When All Is Stripped Away

When we examine our own hearts, the only hope of seeing truth is to be brutally honest. We need the strength of the Holy Spirit to be so forthright in admitting to ourselves the weaknesses and sin that lives in our vulnerable vessels.  We don’t like such truth.  We prefer to lie to ourselves, repeating over and over that we’re not so bad really, and certainly many others are worse.

I was faced this very week with a challenge to look at myself. My thoughts shouted against this voluntary examination for no other reason than I was afraid of what I would find, but I looked. The reflection I saw in the mirror of God’s Word is not what I wanted to see.

It’s not an easy task for any of us to sit before Holy God and not have the legs to our chair of self assurance crumble beneath us. The crash landing is never pleasant, seldom wanted, but so very necessary with promise of inner peace and joy.

This line of facing myself truly began some years ago when I received a gift of a book from a dear pastor friend.  The book is The Only Necessary Thing by Henri Nouwen.  In a note included with the gift, the pastor instructed me to take my time with each page, reading and meditating, allowing the truth found in every sentence to penetrate the deepest places of my heart.  I admit I paid little attention to the instruction upon my first reading, although the book touched me deeply.  I have read the book several times since then and each time I find that I scrutinize with careful and slow deliberation.  God has anointed each word on every page and I am drawn to meditate.

The more I read and ponder, the greater the truth of God’s words.  His instructions for my life sound out strong and clear.  Facing them has become wonderfully and painfully unavoidable.  The meditations of late are to do with time spent with God and of expectations of Him from having spent that time.  Looking honestly at myself, excuses stripped away, naked truth reflected back to me, I fall to the floor of my heart and cry out for His loving and assured forgiveness.

I heard it once said that the busier we are in our day the longer we must spend with God. This has been my goal.  What’s wrong with that you may well ask.  The wrong thing is, I suddenly realized how very proud of myself I had become in taking this time. Subconsciously, but there nonetheless, I could hear my own reflective thoughts as I smiled in times past, knowing God would bless me for the time I spent with Him. How wonderful I had become to spend such holy moments in His presence.

He does bless us when we spend time with Him, but how dare I take the attitude that my actions are what earned those blessings.  I am but a speck of dust in the vast universe.  I may spend an hour with God but do I live the other twenty-three with my mind fully on Him as His mind is fully on me?  Sadly, I do not.  The ugly truth hits me as I stand in holy reverence before God who does not snuff me out, but tenderly lifts me up, wiping tears away, whispering words of love, urging me to carry on for He Himself is with me.  I cannot give up on me because He doesn’t give up on me and I cannot contradict Him.  Oh, what an underserving, wonderful, awesome God.

I leave you with two paragraphs from the book The Only Necessary Thing that wonderfully knocked the prideful wind from my sails and touched me with the Holy Spirit instead.  The paragraphs are written by Anthony Bloom, and Henri Nouwen respectively:

“We complain that God does not make Himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for Him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door and we answer, ‘I am busy.  I am sorry.’  Or when we do not answer at all because we do not even hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our mind, of our conscience, of our life.  So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain of the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than He ever is.”

“So, who is more in need of our prayers: we or God?  God is.  Who wants to be heard most?  we or God?  God does.  And who ‘suffers’ more from our lack of prayer: we or God?  I say it in awe but without fear:  God does.  As long as we continue to reduce prayer to occasional piety we keep running away from the mystery of God’s jealous love, the love in which we are created, redeemed, and made holy.”

“…The Lord is compassionate and full of tender mercy.”  James 5:11 

To Be Set Free

I was walking our dog when thoughts of fish came to mind.  We were walking around a little lake near my home.  It’s filled with fish in the water and birds nesting on the banks.  I love this little lake with trees overhanging and a variety of flowers in all colors.

As I continued to contemplate fish, thoughts suddenly went to the sea and fishermen casting their nets, catching cod and haddock and plaice.  Once caught, these larger fish rarely escape; however, the smaller ones often slip through the net and back to freedom.

