New Year – Old (Eternal) Promises

Needless to say, 2020 was a challenging year. Yet, despite it all, we take comfort knowing that neither Covid-19, nor scientists, nor politicians and government leaders are in control of things. Rather, it is our sovereign Triune God who works all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph 1:10), and who works all things–even the many distressing and turbulent things that we have seen over the past year–to the good of those who love Him and are the called according to His purpose, and central to that purpose is our conformity to the image of Christ. (Rom 8:28-29)

So, as we bid 2020 goodbye, let us ring in the new year holding fast to the old (i.e., eternal) promises that are held out to us in the gospel:

– The promise of redemption that God has fulfilled in the person of His eternal Son, Jesus Christ, who humbled Himself to come into this sin cursed world so that He might die the death of the cross to save sinners like us from all over the world by His grace alone, through faith alone, in, by and because of the finished work of Christ alone. (John 1:1-18; Matt 1:23; Phil 2:5-11; Eph 2:1-10; Rev 5:8-9)- The promise that our suffering now is nothing compared to the glory to be revealed at the promised return of King Jesus. (Rom 8:18)

– The promise that our Lord is the same, yesterday, today, and forever; He will NEVER leave us nor forsake us (Heb 13:5,8); and the promise that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:39)

– The promise that our Lord will return in glory to consummate His kingdom and destroy every rule, authority, and power that exalts itself over God, and finally death itself, and He will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body. (1 Cor 15:24-26; Phil 3:21).

– And the promise that as we await our Lord’s return, He is with us always–even to the end of the age–as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death in the wilderness of this world. (Psalm 23; Matt 28:20; 1 Pet 2:11). Therefore, as He tells us John 16:33 “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Happy New Year!

Celebrating Simply Being American

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Today we celebrate—well, many do—the birth of our great country. Independence Day. This year more than others I feel compelled to say something about that. 

I spent 21 years in the United States Air Force. I served with the greatest men and woman, Black, White, Brown and everything in between. There were so many places, so many faces, so many things seen: joy and sorrow. Side-splitting laughs and heartbreaking tears. Rejoicing and mourning. Dorm rooms and tents. Foxholes and bunkers. Deployments and leave time. Chem suits, parkas and bunny boots. Cammies and service dress. Combat boots and corfam/high gloss shoes. Standing at attention (and you better not move—just ignore that giant mosquito that’s about to take a chunk of flesh out of your face!), Parade Rest, and At Ease (whew! Praise the Lord!). Ribbons, medals, and reprimands (what the _____ were you thinking!). Rifles and guns. Bullets and bombs. C-130’s, bombers, and fighter jets. We were and always will be brothers and sisters in arms, from every walk of life, knit together by a common creed and a common cause: to defend the greatest, most exceptional nation, the United States of America, from all enemies foreign and domestic. 

No, our country is not perfect. Far from it. Yet, despite our many grievous past and even present sins, we continue to strive to make this a more perfect union. That in part is what makes us a great nation. Maybe you object to all of this. You’re free to do so. Maybe you refuse to call our country great. You’re free to do so. Maybe even deep inside you hate our country. You’re free to do so—and you’re more than free and welcome to leave it. Maybe like me you grieve over the various ways that we still betray our true American values. We are free to tell the world about it, and we’re free to peacefully march and protest to call our nation to live up to its true values. 

In America, you and I can do all of those of things. Do you know why? Because this is the land of the FREE and the home of the BRAVE, and it was the brave men and women down through the years, Black, White, Red, Brown, and Yellow that believed in our true American values so much that they gave their lives to secure them for us. Independence–the freedoms and opportunities we enjoy–are ALL BLOOD BOUGHT, paid in full by our fellow American brothers and sisters. Don’t ever forget that. When you see that flag, don’t ever forget that. When you protest, don’t ever forget that. Whether you celebrate, or not, don’t forget the treasure in blood that gave you and me the rights and privileges and opportunities to pursue our dreams that we enjoy as Americans. 

We are a proud people—a proud American family that is made up of every conceivable ethnicity and race, united by the eternal principle that we are all created equal with unalienable rights under God (NOT the government), such as the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Maybe on this one day we will decide not to focus on past or present sins, and how we fail to sometimes live up to our values. Instead, maybe we will take time to just be thankful for living in America–in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Maybe we will take the time to be thankful for being an American, and give thanks for the sacrifices that were made so that we and future generations could have the rights and privileges we enjoy. For me today, I am more thankful to God than ever to live in the greatest country on earth, and to simply be an American.

