pride (9)

This Week’s Question: What are the underlying sins behind prejudice, discrimination, and isms like racism, sexism, and chauvinism?

 

Sin, in the Old Testament, was defined by the law (a series of dos and don’ts), and Israelites could not decide which rule, law, or command they adhered to. James reports, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all (James 2:10).” Therefore, one had to follow God’s entire law to be deemed righteous. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, acknowledged He did not come to abolish the law (Matthew 5:17-20), but to fulfill it; and in doing so He established a new covenant by which mankind will be judged: Romans 14:23 teaches, “… for whatever is not from faith is sin.” This New Testament standard differs from the Old Testament in which sin was defined discreetly. Today, those who lack faith in the Godhead, Scripture, or God’s commandment to love – commit one (or more), of the following sins: lust, pride, or fear, which is the basis for this post.

 

I John 2:16-17 describes sin generally, “For all that is in the world-the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life-is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” John, in this passage, identifies three carnal sins: (1) Lust of the flesh; (2) Lust of the eyes; and (3) Pride. The motive behind lust is envy and one commits lust of the eyes when he/she covets (or desires) what does not belong to them. It may be money, power, possessions, or people (like another’s husband or wife). Whenever that which is coveted is dwelt upon (rather than relegating it to a fleeting thought), a sin is committed. Lust's inherent danger is it entices us to act immorally. Therefore, the commission of a lustful act (whether robbery, infidelity, or surrendering to a vice), is the sin John calls lust of the flesh. Unfortunately, strife (which is defined Biblically as “a partisan and fractious spirit which does not disdain low arts”), regularly accompanies envy in The Bible. James addresses the envy/strife tandem by saying, “But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work (James 3:14-16).” Having a lustful heart, whether it is followed by action or not, is condemned by God.

 

The third sin espoused by John is pride of life which is defined Biblically as “an insolent and empty assurance, which trusts in its own power and resources and shamefully despises and violates divine laws and human rights.” Pride, in my opinion, is America’s greatest sin, and is a sin many must answer to when he/she comes before God’s judgment. Pride is the spirit that credits Christopher Columbus with discovering an inhabited land that resulted in Native Americans being decimated on their own soil. Pride is the spirit that initiated the slave-trade and relegates African-Americans to second-class citizenship, despite the fact that America’s foundation was built on the backs of this disenfranchised people! And pride is a pervasive spirit behind trumpism, nationalism, racism, sexism and every other ism that plagues Americans from all walks of life, and others around the world!

 

James 2:6 castigates a person who gives favorable treatment to a rich person because he/she is well dressed and accessorized (James 2:1-3)! James’ argument is the rich are the ones who oppress, sue, and blaspheme God’s Name. So the question is why do people of humble means cater to tormentors? The answer in one word is lust. The poor lust for the crumbs that can be thrown their way, while minimizing the pain inflicted upon them by the rich and powerful. This scenario may explain why poor whites, en masse, do not stand with African-Americans in their fight for civil rights – gains that, rightfully, would benefit them also! Poor whites, despite their poverty, acquiesce because they still command better jobs, better education, better healthcare, better housing, better prospects for rising above their station, etc., than their African-American counterparts. So the sin of lust is a primary motivator for kowtowing to the rich, but another is pride.

 

James 2:2-3 also describes that perpetrator treating a poor person with disdain, while verse 6 unequivocally states that he/she has contempt for that person. This scenario parallels the attitudes of white nationalists, other hate groups, and seems to be of the same ilk behind white privilege. Pride enables “privileged whites” to believe they are superior to non-whites (vis-à-vis, African-Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants), and condone inhumane treatment towards these, whom they consider, “pariahs.” Therefore, many rallied to the “make America great again,” campaign slogan, to bolster their power, whether real or perceived! The problem is even that slogan has a prideful undertone! In fact, it sounds very much like the attitude of King Nebuchadnezzar before God changed his heart to that of a beast (Daniel 4:30ff). It is interesting that before Nebuchadnezzar’s transformation, Daniel warned him by saying, “Therefore, O king, let my advice be acceptable to you; break off your sins by being righteous, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. Perhaps there may be a lengthening of your prosperity (Daniel 4:27).” That same prideful spirit also caused the death of King Herod in Acts 12:21-23. Hopefully, this knowledge will be a wake-up call for anyone with a prideful heart who wants to do God’s will because “… God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).

