Monday, November 24, 2014

Friendship with Jesus

You don't hear the question very often as an adult.  Adults are experienced and wary and "dignified," and we don't always say exactly what we mean, partly because we fear rejection.  But children are more forthright.  And a common question, from one child to another, after first meeting, is, "You want to be friends?" And the answer is usually "Uh-huh! Yes!"

little boys talking

As we grow older, our friendships can be formed quickly or gradually, because every individual is different, and every pair of individuals is different.  But that simple childhood question is so honest, so innocent, that it's almost haunting.  And it makes me wonder: I know Someone else Who was forthright and honest and innocent when He walked the earth - - - although He was also deeper and more quick-witted than anyone who ever lived.  What would you say if the Lord Jesus Christ asked you, "Do you want to be friends?"  Or, a slightly different question: "Are you My friend?"

It's a deep, deep question.  The Lord Jesus Christ has plenty of "acquaintances;" the churches are full of them.  Men and women who know about Him, and have an intellectual belief in Him, but have never actually pursued a level of intimate fellowship with Him: in other words, about 90% of the church members in the Western world.  (In China, or in Muslim countries, such shallow acquaintance is virtually unknown: it costs something to be a follower of Christ there).  And He certainly has many, many enemies.  In fact, unless and until you've received Jesus Christ by an act of the will, at a specific point in time (John 1:12, John 3:3-7), you're one of those enemies.  That's not my judgment; it's God's: For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life (Romans 5:10, written to those who have received Him). You may claim, like the philosophers, to admire Him as a Teacher; or claim, like the Muslims, that He was a great Prophet; but, until you have become personally acquainted with Him, just as you're acquainted with your neighbors and co-workers, you're not His friend; He considers you an enemy.

Who, then, are His friends?  As we've already indicated, it begins with meeting Him, by receiving Him, and being born again.  But that's just the beginning.  That's the simple part.  Anybody can be saved; but there are some very specific characteristics of being His friend.

The first step is believing Him.  Not just "believing in Him," but believing in what He says - - - which is found in His word, the Bible.  A professing Christian may scoff at parts of the Bible; but a friend of Jesus won't: he or she will believe it implicitly, even the parts that aren't easily understood. God spoke to Moses directly, but He didn't call Moses His friend:  And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend (Exodus 33:11).  But Abraham was truly God's friend.  (This doesn't mean that Abraham was a "better man" than Moses; that has nothing to do with it.  Both men were sinners, like you and me.) Speaking to Israel: But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend (Isaiah 41:8). What was so special about Abraham? God tells us very clearly, in the New Testament: in fact, it's so important that God says it three times.  For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness (Romans 4:3).  And, Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness (Galatians 3:6).  And, the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God (James 2:23).  Was Abraham God's friend because he offered up Isaac, or because he was the father of nations?  No, although those things are inestimably important.  According to James, he was God's friend because he believed God.  Do you?  When God speaks to you in His word, not just about "theological" things, but on a very personal level, with warnings and promises and guidance, do you believe Him, or doubt Him?

girl reading Bible

Closely related to believing Jesus is obeying Him.  (I don't like this part any better than you do!)  But there's no getting around it: if we believe His words, we'll believe that He's serious when He tells us to do something (or not do something).  Obedience is not the "key" to the Christian life, but it's one of the hallmarks of the Christian life.  It's a matter of doing what Jesus wants us to do, instead of what we want to do.  And we don't need a Biblical example of this, like Abraham, because Jesus told us this directly: Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you (John 15:14).  The inevitable, inescapable corollary? If we don't do what He commands, we're not His friends.  Yes, we're still saved; yes, we can still have fellowship with Him; but if we choose our desires over His commands, then friendship is off the table.  At times, He'll tell us all the same thing, like commanding us to study the word or spread the Gospel; at other times, He'll have specific, tailor-made commands for each of us: "Don't marry that man."  "Don't take that job."  "Go to this town, not that one."  And when God says these things to us, they're not "requests;" they're commands.  And if we do them, He counts us among His friends.

