Tag Archives: perseverance

The Other Eleven

Some stories in the Bible are so familiar that it is easy just to skim over them and not really think that there is much else to learn. For me, one of those stories is when Peter walks on water. It is found in the Gospel of Matthew:

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. (Matthew 14:22-32)

 So picture this scene in your mind. The disciples are in a boat struggling with a storm that came up suddenly. Then, out of the crashing waves and foamy sea, a figure appears, coming towards them. Any reasonable person would do what the disciples did – panic! Clearly this is some sort of supernatural entity, a ghost, in other words. What else could it be? Real people do not just walk on water. So they scream, call Jesus a ghost and cower in fear.

Most sermons that I’ve heard on this passage focus on Peter. Peter gets out of the boat!  Peter walks on water. Peter starts to sink. Jesus rescues Peter. Peter, Peter, Peter, blah, blah, blah. Let me just say that I am NOT Peter. I am still in the boat with the other eleven watching Peter’s adventure. I can imagine the thoughts and feelings running through their minds. “I’m not going out there! Maybe I should have? Is Jesus going to be mad at me, disappointed with me for not stepping out? I should have recognized Him? How could I not have recognized Him? What kind of idiot am I? What kind of disciple am I? I’m a failure. I missed a chance to show Jesus my faith in Him.” On and on it goes believing they’d “missed it.”

And yet we do the same thing. We are so quick to beat ourselves up when we think we don’t have enough faith, or we aren’t “doing enough” for Jesus. We so easily disqualify ourselves and we throw up our hands and give up. Well here’s the rest of the story. After Peter and Jesus get into the boat, those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (Matt 14:33). The other eleven worshiped Him. They made Him the focus of their hearts and minds and did not wallow in self-pity. They recognized who He was and responded appropriately.

And let me remind you of one other thing. The other eleven in that boat were still sent out by Jesus to preach the Kingdom. The other eleven saw the resurrected Christ. The other eleven received the power of the Holy Spirit. The other eleven went out from Jerusalem and changed the world. They didn’t miss anything.

So, I want to encourage you today as you read this. If you are thinking that you’ve missed “God’s plan for your life.” (Play dramatic music here). If you think your faith isn’t strong enough or you’re too afraid or you can’t see how God could ever use you, remember that regardless of our weaknesses, our screw-ups, our lack of faith, Jesus is still the Son of God. That never changes. Just worship Him. He still loves you very much and hasn’t given up on you. You and the other eleven are in the same boat.

Mustard Seed Faith

I am not a great man of faith nor am I a man of great faith. I am simply a man of mustard-seed faith. And that apparently, according to Jesus, is enough. Read what He says to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew.

For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matt 17:20)

This is a truly remarkable statement! Jesus is saying that all those seemingly insurmountable situations in our lives – the health problems, difficult relationships, emotional turmoil, spiritual unrest – can be easily removed by the exercise of just a little bit of faith. It seems too good to be true doesn’t it? It can’t be that easy. It seems to me that we Christians have this belief that we have to somehow ratchet up our “faith” when we really, really, really want God to answer a prayer or intervene in our life. We think we need to show Him just how much we believe in Him before He acts on our behalf. I don’t think that’s true. In this passage, Jesus is telling us that it is not how “big” our faith is; instead we need to understand the authority that has been granted to us.

Again, in this passage He is talking to the disciples – to us. “YOU will say…”, “nothing will be impossible for YOU.” He isn’t saying “pray real hard.” He says to us, “Take action. Speak authoritatively.”

And yet there is still the mustard seed faith that we must have. What does that look like? For me, this is where the depth of our relationship with Christ comes in. Faith isn’t just a vague notion of wanting something to be true, but faith is focused on Him and our understanding, appreciation and experience of Him. Faith rests on a Person. That is why mustard seed- sized faith is enough, because He is so big.

As we grow deeper and closer in our relationship to Him, we get to know what He wants. We start to see how He acts. We start thinking like he thinks. We start seeing our lives and circumstances as He does. Then we can act as He would and speak to the “mountain” just as He would. Nothing will be impossible for us, because nothing is impossible for Him!

