Loving Our Enemies

For the past several decades, the Church culture in America has focused the topic of our enemies as coming mainly from within ourselves, keeping the focus on our own sins, our own failures, our own weaknesses, and our self-esteem. This coincides with the culture at large when the subject of “self-esteem” became a hot topic back in the 1980’s and 1990’s (see article published in 2017 titled, How the Self Esteem Craze Took Over America and Why the Hype is Irresistible,” at this link). However, when dealing with the subject of our enemies, there is more involved then our own internal focus on ourselves and our self-esteem.

In a series of articles and video teachings titled, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil,published by Bridgetown Church in Portland, OR, the article opens with the following statement:

For millennia, apprentices of Jesus have spoken of the “three enemies of the soul” – the world, the flesh, and the devil. But all three have dropped out of the conversation in the modern, western church. So often [as] we struggle to experience the life God has for us and our world, there’s a sense of opposition and push back and even violence, from within and without. This ancient paradigm has the potential to unlock a new sense of victory and freedom and growth in our life. (Quote source and list of series of videos and teachings at this link.)

For the purpose of this blog post, I won’t address all “three enemies of the soul” listed above. The focus will be on the fact that we do have real enemies in this world (and not just the internal kind mentioned above). For example, while King David had internal enemies of his own that got him into real trouble (just think of what he did with Bathsheba when, as King, he should have been out on the battlefield with his soldiers–see 2 Samuel 11), he also had real external enemies that he had to battle constantly, too.

In an article published in 2002 titled, Ten Truths About Enemies,” by Richard A. Kauffman, Mennonite pastor and author of An American in Persia: A Pilgrimage to Iran” (2010), he writes the following ten truths about enemies:

  1. Everyone has enemies.
    The Bible takes enemies seriously. King David and Jesus had enemies. If having enemies weren’t a part of life, Jesus wouldn’t have had to tell his disciples to love their enemies. Matthew 5:43-44
  2. We either fight or run from them.
    Humans often respond to enemies in two ways: we either fight back or flee. Both are natural responses—our instinct is self-preservation. However, when we flee from our enemies, we can still carry them inside us. When we fight back, we take on the character of our enemies. If we strike back at our enemies, we might set off a downward spiral of attack and counterattack that quickly gets out of control.
  3. We want to curse our enemies.
    Many psalms that deal with enemies make Christians uncomfortable. The psalmist didn’t just pray for them or for his own protection. He often cursed his enemies, seeking bloodthirsty revenge. Instead of dismissing these psalms, we can use them as God-given words for dealing with our own feelings of fear and anger toward enemies. If we pray these words, we release our hate and hostility to God. Then we don’t need to act on our feelings of vulnerability and hostility. Then we can trust God to protect us from our enemies. Psalms 55-59; 137:7-9
  4. God loves them.
    Jesus taught us that God loves enemies and treats them justly: God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Therefore, we too should “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Matthew 5:45b; Luke 6:35-36
  5. Jesus makes peace possible.
    Jesus didn’t just teach his disciples the way of peace. Jesus is our peace. The apostle Paul said that while we were warring against God, Christ died to make peace with us. Although we sinful human beings were at odds with God, God took initiative to make peace with us—through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. Jesus has reconciled us to God in order to stop our warring madness with God and with each other. Romans 5:6-11; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Ephesians 2:14, 17-18; Colossians 1:20
  6. God’s family makes peace.
    If God makes peace with enemies, then so do God’s children. As Jesus said in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Peacemaking is a family trait in God’s family. When God’s children work for peace, they are demonstrating a family likeness, just as children in human families show traits of their parents. Matthew 5:9
  7. We disarm our enemies.
    Jesus taught his disciples to respond to enemies in unexpected ways—ways that sometimes “disarm” them. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Jesus’ disciples respond in concrete ways to their enemies. They do not retaliate or seek revenge. They pray for their enemies. They do good to those who want to harm them. Matthew 5:39-41; Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27; Romans 12:17-21
  8. Enemies can hurt us.
    “Disarming” actions do not guarantee that Christian disciples will win over enemies. In fact, Christians are still persecuted and even killed by their enemies. It is not an accident that Jesus linked the Beatitude about peacemakers with the one about persecution. But Jesus’ disciples believe there are worse things than dying. We would rather die than take another’s life, since we have hope for eternal life. Matthew 5:9-12; Matthew 10:28; 1 Corinthians 15; Philippians 1:21
  9. We “arm” ourselves against the real enemy.
    Christians are not fighting against flesh and blood. We are not struggling with Adolf Hitler or the latest terrorist, but with principalities and powers, dark and evil spiritual forces. Our weapons are not worldly ones but spiritual ones: truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit, and the word of God. Ephesians 6:10-17
  10. We can learn from our enemies.
    Sometimes our enemies do us a service. Friends tend to accept or overlook our weaknesses, but enemies reflect back to us aspects of our personalities we don’t like. So we ought to listen to our enemies. What are they saying to us about who we are? What can we learn from them about ourselves? Can they make us better people? We cannot be reconciled with our enemies unless we’re able to see the situation from their perspective. (Quote source here.)

So much in our society tells us to seek revenge when we’ve been wronged, or to try to get even when we are insulted and/or persecuted. Lying and deception is the name of the game today (and it always has been). It’s a very human response. However, Jesus makes it quite clear that the way of “the world” (as in our culture) is not the way for his followers to respond. Yet, too often, we witness those claiming to follow after Jesus in regard to how they treat their enemies trying to get even or get back at them, and too often we, ourselves, do the very same thing. We even do it with each other (Christian to Christian).

In our culture today, our “superheros” are those who can completely and totally annihilate their enemies. How often do we turn on the TV or go see a movie where revenge and deception and violence are key components to the story. It’s everywhere. And we’ve been conditioned to believe that this kind of behavior is okay; that it is our “right” to get even or “settle a score” or get back at someone we think has done an injustice to us; and that it is our right to destroy someone who doesn’t think like we think; or act in ways that are acceptable to us.

Is it tempting to act like that? It is… and how often is that our first reaction? But it’s not the way Jesus taught us to treat our enemies. In fact, it is the exact opposite of what he taught us to do.

In an article published on April 5, 2018, titled, How to Love Our Enemies,” by Kathy Ferguson Litton, leader of a national ministry for pastors and planters wives at the North American Mission Board (an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention), and she developed and manages a website for pastor’s wives called Flourish at flourish.me, she writes:

“Love your enemies” — Jesus

Perhaps this is among Jesus’ most revolutionary statements — and certainly most humanly counterintuitive. We already were struggling to “love our neighbor,” and then He throws this at us. Seriously, Jesus? Our enemies?

He did have plenty. And even a frenemy or two. Yet in His Sermon on the Mount, He shockingly resets what people and their lives should look like in the Kingdom of God:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 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 on 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. 5:43-48)

Jesus even defines enemy for us:

    • He means people who oppose us, try to hurt us.
    • People who have harmful intentions and clear hostility toward us.
    • Those who literally persecute us.

Then He points out what we should do:

    • Love them.
    • Bless them.
    • Do good toward them.
    • Pray for them.

I don’t know about you, but this is what I do for my family, not my enemy. Our enemies run the spectrum from mild hurt, to a serious offense, to one who devastated our lives permanently. Our enemies may attack us physically or merely gossip about us. They may even persecute us because of our beliefs. In our highly charged religious and political climate, our enemies may be in the Middle East or just on the opposite pole of current American politics. Racial and ethnic tensions are very high, creating battlefields and enemies in communities and hearts. Ironically, churches themselves have people who powerfully oppose each other — and some even have harmful intentions.

Jesus tells us we have to respond counter to our hearts and counter to our culture. He says plainly, “Don’t just love those who love you, love your enemy.” He says we then will be true sons of our Father in heaven. In other words, we would be treating them like He treats us…. (Quote source here.)

In her article she also mentions the following story:

Martin Luther King Jr. in his sermon, Loving Your Enemies, delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Montgomery, Alabama, Nov. 17, 1957 [stated]:

Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must not do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

Keep in mind the very volatile context. The hate was strong against him and his movement. His followers being struck, hosed with water, fire bombed, killed, etc. This is not a small moment, but a highly charged one. And eventually King was killed by an enemy.

I love Martin Luther King’s language in these thoughts:

When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

Reading this helped me see how very slowly God has changed my perspective toward my enemies. When I thought of my enemies as “bad” people, they remained my enemy. They were just like me–living in an evil system of sin. But in time I began to see my enemies through a gospel lens. I saw them as sinners who are deceived by sin.

I am caught in the same system of sin. My enemies really aren’t the issue; sin is. Diverting my attention from them to sin and deception has gone a long way in helping me love as Matthew 5 suggests. When I readily relate my enemies to the idea of sin and being deceived, I am more prone to dispense love and grace — as my Father dispensed to me. This is the beautiful, powerful love MLK called for. And modeled by Jesus Himself: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:24) Let’s be countercultural and love our enemies. (Quote source here.)

It is Jesus who has the final word on how we should treat our enemies (Matthew 5:44)… But I tell you…

Love your enemies . . .

And pray for those . . .

Who persecute you . . . .

YouTube Video: “Bleed the Same” by Mandisa, TobyMac, Kirk Franklin:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

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Footprints

A very popular poem in the past several decades titled, Footprints,” and sometimes titled Footprints in the Sands,” has been attributed to three different authors with three slightly different versions of the same poem. The first poem appeared in 1936 and it was written by Mary Stevenson (1922-1999); the second version of the poem appeared in 1963 and it was written by Carolyn Joyce Carty; and the third version of the poem was published in 1964 by Margaret Fishback Powers (b. 1943). (Source including all three versions is available at this link.)

For the purposes of this blog post, I will be referring to the version of the poem by Margaret Fishback Powers since I found another book published by her in 1998 (republished in 2006) titled, Footprints: Scripture with Reflections Inspired by the Best-Loved Poem by Margaret Fishback Powers,” at a used bookstore yesterday, and there are a few quotes from that book that I also want to include in this blog post. Her version of the poem is as follows (found on page 2 of the above mentioned book):

FOOTPRINTS

One night I dreamed a dream.
I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
one belonging to me
and one to my Lord.

When the last scene of my life shot before me
I looked back at the footprints in the sand
and to my surprise
I noticed that many times along the path of my life
There was only one set of footprints.

I realized that this was at the lowest
and saddest times of my life.
This always bothered me
and I questioned the Lord
about my dilemma.

“Lord, You told me when I decided to follow You,
You would walk and talk with me all the way.
But I’m aware that during the most troublesome times
of my life there is only one set of footprints.
I just don’t understand why, when I need You most,
You leave me.”

He whispered, “My precious child,
I love you and will never leave you,
never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
it was then that I carried you.”
(Quote source: “Footprints: Scripture with Reflections,” page 2.)

Many people have received inspiration from the words of this poem (or similar versions) over the years since it was first published. The book mentioned above takes each line of the poem and makes a chapter out of it that includes several verses from the Bible that refer to that particular line. The line I am highlighting from that poem above is found in a chapter titled, “God Is With Us… When We Need Direction” (pp. 67-72). Here is that chapter including the line from the poem above that it refers to:

“And I questioned the Lord about my dilemma.” (A line from the poem above.)

When a transit strike brought our recently purchased business to a standstill, I found myself wondering if we had made the right decision to get into this new business. The choice had seemed to be the right one at the time, but then, I wasn’t so sure. How was I supposed to sort out what we should do next? When we face questions of this kind, we need to get our arms around God’s wisdom… [Note: Scripture references below are from NIV, 1984]

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.James 1:5

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you and watch over you, [says the LORD.]Psalm 32:8

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make your paths straight.Proverbs 3:5-6

For the Lord gives wisdom;
    from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.Proverbs 2:6

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”Isaiah 30:21

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.John 16:13

Show me your ways, O Lord,
    teach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
    for you are God my Savior,
    and my hope is in you all day long.Psalm 25:4-5

This is what the Lord says—
    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“I am the Lord your God,
    who teaches you what is best for you,
    who directs you in the way you should go.”Isaiah 48:17

God doesn’t mind our questions when we come to him with a seeking heart. God is bigger than any question we can ask. And he often will give us the answers we seek in his Word.

