Content & Images © 2008-2014 - Rachel Miller, Ink Road Originals LLC, All Rights Reserved

Monday, February 27, 2012

Giving Up Things for God

Last time, I asked the question, "What is my faith costing me?" while speaking about persecution for Christ.  Carrying that thought forward today, I want to reiterate that Christians have found something that cannot be bought at any price we can offer, but must be held at great cost to us.  This great personal cost doesn't begin at the point of persecution, for most of us.  It's a cost of daily living.

I mean that, on a daily basis, from the point of salvation and forever afterwards, "we must obey God rather than human beings" (Acts 5: 29 NIV).  This isn't another way to purchase our salvation, but rather a natural outpouring of gratitude, and an expression of the strength and freedom that God has given us through victory over our sins.  When we see the value and the blessings that come when we obey God at all costs, nothing other than obedience has real value to us.  Disobedience loses its appeal.

Obeying God has its costs in daily living, which may not be as extreme as martyrdom at the hands of persecutors.  We feel the pull when obedience costs us something we enjoy, such as pleasure, safety, power, or approval.  In case I'm being too vague, I'm talking about times when we stop ourselves from lying to avoid an uncomfortable discussion, or times when we speak gently to someone who angered us, instead of telling them off as we would like to do.  I'm talking about the decision to do our best on a test or our homework, or a project at work, rather than looking for ways to cheat or take shortcuts.  I'm talking about trusting God with our futures instead of looking for answers in the stars or a crystal ball, as it is trendy to do.  I'm talking about the decision to abstain from sex before marriage, even if the boyfriend or girlfriend walks away or we get ostracized by every cool person in school. Finally, I'm talking about the decision to stay true to our spouse, even when the person we married couldn't make us more angry, or hurt, or lonely than we feel right now.

Faith is a very costly thing, but it is worth the extravagance.

We most want to disobey God when it looks like everyone else is having more fun than we are.  When we reach this point, and it seems that obedience is too costly, we have to remind ourselves of why we are taking a stand for what is right.  We are standing up for something bigger than ourselves and our daily problems and needs.  We are standing with Christ, and honoring what is good.  We will never have to be ashamed of this!  What's more, by this gesture, we are casting off what is bad, so it can never hold us again.  Freedom from shame, freedom from guilt, freedom from cravings and things that don't fulfill us--these are only the first rewards we receive for our obedience!  Nothing can outshine them, no matter how attractive they may seem in the moment.

This time of year, many people give up things temporarily for God, but God has called us to do something even bigger.  He asks us to give up ourselves, from a million little "losses" every day at work, home, or school, to a spectacular last stand at the hands of our persecutors.  He has asked us to give up ourselves every day, forevermore.  God wants us to value Him above all other things.  Can we do that?
Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them,“no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18: 28-30 NIV)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Weekend Snippet: Bought Without Money or Cost

Earlier today, I read another news report about the impending death penalty for Iranian Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani and contemplated the response this brave man gave his captors, "Repent means to return. What should I return to? To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ?"  According to the wording of the constitution of Iran, he has been labeled a "national apostate" because he was conceived by Iranian Muslims, but converted to Christianity later.  This makes him eligible for death by hanging if he does not "repent" or recant his faith.  His sentence could be carried out at any time.

I bring this up to call attention to those who suffer for the cause of Christ, especially in Eastern countries.  I won't deny that some of us Westerners do face mortal threats and other extremes of persecution for our faith, but generally, we enjoy relative security from our governments, and even a small measure of protection from our neighbors.  We should use this freedom wisely, and pray for those who do not have what we've been given.

I was thinking about this in light of a passage I recently re-read in my personal Bible study.  Chapter 55 in Isaiah talks about the extension of the new covenant to include Gentiles, such as myself and Mr. Nadarkhani.  It begins with an invitation to "buy wine and milk without money and without cost" (v. 1), extended to all who are thirsty, and even those who have no money.

Obviously, this marketplace is a symbol for a spiritual gift extended to all people, a foreshadowing of Christ's salvation "to all who believe" (Romans 3: 22 NIV).  There is another interesting element in this invitation, which I wanted to point out today.  There is no payment being required, because nothing could pay for this, yet those who are invited, are invited to buy.