I think for too long the Church has been spiritually impoverished because we haven’t taken Jesus’ words here seriously. We’ve made faith a function of our effort, instead of a focus on His Work. So my encouragement to you is simply…STOP. Stop obsessing whether you have enough faith to face your obstacles. Stop focusing on yourself and whether you are worthy enough, holy enough, righteous enough to garner God’s attention. Instead focus your mustard seed faith on Him and speak to the mountains. They will move! They must move! And He will receive the praise.

It Is What It Is… or Is It?

No doubt you’ve heard the expression. It pops up everywhere. “It is what it is.” It sounds profound as if the person uttering the phrase is wise and thoughtful, speaking, as it were, of an ultimate reality. But as you think about this just a bit deeper, it seems to me that “it is what it is” has a dark side to it. “IT” can be any situation or circumstance we are currently facing; some difficulty that seems to have gotten the better of us. “IT” seems inescapable, inevitable and unavoidable. “IT” will win in the face of our puny efforts to get around it. So we just shake our heads and with a shrug of our shoulders and defeat in our voice make the pronouncement, “Oh well, it is what it is. I may as well accept my fate.”

My friends, I don’t believe that this fatalistic, defeatist attitude is compatible with our Christian confession. Imagine if you will the retelling of the story of Jesus approaching the city of Nain found in Luke chapter 7. As Jesus approaches the city he encounters a funeral procession carrying the body of a young man out to be buried, his widowed mother weeping behind the casket. Jesus looks upon this scene and his heart breaks. Then he suddenly shakes his head and says, “It is what it is” and walks on by into the city. The young man is still dead and the widow destitute. After all, what could he do about “IT.”

Satan whispers into our ears that it is futile to resist “IT.” Our own flesh screams to let “IT” take its course. Yet we must remember that we have a God who is not bound by “IT.” We have a God who does not see how things appear, but how He wants them to be. We have a God who created out of nothing and calls into beings things that are not. We have a God who has overcome the World, defeated Satan, set us free from the power of Sin and declared with ultimate authority, “That is how IT is!” And we have a God who invited us into His process of transforming and re-forming our world.

That young man lying in the casket in Nain was raised from the dead. The widowed mother received her son back. Life was now different! Jesus didn’t see death and defeat, he saw life and victory. This is what he speaks into all our lives – Life and Victory. So I urge you to throw off the fatalistic pessimism of “It is what it is” and take up the possibilites of the resurrection power of Christ. Things are not as they seem and we know the One who can change them (and us) as we run to Him.

The Evidence in the Cloud

The stories of Elijah the prophet are some of my favorite Old Testament stories. There is one in particular that has had a significant impact on me lately. While I won’t copy the entire section here (it spans several chapters), you can read it in 1 Kings 17-18. Here is the basic story line. God tells Elijah that there will be a drought in Israel and Elijah relays the message to the evil king Ahab. Three years later, God tells Elijah that the drought will soon be over and that he should tell King Ahab. Here is the key passage:

After many days the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth…” And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees.  And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’” And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. And the hand of the Lord was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel. (1 Kings 18:1, 41-46)

To me the story gets exciting because of what Elijah did after declaring the end of the drought. Elijah didn’t just passively sit back and accept God’s word. No! He actively went looking for God’s fulfillment of His word. You see, even though Elijah already knew what God was doing he still took action – He looked for it. He humbled himself, bowed down, prayed, worshiped and looked for God’s to act. Elijah was both patient and tenacious. As far as Elijah was concerned God said it, it must be true, therefore he will wait in expectation. That is key! It wasn’t wishful thinking or “claiming” the rain. It was simply a matter of taking God at His word.

Elijah knew that God acts at the perfect time and Elijah (or his servant) had to go look for the answer seven times before he got his answer. He didn’t go look once or pray once and then said, “Oh well, maybe I was wrong.’ He continued to look.   In Scripture, the number seven represents perfection or completion. The fact that Elijah had to wait seven times simply shows us that God acts, not on our schedule or timeline but at the RIGHT time.

