Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Are you behind yet?

When a new year rolls around, it's not uncommon for Christians to recommit themselves to the spiritual discipline of Bible reading.  It's a great goal, and our spiritual lives are fed by such a discipline (Mt. 4:4). 

Was that one of your goals for 2020?  Is this the year you're finally going to read through the New Testament?  Or maybe the whole Bible?  There are resources on the internet and your phone that can help you stay on track.  You can even create your own customized Bible reading plan.  In our congregation, we offered three different plans to help people read the Bible daily.

Lots of people make resolutions, and lots of people plan to act on them.  But today is January 7, and my question is: When it comes to your Bible reading plan, are you behind yet?  Maybe not.  Maybe you're still getting up a little earlier, staying up a little later, or eating lunch at your desk to stay on task.  Excellent!  Stay at it!

But maybe you're behind.  Maybe you started with great zeal, but you've started hitting the snooze button instead of popping out of bed.  Or you're staying in front of the TV too long at night, instead of shutting it off and reading.  Maybe you've missed a day.  Or two.  Or more.  Now, even as you read this brief post, you feel the pressure to "catch up."

Well, it would be great to catch up, but I think there are some bigger questions.  Why did you set this goal?  Why did you want to read through the Bible?  What are you hoping to accomplish?

In my childhood, I went to a church that had special offering envelopes.  On the outside of those envelopes, there was a checklist.  It had several items on it, including things like this: Attended Sunday School.  Attended worship.  Brought Bible.  Read Bible daily.  Prayed.  Made visits. 

Looking at the list, there's nothing bad on it.  They're all good and beneficial activities.  However, if my heart is focused solely on finishing the list, I will miss out on all that is good and beneficial.  My heart has to be in the right place if my spiritual disciplines are going to have the right effect.

This is true of our Bible reading plans.  We can get so focused on finishing our Bibles that we fail to focus on fellowship with God through reading the Bible.  If that's the case, at the end of the year, we will have read all the words of God, but we probably won't have a greater grasp on the truth of God.

So, what should you do if you're behind?  I'd suggest four things.

  1. Don't worry.  To do so would violate the very Word you want to read (Phil. 4:6).
  2. Ask yourself, "Why am I behind?"  Is it because of uncontrollable, providential events?  Is it because I was lazy and neglected what I knew I ought to do?  Is it because something else captured my heart today?  In response, repent of any sin you discover, change what needs to be changed, and pray for God's help.
  3. Start again with today's reading, and keep going.  If you can come back later and pick up what you missed, great.
  4. Keep your heart focused on seeking the Lord through your Bible reading.  It's better to know more of God after reading less of the Bible than to know less of God after reading all the Bible.
God's Word is precious.  Reading God's Word, especially in our own language, is a privilege.  Read on...and stay steady.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Walking by Sight, Not by Faith

In 2 Corinthians 5:7, Paul says that Christians "walk by faith, not by sight."  This should be the normal rhythm of the Christian life.  What God says, not what I see, governs how I live.  God's Word determines how I walk through the circumstances of life.  The circumstances of life do not determine how or whether I walk with God.

Yet, so often, the circumstances of life are like muggers.  They ambush us on the sidewalk, beat us up, and take our wallet.  As a result, the way we walk through life can change.  We look over our shoulder in fear of what might happen next.  We believe a "good day" is merely one without pain or trouble.  In other words, we start walking by sight, not by faith.

One picture of this reversal is in Exodus 4-6.  In chapter 4, Moses pronounces God's promise of deliverance to the Israelites, with accompanying miraculous signs to validate his message.  In response, "...the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped" (4:31).  They're prepared to walk by faith, not by sight.  So far, so good.

In chapter 5, though, circumstances begin to take a turn for the worse.  Pharaoh is outraged at the call to "Let my people go" (v. 1).  As a result, he makes life worse for the Israelites.  They were already slaves, but now, they must keep meeting their daily work quota without Pharaoh providing the resources needed to do so.

The Israelites' painful circumstances have pounced on them, and they're left staggering.  They question Moses (5:21).  In turn, Moses questions God (5:22-23).  The faith displayed at the end of chapter 4 is nowhere to be found.  Why?  They're responding to what they see, but not with faith.

