Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Religion of Formulas

    I am admittedly a recovering (I hope mostly recovered) legalist. No, I never believed that I earned my salvation by how good a person I was. I never would have agreed with anyone that I could somehow save myself. But somehow, I still fell prey to the lie that my standing with God was dependent on how good a person I was.

    And I use the word "good" very loosely, as I will explain through this article. See, for myself, and several other young homeschoolers in similar circles, as I have agreed, the "good" that God was looking at was not my heart. No, God had much higher aims than that! No, I looked at God with a much more formulaic approach.

    See, the God I believed in was a God of formulas. If you used, for example, courtship to find your spouse instead of dating, you were in some way superior and more deserving of God's favor. Take it a step further, if you did a no kiss courtship, wow, God must really be wanting to bless you. If you did a no touch courtship, double wow! God's ultimate formula has been kept, and now He is actually pleased with you.

    In this system of thought, God has different measures of pleasure, one, say, for the Christian who simply gives as he as extra money, a second, deeper pleasure for the one who tithes scrupulously, and even a third for the one who gives generously.

    It is not a religion of grace and unmerited favor, but rather a religion based solely on formulas and opinions, standards and skewed misconceptions. My view of God was not the majestic Creator who lowered Himself to His creation, but rather a Lord who died for our sins and was resurrected in order to watch us struggle harder and harder to earn His favor.

    It's not just in this way that we show the formulaic basis of many of our beliefs. For one thing, we show it everyday when we use phrases such as "That shouldn't have happened to him! He was such a nice guy..." or "he had it coming!" We have it ingrained in our minds that good things happen to good people because they innately deserve it, and bad things happen to bad people because they innately deserve that!

   However, when we meet Jesus, our new understanding of the world should strike a blow to this whole concept. Suddenly, the world is not as black and white as it once was, because evil man that I am, I am blessed for something I didn't do, and the righteous Lamb died horribly for something He did not do. The gospel itself is the complete antithesis of formulaic faith, because it broke every formula.

    The cross shatters a deathblow to this idea of man getting what he deserves based on his actions. Frankly, the Bible teaches that men, since we are all evil, deserve only the wrath of God in hell. But completely against every recognized system of thought, perfect goodness suffered in order to bring blessings and goodness to ultimate evil. That's inconsistent with the formulaic view of faith.

    Unfortunately, many of us, like me, unintentionally carry over these ideas into our saved life and begin treating our relationship with Christ similarly. If I want God to be happiest with me, I need to enforce the highest standards on my life. Another manifestation of this mental concept is to fall pray to the building of strict, extra-Biblical systems to prevent sin or even temptation.

    The problem? Intentional or otherwise, when we combine formulas with faith, faith gradually falls away. There's a very reasonable explanation for that. Formulas are things we do ourselves, think up ourselves, and implement ourselves. They're the tangible, safe methods of the Christian walk. They're the mental checklist to save me from sin, the safe, solid ground when I'm uncertain.

    Faith is the direct opposite. Faith is trust in something outside ourselves and must be given by One greater than ourselves. Faith is the call to the dangerous in the Christian life. Faith is the call to jump off the safe, solid ground and into the arms of Jesus.

    When we try to build a formulaic religion, the word that comes to mind is "safe". Suddenly, your life is planned out! When you meet girl Sally (I use that name cause I don't know any Sally's) you want to marry, she must be like this and believe this. You will ask her this question, and this question, and check off the boxes on your checklist. You'll ask her father this and this, and then you'll do this and this...

     And life is so safe. It's clean and risk free. As long as the formula is met, then she must be the girl for you, or this job must be God's will for you. But you may see the problem. Amid all the formulaic questions and checklists, where is the dependence on the Holy Spirit? Where is the need for a trust in God beyond my human understanding?

    See, a life lived by formula, by a checklist of high standards that will keep me from falling into sin is much easier, much more simple than a life lived by faith and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To follow the leading of the Holy Spirit to do things that break those checklists is to live a life of faith, faith in a God who leads us sometimes into situations that are difficult to understand.