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
    a light for my path.Psalm 119:105

For this command is a lamp,
    this teaching is a light,
and correction and instruction
    are the way to life.Proverbs 6:23

Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.Joshua 1:8

Pay attention and listen to the sayings of the wise…
for it is pleasing when you keep them in your heart

    and have all of them ready on your lips.
So that your trust may be in the Lord
.Proverbs 22:17-19

When we find ourselves questioning God’s reason for allowing certain things to happen, we must stop, remember God’s faithfulness, and depend upon his grace. Whatever our questions, whatever our circumstances, God is still in control.

The Lord delights in a man’s way,
    he makes his steps firm;
though he may stumble, he will not fall,

    for the Lord upholds him with his hand.Psalm 37:23-24

Since you are my rock and my fortress,
    for the sake of your name lead and guide me, [O Lord.]Psalm 31:3

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.Romans 8:28

The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
    your love, O Lord, endures forever—
    do not abandon the works of your hands.Psalm 138:8

Let us acknowledge the Lord;
    let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.Hosea 6:3

For this God is our God for ever and ever;
    he will be our guide even to the end.Psalm 48:14

When we need direction, we must trust that the Lord will take our faith, limited as it is, and make something of lasting value out of it. God has a plan for us. He cares about our dilemmas, hears our heartfelt cries, and will answer us in ways that will astonish us and fill our hearts with songs of joy.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”Jeremiah 29:11 (Quote source: “Footprints: Scripture with Reflections,” pp. 67-72.)

I can’t think of any time in a Christian’s life when it is not wise to seek direction from the Lord, not only in difficult times, but also when things seem to be going smoothly as that is when we tend to let our guard down.

In an article published on June 11, 2014 on Proverbs 31 Ministries titled Lord, I Don’t Know What To Do,” by Leah DiPascal, speaker, writer, and communicator with Proverbs 31 Ministries, she writes:

“Show me the right path, O LORD; point out the road for me to follow.”Psalm 25:4 (NLT)

Do you ever feel like you’re going in circles and not making any progress? At least not the kind of progress you were expecting.

Are the constant appeals of our world pulling you in a million different ways, causing you to question if you’re headed in the right direction?

If you’re like me, you have plans and dreams you want to fulfill. But life is confusing at times. And most days it seems like you’re just surviving instead of living out those dreams or accomplishing your goals.

Numerous distractions.

Too many choices.

Endless interruptions.

There have been days I’ve felt like one foot was fixed to the floor, while my other foot scurried in every direction. Expending a lot of energy and mental fatigue, but going nowhere. Can you relate?

Wouldn’t it be awesome to wake up every morning and be assured you’re on the right path towards your goals? To know with certainty that you’re headed in the right direction? To feel confident with each step, without constantly questioning yourself?

Too many times I’ve second-guessed a decision I was confident about. I want so desperately to follow God’s will that I’ll pray, but then feel uncertain, not wanting to make a wrong move. I wonder: “Maybe this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing. Maybe this isn’t part of God’s plan for my life.”

As I’ve wrestled with indecision and insecurity, I’ve sought God’s Word for help. A few months ago, I found a priceless nugget of truth in the Bible. It addresses our desire for guidance and shows us what to do when we need clear direction.

King David composed these words in a beautiful psalm, tucked within the pages of the Old Testament:

“Show me the right path, O LORD; point out the road for me to follow. Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you” (Psalm 25:4-5).

These verses reveal David’s humble and teachable heart. He wanted to be guided by God and led by His truth. David knew God was his Savior and placed all his hope in the One who created the right path for him.

We find the answers to David’s request for guidance only a few short passages away. Promises we can claim for our own lives:

“The LORD is good and does what is right; he shows the proper path to those who go astray. He leads the humble in doing right, teaching them his way. The LORD leads with unfailing love and faithfulness all who keep his covenant and obey his demands” (Psalm 25:8-10, NLT).

Based on these verses, when our hearts are humble and truly seeking God’s will, we can be confident of this:

1. God will always show us what is right for us.

2. When we get sidetracked, God will direct us back to the right path.

3. We are not alone. God leads and teaches us along the way.

4. God leads those who obey Him with unfailing love and faithfulness.

If you’re unsure about some things in your life, don’t wait another day to figure it out on your own. Ensure your heart is in the right place of humility, and then ask God to help you. Once you’ve asked, trust that God is directing you.

If you know you’ve gotten on the wrong path, seek God for direction instead of looking to the world for answers. As you take steps to follow and obey God’s voice, He will lovingly show you the way.

Months ago I asked the Lord to etch these verses onto my heart and mind, so I’d always have them with me—especially on days when I feel like I’m going in circles and lacking direction.

Today, I’m praying these verses over you.

Truth For Today:

Psalm 32:8, “The LORD says, ‘I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you.'” (NLT)

Psalm 90:17, “Let the favor of the LORD our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (ESV) (Article and quote source available here.)

I’ll end this post with this great reminder from Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV): Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him…

And He will make . . .

Your paths . . .

Straight . . . .

YouTube Video: “God Will Make A Way” by Acapella–Christian Vineyard Music:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

The Sound of Silence

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

“Christian truth is about as welcome in today’s culture as a wet shaggy dog shaking himself at the Miss America Pageant.” That’s the opening sentence of Chapter 3 titled, “The Sound of Silence,” in a brand new book titled, Talk the Walk: How to Be Right Without Being Insufferable,” by Steve Brown, radio broadcaster and Founder of Key Life Network, Professor Emeritus at Reformed Theological Seminary, Visiting Professor of Practical Theology at Knox Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary, host on the radio talk show, Steve Brown, Etc.”, Bible teacher, keynote speaker, author of over a dozen books, a former pastor, and, yes, even a former disk jockey. He is also a personal friend of mine, and I’ve written posts on a couple of his previous books (see here and here).

Steve’s wealth of knowledge and wonderful sense of humor never fails to amaze me with each book I’ve read that he has written and published. If you personally know Steve, you know he’s truly “one of a kind.” His latest book (linked above at Key Life and also available on Amazon.com at this link) is exceptionally timely given all of the rapid changes going on in our society today.

The book is specifically written with a Christian audience in mind; however, skeptics of Christianity might find it interesting to read, too. I want to back up just a bit from that sentence quoted above that opens Chapter 3 with the following from Chapter 2 titled, “The Gift of Truth.” Steve writes:

There is the old joke about a businessman interviewing applicants for a position in his company. He asked each of them a simple question, “What is two plus two?” He got a variety of answers, including, “I don’t know, but I’m glad for the opportunity to discuss the issue,” and a lawyer who referenced case law where two plus two was proven to be four. The final applicant got up from this chair, closed the door and the blinds, sat back down, leaned over the desk, and then whispered, “What do you want it to be?”

He got the job.

So often today, truth is whatever “you want it to be.” Whatever you want it to be includes religion, gender, morals, marriage, race, and political truth. Not only that, but anybody who questions the freedom to make truth what one wants it to be is labeled intolerant, bigoted, or worse.

Have you ever had anyone say to you, when you have expressed a deeply held conviction or a truth that had changed your life, “I’m glad it’s true for you”? What? I do not know anything that makes me spit and cuss more than someone speaking that kind of drivel. Frankly, I do not want to fly with a pilot, be treated by a doctor, or have a mechanic work on my car, who is that cavalier about aeronautical, medical, or mechanical truth.

So here at the beginning, let me make two statements that are quite controversial to a whole lot of people: there is true truth, and the Christian faith is true truth.

First, believe it or not, there is truth, and that truth is true apart from my perception or anyone’s opinion. Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying that “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.” “True truth” (as my late friend and Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer called it) is not adjustable. I may not know that truth, I may miss it, and I may be wrong about it. But truth is there, and it is there aside from what anybody believes about it. For instance, God is personal, or he is not; you are forgiven, or you are not; I am loved by God, or I am not…. (Quote source: “Talk the Walk,” Chapter 2, pp. 13-14).

Now I don’t want to leave you hanging at this point–Steve does go on to write in Chapter 2 titled, “The Gift of Truth,” that there are five truths that the book covers: (1) There really is a God; (2) God had not remained silent; (3) God’s love is unreasonable; (4) Christians aren’t called to be fixers; and (5) Truths 1-4 are the main thing (a brief explanation of those five points is covered in Chapter 2).

Returning to the sentence at the start of this blog post and it is also the first sentence in Chapter 3 titled, “The Sound of Silence,”  Steve continues with the following:

Christian truth is about as welcome in today’s culture as a wet shaggy dog shaking himself at the Miss America Pageant. Truth does not matter, but intolerance does. If the subject is salvation, Christian truth suggests that there are those who are saved and those who are not. If the truth is about sin, than some things are right and others are wrong. If it is about hell and heaven, it means that one place is hot and the other place is not. If it is about forgiveness, then some are forgiven and others are not. Truth feels intolerant–and frankly, when I speak Christian truth, it sometimes feels that way to me.

Truth, by its very nature, divides and offends. That is what Jesus meant when he made the startling statement that he had not come to bring peace but to set children against parents and to create enemies of one’s own household (Matthew 10:35-36).

The presupposition of this book is that Christians are called to speak truth and, much of the time, to speak it to people who do not want to hear it. And they are constrained to do so. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:16, “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” Paul was saying that he could not keep quiet.

Jeremiah the prophet had the same experience, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). This is the normal experience of every Christian who knows the truth.

But with all of that being said, we Christians must be careful in what we say, how we say it, and even if we are to say it at all. Jesus cautioned that we should “not give dogs what is holy” nor “throw your pearls before pigs lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6). The truth we have is precious, dangerous, and explosively powerful in the way it can heal or hurt.

There are times when silence really is golden….

Silence, for instance, is better than saying too much that would be confusing and unduly irritating. A young seminary student was once asked to preach in a small country church. There was a major snowstorm, and only one farmer showed up for the service. The young preacher asked the farmer what he should do. The farmer told him that when only one of his cows showed at meantime, he fed this cow.

The preacher–with only the one farmer in attendance–went through the entire service and preached the entire sermon. When the service was over, the student asked the farmer how he had done. “Son,” said the farmer, “when one cow shows, I feed him… but I don’t give him the whole load.”

It is often enough to say, “Jesus loves you, and I do, too.” Other people do not always need to know the differences between Reformed and Arminian theology, the intricacies of the biblical view of law and grace, the Christian disagreements about biblical interpretation, or a Christian critique of politics and culture.

I recently was asked to visit an older man who, after a lifetime of atheism, was thinking about the Christian faith. He had started asking questions, and had even attempted to read the Bible each morning. We spent most of the morning talking about his questions. None of them had to do with theology, hermeneutics, culture, or disagreements within the Christian church–not one. Answering questions that are not asked, defining issues that are not raised, and going places that are not presently important is offensive and a waste of time. It is better that Christians remain silent.

Silence is also appropriate when a Christian has not been given permission to speak. Christians should not shilly-shally about who they are, and should at least give an indication of what they believe. But more information requires permission, and that permission is often given in the questions that are asked. If there are not questions and if no interest is expressed, it is wise to remain silent.

My friend Jake Luhrs, the front man for the Grammy-nominated metal band August Burns Red, is a Christian. Jake wrote a devotional book,Mountains,” and in it he writes [on page 6]:

I never thought I’d write a book, let alone a devotional. To be honest, I didn’t think the day would come when I would share some of my proudest (and not so proud) moments with an audience who might even care to listen…. If you know anything about me you know that I don’t push “religion.” I don’t want to promote a religion. But I do want people to have the same relationship I have with Jesus. I want them to feel loved and understood. When they’re scared, I want them to see him as the ultimate source of love, hope, help, strength and forgiveness.

Why did Jake write his book? He did it because so many of his fans had questions. In fact, he formed a nonprofit community called HeartSupport that touches 70,000 people each month with counseling, help, and acceptance. He started that community and wrote the devotional book because so many people granted permission. Jake told me that when he was on tour, there were so many who wanted to know about his faith, but because of the tour and the necessity of moving quickly to the next city, he simply did not have the time to say what needed to be said and to answer the questions that had been asked.

