How far from the glory of God?

For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.

— Romans 3:23 (NKJV)

That’s one of my favorite verses. It stuck with me through some of the tougher times in my transformation, and for a couple of reasons.

First, it reminds me that I’m in the same boat as everybody else: all have sinned. But the other part of that sentence is sneaky in the way it instills hope if you think about it.

thinker

“Hmm … all have sinned …”

See, through that period of de-construction and re-construction, people whom I had trusted in my faith walk — and who I’ll assume were well-meaning — were quick to point out not how far I’d come, but how far I needed to go. It seemed like an impossible task, until I camped on that verse for a while.

The Apostle Paul tells us not just that all have sinned, but we have come short of the glory of God. Only short of it.

We humans tend to stop listening too soon. We hear what sounds like bad news and don’t stick around for the good news. (Remember how the Disciples didn’t catch on when Jesus said He would rise again on the third day? They had tuned out at “the Son of Man will be killed”, so were more than somewhat surprised when they found the empty tomb.)

Truly, to hear some Christians talk — particularly some of the ones in my life way back when — you’d think I was light years away from the glory of God. That can be one soul-destroying, hope-dashing idea. Why bother? Haven’t you felt that same way? So far from the goal that there’s no sense in trying.

After all, coming up short is still Not There. If there’s a 20′ gap in a bridge over a raging river, and you can only jump 19’6″, you’re still going to get wet — and worse. But Paul says we’re only short of that glory. It’s in sight, and doesn’t take much to reach it.

But that additional “not much” does not come from our own power. It comes from turning to God through His Son and receiving the power of the Cross, the anointing that Jesus Christ brings us. That’s what gives us that extra push that takes us to where we need to be.

As some Pentecostal types (ahem) might say, “That’s shoutin’ time!” God loves us so much, He knows we come up short, and He still provides us with the means to reach Him.

 

ABUNDANTLY!

Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.

— Isaiah 55:6-7

Let’s establish something off the top. God is near. Jesus told us all the things that we’re seeing today and wrapped it all up by saying that it was all a sign that things were about to change and that the Lord is near.

So here’s a beautiful thing to consider: for the wicked and unrighteous, the idea that God is near could be something to be afraid of — just as people are afraid of opening the Bible, as we mentioned yesterday. But the Lord tells us — through Isaiah — something other than that. When we (let’s be honest: any of us can easily be found in the file marked “WICKED AND UNRIGHTEOUS”) turn to the Lord, we will get … not judgment or condemnation … but mercy, and He will pardon us.

No – wait.

He will ABUNDANTLY PARDON US.

Wow. When we turn to Him, the Lord doesn’t just say, “It’s alright mate, you’re off the hook.” Paul tells the Colossians that in Jesus, He has “wiped out the handwriting of the requirements that was against us …” (Col. 2:14). In other words, whatever was scored against us in whatever “file” that was on our lives, it is so completely erased, you can’t even see the handwriting that put it there in the first place.

When we turn back to Him, God pardons us and a whole lot more — more than we could ever imagine.

Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance.”

— Isaiah 55:1-2

Jesus says He brings us life “more abundantly” (John 10:10). I always read references to things like wine and milk, along with butter and honey (Isaiah 7:15), as luxuries, symbols of living a life that’s not just scraping by, but a life of flamboyant prosperity; not just sipped, but savored and drunk to the dregs.

Why would God provide that to us, after we’ve essentially kicked Him in the teeth by living a sinful life? For one thing, He’s glorified when His people live well and enjoy what He’s given us. For another, that’s how much God wants us with Him. He’s not just saying, “come home — all is forgiven”, He’s saying “come home — stay home this time — and I will lay good stuff on you that you could never have dreamed of.”

He calls us to “buy … without money and without price”: in our world of zero-sum thinking, we expect to have to pay “fair market value” for goods. But with God, the price tag is simple: we give Him 100% of us … and He gives us 100% of Him.

Talk about the deal of a lifetime!

Why fear the Word?

Hate a book you’ve never read / Hate a Man you’ve never met.

— from “One Day Soon,” by Heroes of Canton

One of the great breakthroughs I experienced as I was gradually (painfully at times) coming to know Jesus Christ was that I stopped being scared of the Book of Revelation. I had heard all sorts of things about it — monsters and spirit battles and dragons and many-headed/many-horned “living creatures” and frankly, I was terrified.

