Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Freedom or Slavery?

Read Romans 6:16-18; Psalm 119:32, 45; Galatians 5:1

Have you ever felt like Christianity was just a bunch of rules? Over the past couple of years that I've worked with teenagers, I've heard this over and over again. Some people see our faith as just a bunch of regulations and duties. They don't want to be "tied down" to God's scriptural commands...they claim that they want freedom instead. What they don't realize however, is that what they think is freedom is actually slavery. The only freedom comes from following God's commands. Does this seem contradictory to you? How could doing whatever you want actually be slavery? Isn't this the definition of freedom?

Romans 6:16-18 explains that we are slaves to whatever has mastery over us. Before salvation, when people are following their own sinful natures, they are under the bondage of slavery. They don't have the power to break free from sin and be transformed, because that victory only comes from Christ. They are stuck in the same old sins, and without Christ, they have no hope of breaking that pattern. All sins have consequences that take a toll on the person engaging in them, and the sinful life is an empty one. Galatians 5:1 calls slavery a burden and a yoke. A yoke is a wooden bar tying 2 animals together to force them into labor. It's oppressive servitude that one can't break free from. Does the sinful lifestyle seem so appealing now? Satan wants you to believe that following your own way is bringing you the freedom you deserve, but in reality, the opposite is occurring.

I have a weird fascination with Tyra Banks' talk show. I'm usually not at home when it's on, so I only catch it occasionally, but when I do, I always find it interesting. What interests me is that Tyra has made it her mission to reach out to teenage girls, and this is obviously my passion as well. Week after week, Tyra brings young girls on the show with different sorts of problems...pregnancy, prostitution, broken relationships, depression, eating disorders, you name it... She follows the same pattern when talking to each girl. She asks questions and then allows the girls to talk about why they have fallen into this struggle, usually calling in concerned friends and family members to testify to the extent of the girl's problem. At the end of the segment, she always tells the girl that what she is doing is wrong and that she needs to stop doing it. The girl usually nods her head and cries, admitting that she wants to stop what she's doing and change. The show then raps up with some music and a concerned look from Tyra. Very touching. The problem with all of this is that Tyra tells these girls to stop sinning, but she doesn't tell them how to stop sinning. Nonbelievers can't just clean up their act on their own, because they are fallen creatures who are enslaved to sin. Without hearing about the forgiveness and freedom from sin that is offered through Jesus, they simply can't stop their sin pattern. This has made me want to scream at the TV more than once. Those girls may hate the way they're living, but they can't break free from it by their own strength.

Only Jesus Christ can free people from sin's bondage. When we turn to Christ and let Him be our master, we are no longer under sin's yoke. By following Him, we have stopped being slaves to sin and are now slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:17). Does this still seem like bondage to you? Listen to the psalmist in Psalm 119 (one of my all-time favorite passages in Scripture). As he raves about how much he adores God's law, he says things like, "I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free," and "I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts" (Ps. 119:32, 45). The writer describes following God's law as freedom. He delights in God's law and loves it!

If you are not a believer and find yourself burdened by the yoke of sin, turn to Christ. He has the power to wash you white as snow and to transform you into a new creation. If you are a believer, I'd like to challenge you with Galatians 5:1, which says, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." If you have been set free from sin, why return to that bondage? If there is a particular sin that you are continually struggling with, you don't have to remain in bondage to it. Ask God for forgiveness and ask Him to give you the power to resist that temptation (1 Cor. 10:13). Pray that God will give you victory over that sin and enable you to walk in freedom with Him today!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

What Teflon Tim has Taught Me

Well, in case you haven't heard, Tim Urban was finally voted off of American Idol last night, after a long and tough road on the show as the season's underdog. Though I didn't care for Tim much at first, I've really come to admire him. I think few could do what he has demonstrated so faithfully on the show, and it's taught me a thing or two.