Does that sound unreasonable?  "I can't be Jesus' friend if I do things my own way?"  Well, it might sound unreasonable ... but I only quoted one verse.  Because, before issuing any commands to us, Jesus already counted us His friends, when He went to the cross, to be tortured to death for our sins.  That's the context I didn't mention: the passage reads, Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you (John 15:13-14).  He doesn't have to prove His love or loyalty or friendship to us; He's already done it.  Now it's our turn.

And there's another element in this discussion: if Jesus is to be our Friend, then certain other people cannot and will not be our friends.  We have to make a choice.  We can't be friends with "the world:" i.e., the world system, which is totally alienated from God, and the people who are comfortable in that system.  Speaking to  to people who thought that they could have it both ways, God said,  Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God (James 4:4). If you want to be like the people who surround you at school or in the workplace, or the people you see in movies and on television, you will not be Jesus' friend.  If you place a high priority on "fitting in" and having everyone like you, you'll not be Jesus' friend.  In fact, according to this verse, such worldly affections are actually enmity (hostility, opposition) against God.  Does that mean that a friend of Jesus can't have unsaved friends?  Well, without playing semantic games: we can surely have friendly acquaintances, and a degree of good relations, with non-Christians.  God doesn't expect us to be hermits, or to be hostile to everyone outside our own little circle.  I have many dear acquaintances who are unsaved.  They like me (although they don't understand me), and I like them.  But when a crisis comes, they usually don't come to me for comfort or help, and I don't go to them.  (There are always exceptions in extreme circumstances.) As everyone knows, it's when you're in trouble that you find out who your friends are - - - and who they're not.  A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity (Proverbs 17:17). Jesus calls us His brethren - - - and He wants to be our Friend.

This isn't spiritual snobbery or elitism.  Any parent of a teenager (or even a younger child) will advise him or her to choose their friends carefully.  Nobody, Christian or non-Christian, wants their children "running with the wrong crowd."  And Jesus demands our complete loyalty, if we're to be His friends.

 bad girls and good girl

There are other factors, of course.  But these are some of the most important.  One of the most subtle, yet obvious verses in the Bible says:  A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly (Proverbs 18:24).  If you want someone to be your friend, you don't shun that person, or seek to avoid him: you look for opportunities to spend time together, and enjoy one another's company.  You enjoy being together. That might be part of the definition of friendship, although not the only part. Boy or girl, woman or man, a person likes being with a friend: it isn't a burden or a duty.  It's fun - - - or, many times, much more meaningful than "fun:" it's a time of sharing burdens and concerns and talking things out.  Friends laugh together, cry together, and, very often, get bored together!  But the key word is "together."

black and white friends

Does that describe the time you spend with Jesus Christ?  Do you seek out opportunities to fellowship with Him?  Do you cry with Him and laugh with him and maybe (I say it reverently) get bored together, like when you're reading a "dull" part of Scripture?  It's all part of friendship.  And if Jesus is to be your Friend, you must "show yourself friendly:" by not shunning Him, by not "putting Him off," by not sticking Him in your hip pocket until Sunday morning.  

He doesn't need your friendship, or mine; but we need His.  And He wants it. He wants it very much. After all ... hasn't Jesus already spent enough time alone, shunned and hated by the world He came to save?

Jesus sitting alone

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Pathology of Temptation

Have you ever wondered how sin begins, in your life or mine?  We can be engaged in the most innocent or necessary of pursuits, and suddenly (it seems), we're involved in some sort of sin.  How does that happen?  Unless we've planned it out in advance, with premeditation, it seems that sin sort of slips up on us, and catches us unawares. The Bible refers to sin which doth so easily beset us (Hebrews 12:1).  The question is, "When does a sin become a sin?"

It's a very old question ... probably as old as mankind itself, because with one notable Exception, all men and women are sinful creatures by nature.  It's primarily a matter of concern for Christians, who have received Jesus Christ according to John 1:12: because, let's face it, "everyday" sin is not a big issue in the minds of most unbelievers, if they acknowledge the reality of sin at all.  We live in a world in which psychologists and philosophers have been telling us, for at least a century or two, that there's no such thing as "sin" at all; that everything is relative.  But people who think clearly, and independently, usually know better.  You might not like the word "sin" (who does?), preferring "mistake" or "shortcoming," but there's a difference .... and most people understand that, even if they don't like to think about it.