    A mental checklist of right and wrong extra-Biblical standards is very easy. As an example, I've heard of the standard people apply to their lives to never speak online to a member of the opposite gender after 10:00 at night. Okay, fine. Sure, go for it! But what about when a friend goes through surgery and is stuck at home for hours, and the only convenient time to talk to her is at night? Suddenly, the checklist is now defining how much of a friend I can actually be.

    Checklists are fine. High standards are fine. But when they begin to replace faith in the guidance of the Holy Spirit in your life, you got trouble. A religion of formulas doesn't need Jesus, because sin can be prevented by my formula!

    The Christian life doesn't work that way though. Life with Christ is not a journey made by more and more self-effort and higher set standards than everyone else. And His favor cannot be purchased by your painfully strict standards.

    Because His favor has been given! You don't have to earn it! God's love can't be earned by checklists, standards, morals, or anything else; it's given. And a life lived by faith is a life radically surrendered to follow Jesus' leading regardless of the intellectual and logical sense of His commands, or even the perceived wisdom in following through with them, even by the church.

    Formulaic Christianity leaves very little room for the working of Jesus Christ in our lives. If we already have our checklists laid out and our standards formed, and that's where our confidence lies to protect us from sin, then Jesus becomes simply a bonus to our morality rather than the basis of all goodness in us and blessings to us.

    Faith and self-reliant morality cannot walk together. Unmerited favor and merited love cannot stand side by side. If you are someone who struggles or has struggled with trying to define your religion by higher standards or checklists, please, please, please! -Jesus Christ is all you need. He gives His Word to guide and His Spirit to lead into all truth. You don't have to stay in bondage to an extra-Biblical rule sheet!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tips On Improving Your Devotional Life: Bible Memorization

Some of us are naturally good at Bible memorization, some of us are naturally bad at Bible memorization; and some of us just need to learn how to do it properly (or at lease ease the process). You can mix-and-match these tips, use all of them, or none at all; but hopefully they will at least inspire you to come up with a better method of memorizing scripture.

Tips for short passages:

1. Read short passage, say it as far as you can (out loud) without looking, repeat until you get it.

2. Read first line/sentence/part (whatever you want really) and do the process above. After you get the first part down, try to do the first and second part. Continue until you have all the parts down.

3. Print out the verse; and put it up in different places around the house.

4. Read the verse a couple times, every time you read the Bible. Constant exposure works wonders!

5. Memorize verses that are meaningful to you.  Let face it, they are easier to remember.

Tips for long passages (works particularly well with long chapters):

Step 1. Read as much as you have memorized of the long passage, as well as the next ten verses.

Step 2. Memorize whatever verse you are on, using whatever method you like.

Step 3. Without looking, try to recite as much of the passage as you can, including the verses you haven't memorized yet.

Step 4. Read as much as you have memorized of the long passage, as well as the next ten verses; again.

Steps 3 & 4 are the surprising key to this process.  It might not help a ton in the beginning; but once you get to those verses that you have been repeating for the past ten days, you will probably already have them memorized (and maybe be a couple verses "ahead").

Using the long passage process has been extremely helpful to me. A lot of times I can "recite" about five verses ahead of what I have officially "memorized".  I hope the process can help you too! Not only does this process take less time, and help you in long-term retention; it also helps you remember what verse comes next while reciting the passage. -I can't count how many times I have truly "known" every verse in a chapter; but was not able to simply figure out which verse comes next.  Reading large chunks often; helps remedy this problem.

If you often memorize chapters, and know what chapter you are going to do next, I suggest you start working on the next chapter when you get towards the end (last ten verses) of your current chapter.

Do you have any tips you would like to share?  Only a few of the tips have been covered, and Scripture memorization is pretty important, so there may be a part 2 of this article.  Happy memorizing!  And thank you to everyone who helped me compile these tips! :)

"I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you."
~Psalm 119:11

Sunday, May 17, 2015

When Life Breaks Your Heart

“When you can’t see past the tears, trust His heart” – C.H. Spurgeon

Usually when we hear the term “broken heart” we think of it in terms of a broken romantic relationship, but the truth is our heart can be broken when anything our heart has hoped in is disappointed. We hope for a job, promotion, or opportunity and we don’t get it; we hope for a certain direction in life and are dissuaded by sickness, finances, family problems, or who-knows what else; we hope for happiness but often trials and heartache find us instead. Proverbs says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” (Prov 13:12) and when hope is disappointed the heart is indeed as if “sick,” we just tend to use the term “broken”. Emotional pain is very real… and you can’t put a band-aid on it. If it is not dealt with it can lead to depression and even physical illness. And then you can lose hope altogether which is why it has led some to their death or to the taking of their own life. It is possible to die from a broken heart.

