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LIVING THE LIFE   “TREATING TROUBLE”

10-25-2020

 Life begs the question: What am I here for?  Am I here for my own happiness?  Am I here to enjoy life, to experience fulfilling relationships and to realize success?  Maybe I am here to experience the abundant life to its fullest?  To travel the world?  To have time to read great books and see amazing movies?  To welcome lots of grandkids? If we are honest, our initial response to this crucial question is very self-serving…I would guess we would all say that our desire is to live the best life possible.  A life with few challenges and without too much trouble.  A life where things go mostly our way. Granted, on Sundays we are a bit more spiritual.

On Sundays we might say we are here to be conformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ.   Or maybe we have been created to glorify God.  Or to take the truth of Jesus to the ends of the world.  But most of the time we focus on our comfort and our never-ending desire for happiness.

Now you might wonder how I have come to such a conclusion.  How I can know with such certainty that this IS how we really are?  Very simply, during my many years of ministry I have observed numerous people in the midst of troubles.  What’s more, I’ve had my share as well.  This is no surprise.  Jesus even said in John 16:33 that in this world we would have trouble.  His words were not spoken to point out the obvious.

They were the prelude to the most glorious truth where Jesus proclaimed that even in the midst of all these troubles, we shouldn’t dismay, for he had overcome the world.  In other words, Jesus told us the world that inflicted so much suffering upon him was his enemy and that it is ours as well.  But it is a beaten enemy.  The cross, which the Lord already embraced, marked his triumph and the world’s downfall.  And his resurrection was an exclamation point on his victory.  Now his triumph, like his peace, is shared by his people.  That means that the victory that overcomes the world is our faith…our faith that puts its trust in Jesus Christ, the son of the living God.  It is this faith that unites us to him and thereby ensures our victory as we too face the troubles of the world.

 In spite of our victory, here’s what I have discovered is our natural tendency: We tend to show dismay at the approach of trouble, and happiness when the troubles are about to move away.  On the surface, of course, this sounds completely reasonable.  To the world around us, this is surely the way we are wired to live.  But we are not talking about how to live like the world.  We are considering how to best live the Christian life.

Listen to this challenging word from James, chapter 1:2-3.  Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow.  The Phillips translation says to welcome troubles as friends!  The Christian is to welcome his trials and temptations, his troubles, as he would welcome a long lost friend, for he knows that in God’s hand all the setbacks will be turned into springboards and all the stumbling blocks will become stepping stones.

Sounds like folly, doesn’t it?  Maybe that’s why so many of us struggle to put this truth into practice?  Why most rejoice when the troubles go and few welcome them as friends.  Now the ability to embrace this different way of living is reliant on a change that must precede it.  It is a change of perspective.  Somehow, we have got to see our troubles from God’s point of view.  Just recently my son and daughter, along with her husband, climbed a mountain in the Rockies.  The hike took 8 1/2 hours, climbed only four miles, but gained an elevation of 4000 feet.  The final stretch was bouldering over a 70% incline for more than an hour.  When Ryan reached the top he was at nearly 14,000 feet.  The hike was beautiful along the way.  The perspective from the top was incredible.  It was a view that was not possible without the 8 1/2 hour hike.

Just so, it takes effort to gain God’s perspective.  We have to know God.  We have to know his Son, and his word.  Colossians 1:9 comes in the context of Paul praying for the people who have followed Christ. He says “We are asking God that you may see things from his point of view by being given spiritual insight and understanding.”  Don’t you think that if, in this moment, we could be miraculously transported to the throne of God and be given permission to stand there and even lean against that royal seat, our entire outlook on life would be changed in a flash?  Seeing the end from the beginning, we would look at our difficulties in a different light, aware of how God allows them, in order to use them to our advantage and for his glory.  My wife, when reading a novel, will sometimes jump to the final chapter before reading the body of the book.I find this incredible.  I don’t want to know until I get there.  But knowing how the story ends takes away some of the anxiety she may be feeling in following the plot.  And so it is with our perspective versus God’s.

Paul figured this out.  How else would he have been able to say in Col 1:24, “I rejoice in my sufferings.  Seeking to see from God’s perspective always enables us to keep our focus on God rather than our problem.

