Walking by Faith – Your New Heart

As I reflect on the promise of Good Friday and Easter, I am excited to write about another of God’s gifts that were secured by Christ’s death and resurrection.  The gift of a new heart.

Promise in the unseen world:  You have been given a new heart (Ez 26:36).  Your old deceptively wicked heart has been removed.  Application to the seen world:  You can trust your heart.  The heart, as used in the Bible, is the center of your will, thoughts, motives, understanding, and actions.  It represents the essence of who you are.  And suffice it to say, your old deceptively wicked heart was too far gone to clean up.  So God removed it and gave you a new heart to go along with your new birth.

Your new heart has a natural bent toward God.  You may not feel it all the time.  In fact, you may think there are some pretty close similarities to your old crummy heart.  But as we have seen all along, we believe by faith in the gifts of God that we cannot see with our eyes or feel with our skin.  And one of these gifts is a new heart.

So now you can trust your heart.  You don’t always have to be second guessing your choices and motives.  We are so often taught that basically if we think it up it must be wrong since our heart is “deceitful and desperately wicked”.  But you do not have that heart anymore.  It has been sent to the trash heap.  Your new heart is in tune with your new master, Jesus Christ.

Do we always feel like it is in tune?  Do we always act like it is in tune?  No, as with all things on this faith journey, it is a process; a practice in walking by faith.  But Christ is the Master Tuner.  And your conscience – the seat in your heart of your right and wrong choices – is being trained by the Master.  You can trust your conscience.  It no longer has an ounce of depravity in it.

God’s ways, God’s laws, God’s mind is standard equipment in the new heart (Heb 8:10).  It is not a option that only the super saints possess.  Thank the Lord today that your old heart and your old nature were crucified on the cross with Christ this very day so many years ago.  And show your thanks by living into all the new you now possess.  Happy death, burial and resurrection weekend!

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Walking by Faith – The Spirit Inside

Let’s look at some more ideas of how we put God’s promise of a new identity into action.

Promise in the unseen world:  God’s Spirit now lives inside you (Rom 8:11).  Application to the seen world:  Because you believe the promise by faith, you act like His Spirit is living inside you.  You can’t see it, you probably can’t feel it, but you know God lives in you.  So you begin to live as if it were true.  What does “living as if it were true” look like?

For starters, you believe that your body is God’s dwelling place (I Cor. 6:19).  So you change some habits that you know God would not do dwelling inside you.  In the face of temptation, you literally ask yourself, “How would God act or react to this situation if He was living here inside me?  O wait, HE IS!”

You also begin to understand that God is not only dwelling inside you, but is speaking to you as well.  So you start to seek God’s voice.  You develop an ear to hear His guidance and direction.  Is the direction always clear?  No, there are often loud and competing voices.  But we believe by faith that He is speaking, so we keep listening…and following.

Another promise in the unseen world:  You have joined God’s family; God’s seed dwells in you (I Jn 3:9).  Application to the seen world:  You now have a family resemblance to God and His Son, Jesus.  It is not a physical resemblance, it is a moral resemblance; a likeness in righteousness and character (I Jn 2:29).

Think about how resemblance works in your physical family.  When our daughter Elizabeth and I were working in the same downtown building, I got on the elevator one day with her and her co-workers.  She immediately introduced me around, but before she got very far, her friends exclaimed, “Of course, we know that is your dad.  You can see the family resemblance.”

God intends it to work the same in the moral world.  As a new creation, He has created me to look like Christ in character and righteousness.  So I check myself.  How am I doing at living into the resemblance; at looking like Christ?  In the small town where I grew up, I was known as Adrian’s son.  And a desire to keep my father’s reputation intact was one element of my effort to stay on the straight and narrow.  Likewise, one of my motivations to resist temptation and to imitate Christ is to keep my Father’s reputation intact.  People will judge what God’s character is like by how His family members conduct themselves.

The important thing to remember is that this is not a family resemblance that we earn through some probationary period of good works.  The resemblance is already planted by God’s seed.  It is now up to us to live, in the seen and temporal world, as if it were true; which, of course, in the unseen and eternal world, IT IS!

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Walking by Faith – Your New Identity

“We walk by faith, not by sight” (II Cor 5:7) is a short verse with incredible depth.  Set against sight as its opposite, walking by faith is walking in the principles of the unseen world of the spirit.  It helps me to think of our lives as living in two worlds at the same time.  In the unseen and eternal world, you became a brand new person when you received Christ.  All the provisions and promises of the New Covenant came true for you in an instant.  It may sound mysterious, but the unseen and eternal world is just as real as the black letters on this screen or page.

But what about that other world, the seen and temporal world that we are more familiar with?  In this world, you may not have noticed much change at your point of salvation.  In the initial before and after Christ, you may look the same, you may feel the same, your personality may be unchanged, your challenges did not immediately  go away, etc.  In short, the immediate change in your temporal world before and after Christ varies greatly among believers.

So growing and maturing in the Christian life boils down to this.  It is the process, sometimes slow and gradual, sometimes rapid, of taking all you know to be true about the new you – things you know are true by faith – and bringing its application into your every day experience.  Let me put it this way.

Promise in the unseen world:  You have a new identity (II Cor 5:17).  Your new self is “created in the likeness of God; in righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24).  Application to the seen world:  As you begin your life in Christ, you may not feel like righteousness defines who you are.  In fact, you may feel like sin is still your propensity.  You have a conscious choice to make.  Are you going to live by faith – believing you have a completely new and righteous nature – or live by sight?  The apostle Paul calls living by faith “putting on the new self”.  You now have the ability to make large and small choices to live as if the “new self” is who you really are.

When you are tempted to anger and want to blow up at your children, you can literally say to yourself, “Hey, anger is not who I am in my new identity”, and choose patience.  When that ad for a suggestive website scrolls across your monitor, you can literally say to yourself, “Hey, lust is not who I am in my new identity”, and choose to pass on going there.  When you desire to use a power play to gain a leg up on a co-worker in your competitive work environment, you can literally say to yourself, “Hey, seeking their good is who I am in my new identity”, and work to aid their success.

Now this may all sound theoretical and impractical in the heat of the moment, in the throes of temptation, but this is literally what we must learn to do.  We talk back to temptation by reminding ourselves of who we are in Christ.  We talk back to temptation by reminding ourselves of God’s promise of a new power over sin.  And when we do this, we find that what started out as basically a practice in willpower to not sin becomes an experience of His power to overcome sin. We begin to learn, embrace by faith, and experience that sin is no longer my master.

Do I ever stumble?  Of course.  Do I ever sin?  Of course.  The maturing process is just that:  a process.  But what I can guarantee is that as you practice living into your new identity, you will more and more experience God’s resurrection power in the everyday path of real life.

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The Necessity of Faith

Several times on this website, I have written about the two parts of the gospel.  The first part of the good news is the gospel for unbelievers.  It centers around the transaction; the move from death to life (Rom 6:23); the transfer from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col 1:13); joining God’s family (Gal 3:26); all brought about by believing in Jesus Christ for eternal life (Jn 6:40).  The second part of the gospel – equally good news – is the gospel for believers.  It is all about how we live the life; how we live the Christian life; how we live the supernatural Christian life.

Both parts of the gospel, the transaction and living the life, are grasped by faith.  The gospel is believed, embraced, attained, and laid hold of by faith.  The initial move from “wages of sin is death” to “free gift of God is eternal life” is by faith.  “For by grace you have been saved though faith” (Eph 2:8).  This universal verse applies to all people who believe; to all who exercise faith in Christ for their salvation.

But Jesus also highlighted the need for faith in His individual encounters as well.  In the last section of Luke chapter 7, Jesus visits the home of Simon, a Pharisee.  While reclining at the table, a woman known to be a sinner crashes the party and begins to anoint Jesus’ feet.  After engaging Simon in a parable about two debtors, Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Your sins have been forgiven…your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Lk 7:48,50).

