Highways to Zion February 2015 Archive
Week of February 22nd
FINDING THE DIRT
I do not like to clean my house. I can find any number of things I’d rather do than clean. As a consequence, I don’t usually clean until my house is visibly dirty – dust bunnies under the buffet, cobwebs in the corners, and dust you can draw pictures in. It’s not hard to find the dirt when I finally get around to cleaning and it’s gratifying to be able to see the difference afterward.
Doing a spring cleaning of my heart during Lent is a whole different matter. As a Christian, I try continually to not let things get dirty there. I know how I am supposed to behave and why. I do refrain from overt sin out of reverence for Christ and gratitude for all His sacrificial death has granted me. Not that I never slip up, for I do it oftener than I like. I have become more and more acquainted with repentance as the years go by.
Spring cleaning for the soul requires looking beyond the obvious. What about those sins that do not manifest themselves outwardly? How many times a day do I fall short? How many foolish or covetous thoughts do I entertain? What about my lack of self control when it comes to chocolate and facebook? How often do judgmental thoughts become judgmental words? What about the mixed motives behind my deeds? What about the doubts and fears I let grip me, even though I say nothing about them?
If we take the words of Jesus seriously, that it is the things that come out of the heart that defile us (Mark 7:23), and the words of Paul that whatever is not from faith is sin (Rom 6:23), we have to conclude that we do need cleansing, despite the fact that our outward behavior may be pretty good. What others, and sometimes even we ourselves do not see, God sees. "Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Sam.16:7). And "You have set our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of your presence" (Ps. 90:8). And "all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do" (Heb. 4:13).
I take comfort from the words of Psalm 19:12. "Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults." God knows the myriad ways we fall short. He knows all the ways and times we have offended people just by being ourselves. He knows how we have unwittingly disappointed someone (and, indeed, have disappointed Him). He knows our sins of omission as well as those of commission. But, thanks be to God, through His becoming flesh and blood in Jesus Christ, God also "knows our frame, He is mindful that we are but dust" (Psalm 103:14). And "His mercies are new every morning" (Lam. 3:22-23).
The Apostle John wrote in his first letter, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). However good our behavior may be on any given day, we are still sinners who can never measure up to God’s standard. God knows where the dirt is, even if we don’t. Humbly acknowledging this before Him is a good start on that spring soul clean-up.
© Judy Nichols 2015
Week of February 15th
Spring cleaning used to be a ritual in every home. It’s not done so much today, although doing a thorough cleaning of the house at least once a year is still a good practice. But in the days when homes were heated with a wood stove or a coal furnace things got a lot dirtier through the winter months than they do now, and that spring clean-up was an absolute necessity.
Lent begins this week and I like to think of Lent as a spring cleaning for the soul. When the children of Israel were getting ready to leave Egypt, after the ten plagues had finally broken Pharaoh’s spirit (not to mention his land and his people), God gave Moses instructions for the Passover meal – roasted lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread – and told him this day was to be celebrated in perpetuity. It would be a seven-day celebration beginning with removing all leaven not only from their food but also from their homes.
In the Scripture leaven or yeast often represents sin. Jesus warned His disciples to "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (Matt. 16:6,12). And Paul warned both the Corinthians and the Galatians against sinful attitudes and actions, saying, "a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough" (1 Cor. 5:6, Gal. 5:9).
In twenty-first century America, we have redefined and watered down the concept of sin to the point where many mistakenly think people are not as dirty as they used to be. Nothing could be further from the truth. The heart of mankind is still indwelt by a sinful nature that entices and empowers us to evil and rebellion against God. The prophet Jeremiah spoke truth from God when he said, "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9). Today’s philosophical, psychological, and gender confusion attest to the error of our ways.
To eliminate sin from the public discourse is not only a deception, but it also does a terrible disservice to people. If we explain away our sinful tendencies, crediting them to our poor upbringing or abuse by others, we make ourselves victims who are helpless to change. Only by accepting responsibility for our sins are we empowered to live differently. If my sin is my fault, then I can do something about it. (That is not to justify the improprieties of upbringing or assaults by others, only that how I choose to act in response to them is my responsibility.)
To redefine sin to make it more palatable puts us squarely in God’s displeasure. Solomon wrote in Proverbs 17:15, "He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord." And it’s not just our overt actions that displease God. Our attitudes toward sin make us equally culpable. Isaiah said it well: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who substitute darkness for light, who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!" (Isa. 7:20).
The pleasures of sin are meaningless and fleeting. King Solomon pursued and gained everything he could ever want and more, yet proclaimed in the book of Ecclesiastes that it was all vanity. Moses was raised in the royal court of Egypt with all its advantages but chose to be identified with God’s enslaved people (Heb. 11:24-25). The apostle Paul, after recounting all the benefits on his résumé, considered them all as rubbish compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ, not only in the power of His resurrection, but also in the fellowship of His sufferings (Phil. 3:4-11).
Even those who know nothing of God know in their consciences when they have done wrong (Rom. 2:14-15). God created us that way. We cannot escape His witness within. No wonder calling evil good and good evil and substituting bitter for sweet and vise versa messes us up so much. It’s contrary to our nature. And as individuals who make up a whole culture, it’s no surprise, then, that our society has been permeated and we are ripe for judgment.
Spring cleaning is sorely needed in our nation. But the only heart I can clean up is my own. Will you join me in seeking God’s face? Perhaps if enough of us are willing to humble ourselves, seek His face, and turn from our wicked ways, He will have mercy on us and heal our land (see 2 Chron. 7:14).