My next thoughts were of us humans.  We can so easily get caught up in the snares, traps, and nets of this world that would lure us into false peace and hope.  We only have to turn on the television news to see reports of robberies, murders, crimes committed under drug and alcohol influence, stories of loneliness.  All of these people who find themselves on such dark paths got caught in nets of destruction.  They swam too close to traps that promised riches but instead sent them spiraling into despair.

None of us are beyond getting caught in such traps.  We all like the allure of riches or an easy way out of some dilemma.  If we are promised that we can forget our troubles even for a short time, the temptation to follow that path is strong; we don’t even suspect that a net is set to catch us at the end.  This snare seeks to rob us of inner peace, kill all hopes of joy, and imprison us forever, making it impossible to know true happiness and freedom again.

Good news — no one has to get caught, and if already entrapped, there is a way for anyone to slip through the net.  A path of peace and joy, offering hope to all, awaits.  God has a way that is literally out of this world.  It’s a plan He has already made for every person.  The blueprints for our lives are kept safe in the heavenly places.  Paths to led us to hope and peace is ours for the asking, and God will not refuse anyone.

Are you caught in a net?  Call out for God to reach down and pull you to safety.  He gives everyone free choice.  He won’t force you to get on the path of His wonderful and perfect design.  No one has to take the peace that passes all earthly understanding, but it’s freely available to all.  It’s a unique path full of adventure but not exempt from trials and temptations.  Even so, it’s a path that promises to give us everything needed to keep well away from the snares of this world that seeks to destroy us.  God loves us so very much that He promises to be our everything to get us through anything — always.

“We escaped like a bird from a hunter’s trap.  The trap is broken, and we are free!  Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  Psalm124:7-8

 

Does Prayer Really Work?

Most everyone, whether they believe in God or not, has a basic understanding of the concept of prayer.  In times of trouble or great need, it is not unusual to hear anyone request a prayer be said for them.  It’s almost like prayer is considered to be a last hope; the lifeline taken hold of by a drowning victim when all other efforts to swim ashore has failed.  Even Christians will clutch at prayer as a last endeavor when all of their own attempts to solve some problem has come to nothing.

Prayer is so much more.  Perhaps our lack of trust in prayer comes as lack of understanding as to how prayer works.  The human race is impatient.  We all want what we want and we want it now!  So often we are convinced that our own solution to a problem is the very best outcome.  There could be no other way; therefore, we take on the NOW attitude.  Why wait?  We have a need; let’s get what we want at this moment!

God doesn’t work that way because He happens to be perfect.  He knows the beginning from the end.  He already knows what we need, when we need it, and if we need it at all.  He knows when there’s something far better out there than what we are presently desiring.  He knows when instant answers are the best thing for us and also when delay is much better.  Prayer is so misunderstood.  We know it’s a tool but mistakingly we see it as an implement to get what we want, rather than something that gives us access to our Father; something that can grow our trust and, therefore, our inner peace, when used properly.

To help us, let’s take a look at Matthew 7:7.  In the King James Version it reads, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”  (In doing a proper study of God’s Word it is advisable to look into several translations.  Make certain, for accurate study, that it is indeed a translation and not a paraphrase.  Don’t just use one translation because all languages change as the years pass.  For example, in the King James Version, Ephesians 2:3 begins, “Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past…”  Immediately upon reading this, it’s easy to assume the verse is referring to the manner in which we speak.  The word “conversation” means to speak, right?  It does today but during the time when King James had the Bible translated, the word “conversation” referred to behavior.  It was correctly translated from the Greek to the English for that period of time.  Check out modern translations but make certain it is a direct translation from the Greek to the English.  Searching is all part of the fun of discovery.)  Back to our text in Matthew 7:7.  When we first read this verse we can mistakingly believe that to ask, seek, and knock is a one time action.  Therefore, we ask and don’t receive so we sink into disappointment in God.  Just as it’s important to pay attention to modern translations due to language changes, it’s also important to note sentence structure.  In the case of Matthew 7:7, the verbs, ask, seek, and knock are actually written in the present continuous.  Therefore, a more accurate reading is: “Keep on asking…keep on seeking…keep on knocking.”  When we understand something as simple as that, it helps us tremendously in our understanding of prayer.  I have talked with many who have been disappointed in God simply because they misunderstood this verse.  The next question that may come is: why does God want us to keep asking, seeking and knocking?  Does He want us to beg?

