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In so many instances where Jesus confronted the chief priests, elders and teachers of the law, I am amazed at how they respond to him. How could they reject Jesus, the son of God standing before their eyes, and not accept him as their Messiah? Yet I often see the same response to Jesus occurring today, not just in the world, but in myself as well.

Mark 12:12 is one example that reveals three key insights on how people rationalize rejecting Jesus: “Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away (NIV).”

The first insight is they “looked for a way to arrest him.” This shows they were trying to use the law to justify their actions. We see the same thing today in the world where certain laws are enacted as a way to stop Christians from sharing the gospel. Legalism in the church can also be a way to justify our actions when God’s plans seem to interfere with our agenda.

The second insight from this passage touches on how we respond to criticism: “because they knew he had spoken the parable against them.” So often when someone speaks against me, I want to justify my actions or my words to prove I am right. It becomes the motivation for the first insight, to support my cause with the law or legalism instead of listening and correcting my action or words. I become more intent on proving I am right than improving my relationship with Christ.

The third insight is: “But they were afraid of the crowd.” In this incident it appears they saw they were outnumbered by those who came to hear Jesus teach. It was a crowd not necessarily friendly to the Pharisees — perhaps a crowd with a lot of Gentiles. This shows they were not comfortable outside of their usual crowd. Too often I find myself more like the Pharisees instead of being like Jesus who mingled with people who were often rejected by the Jewish leaders, the downtrodden of their society. Too often I fear the crowd instead of God; too often I am not willing to step out of my comfort zone and mingle with people who are not like me.

Jesus often calls us to lay aside our personal agenda. At times the words of Jesus can convict us of things in our life we need to change. The challenge is whether we listen to Jesus and his call for our life, or insist on finding a way to justify our actions by hiding behind laws and legalism or siding with the crowd we know.

I have read the passage in Mark 10:17-31 many times and heard many sermons about the rich ruler. But this time when I read about Jesus’ encounter with this man, the first sentence in verse 21 caught my attention: “Jesus looked at him and loved him (NIV).” I think too often I have been quick to judge this man who “had great wealth” as someone hopelessly attached to his riches. I think Jesus saw something else in him.

In the opening verse of this passage, the man ran to Jesus “and fell on his knees before him (verse 17).” He addresses Jesus as “good teacher.” This shows the man has respect for Jesus and views him as someone with good advice on eternal matters. I think it’s also significant that the man asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said “inherit” instead of “earn” which indicates to me that he desires to be part of the family of God.

This a completely different posture than at the beginning of this chapter where the Pharisees approached Jesus to test him. The rich man seemed sincere in his pursuit of eternal life, but he is misguided in his method of obtaining it. Unlike the Pharisees who seem intent on proving Jesus wrong, this man appears to want a heart after God. Something inside of him is telling him he is missing something and he is excited to see Jesus, excited enough to run to him and to respect him as a “good teacher.”

I think the key point in Mark 10 relates to our attitude toward God. Are you more like the Pharisees where you think you are a mature Christian who needs to test the faith of others, or are you like the man in verse 17 where you desire to learn more; where you respond to the Spirit and fall at the feet of Jesus to ask him, “What am I missing Jesus? Point me toward what I need to change.”

Like this man, Jesus looks at us and loves us. He sees our heart and what we truly desire. Jesus has a way of convicting us with the Spirit of God in what we need to change in our life to have eternal life. He tells us to be sold out to a life in Christ. Like this man whose face fell and went away sad (verse 22), when the Spirit convicts us, it can sadden us as well. The question I like to ask is, “How much more than gravity is holding you to this world.” For this rich man, apparently his riches were holding him back from selling out to Christ.

As Jesus points out, earthly riches can make it difficult to enter the Kingdom of God (verse 23). Jesus said in verse 25, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” But we have to be careful we don’t fall in the trap of saying, “At least I’m not rich. I’m doing all the right things to enter the Kingdom of God.” That is exactly what the man told Jesus in verse 20, that he has kept all the commandments since he was a boy.

