Let Us Value God’s Word!

holding bible

I received a Voice of the Martyrs magazine the other day that focused on smuggling Bibles into various countries.  There were several articles throughout describing some of the hardships and lengths people have to go to just to get a copy of the Bible into people’s hands (and hearts).

I couldn’t help but think, as I was reading the article, about how blessed many of us are when it comes to access to the Bible.  Right now, I can think of at least seven different English translations of the Bible sitting on my shelves (not including two updates of two of them that are slightly different).  I have some of those translations in different editions of study Bibles, increasing the number of Bibles I have access to.  In addition, I have two different audio Bibles in my room (plus two in the car).  If I need more insight, I can pull out my laptop, iPad, or phone and immediately access probably another 20 or so English translations there.  Again, let me say, most of us are blessed beyond measure!  Some may call it an embarrassment of riches.

Yet, at the same time, it seems that this blessing has also led us to be somewhat . . . well . . . spoiled, ungrateful, and somewhat desensitized to just what a treasure we have.  I don’t mean for that to sound harsh, but it struck me hard today.  The magazine articles, coupled with a video I have seen a few times now of people literally weeping, hugging, and kissing their Bibles when they finally received copies in their own language, really hit me and made me think about their perspective on having Scripture they can read versus ours.

Let me speak for myself.  I truly don’t feel I memorize, read, and pray over the word like I should.  There is no sense of urgency, I suppose, because I know that it is always there.  I can pick it up and read it any time, so there’s no pressure to read it right now.  Especially after a hard day’s work, I just want to relax and watch TV, mindlessly scroll down the unending social feed that is Facebook, or play a game.  When I do feel like reading, for some odd reason, I will reach for other Christian books about the Bible, but not necessarily reach for the Bible itself.  (That, too, is another blessing we take for granted, but I will focus on just the word itself in this blog post.)

Maybe if we lost access to the Bible we would actually respect it and value it more.  Maybe that is what it will take to cause us to yearn for the word of God more than anything else.  Maybe if access to the Bible is restricted, our hearts and spirits will finally be stirred to realize how much we need it.  Maybe then we would hug our Bibles, read them until they fall apart, and memorize and recite Scripture more than our favorite songs (even Christian ones).

Or maybe, just maybe, we can learn from seeing how other Christians who are not as fortunate (part of me wants to put quotes around that word) as we are treat their Bibles and access to the living and powerful word of God.  Maybe we can realize the blessing we have been given without having it taken away, and we can begin to treat our Bibles as the gifts they truly are.  Maybe we can pray for ourselves and encourage one another to hunger and thirst for God’s voice in His written word as much as we hunger for food and thirst for water.  Maybe we can really believe that we do not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matthew 4).  Maybe we can let the word of Christ dwell in us richly (Colossians).  (Reread that last sentence a few times, focusing on the words “dwell” and “richly.”) Maybe we will hit a point where we carry our Bibles as lovingly as if we were carrying the most expensive treasure on Earth.  Maybe we will learn to hug our Bibles as we pray; to shed tears over them every time we open the pages and realize the lengths that people have gone to so that we can have access to the word of God.  Maybe we will learn to reach for our Bibles (in whatever format) in our spare moments rather than for games and social media, meeting with God as often as possible and learning from Him.  Maybe we will start hiding God’s word in our heart more, memorizing as if our lives depend on it because maybe, in a way, they do.

Maybe, just maybe.

“God, forgive us for taking your word for granted.  Forgive us for failing to see the treasure we have in front of us.  Forgive us for treating your word as an accessory to be used at suitable times rather than as your very words to us that we need to live.  Please help us to love your word more.  Help us to hunger and thirst for it.  Let us reach a point where nothing else can satisfy us.  Thank you, Lord, for giving us this blessing.  Let us treasure it for the riches contained in it.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.”

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Book Review – “The Good and Beautiful Life” by James Bryan Smith

beautiful-life

I am always looking for fresh ways to explore who God is and how to live the Christian life.  When I originally read The Good and Beautiful God, I found some fresh ways of understanding who God is.  That book is the first in a three-book set by James Bryan Smith.  After finishing the first book, I wanted to continue to expand my views by reading the next book in the series, and InterVarsity Press graciously agreed to send me a copy of The Good and Beautiful Life.

Where the first book attempted to help us reexamine our views of who God is, The Good and Beautiful Life sets out to help us get a better sense of how to put on the character of Christ, to borrow from the subtitle.