In case you haven't followed this season, let me fill you in on Tim Urban. Tim was a last minute add-on when the top 24 contestants were chosen...this means that of all of them, he started out in last place in the judges' opinion. The first week he performed, the judges said they regretted putting him in the top 24, because he wasn't as good as the others. Since then, he's been torn apart week after week and criticized ruthlessly for his performances (with the exception of 1 or 2). While most contestants either become defensive, depressed, sulky or angry after critique, Tim's response is so different that it's alarming. Instead of the natural negative reaction to criticism, Tim responds with a smile every time, no matter how bad the comments are.

It's pretty unbelievable when you think about it. How many people do you think would respond with graciousness, joy, and love, when they're slandered and knocked down in front of millions of people? What an incredible testimony! It reminds me of Jesus' seldom practiced command in Luke 6:27-28 which states, "'But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.'" I have to admit that if I was in Tim's place, I don't think I could respond to those insults with such grace and kindness. He's really an amazing example of practicing Jesus' command in Luke. Even relentless Simon Cowell admitted a few weeks ago that he was touched and blown away by the way Tim had responded to their criticism.

While we were in downtown Memphis last weekend, a homeless woman approached Lee and I out of no where and just started cussing us out. We had never seen her before or given her any cause to do this, but she said the most hateful and obscene things to us. I've never been spoken to in such a way! I wasn't sure how to respond, but Lee responded by saying sincerely to her, "God bless you." I couldn't believe he was able to respond with such kindness to someone who had been so hateful. The woman certainly wasn't prepared for such a loving response and was left speechless. It was so neat to see my husband respond to insult with God's love.

When someone insults or slanders you, how do you respond? Do you respond as Jesus would, which is the loving response that both Tim and Lee demonstrated? Or do you respond as everyone else does, by hurling insults back or getting angry and sullen? I'll close with the example of Jesus Christ, who suffered more than any of us ever will and still remained sinless: "'He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.' When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:22-23).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Our Intercessor

Read Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 106:23

Have you ever had anyone stand up for you? Imagine getting in trouble at school and having to go to the principal's office. When you get there, you find your teacher there talking to the principal on your behalf, asking him to absolve your punishment. In this instance, your teacher is acting as your intercessor (one who intercedes for another). To intercede is to be a mediator between 2 parties for the purpose of reconciling them to one another. Did you know that you have someone who intercedes on your behalf? Before we talk about that, I want to look at a familiar story in Exodus where Moses serves as the intercessor between the Israelites and God.

In Exodus 32:7-14, God is extremely angry with the Israelites. He has delivered them from slavery in Egypt and has performed many miracles for them which have proved His existence. Despite all of this, they have forsaken God for an idol. When Moses goes up the mountain for 40 days to talk to God, they think Moses and God have forgotten them, so they decide to make a golden calf to worship instead. This has to be one of the stupidest ideas anyone has ever had, and it certainly makes God mad (and rightfully so!).

God is so angry, that He says to Moses, "Let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation" (v. 10). God's wrath is so great, that He wants to completely wipe out the Israelites and start over. Moses, however, acts as an intercessor on behalf of the Israelites. He pleads to God to turn from His anger and spare the Israelites. Because Moses interceded for his people, they were allowed to live. Psalm 106:23 puts it clearly when it says, "Therefore He said that He would destroy them, had not Moses His chosen one stood in the breach before Him, to turn away His wrath from destroying them."

You might have heard me say before that the Bible is a metanarrative, which means that it is one overarching story. Many people read the Old Testament as a string of random stories that are disconnected from the New Testament. However, the Bible is one story focused on one major theme...God reconciling man to Himself through the cross. The whole Old Testament points to the cross that is coming, and the whole New Testament points to the cross that has already come.

This story in Exodus 32 is a perfect example of how the Old Testament points to Jesus. Can you see the connection? In Exodus, Moses intercedes for the sinful people, and God's wrath is subdued. In the gospels, we see that Jesus has become our intercessor. We stand separated from God as sinners under God's wrath. Jesus serves as the mediator between us and God. His sacrifice on the cross satisfied God's wrath and made a way for us to be reconciled to God. Can you understand the parallel here? Isn't it amazing to see how the Old Testament points to the gospel?