Let’s take a look at two more passages that are often misunderstood: Luke 11:5-8 and Luke 18:1-18.  The first speaks of someone waking his neighbor at midnight to ask for bread to give to his guests.  The latter passage speaks of a widow begging for mercy from an unrighteous judge.  Are these passages suggesting that God delights in us begging from him, wondering and hoping without knowing if He will indeed help us? No, that isn’t how God works.  That would be cruel.  The passages are not about begging but rather about God helping us to recognize our need for Him to do something.  Realizing our need for Him is a daily continuous attitude.  He’s not to be a last resort but the first port of call in a storm.  It’s saying to God, “I can’t but I know you can — in every area, great or small, of my life.”

Prayer is a loving partnership between us and our Father.  It’s us inviting God to work.  We pray — God works — in His time.  While we trust and wait, we keep on keeping on.  Often, when we are praying, hoping and waiting for God to do something for our particular situation, we tend to just stand there, paralyzed in fear; all belief in Him to help is wavering.   This only renders us more fearful as we wait.  Instead, we must press on, acting out our trust in the midst of what we may find fearful.

George Mueller is a wonderful example.  He ran an orphanage in Bristol, England in the 1800’s.  One evening as the children were put to bed, the staff knew there was nothing to give them for breakfast.  George prayed for God’s provision and instructed his staff to carry on as normal.  When morning arrived, the children were being dressed by the staff.  As they were getting ready there was still no breakfast.  Did George cancel breakfast?  No, he had already presented the need to God, so he continued on with his usual activity.  As the table was being set with the breakfast dishes, a knock sounded at the door.  A milk wagon had broken down.  The driver asked if the orphanage could use the milk?  Bread also arrived in similar fashion.  George had refused to stand there and fret.  He prayed and carried on.  He is one of my heroes of the faith.

Just as blood gives us physical life, prayer is our spiritual life force.  Without it we will shrivel into a  fearful being, shaking in distrust.  A correct attitude of prayer keeps us resting in faith no matter what the moments may bring.

Treasure Hunting

Have you ever heard, or perhaps said to yourself, that the New Testament is more important than the Old Testament?  Perhaps you’ve thought, as many have, that the Old Testament is a bit irrelevant and not applicable for today.  It’s easy to fall into that viewpoint, but in fact, there is great relevance and excitement to be found when we compare the Old Testament with the New Testament.  When we understand the Old, we begin to develop spiritual eyesight to glimpse the very majesty, perfection, and holiness of God in a manner we have never glimpsed before.  When we understand the Old, we see the New in a light of brighter understanding.  Naturally, that understanding affects the very way we live.

Take a look at the following.  It’s just a taste of God’s amazing design in His Holy inspiration to the writers of the Old and the New Testaments. Explore it for yourself; you will discover amazing facts.

A Few Truths of The Old Testament

The Old Testament shows us foundation: the origin of the universe and man, beginnings of sin, the birth of the Hebrew nation, and the purposes of God for the world.  From start to finish, the entire Bible reveals the heart of God which is endless and pure love.

It shows God’s preparations and purpose for His Son’s entry into the world.  Genesis indicates there are two seeds in the world — the seed of Satan and the seed of Christ. Genesis gives us a record, along with other Old Testament references, as to the ultimate downfall of Satan and his evil tactics.  Wonderfully, we also find records of what will happen in the end times before Jesus returns to bring  a new heaven and a new earth.