Fortunately, the question "When does a sin become a sin" has an answer.  After all, Christian thinkers have been studying this sort of thing for a long, long time.  In Christian theology, the study of sin is called "hamartiology," from the Greek ἁμαρτία, meaning "sin."  The subject of temptation is called peccability. Those are words that you're not likely to hear in everyday conversation, but the study of these things, as human phenomena, can be very helpful on a practical level.

We've discussed formal theology very little in this blog, for two reasons: In the first place, "theology" is frequently a substitute for the study of God's word itself, which is the source of all truth.  In the second place, theologians, from Augustine to Bonhoeffer, are human beings, with human limitations, and they very often get it wrong.  However, they've occasionally made some positive contributions, and the study of sin is one of them.

And, as we said, it's quite practical.  This little snippet of theology has been very helpful to me, in my own life, and it might be helpful to you, as well.  The classic theologians broke down what we've called "the pathology of temptation" into four stages .... and anybody who's aware of them can observe them, and recognize them, very easily.

The first stage in temptation is called presentation.  This is when you're confronted with an object or a circumstance that could become sinful.  It could be a bottle of whiskey, an "off-limits" member of the opposite sex, a sudden financial windfall that you could hide on your taxes, or a thousand other things.  You see it: you're presented with it.  But merely being presented with it doesn't involve sin.  If it did, we'd all be sinning 24/7.

The second stage is called illumination.  This is when you understand what you're seeing, and the possibilities at hand .... and the moral aspects involved.  A woman in an office sees a co-worker smiling at her in a certain way (that's the presentation), and she thinks, "Hmmm ... you know, he's really interesting.  Not like my husband, at all!  And from the look on his face, I'll bet we could get together, and nobody would be the wiser."  Or the man in the store sees the open cash drawer, and thinks, "I'll bet they wouldn't miss a few twenties or so .... and I probably wouldn't get caught...."  Or you're looking for something on Google, and suddenly you're at one of "those" websites.  It's right there in front of you, and nobody would know if you spent some time there. That's illumination: realizing the possibilities involved in the object or situation.  But even this isn't sinful; it's just the way our minds work.

The third stage is called debate.  This is where it gets tricky, and more than tricky: this is when you actually consider getting involved with the object or situation that's potentially sinful.  You're no longer saying that you could "drown your sorrows" with the booze, or steal the money, or check out the pornography; at this stage, you're actually trying to decide whether or not to do it.  "Is it worth the risk?  It wouldn't really hurt anybody, would it?  And surely God understands, doesn't He?  After all, it's not like I'm killing anybody ... and if I don't get caught ... But no, it's wrong.  I shouldn't do it.  I know better.  And yet....."  That's debate: you're trying to decide whether or not to do the thing.

The fourth and final stage is decision. That's when you give in to the temptation, and say, "Damn the consequences, I'm going to do it!  It's my life, and I have a right to do what I want!"  And you do it, whatever "it" is.  The Holy Spirit tells you "No," and/or your conscience tells you "No," but you do it anyway.

But decision is not where "sin becomes sin."  That happened during the third stage, debate, when you were actually trying to decide whether or not to do it.  Up until that time, you hadn't sinned; you'd merely been tempted.  And temptation, obviously, isn't sin: even Jesus was tempted, by Satan in the desert.  But He didn't debate about it, or say, "Maybe Satan's got a point!"  Debate is where sin enters in.

I say it very carefully, and very reverently: God isn't so much interested in what we do .... as what we want to do. That's why Jesus said, whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart (Matthew 5:28). That's why John, writing by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, said, Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him (1 John 3:15). Regardless of whether we ever reach the point of decision, and commit the actual act, the sin begins with the debate: for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). And the Lord - - - not your pastor, your Pope, or your mother - - - is the One Who decides what sin is.

But it doesn't have to get as far as the actual act, or even debate.  If a man or woman has been born again, according to John 3:3-7, he or she has been given exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust (2 Peter 1:4). Chief among these, in this matter of sin and temptation, is 1 Corinthians 10:13: There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it. 

