How to guard your heart

I want to talk about something close to my heart. It is the need to guard our hearts. “Guard your heart with all diligence for out of it proceed the issues of life” Proverbs 4:23.
 
What does it mean to guard our heart? Recently I felt like my heart was broken. My heart has been broken many times over in my life. How do I respond to a broken heart? I allow myself to grieve. It’s alright to feel the pain.
 
Sometimes our heart is broken because of injustice, or what we perceive to be injustice. Even injustices in the past that we did not personally experience. Or injustices in other countries. Or injustice that has happened to other people.
 
We are in a dangerous place when our heart is broken. The easy response is to become bitter. There are so many things we can become bitter about in the world.
 
In the Bible we read the story of how Cain became bitter towards his brother Abel. Cain’s heart was broken because the sacrifice he offered was not acceptable to God, while his brother Abel’s sacrifice was received by God. Pain can quickly turn to anger and this is what happened in this story.
 
When we become bitter, we instinctively want to cause pain or even destroy the people who caused the pain. Cain ended up killing his own brother.
 
God warned Cain when he noted that Cain’s “countenance was darkened.” He told Cain, “Sin is crouching at the door and it desires to have you.” Cain ended up yielding to this influence, despite the warning.
 
The Bible instructs us not to let a root of bitterness grow in our hearts. This can apply to any situation that disturbs us, past or present.
 
Guarding our hearts means we don’t allow our hearts to harden towards other people or people groups. We can separate the sin from the sinner. We can still pray for the tyrant leader, or the molester, or the hater.
 
Our pain does not have to cause us to become insensitive and uncaring like the ones who caused the pain. Neither does our pain need to cause us to turn bitter against God when we think he is unjust.
 
God’s response to those who question his justice is found in the book of Job, chapter 38, “Where were you when….” I love Job’s faithful response, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” Job 13:15. He was saying, God you can do whatever you choose to do in my life, I will still serve you. This is ultimate faith.
 
Cain’s real anger was towards God. And if we look deeply inside ourselves we will see we are no different.
 
Let’s guard our hearts from growing cold and loveless towards people and towards God. Instead, embrace a soft heart, a heart that can be broken and continue to love. I have found that this is actually the path to healing.
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He is Risen Indeed

I struggled to fully embrace Christianity. I saw the value in living by the Golden Rule, to love your neighbor as yourself. I appreciated the Ten Commandments as laws for a successful society. I even believed in God, the Creator. But could I accept Jesus as more than a man who did good?

In our pluralistic society there used to be an “everyone to his own” attitude back in the sixties and seventies. But that has changed to everyone conforming to a new set of values which essentially oppose some of the very basic tenets of the Christian faith. In other words, we are facing an anti-Christian mindset.

In view of this it is imperative to be convinced of one’s faith. We not only need to know what we believe, but why we believe, or we will be easily shaken.

Recently I have been challenged by those in Christian circles who are taking issue with several basic tenets of the Christian faith, including the atoning death of Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

This brings me back to the time when I chose Christianity above other faiths. Not only was I drawn to the character and life of Christ, I believed in his atoning death and resurrection.

One day during the time when I questioned Christianity it became apparent to me that the validity of the Christian faith rested entirely on whether Christ was indeed resurrected from the dead. I visited a Mosque once where I had a conversation with a Muslim who said, simply, that Jesus never died on the cross. When Jesus prayed for this cup of death to be removed, God answered his prayer.

On another occasion I sat with a Muslim man on a flight and was reading Psalm 32 in my Bible.

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.

We had an interesting conversation and he claimed, rightly, to know more about the Christian faith than I did about the Muslim faith. He told me that Muslims believe in the Old Testament. I still intend to do a deeper study on how the Muslim faith is informed by the Old Testament. What we know, however, is that Muslims are descendants of Abraham, as well as Jews, only through the line of Ishmael, not Isaac.

The Jewish and Muslim faith are closest to Christianity but both reject Christ as the Son of God or Savior. They are the two faiths I have been inclined toward, besides Christianity.