The sad reality is even poor whites may be tormented by the rich and powerful, but they, too, are tooled with an arsenal that includes torment, and use it against non-whites. The senseless Treyvon Martin killing, the inhumane treatment of border immigrants, and the steady proliferation of white nationalism are further evidences of sin cloaked in white pride and coupled with fear! John 4:18 teaches “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.” To reiterate what was said in an earlier post, the sin of fear is a motive behind the inhumane treatment immigrants experience today; it is also a motive behind the hostility and rage African-Americans experienced during slavery which persists today; and is a motive behind the annihilation of America’s indigenous population. It has been projected that whites will become a minority, in America, which is contributing to the unfounded fear some whites in this nation are experiencing.

 

In conclusion, it can be proven that lust, pride, and fear are the sins behind other forms of discrimination like sexism, chauvinism, and homophobia. However, while John effectively described the sin, he also outlined the antidote for overcoming the sin. In I John 4:18 he states, “…But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.” Love for one’s fellow- man or woman is the perfect antidote for overcoming the sin that so easily besets us: It draws Christ’s Disciples closer to God; It aligns our priorities with God’s priorities; It helps us to see others differently because we understand that we are all in this fight together; and It prepares a home in Gloryland that outshines the sun for Saints who overcome the destructive sins of lust, pride, and fear. James’ summation is this: “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.” The truth of the matter is love trumps hate!

 

Next Week’s Question: James 2:5 teaches that God has chosen the poor of this world? Why has He done so?

 

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This Week’s Question: What is the fundamental missing element implied in James 2:1-9? And why is it so important?

The first section of this chapter, James 2:1-9, addresses partiality, and included under that topic are discrimination, partisanship, and a host of other divisive ills including racism, sexism, nationalism, chauvinism, jingoism, and a host of other similar beliefs. James criticizes such behaviors, without explicitly stating the root cause. Consequently the question we must consider is what is the fundamental missing element in that passage? It should not be difficult to recognize that love is the missing element (see James 2:8)! As stated in an earlier post, the motives behind partiality are fear, lust, and pride; which, according to the Bible, do not emanate from God since lust and pride are denounced repeatedly in The Bible, and Paul, in II Timothy 1:7, states explicitly, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” So the real question is why is love so important? From a Biblical perspective, there are many reasons to justify love, but for this discussion we will focus on three: (1) God commands His followers to do so; (2) Love is the distinguishing characteristic that separates God’s children from satan’s; and (3) From God’s perspective, a person’s motive is more important than one’s deeds.

Let’s start with the commandment. When Jesus was asked, “… which is the great commandment in the law (see Matthew 22:36)?” He stated two. Beginning in Verse 37 “Jesus said, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’" These commandments, according to Jesus, are inseparable and summarizes the entire Bible! The problem is many of Christ’s purported followers are resolved to expend energy building the vertical dimension of love (with respect to God), while ignoring the horizontal dimension, by disdaining one’s neighbor. Once again I John 4:20 brings clarity to this issue, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” The bottom-line is this: There is no optionality with respect to Christ's followers loving one another despite their differences; It is commanded of them by God!

The second reason love is important is it clearly identifies God’s true children according I John 4:7-8, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Nicodemus was told by Jesus that no one can either see or enter the Kingdom of God, unless they are born again (see John 3:3, 5). To be “born again” means to be “born of God” and requires transformation, since all are born into sin, and thus, are born as minions of satan. However, once someone surrenders their heart, soul, mind, and strength to The Lord, transformation is realized and that person’s life should forever change according to the following: “Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new (II Corinthians 5:16-17). Those who have been transformed view others differently, because The Holy Spirit endows them with a lens of love!  The bottom-line is this: God is love, so for anyone to be identified as His child, he/she must have that same impartial love, for others. So how do we know God loves impartially? John 3:16 teaches that God’s love for the world (which is impartial and unconditional), is the motive behind Him sending Jesus to die for our sins, and His example is the one that must be followed!

