Reflections on spiritual themes (and a few other things).

Category: IP Devotional (Page 1 of 10)

Glory in the Ordinary

They’re calling it one of the biggest Olympic snubs of all time.

An enormously popular athlete. Record-setter. Superb skills. Has altered the game forever. Draws huge crowds. Gazillion dollar endorsements. What’s not to like?

Wait a minute! You thought I was talking about WNBA superstar Caitlin Clark! No! I’m talking about ME!

I got skills. I got game. I gotta get me some Olympic bling!

You’re right. I’m delusional. But please, read on.

I thoroughly enjoy watching the Olympics. But watching these elite athletes in action always brings me back to reality. I’m once again reminded how ordinary I am. I’ll never be known for my athletic prowess, my competitive spirit, or for overcoming huge odds to beat an archrival. I’m plain old me.

The Olympics remind us that humans are capable of some amazing feats. They’re full of compelling stories. But they’re not representative of how most of us live out our day-to-day existence. Most of us are rather dull, unathletic, and uninspiring.

But that’s OK. What matters for us is that every day we dedicate ourselves to something worthwhile. For Christians, dedication to Christ is a sufficiently Olympian task. To follow the one who was first to finish the race (Hebrews 12.1-3) is challenge enough. What’s more, the crown for which you and I compete is far greater than all the medals, endorsements, and fame that our earthly Olympics could offer: “They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9.25b).

What’s left for us, then, is to do our work and do it well. “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Colossians 3.23-24). 

You don’t have to be the CEO to be successful in the workplace. You don’t need to be a Hollywood couple to have a great marriage. You don’t have to be an elite athlete to find joy in sports. You don’t need a show on Food Network to enjoy cooking and eating. You don’ t need to be a millionaire to be financially secure. You don’t have to join a monastery to be faithful to Christ.

There is glory in the ordinary.

Deep Roots

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
But he who hates reproof is stupid. 
A good man will obtain favor from the LORD,
But He will condemn a man who devises evil. 
A man will not be established by wickedness,
But the root of the righteous will not be moved.

Proverbs 12.1-3

Have you ever tried to get rid of a stubborn weed or a sapling or a bush that has sprung up in the wrong place? No matter how hard you try, it seems to win. You cut it; it grows back. You spray it; it comes back. 

Why do weeds so often win? Simple. They have deep roots. If you don’t kill the roots, you won’t kill the plant, and if you don’t kill the plant, it’ll always come back. 

However, the same thing is true of desirable grasses and flowers and shrubs and trees. If they have well developed root systems, they’ll also persist. 

The third verse of the above text suggests that righteousness, by the Lord’s design, is intended to operate the same way. The first three sayings in Proverbs Chapter 12 contrast various manifestations of righteousness and wisdom against various manifestations of wickedness. The righteous love discipline and knowledge, but the evil is too lazy to learn. The righteous are blessed while the wicked are cursed. 

Then in verse three Solomon unexpectedly reverses the order: The wicked person will not be established, whereas the righteous person has a firm root. This reads much like Psalm 1.3-4 with its imagery of the righteous as a well-planted, well-watered tree, and the wicked as chaff to be blown away by the wind. By reversing the order, I think Solomon wishes to emphasize the permanence of the righteous in God’s economy. 

During the spring and summer, many of us are thinking about stubborn weeds, and with good reason. Solomon suggests that we should also think of stubborn righteousness, also with good reason. Not obstinate righteousness, but resolute righteousness. The righteous simply never give up in their righteousness, and in that righteousness, they lay deep roots.

How deep is your righteousness?

Integrity & Consistency

There’s an old story about a farmer selling a horse. The horse was stubborn and lazy and rarely helpful when work needed to be done. A potential buyer asked, “Is he a good workhorse?” The farmer replied, “It’d do your heart good to see that horse work!”

The buyer purchased the horse and within a few weeks realized it was stubborn and lazy and useless when work needed to be done. He went back to the farmer and demanded a refund. “You said it was a good workhorse!” The farmer replied, “No, I said it’d do your heart good to see it work.” 

Nobody likes to be cheated by unscrupulous vendors. Proverbs 20.10 says, Differing weights and differing measures, both of them are abominable to the LORD.”

