Monday, November 12, 2018

Valuable Lesson from a Donkey

A friend reminded me of a fable about a hapless donkey that somehow fell into a well. The water in the well wasn’t very deep, but it had no way of getting out. When townspeople discovered the animal’s plight, they tried to devise a solution to save it, but it seemed impossible.

When confronted with challenges, we can either
let them weigh us down or strive to overcome them.
Finally the citizens determined that if they couldn’t extricate the donkey from the well, the humane thing would be to bury it alive rather than let it die a slow death of starvation. So they began shoveling dirt into the well. The donkey, however, had different ideas. It would shake off each shovelful of dirt and let it fall to the well’s floor.

As the dirt falling from above began to accumulate, the animal realized it could step up onto the dirt pile and raise itself higher in the well. Eventually, the dirt had filled most of the well and the donkey, cleverly perched on top of it, simply stepped out of the well to safety.

The principle from this fable is one we could apply to many problems we encounter on our journey through life. The donkey could have decided he was doomed and accepted his fate. He could have given up and become buried under the dirt. Instead, he kept shaking it off and rising up under the challenge until he had overcome his dilemma and stepped out into freedom.

Many times our difficulties threaten to bury us as well. Problem piles upon problem, and we’re tempted to succumb to despair. However, if we remember the lesson of the donkey, we can regard these challenges as stepping stones rather than tombstones. 

It may seem like a puzzling reality, but we learn much more from difficulties and failure than we do from prosperity and success. For instance, financial problems often are the result of poor decision-making. Impulsive purchases, spending more than we’re earning, presuming upon God by accumulating debt. Or our priorities might be out of whack, causing harm to relationships and preventing us from accomplishing cherished goals.

At times the consequences of self-inflicted woes threaten to cover us up. We can choose to let that happen. Or we can learn from bad experiences, pursue ways of properly resolving them, and use this “dirt” to climb above our circumstances.

Followers of Christ, however, differ from the donkey in one crucial way. The donkey worked to resolve its problem solely through its own initiative. There was no one to help him. When our best efforts prove insufficient for the challenges we face, we have the assurance that we don’t have to confront them alone.

The apostle Paul, who dealt with multiple crises during his life as a disciple of Jesus, observed, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). In fact, Jesus Himself stated that if our desire is to do things of eternal value, we can’t accomplish them on our own strength. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Toward the close of his letter to the church in the city of Ephesus, Paul offered this encouragement: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power" (Ephesians 6:10). In our culture, many of us have learned the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality. However, unlike the donkey who was clever enough to use the dirt as a means for achieving freedom from the well, the Lord wants us to rely on Him whenever we confront perplexing dilemmas.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respond by doing whatever seems appropriate, but often even our best efforts aren’t enough. For this reason the apostle exhorted another group of believers to live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience” (Colossians 1:10-11).

When we’ve inadvertently fallen into some “well,” we don’t have to fall victim to the “dirt” cascading down on us. Instead, we can trust in the wisdom, guidance and power of God to lift us back to solid ground.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Keep Your Grudge in the Garage

Sometime ago, someone asked a country bumpkin if he had a grudge. “Sure do!” he replied with pride. “It’s big ‘nuf fer two cars, ‘cept that’s where I keep my four-wheeler and lawn tractor.”

Garage, “grudge.” Same thing, right? Unfortunately, no. I like having a garage, especially since I have an aversion to getting into an icy car that’s been sitting out in the freezing cold all night. Not my favorite way of “chillin’ out.” But having a grudge – better yet, nursing one – rarely, if ever, has any positive value.

Most of us know what it is to hold onto a grudge. Perhaps someone stung us with harsh words, or has treated us disrespectfully. When we’ve been wronged at work, we’re tempted to harbor a grudge for the offense. Maybe a neighbor has done or said something particularly annoying, maybe more than once. Why not hold a grudge against them for that? In sports, it’s common for rival teams to hold grudges against each other, attitudes that foment into hatred and hostility. 

Even in our churches, individuals or families refuse to speak to one another for some reason. Jesus said, A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so also you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). But apparently some people don’t think that applies to circumstances that justify mutual antagonism.

That’s not to minimize the emotional and relationship impact of being wronged. Wounds inflicted by others, whether by people close to us or strangers, are often slow to heal. Resentment and anger are normal responses to being hurt. However, clinging to a grudge and refusing to release it can do much harm – even to ourselves.

