Tuesday, September 23, 2008

God and eHarmony

Michelle and I went to a wedding this past weekend in Detroit. A dear friend of ours who was present at the births of Alexis and Taylor (she was the cinematographer) finally got married. I say "finally" not out of disrespect but out of sheer joy. She is a beautiful, godly woman and has been an eligible bachelorette for years. As a matter of fact, over the years, Michelle and I privately considered many different men for her and actually set her up on a blind date with one of them some years ago. The date didn't go very well, and so we decided to forgo the role of matchmakers in her life. See, we thought the Lord might want to use us to help her find her husband. Instead, the Lord bypassed us and decided to use something that He deemed much more effective than her lifelong friends: the Internet.

Yep. Evidently the Lord prefers eHarmony's scientific screening process over our relational screening process. I'd be pretty angry about all of this if the match wasn't such a good one, but it is. Both are solid believers. She was a church secretary for years, and he is currently a pastor. She spent her growing up years in Detroit, and he currently lives in Detroit. He is known for being fun and social, and she loves to entertain. I could go on and on, but the point is this: God used eHarmony to make a really good match. Dare I say: "A match made in heaven"?!

As Michelle and I lick our matchmaking wounds over the fact that we were trumped by an inanimate dating web site, I think we're both being reminded once again of something pretty profound: God will use anything He wants to accomplish His purposes. Think about it. He's been known to use a hungry whale, a talking donkey, a burning bush, a pink-haired lady, talking vegetables, books with shaky end-time theology, and ridiculously cheesy gospel tracts (more on that coming soon). If He can use these ridiculously bizarre things to accomplish His purposes in this world, then we need to:

1) Stop being so surprised. God is so unbelievably creative. He loves to do things in mysterious and uncanny ways. Awe is good. Shock is not.

2) Stop losing hope. God often allows things to get to the "next to impossible" stage before He takes action. This is how He grows our faith. Hopelessness should be a foreign concept to Christ followers.

3) Stop trying so hard to set up our single friends. We all do it, and sometimes it works. Usually, however, the Lord has something much more unconventional in mind, like a sappy web site. Therefore, save your breath, pray more for your single friends, and secretly sign them up on eHarmony.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How Not To Get Licked By Life - Part 2

If you read my last post, then you know that I've been thinking a lot lately about the spiritual nature of trouble. Trouble has been a not-so-welcome companion of mine lately, and I decided to review the notes from a sermon series I preached a while back on spiritual warfare. What follows is the second half of my one-on-one therapy session with myself. I invite you once again to look on!

A Bit of Review

Paul says that our struggle with trouble in this life is not of this world. He says that our struggle is against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Satan’s forces are well organized and ranked, and they are out to wound us...and ultimately defeat us. But, there is hope. The Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6 tells us about the only armor and weaponry that will work for fighting and winning the spiritual battle we're engaged in. Last time, we explored the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness. Here are the other items that the Lord has made available to us...

Gospel of Peace Shoes

Jewish historians had much to say about the shoes of the Roman soldier, because the quality of his shoes directly impacted his ability to fight. His shoes were boot-like and were thickly studded with sharp nails for support and stability. They were like a combination of combat boots and football cleats. Historians tell us that the successes of both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were due to their shoes!

If the purpose of wearing our spiritual armor is to stand firm when Satan attacks, then the importance of good spiritual shoes can not be overstated. Without them, we’re sure to fall. For believers, Paul says that the shoes we are to wear are “gospel of peace” shoes. But what does he mean by this? What do these shoes look like?

The "gospel of peace" is the wonderful, life-changing, life-altering truth that – in Christ – we are now at perfect peace with God. We are one with Him. Therefore, when our feet are fitted with these “gospel of peace” shoes, we are able to stand in confidence because we are sure of God’s love for us; we're sure of His union with us; and we're sure of His commitment to fight for us. When we stand with our “gospel of peace” shoes on, we don’t need to fear our Enemy because when he comes to attack us, our feet will be firmly planted. Our "gospel of peace" shoes will secure our ankles, and the cleats will dig solidly into the ground. We will not fall!