The proverb is set in the ancient marketplace where simple mechanical devices were used for measuring. It would have been relatively easy for a vendor to use a measuring stick or a weight or a bowl that looked normal but was just a bit off, and always to his advantage. In our modern era of full disclosure, de facto standards, government standards, industry standards, and bar codes and scanners, it’s easy to forget that cheaters still look for ways to get ahead, even at the store. This proverb condemns the practice, both then and now.

Two things are noteworthy. One is the strength of the condemnation. This kind of dishonesty is not only foolishness, not only wickedness, it’s an abomination to the Lord. This is a reminder that of all the virtues we humans should possess, honesty and integrity are at the very top. To be less than honest is to fail in the most fundamental of human ways. 

Second, it applies not only to the marketplace, but also to the workplace. Honesty on the job has plenty of applications. Do we say one thing to the boss and another to our coworkers? Do we fudge on our expense accounts? Do we make allowances for the workers we like, but not for the ones we dislike? Do we sponge ideas off others but take credit for them ourselves? 

The proverb covers a lot of territory, in the marketplace, the workplace, the home, and other areas of life as well.

The wise worker practices meticulous integrity in the workplace. The wise person practices meticulous integrity in all his or her relationships. Anything less is dishonest and ultimately incurs God’s wrath.

It’s the Climb? Really?

“The virtue lies in the struggle, not in the prize.” (Richard Monckton Milnes)

“It’s not about how fast I get there. It’s not about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the climb.” (Miley Cyrus)

Partly true, partly false. 

First, the Bible repeatedly affirms the value of suffering for Christians. 

  • “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1.2-4).
  • “Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4.1-2).
  • “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5.3-5). 

However, the Bible never affirms suffering for its own sake. Suffering always has direction: it points its victims toward something higher and more important. Suffering also has purpose: it’s intended to teach us lessons about things other than suffering. 

In Scripture, the purposes of suffering are many:

  • Suffering purifies us (1 Peter 4.1-2).
  • Suffering produces endurance in us (James 1.2-4).
  • Suffering builds character and gives hope (Romans 5.3-5).
  • Suffering teaches us to depend upon God (Psalm 42.1-11).
  • Suffering now may prevent suffering later (2 Corinthians 4.16-18).

To be sure, there’s value in suffering, but only to the extent that it has a desirable outcome. Struggle is pointless if it doesn’t lead somewhere. Most of all, struggle that leads anywhere but heaven is wasted.

What struggles are you having, and where are they leading you?

Flood Insurance

Few things grab your attention the way flood waters do. 

Twice my wife and I have had significant flooding in the basement of two different houses. Once, a heavy rainstorm overwhelmed the storm sewers in our neighborhood and the water backed up through the floor drain. We had knee deep water in the basement. We had to replace our furnace, and we lost boxes and boxes of memorabilia. I remember watching a box of waterlogged books floating its way across the basement. 

Another time we also had a heavy rainstorm and the basement sump pump died. The main damage was to the flooring, which had to be replaced. But it took a lot of effort to get the floor cleaned and sanitized, to move the furniture around, and then eventually tile the basement floor. 

You can’t always anticipate when flooding will occur, but you can prepare for it. That’s true with houses and it’s true with spiritual disasters. 

David said, “Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found; surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him” (Psalm 32.6). 

Psalm 32 is a penitential psalm about forgiveness. David had confessed his sin to God and God forgave him. In the first four verses, David describes the relief he felt when he experienced God’s forgiveness. In v. 6, David uses the imagery of flood waters to teach a lesson to spiritually alert people. They should always be on the lookout for sin and do everything in their power to avoid it. The second part of verse 6 gives the reason: If they’ve prepared for the storm beforehand, the flood waters won’t reach them. 

The time to buy flood insurance is before the flood hits. After the basement floods, it won’t do you much good. The time to prepare for a spiritual flood is before the temptation or trouble arrives. While the storm is raging, lack of preparation can be fatal.  

As David says, let’s pray to God when he may be found. Let’s prepare for temptation and trouble with daily prayer and Scripture meditation. Then and only then will we be safe from the flood waters. 

Pen & Paper

A fellow-preacher and friend of mine is currently vacationing in Ireland. While in Dublin, he visited the Chester Beatty, a library and museum which houses a document called “p46,” the oldest known manuscript of the apostle Paul’s letters. It’s a collection of most of Paul’s letters dating to the middle of the second century, discovered in Cairo Egypt in the 1930s. 

