In the Grip of Hope

JamesWhen our 2 1/2 year old grandson Jude comes over to our house, he usually has one activity on his mind: playing trains.

Thus, when Jude hangs with us, we have a lot of Thomas the Tank Engine cars and track spread all about the house.

And we have three battery-powered engines that Jude assigns to each of us. He gets the shiny black engine named Diesel. Sara gets the sky blue Thomas. And I get bright orange James. That’s James on the right.

Last week Jude came over to the house, once again with his head full of plans for playing trains, but it just so happened I was going to be home later that night due to a conference.

Sara told him that there may be a chance I would come home before he had to leave, so he picked up James and held him in his grip the entire night. That glimmer of hope was all he needed.

In fact, Jude was so determined to have James at the ready when I arrived, he tried to take him into his bath.

When I did come in through the front door, Jude, who had been settling down with Sara on the couch, hopped up, ran to me, handed me James, and declared, “Here you go!”

How’s that for perseverance! 

All evening long he made sure that, no matter what time I came home, I would have my train.

This little scene reminded me of the fact that a significant part of the Christian life is the presence and practice of hope.

We are a people who look ahead to the arrival of future events:

  • The return of Christ
  • The eradication of sin
  • The escape from our earthly bodies which suffer from disease and aging
  • The glory of heaven
  • Here’s a big one: finally being shown how all the crazy and confusing situations we endured actually worked together for good (check out Romans 8:28)

The challenging part about hope is that we long for something we can’t yet see.

Paul, seeking to encourage believers, wrote about the Christian’s hope in the book of Romans:

For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:24-25 ESV)

Hope leans hard on patience. Without patience, we really can’t call it hope. It’s more like desperate angst.

In hope, we fix our gaze on Jesus and His promises. In turn, we will seek to tune out any distractions that would keep us from an attitude of perseverance.

That’s kind of what Paul was saying when he wrote of his unwavering commitment to all that God had in store for him:

Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have laid hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s sense of hope was so strong forgot the things of the past and fully put his focus (to the point of pressing and straining) toward what he viewed to be a prize: God’s call on his life through Jesus.

Of hope, R.C. Sproul said:

Hope is called the anchor of the soul (Hebrews 6:19), because it gives stability to the Christian life. But hope is not simply a ‘wish’ (I wish that such-and-such would take place); rather, it is that which latches on to the certainty of the promises of the future that God has made.

Simply put, a mindset of hopefulness will typically give fruit to the actions of patience and perseverance. In other words, right thinking produces helpful behavior.

Jude clung to a train with the confident hope that I would make it home in time to play with him.

The Christian clings with confidence to the promises of the Word. And the evidence of the hope shows up in how the live.

We might use another word for this thing called hope: faith.

The writer of Hebrews wrote of faith and hope being intertwined:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  (Hebrews 11:1 ESV)

That’s what makes it challenging, isn’t it? We can’t quite see the very thing we’re looking to embrace.

Here’s a final thought regarding hope: some people look toward the future with more hope on their minds than others.

For some life has dished out it’s fair (or unfair?) share of pain and disappointments.

In these cases, the hope of a better future is always close at hand.

Quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada, certainly one who anticipates better things in the life to come, offered this reflection on the value and power of hope:

“The best we can hope for in this life is a knothole peek at the shining realities ahead. Yet a glimpse is enough. It’s enough to convince our hearts that whatever sufferings and sorrows currently assail us aren’t worthy of comparison to that which waits over the horizon.”  

Criticizing God’s Work

It’s been said that God works in mysterious ways.

It can also be said that God works in a multitude of ways.

It seems God is not into one-size-fits-all or paint-by numbers approach to how He impacts lives.

It’s not hard to see that God expresses Himself through a variety of people and ministry.

Sometimes, though, we are tempted to turn up our nose or speak ill of a work God is invested in.

Rather than cheer, we complain.

Rather that support, we deride.

Why?

Often times it’s because they aren’t doing it like we are doing it.

Which, when you boil it down, seems a bit narrow and prideful.

Now, there are of course some so-called “ministries” that are so far off-base biblically that we ought not feel any pressure to support or endorse them.

If the doctrine is out-of-whack, or the practice doesn’t match up with the Word. we have reason to step back.

But, with that said, one passage of scripture drives home the point that we had best be wary of bagging on any work that God might be doing.

It comes from Philippians 1, and the context for this passage is that Paul had been imprisoned for sharing Jesus.

Some people felt bad for Paul, but others spoke ill of him, claiming that God  had put Paul on the ministry sidelines to humble him.

With this in mind, look at what Paul wrote to the Philippian church:

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. (Philippians 1:12-14 ESV)

Isn’t it amazing that Paul could see how God might work even though He was in jail?

He had the presence of mind to realize that the reason he was in jail (preaching Christ) was actually creating Gospel inroads among his captors, and at the same time encouraging others to speak more boldly of the message of Jesus.

