Thursday, June 23, 2011

Waiting to Boil

"Life moves slowly when you're waiting for it to boil"
-Ingrid Michaelson, "Starting Now"

Ever feel like your life is living you? Like you're just going through the motions, waiting for something big to happen? We can often feel this way as we go about our daily lives. Nevertheless, we should live with contentment in the life God places us in and allow Him to use us every day to accomplish His will.

Discontent stems from lack of faith

When we are discontent with our lives it is because we are not trusting God to provide for us. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious. If we had no ambition, we would all be sluggards and no work would ever get done. However, we should pay close attention to what motivates our ambitions. Are we seeking to glorify God or only to satisfy our own pleasures?

"Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." (Heb 13:5)

Many of us will ask God to use us in big ways, but we fail to trust Him enough to let Him use us. Jesus demonstrated to us in many ways how even the "faith of a mustard seed" (Matt 17:20) was enough for God to use people. Small steps of faith resulted in big things.

Examine the calling of the first disciples (Luke 5:1-11). Jesus told Simon Peter, a fisherman, to cast his nets out into the water. Peter contended that they had already been out fishing all night and caught nothing. Yet he trusted Jesus and did what he told him to do anyway. The result was an overabundance of fish. The nets were so filled with fish that another boat had to help take them in. Even so, the boats began to sink. Peter, realizing he was in the presence of the Lord, confessed his sins. The small act of throwing out the nets eventually led to Peter establishing the Christian church, laid on a foundation of faith.

We can have the tendency to remain stagnant in our faith because we fear that if we go after the things God has planned for us we risk losing the things that we have. Before God can use us, we must trust that He will provide for us if we follow His will. (Actually, I believe that God uses all of us for His glory no matter what, but that is a completely different topic altogether concerning God's providence. But basically what it comes down to is this: would you rather be used by God like John or like Judas?) Don't worry. Jesus tells us to consider the ravens, who do not fret over food and shelter. If God cares for the birds and the flowers, how much more must He care for us, created in His own image? (Luke 12:24)

"But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it." 1 Tim 6:6-7

Have the right kind of ambition

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matt 6:19-21)

The Christian life is ultimately about self-denial. All of our actions either glorify God or they glorify ourselves. When we seek to satisfy our own desires, we are looking to gratify ourselves and deny Christ. When we deny our sinful desires and seek Christ, we are no longer slaves to that sin but slaves to the righteousness of Christ. Many people will tell you that the only way to be happy is to stand up and live life your own way, making your own rules as you go. But a life of self-indulgence is a life of chasing after treasures that are subject to destruction, and eventually self destruction. But any true Christian can explain the sensation of freedom that is felt when we live with contentment and faith in Christ.

Have patience

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do." (James 1:2-8)

These past few months have been a trial of faith for me. After months of jumping through hoops, I finally completed my Peace Corps application. But because of a mishap with a fax machine, I was unable to get placement for the program that I was nominated for, which would have departed in June. So I was told to wait 4-6 weeks.

And I waited. Four weeks went by. Then five. By the sixth week I was ripping my hair out. Finally, I got an email saying that I would get a call on a certain day between 6:30-1:30. I woke up at 6:00 that morning on my day off and waited by the phone all day. I watched in terror as my phone's reception bars went up and down. By 1:30 I had not gotten a call and I felt the urge to break something - besides my phone.

Finally, the call came just before 2:00. I was offered a placement in sub-Saharan Africa that would depart in September. I would be given no other details until the paperwork came in the mail in a few business days. At last I had a feeling of certainty!

I thought for sure that the paperwork would come in the mail yesterday. It didn't. So it must be coming today, I thought. But it didn't. I'm learning to laugh about it and simply live in the moment. I only have a couple more months to spend with family and friends, so I will enjoy this time that I have and squelch my urge to know everything right now.

"So father give me faith, providence and grace."
-Dustin Kensrue, "Consider the Ravens"

Monday, April 25, 2011

What is Faith?

So you say that you believe in God? Great. You still might be going to hell. Let me explain.

Jesus Christ came to Earth and taught us that he is the only means to salvation. It is through faith in him alone that we are reconciled to the Father in heaven. So what does it mean to have faith in God? Aren't belief and faith the same?