On his radio program a while ago, Dr. David Jeremiah suggested there are four different things to do with a grudge: Curse it. Rehearse it. Nurse it. Or reverse it. And we’ve probably done each of these at one time or another. 

We curse a grudge every time we see the offending party and feel a renewed surge of negative emotions. We rehearse it by reminding ourselves of the harm done, what happened, when it happened and by whom, and how it felt. We nurse it by treating the grudge as some cherished possession, refusing to let it go for fear the wrong won’t somehow be avenged.

Or we can reverse it, recognizing that hanging onto a grudge typically brings more harm to ourselves than to the one we feel is deserving of our wrath. In presenting His model prayer – what we know as “the Lord’s Prayer” – Jesus instructed us to ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12).

He also said, a few verses later, For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive yours” (Matthew 6:14-15). 

When I read those words, I want to respond, “But Lord, You don’t understand. After what they did (or said) to me, how can I offer forgiveness?” Then I remember Jesus on the cross, enduring the most cruel, excruciating form of execution, and yet being able to say of His executioners, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

In harboring ill will toward those who have offended or harmed us, our behavior mirrors theirs. As Dr. Jeremiah said, “Our enemy overcomes us when we become like our enemy.”

But where’s the vengeance, the making amends, if we willfully relinquish our “right” to harbor what seem to be well-deserved grudges? First of all, God declared, “Vengeance is mine” (Hebrews 10:30). Before we can utter our collective, “Yeah, but…”, we read about those to whom this admonition was originally addressed:
Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions [in heaven]” (Hebrews 10:32-34).

If anyone had justifiable cause to nurse a grudge, it was those folks. But God insisted He alone had the right to judge, and avenge if necessary.

There’s one more reason for being willing to release grudges, even toward those who make no secret of their malice toward us. King Solomon made this startling observation: If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21-22).

Some have said, “Don’t get mad. Get even.” But as followers of Christ, we have a third option: Get free. We don’t have to remain in bondage to destructive feelings; we can release them and entrust them to our just and faithful God.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Our Story, History, and His Story

“What’s your story?” Has anyone ever asked you that? Because each of us has a story. In fact, as my late friend Dave Stoddard used to say, there’s always a “story behind the story.” That’s one of the things that make every one of us so interesting and intriguing. 

Some would like to pigeon-hole us into convenient little categories, assigning one-size-fits-all labels. But in reality, we’re complex individuals with stories behind our stories – sometimes exhilarating, sometimes tragic, and usually somewhere in between. Many of us have spent moments in our lives wondering, “Who am I?” However, we rarely encounter people that ask us, “Who are you?” and are genuinely interested in hearing our answer.

We all have a unique story to tell one another.
For believers, it's also God's story.
The panhandler we spot on the street? He has a story. The nurse in the hospital’s intensive care unit? She has a story. The executive speaking animatedly into the smartphone at the coffee shop? Single parents wrangling toddlers filled with energy? The placard-carrying protester? They all have their own unique stories.

Our stories are imbedded in history – our personal history: backgrounds, key events, experiences good and bad, values and beliefs that have combined to shape us into the individuals we have become and are still becoming.

Within the family of faith we often celebrate stories of lives intersecting with a Person, Jesus Christ, who oversees a lifelong process of transforming us into what 2 Corinthians 5:17 calls “new creations.” We call these stories “testimonies,” and for well over 30 years I’ve had the privilege of writing many of them in the form of articles and even books.

Time after time, these have given me opportunities to see God in a way different from what I’ve seen in my own life. They’ve expanded my understanding of Him, appreciating how He’s worked in the lives of other people. Their stories – their histories – are actually His story in them.

Like a captivating novel, these real-life stories don’t end with an opening chapter. They become personal testimonies that grow and develop with the passage of years, even each passing day. And like a novel we can’t put down, His story in each of us includes twists and turns we never envisioned.

But our stories, our testimonies, aren’t precious gems for hiding away. They’re intended to be used and shared. They’re beneficial in many ways, including these three:

Personal edification. The faith journey isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. Reflecting back on our lives with Jesus a year or two, or more, we can perceive some of what the Lord has been doing over that time. Like watching a plant grow one day at a time, spiritual growth usually is indiscernible from one moment to the next. But comparing where we were years ago with where we are today reminds us of God’s faithfulness in our lives, how He has provided and intervened for us at crucial moments.

