Self-Imposed Chains

blur chains chrome close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

By Michael W. Raley

I failed to recognize my chains

Until I was set free,

Empowered by the knowledge

That I held the key.

At any time,

I could’ve walked away

And not resided in that prison

For another wasted day.

Ignorance is not bliss

When you think about your life,

The opportunities and joys missed

When we are embittered and in bondage

To things present, things future, and things past.

We fill ourselves with complaint and outrage

And wonder why the good times didn’t last.

We fume about things out of our control

And bicker about the politics and melodrama

Never realizing the toll

This takes on our energy and our spirits.

My brother, my sister, my friend,

It is not too late to change the story,

You are the writer who can change the end

And begin to enjoy this one live you’ve been given.

The Importance of Resolve

As 2017 comes to a close, many people await the new year with hope and optimism for a fresh start. Being the realist that I am, I know that 2018 will present its challenges the same as 2017 and every year before it. There’s a popular adage that goes, “It’s not how you start, but how you finish,” which I find to be a proper mindset for how we should approach life.

All of us at some point have probably undertaken something new- a relationship, a project, a goal, a job, or any other endeavor with enthusiasm and eagerness, only to find them replaced with frustration and weariness.

“I didn’t sign up for this.”

“What did I get myself into?”

“I’m in way over my head.”

“This is not what I was expecting.”

“This sucks. I quit.”

I’ll admit those very same thoughts entered my mind and overstayed their welcome like an unwanted house guest. However, I served an eviction notice as I regained a modicum of control over what I could control- my responses and my resolve. As I write this, I am forty years old, soon to be forty-one, and I am still learning about life and myself. I’ve learned that you’re never too old to take on a challenge because life will present you with plenty.

Not speaking in a prideful or boastful manner, what 2017 has taught me is the importance of resolve and believing in myself. There will be times when you face the test alone. Someone else may not be in the position to help you out and God may be silent on the subject, so what do you do? Open your own tool box and get to building a better life for yourself. Realize that you have what it takes. What you have will be different than everybody else, but that is what makes you you. Drop the comparisons to others, because you will be discouraged and talk yourself into quitting. Keep your goals and expectations realistic. Strengthen your resolve in this upcoming year. Stay determined. Stay focused. See it through because the struggle will be worth it.

The Throne of Our Thoughts

In the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul, like a great trial lawyer, goes point by point to build his theological case. Romans serves as one of the foundational books that explains the Christian faith and is also one of the primary books Christians use to share the Gospel with others (also known as the “Romans Road”). Paul’s theology in Romans is like his other Epistles in that it is practical and can be applied to everyday life. One of the important areas Paul stresses is the need for us to renew our minds and change our thoughts.

Paul uses five different Greek words to describe our minds and the pattern of our thinking. What we think has a direct effect on our lives. If we try to think in more positive terms, we will be able to adapt to the constant change that is life. However, if we continuously focus on the negative, the hurt, the rejection, we will live a life of self-defeat, fear, and anxiety. As I have stated in past posts, we cannot control what happens to us, we can only control our responses to what happens.

Our Thoughts Represent our Power and Authority

As Christians, we believe in and serve a living and powerful God. However, we must also contend with our very real enemy, Satan, our own sinful natures, and daily interactions with others. Think of your mind as a throne. A throne represents a seat of power and authority for a king or queen. If a monarch chooses not to rule with their given authority or if they abdicate their throne, they are no longer in charge. To what and to whom we choose to think about determines if we are really on the throne of our minds. In fact, the word used the most for mind in Romans is the Greek word Nous (Strong’s #3563), which means, “The intellect- the seat of the will, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.” The following verses speak of a matter of voluntary surrender, good or bad, when it comes to our minds and our wills. Thus, in order for our thoughts, wills, and lives to line up with what the Word says, it is a matter of choice.

“And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient.” (Romans 1:28, KJV).

“But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.” (Romans 7:23-25, KJV).

“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (Romans 12:1-2, KJV).

Our Thoughts Shape our Spiritual Reality

Throughout Romans, Paul makes the use of contrast between the renewed spiritual life we have in Christ and the continuous war of the carnal life we live within our sinful natures (or flesh if you prefer). The Greek word Paul uses is Phroneo (Strong’s 5426), which means “to be minded in a certain way” concerning our opinions and sentiments.