The third reason love is important is God’s children’s deeds must be motivated by love. Otherwise, one’s actions, no matter how beneficial they seem, are meaningless according to I Corinthians 13:1-3, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.” Verse 1 and part of 2 speak of spiritual gifts. Within today’s church community, many rely upon their spiritual gifts as evidence that they are children of God. The problem is many do not realize that vertical love for God, without an unconditional horizontal love for one’s neighbor, renders that gift meaningless to its bearer. Can God can still use that person to fulfill his purposes? Absolutely, but with an improper motive, it yields no benefit to the gift’s bearer!

Verse 2 is interesting because it addresses one’s spiritual walk and ministry, which on the outside appears vibrant, God-centered, and effective according to outward appearances. However God looks into a person’s heart, and if love is missing, then every deed performed in His Name is an exercise in futility because as Paul states, “I am nothing.” Jesus confirmed Paul’s assertion in Matthew 7:21-23, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” Jesus’ prophecy is a sad commentary for many who put self-interests, partisanship, political ideology, or popular or public opinion above God’s Word and His commandment to love. If love is not the motive behind everything we say, think, or do, then our deeds, no matter how effective they may seem to others, are meaningless!

In verse 3 Paul addresses charitable giving and personal sacrifice, which, in the minds of many, should automatically qualify a place in Heaven for the benefactor! Two examples are provided by Paul and both seem commendable. The first is selling all of one’s possessions to feed the poor. But what if that deed, instead of being an act of love, was done to spite someone else; or done just to realize a tax break. Paul declares categorially, “it profits me nothing.” The same can be said for someone who sacrifices their life to save others. What if the person is a suicide bomber, or the act were committed out of vengefulness or hatred towards someone else. If love was not that person’s primary motive, it is a vain exercise from God’s perspective, and will yield the self-sacrificing person no benefit when they come before God’s judgment.

In many ways James 2:1-9 is a reflection of American culture. Many, who have superior attitudes, look down upon, castigate, or harm others who they deem their “lessors.” They also actively fight to keep immigrants out of this country, have no compunction about separating families at the border, and immigrants who are fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to enter this country are subjected to inhumane squalor conditions, which has led to several deaths. Also (and this is an unfortunate waste of valuable resources), vast amounts of time, energy, and resources are utilized to keep people of color disproportionately incarcerated, uneducated, financially deprived, and unable to vote. Nevertheless, the hope for those who are poor but rich in faith is found in Matthew 20:16, “So the last will be first, and the first last...” In summary, if all who claimed to be disciples of Christ lived according to the golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), and allowed that to be the motive behind everything they said, thought, and did, then this would be a better world because partiality would be a sin of the past since Christ's Disciples are the salt of the Earth and the light of the world (see Matthew 5:13-16).

Next Week’s Question: Since too many have a romanticized view of love, what is love from a Biblical perspective?

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What I Learned from John Rankin

Lately I’ve found myself thinking about John Rankin, a guy who was in the Christian fellowship group with me at Denison University over 40 years ago. John wasn’t one of my best friends—far from it. In fact, he was one of those people who constantly got under my skin and pushed my buttons.

Have you had people like that in your life?

John was a freshman, and I was a senior. I was the main leader of the group, and he was a newbie. Under those circumstances, you would think he would show me some respect, wouldn’t you?

My problem with John Rankin was his obnoxious arrogance. At 18 years of age, he was one of the most egotistical men I’ve ever met. And although he was a newcomer to the group, he thought he knew better than everyone else. If you look up “Know It All” in the dictionary, I bet you’ll see a picture of John Rankin.

Don’t you hate it when someone thinks they know it all?

I’ll never forget the day things came to a head in our relationship. John wanted to put his favorite song in our fellowship songbook: “Do Lord.”

Isn’t that the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard? You undoubtedly know the song: “Do Lord, oh do Lord, oh do remember me, oh Lordy…”

You see, everyone knows that silly song, which is one of the reasons it was totally unnecessary to add it to our songbook.

I also strongly objected to the song’s warped theology. I tried to explain to John that because of what Jesus did for us on the cross, we are eternally “remembered” and accepted by the Father. There’s certainly no need to beg Him to remember us!