However, as a Christian who believes in both the complete sovereignty and perfect goodness of God, I have often sought to understand His purposes for my trials. The path of pain is often mysterious but we do know that in all things God has one ultimate purpose, to conform His children to the image of Christ (Rom 8:28-29). Each time as I have allowed the Lord to work in my heart He has revealed things in my heart that He wanted to correct. This is not to say that we always bring hardship or pain on ourselves because of our sin, although that is sometimes the case. Often the Lord simply allows us to go through hard circumstances in order to grow our faith. If we never struggled, we would never grow. “No pain, no gain” is a motto that the Apostle Paul exemplified.

While there have been many things that I've learned through seasons of brokenness, the correction (teaching) has often centered around one question the Spirit whispers to my heart, “Beloved, where is your hope?” Psalm 42:5 says, “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted in me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance.” I chose to use the KJV here because I love the beautiful language of the command “Hope thou in God”. In Psalm 27:13-14 it says this, “I would have lost heart unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.  Wait on the LORD; be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart; wait I say, on the LORD.” Without hope we lose heart, so we must believe. Believe in what? In the goodness of God! Hold on to your faith that God is good and that one day all will be made right. A.W. Tozer wrote, “Whether we are happy or unhappy at any given time is not important. That we be in the will of God is all that matters. We may safely leave with Him the incident of heartache or happiness. He will know how much we need of either or both.” Yes, feelings matter. And we shouldn’t just dismiss the hurt that someone feels. But feelings are not truth. We must look beyond how we feel to Christ who, by the way, suffered more than we ever could.

Jim and Elisabeth Elliot are two of my heroes. Despite their love and desire to marry they waited about 4 years before Jim finally sensed the Lord’s timing and leading them to be joined. Then, less than 2 ½ years later (when their daughter was only a year old) Jim was killed by the natives he was trying to reach with the Gospel. A few years later Elisabeth spent several years in the jungle with the very men who had murdered her husband teaching them the Scriptures. She remarried fourteen years later but then lost that husband to cancer after only 4 years. Having had her share of intense trials, loss, along with struggles with trusting God and forgiving those who had hurt her, she wrote this, “God never withholds from His child that which His love and wisdom call good. God's refusals are always merciful -- "severe mercies" at times but mercies all the same. God never denies us our hearts desire except to give us something better.”

I am awed by that truth, are you? It’s one of those truths that can be really hard to believe, but yet we must, for it IS true. And there is great comfort in that – that no matter what pain we go through, God has something bigger in mind. May God help us to embrace the hard lessons, for they are the way to growth.

I will close this by sharing my all-time favorite quote. This prayer by Elisabeth Elliot I have often found myself echoing, sometimes amidst tears and feelings of frustration:

Perhaps some future day Lord,
Thy strong hand will lead me to a place where I must stand
Utterly alone.
Alone, O gracious Love
But for Thee;
I shall be satisfied if I can see – Jesus only.
I do not know Thy plans for years to come
My spirit finds its perfect home sufficiency.
Lord, all my desire is before Thee now
Lead on, no matter where, no matter what – I trust in Thee.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

What Heterosexuals and Homosexuals Have In Common

In most conservative churches today, homosexuals are typically viewed with a certain abhorrence. This article(published by Ligonier) gives an insiders view of a lesbian coming into Christianity. Before and after you read it, I would like you to ask the following questions to yourself; and if you will, share your thoughts in the comments.

1. Is homosexual lust any worse a sin than heterosexual lust?

2. Is a homosexual in sin for merely being attracted to the same sex; or is it giving in?

What do heterosexuals and homosexuals(in general) have in common? 