Smith draws a lot of his inspiration from Dallas Willard, and, as I understand it, Smith’s three books are a sort of “curriculum of Christlikeness” that Willard encouraged him to write.  If you are familiar with Willard, you will certainly sense a lot of the same ideas coming through Smith’s writing.

The book takes the Sermon on the Mount and breaks it down by representing it as Christ’s blueprint for what a disciple’s (or to borrow Smith’s term, “apprentice’s”) life should look like as he or she increasingly follows Jesus.

The chapters follow the Sermon on the Mount in order, tackling ideas such as learning how to live without anger, without lust, and without vainglory, as well as learning how to bless those who curse you and living in the kingdom day by day.

After each chapter is a brief “Soul Training” exercise to try to apply the material to one’s life and help the process of inner transformation.

At the end of the book is a 32-page appendix that is a small group discussion guide to help walk small groups through that material as a way of supporting and encouraging one another to grow.

Smith points out throughout the book that the idea is not one of changing one’s outward life only (or even primarily).  The real focus is on allowing Christ to change one’s inner self so that the outward actions follow as a natural result.  It brings back the idea of Christ’s talking to the Pharisees and explaining that rather than cleaning the outside of the cup and dish while leaving the inside dirty, they should have cleaned the inside first, and the outside would have been clean also.

There are a few areas where I am not sure I agree with Smith, but I am still considering what he has to say.  For example, he tackles the idea of casting one’s pearls before pigs and argues that Jesus is not saying to withhold something precious from those who don’t deserve it (pages 192-195).  Rather, he interprets it as saying that pigs cannot digest pearls, so they will get hungry and turn on the owner, whom they can digest.  The idea being that the pearls represent condemnation and judging and that people cannot “digest” that, or handle it, so it won’t help them but will leave them starving for help.  Based on most interpretations I have read, Smith is definitely in a minority view here, and he acknowledges as much in the book.  I have to say that I am not totally convinced by his view yet, although it would make the passage flow better.  But to me, pearls always represent something expensive and precious (pearl of great price, the gates of pearl in Revelation, etc.); this would be one of the only places, if not the only, where that would not apply, especially if Smith’s view is correct, as judging and condemnation could not be interpreted as precious.

Overall, however, I found this book very refreshing, and there are many great ideas to take away from it.  Where Willard provides a lot of the theoretical side of kingdom living, Smith works more on the practical side, so combining Smith’s work with Willard’s will give a more well-rounded idea of the type of kingdom living they advocate.

If you are looking for a “curriculum” for Christlikeness, this book (and this series) is a good one to consider.

*Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Questions

questions

This Lord’s day, I am finding myself asking many questions.  Hard questions.  Questions for myself primarily, but questions that may help spur others on to deeper reflection as well.  Questions like these:

Why does our church life not seem to look like what we see in the book of Acts?  A church that is thriving, growing exponentially, and confronting the world because of how different the love of believers was for each other and for the world?  What are we doing wrong?  Is church just a social club for us; somewhere we go out of duty or because our friends and family go there and that is where we click?

When we sit down to read the Bible, what are we doing?  Are we reading it as God’s revelation to us of Himself and how to have a relationship with Him that reaches out to help others?  Or are we reading it merely out of obligation, to check off a box on our daily spiritual to-do list?  Do we really believe that as we know the mind of God we will be transformed more into His image?  Do we even read closely enough to remember what we read an hour after we finish?  Do we hunger and thirst for the word of God, or do we just coast by, reading when we are able?

When we pray, do we really believe we are communing with the God of the universe?  Do we really believe that the Spirit who rose Jesus from the dead dwells within us, and that we have access to the very throne of God by the grace of God which is ours in Jesus Christ?  Do we truly believe that prayer makes any difference, or do we merely pray as another part of our to-do list?  Do we stay in constant communion with God throughout the day (praying continually), or do we just set aside a set amount, no more and no less, to pray?  If the latter, how would our spouse feel if we did the same thing?  Do we believe that God loves us and wants to guide us through our lives as any loving parent would?

Do we really believe that Jesus’ death not only set us free from the wages of sin but also offered us a new life that begins now, an eternal kind of life that is being made stronger in us as we follow Him?  Do we really believe that Jesus came not just to forgive our sins but to take away our sins, increasing our level of holiness and purity day by day?  Do we believe that God actually wants to change us to be more like Christ, not just in totality when we die but in stages now as we live?  Or do we make excuses for ourselves when we give in to temptation to anger, lust, gossip, jealousy, worry, etc?