The earliest reference to a collection of the apostle Paul’s letters is in the New Testament itself in 2 Peter 3.15-16. There, Peter says to “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.” 

Peter was writing to an audience in Asia Minor (what we call Turkey) that was already acquainted with Paul’s writings. Peter equated Paul’s letters with “Scripture” (v. 16). So then, by about AD 64, Paul’s letters were already being collected and circulated in Asia Minor. The existence of manuscript p46 means that within a century, Paul’s letters were being published and distributed across the Roman Empire at least as far away as Egypt.

One interesting feature of manuscript p46 is the presence of reader’s marks – strokes and dots – written with a different ink than in the original text. Apparently, whoever owned this document made notations in it. They appear to be efforts to divide the text into smaller units (much like our chapter and verse divisions). Marking in your Bible is not a modern invention, it appears to be a long-held tradition for serious Bible students.

One of my great fears about modern publishing is the disappearance of physical documents. These days, everything is “virtual” – real documents, but only in electronic form. Much of what we know about ancient Christianity and Judaism comes in the form of physically written documents preserved over time. Once an electronic document is destroyed, they’re almost impossible to recover. At least with pen and ink, fragments are often left behind for us.

I’m thankful that God in his providence used pen and ink to preserve His Word in a permanent form. I’m thankful that ancient brothers and sisters in Christ loved their Bibles enough to mark in them. I’m thankful that something as simple as a stick with some ink at one end can be such a powerful instrument in God’s eternal plans.

I encourage you to do two things. First, don’t be afraid to write in your Bibles. It’s a great memory and study tool. Many electronic Bibles allow you to do this. Second, the next time you’re in your Bible, take a moment to thank God for preserving it for us to read today.

Self-Deception

“Of all forms of deception self-deception is the most deadly, and of all deceived persons the self-deceived are the least likely to discover the fraud.”

A. W. Tozer

Tozer was right. We humans have a knack for lying to ourselves.

Proverbs 16.25 says, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Like Tozer, Solomon was warning against self-deception. This well-known proverb warns against the difference between perception and reality and encourages us to think beforehand about choices and consequences.

The proverb works in two ways. First, it encourages the reader to challenge his or her own assumptions about the choices we make in life. How many of us assume we’re right about the important things in life, but never question our premises? Has it ever occurred to us we could be wrong?

Second, it reminds us of the serious consequences when we’re self-deluded. Solomon challenges us to think ahead about the outcome of our assumptions and choices when we choose the wrong path. His point is simple: why die if you don’t have to?

This proverb reminds us to check our spiritual road map and see where it leads. People today frequently travel down the road of self-delusion and the road of no-consequence living. Parents constantly cover for or defend their children’s misbehavior. Our relationships are as disposable as K-cups. We waste time, money, natural resources, friends, and possessions, and simply assume that we can always find a replacement. Our nation is crippled by debt, entitlement, and extravagance, and we largely don’t care. This proverb suggests that we should rethink a few things, or we’ll pay a high price.

How can you avoid this kind of self-deception? The cure for self-deception is self-examination. First, always examine yourself. Before you make any decision, check your assumptions, and weigh the alternatives. Second, pray about your thought process and choices. Ask for God’s help and guidance. Third, consult others with more experience, maturity, and wisdom. Fourth, learn to accept criticism graciously, humbly, and honestly. Finally, learn from your mistakes. 

As Solomon says, if something seems right, proceed with caution.

Forward Progress

Two men were riding up a long, steep hill on a tandem bicycle. It was required a huge effort, and when they finally reached the top, the man in front said, “I honestly didn’t think we were going to make it! I was afraid we were about to go backward!”

The man in back said, “Me either! That’s why I had my foot on the brake the whole time!”

It’s a humorous reminder that if we want to move forward, we must first stop moving backward. That’s especially true in our spiritual lives.

1 Peter 2.1-3 says, “Therefore, putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.”

Peter gives us an insight into the nature of spiritual growth. The main idea in this sentence is that they grow in respect to salvation. Let’s look at four things Peter says about it.

First, spiritual growth requires that we get rid of some old habits. Peter gives us a short sampling of them here: malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander. It’s interesting that all of these involve sinful attitudes or behavior against others. Not only do these things stand between us and other people, but also between us and God, between us and our pursuit of growth.