Yes, John always wanted to change things…always thought he knew better…always wanted to get his way. The young man clearly had a spirit of control, and the songbook incident was just one of the most memorable examples.

Perhaps you’re wondering why John Rankin has been on my mind lately—over four decades since I last had contact with him. I wondered that too at first. But then I realized there’s someone in my life today who reminds me of John Rankin! Yikes… I thought I was done with him forever, and it’s as if he’s back.

Once again, my buttons are being pushed. Once again, I find myself offended by a know-it-all guy who thinks he knows better than I do. Once again, I’m going bonkers because I discern that someone has a controlling spirit.

However, I’ve concluded that God must have wanted me to learn some lessons during my encounters with John Rankin at Denison—and my encounters today with the person who reminds me of him. So I’ve asked Him to show me what’s going on here, and the lessons have turned out to be both hilarious and painful:

  1. If you don’t learn what you’re supposed to learn from the first “John Rankin,” God will keep sending you other ones. Failing to learn this vital principle, people go from marriage to marriage, job to job, and church to church, trying to escape the thorny people in their life. But everywhere they go, they find someone else who pushes the same buttons! In case you haven’t realized it yet, there are John Rankins EVERYWHERE!
  2. If people keep pushing your buttons, it’s time to ask God to heal those buttons so the cycle stops happening. I’ve always loved the old maxim that says, “If someone gets your goat, it just goes to show you’ve got one!” You see, God purposely sends us people He knows will offend us. Why? Because He wants to reveal and heal the hypersensitive, easily offended areas of our life. 
  1. In many cases, we’re offended by people who have the same personality trait we have. One preacher calls this principle “If you can spot it, you’ve got it!” It shouldn’t have been any great mystery why I was so offended by John’s controlling spirit. I didn’t want him to be in control, because I wanted to be in control! Why was I so upset by his know-it-all attitude? Because I thought I knew better than he did! And the reason I was offended by his song selection was because I was certain my songs were better.

So now that I realize what’s going on with this phenomenon, I’m asking God to expose and heal my buttons pushed by people like John Rankin. And since my own pride has been the root cause of my offenses in these cases, the healing process is requiring me to humble myself before the Lord and admit my own tendency to be a controlling, know-it-all person who wants to get my own way.

I’ve lost touch with John Rankin over the years, but I would love to track him down somehow. John, if you’re out there somewhere, please contact me.

It would be great to find out if John Rankin is still the same arrogant, controlling person he was at Denison. And I’m sure he would wonder the same about me.

I encourage you to take a moment and sincerely thank God for the John Rankins in your life. If you allow the Lord to do His work in your heart, He will use people like that to make you more like Jesus.

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The Secret to Billy Graham's Humility

Billy Graham once told a humorous story revealing how he could stay so humble, even while accomplishing so much. He was an evangelical superstar, to say the least. Yet when one of his long-time friends reflecting on Graham’s ministry, he said, “Billy always saw himself as just a farm boy from Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. He was amazed that God could use him like He did.”

Before I share Graham’s quite revealing story, it’s important to note the contrast between him and many of the other televangelists of his era. There were numerous other superstars back then, but many of them eventually flamed out because of scandals – their reputation and ministry destroyed because of money, sex, and power.

Like Graham, the others had charisma. But the thing that truly set Graham apart was his character. Above all, his humility stands out as the key ingredient for how he handled his great success.

Who Deserves the Applause?

Billy Graham told a fanciful story that can help us understand his humility.

Graham reminded people about the Bible’s account of a young donkey that carried Jesus down the Mount of Olives during His triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-40). Adding a bit to the story, Graham described how the colt was talking to one of his fellow donkeys later that day:

“You’ll never guess what happened to me today.”

“What?” his friend inquired.

“As I was coming into town, everyone bowed down and laid palm branches and garments in the road to greet me!” the donkey exclaimed. “They all shouted, ‘Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

“That’s incredible,” marveled his friend. “I’ve been down that road numerous times, and no one ever gave me that kind of reception. How did you ever merit such treatment?”

“Well, I always knew I would be famous someday,” the young donkey explained. “It’s about time I got the respect I deserve!”