Just as faith is required to enter the kingdom, faith is also a necessity for kingdom living; the life we live after the transaction.  This is the theme of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  He keeps asking his readers, “Having been justified by faith rather than by works of the Law, why are you now returning to the Law to live the life?  It doesn’t make sense.  Just as your initial salvation was by faith, even so your new life is lived by faith.”

The first step to living by faith is to believe that your old man, the man with the sin propensity, has been crucified with Christ.  “For I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).  The experience of living the exchanged life, that is, Christ living His life through me is embraced by faith.

So living by faith essentially comes down to this.  Faith is how we take the promises of the unseen world – Christ living in me by His Spirit and all the newness that entails – and bring them to pass in the seen world where we live each day.  We will start exploring the “how to’s” next post.

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“Finders Keepers”

I have a suspicion that my road to becoming a geophysicist was paved by a childhood fascination with finding things; specifically, with finding treasures.  When I was a child, my bedroom was filled with collections of baseball cards, matchbooks, shiny stones, and all kinds of interesting stuff.  I liked finding things.  And my day job shows that I still do.

So you can imagine my attachment to this quote from Dan Stone in his book, The Rest of the Gospel.  “But I have discovered that through union with Christ, I am no longer a seeker.  I am a finder.  Jesus said the kingdom of God is where?  In us.  Every kingdom has a king.  And the King lives in us.  The basic definition of the kingdom of God is the rule and reign of God.  That is exactly what has taken place in our heart.  So we are no longer seeking the kingdom.  We’re finders.  Whatever the kingdom of God may look like in the future in the external, it has already begun internally for us.”

We are finders.  Jesus said in Luke chapter 11, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened” (Lk 11:9-10).  Jesus’ promise is the if we seek, we will find.  It is very easy to get stuck in the seeking…the striving, the laboring, the working to somehow achieve what God has already given us.  The reward for the seeking is not a carrot that keeps moving ahead of us, always just out of our reach.  No, Jesus’ promise is that you will find it.

And what is it that we will find?  Christ in you the hope of glory (Col 1:27).  God’s kingdom in you (Lk 17:21).  God’s Spirit in you (I Cor 6:19); guiding you, energizing you, empowering you.  You will find Christ literally living His life through you (Gal 2:20).

Now, you may be thinking that all these discoveries sound swell in theory.  You may be convinced that somewhere in the unseen world all these things are true about us.  But when you look down into the world where we live each day, faced with sometimes challenging and with sometimes outright terrifying choices, how do we put these eternal principles into every day action?  How do we put the promise – our new life hidden in Christ, wrapped up inside and out with His presence – together with the reality of our experience each day?

The short answer is to live by faith.  The word faith appears about 240 times in the New Testament alone.  And it is vital to experiencing the supernatural in the world we inhabit.  The long answer is to live by faith and we will take the next several weeks exploring its implications.

For now, let’s celebrate our new life in Christ; a life filled with resurrection power that is yours for keeps.  It truly is “finders keepers.”

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Why I Write

In the movie, Chariots of Fire, Olympian and future missionary Eric Liddell famously told his sister, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”  When and where do you feel God’s pleasure?  I feel it when I write.

Admittedly, I began this blog several years ago with an agenda.  I perceived an imbalance in our common teaching on living the Christian life.  I felt the emphasis was too negative, too focused on the overwhelming power of sin in our lives, too critical of ourselves and our fellow believers.  I sought to bring the pendulum back by explaining all that became new at our new birth.  I unpacked the provisions of the New Covenant – including our new label as holy and beloved (Col 3:12) – and what they meant for living the supernatural Christian life.

When I started writing, I probably had 20 or 30 posts in my head.  To my surprise, the more I wrote, the more the ideas came flooding in.  Now, 300 posts later, my motivation has changed.  My emphasis is still the same, but I no longer write to put forth a theological agenda or a persuasive argument to support my position.  Without being presumptuous, I write to be God’s messenger and to feel His presence.  As I read God’s Word, I am compelled to explain – in the clearest terms possible – the Message He has conveyed.

As a geophysicist, I also have an unusual platform and maybe an uncommon approach.  Geologists and geophysicists have the whole world as a laboratory.  Hence, we are trained to think “big picture”.  We are trained to process large amounts of data – some of it contradictory – and uncover the “truth” about what is going on beneath and on the earth’s surface.

When I apply this training to reading Scripture, I see the Bible as an epic story of redemption.  I am not bothered by apparent contradictions.  I am not concerned with mysteries that seem to remain mysteries.  I have no problem separating the “Old” from the “New” while also celebrating their combined contribution to the story.  I see the Old Testament for what it is:  God’s old arrangement with man.  And peeking through that arrangement are pictures of something new; the coming Savior.  I see the New Testament for what it is:  God’s new arrangement with man, and the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan.  I think because I have learned to change my geophysical interpretation with new data and information, I am comfortable with God changing His arrangement with man without any diminishing of His sovereignty or greatness.

Geophysicists are not 100 percenters.  We can celebrate, explain, and understand what we do know without having to know all of it.  Does that make sense?  I don’t need everything in the Bible to fit into neat theological pigeonholes to get excited about the Message.  I am content to let the Bible speak for itself.  And I believe when we do that, we encounter a Message that is coherent, dynamic, and mysterious all at the same time.  It is a Message that is alive, filled with resurrection power.

Early geophysical pioneers, with their primitive listening equipment had a phrase, “Let the earth speak to you.”  It seems a little corny now.  But I guess that is what I am saying about Scripture.  In my writing, I try to let Scripture speak for itself without a lot of theological system overtones.  I try to provide just enough commentary to help others put the big picture together, including how all these incredible concepts like the New Covenant apply to our daily lives.

Anyway, several of you have asked about where I get my ideas and my motivation.  A surprising result of “just starting” with post #1 several years ago has been the sense of God’s presence as I write.  May you experience His presence in the endeavors He has given you to do.

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Freedom From the Performance Trap

Another freedom our new identity affords us is freedom from the performance trap.  How many of us measure our worth by our performance; or more specifically, by how others react to our performance?

Ryan Kwon writes, in the context of church planting, about the performance trap.  “The gospel says, it was through Christ’s performance, not our performance, which makes our adoption possible.  So now He accepts us as His own, and that is our primary and supreme identity.  The world tells me, ‘I am what I do.’  But the gospel tells me, ‘I do what I am.’  For the Christian, our identity precedes our activity.  So our identity is not based on winning, or losing, on a big church, or a small church.  God can’t love us any more, and He can’t love us any less.  He cannot give us a higher identity than the status of perfection.  Through this gospel identity we release our insecurities and our turf wars.  As a result, it releases the mission of God into our cities.”

“Our identity precedes our activity.”  I like that.  We so often get this turned around.  We think we earn our identity by our performance.  Take, for example, the gift of generosity.  We think we earn the label of “generous person” because we give our money away.  But in reality, if generosity is one of your gifts, then you already are a generous person because God gave you that gift.  Giving money away is not to earn the label, it is the fruit of the gift.  Are we splitting hairs here?  Does it really matter which came first, the identity or the activity?

I think it does for this reason.  When we recognize that our identity is wrapped up in who we are in Christ, we find our joy, our confidence, our self-worth in that new identity.  We do not rely on the opinion of others to validate who Christ already says we are.  When we find our value in what we accomplish in our activity…our joy, our confidence, and our self-worth are much more fluid being carried on the whims of what we or others think of our performance.

The world says, “I am defined by what I do, by what I have accomplished.”  God says, “You do what you do, you accomplish what you do, because of who you already are.”  Do you see the distinction?  It is not an excuse for laziness or lack of accomplishment.  God has given us plenty of good works to do.  It is a matter of motivation.  Stop seeing success as the key to your identity.  Instead, see your identity as the driving force behind doing what you do.  And when you do this, you will be set free from the performance trap.