© Judy Nichols 2015
Week of February 8th
Everybody knows about Murphy’s Law. In its general form it just says, "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong." My sister sent me a list of corollaries recently, some of which were quite humorous. The one we can all relate to is the Law of Variation – "If you change lines at the supermarket, the line you just left will begin moving faster and the one you got into will move slower." And one I have found particularly true is the Law of Commercial Marketing Strategy – "As soon as you find a product you really like, they stop making it." We make up silly laws like these and laugh at them to help us cope with our daily frustrations.
But did you know there is a Murphy’s Law in the Bible? It’s true, and it’s not a laughing matter. Paul wrote it in Romans 7:21. "So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand." He has just detailed how in spite of his desire to do good, he keeps on doing the evil things he doesn’t want to do (v.15-19).
Is this not a common frustration to all of us? No matter how hard we try to do things right, we often manage to screw it up. And even when we do a genuinely good deed, there is always the possibility of mixed motives behind it to consider. And since God sees our hearts as well as our actions, we’re nailed.
No wonder Paul came to the conclusion that there was nothing good in him, that is, in his flesh (v.18) and cried out for relief. "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (v.24). If we’re honest, we have to agree. It’s not just that we have sinful tendencies or that we make mistakes. We are sinners, both because we are part of the human race that was infected with sin from very near the beginning, and because we do actively sin, if not in words and deeds then at least in our thoughts, attitudes, and motives. The prophet Jeremiah said the human heart was desperately sick and more deceitful than all else (Jer. 17:9). Even when we think we’re doing okay, sin is lurking, waiting for an opportunity to trip us up. Is there no escape?
Yes, there is! The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ paid the penalty for all sin for all time. For those who have received Christ, sin is no longer our master, even though we still struggle with it and fail more often than we wish. Paul’s response to his own plea was, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (v.25). He has defeated sin and death once for all. He is defeating sin and death as we live in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. And He will defeat sin and death finally and forever when He returns to reign in His kingdom. Hallelujah!
© Judy Nichols 2015
Week of February 1st
BEARING FRUIT FOR GOD
Infertility is one of the most painful conditions a couple can find themselves in. There are couples who don’t want children, and that is fine. But generally child-bearing is a desired outcome of marriage. In fact, I believe the purpose for which God instituted marriage is procreation – the creation and nurture of new human beings and the subsequent health of society at large.
In Romans 7 Paul uses the analogy of marriage to show that our being identified with Christ in His death sets us free from the law. What I find interesting is that he says – almost as an afterthought – that we now belong to another, "in order that we may bear fruit for God" (7:4). Just as child-bearing is a natural outcome of physical marriage, so fruit-bearing is to be the natural, desired outcome of our union with Christ.
We do not come to Christ for personal fulfillment, emotional well-being, or escape from judgment (although all of those certainly attend our faith). The truth is that we are united with Christ so that God may be glorified. He is glorified when we believe and trust Him, as seen in the fact that the angels rejoice when a sinner repents (Luke 15:10). He continues to be glorified as we grow in faith and produce fruit in our lives (John 15:8). What is this fruit and how do we produce it?
Some fruit is for us and some is for others. In the previous chapter Paul has explained that though we were once slaves to sin, we have become obedient to the teaching of the gospel and" the fruit we get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life" (6:17,22). Just as teaching our children obedience results in good fruit in their lives, so our obedience produces good fruit in our own.
Jesus said that God has chosen us and appointed us to bear fruit, "so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, He may give it to you" (John 15:16). The context of this promise is that we abide in Him, just as a branch abides in the vine. Perseverance in faith begets an intimacy with God that is reflected in our prayer lives. David the Psalmist wrote, "Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart" (Ps. 37:4). There is a dual meaning here. It is wonderful when God gives us what we desire. It is even better when God puts His desires in our hearts, so that we can pray in accordance with His will and know that He will answer.
Probably the most important kind of fruit bearing is for both us and others. The fruit of the Spirit, the transformed character that develops as we persevere in believing, trusting, and obeying, is a blessing to ourselves and to those around us. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23).
When we think of procreating, bearing fruit for God, in terms of bringing other people to faith in Christ, we normally think of evangelism. I am not gifted as an evangelist. In fact, as an introvert, the thought of walking up to strangers and telling them about Jesus is pure torture. I thank God for the people to whom He has given the gift of evangelism. I love hearing their stories, like picking up a hitch-hiker and leading him to Christ before dropping him off down the road. The fact that I can’t do those kinds of things, however, does not leave me off the hook. But neither am I left without a way to procreate spiritually.
Reaping the harvest is not the only part of the evangelistic process. Sowing seed is also a necessary part of it. And if I have the fruit of the Spirit growing in my life, then I have seed to sow. The new bank teller in her first day of work can receive a seed from God through my patience as she slowly learns the ropes. A sad or discouraged person can receive what he needs from God by seeing others who have joy or peace in the midst of similar circumstances. Kindness is a seed we can literally sow everywhere, all the time. Random – or not so random – acts of kindness can let someone know there is good in the universe after all. Responding in meekness ("A gentle answer turns away wrath" – Prov.15:1) instead of anger can change the heart of an antagonist. Not giving up on someone is a powerful testimony of God’s presence and grace. Any good deed we do, if it is motivated by love and entered into with joy, can be a seed planted in another’s life.
I can’t think of anything sadder than an unfruitful Christian. Just like a married couple unable to have children, the pain would be unbearable. But no Christian must remain barren, for "He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness" (2 Cor. 9:10). We are joined to Christ; we will bear fruit for God.
© Judy Nichols 2015