While some Christian leaders make the same mistake as the donkey that carried Jesus, Billy Graham always recognized that the crowd’s adulation was for Jesus, not for him.

You see, when Jesus is “riding us,” there may indeed be applause from the crowd at times. But we must never forget that the hosannas are not for us, but for the One who accompanies us. True humility knows who the applause is for, and that’s why the humble will ultimately cast all their crowns and accomplishments at His feet:

The twenty‑four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying: “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created” (Revelation 4:10‑11).

Many people have speculated on what it was like when Billy Graham arrived in heaven. I’m sure it was a joyous occasion, but one thing we know for sure: Declaring the worthiness of the Lord to receive all glory and honor, Graham cast all his crowns and earthly achievements at the feet of Jesus.

Another Insightful Story

I once heard another helpful story. I’m not sure the source of the story, but perhaps it came from Billy Graham as well.

An elephant and a mouse were walking together and came to a rickety old wooden bridge. As they set foot on the bridge, it rumbled and shook at the impact, making quite a disturbance.

Once they had safely reached the other side, the mouse proudly remarked, “We really shook that bridge, didn’t we!”

I love that story.

When we walk with the Lord, we can expect to see some “bridges” shake at times. However, if we aren’t careful, we’ll make the same mistake as the mouse – thinking we ourselves can take some credit for the impact. What a tragic deception.

Throughout his ministry, Billy Graham both built bridges and felt them shake. But he always kept in mind that he was just the mouse. As he humbly walked with God Almighty, the ground sometimes shook under his feet, but Graham knew he couldn’t take the credit.

Billy and Paul

Some people have said that Billy Graham was the greatest evangelist since the apostle Paul. That’s quite a statement. To me, the men had very different ministries, yet one thing they had in common was an understanding of where their power came from.

Paul described himself and other believers as merely being earthen vessels – jars of clay – to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7 NIV).

And a profound test of any ministry is found in Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 4:5 (NASB): “We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake.”

This test isn’t as easy as it sounds. When people look at our publications, fundraising letters, television programs, and video promos, and other communications, do they conclude that we are exalting Christ, or merely promoting ourselves?

Although Paul was a mighty apostle, he never lost sight of the fact that he was the Lord’s bond-servant, a sinner who had received God’s amazing grace. That’s the same posture Billy Graham took, and hopefully we are taking as well.

So, let the hosannas come. Let the bridges shake. But may we never forget where the power comes from and who the applause if for.

P.S. This blog post is adapted from a chapter in my highly acclaimed leadership book, Walking the Leadership Highway – Without Becoming Roadkill! In all humility, I can say it’s one of the best Christian leadership books ever written…

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The Downside of Being a Perfect Kid

I was a pretty awesome kid, if I do say so myself. Polite and well-behaved, I never recall talking back to my parents or any adult.

I worked hard at school and got good grades. My parents never had to worry about me skipping classes, getting into fights, using profanity, or disgracing them in any way. They were proud of me, and rightfully so.

Never once did I try a cigarette, smoke a joint, or get drunk.

And all this time, I never doubted that my parents loved me. Of course they loved me. I was quite lovable, after all.

So what could possibly be the downside to this seemingly idyllic picture?

During my recent sabbatical, I came to a surprising and quite troubling realization: Yes, my parents loved me, but there was a problem…

Because I was so “perfect,” I subconsciously assumed my virtue was the reason I was loved.

This created an obvious dilemma: If my parents loved me because I was always lovable, how could I ever know they’d love me when I was unlovable?

Flash forward to today, and I realize how this warped perspective has infiltrated my relationship with God, my Heavenly Father.

If someone asked, “Jim, do you think God loves you?,” I would say yes, probably so. But my answer would be based largely on the fact that I’ve been a “pretty good Christian,” just like I was a good kid for my parents.

Do you see the problem here? (And it’s a BIG problem!)

If you think God loves you because you’re such a good, well-behaved person, there’s no room left for His grace. On days when you feel good about yourself, you’re confident the Lord loves you. But when you realize you’ve fallen short in some way, you find yourself questioning His love.

This makes God’s love dependent on your performance…your behavior…your productivity. As long as you’re perfect, everything’s fine. But if you screw up, you assume your Father’s love and favor will be withheld.