Christians do not have to give others the whole load. When asked, Christians can say, “Yeah, I am a believer, and it’s the most important thing in my life. If you ever want to hear about it, just ask and I’ll tell you.” Or in my case as a religious professional, when I am asked what I do, I sometimes answer, “I tell people ‘who want to hear’ about Jesus.” Or perhaps when Christians think they have a message that will help someone in trouble, they can say, “If you want me to, I’ll be glad to share it with you.” Permission opens the door to speaking truth. If permission is not given, silence is good practice. Silence is also a wise practice when spoken truth is spoken for the wrong reasons. (Quote source: “Talk the Walk,” Chapter 3, pp. 21-25).

Chapter 3 continues at this point with the topics of “Speaking truth from guilt” (i.e., as in feeling guilty about not speaking up), “Speaking truth to get power” (i.e., looking for power over others by being right), “Speaking truth from self-interest” (i.e., speaking with an agenda of self-interest), “Speaking truth from ignorance” (i.e., not being informed about the nature of the truth they speak), “Speaking truth to help God out” (i.e., God does not need anyone), and “Speaking truth with silence” (i.e., sometimes it is best to be silent and to let love, freedom, and joy do the talking).

Obviously, I have not even scratched the surface of all that is contained in this book, or even the two chapters mentioned above. Steve ended Chapter 3 with the following paragraphs written under the title  of “Speaking Truth with Silence”:

Sometimes it is best to be silent and to let love, freedom, and joy do the talking. There are some things Christians cannot say without words, but there are other matters that are only confused by words. My wife, who is a musician, has often said to me that music is the universal language. Sometimes it is best to remain silent and hear the language of music. Just so, sometimes it is best to speak the language of silence.

It is a cliché, but nevertheless there is some truth to believing that Christians are the only Bible unbelievers ever read. However, with due respect to that point of view, let me say that most of us sin so much, betray our principles so often, and fail so obviously in our Christian walk that the message is mixed and muddled.

But what if we remained silent by not defending ourselves? What if we remained silent when others are condemning those whose lifestyles, politics, or religious views are deemed unacceptable? What if we remained silent and refused to be the social, political, and religious critics of every opinion that wasn’t our own? What if we remained silent in the face of rejection? What if we refused to share the secrets we’ve been told or tell the stories we’ve overheard? What if we remain silent and overlook the foibles of others? What if we looked at the pain of our neighbor and just loved him or her, instead of trying to fix the unfixable? What if our response to confusion, fear, and guilt was simply, “I know”?

There is a powerful witness in that kind of silence. (Quote source: “Talk the Walk,” Chapter 3, pp. 30-31).

As I mentioned above, the book contains so much more information then just the few quotes I’ve posted above. In fact, I still have the last ten chapters to read. But there was just something about Chapter 3, “The Sound of Silence,” that struck a chord with me as I read it. Maybe it will with you, too. Silence can be a powerful witness.

I hope this post has whetted your appetite to read more of Steve’s new book, Talk the Walk,” which can be purchased at Key Life and it is also available on Amazon.com at this link.

Ecclesiastes 3 opens with “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” and it includes a long list of items starting with “a time to be born and a time to die.” In verse 7 we find in the second half of that verse, “a time to keep silent, and a time to speak.” May we pray for wisdom…

To know when . . .

Is the right time . . .

To be silent . . . .

YouTube Video: “The Sound of Silence” by Pentatonix:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

Our Shepherd

I purchased a book at a very inexpensive price at the Half Price Bookstore at the end of June that was originally published back in 2001. It was written by Max Lucado and it is titled, Traveling Light.” It’s been republished since then but this particular copy is an original hardcover copy from 2001 (and it’s new, too). I’ve owned this book before but it is currently stored in a box in a storage unit in another state that at this point in time I wonder if I’ll ever see that stuff again since it has been in storage for over five years now. Of course, when I put my stuff in that storage unit over five years ago that came from the last apartment I lived in back then, I never dreamed it would be still be in storage five years later. I figured at the time it might be in storage for six months, max. Guess it falls under the category of Life happens.”

If you’ve read my blog posts lately you’ll know that my almost 96-year-old father died on June 22, 2019 (see blog posts titled, A Eulogy for Dad,” published on June 22, 2019, and Remembering Dad,” published in July 23, 2019). I purchased the book mentioned above on June 30, 2019. I drove to Iowa on July 10th (a 2000-mile round trip drive) to the state where my father lived to attend his visitation and funeral that was held on July 13, 2019, and I spent a week there (July 11-17). And I drove back to the city and state where I’ve been living for the past three years arriving back on July 18th.

I’m glad I went back home for that week. I got to see family members and others who are scattered around in several states who also returned for Dad’s funeral, and I learned about estate sale pickers–a term and occupation I was totally unaware of until Dad’s death (and there is something sort of vulture-like about that particular occupation). I’ve now been back where I’ve been living for about a week and a half, and it’s been over two weeks since the funeral was held on July 13th. I’m still sorting through the mix of emotions I’ve gone through since I first heard Dad was dying in early June, and from being back in my hometown for that week to attend his funeral.

On the list of top ten major stresses in life, death of a loved one (in my case, Dad’s death) holds the #1 spot (source here). Add in other stresses that naturally occur in one’s life, and I’ve been on overload since returning from Dad’s funeral. Being primarily a positive type of person, I’ve found it hard to get back into that positive mode as the grief can still be overwhelming when it hits, and I have a few other challenges right now that add to it but they are things that come up in one form or another in everyone’s life from time to time.

As I was thinking about how to find a way to get out from under this “funk” (grief does take a long time to process), I came across that book I purchased on June 30th mentioned above by Max Lucado titled, Traveling Light.” The subtitle is “Releasing the Burdens You Were Never Meant to Bear,” and that certainly describes my situation right now. I feel buried under a major burden compounded by other “stuff,” and I need a release from it. The book is based on Psalm 23, and here are the words to that psalm:

The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.

Before I quote a story found in the book, Traveling Light, let’s take a look at what is meant by the phrase, The LORD is my Shepherd.” GotQuestions.org gives us the following answer:

The clause “the LORD is my shepherd” comes from one of the most beloved of all passages of Scripture, the 23rd Psalm. In this passage and throughout the New Testament we learn that the Lord is our Shepherd in two ways. First, as the Good Shepherd, He laid down His life for His sheep and, second, His sheep know His voice and follow Him (John 10:1114).

In Psalm 23, God is using the analogy of sheep and their nature to describe us. Sheep have a natural tendency to wander off and get lost. As believers, we tend to do the same thing. It’s as Isaiah has said: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). When sheep go astray, they are in danger of getting lost, being attacked, even killing themselves by drowning or falling off cliffs.

Likewise, within our own nature there is a strong tendency to go astray (Romans 7:58:8), following the lusts of our flesh and eyes and pursuing the pride of life (1 John 2:16). As such, we are like sheep wandering away from the Shepherd through our own futile self-remedies and attempts at self-righteousness. It is our nature to drift away (Hebrews 2:1), to reject God, and to break His commandments. When we do this, we run the risk of getting lost, even forgetting the way back to God. Furthermore, when we turn away from the Lord, we soon find ourselves confronting one enemy after another who will attack us in numerous ways.

Sheep are basically helpless creatures who cannot survive long without a shepherd, upon whose care they are totally dependent. Likewise, like sheep, we are totally dependent upon the Lord to shepherd, protect, and care for us. Sheep are essentially dumb animals that do not learn well and are extremely difficult to train. They do not have good eyesight, nor do they hear well. They are very slow animals who cannot escape predators; they have no camouflage and no weapons for defense such as claws, sharp hooves, or powerful jaws.

Furthermore, sheep are easily frightened and become easily confused. In fact, they have been known to plunge blindly off a cliff following one after another. Shepherds in Bible times faced incredible dangers in caring for their sheep, putting their own lives at risk by battling wild animals such as wolves and lions who threatened the flock. David was just such a shepherd (1 Samuel 17:34–35). In order to be good shepherds, they had to be willing to lay down their lives for the sheep.

Jesus declared that He is our Shepherd and demonstrated it by giving His life for us. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Through His willing sacrifice, the Lord made salvation possible for all who come to Him in faith (John 3:16). In proclaiming that He is the good shepherd, Jesus speaks of “laying down” His life for His sheep (John 10:1517–18).

Like sheep, we, too, need a shepherd. Men are spiritually blind and lost in their sin. This is why Jesus spoke of the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4–6). He is the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for us. He searches for us when we’re lost, to save us and to show us the way to eternal life (Luke 19:10). We tend to be like sheep, consumed with worry and fear, following after one another. By not following or listening to the Shepherd’s voice (John 10:27), we can be easily led astray by others to our own destruction. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, warns those who do not believe and listen to Him: “I did tell you, but you do not believe . . . you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:25–28).

Psalm 23:1–3 tells us that the shepherd meets the sheep’s every need: food, water, rest, safety, and direction. When we as believers follow our Shepherd, we, too, know that we will have all we need. We will not lack the necessities of life, for He knows exactly what we need (Luke 12:22–30).

Sheep will not lie down when they are hungry, nor will they drink from fast-flowing streams. Sometimes the shepherd will temporarily dam up a stream so the sheep can quench their thirst. Psalm 23:2 speaks of leading the sheep “beside the quiet [stilled] waters.” The shepherd must lead his sheep because they cannot be driven. Instead, the sheep hear the voice of their shepherd and follow him—just as we listen to our Shepherd, Jesus Christ—in His Word and follow Him (John 10:3–51627). And if a sheep does wander off, the shepherd will leave the flock in charge of his helpers and search for the lost animal (Matthew 9:3618:12–14Luke 15:3–7).

In Psalm 23:3, the Hebrew word translated “paths” means “well-worn paths or ruts.” In other words, when sheep wander onto a new path, they start to explore it, which invariably leads them into trouble. This passage is closely akin to the warning in Hebrews 13:9: “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings.” The apostle Paul also alludes to this idea in Ephesians 4:14.

Finally, the shepherd cares for the sheep because he loves them and wants to maintain his own good reputation as a faithful shepherd. As we’ve seen in Psalm 23, the analogy of the Lord as the Good Shepherd was also applied by Jesus in John chapter 10. In declaring that He is the shepherd of the sheep, Jesus is confirming that He is God. The Eternal God is our Shepherd. And we would not want it any other way. (Quote source here.)

In Chapter 4 titled, “The Prison of Want: The Burden of Discontent,” in the book, Traveling Light,” on pp. 32-34, is this reflection:

Are you hoping that a change in circumstances will bring a change in your attitude? If so, you are in prison, and you need to learn a secret of traveling light. What you have in your Shepherd is greater than what you don’t have in life.

May I meddle for a moment? What is the one thing separating you from joy? How do your fill in this blank: “I will be happy when ________________”? When I am healed. When I am promoted. When I am married. When I am single. When I am rich. How would you finish that statement?

Now, with your answer firmly in mind, answer this. If your ship never comes in, if your dream never comes true, if the situation never changes, could you be happy? If not, then you are sleeping in the cold cell of discontent. You are in prison. And you need to know what you have in your Shepherd.

You have a God who hears you, the power of love behind you, the Holy Spirit within you, and all of heaven ahead of you. If you have the Shepherd, you have grace for every sin, direction for every turn, a candle for every corner, and an anchor for every storm. You have everything you need.

And who can take it from you? Can leukemia infect your salvation? Can bankruptcy impoverish your prayers? A tornado might take your earthly house, but will it touch your heavenly home?

And look at your position. Why clamor for prestige and power? Are you not already privileged to be part of the greatest work in history?

According to Russ Blowers (1924-2007), we are. He [was] a minister in Indianapolis. Knowing he would be asked about his profession at a Rotary Club meeting, he resolved to say more than, “I’m a preacher.”

Instead he explained, “Hi, I’m Russ Blowers. I’m with a global enterprise. We have branches in every country in the world. We have representatives in nearly every parliament and boardroom on earth. We’re into motivation and behavior alternation. We run hospitals, feeding stations, crisis-pregnancy centers, universities, publishing houses, and nursing homes. We care for our clients from birth to death. We are into life insurance and fire insurance. We perform spiritual heart transplants. Our original Organizer owns all the real estate on earth plus and assortment of galaxies and constellations. He knows everything and lives everywhere. Our product is free for the asking. (There’s not enough money to buy it.) Our CEO was born in a hick town, worked as a carpenter, didn’t own a home, was misunderstood by his family and hated by his enemies, walked on water, was condemned to death without a trial, and arose from the dead. I talk with him every day.”

