Thursday, July 30, 2015

Cutting Through The Opposition

I have what is called a type ‘A’ personality. As a young man I would eat my food within 60 seconds, whatever it was. What was the point of slowing down? I had things to do! Two things characterized my life. One was time management with an accompanying impatience with not being able to “manage” it enough, and the other was a free floating hostility. I didn’t want to waste time with things I considered trivial. I was driven and impatient. I routinely upset people and often hurt my wife. I ran over people like a steam roller! I don’t say this to brag, though I would have possibly bragged in the past. I say this as a way of telling you how God has worked in my life to change me.

Over the years God has gradually changed my behavior. These changes have come mostly through what I’ve learned in the difficulties and struggles of my life. Some hard fought battles in my life have helped me to have the ability to better control my personality and I would even say have changed my personality.

I believe God truly gave me a gift through the crucible of my failures, struggles, disappointments and difficulties. For those of you who know my abuse history let me explain this part. Much of what was done to me in the form of physical and mental abuse was just evil. And God truly hates evil. So while God never sanctioned someone else’s evil as being a change agent in my life, I have learned so much from God as I have struggled through my life. And it was God who truly helped me change as I went through a very long healing process.

I am talking about the kind of struggles and difficulties that hit hard and kept hitting and kicking and striking me in my heart and my body, and they keep hitting and kicking me over and over in ways that seem to never stop. For those of you who have been abused, you know how it feels to let go and move past the horrible aftermath of abuse. And if you’re like me, you can understand how often I pleaded with the Lord to change certain circumstances and situations in my life and His answer has continued to be a clear ‘No’.

But I hope to explain how I understand this “no” from God. I see that He has allowed me to live out my life day by day having to lean on Him instead of having the instantaneous resolution to my problems that I wanted. God instead allowed me to go through the difficult journey of healing that most of us from long-term abuse have to go through.

I have read the Apostle Paul repeatedly in my lifetime and he is one of my heroes. Both a powerful teacher and preacher and yet very tender hearted toward those who were going through difficult circumstances. Paul had something he repeatedly asked God to take away from him in the form of some difficult circumstance. Like Paul, God’s answer to my pleading for deliverance has been: “My grace is sufficient for you. For my strength is made perfect in weakness!” In Paul’s case and in my case, we learned amazing things about God in having been left to actually live through our difficult circumstances. I believe we both became much better men for it. And we had to learn to rely on God all the time to get through.

This is how I understand God’s grace: Grace is the hand of God working in my heart and life circumstances so that I have His strength to endure tough things with patient joyfulness. And let’s be real, on some days just to endure! I believe God will give me, in whatever my circumstances, the strength I need to allow His grace to work in my life. And this is a gift in my life. Grace is a big concept and it has worked out in my life in a whole lot of ways. Sometimes it’s come in my ability to keep breathing and take the next step. Sometimes it has been in my ability to accept help from another human being when my perpetrator told me seeking help was a weakness. Sometimes that grace has come in seeing a baby smile or a flower grow in the desert and realize that there are little joys that come with each day.

And whenever this gift of grace comes in my life I have gradually learned to accept it and submit to whatever circumstance is in front of me and accept the beautiful good He can bring from that circumstance. Part of what I’ve learned is that God keeps being faithful and getting me through tough times so I’ve learned to be less fearful when a new one comes along. I’ve come to understand God can give me the power to deal with the circumstance and the grace to move through it, and that the grace is truly from His hand. And it’s definitely not just me “gutting it through.”

I often will keep pleading and seeking a different answer from God as escape from the pain of a difficult situation. I don’t think God minds in the least that I do this! But in the mean time I accept and submit to the circumstances at hand. Instead of complaining and being filled with anger. I tell the Lord while I wait for Him I need His grace so I can keep perspective. Often I think of that verse that says “We don’t have the right to claim that we have done anything on our own. God gives us what it takes to do all that we do.” So routinely as I am going through experiences I am thanking God for His help in real time. He really is giving me what I need to take each step. I have seen this through experience. I am not just saying this because it sounds good!