Never mind the theological terms; just remember the four stages in the pathology of temptation.  Presentation, simply seeing an object of temptation, isn't a sin.  Neither is illumination, when you realize what's available.  Sin begins with debate: when you start figuring the odds, wondering whether you can or should do it.  That's what leads to the actual decision, and the act of sin.

But even if we blow it, even if we ignore the warnings and walk headlong into sin, forgiveness is available.  Because we're not alone. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).  Although He never sinned, our God was once a Man, walking in the world, and He knew temptation.  He understands.  And, although we will always have to reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7), we can acquire forgiveness as soon as we sincerely ask for it: 1 John 1:9.

But how much better to avoid it in the first place!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Asking God's Forgiveness

Well, you've done it again.  You were doing so well, living your life in the way it's supposed to be lived, avoiding the old sins and stupidities and mistakes .... but now you've slipped up again. You've sinned: maybe a big, dramatic sin, maybe just a fleeting, improper thought: but you've sinned, and you know you've sinned.  What do you say about it .... especially to God?  How do you makes things right?    

There are, at the most basic level, two indispensable, essential activities in the Christian life: reading and studying God's word, the Holy Bible; and prayer.  They call these things "spiritual disciplines," which is a word we don't like very much, but it's a good word to use: because sometimes, prayer and Bible study are hard work, and require real effort.  It's impossible to say which of the two is more important: in prayer, you're talking to God, and in reading the Bible, God is talking to you. That two-way communication is essential to any and every Christian.   

(By the way, if you're not a Christian - - - if you've never received Jesus Christ by an act of the will, according to John 1:12 - - - then this post really isn't terribly relevant to you.  For you, the issue is not "spiritual disciplines:" the issue is, "What will you do with Jesus Christ?"  He wants you to be born again, according to John 3:3-6. That's the starting point.  He's waiting to receive you with open arms, as soon as you're willing to receive Him.)

In this post, we're talking about prayer.  And any real praying begins with confessing our sins: clearing the decks, settling the accounts, clearing the channels of communication. (That's not a mixed metaphor, by the way: that's a series of metaphors!)  We need to get rid of the dead rats and the dust balls that are cluttering our conscience.

The first thing to realize is that God, in His mercy, meets us where we are. You don't have to be a theologian, or a lifelong Christian, to pray, or to confess your sins.  A child can do it - - - and, very often, children are more aware of the need to do it, and are more willing to do it, than adults! Maybe you just need to say,"God, I blew it when I did that, and I know it. Please forgive me!"

Every Christian, of course, is God's child: and we're approaching a loving, compassionate Father Who wants to forgive us.  Anyone who thinks that he or she is an "expert" on prayer has a lot to learn.  But, although God delights in the simple, heartfelt prayer of a child, He doesn't expect us to remain children, spiritually speaking, forever. He wants us to grow, to mature: and as we grow in our knowledge of Him, and our experience with Him, He expects us to learn more and more about communicating with Him.  A little boy or girl communicates in a certain way with his or her parents; but as they grow, they will communicate in far different ways with their friends, their business associates, and their own families.  "Baby talk" is perfectly appropriate for babies; but it doesn't work so well with a teacher or a business associate! 

The Bible is full of prayers, and instructions in prayer.  But it's not a "prayer book" or a missal: God doesn't want to hear us merely repeating the words of men and women who have gone before us.  We can often "quote" the Bible, in our prayers, if we're doing it sincerely; in fact, God loves hearing His word offered back to Him in prayer. But it has to be from the heart.  There's more to prayer than merely "Today's Reading" in the prayer book, or the twenty "Our Fathers" the priest prescribes.  Jesus spoke very clearly about that kind of "prayer:" But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking (Matthew 6:7). Anybody who tells you to repeat a certain prayer, a certain number of times, is, according to Jesus Christ, a heathen and an imposter.  When you communicate with your Father, you don't need a middleman, except for the One God Himself has provided: For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). You don't need Mary or a "saint" or a "priest" to approach God on your behalf: you only need Jesus - - - and you only need yourself, prompted by the Holy Spirit.