Satan wants nothing more than to shake our confidence in God’s love for us. He wants to shake our confidence in what God accomplished on the cross. If Satan can get us to doubt that, then He can gain an advantage over us. So, we’ve got to put on the “gospel of peace” shoes if we’re going to have any chance of standing firm when Satan attacks.

The Shield of Faith

The shield of the Roman soldier that Paul is talking about here was a shield about 2 ½ feet wide and 4 ½ feet high. It was designed to protect the entire body of the soldier and was big enough that he could crouch down and be completely protected by it. It was made of a solid piece of wood and was covered either by metal or heavy, oiled leather. Often, soldiers would stand side by side with their shields together forming a protective wall. And, because their enemies would often light the tips of their arrows right before shooting them, the Roman soldier would often soak their shields in water before going to battle. The leather would absorb the water - making it heavier - but the water would extinguish the flaming arrows of their enemy.

For believers, Satan is continually bombarding us with the flaming arrows of temptation. Temptation to be immoral, to hate, to envy, to sin in our anger, to covet, to doubt, to be proud, to fear, to despair, to dishonor God. Without a shield, we’re doomed. We will be hit, pierced, and burned by his flaming arrows of temptation. The shield of the Roman soldier was made of wood, metal, and leather, but the shield of the believer is made of faith.
The faith that Paul is referring to here is a basic trust in God. It’s the faith that brings about salvation through Christ, and it’s the faith that continues to bring blessing and strength as we trust Him for everything we need. This kind of faith not only believes that Jesus is the Savior, but it believes the promises that God has made to us as well. It also believes in God's love for us, in His mercy toward us, and it believes that He will someday return for us. It believes that whatever comes our way, He is in control and will allow nothing to happen to us – nothing good and nothing bad - without it first being approved by Him.

If you find yourself giving into temptation; if you’re feeling defeated by a pattern of sin in your life, then you have to ask yourself if you are truly placing your trust in God. Hebrews 11:6 says that "without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” This is the kind of faith that makes up the shield that we so desperately need in order to extinguish the flaming arrows of the enemy. We’ve got to pick up and use our shield of faith – alone and together - if we’re going to have any chance of standing firm when Satan attacks.

The Helmet of Salvation

The Roman helmet is quite different from the helmet worn today by our military. The Roman helmet was not just designed to protect the brain, but it had a sloping edge down the back to protect the neck, because one of the best ways to kill an enemy back then was to approach him from the back and cut off his head. It also had two flaps covering both sides of the face, and sometimes, it had a piece that covered the front of the face, leaving only the eyes exposed.

For believers, the helmet is essential, because Satan likes to hit us in the head with discouragement and doubt. If he can stir up discouragement and doubt in our minds, then he can easily overtake us. He loves to point out our failures, our sins, our unresolved problems, our poor health, or any other negative scenario in our lives. If he can manage to draw our attention to these things, then he knows that discouragement and doubt will set in. A helmet will protect us from these destructive blows aimed at our heads.

The Roman soldier’s helmet was made of heavily molded or heavily beaten metal. Our helmet is related to our salvation. Why? Because if we lose hope in the promise of our salvation (both for now and for the future), we’re doomed, and Satan knows this. The helmet of salvation is the great hope of our salvation that gives us the confidence and the assurance that our present struggle with Satan will not last forever. We will be victorious in the end because of what Christ did for us on the cross! We know that the battle is only for this life, and even a long life of 100 years is a split second compared to eternity. We are fighting a battle that is short (intense but short), and we will win!

Satan wants us to forget what Christ did for us on the cross. He wants to make the battle so fierce that we lose sight of the cross, and we lose sight of the hope that lies ahead in Christ. He does this by attacking our minds...by messing with our thinking. We've got to place the helmet of salvation firmly on our heads, and we’ve got to always remember the great hope of our salvation that gives us the confidence and the assurance that our present struggle with Satan will not last forever.