But what about those people who couldn’t see what God was up to? You know, the ones who wanted to speak badly of Paul?

Paul’s response to them is refreshingly jarring:

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.  The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Philippians 1:15-18 ESV)

From a human perspective, Paul had plenty of reasons to be angry with those who dared to try and give him a black eye. As he wrote, their motive was envy and rivalry.

They weren’t cooperating with Paul…they were competing with him!

And yet Paul looks at them and says, “I rejoice!”

Why? Because the gospel was still being proclaimed.

This doesn’t mean he was endorsing the ill-motives of those who spoke badly of him.

It just means that the gospel’s advance was more important to him.

It makes me wonder: am I a ministry cooperator…or a ministry competitor?

Ministry cooperators will be people marked by joy.

Ministry competitors often display attitudes of angst.

Ministry cooperators are driven by the Spirit.

Ministry competitors may be drawing more from the flesh.

In life, we sometimes attempt to make ourselves feel superior by pushing others down,

But that’s probably not something that comes from the Lord.

For Jesus said this:

The greatest among you shall be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:11-12 ESV)

The issue that plagued the hearts of Paul’s rivals can bedevil anyone of us.

We will start to see the seeds of envy and rivalry giving birth to disdain for, and disappointment in, other people’s work for God.

Instead of getting better, we will grow bitter.

That’s the time when we need a fresh infusion of the fruit of the Spirit, so we might gain a refreshed perspective on the mysterious and varied ways of God.

Like Little Children

For many, Christianity has become the grinding out of general doctrinal laws from collections of biblical facts. But childlike wonder and awe have died. The scenery and poetry and music of the majesty of God have dried up like a forgotten peach at the back of the refrigerator. ~ John Piper

And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. ~ Jesus in Matthew 18:3

Yesterday I carted grandson Jude from my office to our house, as his mom and dad were busy with youth group.

I drive the same route each day, about 5 minutes travel time. I’ve driven it enough that I mentally tune out the surroundings, as my goal is simply to get home.

Yet, on this trip home I learned something of great importance: between the church and my house, three houses still had Christmas lights up in the second week of January.

Without Jude behind me in his car seat, I would have never realized that.

But, once he called out “Christmas lights!” and started counting, I found myself looking for them too.

Simply being in the presence of a child helped me start thinking like a child!

Jesus made a bold statement about what it took to be able to gain access into God’s kingdom. He said a person must change and become like a child.

But what does that mean?

I think at the core of Jesus’ teaching is the fact that kids have a natural inclination to trust. (Sometimes that innocent willingness to trust can scare us as parents!)

Without trust in God, no one gains a relationship with Him. Over and over the Bible declares that the only way know God is by exercising faith in Him. In fact Hebrews 11:6 declares:

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek. (ESV)

Sadly, as we become adults, we become less trusting. In the place of trust we put things like fear and cynicism.

Another aspect of child-likeness is an attitude of dependence.

Kids understand that they need mom and dad to take care of them. How often has a child run away, only to return home by nightfall because of a growling stomach?

But as we age, we tend to revel in our independence. We long for a time in our life when no one will tell us what to do. In fact, the last thing we want to be is dependent!

The Bible tells in Matthew chapter 6 that if we seek first God’s kingdom, everything else will fall into proper order. But our independence often has us doing things our own way, under our own power…and then (maybe) asking God to bless our puny efforts.

Simply put, not very childlike!

Another aspect of child-likeness is curiosity. Kids naturally want to know more about the world around them. So they look under rocks, poke their fingers in places (some not too safe) and ask a lot of questions.

We might say that kids have their antennae up, always soaking in whatever information they can find.

Curiosity serves the follower of Jesus well, because there is so much to learn about Jesus!

Much to our detriment , the adult years can become mundane because we begin to think we’ve seen it all. “Been there, done that” keeps us from pursuing new adventures and experiencing new discoveries.

Finally, children can amaze us with their sincerity.

All though we are all sinners, by both nature and practice, most kids haven’t been beat down by the world.

This lack of scars, whether physical, relational or emotional keeps their hearts buoyant and their minds hopeful.

When the Bible uses the word sincere, it literally means “without wax.”

See, in the times of the Bible, some merchants would try to sell broken pottery by waxing the pieces together. (All it took was a good heat wave to reveal their deception.)

It’s amazing to me how a child can hear the message of the Gospel and accept it freely, whereas an adult will weigh the good news against all the idols that exist in their life, and up wrestling with the decision of trusting God for salvation.

That’s because a child’s heart is typically sincere.

With all this in mind, David’s words in Psalm 131 take on fresh meaning:

Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
    my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
    too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.

David was saying that, in his life, he was operating from the mindset of a child.

Not like a baby who screams for milk, or an adult who worries about paying for the milk.

Just a child who trusts God will supply the milk.

Sometimes it’s good to spend some time around kids to be reminded what types of attitudes help us draw closer to the kingdom.