It worked for Paul and the apostles.  It worked for the early Christians who suffered unspeakable persecution.  And it will work for us.  In fact, did you know that there are records that many of the early believers who gave up their lives for their faith, did so with praise on their lips?  Historians in tracing the progress of Christianity in those early centuries are convinced that the Christian faith conquered paganism by the way that its converts responded to their troubles.  Once again, we find that sharing the good news of Jesus doesn’t necessarily take us to countries far away.  It can happen at home…when we live the way God says is best.  When we respond to our troubles in peace, and with faith that God will be glorified.  Scripture clearly teaches that responding to problems with praise on our lips should be the normal way of the Christian and the way of the one who chooses to follow God’s will.

Someone once said that a Christian is like a tea bag…he is not worth much until he has been through some hot water.  It seems to be a fact of human nature that learning and growth, development and change, require a process.  And more often than not, the most important changes take place within the framework of struggle.  The psalmist wrote, Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.  My suffering was good for me, for it taught me to pay attention to your decrees.  (119:67, 71)  When things were good and easy for David, he tended to drift.  When things were so bad he had no where to turn but to the Lord, he was focused.  In the midst of troubles, God had his undivided attention.

I don’t think it is a secret that Christianity is not very popular in our culture these days. Could it be in part because Christians these days struggle to embrace the ways of God when the ways of the world seem to present so less a challenge?  It really is evident that many Christians stumble over the fact that God allows trouble to invade their lives.  It is evident to us and it is evident to those in the world who notice.  But when we come to the reality that God permits pressure for a purpose, then a new sense of meaning flows into our souls.  Surely God wants us to understand that it is not so much what happens        to us but what we do with it that matters.

So let’s consider just two words: Bitter and Better.  How we respond to our troubles will either make us bitter or better.  At our airport I have noticed that the planes sometimes take off from east to west and at other times from west to east.  At first I thought this might be to even out the ruts in the runway.  But actually, the direction for take off depends entirely upon the wind. If there is a wind, the planes fly into it…and their rise is naturally assisted.  The wind helps create the lift.  The old Irish blessing begins “May the wind be always at your back.”  Sounds more comfortable, doesn’t it?  Unless of course you are trying to fly an airplane, or even lift a kite.  And in God’s world, facing the wind, facing the troubles and difficulties, lifts our spirits and enables us to be closer to him.  Facing the wind helps us to rise above the challenge and embrace the new version of ourselves that God is shaping as we make our way through life.

Let’s face it, in the beginning when sin tore at God’s universe, he could have swept aside Satan with the smallest flick of his finger.  But he didn’t.  Ever wonder why not?  Could it be that in his perfect wisdom, God chose to allow Satan to continue, knowing that his efforts would, in the end, be turned into God’s greater glory?  Could it be that God, with his perfect perspective and infinite wisdom, knew that even the trouble Satan would cause could work for good in our lives?  After all, because of Satan’s efforts, God was able to show his amazing love in the person and sacrifice of Jesus.  God was able to get our attention in such a way that the story of Jesus will forever be told on this earth.  The story that reveals God’s merciful heart.

This one thing is for sure, God allows setback and difficulties to occur in our lives for very significant purposes.  Like developing sensitivity.  2 CO. 1:3-4 All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort.   He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.  The church is on a mission and one of the ways we accomplish our tasks is to be deeply sensitive to the needs of others and to always be ready to help.  I have found that personal hardship has opened my eyes wider to what is happening in the lives of others.  When I have know the pain of suffering I am much more likely to feel empathy for others facing similar pain.  The longer I live the more empathetic I become because of the greater number of challenges in my own life.  Looking back to my early days in ministry nearly 40 years ago, I did my best to care for others.  But sometimes I relied on my training or I just went through the motions.  I nodded with sympathy but I couldn’t relate.  Today, there is not much outside of my realm of experience.  Today, I hope I am a better and more sensitive pastor.

