Category: How We Grow

Pleasure During Trying Times

Here’s a picture of our last running club social get together, way back in March. We were laughing and joking, with no social distancing whatsoever, enjoying tasty food and beer. Little did we know that a few days later gatherings like this were going to be banned…. for months and months.

The feast was a real blessing from God. But what does it mean to experience blessing when such feasts are forbidden? Can I ask God to give me a sense of satisfaction even without being able to enjoy a delicious spread?

The superscription for Psalm 63 says A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah. David was driven away from home and hid in the desert in fear of his enemies.  But he did not wallow in self-pity. No, he found an amazing level of joy in this place of exile.

My favorite phrase in this Psalm is from verse 5, I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods. Do you ever find the Lord so satisfying that it’s like enjoying a savory juicy prime steak?

The author who’s the best at describing this kind of satisfaction is John Piper.  His excellent book The Pleasures of God – Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God 1describes spiritual pleasure brilliantly. Piper calls this Christian hedonism. His explanations of this to seem way over my head. But over the years, in answer to prayer, God is giving me an increasing taste of this spiritual feast.

Meditate on the following verses. May God’s Spirit cause their truths to dwell more richly in you. That’s wonderful anytime, but especially during this time of COVID.

 O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
    my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
    as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
 Because your steadfast love is better than life,
    my lips will praise you.
 My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
    and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips
(Psalm 63:1,3,5)

  1. https://www.desiringgod.org/books/the-pleasures-of-god

Christ’s Astounding Treasures

Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8)

Jesus’ treasures are real and substantial. But to be honest, it often seems like I partake of them less than I could. Why do I have junk instead of gold? One reason is the tension between the vastness of what God has promised and the time and effort and perseverance I need to appropriate and build treasure into my life.  

A look back at Israel’s conquest of the promised land sheds light on what’s needed.

At first, we see the great triumphs described in the book of Joshua:

So the Lord gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their ancestors, and they took possession of it and settled there. The Lord gave them rest on every side, just as he had sworn to their ancestors. Not one of their enemies withstood them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the Lord’s good promises to Israel failed; every one was fulfilled. (Joshua 21:43-45)

The Israelites’ entrance into this promised land parallels what happens when we  enter Christ’s kingdom:

 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.(Titus 3:5-7)

But this triumphant passage is only the start.  Looking at the Israelites again, we see that they got a warning that despite how much territory they gained, God left some enemies in the land as a test:

“…I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the Lord and walk in it as their ancestors did.” The Lord had allowed those nations to remain; he did not drive them out at once by giving them into the hands of Joshua. (Judges 2:22-23)

Would the Israelites persevere and drive out those enemies? Unfortunately not. They got complacent; and that lackadaisical attitude really came back to bite them, eventually leading to their downfall. Their best efforts weren’t enough.

And that’s what we’re being warned against !

We are euphoric about a new life in Christ with all the tremendous changes that are included. He has rescued us from sin, death and the devil. But we must still overcome the pockets of resistance and sin in our lives, pressing on towards maturity. 

We have the power to achieve something the Israelites were unable to complete. Is that because we are so super spiritually great ? Have we mounted a holy pedestal of perfection? Not at all. No, we are free to admit that our best efforts aren’t enough.

We desperately need what the Israelites did not yet have : the power of Christ’s Holy Spirit  working inside of us. That power does not guarantee an obstacle-free  ride to perfection, but when we decide  to persevere, we will indeed make great progress towards maturity.

As we mature, we grow more skillful at distinguishing  slop from gold. We learn to be increasingly quick at exchanging the slop in our lives for the  gold of  the boundless riches of Christ !

Taking Up your Cross: Grim Duty or Joy?

 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24)

Over the years, I have heard a distorted version of  “You need to take up your cross” — it was  used as a motivational (or guilt-instilling !) pitch to urge people to give more money or to be involved in more church ministry volunteering.  I’d try to obey this command with a kind of grim determination, gritting my teeth and getting on with it.

But if being a Christian is a  grim duty, then I don’t have much motivation to  woo someone towards  the Christian life as something beautiful. I was far from saying “this lifestyle is a joy, you should join me.”

Certainly I don’t believe the prosperity gospel’s teaching that Jesus guarantees “your best life now”, but in denying this false teaching I went too far to the other extreme —- I overlooked the ways that Jesus does give  something wonderful right now. Remember, he says I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10b)

Jesus offers a delicious paradox:  by living in a sacrificial way, we end up getting so much more!

Jesus’ invitation is great for life during any time frame but especially during the pandemic:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

So I Take up the cross, take on Jesus’ yoke and end up getting rest for my soul.

He is not promising freedom from obstacles, but rather rest during them. I do get a lot, just in a vastly different way than the prosperity gospel says.

Now that’s an offer I can’t refuse!

How Can I Be Both Perfect And a Screw-Up?

Matthew 5:48 says: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

But at the same time Romans 3:10-11 says:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
 there is no one who understands;
 there is no one who seeks God.

What? The Bible tells me to be perfect, but then it tells me I am a perfect screw-up? How can both things be true?

To answer, I must tell you how much I love the cation words. These are several rhyming words that describe what Jesus did, what Jesus is now doing, and what Jesus will do. Let me start by giving you “cation” word #1 for today: It’s justification. Justification says you do not bear the full penalty for your screwups or moral failure since Jesus took all your blame on the cross! Since Jesus now stands in your place, you can claim this stunning verse:

 I lead a blameless life;
deliver me and be merciful to me. (Psalms 26:11)

What? Blameless? Yes, I am:  Christ set me right with God. And his righteousness comes from outside of me, not based on anything I ever did. In Romans 3:22 it says:

This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

But despite this, I still screw up. What happens when I do sin? Do I just laugh and blow it off since I have already been declared righteous? I don’t think so.

Sam, a missionary pastor who gave a sermon at our church, is a mature Christian who’s served the Lord faithfully in his international organization for decades. Yet, he confessed that he really started to lose it in a discussion at a recent meeting that degenerated into a futile argument.

I admired Sam for being man enough to admit his foul-up in front of our whole congregation and for how quickly he got the meeting back on track by rapidly repenting and asking forgiveness.

Why was Sam able to react correctly?

His reaction leads to our other “cation” word today: sanctification. This means becoming more like Christ over time. Ephesians 4:24 talks about progressively growing in sanctification:   put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Because I’m striving to walk as a mature man of Christ, I am not planning to yell on the phone at anyone ever again. I am not planning to lust ever again.

But what if I do?

I trust that the Lord will lead me to repent and ask forgiveness more quickly than I ever have before. And that he’ll continue to replace an impatient urge to get my own way with more of the good attitudes that Jesus gives.

I am glad I am not alone in this process of achieving change. I’m in a good men’s fellowship group called Battleground at my home church that is a huge help in this.

Our motto in Battleground is that we seek an authentic experience of God’s word, meaning that we want to not merely put Bible verses into our heads, but to allow those words to change us to reflect the character of Jesus. We confess when we fall short of that and we rejoice when we see the Lord at work building that into each other.

This quote from John Piper gives a great description of what we strive for in Battleground. Each of us is:

a godly man,
who knows he is a sinner, pardoned for God’s name’s sake,
justified by grace, trusting God’s mercy,
depending on God’s Spirit, taking refuge in God’s protection,
delighting in God’s beauty, keeping God’s covenant,
and therefore walking in integrity and honesty and uprightness.1 

What John Piper described cannot be achieved in isolation. In strong fellowship God gives us a solid way to care for and encourage each other to grow to be more like Christ.

May you have fellowship in a group like that, too.
Amen.

1 https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/can-anyone-really-be-blameless