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Posts Tagged ‘apostle Paul’

I remember distinctly the feeling of having my joy deflated. I was walking down the hallway of the elementary school where I worked, and it was the first day of school. I loved my job, I loved the students, and I was just so happy to be right where I was that my joy was written on my face. Two women walked down the hallway toward me, and as they passed, one commented to the other, “Just wait until a month from now. She won’t be smiling THEN.”

She meant her words to be funny, but they really hurt. In a moment, my joy went from just plain joy to being something suspect, something temporary and a little ridiculous. It hurt to have my very positive feelings unappreciated. I was still happy to be where I was—and confident that I would still be joyful a month from that date—but I felt deflated.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a solitary experience. We don’t have to spend long in any environment—work, school, shopping, watching TV—to see that same kind of response to happiness and joy:

“What are YOU so happy about?”

“Yeah? What makes it a GOOD morning?”

“Well, just wait [until your kids are teenagers…until your first fight…until you’re 40]. THEN you won’t be so chipper.”

It has happened so often that I have developed my own term for the statements: “joy-jabbers”. The thrust of the joy-jabbers is that one’s joy or happiness is based on something temporary, and that when the circumstances change, the joy will be replaced with discouragement. Ultimately, the underlying implication is that the joyful or happy person is, well, not too smart. Because if they were smart, they would be just as miserable as everyone else.  In fact, if you type “happy people” and “stupid” into a search engine, you will find lots of people talking about whether happy people are really stupid or only perceived that way.

So what does all this have to do with the Christian journey? I think there’s a connection. Now, joy and happiness are not the same thing. Happiness tends to be based on outside circumstances: it’s a sunny day, I had my coffee, and I got a letter from my friend in the mail. Happiness! Joy, however, is a deep-seated emotion that isn’t based on outside circumstances. In the Christian walk, our joy is based on faith that God will keep His promises to His people, and that He will care for His flock, no matter how the outside circumstances look.

The Bible is full of references to joy. The Psalms repeatedly encourage the reader to be joyful in the Lord and to shout for joy because of His righteous deeds. Isaiah 35:10 points to a day when the ransomed of God shall return with joy and gladness. The apostle Paul wrote that those who ministered to the Corinthians strove to be helpers of their joy (1 Corinthians 1:24) by establishing them in faith, and joy is listed as a fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:22.

We live in difficult times, and we will all have experiences that will discourage us or make us temporarily unhappy, or even joyless. What should our attitude be towards those who are cheerful, happy, and joyful when we don’t feel the same way? Again, the Bible offers instruction. Paul writes in Romans 12:15 that we ought to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep”. It is entirely appropriate to sometimes be sad, and we ought not be swift to force those who mourn into false cheer. But just as importantly, when someone is joyful, we ought to encourage that joy instead of seeking to snatch it away.

The next time you are tempted to answer a positive statement with a negative commentary, think instead about rejoicing with that joy. Remember the Biblical perspective on joy and gladness, and resist the temptation to be a joy-jabber.

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Winter is descending on Cincinnati, but there are still a few leftovers of fall. A few trees are still clinging to their brightly colored leaves, though those leaves are quickly fading to brown. I remember wondering as a child why the leaves changed color, but I hadn’t thought of that question in years. But recently I read an article that stated that the leaves really aren’t changing color at all: instead, scientists say that the colors we see in fall are in the leaves throughout the year. During the spring and summer, the green color of chlorophyll in the leaves covers the red, orange, or yellow color. When fall comes, with shorter days and colder temperatures, the trees stop producing chlorophyll, and we can see bright colors that have been under that green all along.

I am charmed by the idea that those bright bursts of fall color can only show themselves when the world around them is gray and dreary. The cold temperatures and changes that make fall a blustery, unpredictable month are the same things that reveal the blaze of beauty that has been hidden all along. The trees that might have seemed to be all the same shade of green all year suddenly stand apart from one another. We can even see how healthy a tree is: when a tree isn’t very healthy, its colors won’t be as bright.

As Christians, we experience blustery times in life, too. And when trials come and life gets unpredictable, those are the moments when our true colors stand revealed, too. In 1 Corinthians 3:9-15, the apostle Paul writes that everyone who builds on the foundation of Jesus Christ should be careful how he builds and what he or she uses as material, because “…each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work…” There are two lessons for us here.

  1. 1.       We have to use the easy times to build for the hard times. When life is running smoothly, it isn’t a time to relax in our spiritual disciplines; it’s time to put in the work that will pay off when trouble comes.
  2. 2.       Hard times will show our true colors. No one wants to experience trials, but they’re going to come to everyone. We have to make sure that we are striving to become like Christ from the inside out.

We can weather the storms of life if we put our trust in God and work diligently in our Christian walk. When we do those things, trials can become times when our true colors show forth brilliant and beautiful, giving hope and courage to others.