The Old Testament is a gallery of symbols and types that point us to Jesus. Did you know that every New Testament doctrine has an Old Testament illustration?  For example:

  • The Passover lamb of Exodus 12 is a picture of Jesus as the sacrifice for all mankind
    (John 1:29, I Cor. 5:7)
  • Jonah is a picture of the resurrection of Jesus
  • Anointing oil in the Old Testament is a picture of the Holy Spirit

The Old Testament is also filled with true-life stories of men and women following God, who both failed and succeeded because of their decisions.  Their examples show us the way in which we should go and the way in which we should not.

Keep in mind, too, whenever the Apostle Paul, Jesus, Peter, John and others in the New Testament made any reference to Scripture, they were referring to the Old Testament.  The New Testament had not yet been compiled.

Here’s something more that is very exciting:  Both the Old Testament and the New Testament have the same general structure:

  • Genesis – Esther of the Old Testament and Matthew – Acts of the New Testament give us a record of history.
  • Job – Song of Solomon of the Old Testament and Romans – Jude of the New Testament show us experiences in people’s lives.
  • Isaiah – Malachi of the Old Testament and Revelation of the New Testament reveal prophecy; some of which is happening in our world today.

Something else:

The Old Testament book of Genesis has its fulfillment in the New Testament book of Revelation.  Have a look:

Genesis

Creation of heaven and earth –  chapter 1:1
Satan’s first attack on man – chapter 3:1ff
The sun to rule the day – chapter 1:16
Darkness and night – chapter 1:5
seas created – chapter 1:10
A river in the garden – chapter 2:10-14
A curse placed on man and nature – chapter 3:14-17
Man driven out of paradise – chapter 3:24
Tree of life taken from man – chapter 3:24
Nimrod rebels, founds Babylon – chapter 10:8-10
Marriage of Adam – chapter 2:18-23
Serpent’s doom promised – chapter 3:15

Revelation

The new heaven and earth – chapter 21:1
Satan’s final attack – chapter 20:7-10
No need of the sun – chapter 21:23
No night – chapter 22:5
No more sea – chapter 21:1
The heavenly river of life – chapter 22:1-2
No more curse – chapter 22:3
Man restored to paradise – chapter 22:1ff
Tree of life open to man – chapter 22:14
Anti-Christ and Babylon judged – chapter 17-19
Marriage of the Lamb – chapter 19:6-9
The serpent’s doom accomplished – chapter 20:10

One final thought: The Old Testament points to the New Testament and the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament.

The better we understand the Old Testament, the more treasures of truth we uncover.  These truths are able to change our lives forever.

“For the word of God is full of living power.  It is sharper than the sharpest knife, cutting deep into our innermost thoughts and desires.  It exposes us for what we really are.”  Hebrews 4:12

“You must crave pure spiritual milk so that you can grow into the fullness of your salvation.  Cry out for this nourishment as a baby cries for milk, now that you have had  a taste of the Lord’s kindness.”  I Peter 2:2-3

Happy treasure hunting!

Our Heart’s Most Basic Need

I know the story of man who had been in prison for many years for a crime he did not commit.  As the years passed, someone noted that he did not appear to be bitter about his predicament.  He answered that even though what he was living through was entirely unfair, he knew he was loved; therefore, he could survive.  The love of and belief in his innocence by his wife and children was enough to get him through each day.

I know the story of a child who was abused by her own father.  One day she ended up in the hospital because he had beaten her nearly to death when she fought back against his sexual advances.  Today she runs an organization in her community, set up to help and offer a way out to anyone in an abusive relationship.  When asked how she got through her ordeal with such resolve to help others,  she answered, “I was loved.”  A school teacher was always there for her.  She came to her in the hospital, offered her a place in her own home when she was released, and encouraged her forward in pursuing her education.