 

 

Identity

“The Bible says that our real problem is that every one of us is building our identity on something besides Jesus.” ~ Tim Keller

Lately I’ve seen a slew of television commercials promoting genetic testing.

The idea is that you send a company some spit, and they send you back a report describing your ethnic roots.

It’s pretty amazing to think that we live in a day and age where we can garner such detailed information from saliva.

And these genetic tests are selling like hotcakes. People eagerly desire to know where they come from. Which is cool.

But I would venture to say that even more important than knowing our genetic identity is knowing our spiritual identity.

Sadly, for many of us our sense of spiritual identity is all but lost. Which explains why many of us venture through life a bit aimlessly.

Here are a few thoughts about who we are and where we come from:

  1. We were CREATED

We didn’t make ourselves. No, we were made outside of ourselves. By God.

Current culture loves to talk about how mankind is just another outgrowth of evolution, and that we are no more important than an amoeba.

But the Bible disagrees with that sentiment. It says that, in comparison to all other creatures, we were made uniquely:

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 ESV)

This means that mankind carries certain attributes that can only found in God. Things like the ability to love, understand justice or possess a conscience.

2. We were created for a PURPOSE

Simply put, God designed human beings to live in fellowship with Him.

Of course, that all blew apart when Adam and Eve made the choice to disobey God in the Garden.

Yet, God is not one to be foiled.

The Bible is essentially God’s story of his plan of restoring His relationship with humanity.

Bottom line, we exist to know, love, serve and worship God. And no other creature in the universe can do so like mankind.

Now, when we respond to God in faith, placing our trust in Christ, our identity expands.

New titles are added to our identification.

From God’s perspective we are beloved by Him and adopted by Him.

Essentially, we become family.

And, from the perspective of spiritual position before God, everything changes.

  • We go from condemned to forgiven.
  • We go from a being wreck to restored.
  • We go from guilty to justified.
  • We go from spiritually dead because of sin to spiritually alive because of Jesus
  • We go from a hostile relationship with God to one marked by peace

I like how the apostle Paul communicated how our identity transforms because of our relationship with Jesus in Romans 5:1-5

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

How’s that for a list of benefits?

The bottom line is this: our identity in Christ ought to change the way we think and live.

But first we must understand our Christian identity, then embrace it.

Until that happens, we are in danger of possessing an identity grounded in God, but not living as if it were true.

That was the story behind Disney’s movie, The Lion King, wasn’t it?

Young Simba was heir to the throne, but a combination of fear and shame (along with a bit of laziness) kept him from living his destiny.

It wasn’t until old Rafiki whacked him in the head a couple of times that Simba remembered who he was and started living like it again.

Here’s one last quote to stir some thinking about who we are before God:

“Whenever a person says to me: “My problem is that I do not love the Lord enough”, I usually respond: “No… your problem is that you don’t know how much the Lord loves you.” ~ Selwyn Hughes

That’s our identity in Christ…utterly loved by Jesus.

The question is, do we live like that?

New

We did it.

We closed the books on 2017 and unwrapped a brand new year.

With it, we anticipate new opportunities…and yet are sober (or experienced) enough to realize that we might face some new challenges.

Hello 2018!

The idea of newness is close to God’s heart.

In Lamentations 3:22-23, Jeremiah wrote out these words:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morninggreat is your faithfulness.

This verse was written at a time when the people of God were dearly paying the price for their sinfulness and disobedience to God.

But the author, Jeremiah realized that if a person, or a nation, would return to the ways of the Lord, they would discover fresh doses of God’s grace, compassion and mercy.

What a great encouragement to know that God is the God of the second (and third and fourth) chance!

The reality is God is steadfast and stable, always ready to bless a heart that turns towards Him.

This goes along with another verse that reminds us God’s passion to see new things occur:

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19)

When God is going about the business of “new,” He always seeks to make things better.

His desire is to pull us away from the barren wilderness and lead us to places that will restore and refresh us.

Another verse that speaks about newness is found in 2 Corinthians 5:17:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

This verse describes the fact the God is in the business of regeneration.

He infuses life where there was once only death.

When a person makes a decision for Jesus, their position before God changes. God views them differently:

  • Where they once were stained by sin, God now views them as righteous. (2 Cor. 5:21).
  • Where they once were condemned, God now sees them as free. (Romans 8:1).
  • Where they once were viewed as an enemy, God now calls them one his children (Romans 9:8).

At the moment of belief, and in the amount of time it takes an eye to twinkle, our status before God completely transformed.

The other aspect of this newness is that as we continue to grow as a believer, we will see new attitudes and actions informing our life.

Over time, we will be able to say something like, “I once was, but now I am…”

This only happens because of the regenerating work God does in us.

As we enter a new year, this question rumbles through my mind: how much of the new God offers us will we experience?

If making things new is God’s primary business, are we aligning our lives to receive all the new things He has to offer us?