As we begin our study on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we start with the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. Verses 3-11 all begin with “Blessed are …” and contain some wonderful promises for those who live righteously before God and man.

One commentator I read this week defined “blessed” as approved or finding approval. I like this in that it isn’t so easily confused with happiness as the word blessing sometimes is. Certainly, scripture doesn’t promise easy lives to those who commit their lives to Christ. What it does promise, though, is God’s approval when we reflect Him in our actions, attitudes and motivations.

Stop and think about that for a second. God’s approval. Hmm … I think I’m a pretty nice guy. I treat people nicely, I work hard, I even read my Bible regularly. But am I receiving God’s approval, or am I just approving myself based on a comparison with people around me?

Let me look at what Jesus says here in the Beatitudes:

  • Poor in spirit (vs 3). Am I self-sufficient, or do I go to (and rely on) God for everything? Do I only go to Him when I need help?
  • Mourn (vs 4). Have I developed a tolerance for small sins like white lies, or do I really grieve when I see myself acting outside of God’s will?
  • Meek (vs 5). Do I have a right view of myself in relation to God? Is it self-confidence, or God-confidence that I have?
  • Hungry for righteousness (vs 6). I’ll eat meals here and there, maybe some snacks in between, but do I regularly crave the approval of God such that it consumes my thoughts and corrects my motivations?

I confess that I’m not measuring up as well as I’d like to. In these first verses of His sermon, Jesus reminds us that being comfortable and confident isn’t a sign of being blessed, but could in fact be what’s keeping us from it. His descriptions run counter to popular philosophy that promotes self-confidence, success, whatever-it-takes, and recognition from others.

Whose approval matters most? Slow down on these verses and let them challenge you the way they’re challenging me. We’ll continue these Beatitudes next week.


When our trash spills out

Despite our best intentions, we occasionally say and do things that hurt others, especially those we love most. Often times our pride and fear – the same things that usually create the mess to begin with – keep us from properly making amends.

Pride tells us our hurtful words and actions are justified and we have nothing to apologize for. Fear tells us to protect our image or we will be disrespected, dominated or deemed inadequate. The result of this pride and fear is a battle for control that only prolongs bad feelings and undermines the trust needed in a healthy relationship.

Take care to tidy up

Being the first to apologize is not a sign of weakness, nor does it mean that the other person is right. On the contrary, a sincere apology displays strength of character and true concern for the feelings and dignity of the person we’ve offended.

Scripture clearly teaches us to be humble and not hold ourselves in higher esteem than others. And as husbands and fathers, we desire to protect our families against anything that would harm them physically, emotionally and spiritually. The combination of these two qualities – humility and strength – is called meekness. It’s a quality that pleases God and helps create a safe, healthy environment for everyone involved.

The bottom line is this: Surrender your pride and apologize when you hurt someone. It shows obedience, courage, humility, love and strength.

Olympic Training

“Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come”
– lyrics from Amazing Grace

We’re in the middle of the 2010 Winter Olympics where the world’s best athletes compete in a variety of team and individual sports. Perhaps with the exception of Curling, we’re cheering on athletes who have trained years, decades, their lifetime, to compete at the level it takes to set world records and beat the best of the best.

The Canadian figure skating pair who won gold have trained together since they were 7 years old. Apolo Anton Ohno wasn’t even 10 when his father took him to the speed skating track to begin his training. The focus, the determination, the sacrifice, the hope they’ve held onto all these years – it’s inspiring and it’s the reason they’re now on our television sets with Bob Costas telling their stories.

Our study in the book of James begins with James identifying himself as an athlete coach who is competing in his second or third Olympics, talking to younger athletes just getting started. Actually, bondservant is the word he uses to describe himself, and it means that he has willingly and knowingly devoted himself to Christ, forsaking the freedom he might otherwise have had to live life his own way. He has an eternal gold medal in mind, and that hope is worth so much to him that it’s worth the injuries, disappointments and inconveniences he knows he’ll encounter along the way.

It’s our choice as well. A decision we make each day – whether to quit, abandon our training regimen, pursue a simpler goal, or … to press on. No trainer or coach can guarantee that an athlete won’t get hurt, that every referee will score fairly, or that every opponent will compete honorably. As athletes who run the race and press toward the goal of Christ Jesus, we know it’s going to be tough.

I’ve never heard about an average Joe who never trained, yet got a spot on their country’s Olympic team and went on to win a medal. It just doesn’t happen that way. We have to train. We have to make the choice. We have to overcome the setbacks. We give up our free time, the easy life and a fast food diet in exchange for a lifetime of medal pursuit. Every trial along the way presents an opportunity for us to double-check our priorities, to commit ourselves to the direction from our Coach, and to develop the endurance it takes to be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

The great Cellist Pablo Casals practiced five hours a day even when he was in his eighties.  A friend asked him, “With all that you have achieved, why don’t you take it easy?  Why do you still practice so many hours a day?”  Casals answered, “Because I think I’m getting better.”

Stick with the training. Persevere. Endure. Discipleship is a process of continuous growth.  And the prize medal is worth it – it’s something moth or rust cannot destroy!