I know the story of a man who died on a cross, enduring all the sins of the entire world although He was innocent.  Today He lives on in the hearts of all who will receive Him.  How could He love those who nailed him to a cross?  How can He keep loving today all those who continually speak terribly about Him, mocking His love and His life, rejecting everything about His gift of eternity to be with Him in a world where hate does not exist?  His answer is because He is loved by His Father.  His Father loved Him and the whole world with everyone in it.  Therefore, He, too, can love.  He is the epitome of love.

Love overcomes anything.  Love strengthens the human resolve to press on in the most impossible of circumstances.  Love gives hope where it appears no hope can be found.  Love is never-ending.  Everyone of us needs to be loved and to love another.  Love is the most basic of all our emotional needs.  Without love we would be utterly lost.  There is nothing more valuable to aspire to than to being a vessel of love.

“Be on guard.  Stand firm in the faith.  Be courageous.  Be strong.  And do everything with love.”  I Corinthians 16:13-14

Jack And The Umbrella

It was a day of drenching rain.  Umbrellas were a necessity.  I entered my front door holding my collapsed umbrella, then popped it open with the idea to set it on the floor to dry.  How could I have guessed that at the precise moment I pressed the button on the handle of my umbrella, causing it to spring open with a flourish, that Jack would be rounding the corner, meeting it face on!  My poor dog!  He moved so fast that I only saw a black flash turn and disappear.

I also moved as fast as I could to get to Jack to comfort him, to assure him that all was well.  However, where was he?  I stood in the doorway to the living room, eyes darting back and forth to find him.  It was like he had vanished into thin air; but wait, what did I see?  One brown eye and a black ear peeking out from behind the curtain.

“Hey, Jack.  It’s okay.  It’s okay, Jack.”  I went to him, calling out in attempt to soothe him.  It didn’t work.  He was trembling and staring without blinking at the entrance to the hallway.  I could tell that he knew the big yellow monster could appear at any moment to gobble us all up!  My words of constant assurance did nothing to alleviate his panic.

I then had another bright idea!  I would bring the umbrella to Jack and let him see it was harmless. Yes, that would work!  No, it didn’t.  It pushed Jack further into the folds of the curtain, trembling from head to tail.  I didn’t know what to do but wait.  I sat in a chair nearby, every now and again calling out, reminding Jack that I was still there.

Many of you reading this know what I’m going to say, don’t you.  You and I also become frightened at things that may or may not harm us.  We also run in some attempt to hide from the thing causing distress.  We fear the unknown, the things that make no sense to us.  We tell ourselves that if we stay behind the curtain of our fears long enough, the monster of the unknown will go away and leave us alone.  A good plan if life were really like that; situations disappearing simply through avoidance.

As I was calling out to Jack with the desire to comfort him, I said a prayer of thanks to my heavenly Father for never leaving me when life’s unwanted situations scare me, too.  We all know what it’s like to be afraid when our jobs are threatened, when a loving relationship breaks apart, when we are falsely accused, when our once robust health is attacked by disease, when bank accounts dwindle into meager amounts.

It’s a frightening world out there, but hiding behind some curtain of safety is only a temporary action we can take.  Hiding may or may not help — for awhile.  The only certain help that will bring peace no matter the stress, that will instill courage throughout any ordeal, that will fill us with confidence to take a step into the unknown, that will put a smile on our face because of joy in our hearts — is the One called Jesus.  He is always there — omnipresent — meaning it’s impossible for Him to leave us.  He is omniscient meaning He knows all.  He knows what troubles us and He loves to bring us through to safety.

When the umbrellas of the unknown and the uncertainties of life startle us, what comfort to know the One who says, “…Be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Matthew 28:20

Surrounded By Zebras And Wildebeests

In times of great stress, we yearn for tranquility, for an absence of anything hostile.  In its place we hope for a situation that is void of whatever it is that is bringing upheaval to our emotions.  We tell ourselves that if somehow an end can come to whatever is bringing stress, then we can at last experience serenity once again.