If you can say the same, don’t you have reason to be content?…

What will you gain with contentment? You may gain your marriage. You may gain precious hours with your children. You may gain your self-respect. You may gain joy. You may gain the faith to say, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Try saying it slowly. “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Again, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Again, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Shhhhhhh. Did you hear something? I think I did. I’m not sure… but I think I heard the opening of a jail door. (Quote source: “Traveling Light,” pp. 32-34.)

So go to the Shepherd. He’s the only One who can release you from your burdens.

The LORD . . .

Is my shepherd . . .

I shall not want . . .

YouTube video: “I Just Need U” by TobyMac:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

Rules of Engagement

There is no more favorite place for a book lover to be than in a used bookstore. It’s almost like finding hidden treasure. I can spend hours looking around at all the books, CDs, DVDs, and other stuff found in them. And they don’t just sell used stuff. They have new stuff in there, too. I’m referring to a particular chain of bookstores known as Half Price Books. They have over 120 stores in Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas (their flagship store is in Dallas), Washington, and Wisconsin.  And, there are several in the area where I live, too (in Texas).

The other day I was in one of their bookstores looking at their clearance section which has fabulous prices. I’ve picked up a number of books, DVD’s and CD’s for $2-$3 dollars each in the clearance section, and the other day was no exception. They’ve given me fodder for more than just a few blog posts, too. This last time around I picked up a book titled, Rules of Engagement: Finding Faith and Purpose in a Disconnected World (2010), by Chad Hennings, a former American football defensive tackle for the Air Force Academy Falcons, and a member of the team that won three Super Bowls in his nine years with the Dallas Cowboys, among other accomplishments.

I didn’t realize when I looked at the book that it was written specifically for men. It is an autographed copy of the book to a woman named Rochelle and signed by Hennings, and it is in excellent condition. I opened the book in the store and read a brief section in the opening chapter titled, “Crafting Character and Casting a Vision,” and I decided to buy it for $3. Once I got back home I made the discovery that it was a book written specifically for men, so I decided, well, at least I could learn more about men by reading it… 🙂

It was the title of the book that caught my attention–“Rules of Engagement.” His subtitle of “Finding Faith and Purpose in a Disconnected World” was intriguing, too. It’s not easy navigating our way through life and it doesn’t get any easier with age, either.

As Christians, we can too often get into an “Us verses Them” mentality when engaging with our society and the various cultures that exist all around us. We too often reflect a “my way or the highway” viewpoint without realizing how we might be coming off to others, or really listening to what others have to say, or understanding another cultural context besides our own which is too often insulated behind our church walls.

In an article published in May 2015 titled The Rules of Engagement,” by Martin Saunders, deputy CEO of Youthscape, a contributor to Premier Youthwork and Premier Christianity, and a host at the annual Youthwork Summit, he states the following:

I have, by the grace of God and three different editors, been writing this column for five years now. I’ve written at least 60 articles in this slot, on subjects as diverse as dieting and Internet porn, “Game of Thrones” and “Mr. Tumble.” I’ve used the words ‘vital challenge to the Church’ more often than I should have, and suggested a ‘third way response’ enough times to have reasonably expected a lawsuit from “Third Way” magazine. In that time I’ve also significantly changed my approach to engaging with culture.

The problem with the Internet is that it never forgets. In 2001, I wrote my first ever piece of Christian cultural commentary for the Premier Christian Radio website. Entitled “Is Harry Potter a moving staircase too far?” (shudder), it raised grave concerns about the “grey areas” in the first film depicting JK Rowling’s schoolboy wizard. It even included the line: “Harry Potter is a large doorway to the occult, and if we lead children to it, there’s a possibility they may nudge it open.” Nearly 15 years later, that article still regularly comes back to bite me, and while I’ve mellowed significantly, one can only imagine what my 22-year-old self would have made of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

For many Christians, however, this is still a semi-accurate caricature of what cultural engagement looks like. We’re naturally suspicious of film, television and video games; visual media with the power to ‘corrupt’. We worry about the world views espoused in music and literature, and displayed by the flawed role models who fill our newspapers. There’s the Church, and there’s the world, and the one should be very nervous of the other, only making raiding runs into enemy territory to grab gospel-affirming movie clips or song lyrics to spice up a flat sermon.

Even for those of us who unashamedly love movies, music and all of the arts, Christian cultural engagement usually means one of two things. Either we pull out lines, scenes, images or quotes to affirm our world view or, at the other extreme, we suggest a sort of gentle (or not so gentle) boycott of the things that don’t. So “Rev.” gets two thumbs up (until the protagonist starts to veer off the rails, at least), and “Jerry Springer: The Opera” draws a disapproving glare, or even a protest. I’ve suggested both of these responses in previous culture columns, of course.

All of which is fine, I suppose, if we want to hold to that old Christian saying (a heavy rewrite of John 17:16- 18) that we’re to be ‘in the world but not of it’. But the longer I’ve been writing this column, the more I’ve started to believe that taking such an arms-length view of the culture around us can seriously undermine our attempts at mission.

Why Cultural Engagement Matters

Good evangelism starts with listening. We don’t launch into telling people our story before we’ve given them a chance to tell us their own. Otherwise we come across as religious zealots, convinced of our particular version of God, and determined to force him upon anyone who will listen. I believe that part of that listening process should include listening to the cultural context in which the people we’re trying to talk to live their lives.

There’s an oft-quoted biblical precedent for that, too. In Acts 17, Paul famously speaks in the meeting of the Athenian Areopagus, and demonstrates his knowledge and understanding of Greek culture: their cultural story. And that’s not all. He uses it to connect with the story that he’s come to tell them, seamlessly weaving together the words of Greek poets and his own gospel presentation. And, as verse 34 tells us: ‘Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.’

This is of course the standard set text on cultural engagement, yet perhaps its familiarity causes us to overlook it. At first glance, Paul appears to take a quote (it might as well be a video clip) from Greek poetry, and use it in his sermon as an illustration. In fact, Paul had precisely the right quote, from the right poem, at his fingertips and he used it in connection with a sculpture–another work of art–that he had observed while walking around Athens. It seems to me that far from picking out a couple of cultural proof texts, Paul soaked himself in Athenian culture in the hope of finding points of connection with the gospel he sought to share.

Affirming Truth

In his references to both poetry and sculpture, Paul is actually very affirming of their creators. He points out where he believes the Athenian artists have already got it right and builds on this platform. Their altar ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’ gives him a perfect platform to speak in a language the people understand, and on a subject that they find interesting. He demonstrates that he has listened to their story, and agrees that there is truth and wisdom in it.

I think this should also be our starting point for cultural engagement. When we think about modern culture, we might naturally gravitate towards some of its ‘evils’ (more on this in a moment), but there is so much good to point out. Whether it’s the on-the-nose Christian allegory of the “Narnia” stories, “Thor” or the final chapters of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the spiritual themes of “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Selma,” and “Les Misérables,” or the songs of “U2” and “Mumford & Sons,” there is so much that is actually complementary to the Christian narrative.

Beyond those specifically Christian-affirming examples, add “Frozen,” “Life of Pi” (both the book and film) and “The Help,” all of which are brimming with wisdom and truth that are entirely complementary to the gospel.

There are also stories in culture that paint a bleak picture of humanity, and which clearly illustrate the need for God and his grace; the modern equivalent perhaps of that Athenian altar. Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road” is one good example, in which God is noticeable by his absence. It is as if God checked out when the apocalypse happened (Tom Perrotta’s post-rapture book “The Leftovers” does the same thing in a different way) and has left behind a world entirely bereft of hope.

In a very different genre, Liam Neeson’s recent ultra-violent action flick “Run All Night” shows the emptiness of a world view without grace, as members of New York’s Irish mob retaliate following one another’s deaths until they are all annihilated. We can use these stories as evidence for our need for God: a bigger picture way of thinking about them, which allows us not to get too hung up on the swearing and violence they might contain.

Critiquing What Doesn’t Work

I’m not suggesting, however, that we should wholeheartedly embrace the culture around us. As people who are called to “seek justice” (Isaiah 1:17), it is only right that we speak out when something in our culture promotes the opposite. We shouldn’t stay silent about “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a book that seems to promote and glorify violent, unloving sexual relationships.

Sexually explicit or violent lyrics, video games that glorify killing and films like “Saw” and all its sequels, which ask consumers to enjoy the creative destruction of human beings, should be critiqued. Junk food culture like this doesn’t do us any good as individuals or as a society, and Christians should feel able to point that out.

People of faith are most famous for taking offence when culture goes a step further and decides to critique or poke fun at us. I think God is probably big enough to deal with that without us needing to leap to his defense. Most mentions of blasphemy in the Bible are either aimed at God’s own people or found in accusations leveled at Jesus himself. In fact, I think we’re much better served saving our critiques for when culture totally misses the point.

In Athens, Paul twice comments on the ignorance of his contemporary culture’s great and good. He calls them ignorant for not knowing who God is (v. 23), and again for thinking that the true God can be manufactured by human hands (vv. 29-30), like some sort of superhero for people to look up to. So, as we read, watch, listen to and absorb our culture, we can follow Paul’s example when God is glaringly absent.

Christopher Nolan’s recent film “Interstellar” is a good example of this. The film pushes humankind to the furthest reaches of the universe, then performs gymnastic leaps of logic, which manage to make humanity its own savior and prove ultimately unsatisfying. “The Hunger Games” trilogy does a similar thing, and likewise suffers from an almost hopeless conclusion.

I believe that when we point to these kinds of stories, whether in the context of a sermon or a conversation down at the pub, then our perspective–that the absence of mystery and divinity in these stories makes them weaker–will resonate.

Knowledge, Not Assumptions

Being able to talk with some authority about our culture’s stories requires us to invest in that culture. A conversation on a film, TV show or book we have never seen will always have limited depth. That’s why I believe that, like Paul, we should get to know and understand the culture around us in some detail. That might not always mean visiting the cinema to see the latest 18-certificate movie (“Fifty Shades” being a pertinent example), but it could mean reading around it and taking time to listen to the perspectives of Christians who have.

When we have listened to those stories and found elements within them that we can either affirm or critique, there are lots of creative ways of building bridges to the story we want to share. Rather than using a clip from a film to make a point (cinema’s version of the proof text), how about watching an entire film together as a congregation or small group and using this as a springboard for discussion? Instead of referring to a song lyric, how about using the whole song in an act of worship?

Once we’re engaged in listening properly to culture’s story, and to affirming, redeeming and constructively critiquing it, those creative methods of engagement will surely flow. As they do, however, we should never lose sight of why we’re doing this. Our mission as Christians is to follow Jesus and to help others do likewise. That’s why it is vital that we understand the culture in which we’re ministering, and the stories with which we seek to connect our own. To simply consume culture without seeking to interpret it is, for me at least, still a moving staircase too far. (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with Paul’s wise words found in Romans 12:18If it is possible…

As far as it depends on you . . .

Live at peace . . .

With everyone . . . .

YouTube Video: “Speak Life” by TobyMac:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

The Ultimate Comeback

In the opening pages of Chapter 1 in his book, Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World is at It’s Worst (2018), Ed Stetzer, PhD, author, speaker, researcher, pastor, church planter, Christian missiologist, and the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, and Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, states the following:

Baseball great Yogi Berra used to say, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

America did. So did Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The majority of people in these nations were once vaguely Christian, but for years, those with loosely held religious beliefs have been dropping them, and as a result, the entire English-speaking Western world is becoming more secular.

Focusing on the United States for a moment may help, though similar trends are taking place across the English-speaking Western world. Most Americans, who identify loosely as Christians, are becoming less so–they are more frequently choosing “none of the above” rather then “Christian” when surveyed about their beliefs. In fact, each year about an additional one percent of Americans no longer identify as Christian.