“For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.” (Romans 8:6, KJV).

“Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.” (Romans 12:16, KJV).

Our Thoughts are Seeds

Paul switches words from Romans 8:5 to Romans 8:6, to show the contrast. Here, Paul uses the word Phronema (Strong’s 5427), which means “what one has in mind or thought.” We have to think of our thoughts as seeds. No matter what type of seed it is- all seeds need the proper amount of light, soil conditions and water to grow. Our thoughts are no different, what we allow to grow in our minds can change a beautiful garden into a dried-up wasteland.

“For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be…And He that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because He maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:6-7, 27, KJV).

Our Thoughts Should Bring Harmony

It is a given that we will encounter difficult people. It is easy to find an everyday occurrence where we can allow someone or a situation to make us angry. We can choose to hold onto bitterness and not forgive others. However, we are not living life in the Spirit if we follow our carnal inclinations. Instead, our thoughts toward our brothers and sisters and our fellow man, in order to bring glory to God. The word Paul uses in Romans 15:6 is Homothumadon (Strong’s #3661), which means to be “unanimous, in one accord.”

“Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be like minded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:5-6, KJV).

 The Battle for our Thoughts and our Mission

With every day we are blessed enough to live, we will have a raging battle for our minds. Just because you fight of a negative thought on Monday does not necessarily mean you will not have to fight it on Tuesday or any other day. Our minds are like muscles and we must keep them strong and in shape. We can fortify our minds not only by reigning from the throne of our thoughts, but by remembering every battle we have won. In essence, we need to remind ourselves daily of the victories and God’s grace. The word used to describe this situation is Epanamimnesko (Strong’s #1878), which means “to remind again.” We must remember our mission in this life.

“Nevertheless, brethren, I have written the more boldly unto you in some sort, as putting you in mind, because of the grace that is given to me of God. That I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost. ” (Romans 15:15-16, KJV).

 

Book Review: The Practice of the Presence of God

In an ongoing series, I will be reviewing and sharing some of the influential books that have helped me on my life’s journey.

If you desire to be a better athlete, musician, public speaker, writer, artist, chef, or anything else in life, you need continuous practice. Natural ability and talent can go so far, but to further hone one’s skills, one must take the time to practice. Brother Lawrence in his book, The Practice of the Presence of God, humbly and brilliantly shows us how to increase God’s presence in our lives through our daily practice of living.

Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection (1614-1691) was born Nicholas Herman and served God as a lay-brother in a Carmelite monastery in Paris, France. The Practice of the Presence of God is a combination of conversations, letters, and spiritual maxims Brother Lawrence had with various people and was compiled and published after his death by his friend, Joseph de Beaufort.

Brother Lawrence states, “The presence of God is the concentration of the soul’s attention on God, remembering that He is always present.”[1]

The principles put forth are so simple and profound, we can easily overlook them in the overly busy, overly frustrating, and overstimulating days that make up our Twenty-First Century lives. You do not need advanced theology to understand that God is omnipresent, always with us, but do we take the time to acknowledge Him during our day?

“Brother Lawrence insisted that, to be constantly aware of God’s presence, it is necessary to form the habit of continually talking with Him throughout each day. To think that we must abandon conversation with Him in order to deal with the world is erroneous. Instead, as we nourish our souls by seeing God in His exaltation, we will derive a great joy at being His.”[2]

No matter if he worked in the monastery kitchen, the monastery shoe repair shop, or just going into town to get supplies, Brother Lawrence dedicated everything He did to God. It was out of his love for God that Brother Lawrence sought to please God, not to be rewarded, but to show adoration for God’s grace in his life.

“He [Brother Lawrence] was content doing the smallest chore if he could do it purely for the love of God.”[3]

We often think that we need to do great things for God in order for Him to love us. However, Brother Lawrence insisted that we can bring God and ourselves joy in the simplest of chores. Imaging cooking for your family and how often that is a thankless chore we can come to dread. But, what if we were to view cooking for our family as a way to show God thankfulness for the family that we have? What if we were to take a lesson from Brother Lawrence and thank God before we began a chore and thank Him afterwards for the opportunity?

“Brother Lawrence declared that he felt much closer to God in his day-to-day activites than most people ever believed to be possible.”[4]

Another way Brother Lawrence practiced God’s presence was to speak to Him openly and frankly, as if he was talking to his best friend. It was said that Brother Lawrence went to God in all matters great and small and discussed them with Him.