The above is a definition of the peace that the world hopes to gain.  What the world pursues involves getting rid of a thing or a situation.  We tell ourselves — if only we can rid ourselves of the source of our difficulties, then surely peace will follow.  It’s a logical conclusion but not a lasting solution.  At times, it’s no solution at all because the thing bringing distress cannot always be made to disappear as if it were a rabbit stuffed into a magician’s hat.  The rabbit always returns!

Life is much more complicated, but there is an answer.  I was reminded of this as I recalled a lovely memory concerning zebras and wildebeests.  Less that two years ago I experienced a lifelong dream of going to Africa.  I still get shivers of excitement when I think back to those days when my feet walked in that great continent.

One night as I was sleeping in my tent somewhere in Tanzania, I was awakened by a sound I could not identify.  My body froze as fear ran over me.  Ever so slightly I turned my head toward the mesh window.  I had earlier rolled up the canvas covering before I went to sleep.  Wonderfully, it was a night of a full moon.  I am forever thankful for that full moon because it revealed to me the most exhilarating sight —  zebras and wildebeests meandering around my tent!  I could see the outlines of their bodies as they brushed against the canvas.  They were pulling and chomping at the grass.  I never knew munching could be so loud!  I watched the zebras and wildebeests for nearly an hour as they continued to stroll past my tent, eating their way into the black of night beyond.  Fear completely subsided and total joy filled me as I realized, that at that very moment, I was alone in the middle of a herd of wild animals!  My heart pounded with the sheer excitement of what I was experiencing and seeing with my own eyes!  I lack words to fully describe the emotions washing over me during that most unusual experience of animals in the wild of Africa.

As I have thought about that incident many times since then, I realize that it could have turned into something disastrous.  If I had given way to fear, screaming and jumping up in fright, it would have startled the animals and a stampede could have easily taken place.  Instead, finding and hanging onto peace, a most joyous experience took place instead.

You see, although possible danger lurks all around us, in the tents of our hearts, peace and joy are available to take command of our startled and stressed emotions.  This takes place in our spiritual worlds.  Jesus said something most interesting in John 14:27, “I am leaving you with a gift — peace of mind and heart.  And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.”  What did Jesus mean, it is a gift the world can’t give?

The world defines peace as an absence of hostility or a mastering of anxiety.  We learn mechanisms to either compress stress or we maintain a goal of working hard to get through the thing that causes us to be upset or feel uneasy.  God has a very different definition of peace.  His peace is called in the Hebrew of the Old Testament — Shalom.  Shalom peace means to be whole, safe, sound.  It doesn’t entail removing the stress; but rather, it means to live emotionally whole no matter the fears and troubles of life around us.  It is nothing to do but everything to be.  This peace is something totally God given.

When the Spirit Of God resides within, there can be all manner of chaos in our worlds, but no amount of stress  or anxiety can overpower the peace God gives.  The Spirit Of God always commands peace.  Remember the New Testament record of the time Jesus was in the middle of a dangerous storm?  It is said of Him that, “even the winds and the waves obeys His voice.”

Are the storms of life too hard for the world to handle and bring peace instead?  Often.  Is there any fear or stress too hard for the peace of God to overthrow?  Never.

The Merchant’s Story

Somehow I found myself pulled in by the lure of the crowd.  Sheer curiosity as to the number of people watching; nothing more.  I had already seen a man crucified.  It was horrid.  A man stretched out on a cross of rough timbers, his agonizing scream as spikes were driven through his wrists and ankles.  The thud of the cross as it was dropped in a hole to stand firm in the ground.  I had told myself I would never witness another execution, so why was I now at another one?

Perhaps the scandal of it all, the rumor about the man who now hung between two others; that had to be the reason.  I watched and listened to the murmurs of those around me.  Some saw him as a good man who did no wrong.  Others saw him as a magician who performed tricks.  Still others seemed to hate him just because it was popular to do so.  Me? I had no feelings about the man at all.  It would be nothing more than a good story to tell to my customers as I traveled to sell my wares.