In my search I saw that I had to establish for myself, as satisfactorily as possible, whether or not Jesus died and was resurrected. I pondered the evidence over a period time and finally came to the conclusion that indeed, Christ died and was resurrected. No, his disciples did not steal the body out of the tomb and start a new religion. They went and hid, afraid for their own lives. And the Jewish leaders themselves asked Pilot to set a guard before the tomb to prevent theft, already anticipating this possibility. When the stone was rolled away and the grave was found empty, the soldiers were not punished with death. That was remarkable. The Jews, instead spread the rumor that the body of Christ was stollen.

Well, we could say the writers of the gospels made up this complex story. I don’t think the gospels would have gained much momentum if they were known to be a clear fabrication. What finally cemented my faith was the book of Acts. It was seeing how these timid followers of Christ turned their world upside down preaching the gospel of salvation through the atoning death and resurrection of Christ. They could not all have been willing to give their lives for a lie. No, they were completely convinced, and faced extreme opposition.

This opposition continues to this day. And that is another thing that adds credibility to Christianity. Major world governments consider Christianity to be a threat. The beliefs of Christianity are peace loving, living by the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments. The church, historically, has not always been effective in communicating the essence of the gospel and so we have seen unpardonable atrocities. Even today we see gross misrepresentations. In the words of J. I. Packer (Knowing God), “it is a long time since theology has been so weak and clumsy at its basic task of holding the church to the realities of the gospel.”

The notion that is gaining popularity today is the idea that God would not require atonement. That he would not sacrifice his son. This teaching also casts doubt on the entire Old Testament, reducing it to inspirational stories and myths. The reason behind this is the difficulty people have with reconciling the wrath of God with their view of a God of love. Of course, hell does not fit in either.

For decades now the church has emphasized the love of God in an effort to be seeker friendly and it has largely avoided reference to wrath, judgment and hell. Of course, if none of these are to be considered, then why do we need atonement? They don’t go so far as to say that we don’t need forgiveness, but God can forgive without requiring a human sacrifice, they claim. I happen to agree with them and this may be a surprise to some. I believe God can do as he pleases.

I think God can indeed forgive without a sacrifice. But I believe he chose to sacrifice his son and he had his reasons. For those who don’t believe this, you will have to do your own study, as I did.

The atonement causes the entire Bible to make sense. In fact, for me it causes life to make sense. My faith informs my life and gives it meaning. The atonement means there is justice.

The atonement means there is justice. There is judgement. There is just reward. And there is mercy and grace and forgiveness and newness of life. The old dies and the new is resurrected to life in Christ. Christian baptism is a symbol of this experience.

I don’t claim to fully understand how God became man in the form of his Son. Or how the Son of God could die. How he was able to descend to the depths to preach deliverance to the captives. How he was resurrected. But I know his forgiveness and his power in my life. I have his abiding peace and joy. I experience his indwelling presence. And today I declare, He Is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

 

 

When My Best Isn’t Good Enough

As a Christian I admit I have often struggled with what to do when I sense that my best isn’t good enough. Yesterday I made a few choices and later in the day I felt like they were the wrong ones. I had done my best but it wasn’t good enough. I had even prayed, however, in the end I thought I had let myself down and I had let God down.

I’ll tell you what it was. I put a purchase on a credit card with the intention of paying it off over a period of months. I did not have the cash at the moment to pay it. At the time I thought it was the right thing to do because I found just the item I had been looking for. But when I got home I suddenly second guessed myself. It was not like I committed some great sin, but maybe I got it wrong.

For Christians, Christ is set before us as a standard of perfection. In the Bible we are called to perfection, to holiness. How do we do this? Is this even possible? And if not, do we end up in a state of constant disappointment and even discouragement over our failure?

I have heard Christians get around this one by saying that God’s grace covers all of our sin–past, present and future. Does this mean, then, that I no longer need to concern myself with whether what I am doing is good enough?