I don't know about you, or what parts of the Bible you've read the most, or which are the most important to you.  But I know the single verse that I've repeated more often than any other in my Christian life.  It's 1 John 1:9: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I learned very early about the importance of that verse: not because I'm a "quick study" (I'm just the opposite), but because God gave me some excellent teachers.

You see, we're usually aware of when we've blown it, when we've committed some obvious sin. But there are plenty of sins that we don't even realize we've committed. (I'm not trying to make you feel guilty; I'm trying to show you how to get rid of the guilt.)  God is far more aware of this than we are, of course, and He's unimaginably compassionate.  If we confess our sins - - - the ones we know about, the ones that are making us miserable and ashamed - - -  he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  We confess the sins we're aware of - - - losing our temper, mistreating our spouse, lying or stealing or lust - - - and, if we confess them sincerely, God forgives even the sins we haven't noticed: like not reading His word enough, or not being sensitive to someone's needs, or just acting like a fool. Think of that. How much more loving and forgiving could He be?  It has been aptly said, "If you take one step toward God, He'll take two steps toward you" - - - and this is a perfect example.

1 John 1:9 is a promise.  It's a categorical, propositional statement. Either it's true, or it's a lie.  We're going to proceed on the assumption that it's true, because if God has ever lied, nobody's ever caught Him.

In your prayers, try rephrasing that verse as a prayer.  (That's why I've repeated the verse so often, for forty-five years: I've been praying it, because I screw things up a lot.)  Let's say that you have a problem (i.e., a tendency to sin) with gambling.  You stay away from it for awhile, but then you blow your paycheck at a casino, or buy the lottery ticket.  You've sinned, and you know it.  So, instead of rationalizing and feeling guilty, you say "Father, please forgive my sin of gambling, and cleanse me from all unrighteousness."  If you're anything like me, you'll have more than one thing to confess!  But by praying that prayer, you've done at least two things: acknowledged your sin, and taken it to God, speaking to Him in His own words. And it works.  The verse isn't a lie. God forgives you!

It's also helpful to know that, whatever you've done, your prayers of confession are not going to take God by surprise, or "shock" Him. He's more aware of what you've done than you are, whether you confess it or not. The chronic adulterer, the brutal murderer, the most depraved pervert, hasn't done anything that God hasn't seen before.  (Sometimes, He's seen it in His own servants, such as the murderer Moses or the adulterer David or the Christ-denying Peter.) You can shock people, but you won't shock God.  Sadden Him, yes; but not surprise Him. O LORD, David prayed, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether (Psalm 139:1-4).  You grieved God when you sinned; but you won't grieve Him when you come to Him in contrition, asking His forgiveness.

There are far more principles of prayer than can be treated in a single post, of course. In this one, we're dealing with the specific issue of asking God's forgiveness.  Two things should be mentioned: first of all, we should keep "short accounts" with God. Don't let your sins pile up, so that you're weighted down with shame and hopelessness; don't wait until the next church service to confess your prayers.  Do it as soon as you become aware of them. If someone cuts you off in traffic, and you curse at them, you should ask God's forgiveness with your next breath: why wait? Get rid of the guilt right away!  The second thing to remember is that we don't need to confess the same sin twice - - - at least, not if we were sincere the first time. This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more (Hebrews 10:16-17).

The skeptics and scoffers love to ask, "Is there anything God can't do?" Yes, there is. Once we've placed our sins under the Blood of Jesus Christ, He can't see them, or remember them.  If you've sincerely confessed a sin, and asked God's forgiveness, you don't need to confess it again.  You may still feel guilty, and you may be tempted to confess it again: after all, the Enemy, Satan, will hold it over your head as long as you let him. But (I say it reverently), if I've confessed a sin sincerely, and then I go back and confess it a second time, God says, "What are you talking about?"  He's forgotten it!

The more you pray, and the more you study God's word, the more you learn about prayer. We've hardly scratched the surface, and will have to continue this in another post.  Because there's a great and deep truth that most Christians never realize: God isn't terribly interested in hearing us recite our sins.  (As we've seen, He already knows about them.)  He doesn't want us to ask forgiveness for what we've done, so much as He wants to hear us confess what we are.

That's where it gets deep!  And that's where we'll pick it up another time!