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Friday, July 29, 2011

Weekly Snippet: 5 Verses to Strengthen You

It's the weekend, and like usual, it is a little bit hectic around here.  Today I watched a friend successfully defend her master's thesis (yay!), and it made me think of a few verses that might encourage and strengthen my readers throughout the weekend and into the coming week.  I call these "power verses," because they remind you, not of your own human power, but rather, of God's power over any situation you might be facing.  So, without further ado...

  • "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." (Philippians 4: 13 KJV)
  • "He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.  You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.  A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you." (Psalm 91: 4-7 NIV 2011)
  • "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go." (Joshua 1: 9 NIV 2011)
  • "For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline." (2 Timothy 1: 7 NIV 2011)
  • "The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?" (Psalm 27: 1 NIV 2011)

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Truth that Never Gets Old

Today, I mailed a package to Australia and realized as I left the post office (only 5 minutes later) that I have become an old pro at international shipments for my business.  What used to be a nerve-wracking hour-long business went over so smoothly I hardly felt it.

As I drove home, I reflected on how the excitement and newness fades from most things with repetition.  For the most part this is a good thing (who needs to stress out over the same situation over and over again?), but when it comes to our personal relationship with Christ, it is a dangerous situation to find ourselves in.

The Bible cautions us to keep our relationship with the Lord new and fresh.  It is not enough to hate evil and try to live righteously, although these things are commended by God.  We must cling to our "first love," that is, that kind of faith that is full of passion and energy, like a new romance (Revelation 2:2-6).  We cannot treat our relationship with God like an old habit or a well-worn shoe.  If we let our feelings grow stale, we could eventually lose them.  We especially run the risk of forgetting God when other things come along that seem more "exciting."  At some juncture, we could find ourselves disillusioned and lost, wondering how we got here.

The recommended cure for a weakening faith is to seek the personal presence of the Lord.  This comes through prayer and revisiting the words of the Bible.  Unlike other things that seem to fade with repetition, the Bible works to strengthen our love for the Lord, like a deep heart-to-heart conversation.  The more we read, the deeper the relationship becomes, as we come to understand how much God loves us and how far ahead He planned for us.

The Bible was written thousands of years ago, but it addresses the concerns of today, and each time we look into it, we see a fitting answer.  I speak from experience!  The Bible reveals unchanging truth, but that truth is living and dynamic, like our relationship with the Source of that truth should also aspire to be.

This brings me back to my first point, about how we should have a relationship with God that is not unlike a new love, a new romance.  A friend on Facebook reminded me the other day of the verse, "An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips," (Proverbs 24: 26 NIV 2011).  The Bible is full of honest answers about us, about our questions, and about what God thinks on every issue.  I can't think of a clearer revelation of God's feelings for us, and if we approach Him with the same honesty, I can't think of a clearer way to convey our feelings to Him in turn.  He wants the truth from us, and we need the truth from Him, just as even old human relationships benefit from the special intimacy of a kiss.  It's no coincidence that God made human relationships to reflect deeper truths about Himself.

If your relationship with God seems to be suffering from a lack of freshness and strength, I encourage you today to seek out those honest answers from the Lord.  Spend some time reading and contemplating the Bible, and you will forget all the interceding things that could draw you away into loneliness and ruin.

Until next time, this is me reminding you to stay savvy and seek out that first love you have had with the Lord!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Don't Let It Drop

I am aware that we are nearing the end of the summer school semester, and several people I know are scrambling to finish major projects by the deadlines.  It's also crunch time for a lot of other people, from business people who are gearing up for the winter season (yes, it seems early to the rest of us, but starting now means fewer headaches during the holidays), to kids getting ready to go back to school in the fall, to people trying to move before the winter term starts up again.

In the midst of all of these deadlines and distractions, it can be easy to let things "drop" that seem less-important.  Please don't misunderstand me.  Some obligations really should be neglected when we are this busy, such as things that prevent us from keeping deadlines and promises.

On the other hand, sometimes developing our relationship with God seems to shift to the back burner when we are facing a pressing deadline or a major life change.  We get busy trying to get the project done, and somehow it takes everything out of us.  We need to recharge our batteries, and after a long day of work, we tend to want to blow off steam reading a book, watching television, or just hanging out and talking with friends.