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Humility and Dignity

I once heard a speaker in a business setting say that he had no ego.  I had the same reaction that is probably going through your head right now, “Of course, he has an ego.  We all do.”  But as I thought about it later, I conceded that maybe pride is not an issue for him.  It is easy for me to project my challenges with pride onto others.  Do you think it is common for us to project our own besetting sins onto others and assume they are weighed down with the same issues?

Because of reactions like mine, humility is a hard topic to write about.  You can’t very well say it is something you have attained and come across as genuine.  It is even hard to give tips on how to reach for it.  I think one of the challenges is the way Christians confuse humility and dignity.

We too often equate humility with a denigration of dignity.  We assault our New Testament dignity by calling ourselves poor wretched sinners.  We somehow think seeing ourselves as basically worthless is a sign of humility.  I actually think it is calling God a liar since he has labeled us holy and beloved saints.  His label for us is where our dignity begins.

Our dignity comes from the fact that we are worthy to appear in God’s presence as holy and beloved saints; infused with the very righteousness of Christ.  And this righteousness is not just a covering of our sin, but is a real life infusion; an indwelling of supernatural proportions.  Our dignity comes from the fact that we are worthy to boldly approach God’s throne.  And our humility comes from the fact that we had absolutely nothing to do with it.  Our dignity is pure gift.

I like this distinction between dignity and humility.  I have said before that humility is not a bright person thinking they are unintelligent.  It is not a generous person thinking themselves a Scrooge.  It is not a talented person thinking they have no skill.  It is not a successful parent thinking of themselves as a failure.  Humility is giving God the credit for all those accomplishments.  It is giving God the glory for your talent, your brain, your understanding of the Word, your ability to communicate, your generosity, your parenting skills, and thanking Him for these gifts.

Humility is an attitude.  An attitude of thanksgiving and deflecting the glory from ourselves to our God, the giver of all good gifts.  It is not a denigration of our dignity.  You are deeply loved, completely forgiven, fully pleasing, totally accepted, complete in Christ…and there is no inherent arrogance in believing that!

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Free From Selfish Ambition

Another freedom that comes from our new heart, new nature, and new disposition is the freedom from selfish ambition.  Throughout the New Testament, the apostles highlight selfish ambition as one of our worst enemies.  James writes, “If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth.  This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, and demonic.  For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing” (James 3:14-16).

Selfish ambition is arrogance unchecked.  Selfish ambition is earthly, natural, and demonic.  Selfish ambition sows seeds of discord, disorder, and every evil thing.  We and our selfish ambition really are our last and worst enemy.  So what is the remedy?

The cure for selfish ambition is its opposite; humility of mind.  “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard each other as more important than yourselves…Have the same mind as Jesus Christ who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:3, 5-8).  We are to have the same humility of mind as modeled by Jesus when He humbled Himself.

Do you know that this humility of mind is available to you?  Do you know that if you have received Christ, you have been indwelt with the mind of Christ?  In I Corinthians chapter 2, the apostle Paul highlights the fact that we have been given the mind of Christ.  “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually appraised” (I Cor 2:14).  To the natural man, humility appears to be foolish.  To the spiritual man, we see its great value.  And we can appraise things spiritually because we “have been given the mind of Christ” (I Cor 2:16).  This short last phrase of chapter 2 almost seems to appear in passing, “We have been given the mind of Christ.”  But it is extremely powerful to dwell on.

Did you know you have the mind of Christ?  Now put that mind into action by embracing the humility of Christ (Phil 2:5-8) and letting Him set you free from selfish ambition!

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The Gospel for Believers

The latest buzzword in Christian publishing is “the gospel”.  From J. D. Greear’s straightforward title, The Gospel:  Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary, to Timothy Keller’s Center Church:  Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City.  Overall, this is a positive direction as we seek to rediscover the core of the gospel message for the church.  But what exactly is “the gospel”?

The gospel literally means “good news”.  And I think we can divide this “good news” into two forms.  First is the gospel for unbelievers.  It is a gospel message we are very familiar with.  When Jesus came to earth, He initiated a new arrangement between God and man.  His message of release from the penalty of our sin was totally founded upon His death, as a substitute for each of us, on a cross.  Under God’s old arrangement, the default arrangement for the whole human race, we stand guilty of breaking His moral code.  But that all goes by the wayside when we agree to God’s new arrangement by acknowledging our guilt, accepting the free gift of Christ’s death in our place, and embracing what Jesus says as true.  If you wish to say “I’m in” with this new arrangement, tell God in prayer about your decision.  Then, talk to someone about it.  This is the gospel for unbelievers.

But what happens next?  Once we place our faith in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, how do we move forward in living the life of a Christ-follower?  This leads us to the second form of the gospel; the gospel for believers.  And this contains just as much “good news” as the gospel for unbelievers.  However, as a church, I believe we are much less familiar with this gospel message.  It is indeed “very good news” for believers.

The “good news” for believers is that as part of God’s new arrangement, His New Covenant with you and I, we are not only set free from sin’s penalty; but in an incredible supernatural experience, we are set free from sin’s power as well.  Prior to your initial salvation, sin was your capacity and propensity.  Now, as a child of God indwelt by His very presence in the form of the Holy Spirit, your propensity is righteousness, not sin.  Oh yes, we still have a sin capacity, but it is no longer our default mode.  It is no longer our inclination.  If this concept is new to you, let me recommend our series of posts titled, Walking in the New Nature, as a starting point to understanding this overarching message of the New Testament.

And why might believers not be familiar with this gospel?  It might be because it is largely missing in our new gospel literature.  Look at this quote from Dr. Keller that has become a popular re-post on the web.

“The gospel of justifying faith means that while Christians are, in themselves still sinful and sinning, yet in Christ, in God’s sight, they are accepted and righteous. So we can say that we are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope — at the very same time. This creates a radical new dynamic for personal growth. It means that the more you see your own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying, and amazing God’s grace appears to you. But on the other hand, the more aware you are of God’s grace and acceptance in Christ, the more able you are to drop your denials and self-defenses and admit the true dimensions and character of your sin.”

I think this “dynamic for personal growth” is missing a critical ingredient.  His description of believers as “still sinful and sinning…more wicked than we ever dared believe…able to admit the true dimensions and character of your sin” does not agree with the Scriptural description of us as “holy and beloved saints” (Col 3:12) or having a new nature “which in the very likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph 4:24).

In Romans chapter 6, the apostle Paul anticipated the greater sin – greater grace question and Paul’s answer is this.  “Should we continue in sin so that grace may increase?  No, No, No!”  As we have explored in this blog many times, Paul’s basis for telling us not to continue in sin is because that is not who we are.  We now have “become infused with the righteousness of Christ” (II Cor 5:21) having been “raised with Christ, in the likeness of His resurrection, to walk in a brand new life” (Rom 6:4-5).

I believe Dr. Keller and many others would answer Paul’s question, “Should we continue in sin so that grace may increase?” with “No we shouldn’t, but we will.  And when we do, we will realize how great God’s grace is.”  Where is the hope for victory over sin in that?  Where is the power of victory over sin in that?  This is not what the New Testament teaches.  Propensity for sin is what you were before Christ; not what you are now.

What is the gospel message for believers?  What is the “good news” we should be preaching to the saints in our churches?  Based on God’s promise, based on God’s indwelling, based on the new creation you are; you have been set free from sin’s power.  This is incredibly “good news” and needs to be broadcast throughout our churches as widely as possible.  This is the gospel for believers.

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Self-Correcting Grace – An Illustration

Last post, I addressed the issue of indulging in sin as a way to abuse God’s grace.  I explained Titus 2:11-14 and the concept that grace, properly understood and applied, actually teaches us to deny sin and live godly lives.  Grace has a way of self correcting.  Today, I would like expand on this idea.

Pastor Judah Smith of Seattle’s The City Church shared a useful illustration along these lines in a recent interview with the Christian Post.  In addressing a question about grace, Pastor Smith first talks about his relationship with his wife, Chelsea.

