Cloyce Sutton Online

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

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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.

The God of Ice and Snow

This week, the Mid-South has been hit hard with snow and frigid temperatures. Memphis averages 2.7 inches of snow per year, most often in the form of one or two snowfalls of one or two inches each. This week we’ve had about six inches, and the city is pretty much shut down.

When we think about ice and snow, it should also make us think about God. In the Book of Job, God challenged Job by saying, “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of distress, for the day of war and battle?” (Job 38.22-23)

That text is remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is that the land of Israel rarely saw snow. Yet there are over 80 references to snow, hail, ice, and winter. Mount Hermon, which is 145 miles north of Jerusalem was visible for miles and usually snow covered all year. The Book of Job has more references to wintery weather than any other book, and Job lived in the middle of the Arabian Desert!

Let me suggest three powerful lessons about God that we can learn from the snow and ice.

First, when we think about snow and ice, we should think about the power of God. In the book of Job, Elihu says, “God thunders with His voice wondrously, doing great things which we cannot comprehend. For to the snow He says, ‘Fall on the earth,’ and to the downpour and the rain, ‘Be strong’ … from the breath of God ice is made, and the expanse of the waters is frozen” (Job 37.5-6, 10). Only God causes the snow and ice to fall and uses them for his purposes.

Second, when we think about snow and ice, we should think about the providence of God. We tend to think about the inconvenience of snow, ice, and cold weather, but God uses the weather to meet the needs of his people. Speaking of God’s provisions for Jerusalem, Psalm 147 says, “He makes peace in your borders; he satisfies you with the finest of the wheat. He sends forth His command to the earth; his word runs very swiftly. He gives snow like wool; he scatters the frost like ashes. He casts forth His ice as fragments; who can stand before His cold? He sends forth His word and melts them; he causes His wind to blow and the waters to flow” (v. 14-18).

Finally, when we think about snow and ice, we should think about the purity of God. After his sin with Bathsheba, David prayed, “Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51.7). There’s nothing as white as snow. I have a dear friend in Iowa, who whenever it snows says, “There’s no white like God’s white.” The Bible uses the whiteness of snow as a metaphor for moral cleanness. Sin is portrayed as an ugly stain, but God offers to cleanse our spirits and make them “as white as snow.”

Snow and ice are a bit inconvenient and messy. But like all of God’s creation, they’re a powerful witness to the limitless power of God. Praise God for cold weather!

Look Up!

Have you ever noticed that we humans hang our heads when we’re sad, guilty, or when we feel defeated? I’m not sure why we do it. It’s such a universal response that it’s likely innate and reflexive. When children are punished or shamed, they hang their heads. When adults are humiliated or when the burden of the world is on their shoulders, they hang their heads. Job equated it with misery and disgrace: “If I am wicked, woe to me! And if I am righteous, I dare not lift up my head. I am sated with disgrace and conscious of my misery” (Job 10.15). 

Sometimes we probably SHOULD hang our heads. We sometimes do things that are less than noble or from less than noble motives. If we’ve treated others with dishonor; if we ourselves have acted ignobly; if we’re in the wrong — then bobble-heads we should be!

But thankfully, God can restore our dignity and worth. In Psalm 3.3, David declares, “But You, O LORD, are a shield about me, My glory, and the One who lifts my head.” 

According to the inscription at the beginning of this psalm, David wrote this while fleeing from his son Absalom. Absalom rebelled against David and temporarily drove him from the throne and Jerusalem (2 Samuel 15-19). The psalm begins with a declaration by David that his adversaries abound. But despite their threats, he has the assurance of God’s past deliverances and the promise of future security. It’s in this context that David makes the declaration of trust in verse three. Lifting the head symbolized victory over one’s enemies (Psalm 27.6), and here, the restoration of dignity and place. 

If you’re hanging your head because of mistakes you’ve made, lift up your head, for there is forgiveness. If you’re hanging your head because your circumstances weigh heavily upon you, lift up your head, for there is hope. If you’re hanging your head because you’re not sure of your worth to God, lift up your head, for there is assurance.

No matter where you are in your life, no matter what your circumstances, look up!

Sleepless Nights

Everyone has them. Nobody likes them. Those nights when for some reason, inexplicable or otherwise, one simply wakes up at 2-ish or 3-ish or 4-ish and can’t go back to sleep. Maybe it’s leg cramps, or back pain, or something stirring, or the spouse snoring, or for no discernible reason. Sometimes having a reason only makes the situation more absurd and less tolerable. 

The Bible refers to sleep sleeplessness many times.

