Friday, September 23, 2011

The Truth Will Set You Free

"He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies."  John 8:44

Choices.  We all have to make them.  We make choices daily.  Some are minor and insignificant in the grand scheme of life.  What to wear, what to make for dinner, what book to read next.  (Well, that might be significant depending on the book.)  And then there are the more crucial decisions.  Choices we make at work that may be the difference between keeping our job or losing it.  How we treat other people and what we say to them.  (Our words and actions often affect others more than we know.)  Behavior choices are a biggie, i.e. doing the "right" thing.  And we often have to make a choice about what the right thing is.  Sometimes it's obvious, but other choices are more gray.

Most choices we face, however, aren't something we decide in the moment.  Many choices we make out of habit, because that's the way we've always done it, and we've never thought about doing it any different.  Or our choices may be rooted in our preferences.  (I wear pink a lot because I like pink and people say it's a good color on me.)  Or we make choices based on our beliefs.  I write daily because I enjoy it, but I also write because I believe it's something God has gifted and called me to do.  I also spend a lot of time at home with my family because I'm most happy here and because I value the time I spend with them.  It matters.  It's important.  I choose to do these things not out of spontaneity or mere habit, but rather because of the way I think on a deep level.  And most choices that we make, whether we realize it or not, we make based on what we really believe.

In John 8 we find a lengthy conversation between Jesus and some who claimed to believe in Him.  I'm not sure if they made some kind of outward display of their belief such as getting baptized or wearing their new Jesus Saves t-shirts, but somehow they express a desire to follow Him and Jesus challenges them on their sincerity.  First he offers them a promise.  He says, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free."  Great news, right?  Well, some of them didn't think so.

"We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone.  How can you say that we shall be free?"

Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin...I know you are Abraham's descendants, yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word."

Jesus wasn't looking at them based on the outward faith they were proclaiming to have.  He was looking into their hearts.  What they were saying didn't match what they were thinking, and He knew that.  How?  His Father had told Him so.  "I am telling you what I have seen in my Father's presence." (vs. 38)  And He believed His Father over their own words of belief.  They thought they knew who He was and that they truly believed, but He knew better.

I think they were sincere to some extent.  They wanted to believe, but something was preventing them from doing so.  Jesus says that they couldn't believe because they didn't really know God.  They thought they were following their Father, Yahweh, whom their ancestors had followed, but they were instead following the father of lies, the devil.  "If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?  He who is of God hears God's words, therefore you do not hear; because you are not of God."

So what does all of this have to do with making choices?  Everything.  To make right choices, we need to know the facts.  We need the correct information.  We need to know what God wants for us, and not only know it, but believe it.  God wants wonderful things for you.  He wants you to have peace and joy.  He wants you to enjoy the benefits of love--receiving and giving it.  He wants you to live in freedom from sin: from past sins and the regret or guilt involved, and to avoid sin in the first place so you don't have to go through the pain of negative consequences.  Jesus came to give us these things.  His Father sent Him to show His mercy and to teach us what is good and right and worth following Him for.  These are the facts.  Jesus spoke the truth.

"I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)

"I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word he will never see death." (John 8:51)

"If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:36)

Believing the truth sets us free, but believing the lies of the enemy is a death sentence.  Listening to the lies of the devil chokes the soul.  It suffocates us.  What lies are you believing?  That you're not good enough, not valuable, and not loved?  That you can't escape the sin that has a hold on you?  That you're not forgiven and never will be?  That you can't make a difference?  That you're a failure?  That God's ways are not the best ways?  That He doesn't care about your needs?  That He will fail you?  That you don't matter?  That He won't answer your prayers?

Believing the father of lies leads to sin, fear. discouragement, despair, depression, guilt, pain, heartbreak, disappointment, and failure, or a feeling of failure.  (Be careful to distinguish between the two.)  If any of these feelings are all too familiar to you, take heart, you don't have to live under them another day, another minute, another second.  Believe God.  Don't believe the enemy.  'Resist the devil and he will flee from you.'  (James 4:7)  How do you know when you are believing the truth?  It will set you free, and you will know it.  You will feel the difference in your heart, and you will see the difference in the choices you make.  

"I am telling you what I have seen in the Father's presence."  He has told me what you need to hear.  I believe Him, and I wrote it.  I hope you're listening.

