- 2020Apr 20
Most of us have been “sheltered in place” for a month or longer. I think that 99.9 percent of us are ready to resume normal activities. Maybe that will happen soon but I do not want to miss any lessons that I can take forward after this uninvited isolation ends.
I am going stir crazy after 30 days of limited socialization. I fight off frustration over a litany of truly minor inconveniences. And then I pick up my Bible and I read these extremely annoying words from Paul written from prison!
I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. (Philippians 4:12-14, The Message)
I could wrap this article up with that one thought. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who me makes me who I am.
Backup a bit in his letter and we find that Paul is almost giddy that the prison thing has been an unexpected positive.
I want to report to you, friends, that my imprisonment here has had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of being squelched, the Message has actually prospered. All the soldiers here, and everyone else, too, found out that I’m in jail because of this Messiah. That piqued their curiosity, and now they’ve learned all about him. Not only that, but most of the followers of Jesus here have become far more sure of themselves in the faith than ever, speaking out fearlessly about God, about the Messiah. (Philippians 1:12-14, The Message)
This is actually a little discouraging when I realize I am fighting despondency over toilet paper shortages. How can one learn to be content in prison? Why did Paul not remind God of the work he had accomplished? The churches he had planted. The men and women he had discipled faithfully. How could a loving God place him in such a circumstance near the end of his life? What is fair about this? The answer?
My lesson plan is to study how Paul prepared his heart to write his amazing message about contentment when circumstances dictated anything but that response. This letter is even more perfect for this season in our lives because Paul was forcibly separated from those believers he longed to visit and hug. The Romans sheltered him in place and Paul used his time to glorify God. Here are just a few of the steps Paul suggests to get us to the place where you and I can be content in whatever comes our way.
1. Contentment starts with having the attitude of Jesus who gave up His divine privilege to serve.
Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. (Philippians 2:3-4, NLT)
2. Contentment starts with rejoicing in Christ.
Whatever happens, my dear brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. I never get tired of telling you these things, and I do it to safeguard your faith. (Philippians 3:1, NLT)
Paul didn’t say to rejoice when things are hunky-dory. He writes that no matter what happens we should rejoice.
3. Contentment starts with pressing toward the goal in faith.
I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. (Philippians 3:12-14, NLT)
4. Contentment starts with believing the promise that Jesus is with you.
Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. (Philippians 4:6-7, The Message)
It truly is wonderful if you can displace worry with Jesus. Not easy to be sure but so amazing when you turn your eyes on Him in times of sadness and stress.
5. Contentment starts with your thoughts and attitude.
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9, NLT)
I often overlook that the passage above is the lead-in to Paul’s incredible declaration of contentment. Here is how the Message relays it.
I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.
These are challenging times. Many are suffering. But most of us are in a better place than Paul when he wrote this amazing letter of encouragement. The message to the church at Philippi is a pretty good place for me to learn a powerful lockdown lesson. I can be content in Christ no matter my circumstance.
- 2020Apr 11
There is much written about Good Friday. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross is incomprehensible to my puny human intellect. There is much written about Easter Sunday. Christians around the world rejoice and proclaim that “He is risen!”. But there is not nearly as much written about one of the saddest and most confusing days in history. The Saturday between the Friday horror of Jesus on the Cross and the Sunday mystery of the resurrection. Some churches do observe Holy Saturday but it was never a tradition in my faith upbringing.
I have been thinking about what that day must have been like for those who dropped everything to follow Jesus. How crushing those events had to be. I imagine the fear they felt that they would also be killed. And for what? On Saturday they feared they had given their careers and their very souls for a false hope.
I think in particular of Peter. I identify so much with him. Like him I throw down bold statements of loyalty to the Lord and then let Him down. Like him I draw attention to my own accomplishments instead of recognizing where my accomplishments come from. Like Peter I am a generally sincere but desperately needy follower of Jesus.
You know the story about Peter before the arrest and mock trial of Jesus. Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times before the rooster crows at dawn. For many years I breezed by the setup to that prediction.
“Simon (Peter), Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat. But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22, NLT)
Jesus had already prayerfully pleaded for Peter to be used in a powerful and redemptive way before the failure, shame and repentance that Jesus knew was about to happen. Our sin does not take Jesus by surprise. Why does His grace and forgiveness surprise us?
Like me, Peter did not hear the tender words of encouragement from the Lord. Nope. He blustered.
“Lord, I am ready to go to prison with you, and even to die with you.”
After the arrest of Jesus a suddenly less bold Peter followed the crowd. He denied to a servant girl that he knew Jesus. He denied his alliance to another bystander. The crushing sorrow and shame of what happened next is hard to fathom.
About an hour later someone else insisted, “This must be one of them, because he is a Galilean, too.”
But Peter said, “Man, I don’t know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed.
At that moment the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Suddenly, the Lord’s words flashed through Peter’s mind: “Before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny three times that you even know me.” And Peter left the courtyard, weeping bitterly.