Then one day, I actually read it. And the most amazing thing was revealed to me.

We win.

Stuff is going down: it’s going to be BIG … it’s going to be SCARY … but if you’re on the side of God, you’re going to be OK.

That inspired me to dig in and start reading the Good Book for myself. We’d always had a Bible in our house, but it was never referred to as anything like a guide or a way of conversing with God. My mother pulled quotes out of it, from time to time, “for effect”. That was it. Any connection between God and our own lives was of the order of, “God gave you a brain — use it!”

So the experience of actually reading the Word, and the changes that come over one as one does that, was exciting, thrilling, something I looked forward to every day. And I started asking myself, what was I scared of, for all those years?

I think the answer was, I had an intrinsic fear of Truth. Truth about my own life would condemn me and I was also afraid that it would be too hard to make changes. Better to ignore the condemnation and hope it “fixes itself” than actually do something about it, right? After all, that works when your “check engine” light comes on.

No – wait.

Maybe I was afraid of this Truth: that I’m not smart enough, strong enough or “good” enough to fix things myself or that the very intellect that got me into situations was never going to be enough to get me out.

It never occurred to me that by reading it, I would find hope; and that the more I read it, the more Jesus would get through to me and the changes would happen in spite of myself. (Heck – they’re still going on.)

Is that the same process others go through? Do others fear the very Book that repeatedly tells us, “Fear not”? Is it fear that drives them to reject the Bible out of hand without actually reading it — using expressions like “a 35-hundred-year-old book” and “a collection of Jewish stories” — and condemn those who believe?

Fear is a huge barrier, but it’s a spiritual barrier, which can’t be knocked down by any worldly arguments. How do we help others find the same joy in the Truth that we’ve found? By living it, loving them and praying for them when they’re not looking. By being “real” in the way you express your hope; and being ready to tell them why.

And above all, by showing you’re not afraid.

How do you know?

 

Yesterday, we talked about the desirability to “go quiet” before the Lord, shutting out external influences — thoughts, memories, problems and (as much as possible) sounds. Then, you focus on the Lord and listen for His voice.

“Alright, smart-aleck,” I hear someone say, “how do you know it’s the voice of God?”

I know: it comes across as one of those weird-o scenarios, where some nutbar kills a whole bunch of people and says God told him to do it. (Hint: if it involves killing anybody, it ain’t the voice of God.)

But how do you know?

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.

— John 10:27 (NKJV)

How do you get to know the voice of God? How do you get to know anybody’s voice? Sheep know the voice of their shepherd because they spend time with him. When Amelia calls me on the phone (say it’s from a number I don’t recognize on call-display), she only has to start talking and I know it’s she. I know it’s she, because we converse: we talk to each other; I listen to her and can identify her speech patterns.

So you get to know the voice of God by listening for Him — and listening to Him. And how do we do that?

… faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.

— Romans 10:17 (NKJV)

The Word of God — the Bible — is there for us to get to know His voice. The more you read, the more you start to recognize when He`s the one doing the talking and that you’re not simply hearing, as Josh Bisnett at Westshore Alliance put it recently, “a slightly better version of you.” You start to get thoughts you never could have come up with yourself — identifiable by the fact that (a) they line up with Scripture and (b) the thoughts tend not to benefit you.

When I finally shook off my fear or preconceived ideas about the Bible and actually started reading it, I realized it isn’t a book of rules, so much as it is a conversation with God. The more we read, the more we hear and the more we hear, the more we trust in Him.

So while the other day, when He told me to close the Bible and go quiet, that was not supposed to be a substitute for reading it, but a complement: we read the Bible to gain direction and wisdom and to get to know His voice, but in “going quiet”, the conversation becomes more personal, more deep, more refreshing.

Chill out – and listen

“In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength.”

— Isaiah 30:15

“By your patience possess your souls.”

— Luke 21:19

Here’s an interesting challenge for you: be quiet.

I sat down for my morning Time With The Lord recently: had my Bible in my lap, open to Isaiah, which I’ve been reading for the past few weeks; then I did something I hadn’t done in some time. I asked the Lord to speak to me through His Word.

I don’t always say that prayer, but this time, I did, and almost immediately, I got an urge to shut the Book.

“Just sit there, and be quiet,” I heard.

