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Monday, February 25, 2013

A Changed Life Testimony Begins in the Heart

 At once [Saul, later called Paul] began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God [following his conversion]. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.  --Acts 9: 20-22 NIV

It is normal for people to look for patterns in past behavior to try to predict future behavior, and a good part of that analysis goes into trying to understand other people's intent.  The past few weeks have been a parade of examples of this system breaking down, and so today I wanted to talk about a rather delicate subject called "life testimony" for new Christians.

I'm not talking about the story of your conversion, which you might share in a church setting, or among friends. I'm talking about the things you say and do every day, and what they imply to unsympathetic onlookers.  Your words need to express the intention of your heart, and your actions need to follow through, or else your observers will doubt your claims that your life has changed.  As the Bible cautions, "A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold," (Proverbs 22: 1 NIV).

This is an especially important lesson for new Christians, because they often have a negative history of words and deeds to overcome.  How can an individual's "bad reputation" be sanctified and purified after that person begins to follow Christ?

Saul: Ex-murderer, New Evangelist?

In the weeks, months, and possibly years immediately after Saul's conversion, Christians and Jewish non-Christians were skeptical of him, to say the least. Only a short time before, he had acquired a reputation for hunting down, imprisoning, and murdering Christians. He even acted as the legal witness at the first Christian martyrdom, the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7: 58 ; 8: 1). 

It's no wonder, then, that Saul, later called Paul, would spend a lot of his time proving his intentions at the beginning of his ministry.  The leaders of the early church hesitated to acknowledge him and even questioned his conversion (Acts 9: 26). They were afraid of him!

Eventually, though, they got over their fear and accepted Saul.  A big part of that came from the friendship and support of a man the believers had nicknamed "Barnabas."  But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Before Saul/Paul had really been established as a Christian (while there were still "rough edges" as we might say), he changed dramatically.  Instead of trying to prove why Christianity was wrong using might, he was trying to prove it right by using every bit of the rhetoric and education he had available.  Instead of being an outspoken critic of Jesus, word spread quickly through the synagogues (the Jewish meeting houses) that he was talking highly of Jesus.  He went from having the Sanhedrin (the Jewish high counsel) and all the Jewish leaders and scholars on his side, to having them hunt him to kill him, escaping narrowly with his life (Acts 9: 22-25).

I think it was this level of life-and-death commitment to his faith, together with some guidance from God, that convinced Barnabas and the early Christians to accept their former enemy.

To Modern-Day Sauls

To those of you who are new Christians with a lot of negative reputation to overcome, I can say that Saul (aka Paul) charted the way for you.  It is possible to gain a new reputation as a Christian that overshadows everything in the past.

 This comes from a total break with the past bad habits.  Paul let his new intentions be known to all, and then he followed through with action.  This wasn't a superficial change, meant to manipulate people, but rather a heart change that was coming out in the way he spoke and behaved.

 Paul couldn't have followed a Savior he didn't love, and he certainly couldn't have sacrificed friendships and potentially his own life to follow a cause he didn't believe in. Paul loved Jesus and he wanted to be more like Jesus, who he had made Lord of his life.  Because of this love, Paul wanted to please his Savior instead of hurting Him by persisting in all the things that made Christ's sacrifice necessary.  He wanted to honor the wishes of the God he had put in charge of his life. Without this deep love as a motive, Paul could not have changed.

When we recognize the love of our Savior, we cannot help but love Him back, and His love begins to change us.  His very goodness makes us reconsider our priorities and analyze our motives, through the gentle prompting of the Holy Spirit. Jesus makes us want to be honorable, as a way of showing our respect and admiration for our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit shows us what changes need to happen.  This change is almost like a heart transplant, it is so dramatic in its effects (Ezekiel 36: 25-27). It is only logical that these changes in our hearts and thinking (Romans 12: 2) come out in our words and actions.  How can our hearts believe one thing and our mouths say we believe another?

Let me emphasize again that it is not possible to change our behavior or reputation in this way simply because we just want to be accepted among Christians or get a "rep" for being a good person.  At least, with such shallow motives for change, the transformation won't last.  We can only change in a permanent way because we know God and love Him, and because He has transformed our hearts.  Other people only come into this picture as a side-effect or afterthought.