"The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy.  I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly." --Jesus

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." John 6:33

I was reading a familiar story in my devotions today, and the precious truth of it hit me afresh.  It spoke of God's tender love and mercy toward us.  It reminded me that Jesus came to give us life.  It emphasized the reality that He always has a better way for us than we have for ourselves...

At dawn Jesus appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.  The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery.  They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.  In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now what do you say?"

Stop for a moment and imagine this woman's fear, humiliation, and pain.  She has been taken from who-knows-where and thrust before a crowd where her secret sin is exposed for all to hear.  Alone.  In front of Jesus, whom she may or may not have heard about; but still, He's a rabbi.  A man of God.  Wow.  Talk about being up a creek without a paddle.  Or rather, in an ocean with no boat.  Her life is in jeopardy here--literally.

She probably didn't know this, but she is being used as a pawn, as the next sentence in the narrative tells us: They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him (Jesus). Jesus doesn't give in to their tactics, however.  He has a point to make.  A very important point.  And He makes it...

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.  When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them.  "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."  Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.  Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?"

"No one, sir," she said.

"Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared.  "Go now and leave your life of sin."

I find it interesting that the ones who initially accused this woman of wrongdoing ended up feeling convicted of their own sins and left in defeat, while the woman who had been accused was able to leave in forgiveness and restoration.  Isn't that just the way of Jesus?  When we think we're so right, He tells us differently.  And when we know we're wrong and think we're doomed, He tells us otherwise.  Either way, He is always right.  But the question is, what do we do with that?

I'm a little miffed that John doesn't tell us what this woman did following her encounter with Jesus.  Perhaps he didn't know.  Perhaps he never saw this woman again.  Or maybe she became one of Jesus' disciples too, and he fails to mention that.  But since we don't know, here are the two possibilities:  She continued on with her life as it already was, or she did as Jesus told her, to go and leave her life of sin, and her life completely changed.  Notice that Jesus didn't question whether or not she had done something wrong.  He knew what kind of life she was living, but condemning her for it wasn't on His agenda.  He simply wanted her to be free.

I'd like to think that she did go and leave her life of sin.  That she chose a better path for herself.  That she began to live a life of purity, dignity, and hope.  That she was restored, made whole, and found the life God had for her.  That she took back what the "thief" had stolen from her and found the abundant life Jesus said He came to give.

"Go now and leave your life of sin."  What do those words mean to you?  What things do you need to leave behind?  What has you caught in an endless cycle of shame, regret, anger, disappointment, fear, discontentment, pain...etc.  Where can you go from here?  Jesus isn't seeking to condemn you.  He just wants you to choose a different path for yourself.  He called himself the Bread of God who gives life to the world.  He came to give this woman that life.  He came to give you that life.  I pray that you will live forgiven, loved, and free.

"I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly." --Jesus (John 10:10)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Are you sitting down?

"Have the people sit down." John 6:10

Have you ever been lost?  If you have, you know how it feels.  You know where you want to be, but you don't know how to get there.  Which direction to go.  Which signs to follow.  You feel confused and disoriented.  Your mind tries to put the puzzle-pieces together to bridge the gap between where you are and where you need to be.  But it's not easy.  It's slow-going.  It's a trial and error process.  Take this street--no that's not right.  Oh, great.  Where am I?  This doesn't look like a good neighborhood.  Yes, it might even be scary, leaving you feeling panicked and making quick decisions that make it worse, not better.  Being lost is a place none of us want to be.

Besides finding ourselves lost in a physical locality sense, we also may feel this way about life.  We may wonder what we are supposed to be doing.  How to make money and how to spend it.  What to make a priority and what to let go.  Who to spend time with.  Who to follow.  How to find happiness, peace, fulfillment, and purpose.  And, just like when we're lost in an unfamiliar area, we have similar feelings of confusion, frustration, and maybe even panic.  The puzzle-pieces aren't fitting together right.  We're not where we want to be, and no matter which way we turn, we can't seem to get there.  Even seemingly good solutions, tested and tried by others, don't work for us.  We may go about life, acting as if we know exactly where we are and where we're going, maybe even believing it ourselves, and yet in reality, we're lost.  Like sheep without a shepherd, Jesus would say.  Or in more modern-day terms, like athletes without a coach; workers without a boss; students without a teacher.

