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I followed the others into the large room and took a seat with them. I sighed as I sat down, my body aching from another week of skirmishes; my emotions ragged from the continuing attacks. I wondered how much longer our small platoon could hold on.

For the moment we took refuge here, assembled together as one. I glanced around at the group. So many like me who had been fighting this battle for years. So many who bore the scars of relentless attacks from the enemy. I could see the fatigue in their eyes, yet I also saw their determination to press on. Together we were still a formidable force for the enemy to contend with despite our weaknesses.

In this moment together we sang praises; we shared our struggles; we prayed together; we joined together to find strength and renewal. We meditated on our mission and why we were placed here for this battle. We were told victory is ours. Each Sunday there is hope in the assembled faithful.

I left the church still feeling the fatigue and emotional trauma, but ready to take on the enemy for another week. This group of seasoned faithful, believers who deeply care, helped give me hope to carry on. Once again the enemy would try to break us this week because he feared us the most, God’s faithful warriors banded together as the church.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 (NIV)

“He rescues me unharmed from the battle waged against me, even though many oppose me.” Psalm 55:18 (NIV)

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another —and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:24 (NIV)

Have you ever planned all the details of a trip and then nothing goes as planned the moment you start the trip? First you’re stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the airport; then you get a flat tire; then you miss your flight because you’re late arriving at the airport. Road block after road block seems to stop you at every move. It’s aggravating when things don’t go as we planned, but do we look at these delays as God trying to get our attention?

This is what I thought about when I read Numbers 22:1-35. In this passage Balak, the king of Moab, summoned Balaam to put a curse on Israel to stop them from conquering his country. Balaam refused to go per God’s command. Then Balak tried to summon him a second time and this time God instructed Balaam to go with Balak’s officials. However, on his way to Moab, Balaam’s donkey stopped him from traveling three separate times. Balaam snapped and resorted to beating his donkey for delaying him. In the midst of this the donkey spoke and suddenly Balaam realized the angel of the Lord was in the middle of the road ready to strike him down.

The angel told Balaam, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me.” Suddenly Balaam paid attention to God. Embarrassed by his angry outburst over these simple delays, he admitted his sin and offered to turnaround. But the angel told him, “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.” Balaam is about to be tempted with many riches to curse Israel so God reinforced to Balaam the importance of not making snap decisions and only speaking the word of God.

How many times do we proceed recklessly with our lives and our own interpretation of what God wants us to do? We saddle up our donkey and press on toward the destination where God is leading us with our own ideas, ill-prepared for trials that await us. Then we get angry when things occur that stop us from moving forward. Instead of recognizing God is trying to get our attention, we lash out until suddenly our eyes are opened so we clearly see God. In those moments we need do as Balaam did and recognize our sinful behavior and our need for full submission to God; to lay down our selfish pride and recognize that we need to wait patiently and only do what God instructs us to do.

Fear can be a powerful motivator or hinderance in our commitment to following God, particularly when we are called to go to a new and unfamiliar place. The most difficult part is often the journey, the transition between your old place and the new place. There is a tension between the uncertainty about where you are going and the familiarity of where you have been. It is this in-between place where doubt and fear can take hold of us, where faith and facts compete with one another. This is where the Israelites were as they approached the land God promised them.

In Numbers 13 and 14 God instructed Moses to “send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites (Numbers 13:2, NIV).” The spies spent 40 days exploring the land and reported that the land “does flow with milk and honey (13:27).” But they also reported that “the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large (13:28).” This is the moment where fact and faith present themselves to the Israelites.

God has laid out a plan for your life, a journey that will lead you to “a land flowing with milk and honey (14:8).” With each new step, he asks us to follow him in faith. The challenge is to not do what the Israelites did and take your eyes off God, to not let fear take hold of you. In Numbers 13:33 there is a telling phrase where some of the spies say, “in our own eyes.” They could only see that they looked tiny, like grasshoppers, compared to a foe who appeared “stronger” and “of great size (13:31-32).” They were scared they would be crushed like bugs even though God assured them they would take the land.

God asks us to view things through his eyes, not the world’s eyes of things like power and riches. Sometimes he asks us to take a step of faith even when the challenges look insurmountable. That’s when we need the advice of faithful followers of God like Joshua and Caleb. In Numbers 14:6-9 they tell the Israelites not to be afraid, that the Lord will give them the land; that it is a good land; that the Lord is with them and they should not be afraid. Numbers 14:24 tells us that Caleb “has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly.” This is the type of counsel we need to encourage us on the path that the Lord has laid before us. If we let fear instead of faith dominate our actions, we may miss what God has in store for us.

Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. – Numbers 14:30-31 (NIV)

Wednesday Walk, Acts 27:13-28:10

Today I introduce #WednesdayWalk, an occasional exploration of what unknown people might have seen or felt when they witnessed the events in the Bible. This post is from the perspective of another prisoner shipwrecked with Paul.