It’s easy to slip into the thought that our good deeds make us a good Christian. That’s why we need to focus on having a heart for God, a deep desire to follow Christ. Praise God that he looks on us with love and compassion. When we are convicted by the Spirit to address things that are holding us back from a deeper relationship with Christ Jesus, it can make us sad like this rich man. As God reveals more and more of our failings, we can feel like the disciples who remarked, “Who then can be saved (verse 26)?” To which Jesus responded in the next verse, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

To be sold out to Christ Jesus requires us to rely on God, not ourselves or our riches on this earth. Kneel at the feet of Jesus and ask him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What he tells you might make you sad; it might seem impossible, but remember, nothing is impossible with God.

As followers of Jesus Christ, how often do we make plans that include his will for our life? In 1 Corinthians 16:5-9, I am struck by how committed Paul is to following the Lord as he made his plans. When he talked about doing certain things, he often deferred to what the Lord might have him do.
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In verse 6 he said, “perhaps” when he discussed how long he will stay and concluded the sentence with, “wherever I go.” In verse 7 he concluded the sentence with “if the Lord permits.” In verse 8 he stated how he wanted to remain in “Ephesus until Pentecost because a great door for effective work has opened to me (NIV).” Each statement expressed Paul’s desire to temper his plans with what the Lord would have him do.
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It is evident that Paul cared deeply about his friends and fellow servants in Christ. This is clear in many of his letters. In 2 Timothy 1:4 he wrote, “Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.” In 1 Thessalonians 2:17 he wrote, “out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.” These are people that shared faith in Christ Jesus with Paul, people he longed to spend time with in their homes.
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Yet Paul remained faithful to where the Lord placed him to share the gospel, even when he faced “many who oppose him (verse 9).” Though he longed to be with his dear friends, he chose to place Christ first in his life. It’s a powerful testimony to what it means to give your life to serving Jesus, a testimony that makes me contemplate the depth of my faith in Christ and my willingness to follow him, even at the expense of things that I hold dear to me.
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Jesus said in Matt. 16:24, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Sometimes that means sacrificing our desires for God’s desires. It is part of the process of pursuing a heart after God, a process of acquiring a longing for people to know the joy of the Lord Jesus as their savior.
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Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Psalm 37:4
I had anxiously waited for this day to come. With great anticipation I approached the building where I would finally get to tour the Hall of Fame. All the great heroes I had read about from young on were memorialized here.
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My guide greeted me at the door with a warm smile and presence that made me feel like we had been close friends for a long time. “Welcome,” he said as he opened the large ornate door and motioned for me to enter. I stepped through the entrance into a large lobby area with a polished marble floor and vaulted ceiling with a painting of the universe.
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“Ah,” my guide remarked as he observed me gazing upward. “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible (Hebrews 11:3, NIV).” I nodded. “It’s important that you understand what we recognize here as greatness,” my guide continued.” I looked at him and said, “The great things they did for God.” My guide shook his head no. “Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see,” he explained. “This is what the ancients were commended for (11:1-2).”
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I frowned wondering what he meant. How could someone be commended for just having faith? All the other hall of fames I had visited recognized people for their deeds, their great accomplishments. My guide smiled and motioned for me to follow him through a modest wood door. We entered a dimly lit hall with small gallery lighting illuminating signs with names printed on them. “That’s it?” I exclaimed. “I came all this way to see a bunch of names on a wall?”