Does this mean that God’s grace will always stop the trial or difficulty? No, that’s not the promise. The promise is: “My grace is sufficient because my strength is made perfect in your weakness.” Notice the weakness often remains. God will give us the strength to endure the trial and let it work its perfect work.

James, a Bible author, says: “My brothers and sisters, when you have many kinds of troubles, you should be full of joy.” Now that can only happen when you receive the grace of God in to your situation. James goes on to say: “because you know that these troubles test your faith, and this will give you patience. Let your patience show itself perfectly in what you do. Then you will be perfect and complete and will have everything you need.” The strength of Christ is made real in my life in the midst of my weaknesses. Oh how this flies in the face of the world’s system of thinking! The world sees weakness not as a sign of victory but a sign of failure. But in the kingdom of God, being weak physically gives God an opportunity to really advance His purposes in our lives. Or it could be weak emotionally, or weak in any way that causes us to have to rely on someone outside our circumstances, and especially on God. That is a hard statement! It means you have to humble yourself and let God orchestrate what you cannot.

James also says: “Blessed is the man who endures temptation for when he has been approved he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” This crown of life is given at the end of life on earth when we see Him face to face.

Paul says: “Therefore most gladly I will boast in my weaknesses . . .” Paul made the decision, by faith, to embrace His weaknesses. Does this mean it is a lack of faith? No! His faith was strong in the Lord. But he said: ‘alright, if you are not going to take this away, Lord, then I want to learn everything about you in the midst of this. I want to learn every facet of who You are. I want to know what this strength is all about. What this power of Christ resting upon me is all about.’ Paul made a decision! “Most gladly therefore I will boast in my weaknesses.” Paul was willing to do the difficult work to bring about the best end.

So what are your weaknesses today? What things are going on right now in your life that you see as weaknesses? Are they physical weaknesses? Do you have disabilities or deformities? Do you have a debilitating disease or sickness that is not being healed? Are your weaknesses emotional? Do you suffer from bouts of depression or tend to always see the world in a negative mindset? Are you regularly seeing yourself through the verbal abuse you grew up with, battling it all the time? Or maybe your weaknesses are relational. It seems that no matter who you strike up a friendship with no one will allow you to get close with them. Or vice versa. Or perhaps you have experienced an unbearable loss which could never be compensated for in this life and the pain is never ending! No matter in what way God chooses to answer your prayers in these matters, one thing is certain. His grace is sufficient for you. It really is.

Paul says “this thorn in the flesh (this difficulty) was given to me as a gift. Most gladly then; I take pleasure in…” Something clicked in Paul where he saw that this power of Christ resting upon him was worth the sufferings . . . it was a decision on his part to make that statement. This is one of the hardest decisions to make! The Bible says once we belong to Christ that we are put to death on the cross with Christ, and I do not live anymore—it is Christ who lives in me. I still live in my body, but I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself to save me.” Some folks called it the “crucified” life because our old sin nature is put on the cross. What this means is our sin nature is going to end up on the cross a little bit every day . . . with our permission. And our help! But with the Lord right in the middle of that with His grace. It is not anymore that my life will be for ‘my benefit, my good feelings but it is whatever you want Lord. I ask God’s help to allow me to submit to His work in my life because the glory at the end is worth the temporary suffering. The strongest step of faith for me is to surrender and submit to the Lord in this way.

Paul mentions five areas of hardship that were going on in his life in his description of his suffering. And eventually Paul got to the point in his life where he embraced these five areas. But he did this all for Christ and not because of a lack of wisdom or a lack of tact on his part. Let’s look at the five areas.

Weaknesses for Christ’s sake! Physical afflictions that we have no control over. They include sicknesses, diseases, deformities . . . any weakness in our bodies. Paul said he was going to ask God for His strength and His grace in his infirmities.

Disgrace for Christ’s sake! This could include slander of character, malice on the part of others misrepresenting our motives, rejection by those you love.