It was a matter of closing my eyes and shutting out everything from my mind. I don’t mean clearing my mind, the way some pseudo-religions tell you to do; but banishing all thoughts and suppressing my tendency to be distracted mentally. Have you ever tried that? With all the stuff going on in one’s life, it’s easy, when there is quiet, to start thinking about things: a discussion with your spouse, things you have to do for your job that day, what to pull out of the freezer for dinner, what you should have said to the guy who fired you ten years ago …

“‘Be quiet,’ I said.”

God puts a lot of emphasis on strengthening our personal relationship with Him, and rest is an integral part of that. He calls us to spend one day out of seven, recharging our batteries and devoting ourselves to Him. It’s in those periods of rest that He can get through to us and renew our strength to face the things the world throws at us.

As I read the rest of that passage from Isaiah, above, the Lord decries how the Israelites refused to accept that they would be saved by simply living a righteous life, and rode off madly in all directions, trying to Do Things that would please God.

Jesus’ statement that we would “possess our souls” through patience comes in the midst of His warnings about what would happen to us who follow Him: the persecutions and trials. By hanging in there and not caving in to the world’s pressures, we would win the day. In fact, He implies, “hanging in there” is going to take enough of our strength, as it is.

Let’s jam for a moment on the expression “possess your souls”. “Possess” is a very active verb. It doesn’t simply mean to hold onto something: it means to take it, hold onto it and guard it. The Israelites were told to go in and “possess” the Promised Land — our saved souls are our own “Promised Land” in the 21st Century. But rather than fixate on things we have to “do” in order to possess our souls, Jesus tells us, counter-intuitively, that it’s by being patient that we’ll take, hold onto and guard our souls.

Therefore take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

Stand, therefore …

— Ephesians 6:13-14

When I did close my eyes and eventually succeed in going quiet and shutting everything else out of my mind, I got this amazing sense of just “hanging out” (for want of a better expression). I couldn’t say that the Lord said anything to me — maybe He did and my spirit picked it up better than my mind could — but I knew that He was there and I was with Him. Reading His Word is one thing, but there are times when you just need to remember and contemplate the fact that He who gave that Word is also He who is alive today and eternally, and amazingly, wants you just to be in His presence — as He is in yours.

How can a loving, sovereign God …???

That’s a lament you hear anytime there’s been a major disaster or human catastrophe, and it often comes from a sector I call “mistheists” — not just people who don’t believe in God but who actively dislike Him and anyone who believes in Him.

“How can a loving, sovereign God allow … war/earthquakes/genocide/racism …?” It’s usually spoken with an “Aha! Got you this time!” tone of voice (all the while sounding like one is shocked and saddened by the situation).

It’s a fair question. Let me run this up the flagpole, to see who salutes:

God, in His sovereignty, gave up sovereignty over the earth.

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, over the cattle, over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”


The God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

— Genesis 1:24 & 26 (NKJV) (I added the emphasis)

He created the earth and everything in it, then handed it to mankind to be the caretaker. He gave us dominion.

Then we promptly handed that dominion off to Satan in exchange for a bite of fruit.

But the fact remains that God, ultimately, turned dominion of the earth over to humans. He loves us enough to bless us (v.26) with the power and authority to do the job, and then to stand ready, whenever we call on Him to help us. He loves His Creation enough to be ready to do that, but He loves humans enough to make us higher than the rest of it and leave us in charge.

And we’re the ones who’ve allowed racism, war, terrorism, intolerance and hatred to get a foothold on earth. Not God.

God hates all that stuff, but if He were to step in and wrest dominion away from us, He would be a liar. So He stand by, as I say, waiting for us to call on Him.

(I believe that’s why the Lord’s Prayer says, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”: we have to invite God to exercise His will on earth, the way He does in Heaven.

I believe that’s also why He had to take on human form: to take back, as a human, the authority we handed over to Satan, and to show us how to resist the enemy — as humans.)

So how can a loving God allow such things?

Frankly, He’s not the one doing the allowing.

Love or The Law?

Then one of [the Pharisees], a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question, and saying,

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”

Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’

“This is the first and great commandment.

And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

On these two commandments hang all the laws and the prophets.”

— Matt. 22:35-40 (NKJV)

 I heard a conversation recently, in which someone mentioned the instructions given in the Old Testament and someone else said that the Old Testament was negated by Jesus and the Love Commandment. So long as you’re walking in love towards others, she said, you can forget about the Commandments in the OT.

Now, aside from the fact that Jesus Himself said, “I am not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill” and “till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled”, there is something worth considering here.