What a shaky foundation this is!

If you’re having a good day, you think God is certainly pleased with you. If things aren’t going your way, you assume He must be disappointed and angry.

No wonder the older brother in the Prodigal Son story had such a struggle (Luke 15). He had been the perfect kid, faithfully serving his father year after year. Yet because he felt that he was so “good” and so “worthy,” he never experienced the unconditional nature of his father’s love.

The prodigal, in contrast, couldn’t rely upon his good behavior as a reason for his father’s affection. He knew he needed mercy and grace—and he received them in great abundance.

So let me ask you two questions:

  1. Do you know, really know, that your Heavenly Father loves you, and loves you deeply?

  2. If your answer to question #1 is yes, do you realize He loves you even when you’re an underachiever…or mischievous…or downright rebellious? Do you realize His great love is able to cover even “a multitude of sins”? (1 Peter 4:8).

It’s such a wonderful relief when you finally recognize you don’t have to be the perfect kid in order to get your Father’s love and affection. You’ll find yourself entering deeper into His love and, perhaps surprisingly, your conduct will improve as well.

It turned out that the older brother in Luke 15 wasn’t so perfect after all. Instead of entering the father’s house and enjoying the party, he just kept on working.    

In the same way, a funny thing happened by the time I got to the end of this blog. I realized I wasn’t really a perfect kid, either. Countless sins have come to mind, and the greatest of all was pride.

Those, like me, who grew up with an inflated view of their own worthiness will usually end up with the same twisted view that their Heavenly Father’s love is based on performance.

He loves you, my friend. Not because you’re the perfect child, but because His love is greater than all your shortcomings.

So go ahead and enter the Father’s lavish party. He’s throwing it for you, after all.

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2 Men Who Were Stuck

Once upon a time, two men were stuck. The men were brothers—sons of the same Father. Yet they were as different as day and night.

Although both were stuck, the men were stuck in very different ways. And one of the brothers never did seem to realize how stuck he had become.

If we pick up the story in the middle, we find one of these men stuck in a pigpen. A dirty, filthy, stinky, slippery pigpen. After growing up in a privileged home, he had so squandered his opportunities that he seemed to have no future at all.

Meanwhile, his older brother was playing it safe. Proud that he’d never made reckless decisions like his foolish brother, this man was dependable…faithful…hard-working…exemplary in every way. Never causing any trouble, he was the kind of son any father would delight in having.

And the father in the story was a good father—a very good father. Right to the end, he loved both of his sons, even the one who got stuck hanging out with pigs.

Against all odds, the seemingly hopeless brother came to his senses. He got unstuck. He humbled himself and came home to his father.

At this point, something quite remarkable happened. Instead of chastising his wasteful son for living life in a pigpen, the father threw a big party. No expense was spared in this massive and joyous celebration of the younger son’s improbable return.

Even though the father was overjoyed, the older brother was not. In fact, he was angry. So angry that he refused to join in the festivities. So angry that he refused to enter the father’s house. So angry that he missed out on the great celebration.

Until then, no one even realized that the older brother had been stuck all along. No he wasn’t stuck in a pigpen, like his brother had been. He was stuck in the land of obligation and duty, of self-righteousness and religion.

How odd that the brother in the pigpen got set free, while the older brother remained stuck in his pride and bitterness right up to the end of the story.

How could such a thing happen? I think I know, because I too am an “older brother.”

You see, the younger brother came home, well aware of his need for the father’s mercy and grace.

The older brother sought to earn the father’s favor by hard work and moral uprightness. Despite years of serving diligently on his father’s estate, he never really entered into the joy of his father’s unmerited, unconditional love.

This story, told so beautifully by Jesus in Luke 15:11-32, has been on my mind a lot lately. This all started when I was asked an unusual question by an older man of God I had just met: “Jim, do you really know that God loves you?” he asked quite earnestly.

How dare he ask a question like that? I wondered. Didn’t he know I was saved back in 1969 and had basically served in some form of ministry ever since? Didn’t he know about the sermons I had preached, the books and blogs I had written, or the leaders I had discipled?

But as I sought to honestly answer his question, it became painfully clear that I had unwittingly become stuck in the same mindset as the older brother.