Needs for Christ’s sake! These needs come as a result of choosing to live a godly life in Christ Jesus. It may include being written out of the will because you became a believer in Christ. It may have to do with the hardship or real lack in your life that comes in the midst of obeying what God has set before you to do. There are times because of the economy or some other reason you lose your job. And all of a sudden you are faced with desperate need and your family’s needs are at stake and there is this tremendous pressure on you. Wait a second. God said “My grace is sufficient for you.” Hold the line. Look to God. Is God really in charge of your future or is it just people? If God is in charge of your future and you have lost your job, God will help you find a way. He is not surprised by this circumstance in your life. He is not puzzled. He knows what to do. So you have to trust Him and say ‘okay God give me your grace to patiently and joyfully endure and keep my focus on you.’

Persecutions for Christ’s sake! Sometimes this happens! The Bible says “All who live a godly life in Christ Jesus WILL suffer persecution. When you make a decision to really obey the word of God, even when it is difficult, you are going to end up being persecuted eventually by someone because you are going to end up eventually having to take a stand that is going to be unpopular. It could mean the loss of a relationship. It could mean trouble, physical persecution, physical attack and harm. Something may be done to you which causes you complete upheaval in your life.

Distresses for Christ’s sake! This has to do with the dangers and pressures that come against you while you seek to do what is right in God’s sight according to His word. You stand up and blow the whistle and say ‘wait a minute that’s not right, you can’t be doing that, that’s illegal.’ And someone says ‘you keep quiet or you lose your job.’ That’s a press. That’s a stress. What do you do? “My grace is sufficient for you, do not fear.” Walk in love and do what is right.

Paul says: “I take pleasure in weaknesses, disgrace, needs, persecutions and distresses because I get to watch what God is going to do.” Isn’t that what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount? To rejoice, jump for joy, spin around in joy when you are persecuted for His name’s sake for so were the prophets persecuted before you. Blessed are you when men persecute you, say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. We have to learn that God’s grace is sufficient. We have to stop complaining and say: ‘okay God I’m going to take a different strategy because I want the real deal. I don’t want to play church. I want the real deal! If you say your grace is sufficient then you are going to have to show me what that means. And I’m asking you. I’m coming to your throne of grace to find mercy and grace in time of need. So Lord, show me what that is!’

What does it look like when the strength of Christ is working in us? We find that no matter what the matter is it does not take out our hope. We are confident of His hand being with us, His presence never leaving us, and His ability to take care of our future. And this becomes a witness to the world of God’s glory. Not because we have no problems but precisely because we do. And we walk through them in a unique way because God is stepping through each day with us.

This reminds me of what Paul spoke about when writing to the Philippians. "I want you brothers and sisters to know that what has happened to me has helped to spread the Good News." Philippians 1:12

The word "spread" is an interesting word used here. The Greek word used for spread is "Prokope. "Pro” means forward and “Kopto” means to cut. It could mean something like a pioneer cutting his way through thick brush. We might picture in our military, the Seabees plowing through the obstacles to make way for an outpost or runway for planes. You might say cutting through the opposition.

Here we have Paul with his liberty gone, chained to a guard continually. In a way you could say he was fenced in. He was limited and handicapped. Paul's circumstances were not at all desirable.

But he says that these circumstances have actually turned out to be cutting through the opposition.

The Good News about God coming to save mankind was being proclaimed through the Praetorian Guard and right into Caesar's court. You might say Paul’s pulpit was right in Caesar's palace. I have a friend who visits women in jail and she never knows what to expect when she shows up on any particular night. But looking back, no matter what happens, she can see the good that comes from the out of control circumstances that run counter to what she had planned. The difficulty or confusion cuts through the opposition in the spiritual realm and gets her to the person who was in need that particular night!