Jesus said this about the people living in Israel during the time of His public ministry, and their aimless wandering had been going on for quite some time.  That's one of the reasons why He came.  He came to lead the people, His people, on the right path.  The path of truth, love, and peace.  And He did this in various ways.  He taught them by using the ancient Scriptures;  He taught them by proclaiming the "good news"; He taught them by telling stories (parables); And He taught them by example.  He spoke about the love of God, and He showed them that same compassion.  He spoke about God's ways, and He lived by them.  He pointed out the wrongful thinking of the religious elite, and He did it differently.  He claimed to be the Son of God, and He proved it by the things He said, the miracles He performed, and His victory over sin and death.

I was reading about one of these miracles this week, and I "heard" something that I hadn't taken much notice of before.  In John 6, Jesus and His disciples cross the Sea of Galilee to a remote place and hike up a mountainside.  A large crowd follows them, and Jesus asks one of His disciples, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?"  Philip doesn't think such a thing is even possible, claiming it would cost way too much money to feed them, even something cheap like bread.  Andrew has a little more optimism, seeing a boy with some bread and fish in his picnic basket, but hardly enough to go around.

Jesus, of course, has a plan.  He knows what He is capable of and that He is not limited by natural means.  If you know this story, you know what He does.  He takes the small amount of food and miraculously multiples it to feed everyone and have plenty of leftovers.  Through this story we draw out truths about Jesus and His miraculous power, and we also see that He simply cares about these people.  He doesn't want them to go hungry.  He knows their need, and He is willing to meet it.

But beyond their physical need for food, He also gives them something else.  A need for rest.  They have traveled a long way.  Some may have come to be healed of their diseases, as they saw or heard He had done for others.  Some may have followed Him out of curiosity to see what else He could do.  And some may have made the journey just to hear what He had to say.  To hear more about this Good News He was proclaiming.  Perhaps they were feeling lost and wanted to hear what He might have to say about their lives.  What they were doing right, what they were doing wrong, how they could find favor with God, how to receive this thing He was talking about called "eternal life".

"Have the people sit down," he says.  Seems like a logical thing to say since He knew they were going to be eating in a few minutes.  But I think Jesus' words here are very profound for a couple of reasons. One is because it was customary for people to stand in the presence of a rabbi, a teacher in Jewish culture.  So the fact that Jesus is inviting them to sit at all says something about His character.  He wanted the people to be relaxed in His presence.  They didn't need to stand at attention and show proper respect like many of the teachers of the day expected.  He didn't want to be honored, He wanted to be listened to.  And He didn't want to just teach the people about God's provision and His role and their loving Father, He wanted to show them the reality of it.  "Come to me, and I will give you rest," He said on another occasion, and He meant it.

Another thing I discovered is that the word for "sit" here is not the ordinary word for sit as we commonly think of it.  He didn't just invite them to sit, but to "recline".  To lay back.  To take a load off.  To relax.  To rest and be nourished, like sheep with a shepherd.  A good shepherd.  A loving caregiver who knew what they needed.  They had no other choice in this remote place.  And they took the opportunity to sit down and have their fill and experience God's abundance.

As Christians we are often challenged and expected to do more.  To be busy doing God's work.  To not waste precious time and make the most of our days.  And while we are called to meet the needs of others, teach, serve, and use our gifts, we are also called to rest.  Why?  Because we need it.  We're human.  We are like sheep, and we need a shepherd.  We get lost easily.  We get busy and think we're on the Holiness Express, only to look around one day and discover we're completely lost.  Confused, disoriented, and scared.  We're trying to make it on our own.  We're trying to save everyone else, and Jesus gently reminds us, 'Hey, you still need Me.  You need to trust Me.  You need to rest.  You need to follow Me, not chart your own course.  Come and rest.  Sit down.  Relax.  Take a load off.  Find rest for your soul.  (And your body too.)  "For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light."

Do you need to accept Jesus' invitation to sit down and rest?  Do you need to experience some peace? Do you need to be fed?  Are you short on some spiritual nourishment?  Are you confused?  Are you living in a state of fear, worry, guilt, defeat, or burden?  This is not what Jesus desires for you.  He desires for you to be at rest in His presence.  He desires for your heart to be filled with love, joy, and peace.

Is it?

'The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.'  Psalm 23