Professing belief in God is not enough

Saying that you believe in God is not enough to save you from eternal damnation. This may seem to contradict what is written in Romans 10:

"If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
While this passage does instruct us to confess our faith outwardly, we must examine it in its entirety to fully understand what that means. This confession of faith is more than mere words. It is a confession by words of the mouth of one who has first believed in his heart that Jesus is Lord. Look at what Paul writes in the next verse.

"For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved."
The outward confession comes only after an inward change of the heart. One must not only speak these words of faith, but also believe in them.

Now, some may say that they believe in God. But do they really have faith in Him? James points out that even the demons believe in God, and tremble! He explains how a person can show that they have real faith:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. James 2:14-19

We show that our faith is real not by the words that we speak, but by the things that we do. Jesus says that his true followers will be recognized by the fruit that they bear (Matt. 7:16). Further, we will one day be judged by the things that we do.

“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” Matt. 12:36

The parable of the two sons

Jesus often used parables to teach complex concepts. He tells the parable of the two sons to show how actions really do speak louder than words.

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they [the Pharisees] answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. Matt. 21:28-32

Therefore, we will be judged not by the words that we say, but by the things that we do. I can go around telling people that I am a firefighter, but unless I actually extinguish fires, my words are meaningless.

Faith is not born of religion

We may show our faith by the things that we do, but our actions are not the source of our faith. I can claim belief in God and be a "good" person by doing good things, but these things in themselves do not give me faith in God. The faith must precede the works. The actions are an outcome of the faith, rather than a source of faith.

Faith is not exemplified through religion. At least not by the way that we understand religion today. By most standards, religion is the practice of customs and rituals for the development of one's own personal spiritual well-being. It is completely inwardly focused. Basically, it is selfish.

True religion is not focused on the self. James explains:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27

Rather than practicing the religion of following strict rules of conduct, as most people understand religion today, practice the true religion that God our Father accepts. Do not be like the Pharisees who tried work out their own salvation by elevating themselves above everyone else by promoting their own rules and traditions. Jesus repeatedly rebuked this way of thinking and simplified the law like this: Love God, Love others.

Jesus quotes Isaiah to drive the point that our faith is more than following a set of rules:

These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. Isaiah 29:13

He knew that the Pharisees, with their strict rules, did not understand the words of the prophet Hosea:

“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6

Be careful that your good works are a result of real faith in God. Are you acting to glorify God, or are you acting to glorify yourself? Practice your faith with your works, not to save yourself, but because He saved you.

Believe, confess, and have faith

Let us then believe in our hearts, confess with our mouths, and practice our faith by the things that we do.

God our Father, thank you for your Son who came to show us how to practice true religion. Give us the faith through your Spirit to complete the good deeds you have set apart for us to do. For your glory and honor always! Amen.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Greatest Story Ever Told...and You're in It!

"Don't you know, son, that I love you
And I don't care where you've been
Yes, and I'll be right here waiting
Til you come around the bend
And I'll run to you and hold you close
And won't let go again
So Please Come Home"

-Please Come Home, by Dustin Kensrue

I always liked the story of the Prodigal Son. It's a story of redemption and celebration. But I never fully understood its meaning until I had an epiphany this morning while singing along to Dustin Kensrue's song about it.

The story of the Prodigal Son is a parable of Jesus. In the story, a young man takes an early inheritance from his father. He quickly goes out and squanders his fortune on the pleasures of the world. With no more money and nothing to eat, he remembers his father and returns home to repent and make amends. Upon seeing his son, the father rejoices and throws a huge party to celebrate.

I always assumed that the story of the Prodigal Son was about somebody else. I thought, this is a story about a Christian person who went astray for awhile and then came back to obedience after realizing that a rebellious lifestyle is not fulfilling. I've been a Christian since childhood and never lived a wild lifestyle. This story can't be about me.

I think that most of us assume this story is about somebody else. We do this usually for one of two reasons. Either we put faith in our own "goodness" or else we feel that we have no reason for celebration. The truth is, this story is about all of us.

My own assumption that this story is not about me was wrong, because I am not righteous. The good things that I think that I do are like filthy rags to the only holy God. I cannot assume that I have always been there by His side, living according to His will. I was born into sin and death and have gone astray.