There could be circumstances in our lives that hedge us in and handicap us . . . test us and tempt us. Hope that is not realized. Illness or other difficult circumstances that hamper us. People in authority throwing us way off schedule and off kilter taking control of details we thought we had under control. Just maybe these circumstances that tend to fence us in are really opportunities for cutting through the opposition. Maybe we are pioneers in a new wilderness God has seen the need to place us in. These limitations placed on us could be when our best work for the Lord is performed because we are more dependent on Him.

As Paul proclaimed in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 "And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in disgrace, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

For when I am weak, then I am strong. Now that just doesn't make sense in the world we live in does it? Well it's not supposed to make sense to the world around us. Only the ones born of God and realizing their circumstances are "cutting through the opposition" can identify with that kind of attitude.

Lord, help us all to realize that your grace is sufficient in all our circumstances; that you will never leave us or forsake us; that you are our strength. Help us to remember and trust in your promises. We will break through the opposition and reveal your glory in our lives that others may see and believe.

Mark Phelps

Friday, July 10, 2015

This World Is Not Our Home

Why should we be discouraged?

What is our expectation as Christians living on this earth?

Do we expect smooth sailing? There is honestly no way we could get that idea from reading the Bible!

Do we want our government to always support our faith in their laws and judicial decisions?

Is our purpose to change our culture and its values or is our purpose to seek and save the lost, and build up the body of Christ with the gifts we have been given?

How are we to live?

Perhaps you are discouraged because our culture is becoming less and less like God wants it to be and you feel our country is less and less comfortable to live in. I understand this. But in light of our purpose here on earth, how are we to live?

“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself."

Our hope is not here in this life, but we are going to be here for a while until this body, this church is complete. And we are scattered all over this earth in every nation and under all forms of political systems. And God gives us instruction through Paul in (1Timothy 2:1-3) on how we are to conduct ourselves here in this life now while living in anticipation of His coming back for us and our being with Him.

"Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior…” 1Timothy 2:1-3

Remember at the time Paul wrote this that Nero, one of the harshest, most evil rulers that ever lived was ruling the Roman Empire and Paul would soon face him and would be eventually beheaded. We are to pray for our leaders that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.

Paul goes on in (1Timothy 2:4) to say "who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1Timothy 2:4

God desires that all be saved and who knows which leader might just come to that saving knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ because of our prayers. Some won't come to that knowledge and will be cruel toward Christians and many members of the church will suffer. But God has purposes and plans for His world in spite of persecution and He will continue to build His church. And when it is complete our Savior will come for it. We are to remember what our purpose is in this life now and where our true citizenship is and where our true hope lies. And keep reminding ourselves any time our courage starts to wane.

Let's just remember from our view point when everything looks like it is coming apart, it could be just coming together. It doesn't matter where we are living in this world or under what circumstances, God is intimately connected with us in this and His love is ever present through what we are going through. This Church, His Body belongs to Him. And we who are made in His image have been given the very big task of taking on the things God cares about. Injustice, human trafficking, caring for orphaned children and desperate widows, to meet with those in prison, and to feed the hungry.

These big jobs are not ones we delegate back to God. We ask for God’s help, but we are the laborers in the fields. And one day, a day only the Father knows, the Lord will bring us together as one and raise us up to meet Him in the air. We mustn't allow this hope of heaven to get bogged down in the problems of this world system. We are living in the world but we are not OF the world. Our anticipation of one day getting to be with the Lord on the New Earth with Him should be at the forefront of our thinking continually. Encouraging us!

I don’t want you to be frightened or discouraged. God’s purpose has not changed. And we are not surprised if those who do not know God do what they want to do and don’t acknowledge God and His will. We would be doing the same were it not for God. Let's remember "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind." 2 Timothy 1:7

So instead of focusing on painful changes in our culture, and being frightened by changes lets focus on finding those who are lost and need a Savior. And let’s encourage one another in our daily lives and pray for our leaders so we perhaps can still have some peace in our lives.

