woman so he could share his love and glory with them.  But Adam and Eve chose to rebel and go their own way.  They left God’s love and protection, contaminating themselves with that self-willed, grasping, prideful nature we call sin.” (More than a Carpenter p. 153)

The Problem of Sin

McDowell goes on to explain, “God dearly loved Adam and Eve– even after they spurned Him—he wanted to reach out to them and save them from the deadly path they had chosen.  But God faced a dilemma.  Because God is not only loving but also holy, righteous, and just, sin cannot survive in his presence.  His very holy, just, and righteous nature would destroy the sinful couple.“ (Josh McDowell, More than a Carpenter p. 153)

Romans 6:23 makes this concept clear: “The wages of sin is death.”

God is not mean, cruel, unkind or exclusive. But because He is perfect and holy, sin is consumed in His presence, just like the flames pictured above would consume anything in their path.  We don’t think of a fire as being cruel for burning things; that is simply its nature.  God’s pure holiness and goodness is like this.  It simply destroys anything in His presence that is not pure and holy.

God’s Solution to the Problem of Sin

The Father, Son and Holy Spirit made an astounding decision in light of Adam and Eve’s choice to sin: “[Jesus] made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:7-8, NIV)

Josh McDowell explains, “Because He was not only finite man but also infinite God, He had the infinite capacity to take on himself the sins of the world.  When Jesus was executed on the cross more than two thousand years ago, God accepted his death as a substitute for ours.  The just and righteous nature of God was satisfied.  Justice was done; a penalty was paid. So at that point God’s love nature was set free from the constrictions of justice, and He could accept us again and offer us what we had lost in Eden—that original relationship in which we could experience his love and glory.” (p. 154)

McDowell sums up Romans 3:25-36 explaining, “When Jesus died on the cross, he died not only for us, but he also died to meet the holy and just requirements intrinsic in the basic nature of God.  The contamination was removed so we could stand clean in his presence.” (p. 155)

“When God looks at us, in spite of his tremendous love for us, he has to bring down the gavel and say death because He is a righteous and just God.  And yet, because he is also a loving God, he was willing to come down off his throne in the form of the man Jesus Christ and pay the price for us, which was his death on the cross.” (p. 156)

Why Did Blood Have to Be Shed?

Remember the idea of covenant I defined earlier? In the Old Testament, the two parties of a covenant would cut animals in half and walk between the divided carcasses. This was the symbol of stepping into a covenant relationship with one another. “When the parties of a covenant walked between the pieces of bloodied animal flesh, they were saying, in effect, ‘I will fulfill this covenant—and if I break it, may I be cut into bloody pieces like these dismembered animals.'” God made a covenant like this with Abraham in Genesis 15 when He promised to give him descendants and to bless the world through them. He did this “knowing full well that Abraham and all human beings were incapable of keeping the covenant.” (Tyler Scott, The Marriage Ref p. 34-35)

Later in the Old Testament Abraham’s ancestors were instructed by Moses to make animal sacrifices to God to atone for their sins. Author Florence Littauer explains, “There was no access to God without first making a sacrifice. Sin could only be forgiven by the substitution of an animal for the sinner himself—an innocent animal had to die in the place of the guilty man.” (Journey to Jesus, p. 210)

The final blood sacrifice for the atonement of sins was made in the New Testament with Jesus’ death on the cross: “God, through His Son, allowed himself to be torn to pieces—not because He broke the covenant, but because we did. He knew we couldn’t keep our end of the bargain, so he said, ‘I’ll do it for you.  I’ll pay the debt you can never repay.’ God fulfilled both the old covenant and the new covenant.”  (Tyler Scott, The Marriage Ref p. 34-35)

As graphic and awful as the description of blood covenants and sacrifices sounds, our sin is even more horrific to God. Yet, in His mercy, Jesus made it possible for us to be washed clean and made new. And this is good news, indeed. Click on the link and celebrate this tremendous truth with the song “My Victory” by Crowder.

 

References and suggestions for further reading:

  • Littauer, Florence, Journey to Jesus, Hensley Publishing, 2004
  • McDowell, Josh, More Than a Carpenter, Tyndale House 1977, 2005, 2009
  • Scott, Tyler, The Marriage Ref, Condeo Press, 2012

 

Faith Foundation #4: God Loves You

Sitting in the crowded front room of the houseboat, I listened intently as our camp director shared foundational truths with our young staff.  It was the spring of 1988 and I was at my first training weekend for a leadership position I’d hold later that summer.  Opening my Bible, I wrote the four key points our director shared inside the front cover. He emphasized that they were the most important and basic principles of our Christian faith and encouraged us to commit them to memory so we could share them with our campers.

Recently I returned from serving as a leader for our high school ministry’s annual summer camp. I found myself once again on a houseboat with that same Christian camp. I am almost 30 years older, but those same four truths were as relevant and fresh today as they were back when I first learned them.

They continue to stand as the foundation to our faith. Once we understand them and live like they’re true, we have a firm foundation that we can build on for the rest of our lives. Over the next few posts, I’ll highlight each truth as part of the Faith Foundations series I began earlier this summer. If this information is already familiar to you, use these posts to help you share with others that don’t know them.

Truth #1 God Loves You and has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NIV)

John 3:16 is so familiar to many of us that it begins to lose its impact. If that’s the case with you, stop for a minute and let the truth sink in deeper. God allowed His precious and perfect Son to suffer and die to save the world. He didn’t have to do it, He chose to. He knew it was the only way to make it possible for us to be in relationship with Him.  Some of us have heard this so many times that it no longer leaves us in awe of God’s grace and mercy. If that describes you, ask Him to reignite the joy and thankfulness in you that have grown cold.  And if you’re wondering why Jesus had to die for us then stay tuned–my next post will tackle that topic.

Sometimes it’s not easy to personalize this verse because it’s about the whole world. We forget that God sees each of us uniquely and individually.  Scripture tells us He knows the number of hairs on our heads and that He knew us as we were being formed in our mothers’ wombs. If you struggle to believe God loves you personally and intimately, try re-framing the verse in a more personal way: God loved me so much that he gave his only son so that if I believe in Him, I won’t die, but will have eternal life.

Because He loves us, God also has a wonderful plan for our lives. The gospel of John explains, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10, NIV) Living in a relationship with God is the only way to have the rich, full, abundant life we crave.  Many of us search for significance and fulfillment in other places, but the satisfaction never lasts. Only through a relationship with God can we find true meaning and significance that impacts us now and forever.

How would your life look if you lived every day like you knew you were loved deeply and passionately by the Creator of the universe? How would it impact the way you see yourself and interact with others? If you live like you believe it’s true, you will become a conduit for God to work in and through you. Why not commit this truth to memory so you can share it with someone else who needs to know it today?

For further inspiration, click on the link and enjoy Hawk Nelson’s song “Live Like You’re Loved.”