Monday, July 16, 2018

A Fortress and a Fountain

Proverbs gives us a double dose of wisdom on beating sin

I hate sin. I hate what it does in lives. I hate what it can do to me when I give in to temptation. I hate its continuing effects. Its onslaught can be so difficult to bear. I hate sin.

But there is a part of me (my understanding of the Bible tells me it is what I should call "my flesh") that loves sin. I can crave its offers and temptations. I can feel drawn to its allure. And that voice that tells me "just this once" is so powerful. It pains me to say that part of me loves (or at least strongly desires) sin.

I don't think I'm telling you anything that should be shocking because I have found that the people I talk to in honesty admit to a similar dilemma. We don't want to love it at all, and we want to fight it better. How can we do that?

You may have favorite verses you go to or stories in Scripture that help you explain the battle against sin, and there are many good ones, from taking up the armor of God to fleeing youthful lusts, to saying "no" to ungodliness and worldly lusts (Bonus points if you can find all of these phrases in Scripture, and triple bonus if these passages are marked in your Bible!).

I love all of those and more. But in my devotions this week, I was directed to two verses that present a twofold emphasis that I found very helpful and encouraging. It was, of all places, in Proverbs.
Whoever fears the Lord has a secure fortress,
    and for their children it will be a refuge.
 The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life,
    turning a person from the snares of death.
Proverbs 14:26-27

These two verses both talk about the fear of the Lord, which chapter 1 tells us is the beginning of wisdom. This is not just being afraid of God, although it is a healthy awe and respect of his nature. It is the feeling that God is so great and good that I would not want to ever disappoint or disobey him. When I am so concerned about God's approval that nothing else matters, I am walking in the fear of the Lord. Of course, that approval comes when God declares us not guilty (justification) because we have placed our trust in the death of Jesus in our place. We come to know God truly, and come to "fear" him in the positive, influential way we can "fear" the best of loving parents. And when that is the case, these two verses tell me it can help me in my struggle against evil.

First, they tell me that this kind of reverent awe and honor of God above all will provide "a secure fortress." This speaks of protection, in the same way the psalmist speaks of the name of the Lord being "a strong tower" in which the righteous find safety. It can give such security that those closest to us can be encouraged to find that same security--that is the significance of the reference to our children--they can learn of it and find refuge from the dangers and attacks that would come toward those who fear God. There are spiritual forces of wickedness (see Ephesians 6) that are at work against us, but a right understanding and trust in God bring protection from attack.

Second, the fear of the Lord is described as a fountain of life that turns us from death traps. A fountain isn't just a source of life, but a beautiful source of life. I've seen fountains that are mesmerizing in their beauty--not just water flowing, but jumping and shooting and spraying in remarkable patterns--geysers, if you will. This fountain--which offers life--is of such beauty that we are pulled away from the snares (a trap set that is usually disguised) that would lead to our downfall and toward life instead. Sin can be like that--looking so good it draws us toward it. But then it catches us and we are trapped! But the fountain is so much more attractive that it draws us away from such traps.

What a picture we have here. Having the proper fear of the Lord is a fortress and a fountain. It protects us from attack, and it draws away from those disguised traps that would otherwise attract. We find protection and provision.

God wants us to fear him so that we might enter his fortress of security and be drawn to his fountain of life. When evil comes after us, knowing and fearing God can be our defense. And when temptation is beautiful, the greater beauty of the fountain of life will show the shallow attractions of evil for what they are.

Are you under sin's attack? Run to the God who is your fortress. Are you being drawn away by sin's charms? Turn your heart's eye to gaze upon the beauty of the life of God, flowing like a fountain and ready to refresh that longing you think sin will satisfy. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Looking Beyond for Help

A Reminder of Where True Hope Lies

I continue to do my best to maintain more than an arm's length from the current political "dialog," but it gets hard for a recovering political junkie in times like the present. I used to devour political news and commentary, and often felt as if election results were the sure evidence that things were getting better or worse. I've seen more than my share of political moments, but the one we are in has become more polarized than ever in my lifetime. And in such a moment news of the kind we've had recently tends to set off all sorts of excitement for those who love politics. We have had a rash of Supreme Court decisions, primary election surprises, and the retirement of an unpredictable Supreme Court judge, all in a week. Will this be a "wave" election or not? What will the President say or do on Twitter?

At the moment speculation is rampant about what is coming next. And some who have, in the not too distant past, despaired over political developments as if things were all lost, are now talking as if we are just a moment away from total victory. The most recent election, or recent ruling, or recent law makes some seem giddy with excitement and others claiming the end is near.

I know the feeling, because for many years my political hopes rose or fell in the same way. I knew that their were ultimate realities, and their were present ones. But all too often I could lose sight of the former in the heat of political drama. Without meaning to, I could link the success of a political candidate or cause with the triumph or defeat of righteousness. As I came to learn, righteousness and candidates are not irrevocably linked, and God’s program is neither dependent upon or determined by political winds.