I had to admit that I felt God’s love only when He used me to preach a great sermon, write an inspirational blog post, or make a difference in someone’s life.

It was all about good works, productivity, and merit—not about the amazing grace of the Heavenly Father who throws parties for His kids.

The good news is that God can’t wait to throw a party for you and me today. The bad news is that unless we humble our hearts and acknowledge our need for His grace, we’re in danger of sulking outside the door instead of entering in.

Do you see why this is one of the most important stories ever told? Our Father dearly loves both the prodigals and the older brothers. But often the prodigals are the only ones who really experience the fullness of that love.

How ironic that the brother who was stuck in the pigpen ended up getting unstuck, while his older brother remained stuck from the beginning of the story until its end.

Isn’t it strange that it’s often easier to get untangled from sin than it is to get unstuck from the clutches of works-based religious duty and obligation?

A few chapters earlier, Jesus explained that a person who’s forgiven much will love Him much, but a person who thinks they don’t need much forgiveness will only love Him a little (Luke 7:47).

In reality, we’ve ALL been forgiven much, and we’re all loved much by our Father. The trouble is, when we base our relationship with Him on our meritorious works, we miss out on the grace and can’t enter the party.

Lord, set us free from our elder brother tendencies. Let us experience Your loving embrace as the prodigal did.

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When People Forget You--and Other Deflating Events

I had a very humbling experience last week when I was invited to the Volunteer Appreciation Banquet at a local Retirement Village. I received the invited because, for nearly a year now, I’ve visited the center once a month to sing and tell Bible stories to the residents.

Most of the residents are women in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s, and it has been a long time since I’ve found people so genuinely appreciative of my singing. Whether I’m singing an old hymn or a ballad by Elvis, the women clearly love me there. I’m sure they check their calendar each month, counting the days until I return. And if I had posters available showing me with my guitar, many of them would undoubtedly hang them in their room.

This is all background information to help you understand why the Volunteer Appreciation Banquet was such a humbling experience for me.

The banquet was attended by an assortment of people: other volunteers, staff members, and a few residents as well. I was especially happy to see that some residents had come (I always enjoy interacting with my fans, after all).

I approached one of the residents, named Lillian, who had a big smile on her face. Wow, she is really glad to see me, I thought to myself.  

So I sat next to Lillian and told her I’ve missed coming and singing for a few weeks now. I wasn’t prepared for her reply.

“I don’t remember you singing here,” she said quite seriously. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before.”

Lillian was sitting next to a resident named Ruth, who had been listening to our conversation. Ruth was another of my fans, and I looked toward her in hopes of getting some reassurance.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you sing either,” she informed me.

How deflating. Two of those I considered my biggest fans didn’t even remember me.

I was crushed.

Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience. It probably wasn’t connected with the memory loss of residents in a nursing home. Your experience may have been much more painful than that, when people you had loved and poured your life into seemed to forget you even existed.

There are many possible lessons from my story, but here are just a few:

  • Sometimes people WILL forget the acts of kindness we have done for them, but God never will. Hebrews 6:10 assures us: God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” So, in light of that fact, does it really matter if people forget what we have done? God is keeping a record of it all.
  • When people fail to remember us or show us gratitude, our true motives get tested. Did we only do our good deeds in hopes of receiving people’s thanks or applause? Or were we willing to bless the people even if we got absolutely no credit or appreciation?
  • Experiences like this are an excellent opportunity to forgive. Of course, it was pretty easy for me to forgive Lillian and Ruth for forgetting me. Alzheimer’s disease is a terrible thing, and there’s a good chance Lillian and Ruth are starting to not even recognize their own loved ones. But forgiveness is much harder when the person who has forgotten you is of sound mind, but is simply too caught up in their own activities to acknowledge you, especially during the holidays.

In the final analysis, my experience at the Retirement Village Appreciation Banquet was just another example of God’s sense of humor and His ability to deal with our pride and other blind spots. Yes, I was humbled, but the Lord probably was laughing the entire time. He knew I had developed an overinflated view of my own importance, and He was more than happy to let out some of the air.