Of course we know our modern world is full of distractions- smart phones, the Internet, television, movies, video games, and other sources of entertainment. These distractions, if we allow them to, will take our energy and focus away from enjoying God’s presence. According to Brother Lawrence, we must direct our thoughts toward God and God’s presence. If we do get distracted, we can simply repent and begin again. Overall, The Practice of the Presence of God shows a tremendous spiritual depth at the relationship between the Lord and Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence describes how God had blessed him so much when he made the habit of seeking God’s presence out of love and devotion. What if we were to praise God just because He is God and has saved us? Are we capable of seeking God without the hope of a material reward? If we practice God’s presence, God will give us the grace and strength we need to overcome life’s difficulties.

Brother Lawrence’s book concludes with the three blessings we receive from God’s presence:

“The first blessing that the soul receives from the practice of the presence of God is that its faith is livelier and more active in our lives. This is particularly true in difficult times, since it obtains the grace we need to deal with temptation and to conduct ourselves in the world…Second, the practice of the presence of God strengthens us in hope. Our hope increases as our faith penetrates God’s secrets through practice of our holy exercise…The third blessing is that this practice causes the will to rejoice at being set apart from the world, setting it aglow with the fire of holy love. This is because the soul is always with God, who is a consuming fire, who reduces into powder whatever is opposed to Him.”[5]

For anyone who is seeking a deeper relationship with God or is starting out in a relationship with God, I would encourage you to read Brother Lawrence’s words because they, like Scripture, have much to say regarding a more spiritual life. God bless you all.

 

[1] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. New Kensington PA: Whitaker House (1982): 67.

[2] Ibid, 12.

[3] Ibid, 14.

[4] Ibid, 21.

[5] Ibid, 71-72.

The Holy Spirit our Comforter

In the hours leading up to his arrest, trials, flogging, and death on the cross, Jesus shared a Passover meal with His disciples commonly referred to as “The Last Supper.” Jesus took this precious time to teach many things to His disciples. One of the topics Jesus taught – the role of the Holy Spirit- is what makes Christianity unique among world religions, where God comes to live inside of us and we can have a relationship with God. Jesus taught many things about the Holy Spirit, and we will examine the comforting aspect of the Holy Spirit.

In His discourse, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “The Comforter.” The Greek word for comforter is Paraklietos (Strong’s #3875), which means “intercessor, consoler; one summoned or called to one’s side.” Jesus introduces the Holy Spirit by stating:

“If ye love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you for ever. Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him; but ye know Him; for He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.” (John 14:15-17, KJV, emphasis mine).

What comforting words that because we know God, God comes to dwell in us and is always with us. Religion gives us a checklist of things to do and maybe, just maybe, God will approve of us. For Christians, we only have to believe.

Life can be lonely. Even when we are surrounded by our families, friends, and the beauty all around us, our trials and our grief can isolate us. We become adept at putting on a front, fooling the outside world, while inside it feels like our spirits are being torn to shreds by a savage beast. The pain is real. The struggle is real. God may be silent, be He has not left you, as Jesus states:

“I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.” (John 14:18, KJV, emphasis mine).

The Greek word for comfortless is the word Orphanos (Strong’s #3737), which means “fatherless or orphaned.” God does not leave us to fend for ourselves. Our Savior did not stay dead in the grave, He is alive! His Spirit is within us. The world may abandon you, but God never will.

“But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:26-27, KJV).

When we remember God’s Word and everything we have been through, we can have peace in the worst of circumstances. Inner peace is a choice as happiness and contentment are choices. We can make these choices easier when we come to the revelation that God is by our side.

“But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, He shall testify of Me: And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with Me from the beginning.” (John 15:26-27, KJV).

Jesus goes on to explain how the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth:

“Nevertheless I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you. And when He is come, He will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment…Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth is come, He will guide you into all truth: for He shall not speak of Himself; but whatsoever He shall hear, that shall He speak: and He will show you things to come. He shall glorify Me: for He shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you.” (John 16:7-8, 13-14, KJV).