These aren't necessarily bad things to do, but if we want to recharge, these things won't completely revive us.

The hope that keeps us going doesn't come from earthly sources.  This earth will keep taking the wind out of us almost daily until it comes to an end.  It wasn't designed to give us hope and strength, but rather, it points us back to the source (Psalm 19:1-4).  A lovely mountain view might cheer us after the clamor of a busy street, but it doesn't answer our questions or address our hurts and longings.  It is only a cheap imitation of what we need!

The Bible says, "Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint" (Isaiah 40: 30-31 NIV 2011).  God restores youthfulness in our souls, and He has the power to keep us going.

If you are facing a marathon of bone-wearying proportions today, I am asking you to take a few minutes of your time before you start the race, pouring out that weariness and dread at Jesus' feet.  Ask Him to be with you through this project or journey in your life, and ask Him to give you the strength to finish well and finish with rejoicing.  Keep your priorities straight and put God first, because you need Him most.  In times of business and weariness, don't let your relationship with God drop!

It is God who arms me with strength and keeps my way secure.  He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he causes me to stand on the heights.  He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze.  You make your saving help my shield, and your right hand sustains me; your help has made me great.  You provide a broad path for my feet, so that my ankles do not give way. (Psalm 18: 32-36 NIV 2011)

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Importance of Understanding

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.--Proverbs 2: 6 NIV 2011

So often concepts like life experience, school learning, and relationship building are separated in our minds from religion and the knowledge of God, but I see in ever-increasing measure in my own life that these things are all from God, and all attributable to God.  They come to teach us wisdom, knowledge, and understanding, and so I have to call them divinely-arranged appointments.  This is so obvious, even fundamental, but I tend not to look deeply enough at this until a crisis arises to challenge my thinking.

I could go on about all three qualities here, but I feel I have written about the first two qualities extensively before on Savvy Sheep.  Today I wanted to focus on understanding, because I think that is something God has been developing in me lately.

 What is Understanding?

In the verse at the beginning of this chapter, the word for understanding is teb-oo-naw`, a derivative of the Hebrew word for intelligence.  It isn't simply about intellectual brainpower, however.  It is specifically talking about reasoning, argument, discretion, or a skillful handling of the facts.  In other words, understanding isn't just learning facts; it is about knowing how to put together what we have observed and gleaned.

Understanding makes knowledge meaningful, just as wisdom governs what we do with the concepts we understand.  When we say that understanding comes from the mouth of God, we are really saying that God is our teacher, directing us toward the connections we need to make.  If we try to steer ourselves, we many never make the right connections. 

From Where Does Understanding Come?
Human beings are made to glean facts from the very beginning, but they need someone to teach them how to put them together in the right patterns.  From scientific breakthroughs to intercultural communication, I see that an ingredient outside of our usual line of thinking is necessary for understanding.  I attribute that to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who reveals things that God has hidden (Luke 10:21).

I don't believe that the Holy Spirit only reveals things to those who know the Lord, but I think He always brings understanding to accomplish God's purposes in this world.  He spoke a few words and the world was created, so the understanding that comes from His mouth is no different!  It proceeds from His mouth and doesn't return until it has accomplished His purpose (Isaiah 55: 10-11).

Seek Wisdom, Get Understanding
I chose the title for this blog post after doing a Google search on it.  Apparently, someone published a handbook on Chinese Buddhist and Confucian teachings called "The Importance of Understanding"  back in the 1960s.  I wanted to bring that up because I want to contrast that perspective with the Christian one.

Based on what I have read about it, the handbook seems to put a lot of emphasis on knowledge and learning facts and folk wisdom about life.  While this can sometimes be good, it could be very misleading if the ancients were mistaken.  Worse still, it seems to blur the line between understanding (skill with handling and assembling facts) and rote learning (gathering established knowledge and keeping it).  By the end of things, we are being directed to memorize what other people have ruled is the truth.

