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My testimony

My Sunday School class was challenged this week to write out our personal testimonies of how we came to know and trust Christ. Here is my story:

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I was raised in a Christian home by parents who studied the Word, taught the Word, and tried their best to live by the Word. I was baptized at a young age and did all the right church things as a kid. I never ‘rejected’ my faith or challenged the reality of Christ’s work on the cross, but I stopped embracing it somewhere in my late teens. As a young adult, I was consumed with typical motivations (career, education, marriage) rather than seeking or following God. I ended up with a nice resume, a crumbling marriage and a knowledge deep within about where I went wrong.

30 years old, divorced  and depressed, I thought I could anonymously attend a local church to get some kind of emotional lift. God had a different idea. Out of no effort on my part, God led both the pastor and the music minister to seek me out, befriend me and lead me back to Him. Over the next 5 years, these two men (with very different backgrounds and testimonies) became my closest friends. Their accountability and fellowship helped my faith grew in breadth and depth.

Today at 40, I am committed to continued growth. Every day I see opportunities to live by the Spirit versus living for, or reacting out of, my flesh. I certainly make mistakes, but there’s a peace that comes from knowing and sensing God’s presence with me. It is convicting at times, confidence-building at other times, and comforting always. I am just one piece of His plan for this earth, and an important piece of His plan for my wife, my son and my community. So that’s where I am today, still seeking His help in my daily life.

When I think back on my story, I recall the weight of that anchor of shame that I used to drag around. Now, I carry only a certificate that says, “Not Guilty Anymore.”

Matthew 6 begins with Jesus teaching about the substance of our spirituality, specifically the reasons that we do what we do. His purpose is to show us what is pleasing to God versus what is empty and fake.

Jesus makes examples of certain “spiritual men” who did the right things, but with the wrong motivations. His name for them: hypocrites. Our word hypocrite comes from the Greek word hupokrites which means an actor under an assumed character. A stage player. A pretender – not the real thing.

Could He be talking about me? It’s been a long time since I’ve issued a press release about my tithe, stood on a corner and prayed a loud prayer, or torn my clothes, sprinkled ashes on my head and made a big show of fasting. But still these verses prompt me to stop and examine the authenticity of my spiritual life – my faith, actions and words.

  • Am I really seeking God, or just going through the motions of church and a weekly men’s group?
  • Am I really talking with God, or just throwing words in His direction? Am I even listening?
  • Am I trying to create or protect a reputation, or am I working to develop God’s character?
  • Am I the real deal, or a pretender?

You don’t have to be a news junkie to know that these are troubling and challenging times. Our media, our schools, even some of our churches are moving away from God’s Word and His Truth, feeding instead our egos and an unbiblical notion of individual freedom. And acting spiritual isn’t going to change anything, much less save us. So if that’s all we’re doing we might as well stop. In Matthew 7:23, Jesus looked at one such actor (who had convinced himself, even) and said, “Depart from me. I never knew you.”

The message for us today: It’s time to get real. You might have once dreamed of winning the Academy Award for best actor, but I assure you that you don’t want Jesus to be the one giving it to you!

In our study thus far in Matthew 5 (the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus has addressed the following topics:

  • murder, anger, bitterness (vs 21-26)
  • adultery, lust (vs 27-30)
  • divorce (vs 31-32)
  • swearing, lies, honesty (vs 33-37)
  • revenge, getting even (vs 38-42)
  • hate, discrimination (vs 43-48)

When I stopped focusing on the topics themselves, a common thread connecting all of these issues became readily apparent: the selfishness of man. All of our efforts to do what feels best and to distance ourselves from unpleasant situations or relationships – they all stem from our self-serving priorities. (See the July 2nd post titled “Rights vs. Wrong“)

Problem/Solution

Have you been upstaged by someone at work? Treated unfairly? Wronged in some way? Then by all means, you have a right to be angry, to disassociate yourself, to pass judgment and to warn others about how bad the other person is.

Is your sex life not as fulfilling as it was in your youth? Maybe not as exciting or novel as it was when you first married? Close the door and log onto the internet, or watch late night HBO and Cinemax.

Does your wife not understand you anymore? Is she more of a nag than a friend? Does she not want to do the things that interest you? Divorce her. Move on. Live while you can. There may be some short term pain, but then you’re free, man! It’s worth it.

Need to get out of a commitment without losing face or hurting someone’s feelings? Make up a believable excuse. It’s just a white lie. Nobody gets hurt, and there’s a pretty small chance that you’re going to get caught.

Are you the victim of an injustice? Then get even. They deserve it. They made their bed, now they can lie in it.

Do you have someone who opposes you or what you stand for? Maybe a colleague or a family member who seems bent on discrediting you or taking you down? Mount a strategy against them to defend yourself and protect your interests, your reputation and your ego.