 If we shrink form the difficulties and seek to be free of irritation, we may sever ourselves from the potential benefits. But if we respond with expectancy and an open heart and mind, we will then allow God to achieve his highest purpose in us.  The more problems we face and overcome, the more God can use us in helping others know the deep meaning of his purpose for their lives.  From God’s perspective, there are many purposes in our problems.  As we have said, he uses our problems to deepen our inner qualities as he chisels and carves us into the image of his son…to have the heart, and the spirit of his son.  Our problems also expand our world of opportunity.  Trouble can transform us and lead us into areas of service we may never have considered before.

 Now, it is up to us.  We have to decide.  Are we going to rebel against trouble and become angry and bitter.  Yes, that is the natural way.  But it is not the Christian way.  And neither is shrugging our shoulder and mumbling, “Whatever will be will be.”  No, the Christian way is to rejoice and treat his troubles as opportunities to draw closer to God, to deepen his service and to mature his character.  We are not to resign ourselves with a sullen “Amen,” but instead, a triumphant “Hallelujah!”

Here’s my bottom line today: If we ignore Scripture’s advice and respond to our problems with irritation, dismay, and despair, we will allow a root of bitterness to spread inside us the will threaten our entire spiritual welfare. Look after each other, says Hebrews 12:15,  so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you.  We are what we respond to, nothing more, nothing less.  And every moment of our lives we are responding to either the problem or the grace that God provides.  When trials and troubles and temptations come, we turn in one of two directions: towards the problem or toward the grace which God provides.  Turning towards the problem produces anger, irritability, and sometimes depression.  But turning towards the grace of God produces peace and patience, and even joy.

So what’s it going to be?  Will we meet our troubles head on with praise?Will we recognize that we belong to God and that we are his personal responsibility?  Will we believe that he will never allow anything to happen to us that cannot be turned into our ultimate good?  If you can answer “Yes, yes, yes,” then say these words with me…

As I praise God I know that no anger can invade my spirit.

No bitterness can sear my soul.

Without pride, I can say from the depth of my heart, God loves me.

I am the crown of his creation.

He formed me in eternity and he knows me intimately.

God has a plan for my life that cannot be frustrated by the troubles of this world.

He will not allow anything to happen to me that will not contribute to his glory and my good.

I will respond to his love and grace with enthusiasm and rejoicing…no matter what.

Praise the Lord!

____________________

LIVING THE LIFE (5)  “CLEARING THINGS UP’

1 TIMOTHY 1:18-20            S. Carpenter     10-18-2020

            I need to finally come clean and share a moment in my life that has impacted me for over 50 years.  It’s just too tough dealing with a guilty conscience. There’s something I need to get it off my chest.  In the 8th grade, I was paddled by Ms. Knox.  There.  I said it.  In our family there were very strict guidelines regarding our behavior at school.  Not even the slightest infraction would be tolerated and trouble at school would mean more trouble at home.

            I never liked Ms. Knox.  She had such a sour look…and obviously, no sense of humor.  So as we were reading a play and I was adding sound effects and all the other kids were snickering, she scowled.  As I sat sideways in my seat I looked up at her and smiled.  It was my effort to help her lighten up.  She responded by sticking out what could only be described as a witches finger and telling me to turn around.  I nodded, stood up, and did a pirouette.  It was then that I saw that bony finger direct me out of the classroom and into the hallway.  Moments later she followed with her paddle, where upon she graciously gave me three across the backside.

            Of course she couldn’t hurt a tough guy like me, no matter how hard she swung. But that wasn’t the issue.  The only thing going through my mind was this: Are my parents getting a phone call? I was ready for the worst when I got off the bus.  

            Maybe you’ve had a similar experience?  Maybe you have gotten yourself into some hot water and done your best to hide the truth, but ended up with an extra strong dose of guilt?  After all, the opportunities for guilt-inducing actions in this life are endless.  But did you know that when God designed us in the beginning he equipped us for success and made no provision for us to live comfortably under the strain of guilt?

            God created us and placed us in a paradise where things were so perfect it is hard to imagine even a desire for sin. What’s more, God built into us a special alarm system that was intended to ring whenever we crossed the limits he had set for us. We call it the conscience.  And what we know for certain is that our conscience is innate.  Every human has one.  This specialized alarm system does not come from training, education, or culture.

It comes from God.