1 Timothy 2:5 says, "For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." Just like the sinful Israelites needed someone to intercede to God on their behalf in order to be spared of God's wrath and reconciled to Him, we stand in a similar position. Without Jesus, we would have no way of being reconciled to God, because our sin separates us from Him. When Jesus took our sins on Himself on the cross, He made a way for us to have a relationship with God as His children. Thank God today for sending Jesus as our intercessor, because without Him, we would still stand condemned.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Judges 6: "O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel?"

Read Judges 6:1-16

Last weekend, when the high school students participated in the mission trip training retreat, several of them were sent out into the community to share their faith. I wasn't there for most of the retreat, but I arrived at the church for the tail end of the weekend, and I saw those students return from their evangelism experience at Starbucks. What I saw was a lot of discouragement in their faces. In their minds, because no one had responded positively to the gospel, they had been failures. They felt inadequate, defeated, and insignificant. They felt that if only they had done a better job of witnessing, they would have seen a response.

Can you empathize with these students? Have you ever felt inadequate or defeated and bought into the lie that God couldn't possibly use you? I know I have! I want to look at a character in the Bible who doubted that God could use him but saw God work though him in amazing ways. In Judges 6, we see that there is a dire situation in Israel. Actually, it's a lot like the movie "A Bug's Life." In that movie, the grasshoppers come and take everything the ants have worked so hard to collect. The ants are taken advantage of year after year and are powerless to do anything to stop their enemies. Their hero ends up being Flik, an ant everyone saw as an insignificant loser. Though Flick is the underdog, he ends up saving the entire colony of ants.

The Israelites are facing a situation much like the ants' dilemma in the movie. The Midianites would come and steal all of the Israelites' produce and sustenance, destroying their land and leaving nothing for them. Judges 6:6 says, "So Israel was brought very low because of Midian, and the sons of Israel cried out to the Lord." God reminds them in verses 8-10 that He has delivered the Israelites from oppression before, and He will do it again. He is faithful even when we're not (we see that the Israelites had been disobedient in verse 10).

Now enters our unlikely hero...Gideon. The angel of the Lord appears to him and simply says, "The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior" (12). But in actuality, Gideon feels just about as valiant as Flik in the movie! He first accuses God of abandoning him and his people (not a wise move, but at least he's honest), and then finds out that he has been the one selected by God to bring about the Israelites' deliverance.

I love that we are able to read Gideon's response to this divine calling. Gideon says, "O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father's house." I can definitely relate to that response...can you? Maybe you doubt the fact that God can use you, because you think He should give the task to someone more important than you. You may think you're nothing special...you don't come from a rich family, make good grades, or excel at athletics. In fact, you could think of a whole list of people off the top of your head who would be more qualified for the task than you...someone prettier, more popular, more eloquent, more influential... Gideon felt the same way. He did not come from the most respected or influential family in town. In fact, his family was the least in his entire region. Not only that, but he was the youngest and most insignificant member of his family! So why did God choose him? How the heck would God bring about His deliverance through an insignificant young person?

The answer lies in verse 16, when the Lord responds, "Surely I will be with you." The reason Gideon is able to deliver the Israelites, is because the Lord is the one doing the work through him! Gideon doesn't have any power or influence on his own, and he knows that. By relying on his own abilities, he would go nowhere. However, the almighty God of the universe chose to use Gideon to bring about His plan. Gideon would only succeed because God was working through Him.

The fact that God is actually doing His work though us takes an enormous load of pressure off of us. We don't have to be great, because God is great. We only have to be obedient, willing, and available, offering ourselves up as His vessels to be used for His glory. I remember the first time I was asked to lead a Bible Study when I was a sophomore in college. I was so scared and felt so inadequate. I never desired to be in a leadership role in the church or in any position of ministry. Why? Because I felt to unworthy and inadequate. I thought that surely God would choose someone more spiritual and godly than me. However, once I began to lead that Bible Study, I realized something that I have since then been constantly aware of...God is the one working through me. Of course I am weak and inadequate, but God is not! By relying on Him to work though me, I can see results. These results are a product of God's work, not my own. Every time I meet with a student, write a blog post, or teach a Bible Study, I pray first. I ask God to speak through me, because I know that I can't come up with something on my own.