  • Paul spoke of suffering many sleeplessness as a “side effect” of being an apostle (2 Corinthians 6.5). Most likely the burden of his ministry had this effect.
  • Solomon described insomnia as an effect of old age: “One will arise at the sound of the bird” (Ecclesiastes 12.4).
  • Sometimes illness keeps us awake. Job’s illness, the result of Satan’s affliction, caused him much sleeplessness – “But the night continues, and I am continually tossing until dawn” (Job 7.4; cf. 30.17; Ps. 102.5-7).
  • Jacob complained of being too cold to sleep – “Thus I was: by the day the heat consumed me and the frost by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes” (Genesis 31.40).
  • And, of course, stress and anxiety are big eye openers (pun intended): 
    • “In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord; In the night my hand was stretched out without weariness; My soul refused to be comforted… you have held my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (Psalm 77.2, 4).
    • “Because all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2.23).

All of this isn’t to say that sleeplessness is always bad. If you’re awake at night, spiritual songs can help. “I will remember my song in the night; I will meditate with my heart, and My spirit ponders” (Psalm 77.6).

If you’re awake at night, think about God. “At night my soul longs for You, indeed, my spirit within me seeks You diligently” (Isaiah 26.9).

Finally, if you’re awake at night, find something constructive to do. In the book of Esther, King Ahasuerus couldn’t sleep one night, so he arose and read from the royal archives (Esther 6). In doing this, he discovered an unrewarded act of heroism by Esther’s kinsman Mordecai. This becomes a turning point in the book. Here, insomnia created an opportunity for good.

So, the next time you can’t sleep, remember that you’re in pretty good company, biblically. And while you’re up, make it worthwhile. Pray a prayer. Sing a song. Do something constructive.

Seven Words

“Teach her as many of the 700,000 words of the English language as you have time to but be sure she knows that the greatest word is God; the longest word eternity; the swiftest word time; the nearest word now; the darkest word sin; the meanest word hypocrisy; and the deepest word soul.”

To Lt. Cdr. J. P. Carr, from his father, on the birth of the younger Carr’s daughter.

God. Eternity. Time. Now. Sin. Hypocrisy. Soul. 

These are more than words, they’re realities. They attempt to encapsulate the most profound and important concepts that we humans face during our earthly existence. They’re small words that describe great ideas.

The infinite God has communicated with finite humanity through the medium of language, by means of words. Jesus himself was “THE WORD”: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1.1). He was God’s ultimate communication to us. 

In a similar way, the Bible is God’s word to man. “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17.17). By means of these words, God has conveyed what’s truly important and valuable. Wrap your head around that. Eternal truth expressed in finite, human language. 

I’d like to challenge you to do two things. First, think about the seven words from our starting quotation: God, eternity, time, now, sin, hypocrisy, and soul. How have these words shaped your life? How do you use them as motivation for spiritual living? 

Second, make out a list of seven other words that challenge you, define you, inspire you, or even terrify you. What are the significant words in your life? Make your list and for the next week, think about one word each day. Consider how this word affects you. Look at how the Bible treats the word or concept. Think about what you can do with that word to change your life for the better.

George Herbert said, “Good words are worth much, and cost little.” For today, and every day, take time to think about the important words that shape your life.

Speed

“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.” 

Mahatma Gandhi

Unfortunately for modern Americans, speed seems to be the measure of all things. This is nowhere more evident than in our addiction to electronics.

In 1979 I took a freshman computer programming class which allowed access to the University’s mainframe computer. It was one of the fastest mainframes available at the time. My professor often joked about how computers taught us to be impatient. We’d write our programs, key them in at the terminal, and wait for the computer to execute them. We usually had to wait several minutes for the outcome. Minutes. Many, many, many seconds. Dr. Mink couldn’t have known how prescient he was.

In today’s world, we’re impatient after a few seconds’ delay, even a fraction of a second. If an app doesn’t launch instantly on our phone, it’s time to upgrade. If it takes more than a few seconds for a movie to begin streaming, our Wi-Fi is too slow. In parts of Texas, the speed limit on some Interstate highways is 85 mph. Sammy Hagar’s old tune, “I Can’t Drive 55”, is quaint by comparison. You just can’t slow down those Texans!

A certain amount of speed is unavoidable. Where both parents work, when all the kids go to school, when the whole family attends church weekly, and when you have sports and after-school jobs, life resembles an Olympic 100-meter dash. 

But there are options. First, look for those daily opportunities to slow the pace and catch your breath. May you got to work a few minutes early. Maybe you finished a project sooner than expected. Maybe the kids don’t have homework tonight. Whatever the reason, enjoy the break. There’s no rule that says you must fill it with activity. 

Second, practice slowing down. Allow extra time with errands and chores. Put fewer items on your “to-do” list. Let someone go ahead of you in the checkout line. Choose a slower, more scenic route. Chew your food slowing and enjoy its texture and taste. Change your own motor oil. Make slowing down a normal thing. 

Psalm 46.10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Be still. Be quiet. Listen. Breathe. Relax. Calm down. Slow down. And listen.

May God help us take our foot off the accelerator. 

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