He summarizes, “Chelsea is just the most incredible, considerate, compassionate, loving, gracious spouse, she’s a lot like Jesus.  In the 13 and a half years of her loving me and serving me and being so kind and committed, faithful and loyal, I’ve never had the thought ‘because she’s loving, gracious, kind and faithful, I could cheat on her and get away with. In fact, I could do it multiple times.’ I’ve never planned to cheat on her, by the grace of God I haven’t at all. Because the exact opposite desire and emotion are conjured up due to her love and grace and faithfulness.”

“I think when grace is merely a principle and a biblical concept – if it’s just the favor of God, or the forgiveness of God, or the love of God, it’s easily abused. But when grace is a person, when he has beautiful eyes of love and compassion and mercy and we fall in love with this incredible savior and his grace and his mercy pours over our lives, the ultimate result is not ‘Gosh, I can get away with sin.’ … quite the opposite happens really.”

This is such a clear illustration of the draw of grace and has been my experience also; not just in my marriage, but in my obedience to Christ as well.  When I understand grace as a person – Jesus Christ – rather than a principle, I run to Jesus.  I desire a close relationship with Jesus.  I don’t want to sin more.  I want to sin less.  Why?  Because I do not want to do anything that would harm the relationship.  I don’t want to do anything that would break our connection.

Does this make sense to you?  Has this been your experience?  To many of us, this seems counter-intuitive.  We can think of a few grace abusers we know.  Or we may even secretly fall into temptation ourselves to take advantage of the grace of God.  But it should not be that way.  Instead, if we are in a love relationship with Christ – a relationship He secured at the cross – we should, based on that relationship, be running to Jesus.  We should be pleasing Jesus.  We should be embracing all that Jesus has for our lives.  And the last thing on our minds should be a desire to take advantage of His love.

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Self-Correcting Grace

The apostle Paul had strong words for the rule-makers in the Galatian church, even to the point of calling them “false brethren” (Gal 2:4).  But I don’t know if these folks were truly evil or just a little over zealous in wanting to keep people in line with their focus on the rules.  After all, the challenge of how far our freedom goes is still with us today.  Are there “false teachers” among us who seek to limit our Christian freedom or do they have a legitimate concern that freedom will be abused and our flesh will be indulged?

One of the ways to address this issue is with the concept of “self-correcting grace”.  Paul wrote in Titus chapter 2, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people of His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:11-14).

Let’s look at this set of verses very carefully.  “For the grace of God has appeared” (the foundation of all that follows is the appearance of God’s grace), “bringing salvation to all men” (God’s grace brought our salvation; deliverance from the penalty and the power of sin), “instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires” (rather than giving us the freedom to indulge in sin, God’s grace actually teaches us – and I might add empowers us – to deny sin; to put the ix-nay on ungodliness and worldly desires.  Grace properly understood and embraced helps guide us away from sin.)

Paul continues, “and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (So grace directs us away from sin and toward godliness.  Grace, properly understood and applied, is self-correcting.  When we are tempted to follow the wrong path, grace corrects us by teaching us to deny sin and embrace godly common sense and righteous living.  I like the word sensibly in this passage.  It is against common sense for a believer to live in sin and not according to their righteous nature.  Properly understood grace, not willpower or the threat of condemnation, brings us back to the righteous path.

And we become people who are “looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed” (Christ’s giving Himself up for us – His finished work on the cross – delivered us from lawless living as our default mode), “and to purify for Himself” (Christ giving Himself up for us made us clean), “a people for His own possession” (Christ giving Himself up for us placed us in His family), “zealous for good deeds” (Christ giving Himself up for us infused us with zealousy for good deeds.  He freed us from lawless living and empowered us for righteous living).

That is what this passage, and much of the New Testament, says, “Grace, properly understood and applied, is self-correcting.”  What does that look like in practice?  We will answer that question next time.

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Free to Obey

Another freedom we experience as a result of our new birth is the freedom to obey; the freedom to choose a new master (Rom 6:14).  James writes in the New Testament, “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.  For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.  But one who looks intently at the prefect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:22-25).

The law of liberty is an interesting description.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually think of the words “law” and “liberty” as going together.  I think of them as opposites.  I think of law as a restriction of my liberty.  So what is the law of liberty?

I believe it is God’s Word, His law, “written on our hearts” as it were (Heb 8:10).  The liberty part is the freedom and power to obey.  Prior to our salvation, there was no liberty in the law, only condemnation.  In Romans chapter 7, Paul describes the weight of that condemnation that results from trying to obey the law without the new resurrection power of Christ.  He concludes than only Christ – no amount of willpower or effort – can set us free from this condemnation.  “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).

We have been set free from trying to obey the law by willpower to escape condemnation (something we were unable to accomplish, even if we wanted to).  Instead, we now obey God’s moral law by the power of our new nature; God’s resurrection power literally living through us by the indwelling of God’s Spirit.

James calls this indwelling receiving the word implanted.  “Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21).  We put aside sin – filthiness and wickedness – by receiving the implanted word which has the power to deliver us from sin.  With the power to obey now firmly planted in our new nature, we have a freedom the world knows nothing of; the freedom to obey.

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Free to Serve

When we think of the word “freedom”, we often think of autonomy; basically the freedom to do whatever we want without constraint.  When the New Testament speaks about freedom, it relates to our new opportunity and ability to be all that God created and redeemed us to be.  Free to serve, free to love, free to worship, and free to embrace and live out all that became new at our new birth.

In the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul addresses the freedom challenge.  Rule-makers had infiltrated the church seeking to limit the believers’ freedom.  “But it was because of the false believers who had sneaked in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into slavery.  But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you” (Gal 2:4-5).

The “truth of the gospel” Paul is referring to is our freedom in Christ.  And Paul later identifies these “false believers” as the Judaizers; a group who have come from the Jerusalem church and stressed the need for the new Gentile believers to keep the Law, including the act of circumcision.  The Law still carried some weight in their eyes both for full acceptance by God as well as a guide for living the Christian life.  Paul sees this form of legalism as so far from the truth that he did not listen to them “for even one hour.”

Paul then goes on to write a treatise on our freedom in Christ.  Paul concludes his defense with, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).  So what does standing firm in our freedom look like?

First, it is defending our freedom along the lines of the argument Paul lays out in his letter.  But it is also putting that freedom into action.  As Paul continues in chapter 5, he addresses the application part of our freedom with, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13).

The purpose of our freedom is not to indulge the flesh – a danger Paul recognizes and spends the rest of chapter 5 exploring.  (As an aside, we have spent several posts in the past explaining the relationship between defeating the flesh and walking in the Spirit in light of Galatians chapter 5.  See here and here.)  No, the purpose of our freedom is to live into all that God redeemed us to be.  Particular to verse 13, it is the freedom to serve – motivated by love – our brothers and sisters in Christ.  In other words, use your freedom to serve each other; motivated and empowered by love.

Let your freedom from selfishness, freedom from anger, freedom from bitterness, freedom from envy, freedom from always having to win, freedom from always having to have the last word…set you free to serve one another.  It is a freedom from what is essentially our last enemy: ourselves and our selfish ambition.  And it only comes through Jesus Christ.  May you walk in that freedom today.

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Sin, Slavery, and True Freedom

“So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free‘ ” (Jn 8:31-32).  What “truth” is Jesus talking about?  And what kind of “freedom” does this truth deliver to us?

The dialogue that immediately follows these verses gives a clue to the freedom offered by Jesus Christ.  The Jews parked on the word “free” and answered Jesus.  “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free?’ ” (Jn 8:33).  The Jews were thinking in terms of political freedom; that is, in specific terms of slaves and masters.  Basically they were saying, “How can you offer us freedom when we are already a free people?”

Now it is ironic that the Jews would strut their freedom at a time they are under Roman rule, but technically they are correct.  Slavery was common throughout the Roman Empire, and the Jews were not slaves in the specific sense of owned by masters.  They had a measure of political freedom.