I hope you will be encouraged by the example of Gideon. If you go on to read the full story of Gideon in Judges (I would recommend it), you will see that God worked through him in amazing ways. This insecure young man who was so aware of his own weaknesses and insignificance was transformed into a mighty man of God. Are you struggling with the truth that God wants to use you for His glory? Do you feel discouraged by your own inabilities and weaknesses? Remember that while you are weak, He is strong, powerful, and mighty to save. Trust in Him to do the work through you!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

What Makes You Mad?

Read Ephesians 4:2, 26-27, 31-32

What makes you mad? Or maybe a better question would be, who makes you mad? We all get angry. In fact, even Jesus got angry. Does this make anger acceptable to God? Well, Jesus got angry over sin, making His emotion a righteous anger. If we're honest, when we get angry, it's not usually outrage over sin. Instead, we get angry when we don't get our way, when someone irritates or frustrates us, when we have conflict with people, etc.
Yesterday afternoon, I was reading through Ephesians 4 with a student, and we were talking about anger. Later on in the day, God put this lesson to the test in my own life, but more on that later...

In Ephesians 4:2, we're instructed to be patient, "bearing with one another in love." Let's face it...people make us mad. It could be an unfair teacher, an overbearing employer, an annoying sibling, a quarrelsome friend, a parent who doesn't understand you, etc. How are we to respond to the difficult people in our lives? God's word tells us to bear with those people in love. How can we show patience and love when people are unlovable? Only by God's grace. We have to ask Him to make us patient and loving, because these are fruits of the Holy Spirit's work in our life, not feelings we can muster up on our own.

I especially love verses 26 and 27 of this chapter. We are told in verse 26, "in your anger, do not sin." The fact that we will get angry at times is a given, but when we do get angry, we should not let this lead us into sin. Oftentimes anger leads to a lot more sins, such as slandering, gossiping, seeking revenge, harboring bitterness, or failing to forgive. We're given a way to avoid falling into these types of sins through the instruction, "do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold." If we do not resolve the problem before the day is over, we're giving the devil a foothold to tempt us into more sin. If we don't let the anger go, then we'll spend the next day, month, or year, harboring bitterness against that person. Instead, we're to resolve conflicts as soon as possible. I know this is a lot easier said than done, but I truly believe that this is the best way to handle anger. I remember in high school getting in a fight with a friend, and then going to bed that night. As I was lying there, this verse kept coming into my head, and I began to feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit. I got up and immediately called her. I told her that I forgave her for wronging me and that I wanted to move past our quarrel. I knew that if I didn't end my anger then and there, that I would probably spend the next day talking about her to my other friends and gossiping.

Verses 31 and 32 wisely state, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be out away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you." Harboring anger against someone is not God's will. When you really think about all that God has forgiven you for, can you really withhold your forgiveness from anyone else? You may think that the person who made you angry doesn't deserve your forgiveness, but you don't deserve God's forgiveness either! That's grace, plain and simple.

So, like I said, I was reading this passage to a student yesterday and teaching her what it meant for her life. Then, I went home and discovered that Lee had done something that really made me angry. I sat there fuming for a while with a pouty lip...then after a while I started to feel conviction. What a hypocrite I was! Here I was, harboring anger against my husband, failing to forgive him for the small way he had frustrated me, and definitely not showing kindness or a tender heart. If I was going to teach this passage to others, I needed to live it out myself. God was giving me an opportunity to practice what I preached. I still felt mad, but I decided to show Lee kindness anyway, and to serve him by fixing him something to eat while he studied. I cooked him dinner, made him some tea, and tried my best to show love through service, even though I didn't feel it in my heart. After I finished serving him, my heart started to change. It completely softened, and I honestly forgave him entirely for upsetting me. Instead of holding a grudge, I let go of my anger, and we ended up having an incredibly fun night together hanging out. I had to thank God for teaching me through His Word and giving me the opportunity to put it into practice.

Do you have anger in your heart toward someone? Who do you need to forgive? If the Holy Spirit is convicting you, don't ignore it. Put this passage into practice and extend the forgiveness to others that you've received from the Lord yourself~