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My guide gently smiled and said, “Come, follow me.” As we walked past the names of so many of my heroes, my guide would stop at each one and explain. “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going (11:8).” At Moses, my guide said. “By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible (11:27).” 
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We continued down that long hallway as my guide told the stories of all the great names of the faithful. At the end of the hallway we walked around a corner into another long hallway and stopped. I stared at the walls, confused. “These walls are blank. Why?” My guide smiled at me with a gleam in his eye. “These walls are reserved for the faithful yet to come. There is a place for you if you choose to follow God in faith.” I frowned as he continued, “If you choose to persevere and run the race marked out for you (12:1).” He paused and placed his hand on my shoulder, “Fix your eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith (12:2).”
#WednesdayWalk through the Bible — Hebrews 11:1 – 12:3.
For as long as I have been a Christian I have sought to have a heart after God. I have questioned God about many things in my life including many traumatic events, but I have never questioned my belief in God. But last week a fellow believer posed a question to me that I have wrestled with since then: “Do you believe God is who he says he is; do you believe his promises?” She was encouraging me to let go of all my efforts, my own ideas of serving God, and to rest in him. She described it as a funnel where I keep running around the outside trying to do things on my own. Then she asked me, “What happens if you stop running?” I looked at her and said, “I fall into the dark hole at the bottom of the funnel, the unknown.” She nodded, “Exactly.”
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She pinpointed my greatest fear — the fear of the unknown. What I viewed as efforts to serve God were more driven by not wanting to fall into the unknown; of not wanting to fall completely into the hands of God. “Do you trust God to take care of the things you are trying to fix on your own?” I hesitated to answer. The revelation that I did not completely trust God brought tears to my eyes. I thought I was totally devoted to God, to following Christ Jesus, but her words revealed I was still clinging to the sides of the funnel with my own selfish motives and my works.
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She went on to explain that falling into the unknown, falling into the hands of God, releases us to let his Spirit work fully within us. Our efforts become a response to God’s call, a nudging of the Spirit. A heart after God is the first step, but God calls us to a deeper relationship with him. He asks us to trust him and his ways even when they don’t make sense. “Just be still,” she advised me. “He is calling you to still waters, a place of rest.” It is a place where you can hear God’s call.
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Running around the funnel on my own is tiring. Resting by still waters sounded attractive, but was it enough for me to stop running around the funnel? My fear of falling into the unknown still caused me to cling to the edge of the funnel. Even though I know God is there at the bottom with open hands to catch me, I can’t seem to let go. I feel God’s tug on my life, yet I still keep running around the funnel, too scared to fall into his hands.
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This seems like a crisis of faith I am in. Will I let go of my own efforts and fall into a deeper relationship with the God of the universe who is patiently waiting for me; am I willing to die to self so I can fully live for Christ? It is not so much a question of belief, but a question of if I will give all I am to follow God even if I don’t know where he is leading me? Can I really let go of my efforts to control my life and let the hand of God guide me?
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The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. – Gen. 12:1 (NIV)
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Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. – Matt. 16:24 (NIV)
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Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. – Matt. 4:19-20 (NIV)