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Keeping Up Apperances

If you’re like me, you have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. Yes, it provides a convenient way to keep up with my friends and let them know what I’m up to. And occasionally someone posts an interesting video clip or news item that I find profitable.

However, I’ve concluded that for many people, Facebook is all about “keeping up appearances.” If you spend all your time in the unreality world of Facebook, you’ve probably concluded that every one of your friends is living the perfect life. Awesome spouse. Incredible kids. Fantastic vacations. One fun experience after another.

In the world of Facebook friends, there is seemingly no pain…loneliness…or depression. No one posts anything about marriage struggles or rebellious children or trouble with their boss. In fact, people seem to feel obliged to write a post on their anniversary that says something like, “Thirty years ago I married my soul mate, and we’ve had one glorious year after another ever since.”

The problem is, there’s quite a difference between the digital lives of my Facebook friends and the actual lives of the friends I know in the real world. Maybe I’ve been hanging out with too many losers, but some of my friends have been divorced…have lost jobs…have gone bankrupt…have had bouts with depression…or have gone through agonizing situations with their children.

Of course, I would never have known any of these things about my friends through their Facebook posts. No, I had to spend time with them, face to face, looking them squarely in the eyes. And I had to share my own struggles, so they could trust me enough to share their struggles.

The tendency for people to “keep up appearances” is certainly not a new phenomenon. The Bible is filled with descriptions about the common human tendency to fall into “play acting” or “hypocrisy,” especially for us religious folks.

Amazingly, Jesus was compassionate toward prostitutes and drunkards, yet very severe to people who played religious games for the sake of keeping up their appearance:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Matthew 23:27-28).

If I had nothing better to do, I think I should start a Facebook alternative for people who want to be honest about their lives. Maybe I could call it Heartbook, or something like that. It would be the no-spin zone of social media sites.

The theme verse of my new Heartbook initiative would be 1 Samuel 16:7: “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” There would be a strict policy against sharing your selfies unless you also shared the condition of your heart.

You see, 1 John 1:7 says the only way we can have true friendship and fellowship is to “walk in the light.” In other words, transparency and openness are prerequisites for genuine relationships.

That’s why I frankly don’t care how many Facebook friends you have. Heartbook will trump the Facebook any day. (Watch out, Mark Zuckerberg!)

So the real question isn’t your number of Facebook friends, but whether you have any friends you can be real with. You need people who see beyond your appearance to your heart…people who love you unconditionally, no matter how you are doing or what you are going through.

A true friend is worth thousands of people whose goal in life is to keep up their appearance. Don’t settle for anything less.

 

 

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Mid-Life

I was talking with a friend the other day who is the same age as I am, 42.  We were discussing how blessed we were to be doing exactly what God had called us to do.  There was no pride in ourselves but there was great joy that God had led us to our own particular callings and we were actually enjoying them.  A lot of guys get to our age, which is mid-life, and still have no idea what they want to do or what they are supposed to do.  Then comes the “mid-life crisis”.  Some get depressed, some get a new car, some get a new wife.  I am blessed that I did not have to “get” these things to help me figure out my mid-course direction.  I think one key reason involves the subject of my last blog, “The Single Most Important Discipline.”  I would have no idea what to do with my life were it not for God and the leading of His Spirit.  I can take no credit for His voice or even for the strength to obey, all the credit goes to Christ, whose Spirit lives in me.  But the constant, daily voice of God that comes through prayer and studying His Word has an incalculable cumulative effect on your life.

So what if you are at mid-life and struggling to know what to do with your life?  I would say begin to meditate on these startling words from Romans 13:11-12,

 

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

 

It’s time to wake up and listen to the voice of God.  The truth is that we ARE getting older and therefore closer to death, and therefore closer to our salvation.  Don’t waste any more time.  Cast off the works of darkness you have been struggling with.  Go hard after God.  Spend the rest of your life living out His will.  Dive into serving Christ and furthering His Kingdom.  It’s not too late.  Go ahead, put on the armor of light, join Christ and His forces and fight the good fight.  You may get tired and battle weary. It will cost you sacrifice and discipline.  But the rewards last for eternity.  There is nothing greater to give your life to than the call and service of Christ.

 

All for Jesus,

Fletch

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