Do we really believe we are called not just to make converts, but to make disciples, people who will learn to follow Jesus in their lives, walking and talking as He would if He were living their lives in their place?  Do we realize that this is not just a command for us to reach out to strangers, but to disciple everyone we are able, especially those closest to us, such as our spouses and children?  Do we realize that to do this, we need to do more than just teach doctrine; we need to demonstrate a lifestyle of following Christ so that others may follow our example as we follow the example of Christ?  Are we allowing the seriousness of this expectation to influence our daily lives?

I could go on with questions, but that is quite a list as it is.  These are personal questions, so no one person can give an answer for someone else, as it will be different for each of us.  These are questions I am pondering in my own life, and they are hard hitting to me.  I hope that reflecting on them will help you in your walk as well.

Embarrassment of Riches

riches

My wife and I have been growing in our desire to minimalize. We want our lives to be neater, more orderly, less cluttered, and more freeing. We want this in terms of items in our house and in our time and schedules; really, we want it in our lives as a whole.

As I have been working on paring back my books (I’ve managed to avoid needing therapy for this so far), I cannot help but thinking about how many riches surround us. I am sure I have more books than I could read in my lifetime as it is. In terms of information, I am rich. Since books are my main struggle, I chose to use that as a picture for this post to represent the riches we have. But we have other riches as well.

I have thought the same thing about the clothes I have. I have clothes in my closet and drawers that I am sure I have never worn. If I have, I cannot remember it. Some people struggle to find clothing to wear, yet I have more than I actually wear. In terms of clothing, I am rich.

We are the same with anything I can think about. Food. Money. (My friends just returned from Uganda, and talking with them always reminds me just how rich we truly are in comparison to many parts of the world.) You name it.

This got me thinking in spiritual terms as well. Looking at books to get rid of, I realize just how many Bibles I actually own. Do I read them all? No. I have a select few that I return to time and again. But I keep the others just in case. But that got me thinking. What about my spiritual riches?

I have all these Bibles. Some people have none or only one or two to share in a village. I can read mine whenever I want. I am rich indeed. But am I wasting these riches? Do I neglect my Bible more than I should? Even when I read it, am I reading for information only, am I reading to check off some spiritual to-do list, or am I really reading to know the God of the universe through His Son Jesus Christ? Am I memorizing passages to know them, or so that they will sink down deep into my heart to enact lasting change by applying it to my life?

What about time? I have more than enough time (even though I may complain that I don’t). I don’t often work 12-hour days, much less working my entire waking moments. I have free time. Some people don’t have that free time. I am rich. But am I using that time wisely, making the most of the time? Or am I wasting what time I do have? John Piper has said that the greatest use of various forms of social media will be to prove on the last day that we really did have time for prayer.  Ouch.

I could go on. When we think of riches, most of us truly have an embarrassment of them. We will be held accountable as stewards of what God has given us. What will the outcome be for us in terms of rewards?

Let us realize the riches we have, and let us steward them wisely for God’s glory.

Are We Blameless, or Are We Settling?

perfect

I both love it and dislike it when the Spirit convicts me.  I love it, because I know He is doing a work in me.  I dislike it because it is extremely uncomfortable.  I want to start by saying as clearly as I can, I have not arrived at what I am talking about on this blog post; I am learning and praying and studying, even as I am writing to encourage and challenge others.  With that said, let’s dive in.

My pastor today was preaching on the latter half of Romans 7.  He takes the minority view (as do I) that the latter part of Romans 7 is not referring to the normal Christian life.  Rather, he views it as Paul’s pre-conversion life, with parts of Romans 6 and 8 describing the Christian life as being one that is dead to sin and victorious and overcoming in Christ.  This message built in my life on a book I read this last week.

This last week was my Spring Break, so I had quite a bit of time to read and think.  One book I read was a reprint of a book by Andrew Murray.  The original title was Be Perfect, but the reprint is called God’s Gift of Perfection.  In the book, Murray explains that the Bible describes certain people as being perfect and wholeheartedly devoted to God.  Granted, he was using the KJV, and modern translations often use other terms, such as mature (in the New Testament) and blameless (in the Old Testament).  But the same ideas will hold true if we replace perfect with blameless.

In the Old Testament, Noah was described as being blameless in his generation.  Job was described as being blameless.  God commanded Abraham to walk before Him and be blameless.  Moses commanded the Israelites to be blameless.  Hezekiah could pray to God and say that he walked before Him with a whole heart.  We are also told to love the Lord with all our heart.