In the Old Testament (the first section of the Bible before the record of the life of Jesus begins) we read that God’s chosen nation, the Israelites, were given the “law” by God to instruct them about right and wrong. In the New Testament Jesus said that basically all that was written in the Old Testament could be summed up as, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.”

While this may sound simple, Jesus also taught that no one is good, except God. He told his disciples that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone to enter the kingdom of God. His disciples asked him, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus’ response was, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” Mark 10:27.

Jesus set an example of how we should live. He set an example of true, sacrificial love when he died on the cross. And he came to do the thing that was not possible with man. He came to forgive sins. He actually demonstrated that he had the authority to forgive sins. When Jesus forgave a paralyzed man of his sins, religious leaders challenged his authority to do so, saying that only God can forgive sins. His response was, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” Jesus then healed the paralyzed man and demonstrated that he had the power both to heal and to forgive sins.

Before Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph, an angel appeared to Joseph to tell him that Mary, a virgin, would bear a son and he was to call him Jesus, because he would “save people from their sins.” The angel earlier told Mary that she would give birth to “the Son of God.” Jesus, the Son of God, came to save us from our sins. To forgive us.

It grieves me when I fail to live up to the standard Christ set for me. It seems as though Christians live in a constant state of depravity. Are we not “empowered from on high” by the Holy Spirit who indwells believers and is this not sufficient for us to no longer fail him? Apparently not.

Martin Luther, the great Reformer, struggled so intensely with the issue of sinfulness that he almost had a breakdown. Finally he received a transforming revelation: “The just shall live by faith.” This verse was penned by the apostle Paul in the New Testament and we also find it in the Old Testament, in the book of Habakkuk, chapter two verse four.

I looked up a few different translations of the verse and noted some interesting variations below:

“I, the Lord, refuse to accept anyone who is proud. Only those who live by faith are acceptable to me.”
Some people’s desires are truly audacious; they don’t do the right thing. But the righteous person will live honestly.
Behold, he that is unbelieving, his soul shall not be right in himself: but the just shall live in his faith.
This message cannot help those who refuse to listen to it, but those who are good will live because they believe it.
“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith. (Scriptures from Bible Gateway.)

The above verses reveal our tendency to be proud, unbelieving, and dishonest about our condition, rather than humble, faithful and obedient.

The gap between who I am and who I want to be, is a consequence of my humanity. I am not a ‘god.’ I cannot be god-like without help from God. Simply said, it is pretty much arrogant to think I can live rightly on my own. I need to be “instructed in the way of righteousness.”

I find it humbling to have to face my inadequacy every day. But I can draw a little bit of comfort from the above verses which seem to indicate that humility is a necessary posture, one from which I can move forward, by faith.

When I turn my face from my failure to God’s faithfulness and forgiveness I find my heart suddenly filled with hope and joy and gratitude. I feel like a child who is let out of “time out” and is free to run and play again. Until next time.

What is faith?

What is faith?

I think the best way for me to answer this question is to share my understanding, not simply to quote the Bible, or check a dictionary definition. This of course will not be the official or authorized meaning. In other words, I am not claiming to be an authority on faith, or expecting others to accept my view as complete, because I’m sure it isn’t.

I am speaking of faith in the context of the gospel. The gospel, in a nutshell, is the good news that Jesus Christ, God’s son, came to earth to save us by forgiving our sins. Briefly, faith involves believing and accepting this as life-changing fact.

The subject of faith can be very complex. For example, are there increments of faith? Jesus rebuked his disciples for their “little” faith. He also told his followers that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, then they could command a mountain to be removed and cast into the sea and it would be done.

When you have faith there is evidence. Although faith is invisible, it has an assuring quality. The Bible in the book of Hebrews says “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith enables us to do things we would not do without it. Scriptural faith is not faith in our own ability, but faith in God.

Faith is very similar to trust. When our son was only two years old he asked us for something and we told him he could have it after two sleeps. He did not ask for the thing again but waited patiently as if it were already his. This was not because he had some concept of possessing enough faith. It was simply because he believed us. He trusted our word. I would not expect another child who does not know us to place the same confidence in us.