First, my definition of love is “putting everyone else ahead of yourself”. When you decrease, love increases. So “love God” and “love your neighbor” means to consider their interests ahead of anything you might personally want. Jesus says that all the Commandments stem from that principle.

If you love God, you won’t have other gods, insult Him by making idols or break His heart by disobeying. If you walk in love towards your parents, you will honor them — even when you don’t particularly like them or agree with what they say or do. If you love others, you won’t kill them, steal from them or try to seduce their spouses. And if you’re not sure about something, ask yourself: who benefits from this action — someone else, or myself? If the answer is “myself”, then chances are, it’s not an action God will bless.

So why not — as this person suggested — forget about the Commandments and just say that anything you do stems from love? Here’s where things get a bit tricky. You can break virtually any of the commandments and say you’re doing it out of love.

You could steal, because you love your family and need to support them.

You could commit adultery and say it’s because you love this other person so much you don’t want to deny him or her the opportunity to express it physically. Or — here’s a good one, courtesy the British philosopher Bertrand Russell — you could commit adultery because you love your wife so much you don’t want to reduce her to a sex object. See how things can quickly hit a slippery slope?

You could dishonor your parents because you figure they need to learn from the next generation.

You could even kill someone and say you did it out of love.

Jesus calls us to do the things God wants us to do because we love Him and love others, not because it’s something we have to do. On the other hand, if we toss the old rule book out the window and say that whatever we do is OK if we’re walking in love, we can rationalize pretty much anything, which violates Commandment #1 because we’ve just made ourselves higher than God.

Here’s something else: isn’t love God’s motivation for giving us the Commandments in the first place? We obey out of love for Him; He gave them out of love for us.

“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul,

“and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes, which I command you today for your good?”

— Deut. 10:12-13 (NKJV)

“For your good.” God is not this imperious killjoy who wants to prevent us from enjoying life (that’s why Jesus was sent to bring more abundant life, not condemnation), but notice that the Commandments generally cover things that might seem like a good idea at the time to us but have consequences that we can’t fathom. But God can see the end from the beginning. We can’t, so we have to trust Him.

Which is what loving God is all about, no?

 

How to be perfect

So we’ve been talking about being righteous. Today, there’s another potential stumbling block to someone building a relationship with God.

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your father which is in heaven is perfect.

— Matt. 5:48 (KJV)

I’m using the King James Version for a reason here (I have several reasons for preferring KJV to other versions, but I’ll spare you for now): its rendering of “be ye perfect” is the one quoted to me in my pre-Christ days and is probably the one that sticks in most people’s minds. It’s also a probable cause for hangups.

Having conquered the notion of being righteous, we’re supposed to be perfect, too? And as perfect as God?

But if Jesus’ yoke is easy and burden is light, then we can be sure that the idea of being “perfect as God” can’t be that far off.

First off, the word “perfect” doesn’t mean being totally sin-free, or anything 100% “good”: it’s already written that outside from God and Jesus Christ, there’s no such thing. “Perfect” comes from two Latin words: “per”, meaning thoroughly, and “facere”, meaning “to make”. So Jesus is calling on us to be made thoroughly, in the way God intended us to be.

In other words, when He says we should be perfect, He means to become the way God conceives us to be.

And what’s that supposed to be, pray tell?

OK … let’s go over what else Jesus says in that same passage.

But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you

that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust.

For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?

Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

— Matt. 5:44-48 (NJKV)

So there’s the recipe for being perfect:

  • love your enemies
  • bless those who curse you
  • pray for those who spite you

What does that sound like? Isn’t that part of the character of God Himself? Even though He has enemies a-plenty (like us, at some time in our lives), doesn’t He still love us and bless us?

We can be like that, too. It’s not easy — but it is simple.

How righteous was that again?

“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

— Matt. 5:20

There goes that Jesus again, setting the bar impossibly high for people to get into the Kingdom. First, He does this “My yoke is easy and My burden is light” stuff, then He says we have to be more righteous than the Pharisees. They’re the guys who’ve done all the reading and know all the laws and stand out there in the marketplace and pray louder than anyone else … and we’re supposed to be more righteous than them?

Sure, Jesus. Pull the other one, then.

But remember what we said yesterday about being “righteous”. It means “to believe God”. Jesus’ point is that the Pharisees and scribes had fallen into this pattern of rituals and poses, more as a means of gaining worldly influence than doing what they were supposed to do, which was to lead people into the Kingdom.