            The first man, Adam, violated God’s instructions and doubtless when he did this, the warning bell rang inside him…but ignoring the alarm, he pressed on to eat of the forbidden fruit.Immediately, he sinned and his violated conscience protested against his action and produced an awareness of personal responsibility before God.  So what did he do?  He and his wife covered themselves and then hid from God. Even the first sin so distorted reality and their relationship with God that as crazy as it seems, they tried to hide from the Creator who sees all.

            The week Warren Rees told me that his children were not always perfectly obedient as they were growing up in his home. He said they had a rule that when the parents were away the children were not to bring anyone inside the house.  But they did and once when mom and dad returned early, the whole crowd was hidden is a small closet under the steps. Years later, as adults, Warren’s kids mentioned that there were many things that happened of which Warren and Marie were blissfully unaware.  And Warren just smiled.  “Like the time you hid everyone under the steps?” he said.  Parents don’t miss as much as we assume.  God misses nothing.

            Adam and Eve knew immediately of their wrong.  Adam and Eve anticipated immediately the consequences…and it weighed heavily upon them.  As the human system was not made to carry guilt some effort had to be made to deal with the emotional strain that occurred.  Adam rationalized his guilt and blamed his wife. We know now, that was the wrong response.

            The right response is always complete repentance. But let me back up. 

It is far, far better to listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, to always do what Jesus would do, and to excel at the Christian life.  It is far, far better to avoid sin in the first place and thereby negate the need for ongoing repentance.  Now bad things certainly happen to good and innocent people.

Sometimes we are just in the wrong place at the wrong time and bad cannot be avoided. But those times, while they do happen, are rare.

            What’s more likely is we ignore the will and lordship of Jesus and put ourselves at risk.  We go to the wrong places, we hang out with the wrong crowd, we over indulge…the list is long.  And sometimes we mess up.  We make the wrong decision.  We sin.  And when the Christian life is not our motivation, we do like Adam and we rationalize.  We make excuses.  We blame others.  And our guilt goes off the charts.  If it doesn’t, then something else is wrong and even more significant help is needed.  But when it does, it is God’s way of saying, “You have stepped outside the boundaries and broken my principles.”

            The proper way to respond then, to an outraged conscience, is to completely and truly repent. To express your sorrow and regret before the Lord while at the same time calling on him to empower you in such a way that the sin you have committed is never again a temptation.  Without this inner release which comes through pardon and forgiveness, one is left with feelings of insecurity and despair.  And, being unable to handle such feelings, one will try to compensate by attempting to deal with the pain in some other way.  The problem is, there is no other way.  Good works, generous giving, even religious service, will not take the sting away.  Only God can do that.  And God is willing.

            Here’s how John speaks for God in his first letter:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.  (1:8-10)

            No Christian can enjoy full freedom of mind until he has experienced a complete release from the burden of guilt. At conversion the burden is removed, and provided the repentance is complete, there follows a feeling something like the effect of a valium.  I’ve only had one valium in my life, when I was having skin cancer surgery, and I can say that even in the midst of the terror, I was perfectly at ease.  But valium is only a simile, for at conversion the relief is immediate, more dramatic, permanent and free from side effects.  Being forgiven takes the pressure we bear on our weak and failing backs and removes it. It enables the freedom of release.  The freedom to breathe.

            So, we are born with a conscience of right and wrong.  Still, the conscience has to be developed and matured.  Its value and its health are determined by how well it is fed and trained with righteousness and godliness.  Like the muscles in the body, the conscience must be exercised and repeatedly utilized if it is to attain its worth.

            Paul speaks positively of the conscience and puts it in the arsenal of the believer along with faith.  Here are his words in 1 Timothy 1:18-20…

Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you  may fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith.  Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.

            Last week we spoke about the battle being waged within us…the battle between good and evil, between light and darkness.  Paul says to Timothy and to all who minister in the name of the Lord, that the weapons of war are faith and a good conscience. When utilized together, they form a powerful armor around the believer.