The Sword of the Spirit

This is where it gets good. All the items mentioned so far have been defensive in nature, but this one can be used for offensive purposes as well as defensive purposes. The sword of the Spirit is something we can use to inflict pain and suffering on our enemy!
The sword referred to here by Paul was a sword that varied in length from 6 to 18 inches long. It was the common sword carried by the Roman foot soldier and was the principal weapon used in hand-to-hand combat. The sword was not very big. What made it such an effective weapon was not the sword itself, but the skill of the soldier. Roman soldiers were the best swordsmen in the world. They were put through rigorous - and sometimes brutal - training, and their teachers were relentless. The sword was used for both offense (to strike a blow) and defense (to glance off the strikes of their enemies), and they were made out of the most superior metals forged by master blade smiths.

For believers, our sword is made out of the Word of God and is forged by God’s Spirit. As we rigorously read, study, and meditate on God’s Word, the Holy Spirit acts as our tutor, burning the deep truths of His Word on our hearts and bringing it to our minds as we need it. When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, what weapon did He use to fend off the strikes of Satan? The sword of the Spirit. The Word of God. In the same way, the sword of the Spirit is the weapon that we must use as well.
The Word of God is the most powerful weapon we have against Satan. I love what Scottish pastor and writer Thomas Guthrie said about the Bible: The Bible is an armory of heavenly weapons, a laboratory of infallible medicines, and mine of exhaustless wealth. It is a guidebook for every road, a chart for every sea, a medicine for every malady, and a balm for every wound. Rob us of our Bible and our sky has lost its sun.

A Word of Caution
Just like the Roman soldier had to diligently learn how to use his sword, so too must we diligently learn how to use ours. Satan will attack us hard, and we must know the Word of God well enough to fight off His strikes and send some powerful strikes his way. Just like the Roman soldier, we need to go through rigorous training in order to know how to skillfully wield our sword.

God has blessed us with gifted preachers and teachers who can explain in a clear way the truths His Word. He’s also blessed the Christian community as a whole with gifted writers who have written helpful Bible studies designed to help us understand the Word. We have no excuse for not knowing God’s Word. Every single one of us has an endless amount of biblical resources at our finger tips. We can learn how to skillfully wield our sword; we just need to do what it takes to learn.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

How Not To Get Licked By Life - Part 1

Life is hard. I'm not trying to sound pessimistic; I'm just telling the truth. Jesus said that every single one of his followers would have trouble as long as they live, and it just so happens that this "trouble" seems to be making regular appearances in my life these days. I agree with the words of little orphan Annie: It's a hard knock life. Instead of kisses, I'm getting kicked. Maybe you're getting kicked too. If so, then this post (and the next one too) will help. I've been thinking a lot lately about the spiritual nature of the trouble I'm experiencing, and I decided to review the notes from a sermon series I preached a while back on spiritual warfare. I'm writing this for personal therapeutic purposes, but if you're experiencing hard knocks too, then maybe this will help you as well.

The Truth About the Trouble

Ephesians 6:12 says: For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that our struggles in our relationships, in our circumstances, and in doing what is right versus what is wrong is NOT of this world. Our greatest enemy is not the world we see (as wicked as it may be), but it’s the world we can’t see.

How intense is this struggle? The word translated “struggle” here comes from the Greek word which was used in that day for hand-to-hand combat or wrestling. There was a lot of trickery and deception in their wrestling back then. It kinda reminds me of our "professional" wrestling today (you know, the chair-smashing fake stuff). There's a lot of tomfoolery in that too, but the difference is that the wrestling back then was usually real with the winner staying alive and the loser dying. That’s the flavor of the spiritual struggle we face today. To say that the stakes are high would be an understatement.

Paul says that our struggle is against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” This seems to imply that Satan’s forces are well organized and ranked, but Paul’s point here is not for us to try to figure out how they’re organized. His point is to give us some idea of their sophistication and power. We are pitted against an incredibly evil and potent enemy.

So, how do we not just survive this battle; how do experience victory? Well, the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6 tells us how. He tells us about the only armor and weaponry that will work for fighting and winning the spiritual battle that plagues us. Here are some of the details...