God Won’t Put More On Me Than I Can Bear?

When you feel OVERWHELMED, this is what you need the MOST - Jarkko Rantanen

Is it true that “all that we are asked to bear we can bear?” (Another way that folks put this is to say that “God won’t put more on us than we can bear?)

The person who sent me this quote about bearing all we can bear summed up its meaning when she said that all you need to do is “put on your big girl pants and suck it up, you can do it.”

The quote might sound like a profound spiritual principle, but it is really based more on worldly wisdom than divine truth, and as noted in my prior post, can result in pride on the one hand, and guilt and anxiety on the other.

In terms of pride, it focuses our attention away from God, and upon me and my self-sufficiency. If I’m resourceful enough and don’t fear, and put my big boy pants on, I can conquer any challenge. When I endure whatever difficulty, I can give thanks not to God, but to me for bearing what I was asked to bear. I was able to pull myself up by the bootstraps, not give into fear, and when I look back at the so-called “footprints in the sand,” the footprints are mine alone.

Lest you think people would never think that way, think again. Just the fact that we don’t think we’re susceptible to pride is an indication that we are already infected with it. One clear indicator of the pride that is in our hearts is the words “I would never…” That is just a form of self-exaltation that glories in our mistaken notion of our own inherent goodness and power.

I’m reminded of a humorous example from the sports world of this mindset of pride and self-sufficiency. In 2005, the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Minnesota Vikings in a playoff game, where wide receiver Freddy Mitchell had a team high 5 catches. After the game, Mitchell surprised everyone when he said, “I just want to thank…my hands for being so great!” Instead of thanking the One who gave him the hands to make the catch, he thanks the hands themselves. In our case, instead of thanking the One who enables us to bear whatever comes into our lives, we thank ourselves for having the moxie and intestinal fortitude to “bear what we are asked to bear.”

Another of version of bearing what I’m asked to bear is the popular saying “God helps those who help themselves.” This at least brings God into the equation, but, it only gives the appearance of doing so. It’s really just another empty spiritual law based on worldly wisdom that is focused on man and his resourcefulness and self-sufficiency. While it invokes God, the emphasis is again upon me: help yourself!

And notice, if I do help myself, what help is then needed from God? None. God is rendered totally irrelevant, and I again can boast in the almighty power of me and the deep wells of wisdom and resourcefulness that evidently flow from within me. I did so good I might actually write my own “self-help” book to share my nuggets of wisdom on how you too can help yourself—who needs God when we are evidently all-powerful and all-wise in our own right?

So, what happens when you can’t bear what you are asked to bear? That’s where guilt and anxiety come in. We feel like we don’t measure up, and since the only resource that I have to bear what I’m asked to bear is me, all I’m left with is anxiety and no way to deal with the anxiety. This can spiral us into a pit of anger, bitterness, despair, depression, and hopelessness. We just give up and resign ourselves to misery.

So, what does Scripture say? Is it true that we must bear what we are asked to bear, or, that God won’t put more on us than we can bear, or that God helps those who help themselves?

2 Corinthians 1:8-9 provides a clear answer. The apostle Paul says, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”

Contrary to God not putting more on us than we can bear, we discover that God certainly will do just that as Paul speaks of how they were burdened beyond their strength.  They could not bear all that they had to bear, and it wasn’t because of fear, but because they had been stretched beyond the breaking point by the affliction that they were subjected to.

And contrary to the idea that God helps those who help themselves, the things they endured were designed by the Lord to teach them (us) to rely on God and not ourselves. So, the reality is that God helps those who realize that they can’t help themselves. Or, to put it negatively, God doesn’t help those who walk in their own pride.

We notice another important truth: all that they endured came to them by the providential hand of a holy, loving, and sovereign God who “works all things according to the counsel of His will.” (Eph 1:11). Many people wonder why God allows such things as suffering in our lives. Why are there such things as Coronaviruses? Many answers can be offered, but the bottom line is that God does have a good purpose for everything that He in His sovereignty ordains to come into our lives, and at the heart of that good purpose is our conformity to Jesus. (Rom 8:28-29)

It is in the cauldron of suffering, adversity, and affliction that we learn to live our lives by faith. It is through the fires of adversity that the Lord forges our faith. What comes forth is the gold of deeper communion with God as we renounce our idol of self-sufficiency, and rely on the Lord who, Paul says, raises the dead. God demonstrated His power and His love in the cross of Christ and raised Him from the grave, and those who by God’s grace alone trust in Christ alone for their salvation must cease clinging to their self-reliance and resourcefulness, and cling tightly to Christ alone. It is then that we can endure any trial, because it is the resurrected and living Christ who is now at work to enable us by His Spirit to endure to the end.