In its entirety, 2 Corinthians 5:17 states, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” This “newness” isn’t instantly complete, but the result of God changing us a little at a time. That’s so one day we will experience the promise of 1 John 3:2, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

Mutual encouragement. When we hear from one another what the Lord has been doing in our lives, it gives new understanding of who He is, how He works, and why our faith in Him is more than a wish or a hope-so – a confident, unwavering assurance of His presence and transforming power. I think of many friends whose stories inspired me as I learned about God’s work in lives very different from mine.

In his second letter, the apostle Peter mentioned another apostle, Paul, who couldn’t resist telling what Jesus had done for him: “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him” (2 Peter 3:15). Another passage admonishes, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:23-24).

Our experience. One of the great things about a personal testimony is that it’s irrefutable. People may disagree with our theology, or spiritual practices and traditions. But our testimonies – God’s story in us – come from what we know firsthand, our personal experience. In my own life, being made a “new creation” has included dispelling much of the anger, anxiety, selfishness and other flaws that ruled my life for many years. I’m still being “transformed by the renewing of [my] mind” as Romans 12:2 states, but today I’m quite different from the person I used to be.

And this we long to share with others. As yet another apostle, John, wrote, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life…. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us…” (1 John 1:1-5).

Through our testimonies, we can share God’s story with others whenever the opportunities present themselves. Then we can be “ready always to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Elect – and Election Day

The Bible uses numerous terms to describe God’s people, including “the chosen,” His “children,” “adopted,” and “predestined.” Another intriguing description is “the elect.” In 1 Peter 1:2, the apostle writes to “God’s elect, strangers in the world.” The apostle Paul writes, “I endure everything for the sake of the elect…” (2 Timothy 2:10). Even Jesus used the term when He warned, “false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and miracles [trying] to deceive the elect” (Mark 13:22).

Using the term a bit differently, Peter admonished Jesus’s followers to “be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10). This obviously isn’t referring to our names appearing on some celestial ballot. We don’t have to articulate a platform, nor declare a party affiliation. After all, if there’s a “vote,” it belongs alone to Jehovah God.

I don’t bring this up to delve into the realms of theology and biblical interpretation. But as another Election Day draws near, it’s interesting to ponder what is the role and responsibility of God’s “elect” in the electoral process.

Some of us have already cast our votes. Others are waiting for Election Tuesday to visit the polls. Either way, I find myself a bit torn about the actions and reactions the Lord expects of His people in this context. As the verse above states, as God’s elect we’re “strangers in the world.” The old gospel hymn declares, “this world is not my home. I’m just a-passin’ through.” Our ultimate hope and trust should not to be in who wins or loses in the various political races.

However, neither does the Bible tell us to ignore or avoid political involvement altogether. Throughout the Scriptures we see accounts of God’s people involved in matters of governance. Joseph, for instance, through a series of circumstances rose to a level of high prominence in ancient Egypt, second in authority only to Pharaoh himself (Genesis 37-50). 

Exodus tells about Moses who, after being taken into the family of another Pharaoh, negotiated with the Egyptian king to bring about the release of the Israelites from 400 years of slavery. Nehemiah, cupbearer to Artaxerxes, sought the king of Persia’s permission to lead the rebuilding of Jerusalem. 

Daniel, similar to Joseph, gained the favor of a king – this time in Babylon – through the interpretation of a series of perplexing dreams and also was entrusted with much civic responsibility. Esther intervened on behalf of the Jewish people, defying the law by approaching King Xerxes without invitation to uncover a heinous plot, even saying without fear, “If I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).

Jesus was challenged regarding how God’s people should interact with governmental regulations. The Jewish leaders asked Him whether the people of Israel were obligated to pay taxes to the Roman empire. Looking at a denarius bearing the image and inscription of Caesar, the king, Jesus replied, give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:25). Belief in God did not exempt His people from government laws.

So as we ponder the tension between living in this temporal world and longing for our eternal home, it seems a balance is required. Yes, we’re “aliens and strangers on earth” as Hebrews 11:13 and other passages declare. And we’re admonished to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

Nevertheless, we’re also charged to be “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And part of being Jesus’ witnesses is to engage effectively with the world around us in every way. That includes participating in elections, voting our convictions, and even running for public office if we sense God is leading us in that way.

If you haven’t already done so, I hope next Tuesday you’ll be voting for those candidates you believe are most aligned with the principles and values God has revealed through the Scriptures. Then we, as His elect, can confidently heed the exhortation of Romans 13:1 to “submit…to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist are established by God.”