So, in another moment of heightened political excitement and speculation, I remind myself and us all that politics doesn't provide total, or lasting, victories or defeats. Judges change their minds. Laws are passed and laws are overturned. And our culture shows no signs of slowing its descent into folly.

We are believers in Jesus who are living at a time of both great persecution in some areas and great gospel advances--even in some of those same areas. If you stop by Connection Central, you will find some copies of a magazine entitled "Iran;" you really should read it and see just how amazing the growth of the church is in a place of great opposition. I can't think of a more exciting time to be a part of God's work in this world.

But we are also living at a time where political divides have seeped into churches, with one group telling another that they cannot be good Christians and not agree with a preferred political stance. When I was young, our Republican family worshiped in a church filled with Democrats, and no one cared. Now, too many Christians risk divisions among Bible believers over politics; busily re-posting political memes but not nearly busy enough praying, sharing the gospel, or living intentionally in ways to attract people to the message and power of Jesus.

When we mix politics with gospel, it isn't a pretty result. If we find our greatest interest focused on political developments, we have lost sight of what matters. And if we believe that laws, rulings, or politicians are the key to our future, then we have the wrong future in mind.

The people of Israel, on their way to Jerusalem for festivals, made their way along a number of roads from various plains to an imposing set of rugged hills where Jerusalem sat nestled. The hills provided a natural defense for the city, and they inspired many who lived in the valleys and plains by their appearance. As the pilgrims went up, they would see the hills--they called them mountains--as a symbol of God's protection--"as the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people (Ps. 125:1)."

But the hills were not ultimate, and the Israelites knew it. "I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come (Ps. 121:1)?" The hills pointed heavenward;  this was a clue, and the psalmist had the right answer: "My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth (121:2)." It was not the hills that saved Jerusalem, or gave the pilgrim strength in his journey. It was the LORD. The hills were impressive, and served as a natural protection, but not one that was perfect on its own.

History shows that Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and then the Romans, and the hills didn't stop them. God had determined destruction, and it came.

Similarly, laws, courts, and politicians can be good and do good (but not always). But even the most powerful of these are not an ultimate hope, and they cannot give us what we need most--eternal life.

So, for those who are having a moment of political excitement, be cautious. For those in political despair, be sober. What matters most remains both unthreatening and available to all who will seek the right help for our deepest needs.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Paying Attention

Our ability to focus is probably less than we imagine.

"The most seductive modern-day myth
is that we have an
unlimited amount of attention."
Richard Clark.

You've probably heard plenty of calls in your childhood, adolescence, or last week to "Pay attention." We may be saying it to a child, or they may be saying it to you. It may be someone trying to instruct you, but you already know. Or it may be a matter of life and death that the speaker is wanting to make sure you are understanding.

We ought to pay attention. And many times we think we are. But are we really?

Many of us are convinced we can be listening to media, have a conversation, and watch an event unfold before us all at once and "get the gist" of it all. But what is more likely the case is that we get bits and pieces of one or two, and basically miss the third. We call it "multi-tasking," but the tasks really aren't being accomplished, only nodded to.

We also try to pay attention to more things than we probably should. In the internet age we can feed our insatiable curiosity, and when we run up against the limits of our own knowledge, we google ourselves to death. I've learned more about extraneous subjects that won't really matter to me in an hour than I could have ever guessed.

Attention is focus, and we deceive ourselves if we think we can focus on an unlimited number of subjects or pursuits. I've had lots of conversations with students who are paralyzed in moving forward toward a career or a relationship because they realize that the choice to focus on one pursuit carries with it the decision to shut the door on others. And we don't want to do that! We want options; we want it all.

But one lesson that history teaches is that we can't have it all. We can't even have most of it. We must make choices, And we must choose what will deserve our attention. Which relationships, what pursuits, which subjects--there are simply too many.

I guess the expression "pay attention" gives us a bit of a clue that might help. We pay for things with currency, and the currency has value because it is limited. We have only so many dollars to spend, so we must spend it wisely. You should think of your attention as a currency you have been given--24 hours of it comes to you every day, and it can't be saved for tomorrow.

Which of your relationships will you consider valuable enough to "pay" attention to? What tasks? What subject matter?

I'm the first to admit I need to do better at this. In the current season of our church life, I've got extra responsibilities and lots of regular commitments to keep track of, and I found myself missing some things I should have caught, while paying attention to some things that turned out not to be as important. Recently I made the decision to adopt a planner other than my phone. It's pretty demanding--requiring me to plan out my days, weeks, and year around priorities. That made me write out what really deserves my attention and energy. I'm being pretty good at sticking to my plans, and I'm also trying to be more intentional about not looking at my phone all the time or answering emails as soon as I get them--instead, paying attention to the things I've decided were important enough to have this hour of my time.

Obviously (and you knew this was coming), if deepening your faith and walk with God is worthy of attention, then it should claim some of it for reading the Word (the truest source of wisdom and instruction), and prayer. The same would be true of your spouse and family (if you have those), and your church family.

What are you paying attention to today?