Throughout my Christian life I have taken multiple spiritual gifts inventories, personality tests and aptitude quizzes. They have been helpful to some extent in orienting me toward where I feel God is calling me to serve, yet I have often wondered about God calling me to serve in areas where I feel ill-equipped or where tests show I am not strong in that area. It made me wonder what a spiritual gifts inventory would have shown Gideon prior to God calling him to save Israel.

In Judges 6 we find Israel oppressed by the Midianites because Israel “did evil in the eyes of the Lord (6:1, NIV).” Verse 6 tells us that the “Midians so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help.” Did God respond with a mighty army to save them; a legion of soldiers who scored high on warrior skills on a spiritual gifts inventory? Not exactly. He sent them Gideon.

Who was Gideon? The angel of the Lord calls him, “mighty warriorand tells him “the Lord is with you (6:12)” To which Gideon responded, that “if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us (6:13)?” Gideon has doubt about God’s intent to save them and perhaps even more doubt about his ability to lead the charge against their oppressors. The Lord reassures Gideon he has the strength and that he is with him (6:14), yet Gideon still questions God’s judgement. Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family (6:15).”

Sometimes God calls us to do things where we feel unqualified and weak. We can think of others who would be far more qualified in our opinion. Yet God reassures us, as he did Gideon, “the Lord is with you (6:12); I will be with you (6:16).” The Lord who created us often knows us better than we know ourselves. He calls us to fulfill his purpose and asks us to trust him. God sees things in us that sometimes assessments and analysis do not uncover in us. We just need to have faith in God’s judgement of our abilities.

Even though Gideon has doubts, he goes on to accomplish great things for God and brings the freedom from oppression that the Israelites asked for from God — probably not in the way they expected. Read Judges 6:11 – 7:25 and see how God develops Gideon into the mighty warrior he did not see in himself when God first called him. May this passage reassure you that God is with you no matter what he calls you to do.

In her children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst tells a story about little Alexander and his bad day. From the moment he wakes up, nothing goes his way. “I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day,” he says on the first page. Sure enough, from there on, a series of bad things happen to him from not getting a window seat in the car to the Dentist finding a cavity. Alexander’s solution is to move to Australia, but his mother reminds him at the end of the book that some days are like that – even in Australia.

Like Alexander, sometimes we wake up with the attitude that it’s going to be a bad day. Why? Because we decide things that don’t go our way are bad. We get frustrated at the obstacles we face and angry about unfulfilled expectations or lost dreams. Left unchecked, this attitude can taint our view of life and put us into a downward spiral.  We become like the woman in Paul Simon’s hit song “Slip Slidin’ Away” who talks about good days with no pain and what might have been.

Yet how often do we lie in bed and think of what might be if we focused on God’s purpose instead of our own expectations. Romans 8:28 tells us, “And now we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (NIV).” If you “trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5),” then your expectations will center on God’s purpose for your life. You will be better equipped to understand that God has a purpose for everything, even the terrible, horrible, no good very bad things that happen to us.

In 2 Cor. 11:24-26, Paul describes the many bad days he experienced in his ministry. “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.” Even though Paul experienced many horribly bad days, he continued to trust that God had a purpose for everything. He remained focused on spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus told us that those who follow him will have bad days. “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me (John 15: 20-21).” How well do you know Christ? How much faith do you have in Romans 8:28 that “God causes all things to work together for His purpose,” not ours. Do you trust that God is in everything, even the horrible stuff? The way we view each day can say a lot about how we view God in our lives.

#ThrowbackThursday — This post originally published July 16, 2010

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.

I would like to say that I am always ready to respond to God’s call with a positive attitude, but that would be far from the truth. There are days when I feel discouraged and beaten down by the world; days when I am fed up with grumbling people complaining about everything. So when I read Numbers 20:1-13, I could relate to how Moses was feeling when God showed him how to provide water to the Israelites.

From the moment Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt he endured endless grumbling, often pointed at him. We see the same old complaints in this chapter: “Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness (verse 3, NIV)? Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place (4)?” Why? Why? Why? It is enough to make anyone angry. Who could blame Moses for letting off a little steam?

At first Aaron and Moses responded to these complaints with the right attitude by falling facedown before the Lord at the tent of meeting (6). The Lord appears to them and tells them to take the staff, speak to the rock, and water will pour out “so they and their livestock can drink (8).” However, when Moses gathered the assembly before the rock he snapped and said to them, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock (10)?” Then Moses struck the rock and water gushed out for all to drink (11).

This show of anger was not exactly what God asked Moses to do. In return for this outburst God tells Moses, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them (12).” Because of his actions Moses missed out on the promised land.

Verse 12 caused me to stop and consider how I represent God to those around me. I contemplated what I might be missing by not controlling my anger. Do I trust God enough to follow his ways or do I take matters into my own hands? Do I honor God as holy in the sight of others or do I let my frustration mar my witness to others? I wonder how many times I missed out on blessing others with God’s love and grace because I let my anger guide my actions?

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)

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