But Jesus is not talking about political freedom as we continue in the passage.  “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin’ ” (Jn 8:34).  The freedom Christ promises and delivers is the freedom from slavery to sin.  This language is a forerunner to the exact same word picture used by the apostle Paul in Romans chapter 6 regarding sin, slavery, and true freedom.

“Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin” (Rom 6:6-7).  Based on the context, “freed from sin” means freed from sin’s power and control, not from sin’s presence.  And Paul sums up this idea with, “For sin shall not be master over you” (Rom 6:14).

Not only is sin no longer our master, but God has given us the power to choose a new master, Jesus Christ.  “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?  But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Rom 6:16-18).  Notice the time line: you were slaves of sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

Returning to our text in John chapter 8, Jesus concludes, “So if the Son makes you free [free from sin's power and mastery], you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:36).  The freedom Jesus promised in John 8:32 – the oft quoted, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” – is the freedom from sin’s slave-creating power; freedom from sin as our master.  It is a promise of freedom that should be the hallmark of our gospel message.

We are keen on explaining the gospel message in terms of our deliverance from sin’s penalty as we should be.  But let us never forget the equal part of the gospel, deliverance from sin’s power.  The promise of a heart set free from sin’s power – so eloquently argued by the apostle Paul in Romans chapters 5 through 8 – has its foundation in Jesus proclamation, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

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Breaking Free

If you were to take a poll of your friends and relatives, what phrase would they most associate with the word “Christian”?  Would it be keeping the rules…religious…being a good person…hypocrite…or something else?  Getting it down to one phrase, I think something about “keeping the rules” is one of the world’s most common associations with Christianity.

But if you read the New Testament, the basis for our Christian faith, I think a better word association is “FREEDOM”.  Christianity is all about freedom.  The powerful connection between Christianity and freedom – so clearly explained in Scripture – is often missed by a world under the enemy’s control and a church stuck in our rule-making ways.  Why is this so?

From the world’s viewpoint, they have no interest in accurately portraying one of the greatest positives of our Christian belief.  The Bible teaches that the world system lies in the grip of the evil one and as such it is in the world’s interest to paint Christianity in the most negative light possible.  The world will always present Christianity as burdensome, narrow-minded, foolish, misguided, angry, and worse.  This is to be expected from an entity that literally hates us.  “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, because of this the world hates you” (Jn 15:18-19).

So it is easy to see the world’s motivation for ignoring the freedom message of Christianity.  But what about the church?  Why do we not highlight the compelling message of freedom found in the New Testament;  freedom in Christ, freedom from the power of sin, freedom from the penalty of sin, freedom from besetting sins and habits, freedom from the Law, freedom to love, freedom from status needs, freedom from condemnation, freedom from our own selfishness?  Is the freedom promised in the New Covenant a staple of the preaching in your church environment?

I think many times we present a distorted message that actually undermines the freedom promised in the New Testament.  We try to squeeze Christianity into an Old Testament framework and come out with a burdensome form of legalism.  We struggle to accept that believers – ourselves included – are truly good people, being infused with God’s righteous nature.  We think freedom unchecked will lead to increased sin and moral license.  We need rules to keep our fellow believers in line.  We need rules to give immature leaders a feeling of power and control.  And finally, maybe we actually enjoy a “ministry of condemnation”, Paul’s description of the old covenant.

But in Christ, we have been set free;  free from condemnation (“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” Rom 8:1),  free from rule-keeping (“But now we have been set free from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we may serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” Rom 7:6),  free from sin’s power (“Our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with , so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin” Rom 6:6,7).

When the New Testament speaks for itself, one of the most powerful promises of Scripture is a life set free in Christ.  This freedom is so compelling, and this freedom is so needed in our churches that we will spend the next several posts exploring its depths.

But let me close this time with a riddle to get you thinking.  If you have attended church for any length of time or have listened to Christian radio, you have probably heard this phrase from John chapter 8 quoted more than once, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32).  But have you ever wondered what “free” means in this context?  Have you ever asked, “Free from what?”

Ironically, Jesus answers this exact question in the verses immediately following this common quote.  But I don’t think I have ever heard them referred to in a sermon.  Isn’t that curious?  What is the answer?  We will discuss it next time.

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Finding a Balance…Wrap-up

Well, here we are at the end of our Work-Family-Ministry Balance series.  Thank you for your interest and comments.  By God’s gift, this was and is our own family identity.  These are not theories that belong in a book or ideas that we never actually got around to.  No, this was and is the fabric of our family life.

So let me close with a few reminders from our last few weeks together.

children-drawing

Reviewing our chart above, remember…

  • The time commitments on the left side are going to be “squeezed” when children join our family.
  • We can’t let these “squeezed” areas go to zero.
  • If our time as a couple goes to zero in these busy children years, there will be no spark, no flame, no fire, no romance when we emerge on the other side and the kids have left the house.
  • Margin is not a spiritual concept, but availability to serve and go the second mile is.
  • The upper right side of our chart is not babysitting or child care; it is investing.
  • It is investing in your child’s future and your legacy.
  • Kids spell love T-I-M-E.
  • Building the relationship is more important than rules of control.
  • Your quitting time at work is your starting time at home.
  • You may feel indispensable at work; you are indispensable at home.
  • Show your wife, by your actions, that you are in this together.

Can you do this?  Yes, you can!  How do I know that?  Because if you are a Christ follower, you have been gifted with all that became new at your new birth to be a godly husband and father.  You have your degree.  You have your papers.  You are qualified to do this.

So take the next step in your journey of leading your family, and I will see you around the water cooler, the church foyer, or the baseball field.

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Perfection Is Not The Goal…Consistency Is

For the past few weeks, I have been sharing material from a presentation I give on finding a Work-Family-Ministry balance.  One of the habits I stressed in the spiritual training of our children section was reading the Bible and praying as a family.  In fact, it was so important to Rhonda and I that our goal was to do this every day.  When I make this presentation to a group, I always close with this question to make my concluding point, “You have only known me for about 45 minutes.  But based on what I have shared and hearing this talk, if our goal was to read the Bible every day as a family and this is considered 100%, what percentage do you think we actually accomplished?  If every day equals 100%, take a guess on how we did on a percentage basis.”

As you can imagine, the guesses are quite varied.  But they usually land between 75 and 95%.  I say, “You are being generous.”  When Rhonda and I look back on 30+ years of having kids in the house, we estimate that we probably read the Bible together as a family about 30-40% of the days we intended to.  Now at first glance, this may look like a failure.  It may appear that we have a pretty poor track record at reaching our goal.  But we see it as just the opposite.

Using the higher end of our range at 40%, this means that we read together 150 DAYS A YEAR MORE THAN ZERO for over 30 years.  That is a lot of Bible reading.  The point I am trying to drive home is this: PERFECTION IS NOT THE GOAL; CONSISTENCY IS.

If perfection is your goal, you will drive your kids, your wife, and yourself crazy.  It is unattainable.  No, perfection is not the goal.  The goal is consistency.  This is about real life.  This is about chronic illness, recalcitrant children, financial setbacks, nagging sins, work stresses, personality challenges, fickle friendships, and academic hardships.  Consistency is getting back on the horse when we have been knocked down by these life issues.  Consistency is about not giving up no matter how long it has been since we tasted success.

Using the example we have been talking about, sometimes we would not read together for a month or more.  In these times, I would always think the same thing.  The kids are not even asking about our Bible reading.  No one even seems to miss it.  Maybe it is not having the influence or consequence that I think it is for our children.  Let’s just quit and let the Bible reading habit go.  But fortunately, I am married to a consistent wife who was not interested in letting any good thing go.  Rhonda encouraged me over and over that we can do this.  We just need to pick up the Bible and start again.

It was not just the Bible reading.  Every valuable discipline that we ever had in our home was on again, off again.  And Satan sought to use the “off again” as a temptation to quit.  Did you hear that?  Satan seeks to use the “off again” as a temptation to quit.  But God would always give us the quiet reminder and the strength to pick up the ball and get back in the game of investing in our family.  And soon, we were back to “on again”.  Let me emphasize again, perfection is not the goal; consistency is.