I looked this up in Matthew Henry's commentary, and his take on it was that the recipients were called "buyers" because there is a cost for following God, and the thing we are seeking has a value.  What God offers is not to be taken lightly, like we sometimes do with free things.

This is an often misunderstood aspect of Christianity.  The sacrifice of Christ is free to us, and we cannot purchase our salvation through any of our own efforts, but when we choose to follow Him, there will be moments when we have to fight to keep our faith, and resist challenges to our faith and life.  There is a cost for following Christ.  Mr. Nadarkhani is currently facing it.

Some people might wonder why Christians hang on like they do in the heat of persecution.  The next verse in Isaiah answers that question: "Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare" (Isaiah 55: 2 NIV).  What Christians have found is too good to give up again, and it is too good to ever want the old fare again.  Since it is so valuable, to the extent that it is not equaled by anything else, and satisfaction for our deepest needs can be found nowhere else, it is worth any sacrifice in order to keep it.

This is why the Iranian Christian's profession of faith while he was on trial is so blunt, to the extent that his words likely troubled those he was talking to.  Frankly, when you realize that something is rubbish, you lose patience with efforts to "make nice" and call it something good, and that is what I see here.  He has found something more valuable and satisfying than Islam, and it even outweighs concerns for his family and his own life.  He is trying to challenge his captors, so they will see his certainty, and thirst for what he has found.

I don't know how this is going to end, but right now, there are still things that Christians should pray for in this situation.  I pray that every word Mr. Nadarkhani speaks to his jailers will come from God, so there will be a good return on what is said (see Isaiah 55: 9-11), and I am praying for a miracle, not unlike when Peter walked out of prison aided by an angel (Acts 12: 1-19).  If it comes to his execution, I pray for peace and comfort in the hearts of this whole family, so that no one falters or loses faith over this.

I know that God is real, and His power is not checked by any human challenge, so whatever comes, this battle has already been won.  It is not occasion for despair, but it should be sobering for other Christians.  It should cause us to examine our own hearts and lives, and ask the question, "What is my faith costing me?"  If the answer isn't clear, then maybe our faith is too weak, and we should be taking a stronger stand.  After all, we have found the Living Water, and it is too good to give up easily.
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4: 13, 14 NIV)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Distracted by Work

Someone I knew in college once remarked, "I wish we didn't have to get jobs and work all day. Jobs take away from Bible study time and prayer." It was meant as a joke, but it had a kernel of truth in it.  I am not saying it is bad to work and earn our keep--laziness is not described as a virtue in the Bible--but I am saying that work can sometimes be distracting.

Sometimes our present stressful circumstances, including projects and problems at work, school, or home, can so consume us and take up our focus that we have great difficulty pulling ourselves away from them when it is time to do other things, like reading the Bible or praying.  I don't know about you, but it seems that if I am going to be distracted by work-related thoughts, they will most-likely come right in the middle of my devotional time, or when I've set aside time to write a devotional.

It seems that the moment I try to shut out the world and my worries, I'm suddenly besieged with thoughts like, "oh, I just remembered," or "I meant to go check on that," or "I need to make a note about that project before I forget."  Pretty soon, an hour has passed, and nothing but more work has taken place.  I still feel stressed.  In fact, I probably feel more stressed, because I've added a feeling of personal failure on top of my list of problems to deal with.

Today, I was feeling this same kind of harried distraction when I sat down to pray and write this post.  Perhaps guided by my frustration, I decided to look up the word "distracted" in my NIV concordance.  Guess what I found?  It apparently only occurs once in this translation of the Bible, to describe Martha, when she was busily working while Mary just sat in the presence of Jesus (see Luke 10: 38-42).  The Bible says, "She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, 'Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!'”(Luke 10: 39, 40 NIV).

Frequently, we look at Martha and click our tongues disapprovingly, forgetting that she was like us, doing the kind of work most of us have to do at least a couple of times a day.  She was cooking dinner and making beds!  However, when Jesus rebuked Martha, I don't see a word against housekeeping. I just see a word against working at the wrong time.  It was time to pull up a chair and spend time with Him, letting all other things rot if necessary.  They could all be done later, or not at all, because the most important thing at that moment was receiving the gift Jesus had brought to the house--Himself.