Who is this man? Were it not for Paul I would’ve been slaughtered on the ship by the soldiers who wanted to stop us from escaping. Were it not for his words of wisdom, we would’ve all been lost at sea in that violent storm. Were it not for him, we would not have eaten anything on the ship and would not have had strength enough to make it to the beach. This Paul has knowledge of a god seemingly so powerful, yet so personal that he prepares him for future events. What kind of god shows such love and grace to a mere man?

I thought for sure Paul was a dead man when I watched in horror as a viper latched onto his hand as he tossed brushwood on the fire. Yet I watched in awe as he shook off that deadly snake from his hand, showing no panic or fear. He has such peace about life. It is a peace I long to have in my life. It is that lack of peace in my life that put me here with these other criminals.

After surviving the snakebite, then he cured the father of Publius who suffered from fever and dysentery for who knows how long. That in and of itself was astonishing enough to hear about. Of course word spread quickly and soon all the sick on the island came to Paul. I was skeptical as I watched the crowd of sick people form around Paul. I told myself, “There is no way he can cure all these people.” Yet he did.

Who is this man? Paul talks of a Jesus from Nazareth. He talks of Jesus being the son of God. How can a man be the son of a god and walk among us? He talks of this Jesus being crucified, dying and rising from the dead. I am a condemned man who boarded the ship in chains. Now this man Paul has shown me a different life, a different way. Could there be freedom for me even in chains?

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that reading through the book of Leviticus in the Bible can be a struggle. Yet this time through something struck me about Leviticus 14:33-57. In verses 34-35, God tells Moses and Aaron: “‘When you enter the land of Canaan, which I am giving you as your possession, and I put a spreading mold in a house in that land, the owner of the house must go and tell the priest, ‘I have seen something that looks like a defiling mold in my house (NIV).’”

At this point in the Bible the Israelites are living in tents, but God is telling them that they will take possession of Canaan and become homeowners. Here, in the midst of rules about how to atone for sinful behavior and how to handle unclean things, there is a future instruction on how to handle mold in a home. God isn’t just about their current condition, but he is very much about preparing them for their future.

To me this demonstrates that God is not just about the big things, but he is also about the smallest details of our lives. He is concerned about our current well-being as well as our future. As Jeremiah 29:11 tells us, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (NIV).”

My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. – John 14:2-3 (NIV)

#ThrowbackThursday — This post was originally posted April 2, 2010

Each day we write another page in the story of our life. If you stop now and examine the pages that have accumulated, how does your biography read? When we first meet Saul of Tarsus in the Bible, we read about a man who grew up in a wealthy seaport; studied at one of the best universities in the world; and was trained by the best religious leaders. In his own words, Saul described himself as “a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee (Acts 23:6).” He was a “Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil. 3:5).”

In the eyes of the world, Saul’s biography was about a man with everything going for him – riches, a career and very religious. He personally wanted to stop this new movement centered on this man Jesus. Acts 8:3 describes Saul as being on a mission to “destroy the church,” a man who was hunting down the followers of Jesus and putting them in prison.

But Saul turned a new page when Christ intervened in his life. While on his way to Damascus to find more followers of Jesus to imprison, “a light from heaven flashed around him (Acts 9:3-4).” Jesus confronts him and asks “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” From that point on, a new chapter is written in Saul’s life. His story is transformed to someone totally focused on Jesus.

It took a major intervention by Jesus Christ to change Saul’s biography. He becomes filled with the Holy Spirit and from that point on he is called Paul (Acts 13:9). The power of Jesus Christ changed his life story from one rich in the ways of the world to one rich in the Kingdom of God. Paul describes his new life in Phil. 3:7, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus (NIV).”

What about your life story? As you look at each day, each page and each chapter, what is being written about you? Will your life story end as Jesus describes in Matt. 16:26, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” Or will your story be more like Paul in Philippians 2:17: “But even if my life is to be poured out like a drink offering to complete the sacrifice of your faithful service (that is, if I am to die for you), I will rejoice, and I want to share my joy with all of you (NLV).”

Each time I read the book of Exodus I wonder how the Israelites could be so short-sighted and constantly desire to return to their old ways. Why would they willfully chose to worship idols instead of the God who created the heavens and the earth? Why would they desire to return to the enslavement of Egypt instead of the land God promised them? I believe the answer lies in Exodus 2:23-24.

In the beginning of Exodus we find the Israelites enslaved in Egypt by a Pharaoh who had forgotten how Jospeh saved Egypt from ruin by famine (Exodus 1:8-10). The Israelites were now so numerous that they were viewed as a threat. So Pharaoh “made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields (14, NIV).” How the Israelites dealt with this ordeal says a lot about them and their view of God.