So after seven times, Elijah’s his servant sees a small cloud on the horizon 10-15 mile away and he reports that to the prophet. That is all the evidence Elijah needs. God is faithful to His promises – the rain is coming – it’s time to RUN! Elijah did need a full blown storm, the evidence in the cloud was enough for him to know that God is trustworthy. His faith was in God’s character, not on what he sees with his eyes. Elijah only sees a cloud but he acts consistently with the evidence he sees of God moving to fulfill His promise. I wonder how many of us would have seen the small cloud and thought (or said) to ourselves, “That’s it, Lord! That’s all I get.” And walk away disappointed. Instead Elijah sees the cloud and rejoices.

Here’s what impressed me in this story. God reveals His heart and will to us. He declares His promises and His intent. We already know what He wants to do and is going to do. It’s all over the Scriptures. Yet we still need to act. We need to be looking and actively waiting, patient and tenacious, knowing that God will indeed fulfill His promises, knowing that He will act at the perfect time and that He is not letting us down when He doesn’t act according to our schedule.

I want to recognize the evidence of His movement; the “cloud the size of a man’s hand.” It may not look like a big thunderstorm. It may not be or start out as the next “great thing.” But whatever it looks like, you can be sure that God is behind it and it will grow to accomplish his will. So let’s be looking for the evidence in the cloud and when we see it rejoice and embrace it fully.

True Freedom

The United States just celebrated 238 years since that fateful day in 1776 when the colonies declared independence from what they considered an unreasonable and tyrannical British monarch. Since that time the principle of freedom – both individual and national – has been deeply ingrained into the American character. It is one of the highest values we hold and are willing to fight for. And yet while I am not making a political statement here, I think we deceive ourselves if we think that our government or any human institution can bestow or guarantee true freedom to individuals. Freedom – true freedom – can only come from a much higher and reliable source. Humans crave a freedom of soul and spirit than can only be granted by our great Savior. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)

As I read Scripture there are three main areas in which Christ sets us free and these three freedoms form the basis of a healthy, dynamic and joy-filled life. As Christians we are free from the power of sin, we are free from the power of the Law and we are free from the fear of death. Each one addresses a deeply seated need in our spirits.

As we read Romans chapter 6, we hear Paul tell us that we have been freed from the power of Sin. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. “ (Romans 6:6).   Sin is no longer our master. In Christ we are no longer beholden to Sin; we are no longer compelled to carry out those desires and practices of our natural self that are so destructive and demoralizing. We have been unchained from Sin’s power to dictate our life course. Now, to me, that doesn’t mean I can’t sin. It means we have the ability to say no to sin. This freedom allows us as Christians to choose to obey God, to live godly, righteous lives, to pursue purity. Without this freedom from the power of Sin a relationship with the Father would be impossible and loving Him would be unattainable. Freedom from the power of Sin addresses our deepest need to know and be known by God.

Second, Christ’s life, death and resurrection freed us from the power of the Law. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). By that I mean our attempt to earn God’s acceptance by the adherence to a list of rules and regulations. Living under the power of the Law means we have to be “perfect” or we need to try harder to be perfect. We can’t step out of line or we risk God’s displeasure and rejection. We have to try to make ourselves good enough to be loveable. It is both exhausting and impossible to keep up this kind of life. Fortunately we don’t have to. Read all of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. We are not made acceptable to God by our self-effort, but by placing our trust fully in Christ. Being freed from the power of the Law means we can rest in the completeness of his sacrifice, it means we can get off the treadmill of performance and breathe a sigh of relief.

Finally, Christ has set us free from the fear of death. “…through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14,15). Why does this matter? Because being free from the fear of death addresses our need to know that there is something “more” than just this life. Death is not the end for us who believe in the power of the resurrection. We do not cease to exist. We do not face an eternity of emptiness. We look forward to that day when we see him face-to-face and feel his embrace. This assurance enables us to face the difficulties of this life and the possibility of persecutions with another-worldly joy knowing that death has no grip on us.

When I consider all that Christ has won for me – freedom from the power of Sin, the power of the Law and the fear of Death – I can’t help but stand in awe, grateful and joyful. I am free to be all that God has made me to be. I am free to live! Now that is freedom worth celebrating with some fireworks.