It is not outside the realm of possibility to expect far worse as we follow Christ. We know we must enter heaven through much tribulation. So far we have not resisted sin to the point where we are bleeding as Christ bled. Paul provides a more realistic expectation when he writes: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”

Most of us have not had to endure hardship to this degree, yet, in our country. Let us persevere and not faint in well doing. Let’s find those who need a Savior and encourage one another today while today is still today.

Even so come Lord Jesus! But in the meantime, Lord, find us faithful doing your work. With a will and a certain hope that you are coming!

Mark Phelps

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Speaking Words Of Life

We live in an amazing country. And the freedoms and benefits of living here are enormous. We live in a country that has a healthy food supply. We are not actively at war in this nation. We have medical care for many of our citizens and a free public education system for both genders. We have 50 states but there is freedom of travel among those states without passports. We attempt to support freedom of religion or no religion and if you post something negative about the government on social media you live with the expectation that your post will still be there in the morning. These are just a few of the privileges of living in a free society.

You and I are living in one of the freest societies that have ever existed. But if you look at some of the indexes for civil and political freedoms for 2015 you can see quickly that freedoms have been dropping for 9 consecutive years for many countries in the world.

In the U.S. our “great experiment in democracy” has not been without ups and downs to be sure. And the expectation of freedom remains strong for most of us in this country. But is it possible to misunderstand our amazing liberties and the effect they have had on us? Do we have this sense that they “belong” to us forever? Have we read enough history to know better? Do we sometimes find ourselves getting angry when something we hold dear in this society gets encroached upon by others in society who look at life differently than we do?

I think it’s almost impossible not to get a sense of entitlement about American freedoms. It is one thing to feel incredibly blessed by living in a free society but it is another thing to believe you are forever entitled to those benefits.

I have noticed something troubling in the last few years in our culture as social media has allowed us to speak quickly and sometimes vehemently about our political and cultural views. What I’ve noticed is we are getting grumpy and sometimes we are getting just plain mean.

Jesus gave us some specific commands in the Bible about how to live. He said “I’m giving you a new commandment. Love each other in the same way I have loved you.” Christ said a lot to his followers when He was here but He continually repeated His command to love each other the way He did . . . personally and unconditionally. The Bible has many positive commands of what we are to do. Love. Give. Be with people who are suffering. Make sacrifices in your giving. Keep loving and don’t stop.

But do you know there are things we are also told we are NOT to do? One verse says “Do everything without complaining or arguing. Then you will be blameless and innocent.” That is an incredibly high standard. And it seems to be so especially in our social media generation. We can speak almost instantaneously into any situation. We don’t have to slow down anymore to be thoughtful in our responses to our friends, our families and our communities. We can be practically instantaneous in what we communicate. The verse that says we are not to complain or argue goes on to say if we will follow that high standard we will shine like stars in the universe as we hold out the word of Life. The word of Life is the powerful truth of what Christ can do for us as he sets us free from sin and helps us turn back to God.

But notice this verse all starts with whether we decide whether we will indulge in complaining and arguing. If we do this we will not be blameless and can’t really hold the word of Life out to anyone. Our choices of what we post on social media really have consequences.

It took me awhile to understand that a country like this one was going to live on compromise. There really is no way to have a free society without having us all a little dissatisfied all of the time. What helps me is to realize that when I am excited about something going on in our society that someone else probably is not. Someone who, like me, cares about his family, pays his taxes, and does the best he can every day. I need to try to see him as a real person. So what do my friends and acquaintances notice about me when my party is not in office? Do they see me being respectful of the president or do they see something else? Do my Facebook posts make Christ happy? Do the people on the other side of whatever the issue of the day is feel honored by my comments?

I have lived long enough to see a number of U.S. Supreme Court decisions come down. All the way from back in the civil rights movements in the 1960s. When a decision comes down that I might have wished had gone differently do I complain? Or do I get really grateful to live in a country that has branches of government that check each other every day I have been alive. Branches of government staffed by people who have tried to do the best job they know how to do on most days.