In other words, they’d stopped believing God. His Word was something to be declaimed, rather than lived. Matthew also tells us that people were amazed at the way Jesus “spoke as one having authority, not as the scribes.” (Matt. 7:29) I get this image that the scribes had long since stopped reading Scripture as if they meant it or wanted people to understand, but more like the description of the amateur Shakespearean actor in The Art of Coarse Acting, “as if hailing a ship in a fog.”

So Jesus was telling the people (and us), all those years ago — and after all those years of religious oppression within their own faith — that, if you believe God more than the poseurs do, you have a clear path into the Kingdom. And, He implies, they haven’t set a very high bar — I think He’s even suggesting that if you believe God at all, you’re miles ahead of them.

No wonder they wanted Jesus taken out.

But why wouldn’t Jesus come right out and say that? Why wouldn’t He say, “the scribes and Pharisees think their rituals and poses are a substitute for actually believing the living God, but they’ve missed the boat”?

I believe it’s because Jesus doesn’t want to spoon-feed us the answers. Those who had “ears to hear” would turn to His Word and start connecting the dots. The whole idea of having the Word of God on paper, in front of us, is so we can read it for ourselves and start to hear from God; and when we run into things we don’t grasp, we can meditate on them,  ask questions and wait on the answers. As we draw closer to Him and He’ll draw closer to us. It’s not long before your own righteousness exceeds anything you could have imagined — including that of the Pharisees in our own lives.

Righteousness – not a stumbling block

Confess your faults, one to another and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual, fervent prayer of the righteous man availeth much.

— James 5:16 (KJV)

Yesterday, I talked about the need to confess to someone who is your equal, as the first step towards redemption. But do you get hung up on that second sentence? I sure did.

“The effectual, fervent prayer … availeth much.” In my early days as a Christian (which wasn’t that long ago, in the world’s terms), I really caught onto that concept. Pray fervently and expect big results!

But there was that little clause in the middle: “… of the righteous man …”.

Oh … MAN! I thought: whoever accused me of being righteous?

It’s amazing, how the Holy Spirit can direct you to exactly the point in Scripture you need to see, so you can get back on track. That’s what He did, just as I was getting down on myself for the “righteous” thing.

Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.

— Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6; James 2:23 (NKJV)

WOW! (Sound of scales falling from eyes.) That’s it? That’s what “righteousness” really is? Believing God is righteousness? I believe God. In my transformation from living “my way” to striving to live “His way”, I went from believing in God — you know, believing that there is some great Cosmic Force (one young man I met recently referred to an “entity”) driving the Universe — to believing God.

Well, the Bible says it four times, in both Testaments, from three different sources.

But here are two keys. We’re not talking self-righteousness, that state of believing that you’re in good shape as far as God is concerned and you just have to show that off to all the un-saved, un-churched, un-worthy sods out there — and that’s what hung me up: I never thought I could ever be that good. On top of that, I judged myself on what I had been — not what Jesus Christ was turning me into. And then I stumbled upon Romans 4:3.

So if believing God is counted as righteousness, then that’s all it takes. Abraham believed God. He took whatever God said and accepted it as true, no matter what he thought, himself. He was, in fact, the original GIT:

God said it

I believe it

That settles it

It’s that kind of child-like faith that Jesus says makes up the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 19:14). Remember that Abraham believed God even when He told him he and his wife — both well “past it” — would have a son and that he would be “father of nations”; He believed God when He told him to offer that same son as a sacrifice; before that, he certainly believed God when He told him to uproot his family and entire life and move to a new country.

We need to believe God for the good things; believe God for the bad things; believe God when He says things will all work out for His glory; believe God when He says, “wait” or “move” or “do it now”.

There’s one other thing that James says regarding prayer.

… you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.

— James 4:2-3 (NKJV)

Righteousness has to go in lock-step with your heart. There are two ways of “asking amiss”: are you asking because it’s something that will benefit you personally and possibly at the expense of others? And are you asking even though you really don’t think God is good to His word?

Believe God, and your prayers will have great impact. Believe God and pray from the heart, with the intent of glorifying Him and building up others, praying with the conviction that He will come through, and watch the big things come to pass!

You can be righteous. I can be righteous. It’s really not hard. In fact, Jesus says it’s child’s play.