The deeper you go into a relationship with someone, the better you get to know them. This principle applies no matter whether the relationship is romantic, familial, or friendship. You learn the person’s voice, habits, appearance, and their likes or dislikes. If someone were impersonating your spouse, child, or friend, you could spot the impostor. As Christians, we have that same opportunity with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit regarding learning the truth, knowing God’s voice and His Word. Though the temptation is always there when times get rough, to run away from God and everyone else, we can go a different route. We can refuse to listen to Satan’s lies and listen for God’s truth.  We can unload our troubles on God like we can a phone call to our best friend or a conversation with our spouse. God knows you are hurting. Let Him comfort you. You may not get an explanation in this life as to why events have unfolded the way they have, but we can be guided by Christ through the Holy Spirit. We can have peace in the midst of pain; joy in the midst of sorrow; comfort in the midst of tragedy. God bless you all.

Finding Comfort in our Repentance

It is a natural human desire to seek comfort in the midst of tragic or difficult circumstances. When we know of someone who has suffered a devastating event such as the loss of a loved one or is dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster, we pray that God would comfort their hearts, souls, and minds. Comfort can bring us a peace that transcends understanding. We can also pursue comfort by seeking a certain financial and/or material standard of living.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 4th edition defines Comfort as “1. (V) To soothe in time of affliction or distress. 2. (V) To ease physically, relieve. 3. (N). A condition of feeling or pleasurable ease, well-being, or contentment.” The Bible, of course, has much to say concerning comfort in the sense of consolation and providing solace and support, but we will examine comfort in the sense of strength and repentance. For this post, I will be conducting this word study using the King James Version.

The Hebrew word most often used for comfort is the word, Nacham (Strong’s #5162), which means “to repent, comfort.” More specifically, Nacham means “to make a strong turning to a new course of action.” Repentance simply means going in a different direction. For instance, if you repent of a sin, you go in a different direction by not committing that sin. Comfort is derived from the words Com (with) and Fort (strength). Strong’s Concordance goes on to explain: “When one repents, he exerts strength to change, re-grasp the situation, and exert effort for the situation to take a different course of action.” Thus, repentance and comfort in this particular instance does not place the emphasis on God’s grace, but on our responses and the actions we take concerning our circumstances.

Before we go further, let me state that there are times when God allows difficult circumstances in our lives and what we go through is not always a direct result of our sin. Hence, I am not condemning anyone. We will examine biblical people who brought comfort by turning the situation around, examples of personal strength, and how God brought comfort to wayward ancient Israel.

Noah

From Adam to Noah, humanity grew excessively wicked and God sought to cleanse the world with the Flood. God chose Noah to bring repentance to humanity.

“And Lamech lived a hundred eighty and two years, and begat a son: And he called his name Noah, saying ‘This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord hath cursed.” (Genesis 5:28-29, KJV, emphasis mine). Here is the first instance of the link between repentance and comfort.

Joseph

If anyone had a right to carry a chip on their shoulder, it would be Joseph. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, falsely accused of attacking Potiphar’s wife and subsequently falsely imprisoned.  Joseph was forgotten about in prison and stayed there longer than he should have been. However, God brought Joseph to prominence and placed him in a position of authority to save countless people during a famine. This famine was used to unite Joseph with his brothers and his father, Jacob. After Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers feared for their lives, that Joseph was biding his time and would take his revenge after their father died. Joseph’s brothers repented before him, pleading for mercy. Joseph, showed strength and comforted his brothers and explained to them the greater good of what happened:

“And Joseph said unto them, ‘Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me: but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. Now therefore fear ye not: I will nourish you, and your little ones.’ And he comforted them, and spake kindly to them.” (Genesis 50:19-21, KJV, emphasis mine).

Comfort and Repentance in the Psalms

The Psalms, for me, have always been a source of hope and inspiration. Though some of the Psalms deal with Israel as a nation, the vast majority of the Psalms are personal reflections of people as they dealt with the harshness and trials of life. The writers of the Psalms gave an honest acknowledgement of their sins and the comfort brought on by repentance.

“He restoreth my soul: He leadeth 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 thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:3-4, KJV, emphasis mine).

“Thou, which hast showed me great and sore troubles, shalt quicken me again, and shalt bring me up again from the depths of the earth. Thou shalt increase my greatness, and comfort me on every side.” (Psalm 71:20-21, KJV, emphasis mine).

“Remember the word unto thy servant, upon which thou hast caused me to hope. This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me.” (Psalm 119:49-50, KJV, emphasis mine).