The Belt of Truth

The Roman soldier always wore a tunic as his primary piece of clothing. It was one square piece of material with holes cut out for the head and arms, and it draped loosely over most of the soldier’s body. Anybody familiar with the plight of an NFL lineman knows that anything loose gives the opponent an advantage because the loose clothing can be grabbed and held on to. Often, a lineman will pull-in or roll-up his jersey so that his opponent will be unable to grab hold of him.

This is exactly what the belt of the Roman soldier would do. Since most ancient battles were fought hand-to-hand, a loose tunic was dangerous. Before a battle, the Roman soldier would clinch up and tuck in his tunic using his belt. The belt was also used to hold his sword, allowing him to pull it out and use it at a moment’s notice. So, the Roman soldier’s belt was used to secure his clothing and hold his sword close by, thus readying him for battle.

For believers, Paul says that the belt that secures us and readies us for battle is truth, because two of Satan’s most common and damaging weapons are deceit and deception. If He can get us to buy into lies about God, about ourselves, or about others, then He can easily cause us to stumble and fall.

Truth here refers to 1) knowing the truth about God and 2) being truth tellers ourselves. First, we must know the truth about God, and we do this by knowing, meditating on, and obeying His Word. If we don’t, then our tunic hangs loose, and our enemy can grab hold of us and yank us around. Secondly, we must also be truth tellers. It’s one thing to know the truth about God, but if we don’t practice truthfulness in our lives, then we leave ourselves open and vulnerable to the attacks of our enemy. So, the belt of truth must be buckled around our waists if we're going to have any chance of standing firm when Satan attacks.

The Breastplate of Righteousness

No Roman soldier would go into battle without his breastplate. It was a tough, sleeveless piece or armor that covered his full torso from front to back. It was made out of either leather (covered with animal hooves and horns) or metal, and without it, his vital organs - heart, lungs, stomach, and kidneys - would be exposed. One stab from the end of a sword into any one of these organs, and death was almost certain. The breastplate covered for a soldier back then much the same area that a bulletproof vest covers our law enforcement officers today. Ask any officer whose been shot in the vest, and they’ll tell you how vital it is.

For believers, Paul says the breastplate that protects us like this spiritually is righteousness. We desperately need a breastplate, because Satan’s ultimate desire is to strike a lethal blow to our hearts in order to destroy us spiritually.

So, what does this kind of righteousness look like? Before I tell you what it is, let me tell you what it's not.

First, it’s not the kind of righteousness that we muster up on our own - commonly referred to as self-righteousness. As a matter of fact, self righteousness is a farce. It’s not real because the Scriptures say that there is NO ONE who is righteous on their own. But we can get caught in the trap of thinking that our own character, our own accomplishments, and our own legalistic behavior can please God and protect us from the attacks of Satan. The opposite is actually true: a cloak of self-righteousness, which is rooted in pride, gives Satan a ready-made weapon to attack and destroy us with. In our own strength, we can NOT produce the breastplate of righteousness.

Secondly, Paul's not talking here about the righteousness we get from Christ the moment we believe. Imputed righteousness for you theologians. Paul's not talking about this. This "imputed" righteousness from God makes it possible for us to have a breastplate, but it's not what makes up our breastplate, because we can not "put on" what God has already clothed us with.

The breastplate that we are to put on is made up of the righteousness that we display when we live in obedience to the Lord. It’s the righteousness we’re instructed to “put on” in Ephesians 4:24-27 where we’re told to put on things like the new self, truth, sinless anger, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, etc. We put on the breastplate that will protect us from the attacks of Satan when we choose to do what is right in the eyes of God. When we choose to disobey Him, we throw the breastplate to the ground and make ourselves incredibly vulnerable to the attacks of Satan.

So, in order not to be licked by life, we must live lives of obedience. And in so doing, we'll enjoy the protection of the breastplate, which is essential if we want any chance of standing firm when the enemy attacks.

This is the first of two posts on how not to get licked by life. In the next post, I'll explore the other pieces of our spiritual armor, including the one weapon that God tells us we can use to inflict pain and suffering! So, if you've ever been so down and overwhelmed by life that you've wanted to hurt someone, stay tuned!