Even if you haven’t directly heard the advice offered above, you’ve surely thought it. It comes naturally to our flesh-nature, it’s how our enemy wants us to respond, and it’s what our society advocates. (Look at the plot of any blockbuster movie.) But this modern ‘wisdom’ is exactly what Jesus is confronting in Matthew 5, and the message is as relevant today as it was then.

Thankfully, Jesus gives us the cure for the selfish condition that He just diagnosed us with, and it’s found at the beginning of Matthew 5.

  • Recognize your need for Christ (be poor in spirit)
  • Acknowledge the seriousness of sin (mourn)
  • Have a right view of yourself in relation to God (be meek), and
  • Obey Him and His Word as your highest priority (hunger and thirst for righteousness)

In the second half of Matthew 5, Jesus clears up common misunderstandings and perversions to the law that God gave Israel in the Old Testament. By Jesus’ day, scripture had been fashioned into a complicated ‘to do’ list rather than what it was intended to be – a  guide to knowing God. Sadly, this is as true today (or more so) as it was when Jesus first spoke on that hillside. We have religion, but do we have relationship?

The first of many clarifications that Jesus makes addresses our attitudes toward others. This shouldn’t be a surprise to us since He later teaches that next to loving God, loving others is to be our highest priority. Yet we usually think about the “love others” command in terms of charity work for people we don’t really know. In this piece of His sermon, though, Jesus applies it directly to people we know – specifically people with whom we are angry.

“The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”
- Oliver Wendell Holmes

I’ve always liked that quote by Holmes. But when I think on that quote in light of Jesus’ teaching, I see plainly where our problem is: our perception of what we have a right to. I have a right to be angry with so-and-so because they did such-and-such. Jesus teaches here and elsewhere that it’s the condition of our heart that effects all that we do and say. Calling someone a fool doesn’t seem comparable to committing murder, but they both stem from a wrong motivation. And it’s that motivation, the condition of the heart, that Jesus is talking about.

Our country’s Declaration of Independence makes claim to certain unalienable rights. All fine and good, so long as we heed the point Jesus makes here. We will be subject to judgment for demanding and defending our rights just as we will if we committed homicide. Our anger displays a self-centered heart as much as an act of murder does.

Jesus got angry, you know. Remember when He drives the money changers out of the temple? But His motivation wasn’t about Himself, how He was treated or what He deserved. No, Jesus’ reason for becoming angry was because people were creating obstacles that kept others from worshiping God. His anger wasn’t out of a selfish heart, but rather a loving heart wanting to see others come to know God.

Speaking of worshipping God, Jesus specifically tells us here that it is more important for us to be reconciled with others than it is for us to perform some religious duty. The latter becomes pretense and sham if the first is not done.

Here’s what that might look like applied:
Going to church every week, attending a men’s group, giving 10% of our income – these things don’t give us godly character. Loving others toward Christ, especially at the expense of our personal rights, now that demonstrates godly character.

Do you harbor anger in your heart? Don’t. Lay down your right to be offended and give grace instead. Remember our definition of grace: giving what is not deserved.

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20 are some tough verses that confuse some and are skipped over by others. We are tempted to dismiss their importance today because the Mosaic Law with its rules about sacrifice and ceremony simply don’t apply to our lives in 21st century America. Yet all scripture is put there by God for a reason (2 Timothy 3:16), so we dare not ignore it.

Let’s make a quick outline of the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:

  • The Beatitudes. He teaches about the character God wants us to possess – how we view ourselves in relation to Him, how we view sin in our lives, and how we treat others.
  • Warning about conflict. Just like the prophets in the Old Testament, we can expect to experience conflict with the world as we exhibit these qualities in our lives.
  • Be salt and light. When we walk with God, we are filled with the light of His truth instead of the darkness of sin. This light makes us distinct and presents an opportunity for others to come to know God because of the difference they see in us. Like salt, we should capitalize on the opportunities to influence others, teach them about Christ, and thus preserve them from eternal death. All the while, we must be careful not to become corrupted by the world and rendered useless (“tasteless salt”).
  • Jesus came to fulfill, not destroy the Law. For the rest of Matthew 5, Jesus explains the intent of the Old Testament Law as it related to real-life issues where the religious leaders of that day were missing the point. (“You have heard it said …, But I tell you …”) He explains that His purpose is not to denounce the Law, but rather to explain it and fulfill it.

The Mosaic Law that Jesus talks about included much more than the 10 Commandments we learned as kids. It also included rules for worshiping God, for interacting with others, for attending to physical needs (food, drink, health) and more. But recall that this Law wasn’t given to everyone. No, it was only given to the Jews – God’s chosen people. And why did God give His Law to the Jews?