Second, spiritual growth requires that we’re hungry. Here, Peter says our hunger should be for God’s word. We need the intensity of a baby’s appetite. At a practical level, we regularly study the Bible and look for opportunities to do so. Only God’s word can fill us and nourish us. 

Third, it requires that we look forward. Here, salvation is future (our final salvation with God in heaven). It’s also something toward which we grow. We should be getting further and further from this world while drawing closer and closer to the world above and beyond.

Finally, Peter tells us that the motivation is God’s kindness. The kindness of God is the sum of his grace, love, is mercy, and care for us. If we have experienced the kindness of God to any degree, we owe it to him to pursue spiritual growth.

Where are you in this process?

For Love’s Sake

“Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to order you to do what is proper, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you”.

The apostle Paul, Philemon 8-9

The apostle Paul wrote this to his friend and fellow-Christian Philemon. Philemon was apparently a wealthy Christian who lived in Colossae. He was wealthy enough to own slaves, one of whom was Onesimus whose name meant “profitable” or “useful” (v. 15-16).

If you carefully read Paul’s this letter, it seems that Onesimus ran away from Philemon’s household and may have even stolen from his master (v. 18-19). He wound up in Rome where Paul was imprisoned. At some point, Onesimus met and was converted to Christ by Paul’s efforts (v. 10). Now Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter to effect reconciliation (v. 15-16). 

The wording of Paul’s appeal to Philemon is striking. Legally, Philemon had the right to do pretty much anything he wanted to Onesimus. He could treat him as harshly as he wanted and could even have him executed. Slaves were considered the property of their masters and were treated according to their whims. Onesimus was returning to Philemon at great personal risk. Paul knew this and took a different approach. 

Paul says that he could “order” or “command” Philemon to do right. Paul wasn’t asserting legal authority but moral authority. As an apostle he could have required Philemon to receive Onesimus, but Paul let him choose. He appealed not to authority, but to love (v. 9). 

Doing this “for love’s sake” meant that Philemon should treat Onesimus with brotherly love since now they both were Christians. Paul says to treat him like a brother, not just a piece of property. Hovering in the background is also the love we have for others because of our love for God (cf. 1 John 4.11). 

It’s for “love’s sake” that we rise above ordinary expectation to extraordinary action. For love’s sake a mother stays up all night with her sick child. For love’s sake a man may work for years at an unfulfilling job to support his family. For love’s sake a sibling helps a younger or weaker brother or sister with homework and chores. For love’s sake we help our neighbors with yardwork and errands and paying bills when they’re struggling with poor health, or they’ve lost their job. For love’s sake we sit with the sick and dying. For love’s sake we volunteer for hopeless causes, truly believing that our actions make a difference. For love’s sake we exhort others to faithfulness to Christ. For love’s sake we pray for one another. 

For love’s sake we do all these things and more, knowing it was for love’s sake that God saved us from our sins. That’s a love worth imitating. 

Enrolled

To “enroll” is to add a person to an official list of members or participants. 

I doubt a week passes that most of us aren’t invited to enroll in something. It could be a conference or workshop, an insurance program, a sports team, an exercise class, a gym membership, a webinar, a subscription, or a school. 

When you enroll in something, it says three things. First, it says that you’re interested in it. Second, it says that you have a compelling reason for being included. Finally, it says that you want to reserve a place in it. 

In the book of Hebrews, the author speaks of the most significant kind of enrollment, our enrollment in heaven. “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12.22-24).

He’s describing his readers’ place in Christ. They were Jews who at some point had become Christians, but who were now experiencing severe persecution. They were tempted to return to the familiar and comfortable ways of Judaism, but the writer makes appeal after appeal to remain loyal to Jesus. Here, he says that in coming to Jesus they became part of the body of Christ and were now enrolled in heaven. The NIV and CSB versions say their names are “written in heaven.”

Think about that. When you became a Christian, you signed up for heaven. Jesus has reserved a place for you in the heavenly realm. But it’s not just something we wait for until Jesus returns, we’re Christ’s body right now. We’re already experiencing a taste of heaven as the family of God. We need to continue living like citizens of heaven (see Philippians 3.20).

The author brings this point home to his readers a few verses later when he says, “Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12.28-29). 

Until our enrollment is fulfilled in heaven, we must continue on earth with grateful, reverent service to the God who’s preparing an eternal place for us in heaven, and who’s already signed us up for permanent residence.

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