Here is my question (for myself, as well as for anyone who reads this): Can we say we are blameless?  Can we say we are living before God with a whole heart, or with wholehearted devotion to Him?  Can we say we love the Lord with all of our heart?  If not, why not?  Hezekiah could, and that was before Christ’s death and resurrection and the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Are we living blameless (or at least striving for blamelessness), or have we settled for something less?

Andrew Murray wrote:

In God’s record of the lives of His servants, there are some of whom it is written: his heart was perfect with the Lord his God. Is this, let each reader ask, what God sees and says of me?  Does my life, in the sight of God, bear the mark of intense, wholehearted consecration to God’s will and service? Does my life burn with the desire to be as perfect as it is possible for grace to make me? Let us yield ourselves to the searching light of this question. (You can find a copy of the text here; I believe it is public domain, now.)

Murray’s questions are hard-hitting.  I love the fact that Murray puts the question as one of what God knows about us, not what others may say or think.  God sees through our actions to our thoughts and heart.  He knows deep down who we really are.  Does God see us as blameless?  Does God see us as pursuing blamelessness (what Murray and the KJV called perfection)?

Murray points out that being blameless does not mean there is no growth.  He explains that a child may be able to do something perfectly for an 8 year old, but that he or she would do that same thing differently to do it perfectly as an adult.  The question is not “Are we as perfect as we will ever be?” but “Are we as perfect as we can be given our knowledge of God and His will and our growth?”

I think that we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that because we are still tempted and we still stumble on occasion, perfection is so unattainable that we just wait for it to happen to us when we are glorified and don’t need to strive for it now.  Because we all struggle and so many stumble, we just accept that we are always going to struggle.  The wording is usually something like, “We all sin in thought, word, or deed every day, so we just accept God’s forgiveness and try to do better, but we won’t be perfect until we reach Heaven, so we just accept where we are.”  I realize that many make a statement like that out of a desire to avoid trying to sound like they don’t need Christ’s forgiveness or God’s grace, and they ultimately want to avoid coming across as “holier-than-thou.” While most people making statements like those have good intentions, my personal belief is that you would be hard pressed to find scriptural support for that view. Granted, James does say that we all stumble in many ways.  But Scripture also says God is able to keep us from stumbling.  The emphasis in Scripture is toward holiness and blamelessness, not toward continuing to stumble.  God tells us to be holy for (and as) He is holy. (Leviticus 11:45; 1 Peter 1:15-16)  We are to strive for holiness.  (Hebrews 12:14)  We are to be perfect, as our Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48, even though this is often taught as a verse to show that we cannot be perfect)

Are we settling?  Are we allowing ourselves to become comfortable in certain ways of living, thinking, talking, and acting that are not in line with how we should live as followers of Jesus?  Are we permitting sins to stay in our lives and justifying it by saying we will never be perfect this side of Heaven?  If so, we need to step back and re-evaluate what the word of God says we are to do and how we are to live.

We should be increasingly growing to be more like Christ Himself.  We should be striving to be holy and perfect and blameless, to be able to say we serve the Lord with a whole heart (wholeheartedly).

Andrew Murray later writes:

“To take Jesus as Master, with the distinct desire and aim to be and live and act like Him–this is true Christianity. This is something far more than accepting Him as Savior and Helper.  It is far more than acknowledging Him as Lord and Master.

A servant may obey the commands of his master most faithfully, while he has little thought of rising up through them into the master’s likeness and spirit.  This alone is full discipleship, to long in everything to be as like the Master as possible–to count His life as the true expression of all that is perfect and to aim at nothing less than the perfection of being perfect as He was . . . .

With the perfect love of God as our standard, with that love revealed in Christ’s humanity and humility as our model and guide, with the Holy Spirit to strengthen us with might, that Christ may live in us, we will learn to know what it means that–everyone who is perfect will be as his Master.”

Murray, here, is expounding on Luke 6:40.  The KJV says perfect, where most translations now say fully trained.  The idea is the same, no matter which wording is used.  We are to continue following Christ and increasingly become more like Him.  Combined with the Old Testament idea of blamelessness, we are to pursue perfection actively.

Discipleship, as Murray mentioned above and as Willard explains throughout his writings, is to increasingly pursue Christ as His apprentices, learning from Him and becoming increasingly like Him, living as He did while on Earth.