My business was good.  Fifty head of camel had I to pack with lavish gifts to take from one city to another.  Once I had even traveled to Egypt selling my goods both there and again upon my return.  I prided myself upon being clever and shrewd.  Some would accuse me of deceit, but I never took advantage of a poor man.  No, only the rich would I dare to make a shekel or two more.  Why not?  It was every man for himself, right?  I did nothing any other man wouldn’t do if given the chance to advance his wealth.

It was then, upon these very thoughts, that I was brought back to the present moment.  I glanced at the man on the cross and he was looking straight at me; yet not really at me, but through me.  I heard myself gasp and felt my legs tremble.  For a moment I thought I might drop to the ground.  I tore my gaze away but something, I don’t know what, drew my sight back to his face.  His eyes held mine and suddenly, unexpectedly I knew I was naked before him.  He could see me as I am, the good and the bad, and all that was hidden.  I was afraid and wanted to run, yet so drawn to him I dare not move.  His eyes changed then; no longer just seeing through me, but now pleading, yearning, not for his own life —  but for mine.

There were no words to explain the moment.  I was exposed.  Frantically I tried to calm my nerves by reminding myself of my own goodness.  I gave to the poor who sat begging by the temple gates.  I took care of my family.  I was faithful to my wife even when other businessmen in their travels were not.  I played with my children.  Yes, I began to feel better because I was a good man overall.  Relieved I looked back at the man.  “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he spoke to another criminal hanging on a cross next to him.  How ridiculous!  My thoughts raged in not a little inner anger.  What does he mean by such nonsense!  They’re not going anywhere but to a tomb!

Amidst my thoughts the man looked at me again.  Blood streamed down his face from the thorns pressed into his scalp and forehead.  A cruel, mocking crown of thorns.  Even so, there was no hatred upon his face.  My eyes locked with his once more and an overwhelming understanding washed over me.  I had never before experienced — what?  What was I feeling?  What was coming over me?

Today you will be with me in paradise.  Those were his words.  Why couldn’t I shake them?  Today.  Where would I be today?  More to the point, where would I be tomorrow?  What was my destiny?  Again I raised my face to look at the man.  I stared.  I desired something more than I had in my life.  What was that I saw in his eyes as he shifted his head ever so slightly to continue looking in my direction?  He could read my thoughts!  I knew it!  Was his heart calling to mine?  Yes!  He was calling!  He wanted to give me more!  Suddenly I wanted more, too!  I nodded my head and smiled in both shame and incredible joy. I know he knew and he was happy.  Among such cruelty shown him, I knew he was thinking about me on that cross.  I knew he was thinking about everyone ever born and who was yet to be.  It was true!  Son of God!  On a cross for me!

Paradise.  That’s what he promised.  That’s what I received. I finally understood that life in paradise had nothing to do with my own goodness, but everything to do with His.  My life has never been the same since that awful but wonderful day.  I heard amazing news of Him just two days later — He had risen from the dead!  I didn’t need to see him with my own eyes.  I already knew in my heart.  I had already received his forgiveness and his promise.  It should have been me on that cross.  He wasn’t the guilty one.   It was me.  It was you.  What sweet relief.  One day — undeserved paradise.

Happiness Vs. Joy

There is a game that Kyrgyz children play in which they use the dried vertebrae of sheep.  The children squat in a circle on the ground and take turns rolling or throwing these vertebrae much like one rolls dice.  Each bone is shiny from its use.  I haven’t fully understood the object of the game; but one thing is certain, the children love to play.  They shout and jump and laugh.  It’s such a simple pleasure that brings about much happiness.