 

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Recently, we had the opportunity to help a friend with a home repair project. He needed to waterproof his basement, and in order to do that it was necessary to dig a trench beside the basement wall. This was no small undertaking: the trench would need to be about 7 feet deep and 15 feet long, and wide enough that he could stand down in it. Fortunately, several acquaintances had come to help, lured with the promise of free food.

Digging wasn’t the only task at hand, though it was the main objective: as we dug, the growing pile of dirt needed to be raked and shoveled into a stable heap that wouldn’t collapse back onto the diggers. And to make things a little more exciting, our friend and his wife have a toddler and an infant that needed a close eye kept on them. In addition, we had all ages and skill levels represented, from preteens to teenagers to young adults to my husband and I, who are fast approaching middle age.

The further we dug, the heavier the shovels became as the topsoil turned to clay. As the trench got deeper, fewer people could work in it at one time, because we needed more room to swing the shovels. It was dirty, hot, and graceless work as we dug into the earth below where we were standing and then swung shovels full of damp clay up above our heads.

The fascinating thing to me was that we accomplished this task in several hours that were free from complaining, criticism, or anger. We were all so focused on the work we needed to do, and the help we wanted to give our friends, that we worked closely together without a single negative remark. And as we came together in this difficult task, our combined effort showed itself not only in a growing pile of dirt, but also in a growing together of our love for one another. Where we had been only acquaintances, we developed a new bond of respect and love. Where friendship had already existed, it grew deeper as we tackled a challenge together and spurred one another on. As we came together to do the work, the work itself brought us closer together.

As we finished our digging, late in the afternoon, and gratefully dropped our gloves and shovels, I thought about Ephesians 4:15-16, where Paul writes of his hope that we, the body of Christ, “…speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”

Hard work can indeed bring individuals together and build a deep bond between them. But hard work alone is not enough. We have been called to an enormous task, a lifelong commitment to the work of God. What are the things we need to keep in mind as we labor together so that we do form those deep bonds of respect and love?

1)      We have to speak and act in love. One of the things that set our digging party apart was that there was no complaining or criticism. I didn’t hear even one negative word about the work someone else was doing; instead, I heard politeness and encouraging comments: “Thank you.” “Please.” “You’re a rock star!” “Fantastic job!” Despite having to work very closely together—so close that there were occasional near-misses with flying dirt or shovel handles—our feelings remained intact because we spoke and acted in love towards one another.

2)      We have to be focused on the task we’re trying to accomplish. We each had different duties. Some of us spent most of the time babysitting; others took turns digging, or worked with shovels and rakes to keep the dirt from falling back into the trench. But instead of focusing on whatever our task was at the moment, we kept in mind the bigger goal: digging a ditch. It didn’t really matter who spent the most time digging, or who dug fastest, or who never dug at all; the point was that we were laboring together for a specific cause, and we were committed to doing what needed to be done in order to reach that goal.

3)      Every part must do their share, and every part must respect that the others are doing their share. Imagine how poorly we would have worked together if we had spent our time looking at what everyone else was doing and trying to figure out whether what they were doing was as hard as what we were doing. Not only would the work have taken longer, the atmosphere would have been rotten. We were able to finish our task and grow closer together because we respected the jobs that others were doing, even when it was different from what we were doing. One friend made coffee and went out to get pizza; one entertained the toddler and kept him from getting too close to the work; some were digging, some were raking, and some were resting so they could help when one of the others got tired. All of those tasks were necessary for the completion of the work; without even one of those, the work would have been slower and harder. Every person did their task cheerfully and to the best of their ability, and every person respected the others for doing their tasks.

4)      We have to desire to grow together in love. If we didn’t care about each other, we could still get the task done—but we wouldn’t have the benefit of having created positive bonds of friendship, and that task would have been only a difficult chore. In addition, we would have little motivation to ever work together again. But because we all shared a desire to work well together, and acted in love towards each other, we did grow in love—and we know that we can work well together on any other task that comes up.

The body of Christ has an immense task to do, and we can only accomplish it if we remember these things. We must focus on the larger goal, be willing to do our share, respect that others are doing the task that God has given them to do, and we have to truly desire to grow together in love. If we do all those things, we will indeed grow and edify one another in love, and we will accomplish the commission we have been given. If we do our work in love, then the work will bring us closer together.

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My family and I are fond of playing a particular series of popular computer games, where the player takes the place of a detective and must find clues and solve puzzles to identify the culprit. We play as a family, helping each other figure out how to best proceed. Unfortunately, we often find ourselves baffled or, worse, we guide ourselves into a bad misstep: we step too far and fall off the stepping stones, or we blunder so badly that we are sent packing, or we accidentally cause a small explosion, or we take too long figuring out a puzzle in the middle of the winter wilderness…you get the idea. Every game contains several crucial spots in which the unwary detective can make an error so bad that it stops the game. A screen pops up with the message, “You have made a fatal error. Would you like to try again?” The player must select either “Yes” or “No”, thus either returning to a point just before the fatal error, or returning to the beginning of the game.