When it's time to work, we should work.  However, when it's time to focus on God, we should not be doing other things.  Food rots, and a meal, even a large banquet, can only satisfy us for a few hours at the most. We all know we can fall asleep in our seats, so beds are great, but not necessary for our survival.  The point I'm making is this: daily work is transient; it forever has to be updated or repeated.  It is good, for a time and a purpose, but it isn't eternal.  The greater work is the development of our faith in Jesus Christ.

I'm sure that later, all the guests got food and a place to wash their feet and sleep while they stayed at that house.  It might have not been the well-choreographed event Martha had envisioned, but everyone went away satisfied. Why?  Because everyone received something eternal from Christ that night.  The rest of the work faded in importance.  I'm sure it got done, but the point is that it should not distract, or detract, from the more important work of knowing God.

This is a hard lesson I don't think I've learned quite yet, but awareness of the problem may be my first step toward a solution. Obsessing about work can become an addictive habit, but it doesn't have to stay that way.  Here's some solutions I think will help us focus during devotional time, and I've tried to find scriptures to back them up:
  • Shut out anything that could remind you of work while you are trying to focus on prayer and Bible reading. Turn off your computer.  If you are reading an online Bible, close all other tabs on your browser.  If you are sitting in a crowded room, move to a quiet one and shut the door. Take your example from Christ Himself, who got away from the crowds to pray. "Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: 'Everyone is looking for you!' Jesus replied, 'Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.' (Mark 1: 35-38 NIV).
  • If your mind is filled with worries or fears about work during your devotional time, confess these thoughts to God. Don't try to "handle it" before you go to God, because chances are, the worries and fears will be endless if you try to defeat them yourself. "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (Philippians 4: 6 NIV).
  •  Set aside time that is your devotional time, and keep this habit, even on busy days.  There will always be work, and there will always be time to worry about work and think about work. However, there will never be enough time to spend with God if you don't make the time. This is what Mary was doing, and what Daniel did, perhaps on his lunch hour. "Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before" (Daniel 6: 10 NIV).

Friday, February 17, 2012

Weekend Snippet: The Return of the Green

In the time of the prophet Joel, Israel was facing destruction brought on by a drought that mirrored their spiritual condition.  They were hopeless, but Joel could foresee a time when the green could return to both the landscape and their hearts. The problem? Misplaced hopes...

Monday, February 13, 2012

Jesus, Our First Valentine

As Valentine's Day draws near, our thoughts turn to contemplating love and romance.  The season may not be so sweet for those spending it alone, especially if they are showered with well-meaning but misplaced condolences for their "solitude."  Even those who have a sweetheart my find it doesn't quite live up to the perfect fairytale hype when life gets in the way. It's seasons like this when we need to be reminded of what really matters.  I know it may sound trite, but I will say it again--God still wants to be your valentine.

Valentine's day started out as a religious holiday, and centered around some martyrs who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs on February 14th.  It served as a replacement for a secular holiday that came around the same time.  We have Chaucer to thank for giving us the romantic elements of the holiday as it is celebrated now.

So, turning back to the roots of Valentine's Day, we ought to remember that love in its purest form is better exemplified by the cross than by a box of chocolates.  Even though chocolate and flowers are sweet, the kind of love that lasts is the kind that comes from the Lord. Allow me to remind you of the characteristics of His supernatural love:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7 NIV)
 Look closely at each of these qualities.  This is no ordinary kind of love that is merely motivated by physical attraction or waves of emotion.  It is sacrifice and giving.  Godly love sticks around in hard times, and it shines even when it is not returned. It is applied when it is not deserved, and it is shaped by integrity, justice, and graciousness.  When it is put to the test, it is found to be equally emotion and belief, unshakeable, lacking in nothing, perfect. Simply put, it is covered in the fingerprints of its maker, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Jesus, our first Valentine, holds the designation of being the only one in history to have truly died for love--I mean love in its elemental form.  He loves us still!  Those who know Him will never have to say that they are alone and unloved on February 14th.  It's just not true.

Where does that leave us?  I see only a challenge to imitate that kind of love, whether we are dealing with a sweetheart or a stranger.  Think it's impossible? Well, it would be, without God's help, "but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19: 26 NIV).  When we know the Lord and submit to His instruction, applying ourselves to obey Him every day, no matter what, we will begin to love as He loves.  This kind of pure love comes first when we love and honor God with our very beings, and humbly open every part of ourselves to His scrutiny and correction.  The rest falls into place after we submit.