            Now Paul’s point is clearly that a good and healthy conscience comes from living a righteous and godly life before God. A bad and defiled conscience comes from living like the world. If a person violates his conscience and does wrong, that conscience will nag him.  He will feel remorse, regret and guilt.  If he corrects his behavior and asks God for forgiveness, God removes the guilt…completely and totally.  But if he continues to violate his conscience, the conscience begins to harden and a hardened conscience no longer directs the person.  The pull to do what is right is dulled and the person becomes calloused and hardened to righteousness.  Right and wrong all blend into one grey mass that over time, darkens more and more until there is nothing but black.  Such a person is left alone in ungodliness to walk in his own will.  To walk without the guidance of God and therefore to wander further and further from truth…and further and further from goodness and salvation.

            The warning that Paul gives Timothy is frightening.  God allows for the conscience to be rejected and those who chose this path see their faith shipwrecked.  Rejected, in this context, means to push away with force.  It is willful and deliberate.  And when a person continues to push his conscience away, his faith is broken to pieces and destroyed…and his salvation is abandoned.

            Paul mentions two who ignored their conscience: Hymenaeus, the false teacher who proclaimed the resurrection of believers had already taken place, and Alexander, probably the metal worker who opposed Paul and sought to harm him. Both men were put out of the church. Both were handed over to Satan…which probably means that Paul saw benefit in the men being terrified and tormented, hoping that they would repent and return to Christ.

            Of course the desire of God is that we fully utilize his gift of the conscience and we connect it closely with the work of the Holy Spirit.  God’s desire is always that we maintain faith and keep the relationship   with him alive and vibrant.  God wants us to allow the conscience to convict us of sin, as it bears witness to what is right…even for those who do not have the Gospel of Jesus.  For God created all humans with a conscience in order to stir us all to holy living.  He then says that the source of a good conscience comes from obeying the laws of the state, loving out of a pure heart, and holding firmly to the faith

            Someone once said the trouble with the advice, “Follow your conscience” is that most people follow it like someone following a wheelbarrow…they direct it wherever they want it to go, and then follow behind.”  That type of behavior negates the power that God has placed within us.  It negates the good of the conscience.  And it again gives evidence that of the desire that our will be done, in heaven and on earth, rather than the will of the Father.

            But when the conscience is allowed to function, right things happen. Tom Blair, in the San Diego Union, wrote that the scene was the San Diego Superior Court. Two men were on trial for armed robbery. An eyewitness took the stand, and the prosecutor moved carefully: “So, you say you were at the scene when the robbery took place?”  “Yes.” “And you saw a vehicle leave at a high rate of speed?” “Yes.” “And did you observe the occupants?” “Yes, two men.” “And,” the prosecutor boomed, “are those two men present in court today?”  At this point the two defendants sealed their fate. They raised their hands.

            Unfortunately we live in world where such a response to the prompting of the conscience is not often so readily observed.  Too many are like the man of questionable character of whom it was said, “He won’t listen to his conscience.  He doesn’t want to take advice from a total stranger.”  That is a shame.  For the conscience is the key to moral and spiritual freedom.  Only the immature and ignorant see the conscience as being restrictive.  Disciples of Jesus Christ view it as the lighthouse with the strong and powerful beam that is never extinguished and always directing us home.

            Without doubt, maintaining a clear conscience is one of the most important aspects of the Christian experience.  Day by day we should check on every possibility that we have hurt God, or anyone else.  And as soon as any violation or infraction is apparent, we should, without delay, put the matter right.  Remember, as Satan knows the power that flows from a clear conscience, he will do all within his means to prevent us from taking the necessary actions.  So yes, it will require a great deal of self-determination to walk with God with no unconfessed sin in our lives…but it is worth it.

            After all, when I got off that bus, Mom said nothing.  I figured she was waiting for dad to come home.  He said nothing.  They were probably going to nail me after dinner…or at bedtime.  Nothing. But I knew it was coming…even though I wasn’t going to confess.  Many miserable weeks went by.  Still nothing.  Surely I was in the clear.  And then came the end of school conference when my parents joined me in the principal’s office to plan my first year of high school.  Night after night I couldn’t sleep.  I was certain when they saw my records there would be a note about what had happened.  But there wasn’t.  They never found out.  I never told them and fortunately, no one else did either.  Instead I have just carried the burden with me over all these years.

            I don’t recommend it.