Abiding in Christ

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of
itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide
in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me,
and I in him, bears much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.
– John 15:4-5

An intimate relationship with God is the highest goal of a true Christian, but what that looks like has been the subject of much confusion since even before Christ. Almost every one of the Old Testament prophets speaks to the pretense and show of “religious” people who, in fact, were far from truly knowing God. Jesus confronted this head on with the Pharisees and Sadducees of His day as well. They mistook God’s laws as a ‘to do’ list that they could complete to earn favor with God. But Jesus clearly said in many ways: God doesn’t want us to do more for Him. He wants us to be more with Him.

In his book He Loves Me, author Wayne Jacobsen explains Jesus’ encounter with the young rich man in Matthew 19. Jesus wasn’t merely confronting the man’s greed – he was exposing his faulty theology. When we look closely, we see it in the way the man worded his question to Jesus: “Good teacher, … what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

At least as far as he was concerned, he had kept all the law. Yet his question itself shows that he still hadn’t gained assurance of eternal life, and that he wasn’t sure how to get there. He wanted something more to DO. His focus was on works.

When Jesus gave him another work to do – go and sell everything he owned and give it to the poor – the rich man walked away sad. But before you label him as greedy, consider whether you would have given your life to Christ if selling everything you owned was the requirement. Jesus wanted him to realize that he couldn’t earn God’s approval by his own efforts. “Stop striving, stop pretending, stop doing all the other silly things you’re trying to do to earn that which you can never earn!”

Now contrast that with the blind beggar in Matthew 20. He simply said, “I want my sight.” Not “what must I do …”

“… for without Me you can do nothing.”

Back in John 15, Jesus has talked about discipline to remove sin, about pruning to change priorities, and now He talks about the source of all that we are – where the branch (us) abides in the vine (Him). A grape branch that is severed from the trunk and lying on the ground cannot produce a single new leaf, flower or grape.

What does Abiding with God look like?

  • Abiding is with a person, not a belief or a program
  • Set apart time where you can write, study, talk, read
  • Savor God’s Words to you – it’s not speed reading
  • Talk and listen to Him as a person
  • Practice the presence of God –it is possible to abide with Jesus while doing something
  • Praise Him for who He is, for what He’s done
  • Keep a written record of what God is doing in your life

Abiding helps us sense the leading of the Lord – we learn to recognize His still small voice. It’s not about our hands and our feet, it’s about our ears and our heart. Ask. Share. Listen. Read. Praise. Respond. Abide.

Challenge for the week:

  • Identify your “abiding busters” – those thoughts that keep you from spending time with Him. (I’m already a good man; I don’t feel anything; He doesn’t like me; I’m too busy; this little sin doesn’t matter)
  • Spend at least 5 minutes a day in quiet prayer, just you and Him. Confess your sins, express your needs and concerns, thank Him for His provision, ask Him for direction. Then listen.
    • I know that it’s sometimes hard to stop your thoughts and clear your mind, so this really has to be a deliberate effort. It’s a great practice to get into, though, and soon you’ll find that the impressions that come to you during this time are not your thoughts at all, but His!

“Every branch that bears fruit He prunes,
that it may bear more fruit.”  – John 15:2

Part 1 of this series showed us God’s reason for disciplining us when we go astray. But pruning is different than discipline, and it’s something that Jesus’ analogy of a vineyard helps us to see.

In his book Secrets of the Vine, author Bruce Wilkinson describes an experience in a California vineyard where he learned the purpose of pruning – to remove any leaves that hinder sunlight from reaching the clusters of grapes. Pruning is not dealing with wayward branches, it’s helping healthy, fruit-bearing branches bear even more fruit.

What does God’s pruning look like?

It’s important that we know and recognize the difference between discipline and pruning. Put simply, God disciplines us to rid us of sin when we’re disobeying Him. He prunes us, however, to rid us of self when we’re putting other things in front of Him. He often starts by pruning our activities and schedule, while mature pruning often deals with our values.

Make no mistake – pruning shears cut, and cutting hurts. We experience various trials that feel painful and test us in multiple ways. But throughout scripture we see God using this method to focus our attention on the affections, activities or attitudes that He desires to prune from our lives. Looking at the short list below, can you identify any areas that He’s been trying to get your attention?

  • Your commitment to God
  • Your values
  • Your money and possessions
  • Your gifts and talents
  • Your relationships
  • Your sources of significance
  • Your time

Why does God prune us?

Considering all that we’ve read and discussed in our study of Secrets of the Vine, it seems to me that God has 3 purposes in pruning us.

  1. He wants our undivided attention. In Matthew 6:33, Jesus says “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness”
  2. He wants to develop our character. In James 1:2-4, we see that God uses trials to produce perseverance and patience. 1 Peter 1:7 tells us that it refines us just as gold is refined, proving our faith genuine.
  3. His ways are higher than ours. While we often think of our own circumstances and struggles, God has a bigger game plan in mind. Paul shows us in Philippians 1:12-14 that his imprisonment served the bigger purpose of spreading the gospel throughout the palace guard and to everyone else. (Which includes us, some 2000 years later!)