This Valentine's Day, we ought to challenge ourselves with the "love" passage in 1 Corinthians. The time of this earth is growing shorter each day; never before has it been so critical to pay attention to the lesson. Do we personally know the author of love? Are we living up to His perfect example?  Have we asked God how He would have us improve?  Let us settle this today.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1: 9-11 NIV)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Let Nothing Move You

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. --1 Corinthians 15: 58 NIV

I must confess something. The year 2012 has so far been a pretty discouraging year for me.  I started it out at a watch night service, in which the pastor preached the message, "No Fear This Year."  Right there, I resolved to finish some projects God had put on my heart, and to keep up some great things God had been doing in my life.  No sooner had I made those plans, and even while the words of the sermon were still in my ears, something dreadful and fearful rose up in my path to block me.  After that knocked me off my feet, something else rose up.  I feel like I've spent every day this year either dusting myself off from one crisis or bracing for impact as the next one begins.

I don't say all that to discourage you, but rather to call attention to this kind of scenario, in case this describes you.  It seems like life is telling me to give up, labeling me as ineffective, and generally filling me with fear.  I've been told by well-meaning people that this is not the empowered life I am supposed to be living.  I've asked God many times to help me through, but rather than marching into battle and watching my enemies scatter at my glare, I've been barely pulling through.  Talk about your Pyrrhic victory.

If this is you, I'm writing here to tell you to stand firm in your faith and in your relationship with God.  This is a supernatural situation, whether it is an attack of Satan or a test of your faithfulness.  It will pass.  Don't let discouragement, fear, trouble, pain, or chaos move you from the path of serving the Lord, that is, the path you know He has set your feet upon.  Maybe you don't see the results today, but your labor in the Lord is not in vain!

If you feel like tomorrow might be your last defeat, I've got news for you--it won't be. There are so many Biblical examples of people who had nothing left to give, but when they leaned on God for strength, they were successful (for example, see Nehemiah 6:9-16).  When you seem to have nothing but God, you are strongest, because God is stronger than you, and He can do what your spent strength failed to do (2 Corinthians 12: 9 NIV). Don't give up!  Your enemy is defeated already if you commit it to God's hands.
When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked.
“Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6: 15-17)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Weekly Snippet: Beauty in the Design

Recently I had occasion to closely examine a flower called a "Protea." I wish I had taken a picture.  For those who may have never seen one, it looks like a ball of spikes which curl upward toward the center, like a red or yellow pincushion.  The petals of this flower are these short, fluffy reddish or yellowish tubes, which fit so closely together that they look like a fluffy ball that these "pins" are stuck in.

Anyway, these particular native South African plants were grown in Hawaii, in cool soil but warm sun, and attract hummingbirds in this environment. To me, they smell like pineapple-buttered popcorn.  I'm not sure I would call them the most floral-looking of flowers, but they have their own charm.  God made them!

This got me thinking.  The Protea is, above all things, an intricately-built machine. It opens with mathematical clockwork, and every piece is uniquely positioned for maximum effect.  It was made according to an intricate and amazing pattern.  There's something stunning in the way the spikes formed by the pistols line up and look the same from every angle.  I see obvious signs of the care and love that formed this lowly creature, even though it is here today and dried up tomorrow.

When we look at things like that, we should recognize the message God is sending us through His creations. If He cared enough to make flowers bloom the way they do, then we should be assured that He cares about everything, small and large, that happens to us (Matthew 6: 28-32).  Take heart, my friends!  There's a pattern and a plan unfolding in our lives--perhaps so slowly that we can't perceive it, like the petals of a flower--and when it is done, we will see the beauty in the design, and praise the workmanship of the Designer (Philippians 1: 4-6).  Let us submit to the direction of our Designer, so the work He is doing can be carried out smoothly to the end.

The following are two YouTube videos of flowers blooming on time-lapse film.  The first one may have taken place over several hours; the second one only took minutes. I think you'll be blown away by how these "machines" work.  God does magnificent things!


 The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy. --Psalm 65: 8 NIV