May I encourage you that no matter where you are along the time line with your family, it is never too late to start or begin again to read the Bible together as a family, to develop a relationship with your children, to affirm your children, to make your quitting time at work as important as your starting time, to value your time as a couple, to preserve some margin in your family life for service, and to let love rule.  As my friend Dave Gibson says, “It is never too late to start and always too soon to quit.”

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We Are In This Together

Last post, I closed with the thought that we husbands need to show our wives by our actions that we are in this child investment effort together.  As dads, we can be big talkers about how important our family is to us.  But our wives know the real deal.  They know if we are serious about our claims.  And they know by our actions, not just our words, whether we truly are in this thing together.

Let me give a small example of what this “showing by our actions” looks like.  Several years ago, I became the Exploration Manager for the Houston office of a small oil company headquartered in New Orleans.  My management position involved not only many video conferences with the main office, but several trips to New Orleans for prospect presentations, board meetings, etc.

Several times these meetings started at 8 am in the New Orleans office.  For a variety of reasons my boss at the time did not want me to fly over the morning of (potential weather delays, unpredictable rush hour traffic from the airport to the office) and strongly suggested that I fly over the night before and they would put me up in a hotel.  Say for a Wednesday morning meeting, the suggestion was to fly over after work on Tuesday, hang out with the New Orleans management for happy hour and dinner, spend the night in the Hampton Inn, and be set for the meeting the next morning.

I could see early on that this was going to be too many evenings with Rhonda holding down the fort on her own.  It was not that she was incapable; it was just not how we operated as a couple.  So I came up with a plan (approved by my supervisor, of course).  I left work a little early on Tuesday and made it home in plenty of time for dinner.  I reviewed any necessary homework, played a game or shot some baskets with the kids, and talked over the day with Rhonda.  Then when the house was beginning to quiet down around 9 PM, I left for Houston’s Intercontinental airport.  I caught the last flight to New Orleans, usually taking off around 10:30 pm, and arrived at my hotel around midnight.  And I was ready to go at 8 am the next morning.

It may seem a small thing, but it spoke volumes to Rhonda that I would put her needs and time with our family as more important than making possible career-enhancing  connections in the company.  I found a balance where I was able to accomplish both the family and corporate jobs with a little creative thinking.  Let me encourage you to put some thought into a creative balance in your responsibilities rather than just accept the status quo.  Especially, if the status quo has you letting your family down.  Remember, we show our wives (and our children) by our actions that we are in this together.

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Starting, Quitting, and Pitching In

Kevin Leman, in his book Home Court Advantage, has an excellent chapter on work.  He writes, “Your quitting time at work is your starting time at home.”  Have you ever made this connection?  Your quitting time at work is literally your starting time for what is arguably your more important job; leading and serving your family.  Therefore, when it comes to work, we need to be just as punctual about our quitting time as we are about our starting time.  Think with me about what this looks like in practice.

How many of us would show up an hour late to work and say to our boss, “You know, my wife and I just had SO MUCH to talk about this morning.  We needed to hammer down some plans for today and the time must have just gotten away from us.  There is a lot to talk about with five kids and their schedules and a car in the shop so to get all that covered I just needed to get down here a little late.”

Or how about, “I am going fishing this weekend and saw that Carter’s Country is having a 24 hour sale.  So I stopped by on the way into work and, of course, it took a little while to look over all the deals and make my purchases.  I guess it just added up to an hour late to work.”

Or who would say to their supervisor, upon arriving at the office mid-morning, “I ran into some old college friends yesterday and we decided to get together at the Black Walnut Café for a happy hour breakfast this morning.  It was great to catch up.”

We would not say or do any of these things if we wanted to keep our jobs.  But we say these things, or something similar, to our wives all the time.  Are you with me?  We often treat our quitting time at work with either a casual attitude or a “too-much-to-do-at-work” attitude that gets us home later than necessary.  And the message it sends to our wife and children is that the job at home is really not that high of a priority to Dad.  Your quitting time at work is just as important as your starting time.

A corollary to this is to pitch in when you are tired.  Sometimes we arrive home in the evening weary and feeling spent.  One of the best ways we can serve our family is to set those feelings aside and look for where we can contribute.  When I ask Rhonda, “What do you need from me right now?” I am telling her that I am ready to pitch in now.  Not later.  Not after I have had a chance to wind down.  Not in some unknown future.  But right now.  Pitch in when you are tired.

Doing these things regarding our starting and quitting time and pitching in shows our wives that we are in this family thing together.  So many wives, based on our actions as husbands and dads, feel like they are working alone investing in their children.  By my actions, I often implied to Rhonda that she was alone in the family effort.  And alone is not a good thing.  Show your wife, by your actions, that you are in this together.

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You Are Indispensable at Home

I began this set of posts on balancing family, work, and ministry with a diagram to summarize our time commitments.  children-drawing

We covered the various time categories that get “squeezed” when children join the mix.  We also talked about the time we invest in our families.  We emphasized that family time is not babysitting or childcare; it is investing in our children’s future and our legacy.

Let’s wrap up our discussion with a few thoughts about work.  It is easy to find our significance in our work.  I think this is especially true if we feel unqualified or uncomfortable on the home front.  But rest assured, God has qualified and gifted you to be a success as a husband and father.  Everything you were given at your new birth – a new heart, a new identity, a new power, a new disposition, a new Spirit, a new nature – are available to you to invest in your family.

I think sometimes those of us in ministry to fathers sound like we are negative toward work when we address the topic of overwork or finding our significance only in our work.  Work is a good thing.  In fact, we have posted previously four biblical reasons to go to work.  Our goal is to learn the balance between doing our work with excellence while at the same time not becoming totally wrapped up in our work.

One principle that has been helpful to me is the idea that “You may feel indispensable at work; you are indispensable at home.”  Don’t give everything you have at the office.  Save some time and energy for your family.  Not to denigrate the importance of the work you do, but there is probably someone who could step in and do your job in a pinch if you were not there.  There is no one to “step in” at home.  You are it.  And your presence and influence are indispensable to your family.  You are the one.  Remember, you may feel indispensable at work; you are indispensable at home.

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Love Trumps Knowledge (again)

Finally, we invest in our children when we teach and model the concept that love trumps knowledge.  Paul writes in I Corinthians 8:1, “Knowledge puffs up, love builds up.”  Or in another translation, “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.”  Paul could not be more direct.  When the apostle expounds on the topic again in I Corinthians chapter 13, he explains that knowledge without love is useless.  According to Scripture, knowledge without love is of no value whatsoever!

This prominent message of the New Testament has tremendous implications in your family and in your community of believers.  In our legitimate quest to get things right, we can forget the love.  In our effort to get our kids to fly right, we can damage the relationship with a lack of love.  In our search for Bible knowledge, we can become hearers and studiers of love instead of doers of the Word.  The knowledge we advertise in our gossip often harms the ones we claim to love.  Our desire to be in the knowledgeable inner circle can leave us stepping over our less-connected brothers and sisters.  And in our effort to be biblically correct on current trends, such as homosexuality, we can lose our love for the individual caught in its grip.

I have seen our children take this message to heart.  I have seen the idea that love trumps knowledge played out in their lives over and over.  It would be self-serving to share their stories, but it warms the hearts of their parents.  Did we value knowledge in our household?  Very much so.  Bible knowledge is important.  Academic progress was encouraged and rewarded.  But it must always be subservient to love.

Soon after Rhonda and I were engaged to be married, I flew up to Alaska for a job assignment while Rhonda finished her last semester in school.  She gave me a book as I boarded the plane and wrote this verse on the flyleaf, “Let all that you do be done in love” (I Cor 16:14).  Little did we know then, over 35 years ago, that this verse would become a theme for our family.  Rhonda has always been a doer of the word when it comes to love, but I guess on that day she was a prophet as well.