So, today, if you are wanting a new, redeemed life testimony, know that it begins with a love for your Savior that lets Jesus move in and change you.  When He tells you to change, take His advice, and when He moves you to speak or act according to His pattern for your life, obey Him. Then watch the old reputation fall away like a bad memory.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Because God Said So

When I was small, some of the most dreaded words I had to hear were "because I said so."  It hit me hard sometimes. I really wanted to know why I had been barred from doing what I felt was harmless fun.  It seemed arbitrary and an insult to my intelligence.  Sometimes I went ahead and did it anyway, just to see if it was really so bad, and a lot of times I got hurt, just as predicted.

In reality, "because I said so" is just a way parents cut to the chase. For instance, "Don't run out in front of cars because I said so," actually means, "Don't run out in front of cars because you could die before this argument is over. I don't have time to show you the reasons, but the fact that I care if you die should be enough reason to trust me on this."  In their haste to protect, they don't have time to lecture or educate, and instead opt to explain later, when there is time and maturity enough for their child to accept the wisdom behind their conclusions.

Before that maturity comes, any attempts to reason are pretty much a waste of breath with headstrong children, even though their parents make good points.  At the root of it, children are completely lacking in foresight, and need someone else to see the consequences for them.  Rules (if they are good ones) are not arbitrary, unfair, or insulting to the intelligence, but they might seem that way to someone who hasn't lived to see the consequences.  Ironically, rules and laws are designed precisely to that purpose--to prevent others from seeing those consequences!

I bring this up because I've been hearing a lot of talk lately about how God's rules are arbitrary, unfair, and insulting to human intelligence.  While it is true that God seems to say, "Do not sin...because I said so," in a few places in the Bible, it might be that God didn't want to waste precious time debating the ins and outs of sin while people were at that very moment reaping the consequences.  It might also be that He has shared His reasons, but we aren't mature enough to accept them yet.

In one place in the Bible we read, "Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes," (James 4: 14 NIV). This means we have a very short time to get things right, to learn maturity, and to understand the cautions God has given to us.  It just might be too short of a time for some.  What a shame it is when someone reaches the end of their life, and they've wasted all their time arguing instead of moving forward and accomplishing things! How pitiful it is when what little they got done was overshadowed by their foolishness that brought about their end. That's why it's better not to waste so much time debating things, and learn maturity instead. Part of maturity is finding a good guide and imitating that leadership.

In another place in the Bible we are told, "There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death," (Proverbs 14: 12 NIV).  This shows one good reason why we should trust God as our leader and guide.  In this passage, God shows that He is mature and old enough to see the consequences of things, just like a parent, and that He used that knowledge to raise a warning about something really bad that was coming. Just like the parenting example I shared earlier, God cared that we might die from sin.

So when I still hear arguments like, "This hasn't caused harm to me yet," and "It feels fun and everyone else is getting away with it," they sound like childlike arguments.  And yes, I've tried to use them myself, at times.  That still doesn't invalidate the point that was originally made: Sin is bad for you. Don't do it.  And what God means by that is, "I said don't do it because I care if you die. I have seen that sin starts out fun, but it leads to broken relationships, grief, misery, addiction, pain, disease, loneliness, darkness, hunger, poverty, loss of purpose, loss of meaning, loss of joy, loss of justice...and I have seen that death was the only logical end to such a mess, because such miserable, filthy, catastrophic consequences should be snuffed out completely for the sake of preserving what is good... and because I cared about what happens to you, and because I cared enough to defend what is good, that should be reason enough to listen to me."

So, before another round of debate begins, just stop and ask yourself why you've got to know "why," before you can let God save you.  Don't stand there thinking too long, either--if God was in a hurry, maybe you ought to be!

Monday, February 11, 2013

My Life Is Based on a True Story

I found a funny "writerly" saying today: "My life is based on a true story." It has a double meaning for me, firstly because I got tired of living in fiction a long time ago, and secondly because I finally figured out what the true story was. I bet you're getting curious.  I hope you'll read on.

First, let me explain what I mean by "living in fiction." The old saying, "Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction," kicks in when I try to talk about life.  I have known people whose alliterative names could never make it into a book, because an editor would throw it out saying, "No one will believe such a person exists, or should be taken seriously." I have lived through unbelievably strange days, where it seemed to me that everything was happening backwards, and people's very thinking had been turned upside down. I have read accounts of people who suffered extreme torture and did incredible things to survive a war, and I believed their stories, even though it was almost too much to believe.

The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to strive for "believability," and so it is limited to what the audience will accept as feasible. Meanwhile, truth has no such limitations. It says what it is, and you can believe it (or be wrong).  Real life, as it so happens, is one of those things that doesn't ask for your permission or acceptance. It just comes.