Put another way, the nominals are becoming the nones. And as they become nones, their mind-set is more aligned with secular-minded people and they have less affinity with the avowedly religious. At the same time, the percentage of the devout has remained relatively stable.

The effect of this trend is that American culture is incrementally polarizing along religious lines. People are either becoming more secular or staying devout, though the biggest group is becoming more secular. This is where we meet the fork in the road: How do we engage with our faith in a culture now polarized along faith lines rather than being at least nominally Christian? (Quote source, “Christians in the Age of Outrage,” pp. 7-8.)

Stetzer identifies three types of Christians–“cultural, congregational, and convictional.” Cultural Christians are Christians in name only because they identify as being born in a historically Christian country but that is pretty much the extent of their beliefs; Congregational Christians, are those who may identify with a particular church and show up at Christmas or Easter, but rarely at other times (e.g., it has little impact on their daily lives); and Convictional Christians are those who attend church regularly and live values aligned with Christianity. The first two groups are growing (as in less and less identifying with Christianity), and he states that the third group is remaining relatively stable.

As Stetzer states:

The percentage of Convictional Christians in the U.S. population has remained generally stable. What has changed are the number and beliefs of Cultural and Congregational Christians. As a result, the collapse of mainline Protestantism and the growth of secularism, Convictional Christianity has incrementally moved outside the American cultural mainstream. In fact, as I explained in the Washington Post, as the numbers of Cultural and Congregational Christians decrease [ for example, read “Pew Study: More Americans Reject Religion, but Believers Firm in Faith”], the worldview and values of these Americans have shifted towards the secular stream and away from that of Convictional Christians. (Quote source, “Christians in the Age of Outrage,” pp. 9-10.)

As Stetzer wrote in his 2015 article titled, Nominal Christians are becoming more secular, and that’s a startling change for the U.S.,” in the Washington Post (mentioned above):

America is undergoing a religious polarization.

With more adults shedding their religious affiliations, as evidenced in the latest from the Pew Research Center, the country is becoming more secular. In the past seven years, using the new Pew data, Americans who identify with a religion declined six percentage points. Overall, belief in God, praying daily and religious service attendance have all dropped since 2007.

Today’s America is losing much of the general religious ethos that dominated the U.S. for hundreds of years. (Quote source and complete article available here.)

Both cultural and congregational Christians (and even some active church goers or members) fall under the category of nominal Christians. GotQuestions.org provides a definition of what nominal Christianity looks like:

Nominal Christians are church-goers or otherwise religious people whose “faith” does not go beyond being identified with a church, Christian group, or denomination. They are Christians in name only; Christ has no bearing in their lives. Nominal Christians may attend church and Christian functions, and they self-identify as “Christians,” but it is just a label. They view religion primarily as a social construct, and they do not allow it to require much of them in terms of morality or responsibility. Nominalists take a minimalist approach to their faith.

Nominalism is of concern to many pastors, preachers, and Christian theologians, as it appears to be on the rise today. Many identify themselves as Christians, but the overall impact of Christianity in the West is not what it once was. But what causes nominalism? Why do people prefer a nominal or in-name-only type of Christianity? One possible reason is that nominal religion is easy. It does not require a changed life. A nominal Christian can point to membership in a church as evidence of his salvation. Church attendance and participation in routines, activities, and programs become the measuring stick rather than a changed life, a new heart, a love for God, and obedience to the Word (see 2 Corinthians 5:17John 14:23).

Another cause of nominal Christianity is the habit of declaring oneself a Christian because of custom or culture. Whole countries, including Costa Rica, Norway, Denmark, and England, have a form of Christianity as the official state religion. This allows a Norwegian, for example, to culturally identify as a Christian—he is a member of the Church of Norway by default, having been registered in infancy when he was baptized. Even in countries with no state religion, such as the United States, cultural Christianity can lead to nominalism. Someone who was reared in a Christian family, attended church all his life, was baptized, lives in the Bible Belt, etc., often claims allegiance to the Christian faith, in spite of evidence in his life to the contrary.

Another cause of nominalism within the church is legalism, the attempt to transform oneself (or others) inwardly by working on the outward behavior. Some people, especially those raised in the church, conform to standards imposed upon them by parents, other Christians, or the church hierarchy without the inner transformation that can only be produced by the Spirit through the Word (Galatians 6:15). Legalists substitute good deeds for saving faith and compliance for conversion. This naturally leads to nominal Christianity, as church-goers and rule-keepers claim the label “Christian” but have no relationship with Christ.

Jesus dealt with nominal Christianity in one of His letters to the churches. The church in Sardis wore a Christian label, but Jesus saw the truth behind the label: “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). Or, as the KJV says, “Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” God is not interested in the labels we tag ourselves with. Having a “name” that we belong to Christ is not enough. Nominal faith is not faith. (Quote source here.)

Christianity, at it’s core, is not about the stuff we do, but who we believe in. In a book titled, The Comeback: It’s Not Too Late and You’re Never Too Far (2015), by Louie Giglio, Global Pastor, Visionary Architect and Director of the Passion Movement, comprised of Passion Conferences, Passion City Church, Passion Publishing, Passion Resources, and sixstepsrecords, and the founder of Passion Global Institute, he writes the following in a chapter (12) titled, “The Ultimate Comeback”:

People often wonder: Why do Christians think their way is the best way to believe? How come Jesus is the answer? What about every other faith leader? Aren’t their religions just as good?

It’s a valid question, one that indicates a person is doing some soul-searching and wants to discover the truth. Eventually, I hope to lean them to the crux of our faith, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

This single event defines our hope and sets our faith apart from every other religious point of view. Our teacher is not dead. Our leader is not in the grave. Jesus is alive and on this our future rests.

The resurrection of Jesus is the pillar of the Christian faith. If we don’t have this truth, then we are just another religion, with leaders who head a movement and maybe teach a few good things and attract a lot of followers. But when those leaders die, they stay dead.

To get up out of your coffin and smile at the folks gathered for your funeral, that’s the ultimate comeback. Or–switching to first-century cultural patterns–to walk out of a tomb, living and breathing, smiling and holding out your hands to friends so they can check your scars to make sure it’s really you, looking not at all pale and sickly but better than the best version of yourself that there’s ever been, that’s the ultimate comeback.

Think about it. A human body is lying there dead–grave clothes wrapped around the corpse, embalming done, stone rolled across the entry and sealed–on a stone bench. Suddenly blood begins to course through the veins again. The body takes a breath, stretches, stands up, comes out, walks around for everyone to see. And this body has lost any capacity to die again.

You see, all our comebacks are swallowed up by this ultimate comeback. Because Jesus is alive again, we can come back from anything the world throws at us:

    • The deepest kind of sin
    • The devastation of crumbling relationships
    • The rejection of job loss and failure
    • The general disappointment of life
    • The pain of bereavement
    • The hammer of betrayal
    • Whatever, you name it

Jesus’ ultimate comeback trumps all our comebacks, but it also makes it possible in a general sense for us to come back from anything, from anywhere, at any time. The secret is in how Jesus’ resurrection life infuses our ordinary lives with the same kind of power (see 1 Corinthians 15). (Quote source: “The Comeback,” pp. 203-205.)

In answer to one final question for this blog post, “Is Christianity a religion or a relationship?” GotQuestions.org answers:

Religion is “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” In that respect, Christianity can be classified as a religion. However, practically speaking, Christianity has a key difference that separates it from other belief systems that are considered religions. That difference is relationship.

Most religion, theistic or otherwise, is man-centered. Any relationship with God is based on man’s works. A theistic religion, such as Judaism or Islam, holds to the belief in a supreme God or gods; while non-theistic religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, focus on metaphysical thought patterns and spiritual “energies.” But most religions are similar in that they are built upon the concept that man can reach a higher power or state of being through his own efforts. In most religions, man is the aggressor and the deity is the beneficiary of man’s efforts, sacrifices, or good deeds. Paradise, nirvana, or some higher state of being is man’s reward for his strict adherence to whatever tenets that religion prescribes.

In that regard, Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship that God has established with His children. In Christianity, God is the aggressor and man is the beneficiary (Romans 8:3). The Bible states clearly that there is nothing man can do to make himself right with God (Isaiah 53:664:6Romans 3:236:23). According to Christianity, God did for us what we cannot do for ourselves (Colossians 2:132 Corinthians 5:21). Our sin separates us from His presence, and sin must be punished (Romans 6:23Matthew 10:2823:33). But, because God loves us, He took our punishment upon Himself. All we must do is accept God’s gift of salvation through faith (Ephesians 2:8–92 Corinthians 5:21). Grace is God’s blessing on the undeserving.

The grace-based relationship between God and man is the foundation of Christianity and the antithesis of religion. Established religion was one of the staunchest opponents of Jesus during His earthly ministry. When God gave His Law to the Israelites, His desire was that they “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5Matthew 22:37). “Love” speaks of relationship. Obedience to all the other commands had to stem from a love for God. We are able to love Him “because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). However, by Jesustime, the Jewish leaders had made a religion out of God’s desire to live in a love relationship with them (1 Timothy 1:8Romans 7:12). Over the years, they had perverted God’s Law into a works-based religion that alienated people from Him (Matthew 23:13–15Luke 11:42). Then they added many of their own rules to make it even more cumbersome (Isaiah 29:13Matthew 15:9). They prided themselves on their ability to keep the Law—at least outwardly—and lorded their authority over the common people who could never keep such strenuous rules. The Pharisees, as adept as they were at rule-keeping, failed to recognize God Himself when He was standing right in front of them (John 8:19). They had chosen religion over relationship.

Just as the Jewish leaders made a religion out of a relationship with God, many people do the same with Christianity. Entire denominations have followed the way of the Pharisees in creating rules not found in Scripture. Some who profess to follow Christ are actually following man-made religion in the name of Jesus. While claiming to believe Scripture, they are often plagued with fear and doubt that they may not be good enough to earn salvation or that God will not accept them if they don’t perform to a certain standard. This is religion masquerading as Christianity, and it is one of Satan’s favorite tricks. Jesus addressed this in Matthew 23:1–7 when He rebuked the Pharisees. Instead of pointing people to heaven, these religious leaders were keeping people out of the kingdom of God.

Holiness and obedience to Scripture are important, but they are evidences of a transformed heart, not a means to attain it. God desires that we be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16). He wants us to grow in grace and knowledge of Him (2 Peter 3:18). But we do these things because we are His children and want to be like Him, not in order to earn His love.

Christianity is not about signing up for a religion. Christianity is about being born into the family of God (John 3:3). It is a relationship. Just as an adopted child has no power to create an adoption, we have no power to join the family of God by our own efforts. We can only accept His invitation to know Him as Father through adoption (Ephesians 1:5Romans 8:15). When we join His family through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes to live inside our hearts (1 Corinthians 6:19Luke 11:132 Corinthians 1:21–22). He then empowers us to live like children of the King. He does not ask us to try to attain holiness by our own strength, as religion does. He asks that our old self be crucified with Him so that His power can live through us (Galatians 2:20Romans 6:6). God wants us to know Him, to draw near to Him, to pray to Him, and love Him above everything. That is not religion; that is a relationship. (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with the words from John 3:16: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son [Jesus Christ]…

That whoever believes in him . . .

Should not perish . . .

But have eternal life . . . .

YouTube Video: “Greatness of Our God” by Newsboys:

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Seeing What’s Right

Yesterday when I was at a bookstore that is closing, I came across a book I had purchased when it first came out back in 1999, but I lost that book when I lost my job ten years ago and I had to move back to the state I came from previous to taking that job seven months earlier.

When I saw a copy of that book yesterday, I discovered that it has been revised in 2008 with a new cover but with the same title that attracted me to the book the first time I purchased it. The title of the book is, Just Enough Light for the Step I’m On,” by Stormie Omartian, a bestselling Christian author who has written many books since that time.

The title is a reminder to all of us that nobody knows what the future holds, and all that we are given at any point in time is the moment we are currently occupying. We can make plans and be totally convinced that something we want to happen might happen, and sometimes it does work out, and sometimes it doesn’t.