Every culture knows how to find happiness.  In poorer countries happiness is found in the simple things of life because simplicity is all there is to find.  Nonetheless, it is indeed happiness that lives in the hearts of those playing with old bones, riding horses, cooking simple meals, or among a group of women washing clothes together in a river.  In the western world, finding happiness comes in different shapes: a new car, a trip to the beach, a hike in the mountains, a dream job, a house, new shoes, lunch with a friend.  The list of what brings happiness goes on and on.  Pursuing happiness is a desirable thing and it’s especially good that it can be found whether rich or poor.  Happiness comes whether one is playing with old bones or a nintendo — but what about joy?  Can anyone find joy?

There is a great difference between happiness and joy.  You see, happiness depends on outward stimuli whereas joy depends completely on something inward.  The things that make us happy can be seen, but what makes us joyful is invisible yet it is present.

Have you known people who experience a great tragedy, but amidst their tears and sorrow there is a calm in the storm?  Life gives us all sorrow, grief, and disappointment.  No one is exempt.  Some fall apart in the difficult times.  It may take them a long time to emotionally recover; sadly, some never recover at all.  Others can experience the same difficulties; yet even in their tears and broken hearts, they come through stronger with a peace, and yes, a joy that is ever present in their eyes, sustaining them in their hearts.

How can this be?  Why do some survive life’s hurts with calm and inner joy while others are destroyed?  The answer is simple yet poignant: it’s a matter of what we cling to in the tempest of life’s raging seas.  Some fall to the decks sensing no hope at all; others cling to the unseen Creator of the universe knowing that His love and strength will get them through any storm.  One has no hope; despair takes over.  The other has all hope; joy abides.

The truth of the promise found in Hebrews 13:5-6 reminds us of the hope that can come to any of us: “…’I will never leave you,” God says. ‘I will never abandon you.’  Therefore we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will have no fear.’…”  Another comforting and unshakable truth of God is this: “…Weeping may last through the night but joy comes in the morning.”  There we have it: no matter the sorrow or the depth of grief or the piercing hurt, joy comes in the morning and all because God is with us.

Obtaining happiness is a wonderful thing.  We all enjoy the circumstances of life that make us happy; but when happiness subsides, we can thank Father that His joy lives on and on.  It is eternal.  Darkness cannot hide it. Pain cannot destroy it.  It is the joy of God that surpasses anything that happiness can bring or that sorrow can give.  Pursue happiness alone and joy will elude us.  Pursue God and joy lives in us.

When We Are Free At Last

I have often heard people say that if salvation is really eternal, why does the Bible instruct us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”  I prefer the New Living Translation which reads in Philippians 2:12, “work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear (respect).  The next verse goes on to tell us that, “God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases Him.”  

We want to live more Christlike but isn’t it so hard at times?  Probably we are our own worst enemies, mistakingly thinking that it’s up to our own hard work; however, the verse clearly tells us that God Himself is working in us and giving us His own desires.  What does that mean exactly?  Are we still working for our salvation?

I recently read something by David Jeremiah which explained it wonderfully.  I paraphrase his words.  The concept of our salvation involves three stages:  Initially when we come to Christ, we are saved from the penalty of sin.  As we grow into Christlike maturity, desiring with all our being to walk in His ways and to be obedient to Him, trusting that His ways are for our own good, then He gives us the power to overcome sin.  It doesn’t mean we ever become sinless but it does mean we are able to walk further without falling; temptations to sin are better kept in control because we are walking easily in the power of God to stand against sin.  Finally and wonderfully, one day when we leave earth for heaven, we are then saved from the very presence of sin.  Isn’t that amazing and exciting?  I’m so thankful for that insight the Lord gave to David Jeremiah.

So we see that our salvation cannot at all be earned.  It’s bought by Jesus, paid with His blood, given as a gift.  We may choose to receive the gift or not.  Then we walk on each day, month by month, year by year, learning of Him and His ways, becoming more like Him, beginning to overcome the influence of sin until that long awaited day when we see Jesus face to face.  Only then are we finally free from the very presence of sin.  It will be vanquished forever!  Hallelujah!  We will be free at last!