  • Because He wanted them to know what He desired (Romans 7:7)
  • He wanted them to recognize their need for Him (Galatians 3:24), and
  • He wanted the Jews to be different from the nations around them, that by standing out, all nations would take notice and come to discover God for themselves

Do you see the similarities between the Law and Jesus’ teaching already in Matthew 5? This Sermon on the Mount begins with the same message and purpose as the Law that God gave to the Jews some thousand or so years before. In Moses’ day, in Jesus’ day, and now still today, God wants three things from us:

  1. To exhibit His character
  2. To develop a relationship with Him (instead of a ritual or religion), and
  3. To be an incorruptible influence to the world around us

Thank goodness Jesus doesn’t stop His ministry there! As we’ll see going forward, He not only teaches the what and the why, but most importantly, the how.

Challenge for the week:

  1. Do a bulb-check on yourself. How much light is in your life right now? If there’s the darkness of sin or the absence of God’s truth, deal with it!
  2. Do a saline test. How salty are you? Are you retaining your saltiness and influencing those around you?

The hard life

As we come to the end of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, Jesus gives hope and a giant promise for those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

But what about me? Raised in a Christian home, Christian friends, an office full of Christians, a Bible-teacher wife – hardly a life of persecution for my faith. Yet I strongly believe that every piece of scripture is applicable still today, so I dare not dismiss these words of Jesus or their importance to me. What does persecution look like for me, then?

Well my immediate observation is that Jesus doesn’t say that every person will experience persecution or in equal proportion. Matthew 5:10 says, “Bless are those who have been persecuted …” For those who haven’t, or haven’t been in the same way, stand firm and be on guard! Your time may well come.

My second observation is that my very effort to live God’s way is persecuted by the “me first” message of the world. Each attribute that Jesus commended in the previous verses stands in contrast to my sin nature and the prevalent mindset of society. For example:

Commended by Jesus The opposing attitude
Poor in spirit Pride, self-sufficiency
Mourning sin Indifference, self-justified
Meekness Pride, jealousy, “I deserve it,” “take care of #1″
Hunger for righteousness Lust of the flesh, out-of-whack priorities
Merciful spirit Apathy, unforgiveness, “get what you deserve”
Pure of heart Hypocrisy, secret sins, deception
Peacemaker Argumentative, temper, prejudice

I’ve put up with momentary teasing when I’ve declined invitations to go to a strip club on business trips before, but saying no to those are a piece of cake compared to the daily fight to stay on the left side of the list above.

Challenge for the week:

  • Write the “good” list above on a notecard or somewhere where you see it every morning. Your Bible, if that’s your morning habit. Perhaps your car dashboard, or tucked in the holster of your cell phone.
  • Then pray that God would develop these attitudes in you each day.
  • Confess and make right when you know you missed the mark.
  • Make this a conscious, deliberate quest this week. Jesus promises blessing and His help in the process.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.   - Matthew 5:8

As we continue our survey of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, I couldn’t help but camp out on God’s approval (blessing) for the pure in heart. I believe in Jesus, acknowledge my need for Him and accept His free gift of salvation. So do I a ‘pure in heart’ sticker? When do I get to see God?

In my meditations last week on the “blessed are those who mourn” Beatitude, I was reminded of Paul’s exclamation in Romans 7 – “What a wretched man I am! Who will set me free from this body of death?” I totally relate to this. My sin nature is ever-present, constantly tempting me to do what I know I shouldn’t. If I’m honest with myself – like Paul was in Romans 7 – then I’ve got a real pollution problem. Instead of a pure heart, mine is tainted. Maybe I don’t qualify for a sticker after all.

This awareness of my sin nature didn’t just suddenly hit me this past week. But what I’m reminded of in this study is the effect sin has on my live. It hinders my ability to see God – my ability to see where He’s leading me, what His plan is for me, what He’s wanting to teach me, how He’s answering my prayers (or why He’s not).

If we want to see God so we can live life His way, we have to deal with our pollution problem. Here’s how:

Step 1: Stop polluting the heart with sin

  • What kind of company do you keep?
  • What kind of jokes do you laugh at?
  • What kind of movies do you watch?
  • What websites do you visit?

Step 2: Deal with the remnants of pollution already in the heart

  • Is there a resentment or unforgiveness you need to deal with?
  • Is there something you need to apologize for?

The good news is that we have help with our cleanup work. 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

I cherish the time I spend each week with the two men I meet with for accountability. We have given each other complete access and permission to ask the tough questions – the private, embarrassing, none-of-your-business kind of questions – to keep each other on the right path. If you’re not already meeting with an accountability partner or are unsure what that would look like, read this good article and prayerfully choose someone to start with. It’s an investment of time and transparency that helps tremendously with having a pure heart. Who knows, you might even get a sticker.

Seriously, read this article!

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