Exodus 2:23 tells us, “The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out.” It’s interesting that it doesn’t say they cried out to God, but rather it says they just “cried out.” It’s a subtle but important distinction that God hears their cry and chooses to act even if the Israelites did not cry out to Him. It explains a lot about why the Israelites throughout the book of Exodus were so quick to turn to idols and desires to return to Egypt. Like us, they were often immersed in the immediate struggle and lacked faith in God’s promise.

As readers of the Old Testament, we have the advantage of seeing the whole picture of God’s future plan; the ability to see God’s ultimate purpose for Israel. We don’t always have that vision for our own lives. Sometimes we can become like Israel where we are so immersed in the immediate that we only see our current pain and struggles. At those times we must remember to not just cry out, but to cry out to God. Pray he will help us to focus on His plans instead of just our current trials.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. – Romans 8:26 (NIV)

I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” – Psalm 40:1 (NIV)

I remember the look of panic on my dad’s face when he handed me the keys to his car. I was 16 years old with a newly minted driver’s license and about to drive his car alone for the first time. He didn’t say a word about what he must have felt inside, he only said, “be careful” as he handed over the keys.

This is the image that came to mind as I read Matt. 16:17-19. I could almost picture Jesus handing over a set of large keys to Peter saying, “Here’s the keys to the kingdom of heaven!” Then as Peter takes them, Jesus tells him, “Oh, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” It’s an astounding level of trust to hand over the keys to someone who just a couple chapters earlier was told he had “little faith” (Matt. 14:31, NIV).

Just as my mom and dad spent countless hours gritting their teeth and coaching me from the passenger seat as I learned to drive, Jesus spent years with his disciples mentoring them on the Kingdom of God. In the eyes of the Jewish leaders at that time, the disciples were not the type of people you would want to hand over the keys to the kingdom. Yet God’s wisdom proved right as he equipped Jesus’s disciples to take the wheel and drive “into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15).”

Like Peter, God entrusts us with the keys to the Kingdom of God. He is holding out the keys to us and asking us to take them. Even though we may doubt our ability, God trusts us. He has been there in the passenger seat with us gently mentoring us and encouraging us, “You of little faith, why did you doubt (Matt. 14:31)? We only need to believe in our Lord Jesus Christ; to believe and take the keys with confidence.

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

— Mark 4:30-32

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” — Mark 16:15

In reading the book of Exodus, I am struck by the similarities between the Israelites back then and Christians today. Like the Israelites in Egypt, we are in a foreign land full of sin and false gods. At times, when our struggles become too much to bear, we cry out to God to save us. Just as God sent Moses to save the Israelites, God sent his son Jesus to show us the way out of enslavement to sin.

Yet Satan is not so quick to let us go free. He is the Pharaoh of our day who attempts to tighten his grip on us, trying to keep us repressed by sin. He tries to intensify our struggles on this earth, tempting us with discontent, anger and idols. But God is the victor. Even though armies may pursue us, God shows us the path to freedom.

We must remain determined to continue to follow Jesus, to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit. As we wander through the desert of this world parched and hungry, let us not desire to return to the enslavement of the land of sin. May we focus on God’s promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ. May we listen to the words of Joshua and Caleb, “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good (Numbers 14:6-7).” May our faith in Christ Jesus and our love of the Lord God grow deeper in the midst of temptation to return to our old life.

“The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.” – Exodus 15:2 (NIV)

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” – 2 Corinthians 4:18 (NIV)

Throwback Thursday: This post was originally published March 4, 2010

John the Baptist was a master at editing his life down so only Christ remained evident to others. He wore clothes made from camel hair with a leather belt and ate locusts and honey (Matt. 3:4). He did not worry about having a nice building to accommodate the crowds that came to hear him preach. His message cut to the point: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt. 3:2 NIV) – simple words that easily fit into a text message or Twitter post.

John’s life was not cluttered with things that confused his message. He did not try to impress people, rather he tried to impress upon them the need to repent of their sins and prepare for the coming of Jesus. In Matthew 11:8-10, Jesus points out that the people did not come to see John dressed in fine clothes, they came to see a prophet. People traveled into the hot and dusty desert to hear John’s message, not to see his outfit, sit in a beautiful building with air conditioning, or dine on locusts and honey with him.

Many of the people that crowded around John in the desert were tired of trying to impress others with their deeds and appearances. They were hungry for a message of true repentance that would free them from the burden of their sins. John focused on their spiritual need for a savior. He pointed them away from himself and toward Christ. In Matt. 3:11 he explains how one is to come who is more powerful than him, how he is not fit to carry his sandals. John’s life was edited down so only the message of Jesus came through each day.

As a follower of Jesus your greatness and your identity is not in this world. John continues to show us true life is in Christ. Jesus commends John saying, “There has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” He goes on to say that we have the potential to be greater than John, that “he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matt. 11:11 NIV)

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