As I opened the book to take a look at the table of contents, I came across a chapter titled, “Seeing What’s Right with This Picture” (Chapter 8). It opens with the following paragraph on page 73:

Have you ever found yourself angry, upset, or devastated when things didn’t turn out as you’d hoped or planned? Next time that happens, look deeply into the situation and ask God to give you a new perspective. (Quote source: “Just Enough Light for the Step I’m On,” p. 73.)

In this chapter Stormie Omartian states that we don’t always see the whole truth of what has happened to us, but she suggests that we look at the situation and ask, “What’s right with this picture?” She gives an example in her daughter’s life when she was sixteen, and the daughter came up with several positive things that came from a very negative situation. Omartian states the following on pages 74-75 in response:

This is not just positive thinking or trying to make good things happen with your thoughts. This is seeing things from God’s perspective and letting Him show you the truth. That means finding the light in what seem to be a dark situation. It’s knowing that, because you have invited God into every step of your life, you can find His light there no matter how dark it seems.

“Embracing the moment” is embracing God and finding Him in the moment. “Seeing what’s right with this picture,” on the other hand, is searching for the truth and seeing reality from God’s perspective. It’s being willing to let go of our determination to see things through our own tunnel vision.

Have you ever known people who are so set on believing something bad about another person that they refuse to hear anything good? They make a case against that person and everything that person says or does is twisted to support the case. Nothing will change their minds. Not reason. Not God. This is the same kind of hard-nosed narrow-mindedness that feeds prejudice, gossip, jealousy, and hatred. Seeing what’s right with this picture counteracts that tendency. It may be a lighthearted way of approaching a very dark-spirited issue, but it’s a good place to start. (Quote source: “Just Enough Light for the Step I’m On,” pp. 74-75.)

We’ve all been guilty of judging other people because of something bad we might have heard about them, and then refusing to hear or consider anything good about them. And we can become hard-nosed, narrow-minded, and it does feed into prejudice, gossip, jealousy, and hatred. That is why she states that it is so important to look at “what’s right about the person/situation” to counteract that tendency in all of us.

She goes on to give a couple of examples of finding what’s right in a bad situation on page 76-78:

A friend of ours named Jonathan was laid off from work and was initially feeling very defeated about it. But instead of letting his frustration turn into bitterness, he looked to see what was right with this picture. Jonathan gradually recognized it as an opportunity to help his wife, Lisa, establish a new business she had been wanting to start now that their children were grown. Instead of falling into depression, he worked hard for her. The business soon took off and became one of the most successful companies of its kind in town. Lisa would never have been able to do what she did without Jonathan’s help. What seemed like a disaster at first actually was a blessing. What appeared to be a dark time because a time flooded with light. If Jonathan had complained and blamed God, refusing to see the situation from His perspective, things probably would have turned out quite differently.

This may be a big shock to you–I know it was to me–but often when we think something unfortunate is happening to us, it’s actually an answer to a prayer we have prayed. Only the answer didn’t manifest the way we thought it should, so we failed to recognize it. That’s why seeing what’s right is entirely a matter of having God’s perspective.

Jennifer had been praying faithfully for her troubled relationship with her husband, David. When the company David had been working for was downsized, he found himself without employment for what turned out to be ten months. This kind of a turn could have destroyed an already ailing marriage. But instead of sinking into despair, Jennifer asked God to show her the truth about the situation. God revealed it was not true that her husband’s career, as well as their marriage, was finished as they had both feared. The truth was that God had a great path ahead for them, but they couldn’t walk it if they were crippled by a broken marriage. God was giving them time together to repair it.

Instead of letting this situation become a disaster that ripped them apart, David and Jennifer wisely took advantage of the opportunity to seek Christian counsel, be with godly friends, and spend time together doing the things they never had time to do before. Their marriage was healed miraculously, and David eventually found more fulfilling work than he ever had before.

Often we pray for something and don’t even recognize the answer to our own prayers when we receive it because it does not happen the way we thought it would. 

When I read about God leading the Israelites out of Egypt after many unmistakable miracles, I was amazed at how they continually grumbled and complained and failed to see how God was taking care of them.

“What is the matter with these people that they can’t see the answers to their own prayers?” I thought.

Then I realized we are all just like them. God is in the middle of doing something great for us and, because we are not as comfortable as we’d like to be, we don’t recognize the good things He has put in our lap. “Eyes they have, but they do not see” (Psalm 115:5).

How many blessings must we have forfeited because we resisted God when we should have been thanking Him? 

Look at your life right now. Is there anything that worries or upsets you? If so, say, “Lord, show me what’s right with this picture. What is the truth in this moment? Help me to see it from Your perspective.” You’ll be amazed at what God reveals.

If your attitude is one of gratefully searching for God’s truth and goodness in any situation, it will change your life. You’ll never see things the same way again. No matter what happens, you’ll be able to say, “This  was the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23). What we’re really talking about here is an issue of trust. It’s basically believing that God is good and he desires the best for you. “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” (Psalm 34:8). Give God the benefit of your trust and you’ll see that you are standing in more light then you ever dreamed possible. (Quote source: “Just Enough Light for the Step I’m On,” pp. 76-78.)

This book is filled with information that is helpful to anyone who finds themselves stuck in a bad or trying situation. The above is just a small piece of the whole picture in the book regarding dealing with tough situations. I found it particularly helpful in dealing with my own feelings that still surface occasionally regarding a few people who were involved in what happened to me ten years ago when I lost that job; and after a major job search of several years I never found another job in my field. Also, as a Christian, I know that God is sovereign over every situation and He has an ultimate purpose in everything that happens.

As I looked to find “what’s right about this situation” regarding what happened to me back then, several things came to mind. My perspective on life has broadened in both knowledge and understanding of what is going on in the world today. This most likely would not have happened if I had continued working as I never would have been able to travel and do that things I’ve done over the past ten years that has lead to this knowledge and understanding.

Another major plus includes the stretching of my faith beyond anything I had previously experienced. This may not be obvious in looking at my current set of circumstances as they do not fit in with the typical “success stories” we like to hear that usually contain elements of prosperity, materialism, and outward success that we place a high value on in our society and, yes, even in Christian circles. We do tend to look at the outward appearance and judge accordingly (see I Samuel 16:7). However, God does not show favoritism between rich or poor, educated or illiterate, heads of states or common folks, as we tend to do, and God is no respecter of persons (see Romans 2:11, Acts 10:34); God looks at our heart attitudes (again, see I Samuel 16:7) and our faith in him (see Hebrews 11:6).

The toughest part for me in “seeing what’s right” has been dealing with my feelings regarding the few people directly involved in what happened to me that caused me to lose that job back then. As I mentioned above, I have gained both knowledge and understanding regarding our world today that goes beyond anything I knew at the time I lost that job. Because of this awareness, even though I sometimes still get a bit angry about what happened to me when I think back on it, I am far more willing now to cut them some slack as I don’t know their side of the story or where they fit into the total picture. So it has softened my feelings towards them over time.

Also, I have never wished them any harm or ill will even though what happened to me left me unemployed and financially devastated, and it changed the course of my life. We should never judge a bad situation by what it looks like on the surface as there is much still going behind the scenes that we may never know about. And that is where trust in God is essential. We have to leave it with God to deal with in His way, and our responsibility is to give God each day as it unfolds in our own lives (for those of us who believe in him). And we have to leave even our enemies (and I don’t consider anyone involved in what happened to me ten years ago as an enemy) in God hands, too.

There is a lot of good stuff in this book, Just Enough Light for the Step I’m On.” Of course, the source of all wisdom is found in the Bible. As King David stated in Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Nothing can replace the Bible as the source for the guidance we need in this life. Proverbs 3:5-7 states, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and depart from evil.”

And that . . .

Is very good . . .

Advice . . . .

YouTube Video: “Beyond Me” by TobyMac:

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A Psalm That Calms the Soul

Psalm 23 is one of the most recognized psalms in the world. It has an amazing calming effect in the midst of stress and uncertainty, and it places our focus back where it belongs. No doubt millions have committed it to memory down through the centuries since David first penned it and put it to music.

It has only been in the past several years that I recognized the value of praying Psalm 23 regarding any kind of circumstance, even when it didn’t seem to relate to a particular situation I was praying about. Here are the words to Psalm 23 (NKJV):

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;

He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.

In an article titled, 3 New Ways to Think About Psalm 23,” by Sarah Garrett, educator and founder of Transformed4More.com (a ministry for teenage girls), she writes:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .”

Sound familiar?

Psalm 23 is one of the most recognizable chapters in the entire Bible. We learn it in Sunday school, see it in funeral programs, and notice it on church décor. Even those who do not attend church have likely heard this psalm before.

When verses and chapters become familiar, we tend to not pay close attention to them. When we see it in our Bibles, it can be tempting to think, “Oh, I know what this says already. Why read it again?”

Here’s why—because the Bible is a living document. In 2 Timothy 3:16–17, Paul writes,

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

The Bible never changes, but it always changes something in us when we read it. The Word of God always has something new to teach us, even if it’s from a familiar passage.

Recently, I was reading through Psalms and scanned over chapter 23. I almost skipped it, but decided to read it again. As I did, the familiarity faded, and I felt as though I was reading it with new eyes. Has that ever happened to you? As I read, three questions came to mind. They challenged me. I’m passing them along in the hopes they will challenge you, too.

Question 1: Am I allowing God to lead me?

God is always in control of what is happening, but we also have free will. That means we can choose to let God lead our lives. When we don’t, it’s the same as choosing to be led by our selfish desires. The opening of Psalm 23 beautifully shows what we can gain from surrendering and allowing God to lead our lives.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake (vv. 1–3).

As I read this again, I realized that if God is our Shepherd, that means means we give Him control of our life. When we do, look at what there is to gain!

    • God will meet our needs.
    • He will give us peace.
    • He will restore us.
    • He will lead us down a path of righteousness and not destruction.

If your world seems chaotic or unfulfilling, ask yourself, “Am I allowing God to lead me?”

Question 2: Am I camping in the valley?

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me (v. 4).

I heard a pastor say that this verse clearly states that the “valleys” of life are to be walked through, but some people tend to put up a tent and camp there. Convicting, huh?

Sometimes we get bogged down in our circumstances and just decide that’s the way it will always be. We figuratively pitch our tent in the valley. This tends to rob us of the joy that can come from our relationship with God.

During the valleys of life, you must remember the last two lines of this verse, that God is with you and will comfort you as you walk. Don’t choose to camp out and wallow in your misery. Put one foot in front of another while asking the Lord to provide a way out.

If you are going through a season of sin, discouragement, or despair in your life right now, ask yourself, “Am I walking or camping?”

Question 3: Have I lost sight of God’s faithfulness?

Let’s keep thinking about valleys for a moment. Sometimes in the valleys of life, we take on a “woe is me” attitude and completely ignore all of the blessings that God has given us.

Let’s circle back to Psalm 23.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever (vv. 5–6).

This means that if you could put your blessings in a cup, they would run over the top. Goodness and mercy will be following you everywhere, and you will spend eternity with God. That’s the ultimate blessing!

Ask yourself, “Have I lost sight of God’s faithfulness?” If you feel like you have, even if you are not going through a hard time, stop and make an actual list of all the ways that God has been faithful to you. You can start in the comment section below. Even on your worst day, you will see God’s blessings overflowing in your life if you look for them.

As an added bonus, you will feel your spirit lift as you write. You literally cannot dwell on bad thoughts and the blessings of God at the same time. Seriously. Try it! (Quote source here.)

Specifically, Psalm 23:4–“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me”–is one of the most well known verses in the Bible (as stated below). GotQuestions.org states the following regarding this verse:

Psalm 23:4, which reads, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (ESV), is one of the most well-known verses in the Bible. It is commonly used during funerals or by those approaching death. The message of Psalm 23:4 is one of comfort. We do not need to fear. God is with us, and His presence gives us strength and hope.

However, “valley of the shadow of death” is possibly not the most accurate translation of the original Hebrew text. The NIV, NLT, and HCBS translate the phrase as “darkest valley,” resulting in Psalm 23:4 reading as, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley . . . .” The Hebrew word for “shadow of death” is sal-ma-wet, which means “darkness” or “dark shadows.” It contains the same root as the Hebrew word for “death” (ma-wet), so it is easy to see why some Bible translators include the mention of death in Psalm 23:4.