1. Both are sinners in need of salvation.

What do Christian homosexuals and heterosexuals have in common?

1. Both struggle with lust and are trying to overcome it.

2. God died for both

3. God loves both.

4. God cares for both.

5. God is trying to help both of them overcome their sin, sexual or otherwise.

6. Both are in the process of continual sanctification.

Have anything to add? Please share!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

My Strength is Made Perfect

    Well, I'm just getting around to finishing my post from 2 Cor. 12. I've had a hard time coming back to finish this post, but for some reason I feel in the mood tonight. Why God would give me this mood at eleven at night, I don't know, but it's here!

    We already addressed the first part of this amazing passage in v. 7-10, but here are the verses again, just so you can reread them. "And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, 'My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.' Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ might rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong."

    I have no intention of repeating what I already said, but we have been thinking about the concept of God's sufficient grace. As a quick review, it is important to keep that idea in mind today as we look at the second part of v. 8, because the two parts work together.

    "For my strength is made perfect in weakness". What a thought! There are several aspects of this verse that are comforting to an incredible degree, and I'd like to look at at least some of them. Again, this verse is incredibly precious to me, so pardon my extreme partiality! -Think of what God through Paul just said. His strength, the power of an all-mighty Creator, is made perfect in me, by what? My intellect? My superior moral compass? My tighter standards and rules? My theological understanding?

    It's made perfect in my weakness. Christ's strength shines in me the strongest when I am at my lowest, when I have no more I can give Him. When I am completely emptied of myself, God's power can be shown through me.

    That's amazing on two levels. One, how absolutely thoughtless of us to run dashing around trying to appear more spiritual and more perfect than our brothers and sisters in Christ, when in reality, Christ's strength in us is dependent, not on our perfection, but on our dependence. Only when we realize that we need a crutch, and that we can't walk on our own does the idea of Christ carrying us seem so sweet.

    There's a second beautiful aspect to the verse, and that is this: never, never are you too weak, too downtrodden, or too forgotten to be used by God. Never! When we are at our weakest, God can show His strongest through me.

    That said, it should make us think of something. If we want Christ's strength to reside in us constantly, doesn't that necessitate us remaining constantly in a state of utter dependence on God? If in my weakness Christ is strong, then shouldn't I remain forever weak in myself so that I can become strong in Christ? Is that a logical chain of thought?

    See, it's not fun to be weak. It's not fun to look your fear in the face and say, "I can't face you on my own. I just don't have the strength." It's much more fun to walk into temptation and spiritual hard times with the smug, self-confident swagger of a SuperBowl winning football team. It's much more fun to walk into church as the guy with the answers. It's much more fun to pick the toothpick out of someone else's eye than it is to pick the log out my own.

    But when I am weak, and I realize that weakness, that is when Christ can be strongest in me. That is when Christ is free to manifest Himself and his strength through me, and bring Himself glory in doing so. When I realize that I can't, that I'm not strong enough, I'm not big enough, I'm not tough enough to handle life on my own, that is when Christ can come in, and fill me with Himself.

    It is in our weakness that Christ shows His strength. It's in a nearly crying person kneeling in the dirt in Africa, it's in the shy girl at VBS, it's in the lonely highschool student. When we are at our lowest ebb is when Christ is free to show His power, and demonstrate Himself through us. When we walk through life confident in myself, in what I can do and I can say, I do not realize my need for Jesus in my everyday life.

    But when a terrible thing happens, or even a commonplace hard thing comes crashing into your life, and you don't know where else to go, and you know that you have nothing left, that is where God takes the broken, shattered vessels, with nothing but a willingness to be used, that He fills them with Himself, with His Spirit and His power, and He uses them as His instruments.

    My favorite quote by Eric Ludy is when He refers to Christ's as "little lambs, with the faces of lions." Because of the raging power of God, Christ uses us, these broken, weak instruments as His body on earth. Not because we are the strong, but because we are the weak! And because of our weakness, Christ is all the more able to shine through us. In our weakness, Christ demonstrates His strength by giving us, the weak of this world, the power to mock all the powers of earth and hell!