The apostle Paul wrote that he counted everything as “dung,” compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ. To truly know Christ is to have complete, child-like confidence in him. I believe that faith grows out of an intimate understanding of Christ.

People place their confidence in many things, some trustworthy, some not. Seafarers have for centuries used Polaris, the North Star, as a navigation guide. A person who is unaware of its existence will never use it as a compass. Someone who doubts its value for navigation will be unlikely to consult it. The person who believes in its value for navigation will confidently make decisions based on its position.

The apostle Paul comprehended that once he would truly know Christ, his Creator and Saviour, everything in his life would come into alignment. All of his navigation would be accurate.

What do I truly believe about Christ? Am I convinced that I can rely on him? Do I trust him so completely that I align my life with his word?

How do we experience the presence of God today, without the Ark of the Covenant?

What is it like to experience the presence of God? Well, for Uzza it meant he was struck dead. Not very comforting. In fact, this does not fit well into our theology today.

Some people might dismiss it as an Old Testament story, but I wouldn’t be so quick to do that. After all, we have a New Testament parallel. Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for pretending they were giving all the money from the sale of their land when they were keeping back a portion (Acts 5).

There is an interesting verse in the book of Proverbs that says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The truth is that anyone who takes on the challenge to read the Old Testament will discover that the fear of the Lord was woven into the fabric of faith, so to speak.

Our popular concept of love is one that rules out fear in a relationship. In some ways it is right. There is a verse in the New Testament book of 1 John, that has been a comfort to me, which declares, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear, for fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.”

Another version of the Bible says, “fear has to do with punishment.” That is why it is not part of perfect love. My understanding of this would be that when we have been perfected by love, we will no longer be in fear of punishment.

So, what is the presence of God like? Is it a feeling? Is it a vision? How can we know God is present?

The experience will vary from person to person. Some do indeed experience a feeling. Others have a vision or may even hear God’s voice, as we read that Paul did, in the book of Acts. Feelings may include a sense of awe, a feeling of being loved, or being flooded with peace. There may also be less pleasant feelings of conviction of sin, and fear of punishment.

Feelings are not always reliable indicators of the presence of God. At times a Christian can be flooded with feelings of condemnation and worthlessness. These feelings are most often an indication of the oppression of the devil who seeks to rob, kill and destroy. God, on the other hand, offers hope and release from bondage. He wants to lift us out of this dark pit of despair. He may chastise us for a moment, like a father disciplines a child, but it is for the purpose of bringing us back into a closer relationship with him. Remember, God is love.

God is everywhere. There is no place where he is not. But at times he makes himself personal to us. This presence, I think, has more to do with our personal awareness. We can experience his presence when we read the Bible, or listen to a teaching about God. We can experience it when we pray or worship. The Bible says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Christians throughout the centuries have endeavored to practice the presence of God through various spiritual disciplines like fasting, silence, giving, ministering to people in need, and other means. Some Christians compare the feeling that God is distant to going through a wilderness experience, a time of testing similar to what Jesus experienced as he was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by the devil, at the beginning of his ministry. A sense of distance from God can be a test, or it may be the consequence of disobedience.

In the early chapters of the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible ,we read two stories about the presence of God. Adam and Eve heard the sound of God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day. I wonder how many pleasant evenings like this they had spent with God? But on this particular day they hid themselves from his presence because they had disobeyed him. Disobedience tends to move us away from God.

The other story is the brief account of Enoch in Genesis 5. Here it is: “When Enoch had lived sixty-five years he fathered Methusela. Enoch walked with God after he fathered Methusela for three hundred years and had other sons and daughters. Thus Enoch lived three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.”

This is truly one of my favorite stories of the Bible. Enoch did not die. God took him. After he walked with God for three hundred years on earth, God thought it was time to take him to be with him forever in paradise. Talk about extraordinary!

This illustrates the ultimate experience of the presence of God. One day God promises he will come back for all “who love his appearing,” in other words, who love his presence, and take us to be with him for eternity.