The Allure of Deception

It was either 1978 or 1979, I was still in college in New Jersey and my girlfriend at the time, let’s call her Mary for convenience, was going to college in upstate New York. During one of her breaks she decided to come visit me, so we arranged to meet in Grand Central Station in New York City. She took the train down. I drove up to pick her up. Unfortunately, I arrived late and when I found her in the train station she was talking to a strange, young man. I was a bit alarmed.

I walked up and introduced myself. He introduced himself and we chatted briefly. (I was still trying to figure out what was going on). He was a pleasant young man and as he continued to talk I finally found out that he was a member of a cult. He had invited us both to his house for dinner and Mary was quite excited about the possibility. I was even more alarmed! “What do I do? What do I do?” I thought to myself. I thought quickly, then I did what every mature, Christian man would do – I called my mother. Oh yes I did! I told her what was happening and made sure I got an invitation to her house for dinner. With my rock solid plan in place, I went back to the cult member – who was still talking to Mary – and excused ourselves feigning disappointment but my mother was waiting for us. And we quickly left.

I simply could not believe that Mary was falling for his twisted deception. On the ride back to my mother’s house I had her read the following passage.

He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:13-20)

As she read these words, as she looked fully into the Truth, as saw Jesus and his majesty, I could see the cloud of deception lift from her. I could see her visibly change and brighten and breathe easier. The Truth did indeed set her free.

I tell you this story because we also, today, are under constant assault from the world and the devil to draw us away from what we know is true. Mary was a strong Christian woman, but the words of the deception were so charming, so alluring and the invitation so appealing that she was being drawn in. It seemed to make so much sense, she said. The lies the enemy throws at us are so well crafted and so sensible that we are easily captivated by their charm. We are not strong enough or clever enough in ourselves to see the deception coming to carry us away. We need help. The Word of God is a powerful weapon. It is the only weapon that can shatter the cords of deceit trying to strangle God’s life out of us.

We must continue to look into the Truth revealed in Scripture. We must rely on the Holy Spirit to teach us and guide us. We must pray constantly. We must continue to look fully into the face of Jesus.

The Old Self Costume

There are a lot of striking images in the Bible that are meant to help us visualize spiritual truths, images such as the Church as a bride, or a human body.  There is the image of Jesus’ followers as vine branches or pick one of Jesus’ parables for vivid pictures of the kingdom of God.  Providing these kinds of mental pictures sometimes makes a difficult, vague concept more real and concrete, something we can refer to for understanding and encouragement. 

There is imagery that Paul uses in his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians that stood out to me recently and made a powerful impact on how I think about myself and sin.  He speaks of “putting off the old self” and “putting on the new self.”  Here are those passages:

But that is not the way you learned Christ! – assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.  (Eph 4:20-24 ESV)

But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (Col 3:8-10 ESV)

What struck me immediately is the idea of the old self as a Halloween costume.  We dress up in some outrageous costume and take on the persona of that costume, whether it be superhero, movie character or horror creature.  We identify with the costume character while we wear it and at the end of the night when we take the costume off we go back to being the true us. 

The old self that Paul refers to is that sinful, pre-Christ person we used to be and yet, even as Christians, we “put on” that self and take on the characteristics of that old persona.  We start to act and think like that person we used to be – that old self.  We wear him like a costume.  And the longer we wear the old self costume the more we believe him to be our true self, the more we identify with him and the harder it is to break free of his grip.  That is why Paul’s words are so powerful.  “Put him off!  Take off that old person!  That is not who you are!  Cast him aside!  That belongs to your old life!”  I can simply imagine ripping off the Halloween mask, pulling the costume off over my head and dumping it into the trash.  Never again to be worn.  It’s possible because that old self is only an ugly, outer shell not the real me.  I am not condemned to wear that old self costume. 

Even more exciting is that I have a new identity, a new self.  So when I struggle with sin and I start to  think the battle is lost, I remember that it is only an old self costume that I can – I CAN – pull it off and reveal the true me, the new self.  This one looks like God.  This one is clean and holy.  This one fits me like a glove.  This one I will wear forever.