How should we respond?

Pruning is only as effective as we permit it to be. If we ignore what God’s trying to show us, we miss the opportunity to experience Him in a greater way. Or worse, we confuse God’s motivation in allowing a trial and we become angry or resentful, which separates us from God. Next thing we know, we’re back into discipline again!

The better response, then, is to acknowledge that God is trying to get our attention and ask Him to reveal any sin in our lives. Trust Him to tell you why, and be open to whatever source He may use to tell you. Personally, I prefer it when He corrects me quietly in my conscience or through my Bible reading. But then sometimes He uses a word from someone else and I have to deal with embarrassment. I’ve even known Him to use something my wife says, forcing me to work through my pride before I can learn what He’s trying to teach me.

Challenge for the week:

  • Identify the top 3 challenges that you’re facing right now.
  • Spend deliberate time talking to God about them, making sure to listen for His response. (Don’t be too quick with the “amen!”)
  • If He’s trying to get your attention on something, purpose to make the adjustments He wants
  • If He hasn’t shown you the reason for the challenge, demonstrate perseverance and patience. Think ‘future harvest’

Jesus begins John 15 by identifying Himself as the vine, God as the vinedresser, and us as the branches. That’s not so bad until we get to His next statement about branches that don’t bear fruit getting cut off.

Whoa! That’s not such a loving picture. God is love, right? Jesus then goes on to tell us every branch that does bear fruit gets pruned so that it will bear more fruit. Cutting off? Pruning? Remember, we’re the branches here. Ouch!

So the trials we face are brought on by God for the purpose of punshing us and getting our attention? Sometimes, yes.

Jesus said in John 15:2 that every branch in Him that is not bearing fruit gets cut off. We see two things here: an unfruitful branch and a displeased God. I’ll put the question of whether “cutting off” means we can lose our salvation on a back burner for now. Let’s first look at what God’s trying to do with this unfruitful branch.

What does God’s discipline look like?

God uses different methods and different intensities of discipline when we’re a wayward branch growing in our own direction. It may start with a quiet conviction in our spirit or a rebuke from someone around us. But if we don’t pay attention, our wrong path will eventually produce consequences of conflict and pain – emotional, relational, financial, health. It’s the consequence when we stop seeking and listening to God. Yet He desperately wants us to return. (Remember the father in the Prodigal Son parable?)

Why does God discipline us?

God deserves and desires our attention, so He disciplines us to get our focus back on Him where it belongs. Of course, the memory of a painful spanking also serves as a reminder not to repeat the wrong behavior! In Hebrews 12:10-11 we read, “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

So the answer to my question above is yes, God is love. And that love often requires discipline. The good news is that God only disciplines out of love, and it stops when we turn ourselves back to Him.

We’re certainly not done discussing this topic, so come back for more as we distinguish “cutting off” from “pruning.”

Whom the LORD loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights. – Proverbs 3:12

The season of joy?

Ah, Christmas time! Lights, presents, carols, parties – these are the fun parts of the season. But then there are the not-so-fun parts as well, like traffic, materialism, short tempers and fruitcake. The common sources of stress, like relationships, finances and schedules, all seem to go up a notch or two. And then there’s the sad fact that suicides peak this time of year.

Not to be a pessimist, but is this really the season of joy then? I mean, all things considered – the good and the bad – are we really joyful? I guess it depends on your definition of joy.

Let’s start by drawing a distinction between happiness and joy. Not the same thing. You see, happiness depends on circumstances and people. It’s temporary. Joy, on the other hand, is the confident assurance of God’s work in our lives, regardless of what’s happening around us. That’s the kind of joy Paul wrote about in his letter to the Philippians.

When Paul wrote that letter somewhere between 55 and 62AD, he was sitting in a prison, probably chained to a jailor, and facing the death penalty. If anyone had reason to feel dejected, he did. Yet this book gives us some of our most uplifting scriptures, like “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!”

After acknowledging God’s purpose for his imprisonment, Paul switches gears in chapter 2 and talks about imitating Christ’s humility. Stop and consider the subject and we discover that he had a good reason for this. There’s direct link between humility and joy.

True humility has its focus on God. It acknowledges His sovereignty and our role as His servants. It requires setting aside our agendas, our desires, even our emotions, and submitting ourselves to God’s purpose for us. If our heart’s desire is to know God, then finding ourselves where HE wants us to be is a reason to celebrate – even if the being there doesn’t feel that good.

Now bring that back to your world. Are you in a demanding job? No job at all? A relationship struggle? Financial pressure? Whether you feel it or not, God is with you! Admit that you need Him (humble yourself). Spend time with Him in prayer. Read your Bible. Do what you feel He’s leading you to do. I can tell you from experience that you’ll start to feel His presence.

And when you sense God with you (Immanuel), and you seek His help to will and to act according to His good purpose in your circumstance, you’ll get much more than a temporary pleasure or a happy feeling. You’ll find true joy!