When we seek human sources of understanding, and try to will ourselves to understand, it seems we can only go as far as the limited people we call our teachers.  We are stunted in our learning, and no breakthroughs can occur.  But if we let God teach us--and He knows everything--suddenly new learning comes.  We have to sacrifice pride and let God lead before what we are doing will come to anything!

Today, are you facing a situation or a problem that seems to have no solution?  If you've been seeking understanding from human sources, and it hasn't resolved the problem, I want to remind you to go to the pure source, that is, straight from God's mouth, to resolve this problem.  Ask God to reveal it to you, since it is within His ability to do so, and let Him guide you to the solution beyond your grasp.  It is within His power.  If it is also in His plan for you, He will make the breakthrough come.

As always, this is me reminding you to stay savvy and lean on God's understanding!

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.--Proverbs 3: 5, 6 NIV 2011

Monday, July 11, 2011

I Forgot, but God Didn't

Try as I might to organize myself and make plans, it seems that I am still really good at forgetting things from time to time.  I mean, sometimes it seems like I forget more of my obligations than I remember.  To list some of my failures, I have been known to get so busy writing that I forget to eat, I have forgotten to study for a college-level test before (this was with a planner!), and more recently, this past Friday I forgot to post something here on Savvy Sheep.

Is this like you, too?  I hope someone will agree with me, so I don't have to feel like I'm losing my mind.  I think the problem is not so much a memory issue as it is a focus issue.  When I forgot that test, it was not out of habit or even carelessness.  A friend had needed me to be there for her the night before, and by the end of it, I had put my whole focus on that, to the neglect of other things.

Our Lack of Focus

When something gets so huge that it engulfs our focus, we tend to forget, and neglect, the other things that need our attention.  This can happen with housecleaning, it can happen with relationships, and it can even happen with our relationship with God.

Yes, in the spirit of humble confession, I have been known to neglect my relationship with God in the midst of busy times with my work and so forth.  Unfortunately, I think this is also a fairly universal problem of human beings.  The saddest part of it all is that it doesn't pay to neglect God.  Nothing else is truly satisfying.   Even when I open the Bible and it convicts my heart of sin, I appreciate the concern for me that went into those words.  As David wrote, "your rod and your staff, they comfort me," (Psalm 23:4 NIV 2011).

God's Absolute Focus

Contrast our lack of focus with God's absolute focus.  From the moment Adam and Eve sinned, God set into action a plan that He carried out at the perfect time.  He didn't forget the people who forgot Him.  All the time that they were suffering in the bondage they had foolishly chosen, He was working out a solution, and He didn't leave even one detail, not even one word, to chance (Romans 5:6; Isaiah 55: 10-11).

And now that He has accomplished the salvation that He had planned, He is still working on other plans He made.  It is clear by what He does that people are high on God's priority list, and other things are not stealing His focus.  In Jesus' words, "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.  Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows," (Luke 12: 6, 7 NIV 2011).

God focuses so much on us because He loves us.  Just as we can spot our loved ones in a crowd or even from great distances, God can filter out all the distractions and see only our hearts and our needs.  He loves us and cherishes us.

The Meaning of Neglect

What a terrible thing it is to neglect God!  It is so important to spend time with God, meditating on His word and making His thoughts our rules for living.  His ways are good, and obeying Him protects us from the suffering of punishment.  Taking time to study His word changes our focus and transforms our lives into the healthy pattern that He desires for us.

Going deeper still, His ways are the only things in this world that have value, and this is proven every time we come back to Him.  All else fades in transience and disappointment.  His word, eternally enthroned as Christ (John 1:1), lasts forever, but the ways of the world will always crumble and die.

Going even deeper still, when we neglect God, we are neglecting someone who loves us more than the people who love us most.  We are insulting our closest friend, and putting off the God who loves us so much that He sent His son to die for us.  There is a note of betrayal there, and the stench of sin. Keith Green sung about it in his song, "You Love the World (and You're Ignoring Me)."  Here is the video:

Today, let us take our focus off of the distractions of the world, and reject the things that corrupt us.  Maybe we forget things, but let's not forget God.  He hasn't forgotten us.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Celebrate Freedom on the 4th of July

Today is Independence Day, the U.S. celebration of the formation of our country.  I'm thankful today for the freedom of religion that I get to enjoy today, because of the sacrifices of soldiers and their families, from 1776 to the present.