“I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me. Let, I pray thee, thy merciful kindness be for my comfort, according to thy word unto thy servant.” (Psalm 119:75-76, KJV, emphasis mine).

Comfort and God’s Judgment of Israel

From the Book of Judges on, a pattern is established in the Old Testament where Israel would fall into sin and idolatry, then God would raise up a prophet, judge, or king to urge Israel to repent of their sins and avoid God’s judgments. There were times when Israel refused to repent and God’s judgments came in the forms of invading armies such as the Assyrians or Babylonians. In the words of the Prophets, you can hear the heart of God, pleading to bring comfort to his suffering children. God would bring comfort when his people repented of their sins, thus, placing the onus on Israel and Judah to change their ways.

“And in that day thou shalt say, O Lord, I will praise thee: though thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortedst me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid: for the Lord Jehovah is my strength and my song; He also is become my salvation.” (Isaiah 12:1-2, KJV, emphasis mine).

“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1, KJV, emphasis mine).

“What thing shall I take to witness for thee? What thing shall I liken to thee, O daughter of Jerusalem? What shall I equal to thee, that I may comfort thee, O virgin daughter of Zion? For thy breach is great like the sea: who can heal thee?” (Lamentations 2:13, KJV, emphasis mine).

“Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance, both young men and old together: for I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow.” (Jeremiah 31:13, KJV, emphasis mine).

In these words, we have covered only one aspect of comfort, with the emphasis on repentance. There are numerous examples of Nacham being used in the traditional sense of comfort, which I will cover later, Lord willing. If you are going through a painful season, please keep in mind that God has given you all of the tools and opportunities to start anew. Although it cannot change what happened, we do not have to stay where we are at and we can go forward with grace and strength. God bless you all.

Ephesians 2: Our Identity before Christ

In the previous post, we looked at Ephesians chapter one and how the sovereignty and purposes of God played the defining role in our salvation and identity as Christians. To read the previous post, click here:  https://triumphantinchrist.wordpress.com/2016/08/27/ephesians-1-gods-role-in-our-identity/

Of all of history’s recorded events and notable people, I believe the most influential person in the history of the world is the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection represent the ultimate expression of God’s love for humanity as Christ died for our sins. The entire Christian religion hinges on the historic event of the resurrection of Christ.

In fact, for centuries, historians marked the passage of time with the era “Before Christ” (BC) and “In the year of our Lord,” commonly referred to as AD. Of course, secular historians now use the terms “Before Common Era” and “Common Era” to refer to time.

No matter how historians mark the time, all Christians can point to the before Christ time in their lives. We can look back with shame, pain, and regret at our past lives, or we can bask in this current day of our Lord, who has forgiven us for all sins and transgressions, past, present, and future.

In Ephesians chapter one, Paul beautifully explains God’s purposes, plan, and grace toward us in our salvation. In Ephesians chapter two, Paul pivots and contrasts the Ephesians’ identities were before and after Christ.

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:1-3, NIV).

Paul metaphorically takes the Ephesians, and by extension, you and I back in time to remember who we were:

*We were dead in our sins.

*We followed the world and Satan.

*People in the world still live sinfully.

*We used to be like them and lived and did as we pleased.

*Everyone, including us, deserves God’s wrath for our sins.

Here comes the “AD” part:

“But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions- it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that the coming ages He might show the incomparable riches of His grace, expressed in this kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:4-7, NIV, italics mine).

Compare our previous position with who we are now:

*God’s mercy and grace has made us alive, when we were dead in our sins.

*We no longer take our seats with Satan and the world, for we are seated with Christ.

*We are living examples of God’s grace to our generation and those who follow.

If we try to live our faith by ritual, we develop a religious mindset and rely on our abilities and traditions to carry us. While there are steps we can take to become better people in our thoughts, words, and deeds, our salvation is solely the work of God.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by work, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10, NIV, italics mine).

*We cannot earn our salvation- it is a gift that must be received.

*Our boasting does not impress God.

*God has created us and saved us to fulfill His purposes in our lives,

All of us at one point have faced the sting of exclusion and rejection, though by varying degrees and circumstances. Paul drives home to the point that the Ephesians were at one time:

*Gentiles by birth, therefore excluded from citizenship in Israel and the promises of God. Therefore, the Ephesians had no hope and did not have God. (Ephesians 2:11-12).