I imagined what the expression might have been on the face of Jesus when He turned and looked. I suspect it was a look of sadness, compassion and longing to comfort His friend. But what Peter probably saw was only disappointment and failure. Peter’s tears likely flowed until they could no longer flow. I suspect it was hard to even breathe. His heart literally ached within his chest. His mind could not imagine any future hope. I wonder if he thought about running away or even ending it all. I wonder if he could think at all.
That Saturday was one of the worst days in history and Peter may have felt the pain of that awful day more intensely than anyone. He did not know what would happen the next day. Peter did not yet understand what Jesus had been telling him.
When Luke recounts that Jesus appeared to the Disciples the only one mentioned by name is Peter. What gives me hope this Easter season is the tender story of Jesus affirming and reinstating Peter to be a leader who would “feed His sheep”. That is the grace that changes a heart.
I can betray Jesus. Ignore Him. Live selfishly. At some point I once again recognize my desperate need for Jesus to rescue me. For the one millionth time I turn to Him. And what happens? He lifts my shame bowed head and looks deeply into my eyes. He tells me how much He loves me. That is grace. That is real. That is love. Maybe I won’t have a day quite as bad as Peter on that horrible dark Saturday but his story of redemption encourages me this Easter season.
Saturday was terrible. But Sunday was coming with the wonderful news that He is risen! He is risen for me! Jesus is pleading for me that my faith will not fail. What a joyous hope for all of us this Easter.
- 2019Dec 09
Every follower of Jesus is offered the gifts of grace without any strings (or ribbons) attached. All of us have full access to these gifts. Paul writes that we are brought into right relationship with God entirely as a gift of His radical and amazing love.
When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he made us right in his sight and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life. Titus 3:5-7, NLT
Grace is the best deal ever offered and yet we often resist accepting the gift of our Lord. We can’t believe it is true. We fear it can’t be possible that we can be loved, accepted, and adopted even when we know our behavior doesn’t deserve such love.
But that is the miracle of grace.
A recent Christmas song gives a humorous clue to the mindset that helps make it so hard to open the gift of Grace.
The song “I’m Gettin’ Nuttin’ for Christmas” sums up the lie that Satan sells to every seeker of Jesus that your rewards are tied directly to behavior.
I’m gettin’ nuttin’ for Christmas
Mommy and daddy are mad
I’m getting nuttin’ for Christmas
‘Cause I ain’t been nuttin’ but bad
That seems about right to our performance based mindset. I have not done what I should have. God has to be disappointed and maybe even a little ticked off at me so I don’t deserve this grace. I will buck up and try harder and THEN I will earn God’s love. What a sad misunderstanding of how God wants to relate to His children.
The Christian life is a life of grace from beginning to end and it is all based on what Jesus has done for us and not on anything we have done for Him. We enter it this journey with Jesus by grace, live it by grace, and enter God’s eternal presence by grace.
We learn as children that we get good things and receive love when we are good and do good things. Santa is pleased (and we later substitute God) when we obey. So we learn early that we had better be good. Or least fool everyone around us to think that we are being good.
I remember (vaguely) the tension of the Santa Claus years. I knew I hadn’t really changed much. I tried to modify my behavior for a week or two leading up to Christmas but I knew I had failed to really be good. I learned a couple of things early. I learned how hard it is to change behavior by sheer willpower and I believed that I could fool Santa by living a lie.
Isn’t that too often how we view God? We need to behave better. I don’t deserve forgiveness. I know my heart. Just like Santa we think that Jesus is making a list and He is checking it not once or twice but every moment of every day. God knows if you’ve been bad or good so if you want to be blessed and loved you had better be good or you will get nuttin’. .
Satan sells the lie so convincingly. And we buy it for months and years and even decades. I did.
But God and Santa are very different in their approach. God does not keep a list. He is not impressed by our hernia inducing straining to control sin.
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. (Ephesians 2:8-9, NLT)
Jesus offers us so many gifts. But the one we seem to have the hardest time unwrapping is this gift of grace. The stunning radicality of grace is that what seems to be too good to be true is more true than we can imagine. This unconditional love from God is unrelated to the emotions, expectations and desires that taint our human love. I am choosing to believe that truth this Christmas. I am going to allow God to love me and not attempt to earn that love. I am not going to remind myself why I am not worthy. I am going to open my arms and my heart to His love. My feelings ebb and flow. God’s feelings for me are a consistent fountain of grace so I am going to jump in the fountain today and splash around.
Don’t buy into the bad theology that God’s gifts are performance based. Receiving this gift is based simply on coming to Him in humble need. Go straight to the gift of grace that Jesus left under the Cross. Open it. And clothe yourself in His salvation, acceptance and love. It may be the best gift you have ever given yourself. Unwrap it without guilt this Christmas. It was left there just for you.