In addition, the concept of darkness fits much better in the context of Psalm 23Psalm 23, especially verses 1–4, uses the language of a shepherd and his sheep to describe our relationship with God: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. . . . Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:1–4).

Sheep do not understand the concept of death. They do understand, though, that entering a dark valley can be dangerous. The point of Psalm 23:4 is that, even when we might have reason to be afraid, we do not need to fear, because God is with us, and He will take care of us. He, like a shepherd, knows what He is doing and has our best interests in mind.

So, it does not appear that “valley of the shadow of death” is the most accurate translation in Psalm 23:4. A “dark valley” connects much better with sheep lying down in green pastures and beside quiet waters. However, the main point of Psalm 23:4 still definitely applies to death. Many people fear death, and those facing death certainly feel as if they are in a “dark valley.” But even in death we do not need to fear, for God is with us, and He will protect and comfort us through it all. (Quote source here.)

Regarding the rod and the staff mentioned in Psalm 23:4, in an article titled, Your Rod and Your Staff, They Comfort Me,” by Aaron L. Garriott, production manager of Tabletalk Magazine, he opens his article by explaining how the rod and staff were used in the cultural context of David’s time:

There was much to fear in the dry, craggy wadis and ravines of Judah, presenting sheep flocks with the most perilous elements of their migration. Yet, the fears of the sheep are dispelled upon recognition of two implements carried by the shepherd, a rod and a staff, by which he would govern his flock. The rod and staff can be broadly categorized as tools of protection and guidance, respectively. The rod warded off predators; the staff was a guiding tool with a hook on one end to secure a sheep around its chest. Only the two tools together provided comfort to the sheep.

As the shepherd-made-king David places himself in the role of a sheep, his fears of every evil are quelled by a glimpse of Israel’s true Shepherd-King. David compares God’s governing care of His flock—His providence—to a rod and a staff, a sight that ought to quiet all fears and assure the flock of the care of their faithful and able Shepherd. (Quote source here.)

In the final article for this post titled, That’s All I Want,” by Ray Noah, lead pastor, Portland Christian Center, and founder/CEO of Petros Network, he writes the following on Psalm 23:

“The Lord is my shepherd.” ~Psalm 23:1

Psalm 22 foretells the cross of Christ and Psalm 24 speaks of a time when Messiah rules the earth in justice and righteousness. This strategic placement of Psalm 23, universally, the most beloved of all the psalms, is fitting since it’s between Christ’s cross and Christ’s second coming, between our salvation and heaven, that we find ourselves facing life in all its rawness: The ups and downs, the victories and defeats, the joys and sorrows, the life and death that make up the human condition.

Even though the pastoral setting and shepherd-sheep analogy are foreign to our modern culture, there is just something about this Shepherd’s Psalm that resonates in our core. That’s because we are pretty much like sheep—dense, directionless and defenseless—and we cannot do life without the Good Shepherd. You need a shepherd…so do I.

I am not sure where this came from [author unknown], but I suspect you will be blessed by it as I was.

The Lord is my Shepherd—That’s Relationship!

I shall not want—That’s Supply!

He makes me to lie down in green pastures—That’s Rest!

He leadeth me beside the still waters—That’s Refreshment!

He restoreth my soul—That’s Healing!

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness—That’s Guidance!

For His name sake—That’s Purpose!

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death—That’s Testing!

I will fear no evil—That’s Protection!

For Thou art with me—That’s Faithfulness!

Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me—That’s Discipline!

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies—That’s Hope!

Thou anointest my head with oil—That’s Consecration!

My cup runneth over—That’s Abundance!

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life—That’s Blessing!

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord—That’s Security!

Forever—That’s Eternity!

If you are experiencing major upheaval in your life—a home in turmoil, a relationship on the rocks, a job not working out, a personal humiliation, an inconsolable sorrow, the cumulative effect of heartache and disappointment has shaken your confidence and filled you with doubt, fear and despair—then trying reading and absorbing Psalm 23. David wrote it just for you. Just grasping his first line will transform your life:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Robert Ketchum told of a Sunday School teacher who asked her class if any of them could quote the entire Twenty-Third Psalm. A little girl came forward, made a little bow, and said: “The Lord is my shepherd, that’s all I want.” She then curtsied and sat down. Now she may have overlooked a few verses, but I think she captured the key to enjoying the benefits of this psalm. Psalm 23 is a pattern of thinking, and if it saturates your mind, it will lead you to new way of living which will counterbalance the raw reality of life with hope, faith and trust, causing you to be utterly content in the Shepherd’s care.

Yeah, the Lord is my shepherd—and that’s all I want. I believe that about covers it! (Quote source here.)

I hope this has provided some new insights on a very familiar and beloved psalm. I’ll end this post with the words from Psalm 23:1

The Lord is my shepherd . . .

I shall not . . .

Want . . . .

YouTube Video: “Psalm 23” by Jeff Majors:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

On Being Confident

One of the definitions of “confidence” is “full trust; belief in the powers, trustworthiness, or reliability of a person or thing” (quote source here). Who or what do we put our confidence in when the going gets tough, or in life in general when we need it? Do we put our trust in our own abilities to get us through, or perhaps in a spouse or family and/or friends to help in time of need? Perhaps we place our trust in our employers or our government. However, they may or may not come through for us.

In answer to the question What does the Bible say about confidence?” GotQuestions.org gives the following answer:

Confidence is a popular subject today. We are told to think confidently, to be self-assured, to live brashly, boldly, and brazenly. In a myriad of ways, the theme of modern society is to be self-confident. Popular religious leaders make confidence the centerpiece of their teaching. Does the Bible agree with this “positive thinking” mantra? If the Bible teaches us to be confident, what should we be confident about? If not, why not?

The word “confidence” (or its close derivatives) is used 54 times in the King James Version and 60 times in the New International Version. The majority of uses concern trust in people, circumstances, or God.

The Bible says there are some things we should not have confidence in. For example, “Have no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). Paul wrote these words to counter the claims of those who thought they were acceptable to God based on their heredity, training, or religious devotion. God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), and our résumés and geneaologies don’t matter much to Him.

Proverbs 14:16 says that a righteous man departs from evil, but a fool rages in his confidence. In other words, to arrogantly assume that sin has no consequences is a foolish confidence.

If we’re going to be confident in something, Psalm 118:89 tells us what it should be: “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.” Those who trust in government, finances, other people, or themselves will be disappointed in the end. On the other hand, those who put their confidence in God will never be ashamed (Romans 10:11).

Psalm 16 is an excellent example of a positive confidence in God. David takes no credit for his own goodness (verse 2), nor does he extol his own abilities. Instead, every good thing is ascribed to God (verse 6), and every hope is based on God’s character (verse 1). Because God is unchanging, David can confidently rest in hope (verse 9), despite any hardships he faces in life (verse 10).

Our confidence comes from our relationship with Christ. He is our High Priest, and through His intercession, we can “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). The apostles before the Sanhedrin displayed an assurance that amazed their antagonists: “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).

We can follow God in full confidence in His wisdom, power, and plan. As we obey the Lord, we have assurance of our salvation (1 John 2:3). Also, having a good conscience aids our confidence, for we will have nothing to hide. “The righteous are as bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1).

Paul gives us something else we can have faith in: “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). Knowing that God promises to work in the lives of His children, Paul was confident that God would help the Galatians stand fast in the truth (Galatians 5:10).

When we put our trust in God and His revealed Word, our lives take on a new stability, focus, and poise. A biblical self-confidence is really a confidence in God’s Word and character. We put no confidence in our flesh, but we have every confidence in the God who made us, called us, saved us and keeps us. (Quote source here.)

Confidence is putting our trust in God. Proverbs 3:5-6 instructs us to Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” I can honestly admit that it’s hard not to want to lean on my own understanding regarding things going on in my life, yet my understanding is limited to my own perception of what is going on. None of us has the full picture of what is really going on all around us at any given point in time. That is why placing our trust in God to direct our paths is crucial.

So what does it mean to “lean not on our own understanding”? GotQuestions.org has an answer to that question, too:

Proverbs 3:5-6 is a familiar passage to many: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths.Verse 5 is a complementary pair of commands. We are told, positively, to trust the Lord and, negatively, not to trust our own understanding. Those two things are mutually exclusive. In other words, if we trust in the Lord, we cannot also depend upon our own ability to understand everything God is doing.

First Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” We only see part of the picture God is painting. If we are to truly trust Him, we have to let go of our pride, our programs, and our plans. Even the best-laid human plans cannot begin to approach the magnificent sagacity of God’s plan. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:25). 

Most of us have a desperate desire to understand, but in so many areas we must acknowledge that we cannot understand. We must approve of God’s ways, even when we can’t comprehend them. Isaiah 55:8-9 tells us why we often don’t understand what God is doing: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'” God sees the whole picture, while we only see our tiny corner of it. To trust in the Lord with all our heart means we can’t place our own right to understand above His right to direct our lives the way He sees fit. When we insist on God always making sense to our finite minds, we are setting ourselves up for spiritual trouble.

Our limited understanding can easily lead us astray. Proverbs 16:25 says, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” When we choose to direct our lives according to what seems right to us, we often reap disaster (Judges 21:25). Every culture has tried to get God to approve of its definition of right and wrong, but God never changes and His standards never change (Numbers 23:19James 1:17Romans 11:29). Every person must make a decision whether to live his or her life according to personal preference or according to the unchanging Word of God. We often will not understand how God is causing “all things to work together for good” (Romans 8:28), but when we trust Him with all our hearts, we know that He is. He will never fail us (Psalm 119:142Philippians 2:13). (Quote source here.)

Another article titled, Do Not Lean On Your Own Understanding,” (author’s name not mentioned) on ShareFaith.com, states the following:

Proverbs 3:5-6 gives God’s guidance for life–“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” These words challenge believers to put more confidence in God’s ability than in their own, to not try to analyze and figure out every detail themselves, but to place their belief in God’s wisdom, love and strength, to lean on God instead of relying on themselves or anyone else.

C. S. Lewis wrote, “To trust Him means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way.”

God makes the distinction between the heart and the mind. There is nothing wrong with using one’s mind, and this verse is not telling you to stop thinking. But some situations are complex and cannot be successfully understood and still make sense. Rather than making foolish and perhaps risky decisions and leaping off a precipice into a chasm of catastrophe, it’s much better to trust God. God is the One with foreknowledge. Proverbs 3:7 says, “Do not be wise in your own eyes.” Romans 12:16 rephrases this, “Never overestimate yourself or be wise in your own conceits.” (Amplified Bible). God is all-knowing, all-powerful and everywhere-present. He is tried, true and trustworthy. (Quote source here.)

There is an interesting story in this next article titled, Trusting With All Your Heart,” by Dr. Harold J. Sala, Founder and Chairman of the Board of Guidelines International Ministries. He writes:

One of the great promises of the Bible is found in the book of Proverbs, which came from the writing of Solomon, often called “the wisest man who ever lived.”

He wrote, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). Solomon understood that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the promises of God and their fulfillment. He knew that with almost every promise there is a condition attached to it. He also knew something of the conflict between the known and the unknown, trusting God for what you cannot see.

Today it’s difficult to trust anyone. “Never trust anyone unless you have the agreement in writing,” we say, and then, quite often, the agreement is meaningless. But the dictionary says that trust means, “assured reliance; confidence, appropriation.”

But what does “trusting with all your heart,” as Solomon advised, really mean? In Solomon’s day there were two Hebrew words for trust. They were similar yet had slightly different meanings. The first word meant that when you trust someone, you have the confidence to flee to that person, knowing there will be safety. A bully picks on you as you come home from school, or someone stops you and you are fearful for your safety, so you run to someone who is stronger, whom you know will protect you. That’s trust.

The second word is the picture of a little child who is learning to walk. His father reaches out a hand and says, “Come to daddy. I won’t let you down. I’ll catch you before you fall.” This word is the one used in Proverbs 3:5-6. It means, “to rely upon, to have confidence in someone, to lean upon another.” I like that picture, and it is the advice of the wise old sage, Solomon, who urges, “Do it with all your heart,” no matter how foolish it may appear, because God will never let you fall.