So, how do we rely on God and not ourselves? We looked in the previous post at the means of grace that God has given us: His Word, prayer, and the church. When we turn to God’s Word, we discover that God is God, and we are not, and this Word is at work to lay bare and heal us of the sinful pride of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12-13; Romans 12:1-2). In prayer, we confess and repent of our sin of self-reliance, and then cast our burdens upon the Lord and ask Him to help us. And with the church, we discover the rich reservoir of a loving community of brothers and sisters in the Lord who are commanded to “bear one another’s burdens.” (Galatians 6:2)

Related to that point, so many people struggle and suffer in silence, refusing to tell anyone about what’s going on in their lives. This could be due to shame, embarrassment, or not wanting to impose on others. The root of it though is pride. We simply refuse to humble ourselves and say, “I can’t do this…I need help!” We need Christ, and He is found in His Word, prayer, and His Church. And He gives us trials in part as a means for His Spirit to reorient our thinking from self-reliance to Christ-reliance.

So, as we bring this to a close, the so-called spiritual law that says you can bear all that you are asked to bear (and the only hindrance to that is fear), is false. Our hope is not found in ourselves, but in the One who raised Christ to deliver us from the penalty and power of sin, and who one day will return and deliver us from this body of death.  And God is at work in us now, as a loving Father, to wean us off of ourselves, to teach us to cast our burdens upon Him, and to rely upon Him alone to bring us through the fiery trials that He works together for the good of our conformity to Christ.

The Spiritual Life and Bearing What We are Able

What It Means To Be Soul Weary & How To Bounce Back

Someone forwarded me a quote from the novelist Elizabeth Goudge, where she said “All we are asked to bear we can bear. That is a law of the spiritual life. The only hindrance to the working of this law, as of all benign laws, is fear.”

While the quote sounds profound, it really conveys a faulty view of what the spiritual life is, and could actually produce within us a great deal of negative things such as pride on the one hand, and guilt and anxiety on the other.

To unpack that, I want to look at three questions: First, is there a law of spiritual life, and what is it? Second, is it true that we can bear all we are asked to? Third, is fear the only hindrance to bearing what we’re asked to?

This post will deal with the first question: Is there a law of spiritual life? (The next post will deal with the second and third questions listed above).

From a Christian perspective, we believe that God is the objective source that moves us beyond mere opinion and tells us what the spiritual life is and what governs it. There are three ways that God has revealed Himself that have a bearing on discovering and knowing what the spiritual life is:

1. God has revealed Himself in creation. Romans 1:20 says that God’s eternal power and nature are clearly seen by what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

Whether we look at the stars, planets, sun and moon; or the oceans, rivers, mountains, and fertile fields; or the rich diversity of life forms on earth, from microscopic organisms, to birds, lions, and gazelles, to whales, fish and tadpoles, and to human beings; and then consider the fine tuning of the universe that ensures that life on this little blue speck of dust called earth could thrive, it all with one resounding symphonic voice declares that God is. No one will be able to say, “I didn’t have enough evidence.” It is literally all around us, and even within us since we are created in His image.

2. God has revealed Himself within our conscience because we are created in God’s image (Rom 2:14-15). This means, among other things, that we have an innate sense of God, we know right from wrong, and we have a longing to discover ultimate reality, and meaning and purpose in our lives. The image of God sets human beings apart as unique among all the creatures on earth.

These two things alone show that it is impossible for God not to exist. Because God exists, everything exists. If God didn’t exist, nothing would exist. This applies to the physical realities that we see, and things such as love, reason, thought, wisdom, laws of logic and nature, etc. The absolute proof that God exists is that anything at all exists—we can’t account for one thing apart from the existence of the Triune God.

God’s existence is self-evident, and every person knows it. The problem, according to Romans 1:18, is that we suppress—we willfully hold down and ignore—the self-evident truth that is revealed in creation and our own conscience about who God is because we want to think and live the way we want to. We want to be in control; to be our own god.

We do this in many ways, from making up false gods and religions, to rejecting all forms of religion and just living a secular life. The reality, though, is that we are all worshiping something. We are all committed to something that is the supreme affection of our hearts and that we are building our lives around. Whatever occupies the most cherished place in my heart is the object(s) of my worship—it is my functional god(s).