The story goes on.  In chapter 6, God's Word comes through Moses again.  God reiterates the truth about who He is and what He will do for His people.  He is the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob...the LORD (v. 3-4).  He has heard their groaning for mercy, and He will keep His promises (v. 5).  He will deliver them from their bondage, redeem them by His power, be their God, and give them the land He promised (v. 6-8).

Now, remember, in chapter 4, God's Word was received in faith, and the people bowed their heads in worship.  Will they respond in faith again?  Will worship break out once more?  Will they gain new strength to trust the Lord as they wait for Him to work?  Sadly, the answer to all three questions is no.

"Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery" (Ex. 6:9).  They can't get their eyes off their circumstances long enough to see the hope of God's promise.  In chapter 4, they had sung, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow..."  Now, they sing again.  It's the same melody, but in a minor key and with different lyrics: "Where's God when all my burdens grow?..."

Why have they changed their tune?  Because they are walking by sight.  They see Pharaoh's anger.  They see harsher masters and harder labor.  And quite frankly, they see no end in sight.  And what they can see is determining whether they will listen to the Lord, trust the Lord, or hope in the Lord.  They are walking by sight.

Oh how easy it is for us to walk by sight!  How common it is to measure the reality and benevolence of God by the circumstances of our lives!  How often my soul has been mugged by opposition, mauled by suffering, and molested by trials!

And it is here that we need the Lord's grace to clear away the scales that blind us to His promises.  We need the Lord Jesus Himself to clean out our spiritual ears, so we hear and believe the truth.  And what we need to hear, with ears of faith, are the same truths God spoke in Exodus 6. 

We need to hear that God has made a covenant with us in the blood of His Son, Jesus.  It is an eternal covenant, securing our forgiveness and making us right with Him.  And it cannot be broken.  We need to hear that we have access to God's throne of grace through Jesus, our High Priest.  There, we can groan for mercy and grace in our time of need and expect to be heard.

We need to hear, over and over again, that Jesus Christ has broken the bondage of sin's slavery and has redeemed us to be His people.  We need to hear that, because we've been redeemed and reconciled to God, God Himself is our God, and we are His people.  We need to hear that the promised eternal home on the new earth awaits, and the Holy Spirit is the guarantee of our safe arrival.

With that faith in place, how are we to live in this world of sorrows?  The apostle Paul tells us.  "For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.  For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:17-18).

In short, walk by faith, not by sight.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Worship with Regularity

How do we approach public worship as a Christian?  What about private worship?  Have we made it a habit to worship the Lord publicly, as well as privately?  Do we discipline ourselves to do both regularly?  Now, I realize that asking such questions may result in confusion or even accusation.  After all, when we talk about making habits and establishing routines, aren't we jumping into legalism?  Isn't it only the heart that matters?  You know, being genuine.

Well, of course, being genuine is a great concern for God.  God hates vain, meaningless offerings (Is. 1:12-20).  He also despises empty, rote, religious action (Is. 29:13; Mk. 7:6-8).  Habits, actions, and routines, in and of themselves, are quite meaningless, fruitless, useless, and a monumental waste of time.  However, I think we've made a mistake when we pit the habits of the Christian life against genuine Christian life.  This makes it sound like habits can't be genuine and genuineness only expresses itself in spontaneity.  That's just not true.

Take expressions of love in marriage.  Spontaneous, romantic trips and dates are great.  Surprising your wife by finishing some home project while she's away for the day is a loving thing to do.  Picking up flowers for her when all she needed from the store was mustard is a kind, generous act. 

These can be genuine, but the vast majority of our loving expressions in marriage can be quite routine.  Always hugging and kissing before you leave the house, or once you arrive home.  Calling or texting at lunch to check on one another.  Choosing to do the grocery shopping, mow the yard, pay the bills, wash the dishes, make the bed, or clean the toilet because you know your spouse hates it. 

These are routine, meaning we make a habit of them, and we could do them in an empty, callous, or even hateful way.  However, it's it true that they can all be absolutely genuine.  Everyday, routine actions full of genuine love for the other person.  The same can be said of a nightly routine to talk, a monthly date, a yearly overnight trip.  These things need not be spontaneous to be genuine, and the same can be said of worship.