So let’s look at our lives. Let’s look at Facebook pages. Let’s listen to our conversations. And let’s listen to the things our children hear us saying every day. And the next time something happens we don’t like (an election, a Supreme Court decision, or the guy who cuts us off in traffic) let’s listen hard to what we think and what we say. And then if we ever get the privilege as believers to live in Malawi or Syria or some of the very toughest places in the world, we might, just might have practiced enough self-control to even think about being ready to live in those places. And be shiners of the light we are privileged to shine to all.

We have become arguers and fighters, not for the gospel, but for our rights as Americans. We are not fighting for the salvation of the lost but are fighting for our freedom of religion in America. We are not called to fight for our freedoms. We are called to set people free with the good news of the gospel.

Followers of Christ all over this globe are suffering horrendous persecution and anguish simply because they confess the name of Jesus and cling to Him as their Savior and Lord. Many of these individuals have no idea what it would be like to have the protections and privileges Christians have in America. But not having those freedoms does not slow them down in living amazing lives of integrity, love and humility in their cultures. And many would have a very difficult time understanding our consternation over the present circumstances we have in America just because we think some of our rights under our constitution seem to be slipping away. To them they would be unable to relate to rights and protection under the laws of their country.

I don’t imagine anyone in America who has enjoyed our present rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to bear arms (or as my wife says, ‘freedom to bare arms’) wants to give up any of these rights and I understand the fear, discomfort and upset we can feel personally regarding changes that are taking place in America.

So what are we to do as American Christians? Curse and spew hate at the individuals we perceive as responsible for these changes? Fight and bite and scratch and claw at these individuals? Speak evil of them? Write our Congressmen but not show the simplest of kindnesses to other people? What would a Christian in Syria advise us to do? What would a Christian in Malawi advise? What would Christ advise? Or command? “Go into all the world and preach the gospel making disciples of all men.” Something like that!

Is our focus to be on the political structure of our country and our freedoms or are we to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness? Are we to be cursing and condemning other religions or are we to be loving the individuals within those religions and telling them about our Savior?

Some of you may be feeling like it’s a real challenge to care about people who oppose your views. Perhaps those people even feel like enemies to you. Jesus said something very powerful in the Sermon on the Mount. He said “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.45 In this way you show that you are children of your Father in heaven.” Notice Jesus was and is a realist. He knows we will struggle with relationships and that some people on earth will seem like our enemies. But also notice his command. That we LOVE those people and pray for them.

Jesus told us if we were his friends we would obey His commands. And that includes following Him in choosing to love and pray for our enemies. Just like He did! But, I have seen Jesus give us blessings that went far beyond our having the ability to pray for our enemies. And that is that He would break down the walls between us and our enemies by letting us reach out to them. What might that look like the next time there is someone in the political realm we disagree with? What if we picked up the phone and asked that person what it felt like when his side won? Could we walk in his shoes just for a minute and hear his side of the story? Could we listen to why that issue matters to her so much?

But what if we realize we don’t have any friends right now on the “other” side? If that is the case have we only been hanging out with people who think like we do? Well we can change that. We can ask God to give us someone right in our neighborhood or at work or at the gym to get to know a little better. Even if it’s just to have polite conversation about life. God is faithful to answer those kinds of prayers. Because He cares very much about how we get along with others on this planet. Let Him give you someone you least expect. And just watch what happens to your heart. You may have been commissioned by God to be His ambassador, but He cares as much about your heart as he does anyone else’s. And ours can become hardened. Without us noticing!

In America we have more freedom and privilege than most of the world. Many Christians on this earth know nothing of an environment or government that has affirmed their beliefs. Rather they have had to stand strong in utter darkness at risk of their own lives. We may soon share their experiences in America. We need to prepare for that day to be sure. Perhaps God is preparing you right now. In a world where communication is moment by moment He might be asking you to respond to the Scripture about not complaining and arguing anymore and challenging you to love people. The way Jesus asks us all to love. One person at a time. Who knows? That person might be on the social media you are going to be on today. Do you have an encouraging comment for an “enemy?” Watch out! One day that person might become a friend.

Mark Phelps