How does this relate to the spiritual life? Because we are created in God’s image, we are created body and soul (spirit) to glorify and enjoy Him forever. Thus, the essence of the spiritual life is to be united to the Triune God in a relationship of love. It isn’t a question of ifwe will worship, rather, it’s a question of what we will worship: what will we glorify and enjoy and delight in more than anything else and order our lives around? Worship is such of the essence of who we are as human beings that we might revise Descartes “I think, therefore I am” to say, “I am, therefore I worship.”

For those who claim to not believe in God, the truth is that they know that God exists, and they too worship something: the functional god(s) could be one’s intellect, material possessions, power, family, etc.

Many others affirm that there is a spiritual component to man that we must tap into. But, they stop there and create their own ideas and rules about the spiritual life. This takes many forms, from false religions where we make a god(s) that makes sense to us, to new age spiritualism where man is in some sense divine and all paths lead to God (or some impersonal spirit), to people just saying they are spiritual but not religious, i.e., they do their own thing.

Though they are all very different, the common theme for all of them is human pride: “I’ll think and live the way I want to, and make up my own rules, my own religion, and my own definition of the spiritual life.”

3. This takes us to the third way that God has revealed Himself, namely, His Word. To discover the truth about spiritual life, we must discover and submit our thinking to God’s Word, which Christians believe is found only in the collection of 66 books known as the bible, which is the very word of God that He breathed out through human authors (2 Tim 3:16).

While the revelation of God that we find in nature and our conscience enables us to form general observations about Him, Scripture is God’s special and unique revelation that gives the essential details about who God is, who we are, and what He requires of us to be in a relationship with Him. At the heart of that revelation is Jesus, who is the fullest manifestation of who God is. So, to understand what spiritual life is, we must accept and submit to God’s Word, for it alone is the ultimate authority in our lives.

With regard to the spiritual life, God’s Word tells us that because of sin, we are spiritually dead (Eph 2:1). This means that we are cut off from relationship with Him with no way in and of ourselves to restore that relationship. Jesus, who is God in the flesh, came to live the perfect life we never could, and then died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, and rose bodily from the dead. The true spiritual life begins the moment that we, by God’s grace alone, trust in Jesus alone for our right standing before God.

When that happens, we are adopted as His sons and daughters and we receive the gift of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, who works within us to make us lifelong disciples (learners and followers) of Jesus. The true spiritual life, then, is centered on discovering more of who Jesus is, falling more in love with Him, and living our lives for Him and through Him by His Spirit, who works in us to will and to do God’s good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13)

In sum, the spiritual life is about being conformed to the image of Jesus by doing what pleases God in our thoughts, words, and actions. It is endeavoring by God’s Spirit and grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to love God with our whole being, and to love others as we love ourselves.

The primary tool that the Holy Spirit uses to enable us to live the spiritual life is what is referred to as the means of grace (spiritual empowerment): God’s Word, prayer, and the church:

* God’s Word: God uses His Word to renew our minds so that our way of thinking (and living) becomes conformed to what pleases God.

* Prayer:  In prayer we enter into a personal communion with God where we praise Him for who He is and what He has done for us, confess our sins, give thanks, and ask Him for things on behalf of others and ourselves.

* Church: Here we are connected in intimate community with other believers, where together we pray, sing praises to God, hear God’s Word preached and taught, partake in the sacraments, engage in fellowship as we encourage and edify each other in the faith, and serve one another in love.

All of this prepares and propels us outward to sacrificially love other people in our words and deeds. At the heart of this love is a desire to see others be reconciled to God through faith in Christ. Hence, Christians are called ambassadors of Christ, and ministers of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:18-21)

So, the essence of the spiritual life is being united to the Triune God in an intimate relationship of love. This union, and thus spiritual life, is brought about, sustained, and will brought to completion in our lives by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in and by Christ alone, all to God’s glory alone.

The law that governs the spiritual life is found in Scripture alone, which is the sole infallible rule and guide for all of life. Any view of the spiritual life that is not centered upon and contradicts this final form of God’s revelation to us is false.

Our task, then, is to submit our thinking and live in conformity to Scripture, resting and relying upon Christ for the ability to do so. This has direct bearing to the next questions we will answer in our next post: is it true that all that we are asked to bear we can bear? And, is fear the only hindrance to bearing what we are asked to be?