I enjoy a certain freedom that lets me join other Christians in my country in public worship and I am protected when I openly express my religious ideas in places like this blog.  I know there are many places in this world where the freedoms I exercise are not present, and Christians have to hide to avoid persecution.

There's one thing I have in common with all of my fellow Christians around the world today.  We are free in Jesus, because His sacrifice freed us from the bondage of sin.  Our bodies may not always be safe from trouble, but our souls are safely in His keeping.

He [Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
   because he has anointed me
   to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
   and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4: 16-20 NIV 2011; referencing Isaiah 62: 1, 2; 58:6)
"So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8: 36 NIV 2011)!  Amen to that, and thank you, Lord, for that freedom.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Weekly Snippet: Avoid the Appearance of Evil

Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.  Abstain from all appearance of evil.  And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. --1 Thessalonians 5: 21-23 KJV

I grew up hearing this passage in the King James Version, rather than the New International Version (which I most commonly use on this site).  The newer translations say to "avoid all evil," but to me, the KJV is even more strict in its cautions.  Don't just avoid all evil; avoid even what might appear to be evil.  Together with the sentence right before that caution, the passage seems to be promoting circumspection--that is, looking at the situation from all angles before proceeding.

The language is very much against following our impulses and jumping in with both feet, unlike what the whole world seems to be teaching us these days.

Then there is that last sentence, about being sanctified wholly and being preserved blameless until the Second Coming.  From my understanding, what Paul was saying is that circumspection and our own outward attempts at obedience are not enough to preserve us and sanctify us.  The will to test every situation to see if it lines up with the Word of God, the strength to hold on to what is good, and the ability to avoid everything that is evil are all supernatural heart changes, not simply behavioral changes.  We are talking about a change brought about by God that starts from the inside, from the soul, and has the effect of changing outward behavior.

So this passage seems to say that it is not possible to make ourselves blameless, even by watching ourselves and fighting the impulses that lead us into sin.  The heart must be blameless before the whole person and their lives can be called blameless.  Is there other support for this teaching in the Bible?  The Pharisees in Jesus' day were known for their spotless public adherence to the law, but Jesus said to them, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean," (Matthew 25-26 NIV 2011).  By the end of that interaction, the inside of their cups, figuratively speaking, had been poured out even in their actions, so their outward blamelessness had been stripped from them.

I believe in consciously obeying God, not just waiting for God to help us to obey Him.  I believe God wants us to examine ourselves for sinful behavior and root it out, but I also know from personal experience that this is no small task.

Obedience really has three parts.  First we must become aware of a problem, and that means we have to read the Bible and compare ourselves to it, like looking at our own reflection in the mirror (1 James 1: 22-25).  We cannot obey God without first reading, hearing, and knowing the commandments He has instructed us to obey (Romans 10: 17). Second, my personal experience and Bible reading has taught me that we should pray for God to help us to remember His precepts at the time the challenge occurs, since He has promised us that help  (John 14: 25-26).  It is easy to forget teachings like "anger but sin not" when someone is shouting at us and baiting us to lose our tempers, but obedience is not obedience if it vanishes at the first challenge!  God can bring to our minds, even at that moment, what He has required of us, if we ask Him.  A final step in obeying God is developing the humility to listen to God when He tells us what to do in the heat of a fight or challenge.  Even when we have learned what is right, and asked God to help us remember to obey, we have to do what He says through the prompting of our consciences. 

I believe that God can transform our hearts and our habits, if we let Him, until He has truly made us into new creations (2 Corinthians 5: 17-19).  We avoid the appearance of evil and the reproach of sin by first having past guilt removed through Christ's atonement, and next by guarding our lives from further guilt by following the Lord's instructions.  If we don't open our hearts to His criticism and conviction, He cannot wholly sanctify us--that is, transform us from the inside out--and we will be subject to reproach at His coming.  Let us prepare our hearts for Him!

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. (Psalm 119: 105 NIV 2011)