When we find we have made a fatal error, we are relieved to have the option to say that we would like to try again, that it’s not a permanent failure that results in having lost all of our work. Thinking about this made me think about repentance. So often, it’s easy to think of repentance as what we have to do; it may take on a negative feeling, associated as it is with having made another kind of fatal error: sin. Paul doesn’t call it a fatal error, but he does write, “The wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23). In Ezekiel 18:4, the Lord Himself says that “The soul who sins shall die.” When we commit sin, we place ourselves under the death penalty once again, and we have to take action in order to step back under the sacrifice of Christ.

It’s hard to say we’re sorry, and it’s hard to repent: to realize that we have stepped outside God’s rule in our life and that we have to admit our mistake. But repentance itself is not a chore: it is a divine gift. This is implied in Acts 11:17, where Peter defends his actions in baptizing Gentiles by saying, “If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”

When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”

The ability to repent and turn again to God is a gift, a gift that God wants us to use when we have made a fatal error. He doesn’t take pleasure in seeing us caught in perilous places and under the death penalty. To repent is to change one’s mind and purpose, to turn towards God instead of continuing away from Him. And when we repent, the sin we pursued is removed, as God Himself says in Ezekiel 18:21-23. “‘…if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live. Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?’ says the Lord God, ‘and not that he should turn from his ways and live?’”

When we turn away from God, we are given a similar message to the one my family gets when we make a misstep in our computer game. Sin is a fatal error, but it doesn’t have to be permanent. Thanks to Christ’s sacrifice and God’s gracious gift of repentance, we are able to say, “Yes, I’d like to try again.”

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In the opening verses of 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul address his letter to “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” (1 Cor. 1:2). This word “sanctified” has the meaning of something being set apart for a specific purpose–in this case, set apart by God’s calling. Now, the idea of being set apart implies a separation of some kind. And indeed, we read in John 17 that we are to be set apart. Christ, in praying to His Father, said, “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:14-17).

So we see that we are called by God to be set apart from the world–in it, not of it–set apart by His truth and His Spirit (1 Cor. 6:1). As Christ was in the world but not of the world, so we are to walk among the world but not along its paths. We are called to be something different. We are to be strangers to this world, as Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:11-12: “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.”

Not only does Peter explain how we are to walk apart from the world, he tells us why: so that those who are in the world will see our good works, our “apartness,” and be moved to glorify God. We are to represent God and His ways to those around us, and thus flee the works of unrighteousness. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.”

For all this talk about being “set apart,” however, there is one way in which we are not supposed to be set apart; we are not to be set apart from our brethren. In Jesus’ prayer, He does not pray for His followers as individuals as much as He prays for them as a body. In fact, a few sentences later, He prayed, ““I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me” (John 17:20-23). Notice that He ties a mission (teaching the world that Christ was sent by His Father to the world) to our unity.

No wonder, then, that back in 1 Corinthians 1:10 Paul pleads with the Corinthian brethren, “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” Christ prayed that we would be one as He and His Father are one, with no division at all. Paul points out that none of us has anything to glory about, save God’s mercy: “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, 29 that no flesh should glory in His presence…that, as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the LORD'” (1 Cor. 1:26-29, 31).

Division amongst ourselves in unacceptable. As Paul asked in 1 Corinthians 1:13, is Christ divided? No! But before we start looking at larger divisions and corporate issues, perhaps it is best to first look at ourselves as individuals. It is very easy, when thinking of division, to start thinking about groups that disintegrate. However, any group that experiences a division experiences it because of what started as individual decisions. So let us ask ourselves: do we ever speak things that cause division? How is our speech? What are our actions like? Do our words and behaviors “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (1 Pet. 2:17)?

James had plenty of reason to rail against the improper use of speech in his book. He wrote, “But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:8-10). How are we doing? When someone’s name comes out of our mouth, is it because we are talking about their positive qualities? Is it because we are speaking in love and honor? If they heard what words we attached to their name, would they be uplifted and encouraged, or devastated?

Do we have our own little group that we think is somehow “better” than everyone else–or at least “better” than a small group of others we see as inferior? Watch out! James warns, “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality…If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:1, 8-10).

Division and partiality are serious matters. We are called to be “set apart” from the world and united with our brethren. As Peter wrote, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10). We who are Christian are called to be a special people to God. We were not, before our calling, a nation or people unto ourselves. His calling may be the only thing we have in common with some of our brethren. Paul put it very clearly in Colossians 3:8-15: “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.

 Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.”

As Thanksgiving approaches this week in the United States, let us carefully consider our calling and sanctification. We have been set apart for the Lord’s purposes. It is by our unity that we are to show forth His greatness. We ought to be thankful not just for our individual calling, but for the calling of our brethren in the faith. We will show that gratitude in our actions and words as we speak to and about one another, as we move among one another in love. Let us be sure that in our speech and behavior there is no partiality or malice toward anyone, but love and right speaking and right action. Let us “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (1 Pet. 2:17).

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