*Now, all, regardless of birth, Jew, Gentile, nation or status, have been reconciled by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:13).

*Christ has broken down all walls that separate us, and reconciled them by the cross, and now we all have access to God by the same Holy Spirit that lives in each of us. (Ephesians 2:14-18).

*We were once strangers and foreigners, but now we are members of God’s family and household. Christ is our cornerstone and the foundation is also built upon the apostles and prophets. (Ephesians 2:19-20).

*The temple of God is no longer about a physical building or a group of people, but we, our bodies, our spirits are God’s temple. God through the Holy Spirit dwells in us. (Ephesians 2:21-22).

Though we are no longer part of this world, we remain in this world until either Christ comes back or He calls us home. As we interact with our brothers and sisters in Christ and those who do not know Christ, let us treat them with compassion, for we were once sinners who needed grace. Do not grieve who you were in the past, but rejoice in the future God’s grace has given you.

Ephesians 1: God’s Role in our Identity

Who am I? This is one of the fundamental questions of human existence. The question, “Who am I?” has inspired countless theologians, philosophers, poets, thinkers, and everyday people since time immortal. “Who am I?” has launched countless discussions, religious pilgrimages, great works of literature, deep soul searching, and the occasional mid-life crisis.

It is inherent in our human nature to believe in something greater than ourselves, to believe in a world beyond our own where someday every wrong, slight, or injury, we perceive has been perpetrated on us will be corrected or explained. We often think, What’s the point of all this suffering? or Is this all there is to this life?

While living out our day-to-day lives, we are simultaneously attempting to forge our own identity, trying to answer the question of “Who am I?” We attach sociological labels to ourselves in an effort to forge an identity. We can identify ourselves by age, race, education, marital status, social standing, occupation, sexual orientation, nationality, or religion to name a handful. For those of us who believe in God and identify ourselves as being Christians, what role does God play in our identity?

I have over the years heard it preached that we need to know “Who we are in Christ,” meaning our identity in Christ. Paul in the Book of Ephesians, lays out a good foundation for God’s role in our identity. As you read through Ephesians, it is easy to focus on the blessings God has given us and not look as to how we have obtained our identity in Christ.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” (Ephesians 1:3, NIV).

Paul goes on to make it very clear that our new standing with God and our identity in Christ is based on the acts of God’s sovereign will.

“For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love, He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will- to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves.” (Ephesians 1:4-6, NIV, italics mine).

Paul makes several points concerning our identity in Christ and our responsibilities concerning our standing in Christ:

*We have been chosen by God.

*God chose us to live holy and blameless lives.

*We are only God’s adopted children through Christ, which aligns with God’s pleasure and will.

*We are to praise God for the gift of His grace through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The format of the following verses play out much the same as the introductory verses. For example:

“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, He made known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure, which He purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment- to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” (Ephesians 1:7-10, NIV, italics mine).

Thus, we are forgiven of our sins solely because:

*The riches of God’s grace.

*God gave us the wisdom and understanding to know His will- to be saved and believe on Christ, thus God’s will is no longer mysterious.

*God is working in these last days to reconcile (bring together) the world and universe under the Lordship and rule of Jesus Christ.

Paul goes on further to elaborate on the purpose of God’s will and one of the benefits of living the Christian life:

In Him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of Him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will, in order that we who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of His glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in Him, with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession- to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:11-14, NIV, italics mine).

Once again, we learn of the plan of God:

*God is working out everything to conform to His will.

*God brings us to Christ that we may bring Him glory.

*God included us in His plan when we said, “yes,” to the gospel.

*God has empowered us with the Holy Spirit to live until we are called home to heaven.

Ephesians chapter one concludes with Paul’s prayer for the church, which also serves as a reminder that God does not simply save us and leave us to figure things out, but rather God seeks to keep us rooted deeper in Christ by:

*Giving us the Spirit of wisdom and revelation that we may know God better. (Ephesians 1:17).

*That we would understand fully the depths of our hope and inheritance as God’s people. (Ephesians 1:18-19a).

*To realize that the same power God use to raise Christ from the dead resides in us. (Ephesians 1:19b-20).

*God’s purposes have placed Christ head over all on heaven and earth. (Ephesians 1:20b-23).

May you seek to grow and understand your identity in Christ.