When missionary John Patton was translating the New Testament in the New Hebrides, he sought for a word which was the equivalent of this one which Solomon used, and, in the language of the people he was striving to help, there was no equivalent, at least, none that he could find.

One day a native came into his little hut and, for the first time in his life, saw a chair that the missionary had built. Though it may seem strange to you that someone would never have seen a chair, strive to remember that in many cultures, chairs, as we know them, are just not used.

“What is that?” he asked Patton. Patton then replied, “A chair–you can put your weight on it; it won’t let you down,” and ever so cautiously the native followed Patton’s example and place his full weight on the chair.

“Ah,” thought Patton, “that concept is what Solomon was saying; and thus he translated the text of Proverbs, “You can put your full weight on God and not attempt to understand everything. Acknowledge God in everything you do, and God will direct your steps.”

Our problem is our hesitation to put our full weight on God when we can’t see the future. Today, as in Solomon’s day, our own understanding is often the hindrance to trusting Him, yet if you are convinced that God won’t lie to you, that He is also accessible, and that the promises of His word become the key that opens the door to His presence, then you can rely upon His goodness to meet you.

How God does something is His business, but your failure to rest in Him and to trust Him often keeps you in poverty of soul and spiritually depleted. How much better to rest in Him and realize His understanding goes far beyond ours. Resource reading: Proverbs 3. (Quote source here.)

Our confidence comes from knowing that God is in control, and He can be trusted with our lives and our circumstances. I’ll end this post with, appropriately, the words from Proverbs 3:5-6 (NKJV): Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding…

In all your ways acknowledge Him . . .

And He shall . . .

Direct your paths . . . .

YouTube Video: “Confidence” by Sanctus Real:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

Our Endgame

The definition of endgame is “the final stages of an extended process of negotiation” (quote source here). For “Avengers” fans, the latest movie in The Avengers” series, titled Avengers: Endgame,” opens in theaters tomorrow (April 26, 2019). I’ve seen bits and pieces of the previous movies, and here’s a brief description of this latest movie:

Adrift in space with no food or water, Tony Stark sends a message to Pepper Potts as his oxygen supply starts to dwindle. Meanwhile, the remaining Avengers–Thor, Black Widow, Captain America and Bruce Banner–must figure out a way to bring back their vanquished allies for an epic showdown with Thanos — the evil demigod who decimated the planet and the universe. (Quote source here.)

Endgames are about showdowns, whether epic or not, and they are found everywhere–in games like chess, in business, in politics, in religion, in the military, in all types of relationships, and, in fact, life in general. It’s about strategies and the age old conflict between good and evil (the lines, of which, have significantly blurred of late).

I remember several years ago reading an article that mentioned Sun Tzu’s famous work, The Art of War,” was required reading in Russia’s military. Sun Tzu was an ancient Chinese general and military strategist in the 6th Century B.C. According to History.com:

Sun Tzu’s approach to warfare, unlike that of Western authors, does not put force at the center: indeed, the Chinese character “li” (force) occurs only nine times in the text’s thirteen chapters. This reflects the conditions of warfare in China at the time (force was then in fact of limited utility) as well as Sun Tzu’s conviction that victory and defeat are fundamentally psychological states. He sees war, therefore, not so much as a matter of destroying the enemy materially and physically (although that may play a role), but of unsettling the enemy psychologically; his goal is to force the enemy’s leadership and society from a condition of harmony, in which they can resist effectively, toward one of chaos (luan), which is tantamount to defeat. (Quote source here.)

This type of warfare is not fought with traditional weapons or even out in the open as on a battlefield (as in typical war scenarios). It is about using strategy and deception to conquer an enemy, and it’s base is psychological.

A chess player wrote the following about it’s value in playing the game of chess:

Although Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” was written more than 2,600 years ago and it’s not a chess book, this is one of the books that I would recommend to chess players. This work stands today as a prominent work on military strategy!

This manual is not only about war strategy, but, also about the lessons and knowledge that can be learned within a strategic framework, as is required in many aspects of life, including but not limited to war.

I recommend this book to chess players, as it is a masterpiece in strategy, which can be especially useful in preparation for a chess tournament. This book is an easy read – light and deep at the same time.

Even in this century, many high school and college faculty members use quotes from this book in their lectures. A paradox , given our dreadful advances in the technology of warfare.

That is the greatness of the “Art of War,” it is a book as old as the game of chess, and both, have stood the test of time. For it happens that the underlying science of combat remains little changed – the craft of deception, interpreting terrain, the movement of material and men, the discipline and motivation of troops. These elements are immutable, and those who must carry the sword have always turned to Sun Tzu for enlightenment and inspiration. (Quote source here.)

It requires no superheros to be effective. In an article titled, Sun Tzu’s 31 Best Pieces of Leadership Advice, by Eric Jackson, a tech and media investor, and contributor on Forbes.com, he states:

There was no greater war leader and strategist than Chinese military general Sun Tzu. His philosophy on how to be a great leader and ensure you win in work, management, and life is summed up in these 31 pieces of advice. They can all be applied by you in your job when you go back to work next week:

  1. A leader leads by example, not by force.
  2. You have to believe in yourself.
  3. Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.
  4. If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
  5. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
  6. Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.
  7. If the mind is willing, the flesh could go on and on without many things.
  8. Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.
  9. To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.
  10. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.
  11. Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?
  12. Even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust.
  13. Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.
  14. If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
  15. Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory: (1) he will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight; (2) he will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces; (3) he will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks; (4) he will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared; (5) he will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.
  16. Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.
  17. Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
  18. There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard. There are not more than five primary colors, yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.
  19. Opportunities multiply as they are seized.
  20. When the enemy is relaxed, make them toil. When full, starve them. When settled, make them move.
  21. Know yourself and you will win all battles.
  22. Move swift as the Wind and closely-formed as the Wood. Attack like the Fire and be still as the Mountain.
  23. Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.
  24. When strong, avoid them. If of high morale, depress them. Seem humble to fill them with conceit. If at ease, exhaust them. If united, separate them. Attack their weaknesses. Emerge to their surprise.
  25. All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.
  26. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.
  27. The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.
  28. Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.
  29. Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.
  30. All warfare is based on deception.
  31. When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard. (Quote source here.)

If you happen to be Christian, as you should know, deceit and deception are not a part of the Christian’s modus operandi,” although we run into it often even in Christian circles, and we are tempted to do it ourselves at times, too. Other bits of advice in “The Art of War” are just some good common sense in dealing with others; but the main premise behind “The Art of War” is how to subdue your enemy using deception and psychological warfare.

As Christians, it never hurts to understand and be aware of what others might be doing to us that is not on the “up and up” whether at work, in social circles, in relationships, and everywhere else. Reading even some of “The Art of War” (as in the 31 points listed above) will at least clue us in on how others might be operating in our lives.

We (e.g., Christians) are taught to be “shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves” (those are Jesus’ own words in Matthew 10:16). However, too often, we massively fail at the “shrewd” part in that verse.

Why do we so often “miss the mark” on being shrewd? It is probably, in no small part, in an effort to keep harmony with others; to think good about others and not evil. But there is a significant difference between being naively trusting of others and being shrewd.

In answer to the question, “What does it mean to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16)?” GotQuestions.org answers that question as follows:

In sending out the Twelve, Jesus said to them, “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16, KJV). The NIV says, “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

Jesus was using similes (figures of speech that compare two unlike things) to instruct His disciples in how to behave in their ministry. Just before He tells them to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, He warns them that they were being sent out “like sheep among wolves.”

The world, then as now, was hostile to believers—not incidentally hostile, but purposefully hostile. Wolves are intentional about the harm they inflict upon sheep. In such an environment, the question becomes “how can we advance the kingdom of God effectively without becoming predatory ourselves?” Jesus taught His followers that, to be Christlike in a godless world, they must combine the wisdom of the serpent with the harmlessness of the dove.

In using these similes, Jesus invokes the common proverbial view of serpents and doves. The serpent was “subtle” or “crafty” or “shrewd” in Genesis 3:1. The dove, on the other hand, was thought of as innocent and harmless—doves were listed among the “clean animals” and were used for sacrifices (Leviticus 14:22). To this very day, doves are used as symbols of peace, and snakes are thought of as “sneaky.”

Nineteenth-century pastor Charles Simeon provides a wonderful comment on the serpent and dove imagery: “Now the wisdom of the one and the harmlessness of the other are very desirable to be combined in the Christian character; because it is by such an union only that the Christian will be enabled to cope successfully with his more powerful enemies” (Horae Homileticae: Matthew, Vol. 11, London: Holdsworth and Ball, p. 318).

Most people don’t mind having their character compared to a dove’s purity and innocence. But some people recoil at the image of a serpent, no matter what the context. They can never see a snake in a good light, even when used by Jesus as a teaching tool. But we should not make too much of the simile. We cannot attach the evil actions of Satan (as the serpent) with the serpent itself. Animals are not moral entities. The creature itself cannot perform sin, and shrewdness is an asset, not a defect. This is the quality that Jesus told His disciples to model.

The serpent simile stands in Jesus’ dialogue without bringing forward any of the serpent’s pejoratives. It is a basic understanding in language that, when a speaker creates a simile, he is not necessarily invoking the entire potential of the words he has chosen—nor is he invoking the entire history and tenor of the linguistic vehicle. Rather, the speaker is defining a fresh relationship between the two things. A quick look at Matthew 10:16 shows that Jesus was invoking only the positive aspects of the serpent. There is no hint of His unloading Edenic baggage upon His disciples. He simply tells them to be wise (and innocent) as they represented Him.

When Jesus told the Twelve to be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves, He laid down a general principle about the technique of kingdom work. As we take the gospel to a hostile world, we must be wise (avoiding the snares set for us), and we must be innocent (serving the Lord blamelessly). Jesus was not suggesting that we stoop to deception but that we should model some of the serpent’s famous shrewdness in a positive way. Wisdom does not equal dishonesty, and innocence does not equal gullibility.

Let us consider Jesus as exemplar: the Lord was known as a gentle person. Indeed, Scripture testifies that He would not even quench a smoking flax (Matthew 12:20). But was He always (and only) gentle? No. When the occasion demanded it, He took whip in hand and chased the money changers out of the temple (John 2:15). Jesus’ extraordinarily rare action, seen in light of His usual mien, demonstrates the power of using a combination of tools. This “dove-like” Man of Innocence spoke loudly and clearly with His assertiveness in the temple.

In His more typical moments, Jesus showed that He was as wise as a serpent in the way He taught. He knew enough to discern the differences in His audiences (a critical skill), He used the story-telling technique to both feed and weed (Matthew 13:10–13), and He refused to be caught in the many traps that His enemies laid for Him (Mark 8:1110:212:13).

Jesus showed that He was as harmless as a dove in every circumstance. He lived a pure and holy life (Hebrews 4:15), He acted in compassion (Matthew 9:36), and He challenged anyone to find fault in Him (John 8:4618:23). Three times, Pilate judged Jesus to be an innocent man (John 18:3819:46).

The apostle Paul also modeled the “wise as serpents, harmless as doves” technique. Paul lived in dove-like innocence in good conscience before God (Acts 23:1) and learned to deny his carnal desires so as not to jeopardize his ministry (1 Corinthians 9:27). But Paul also displayed serpent-like shrewdness when he needed it. He knew his legal rights and used the legal system to his advantage (Acts 16:3722:2525:11). He also carefully crafted his speeches to maximize the impact on his audience (Acts 17:22–2323:6–8).

In Matthew 10:16, Jesus taught us how to optimize our gospel-spreading opportunities. Successful Christian living requires that we strike the optimal balance between the dove and the serpent. We should strive to be gentle without being pushovers, and we must be sacrificial without being taken advantage of. We are aware of the unscrupulous tactics used by the enemy, but we take the high road. Peter admonishes us, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). (Quote source here.)

In Titus 3:2 we are reminded “to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone,” and that includes those who accuse us of doing wrong or who are acting deceptively behind our backs. Such is the world in which we live, but we are not to act or react as they do.

I’ll end this post with Jesus’ words in John 13:34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you . . .

So you must . . .

Love . . .

One another . . . .

You Tube Video: “Speak Life” by TobyMac:

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