I bring this up because the God who despises empty, routine offerings and religious gatherings is also the God who commands routine offerings and religious gatherings.  This was made clear once again when I read Numbers 28 this morning.  It's a very repetitive chapter.  It's a chapter we may be tempted to speed read without thinking about it.  That way, we can check it off our plan and be one step closer to reading the Bible in a year.

However, let's not do that.  Let's consider what's happening.  God is establishing a routine.  A habit.  A regular rhythm of worship.  There are daily offerings (v. 1-8), weekly offerings (v. 9-10), monthly offerings (v. 11-15), and yearly offerings (v. 16-25).  Then, we move on to feasts that should be observed with regularity, which starts in verse 26 and doesn't finish until the end of chapter 29.

God isn't commanding regularity for the sake of regularity.  Habit for the sake of habit.  Routine for the sake of routine.  God doesn't want His people to know that He's got them under His thumb, like some cruel dictator.  No, these are gracious commands that God gives to His people.  God has already shown His commitment to them by delivering them from slavery in Egypt.  He would be their God, and they would be His people.

Then, in Numbers 13-14, the people chose against trusting the Lord to help them enter and take the promised land.  Still, God is committed to His people.  God knows that His people need a regular reminder of His goodness, His grace, His mercy, His redemption...as well as their sinfulness, their need, their dependence on Him.  So, He establishes a regular rhythm of worship.  Through the many offerings that will be offered daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly, the people will be reminded of their need and God's provision.  Their weakness and God's strength.  Their sin and God's forgiveness.

The same is true for us.  We need routine reminders of God's grace, mercy, and love.  We need reminders of our sin, our neediness, our weakness.  These are what regular public and private prayer provide us.  We sing songs together, being reminded of God's greatness and our need to recognize that greatness...that He is God and we are not.  We pray corporately, reminded of His power and sovereignty, as well as our dependence on Him for all things.  We give, worshiping God as the source and owner of all things and expressing that we are stewards who act for the sake of our Master.  God's Word is preached, recognizing our regular need to hear God speak and submitting our lives to His scrutiny.

Are you getting the picture?  A regular rhythm of worship is good.  Of course, routines can dissolve into ruts, but don't assume that they will.  Fight against it.  Recognize that the ability to develop routines and habits has been given for God's glory and for our good.

With all this in mind, let me leave you with some questions to consider.  Again, the goal is not to establish a legalistic mindset, but we do need to be challenged to think about our lives.  Very often, we get into the wrong kinds of habits with our time, energy, money, etc., and need to be shaken out of it.  So, here are questions for me and for you:
  • Is it your routine to be involved in public worship?  Do you discipline your time in order to make sure it happens?
  • Do you have a regular rhythm of private worship - getting into God's word on your own, meditating on it and memorizing it, praying regularly and often, etc.?
  • Are there regular routines at your church that you're choosing to ignore?  Maybe it's a Sunday morning Bible study, a Sunday evening service, a gathering for prayer, or Wednesday evening small group.
    • Why are you ignoring them?  Do you think it's unnecessary for you to have any rhythms other than Sunday morning?
    • Have you convinced yourself that busyness in your life forbids being involved?  Has it also forbidden Facebook, television, playing/watching sports, and other recreational activities?
  • Do you have a regular rhythm of giving money away for the sake of God's kingdom and for the good of others?  My guess is that your church offers such opportunities regularly.  What would keep you from giving regularly, as God would have you do?
  • Have you established any regular rhythms in your family?  Rhythms in any family may vary from one season to another, but is there any sense of rhythm?
    • Natural rhythms are things like game nights, eating dinner together, going on walks, movie night, family vacations (either the out-of-town or stay-at-home kind), playing catch, bedtime routines, etc.  (These are called "natural" rhythms because one doesn't need to be a Christian to do them.  However, when Christians do them, we should be motivated to please the Lord and serve our families.)
    • Spiritual rhythms may include praying, singing, reading the Bible, reading through a helpful book, serving, regular conversation about spiritual issues and growth, discipline aimed at the heart and not just behavior, etc.
So, God has commanded routines.  He commands habits.  It glorifies Him for us to have a regular rhythm of worship, and it does our souls good.  Let's fall into the trap of believing that simply having spiritual habits makes them inauthentic.  Instead, let's be committed to authenticity in the midst of spiritual habits.