That is why I believe the "unbelievability" factor of the Gospel doesn't qualify the Bible for off-hand dismissal. There are many people who have disagreed with me.  They keep saying that they don't want to hear what the Bible has to say, because some miracle or teaching just sounds too hard to accept, in their opinion.  They want to treat it like fiction, and decide what is approaching normal, and what has to be thrown out.  At the same time, most of those people will begrudgingly say that at least a few of the historical accounts in the Bible are true stories, and a few of the teachings contained therein are worthy of acceptance.  They will believe what has been confirmed by archaeologists and teachers, but they hesitate before believing the source that first told them about it.

This is self-contradictory.  If the Bible is a true account, it all deserves acceptance, even the unbelievable parts.  Even those pieces that have yet to be empirically confirmed are also part of the story, no matter what they are.  And so it comes down to something other than unbelievability; it has to do with what we want to believe, and what believing will require of us.

I haven't written this for the unmovable skeptics out there.  They are, by definition, not open to convincing.  However, if you are one of those people who once thought that your life was "based on a true story," but now you are entertaining some doubts as to whether you are on the right track, this is for you.  Whether you are coming back to what you once heard, or are just setting out on a search for truth, I hope you will give Jesus a close examination, instead of settling for something that seems more believable along the way. Those things just might be fiction.  Could you live with that?  I couldn't.

I'm not just saying these things because I have to keep my reputation or justify the way I live. I left the burden of proof to Jesus.  Here is what Jesus Christ said about Himself:
 I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. --John 14: 6 NIV
I have taken the position of a skeptic at times, and I have asked Jesus to follow through with His claims--and He has.  Over and over again.  So, today I'm challenging you.  Have you grown tired of living in fiction?  Are you ready to base your life on this true story?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Preparing Our Hearts for Disaster

The boy scout motto gets a lot of recitals in my house. "Be prepared," seems like good advice, but sometimes it's just impossible.  How can you "be prepared" for a sudden death of a family member or friend?  How can you "be prepared" for someone's seemingly random act of cruelty against you?  Even in the case of natural disasters and financial crises, can you ever "be prepared" enough?

I really don't think there is a way to emotionally brace for impact when it comes to the sudden upsets life seems to have in store.  They will hurt.  There will be tears shed, and sleepless nights, and a dull ache that you carry around in your heart all day.  I wish I could say there was a way to avoid pain, but I just haven't found it yet.

However, there is a way to "be prepared" to cope with pain, and recover from it. You have to prepare your heart in advance, so when disaster comes, at least you know how to survive.  If you don't prepare, you won't have much to fall back on. You might even fumble around and cope with pain in ways that only deepen it. It is much better by far to have a few things set in your mind that don't change, no matter what comes.
  1. Make Jesus Lord of your life.  If you have chosen to follow Christ, it may seem strange to get this advice, but if you haven't made Jesus "Lord," that is, the boss, when you find yourself under crushing pressure, you will be tempted to handle things your own way instead of the godly way.  The Bible says, "There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death," (Proverbs 14: 12 NIV), but in another place, it says, "Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you. For you, Lord, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living," (Psalm 116: 7-9 NIV). Choose to follow Christ, no matter where He takes you, and you will make it through okay.
  2. Choose to find true comfort in Christ.  Whether it is food, friends and family, or vices, there are many ways to find comfort in this world, but when those things are suddenly ripped away, what then?  Find comfort in Christ. Tell Him about your burdens and He will help you get through it, because He's not some kind of imaginary friend.  He's real, He hears you, and He will take action, either dealing with the problems or counseling and comforting you as you go through them.  The Bible says, "Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you," (1 Peter 5:7 NIV), and in another place, "He [the Lord] will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure," (Isaiah 33: 6 NIV).
  3. Entrust all you have to Christ. It is beyond your power to save and protect the people and things you love most, and somewhere in the back of your mind, you probably know it.  That doesn't mean that relinquishing that sense of control and giving it up to God is going to be easy. However, it is what God requires of us.  He wants us to let Him be God, while we settle down to being the sheep of His pasture.  He wants us to trust Him, instead of only trusting ourselves.  It may not make pain and loss easier to understand, but there is less pain in knowing that God is taking care of us, and everything we care about.  I will remind you of Jesus' own words: "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," (Matthew 6: 19-21 NIV).
This is, of course, has been a short list of how to "be prepared" for hard times. If you have anything more to add, you're welcome to do so in the comments section.  Scripture references would be especially helpful as an encouragement for other readers.  I look forward to hearing from you!