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Affirm, Affirm, Affirm

Oops, I see that I skipped 29 ways to affirm your children.  Let me make it succinct:  Affirm, affirm, affirm your kids.  Affirm them for their gifts.  Affirm them for their personalities.  Affirm them for their spiritual interest and maturity.  The essence of Christian child-training is celebrating our children for who they are while at the same time spurring them on to greater development and maturity.

Now parents sometimes wonder, “Will Junior take advantage of all this affirmation?”  In my mind, it works a lot like grace.  Legalists worry that too much emphasis on grace in our practice and teaching will somehow lead believers to take advantage of God’s gift.  But I see it as just the opposite.

The more I know and experience of God’s grace, the more I desire a close relationship with Him.  I do not want to sin more.  I want to sin less, because I am in a love relationship with my Father and I do not want to disappoint him.  In a healthy believer, you could say that grace – and the relationship that comes with it – is self correcting.

Affirmation is very similar.  Children run to where they are affirmed.  Your affirmation builds a relationship with your child that, generally speaking, they will not want to break or disappoint.

Now if this does not describe your own childhood and affirmation does not come natural to you, it will take some intentional effort.  But we have something to help.  We have previously published 29 ways to affirm your children and have collected these posts in this archive.  This list is extensive, but is not designed to weigh you down with more to do.  They are ideas to incorporate into your every day family life.  And I know you can do it!

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Everybody Join In

The next two categories in the “Children” section are Join them in their interests and Join you in your interests.  As my friend Greg Despres says, “Kids spell love T-I-M-E.”  Join your son in a Lego building project.  Join your daughters in a tea party.  When you see your teenager shooting hoops, go out and challenge him to a game of HORSE.  You may be thinking, “I haven’t developed that kind of relationship.  I don’t think my son would want me to join him.”  It is never too late to start.  Persist in joining your kids in their interests, but persist in a way that is winsome and inviting.

But this is not only about the children’s interests.  Have them join you in your interests.  Include your kids in the things you like to do.  It teaches them new skills.  It teaches them to cooperate with you as not all of the time decisions revolve around their interests.

Even when it would be easier to just do it yourself, find the situations where they can be included.  Take you kids along on your errands to the Home Depot.  Take them fishing even it they are afraid to touch the worms.  Have them help you in the garden.  Teach your grade-schooler to play chess.  In short, include them in your interests.

Last Thanksgiving, I asked our kids and grandkids that were joining us for the holiday to bring some work clothes along.  Wednesday evening, I announced our Thanksgiving schedule, “We will start with two hours of clearing dead wood in the forest behind our house.”  Bethany with ChainsawWe had taken down some trees lost in the previous summer’s drought and I needed some help cutting them up and getting them to the burn pile.  And since a chain saw is my favorite tool, they were definitely joining me in my interest.  (See photo.)  Of course, the reward for their effort was a complete Thanksgiving dinner and the honor of beating their mom and dad in a game of Trivial Pursuit.

What I am trying to say is that it works both ways.  We make a great investment in our children when we join them in their interests and, likewise, have them join us in ours.

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Teaching Life Skills

The next topic on the “Children” part of our diagram is Life Skills.

children-drawing

What do I mean by “Life Skills”?  Basically, the whole range of what children need to know to function as independent adults in this world.  Everything from brushing their teeth to learning to drive a car.  From setting the table to moving the lawn.  From developing positive character qualities to learning how to sort their laundry.  The list, if one existed, could go on to infinity.  But wait!  There is a list and it is located here.  This one page summary (taken from the Teaching Home magazine and edited by us over the years) is a good starting point.

Many of these skills will be learned by repetition or just “catching on” as we live out our family life.  But several of these ideas will need intentional direction, will need specific instruction.  And it was a help to us to have something like this in front of us with the basics to be covered.  Now the list is not meant to be exhaustive or overwhelming.  You have about 18 years to get it done.  It is also not designed to be one more big job on your part as a parent.  They are simply ideas that we work into the natural ebb and flow of our family.

For example, when we wanted to teach our children how to prepare dinner, we instituted a plan to have one child pick the evening meal once a week and help Rhonda put it together.  It was a great time of Mom and child interaction and learning.  It taught some basic skills we wanted to get across.  But we did not feel compelled to take this good idea to a limit of wearing it out.  We probably did this for six months or so and then went on to something else.  (Cleaning up after dinner and doing the dishes, on the other hand, was a lifetime job that we shared around as long as someone was in the house.)

In a Christian home, there should be the appropriate focus on spiritual training.  But I have observed too many times a lack of focus on life skills.  It is as if parents are thinking that if we ignore the world, or insulate our kids from the world, maybe its adult demands will go away.  Career preparation (girls included) and learning how to maneuver in this world are not secular activities to avoid, but opportunities to teach our children how a Christ-follower navigates the adult world.

You will do your children a great service by thinking through and putting into practice a plan to teach them “Life Skills”.

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Building the Relationship

Several years ago, when our children were small and we were just beginning this parenting journey, I came across this quote from Charles Swindoll, “Building the relationship is more important than rules of control.”  With plenty of need for “rules of control” in a family of seven, I had to mull this idea over for a minute or two.  I concluded at the time that maybe the need for a relationship was as necessary as the need for rules, but surely not more important.  But I was wrong.

As life with a growing family evolved, I came to agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Swindoll.  Building a relationship is more important than rules of control.  Rules are of course necessary.  But over time, rules will change.  Rules will slowly lighten up as the kids get older.  And eventually, rules will go away and those rules we were so focused on will become irrelevant as our adult children leave home.

But the relationship?  It lasts a lifetime.  And it starts with assuring your children that you love them.  It says to your kids, “I love you, I love you, I love you.  I will always love you.  You cannot do anything that would cause me to withhold my love.”  Does this love need to be balanced with control?  Sure.  Our kids need to know that we are in charge.  That we are the adults.  That we know what is best for them.  But that control needs to be wrapped in a giant dose of warmth and love that is palpable to our children.

I have observed that when building a relationship is paramount, something very interesting happens in the mind of a child regarding the rules.  Rules are no longer rules for rules sake.  Rules are no longer part of the power struggle for control.  Instead, the rules just become a natural part of our family identity, woven into the fabric of this is who the Lehmans are.  Rather than points of contention, the rules become part of what makes us who we are, part of what brings us together as a unified family.

Let me encourage you as you gather with your family this Christmas.  Celebrate and build on the relationship you have with your children.  If this connection has been lacking in your family, Christmas can be more of a challenge than a joy.  But don’t live in the past.  Make the effort to restore, build up, and embrace all the relationships in your family.  Affirm the strengths that each one brings to the mix in your family.  And celebrate Jesus, the One who redeems the challenges of our past and empowers us to walk in the newness of His life in us.  Merry Christmas.

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Family Worship

The first investment on our chart regarding our kids is spiritual training.  For our family, this started with reading the Bible and praying together.  When our children were young, we usually read a Bible story at bedtime.  Over the years, our Bible reading and prayer time varied from around the dinner table to early evening to early morning before Dad went to work.  The important part was not the when or how, but the consistency; making the time for family worship in our busy schedules.

The consistency your kids see in your effort elevates God’s Word in their minds.  They see that this connecting to God through our praise, His Word, and prayer is important enough to Mom and Dad to make it a priority.  Besides sticking with the plan, there are also important considerations for making the time interesting and inviting to your kids.

One of the best ways to keep our kids connected to the goal is through variety.  We not only varied the times of day over the years, but varied the approach to make things age-appropriate.  As I mentioned, we started small with Bible story books like The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes.  In the early elementary years we graduated to Leading Little Ones to God, an excellent book for explaining big topics about God in ways that children can understand.  These are just two we used.  There are many other great resources out there.