But upon my return, I was not met with scorn. My Father rejoices! He loves me so much, despite the things that I have done against him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

We must understand the magnitude of the miracle of salvation. Although we deserve destruction and separation from God, we are welcomed back into his embrace when we return to Him in repentance. And He celebrates our return!

I urge you all to return to our Father, living a life of repentance. Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing, and perfect will.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Living the Dream! and why the American Dream is a Lie

“Why Peace Corps?”

It’s the most common question I hear when I tell people about my Peace Corps application. Strangely, I am finding it difficult to articulate an answer. It’s not that I haven’t put any thought into it. I started the application in July of 2010. It is now the end of February 2011 and my medical packet is still under review. I anticipate leaving by early June of this year. The application process has been long and strenuous; not something someone would go through without putting a lot of thought into it. I even wrote an essay on why I want to join Peace Corps as part of the application process.

If you don’t know already, Peace Corps is a program through the US government in which qualified applicants serve overseas for two years to help train people in developing countries in things like health, sustainable agriculture, and business, to give a few examples.

“Well you aren’t going to make any money doing that!” my Grandpa told me.

I understand his concern for my prosperity, but I couldn’t help but reply indignantly, “It’s not about making money.” Then what is it? What draws me to want to sell my possessions and live in another part of the world away from my family to volunteer my time for two years?

After meditating on it for several months it is difficult to put together an answer. It just seems so natural to me. It’s like asking a person why they like chocolate. Why wouldn’t anyone like chocolate? Why would I not want to join Peace Corps?

I spent several years going to college not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I was going to school because that’s what I was supposed to do. It’s step one on the journey to fulfilling the American dream. We go to college to get a good job so that we can make lots of money and buy a nice car, a house, and afford a lifestyle of luxury and comfort. But coming upon graduation from university forced me to evaluate the direction my life was taking.

I was right on track for obtaining the dream. I had the girl (read my last blog post for more on that), the car, and the degree to line me up for getting the well-paying job. We even had plans for buying a house that her parents were going to sell to us at a very low price. Everything was going so smoothly.

But I was empty.

I imagined myself in the future with this girl, this car, this house, the money and the luxuries. And it was all so unfulfilling.

When I was younger I always dreamed of traveling the world and helping other people. I didn’t know what exactly I was going to do, but I knew that this was the kind of life I wanted. In high school, I thought that the military would be the best opportunity for me to have that lifestyle. But I chose the girl, the school, and the American dream instead.

I continually sacrificed my dreams because that’s what society told me to do. The American dream told me to play it safe. I did things the way that things are supposed to be done and I didn’t ask questions.

When I started looking at job postings through the career development center at the university, I saw nothing that excited me. Sure, there were lots of good paying jobs that would challenge me and use my newly acquired skills. But none of them mattered. Not to me, anyway.

See, I’m a big picture kind of guy. I have to know that the work that I am doing is making a difference. The only difference that I saw most of these jobs making is to stoke the fire of consumerism, thus driving more people into the threshes of the American dream.

Then I saw the posting for Peace Corps. It reminded me of my dreams that I had given up on so long ago. The idea of living in another country, learning a new language, and helping improve people’s lives on such a huge level was very exciting to think about. I had already been looking into volunteering somewhere overseas for a couple of weeks, but this seemed so much more impactful. I thought about it, I talked to a close friend about it, I prayed about it, and then I applied. And this application has kicked my butt!

The Holy Spirit has used this experience to teach me a lot. It has forced me to give up the idols in my life. Peace Corps volunteers cannot have any debt. One of the hardest things for me was accepting the idea that if I could not pay off my car loan, I would have to sell my car. And women are out – there is no way I want to attempt a long distance relationship. Over the past few months I have been selling my most prized possessions: video games, computers, electronics. It has transformed the way that I live my daily life. It has been liberating to now spend my time doing things like studying God’s Word, learning Greek, and spending more time with friends and family. I wouldn’t trade my dreams for the American dream ever again.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” (1Tim. 6:6-7)

Thank you Father for giving me your Spirit to guide me in my life decisions. You give each of us different passions; gifts that should be used to glorify You. Please give this generation the courage to say no to the American dream and to pursue the dreams that you have breathed into us. Let everything that we do bring honor to Your name! To You be the glory and honor alone! Amen.