Are we living with wholehearted devotion to God, and can we pray, as Hezekiah did, that we are?  Does God see us as blameless, not just because of Christ’s sacrifice for us, but because of our own lifestyle through the grace of God and power of the indwelling Holy Spirit since our decision to follow Christ?  If not, let us repent and ask God to enable us to live a holy life, one that is striving for blamelessness.

Again, that is not to say we will never grow.  Are we living blamelessly in light of what we know about God’s will right now?  We will always be learning, and we will always have room for growth in light of our increasing knowledge of God and His will.  But are we living up to what we have already attained?  (Philippians 3:16)

Let me leave you with some wonderful promises from God’s word, in 1 Peter 1:3-4: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (ESV)

May God’s grace strengthen you as you pursue Him and pursue blamelessness in Him!

Book Review – “Habits of Grace” by David Mathis

habits

Lately I have been greatly desiring to grow in the spiritual disciplines as a means of growing closer to God and being transformed into the image of Christ.  I have read books by Dallas Willard and Don Whitney in the past.  When I heard about Habits of Grace by David Mathis (published by Crossway), I was excited to read through it.

In many ways, this book is very similar to many books that are out on the spiritual disciplines.  There is, however, one thing that makes this book distinct.  It breaks the disciplines down broadly into three categories: Hear His Voice, Have His Ear, and Belong to His Body.  Mathis explains that the organization of the book is intended to “help Christians young and old simplify their various personal habits of grace, or spiritual disciplines” (location 194, Kindle edition).

The first category covers Scripture reading, study, meditation on Scripture, and memorization of Scripture.

The second category covers prayer (both individual and corporate), fasting, and journaling.

The third category covers fellowship, corporate worship, listening to preaching, baptism, the Lord’s supper, and listening to rebuke (a very interesting addition, and one I found very inspiring).

There is a separate section that covers missions and evangelism, managing our money, and managing our time.

I appreciate the Bible-centered focus of this book.  Whitney’s book is similar.  Not all books on the disciplines emphasize the importance of Scripture by referring to it throughout the book.  Habits of Grace, however, keeps the word central.  There is also an emphasis on the grace of God being the central means of our growing in the disciplines.  It is God’s working in us, not our striving on our own power, that enables us to be transformed into the image of Christ.

As I have been memorizing Scripture recently, the chapter on memorizing really hit me.  I also like the chapter on journaling.  Mathis does a good job emphasizing how journaling can be an extension of meditating on Scripture and prayer to God.  I have always focused on journaling as primarily a way to record what I am thinking or doing, so this focus was an interesting one for me to consider.

One of the most powerful chapters to me was the chapter on using time wisely.  I have been struggling lately with feeling like I often waste too much time, and this chapter really hit home to me how important it is to see our time as a gift from God to be stewarded just as we might steward our money or possessions.  I would like to read this chapter a few more times to really internalize it.

I highly recommend picking up Habits of Grace if you are looking for a short, Bible-centered book on spiritual discipline.  You will not regret it.

*Note: I received a complimentary digital copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review – “When You, Then God” by Rusty George

when you

God makes many promises to us throughout His word.  Sometimes, however, those promises are conditional.  When You, Then God by Rusty George hits on some of these ways that God blesses us as we take certain steps.

Some of the aspects George brings up are “when you trust God’s love, then God will invite you to partner with him,” “when you walk with Jesus, then God will help you look like Jesus,” “when you relax, then God will guide you,” and “when you place your hope in God, then God will give you hope,” among others.

George begins the book by opening up about how he realized that although he gave lip service to knowing and believing God’s love, he realized that he really did not.  This set him on a path to discover God’s love in a deeper way.

He then proceeds to tackle two errors in understanding the Bible: the “Thou  Shalts” and the “Never Minds.”  The former live in legalism, building rule upon rule on top of what the Bible says, missing God’s grace.  The latter dismiss much of Scripture, believing it does not apply to us today.

A better way is to realize that God’s word does apply to us, but that God is after our good in the process.  That partnership where we work and God works with us is the focus of the rest of the book.

To me, the best chapters of the book were the chapter dealing with anxiety and the last chapter, where George emphasizes the need not only to know God’s word but also to put that word into practice in our lives.  He explains that we need to constantly be learning the word of God and doing what we are learning.  If we learn without doing, we are not living out our faith.  If we do without learning, we can begin to live incorrectly.  Both are important.

When You, Then God is a great read to remind us of some of the precious promises in God’s word and what our part is in seeing those promises come to fruition in our lives.

*Note: I received a complimentary copy of the book from Tyndale Publishers in exchange for my honest review.