Eventually we reached a point where we read through the entire Bible in one year.  If you are wondering how we made it though all 1189 chapters of the Bible with five kids in tow in such a short time, I will let you in on a little secret (just don’t tell anyone else…shhh), “we did not read every word”.  I know that this a difficult concept for you 100 percenters to grasp, but it is OK.  In fact, I think it is the preferred approach when working with kids.

We found a reading plan in one of our kids The New Student Bible (NIV) that included 190 chapters of the Bible.  These chapters, at least one from every book of the Bible, taken together provided a grand picture of the over-arching story of God’s Word.  It was a great way to get our kids into the main ideas of Scripture without getting lost in details that could be fit into the picture when they were older.

As we took turns reading each chapter, one of the kids would take notes on the main points in the chapter, and record those in our big red notebook.  At the end of each chapter’s reading, we would choose a key to the chapter; a five to ten word phrase that summarized the Scripture passage.  This became an additional learning tool as the kids paid close attention to the reading so they could contribute to the key.

Let me emphasize, there is a huge difference between entertaining kids and making things interesting.  The former is unnecessary and only detracts from the goal.  We always stayed focused on the Bible and its message.  But we were highly motivated on the latter; making things interesting.  When we acknowledge and work with the differences in our kids ages and learning styles and personalities, we are willing to do the work to make our family devotions a point of unity and connection not a drudgery.  In too many situations where very little thought is put into the effort, we see kids experience, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you bored.”

Please hear me, this is not about wham bam entertaining.  This is simply paying attention to how best to connect your family to what God wants to teach us through His Word and our prayers.  And one of the best ways to enhance our teaching is to build a relationship with your child.  That will be our topic next time.

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Making the Investment

Let’s now turn our attention to the right side of our diagram, the “Children” area.

children-drawingWe have already acknowledged that our new responsibility of children will squeeze our other priorities.  But what do we do with the time we dedicate to our kids?  One thing I emphasize with fathers is that this time with our children is not babysitting or childcare.  It is investing.  It is investing in their future and our legacy.

There is a verse in the New Testament that gives us great motivation and instruction in what that investment looks like.  Ephesians 6:4 encourages us with, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”  Paul starts with the relationship angle, “Do not provoke your children to anger.”  I think this is intentional.  The relationship is critical.  Without the relationship, all of your instruction, all of your character training goes right out the window.

Let’s take it a step deeper by including some of the key Greek words in the text.  “And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger; but bring them up (έκτρέφετε) in the discipline (παιδεία) and instruction (νουθεσία) of the Lord.”

  • EKTREPHO translated “bring up” means “to nourish or feed
  • PAIDEIA translated “discipline” means “training that regulates character
  • NOUTHESIA translated “instruction” means “putting in the mind

So an expanded or amplified version of Ephesians 6:4 might read like this, “Fathers, do not provoke, antagonize, or exasperate your children to the point of harming the relationship.  Instead, nourish them by establishing a training program that puts into their minds the ways and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Our training goal is two-fold.  The top line, “do not provoke”, is about establishing a relationship.  Your positive influence in the life of your child is almost always directly proportional to your relationship.  The bottom line, “instruction”, is about establishing a training program that puts the ways and knowledge of our Lord into the minds of our children.  Both lines are important.  The top line starts with a sincere interest in getting to know your children.  The bottom line starts with examining God’s Word together as a family in a pattern that is regular, planned, everyone involved, and parent-led.

We will look at some specifics of what that spiritual training looks like next time.

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Margin and its Friends

What about our other time areas that get “squeezed” by our new family responsibilities?  Let’s tackle them one by one.

Personal Time.  To keep time for personal study or other interests, we may need a change in our daily schedule.  As many parents have discovered, you may need to get up earlier to maintain your interest in reading or exercise.  Also, including your kids in your hobbies and things you enjoy is a great family connection time.

Friends.  We were created for community.  We were created to enjoy the beauty of friendship.  Naturally, with children in the house, there will be less time for softball with the guys or book clubs.  But just as with our time as a couple, we do not want to let our friends time go to zero.  Stay connected through a small group or Sunday School class at your church, or neighborhood picnics, or camping trips, or ministries like Mothers of Preschoolers.

Extended Family.  With grandkids in the picture, your extended family and in-laws will probably want more of your time.  One thing you need to keep in mind:  you are the ones who define your family identity in terms of how you spend your time.  Do not let other’s success agenda define your family.  On the flip side, your extended family can be a great source of encouragement, community, and connectedness for you and your children.

Ministry.  Your ministry opportunities do not need to go away while you are raising your family, but the focus is likely to change.  It is natural to change to more child-focused service – AWANA, teaching Sunday School, etc.  Also, never minimize your ministry to your family.  As we will emphasize when we move to the “Children” part of the diagram, your family is your primary ministry!

Margin.  Last on the list is margin, though it is usually the first to go in the time crunch.  What do I mean by “margin”?  On the printed page, margin is the space between the print and the edge of the page, and it is necessary to make reading pleasant.  In life, margin is the space between our activity levels and our limits, and it is necessary to make family life pleasant.  We all face limits in time, energy, and money.  When we exceed these limits in our activities, responsibilities, etc., life suffers.  In particular, the relational life that God intended suffers the most.  (See the book Margin by Dr. Richard Swenson).

Besides the fact that no margin leads to burnout, there is another important reason we need margin in our lives.  Margin equals availability to serve.  Margin is not a spiritual necessity, but availability is.  And because God’s commands are generally not schedulable, we must have some time availability to carry them out.  Think about some of the things God has asked us to do.  Go with someone the extra mile.  Can we do this if we only have time for one mile?  Or carry one another’s burdens.  Or give witness to the truth at any opportunity.  They all take availability.  And preserving some margin in your family’s activities makes that happen.

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A Failure to Communicate

One of the things Rhonda and I learned early on in the effort to preserve our time as a couple was the need for good communication.  To put it bluntly, we just did not have the time to deal with poor or misunderstood communication.  When your time is “squeezed”, the need to share your hopes, dreams, challenges, and hurts in ways that are understood and addressed is critical.  We demonstrate love through our encouraging and caring ear.  And when communication is good, we feel like we are moving forward as a couple.  Let me share some principles that helped us along the way.

Good communication only happens when the listener understands the words of the speaker in the way the speaker intended them to be understood.  In our communication, we asked a lot of clarifying questions.  We wanted to make sure we knew where each other were coming from and exactly what each other were saying.  This was especially critical in our case because our strong personality differences made it easy to hear the same words in two completely different ways.  I can’t stop the conversation with, “Well, I said what I meant.  I can’t help it if Rhonda heard it a different way.”  We can “help it” and we must “help it” for good communication to go forward.

Good communication adds to the “emotional bank account” of you husband or wife.  Words have incredible power.  Just ask a grown-up about hurtful words that were sent their way in their childhood.  We can not only remember the words, but also how the words made us feel.  Words that hurt drain the emotional bank account of your spouse.  But words also have an incredible power for good and words that lift up, sooth, challenge, and encourage bring health and healing to your marriage.

My number one goal in communication as a couple is to understand my wife, not convince her of my opinion.  This one principle has been a long learning curve for me.  But, by God’s gift, our talking is more characterized today by a desire to understand each other than by a need to prove our opinion.  One of the outcomes has been to remove or at least decrease defensive comebacks and arguments to shore up our position.  It hasn’t always been easy to take this approach.  But I am convinced that we will only arrive at a beautiful place of oneness in our marriage if we go through the hard conversations that improve our understanding of each other.

In our counseling with married couples, a failure to communicate is easily the number one problem we encounter.  This is what it looks like.  Poor communication in marriage leads to a downward spiral of misunderstanding (hurts or offenses left unsettled), which leads to assumptions (private thoughts that are repeated in our minds), which leads to walls (practice in keeping each other at a distance in those tough subjects), which leads to quietness (no longer a desire to find joy in each other’s company), which leads to emotional separation, (“I really don’t need you after all”).

Preserve, celebrate, and embrace your time as a couple through good communication.  It will produce a lifetime of benefits for your marriage, yourself, and your children.

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