 

How Blood Loss Led to New Life

The Symptoms

One year ago my life changed forever. In the months leading up to the fateful day, I experienced shortness of breath when climbing stairs, I was severely fatigued, I lost ten pounds without even trying, and my appearance became very pale. Unfortunately, like most men I know, I put off going to the doctor and continued to shrug off my symptoms. After numerous conversations with my wife, my concerned parents, and other family members about going to the doctor, I finally reached the physical point where I could not take it anymore. I left work early on a Friday to an appointment with my family doctor’s office. At the appointment, I had four vials of blood taken, a chest x-ray, and an EKG. All I had left to do was wait.

The wait was over on the Saturday morning August 1, 2015. I was weekend supervisor at my previous job when I received a call from the nurse practitioner, who told me that I needed to get to the emergency room because my hemoglobin was 6.3 (hemoglobin is what carries the oxygen in our blood cells. Normal hemoglobin levels for an adult male range from 13 to 15). For some reason, the gravity of the situation didn’t register and I kindly told the nurse practitioner that I will go when I left work at three o’clock. After all, I was trying to call in extra people to deal with an emergency flood. She replied that I needed to go to the emergency room now because with my hemoglobin level being so low, any undue stress could put me at risk for a heart attack. (I thought, Don’t you think telling me this is putting me under stress?). I got it. This was serious. I talked to my wife and I called my boss to tell him that I had an emergency situation and had to leave. The drive to the first hospital was the only time I felt fear for what would follow.

After three hours at my local hospital, I was transferred by ambulance to a larger hospital, where I spent Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. After I received multiple blood transfusions and iron treatments, my hemoglobin rose to only 7.9. I was out of the heart attack danger zone, but I was still severely anemic. I have a history of ulcerative colitis and I was scheduled that Monday for a colonoscopy. However, I was experiencing no symptoms of ulcerative colitis nor did I have any visible bleeding. During the colonoscopy, ten polyps were removed from my colon, all of which were benign (no cancer). It appeared that the source of my anemia and bleeding had been found.

God is always on time and His timing was perfect in this situation. My wife and I were leaving for Colorado later in the week, which she asked the doctors if I was able to travel (I was). However, multiple doctors informed her that if I didn’t get treatment when I did, the high altitude and our planned activities could have strained my body and I could have died before receiving medical attention. I was thirty-eight years old when all of this happened, I never thought for one second that death stood at the door. Of course, like any adult should, I have life insurance and most importantly, my spiritual affairs were in order in the event that I would die one day, I didn’t know it could’ve been that close. I went back to work Tuesday morning and I naturally had a few days when I was tired, but the trip to Colorado was very enjoyable and relaxing. I followed up with my gastroenterologist and hematologist. I began receiving iron treatments and taking iron pills daily. My hemoglobin levels eventually bounced back up to 15.2 at my last appointment. I later discovered that though this health crisis was over, the journey had only just begun.

I never lost faith during this time because I knew God had His hand on my life. I don’t know exactly for what, but there had to be something greater. I unfortunately knew many people who died young and I knew how blessed I was to come out of this.  I don’t know the exact reason, maybe it was the side effects of the anemia, the continued fatigue, my thyroid, or whatever else, but I slid into a deep depression. The depression deepened as the stress of my former employer’s contract situation lingered in the air. We later learned that a new company won the contract bid and they would take over January 1. However, more stress came on December 23, 2015, when the new company informed me via letter that my services, along with other members of management and staff, would not be needed. It marked the first time in my working career, which started at age fifteen, I was let go from a job. Christmas Eve was the last day I worked, as I had previously scheduled vacation.  I took off a few days for Christmas, collected my last paycheck, and began the process of filing for unemployment and job searching. I was unemployed for three months, going to interview after interview, putting in application after application, before I went back to work.

 Sports Talk Radio and the Wisdom of the Ancients

Since I had time on my hands, I would get out of the house for a little bit every day when the job searching became stressful. One day I was on my way to my parents’ house to take care of their dogs when I was listening to The Jim Rome Show, a sports talk show. Jim Rome’s guest  was Ryan Holiday, who wrote a book called The Obstacle is the Way, which was about turning obstacles into advantages. One of the things discussed was Stoic Philosophy. When we hear the word “stoic” we think of someone who is emotionless, kind of like Mr. Spock from Star Trek. However, as Mr. Holiday spoke about how he came into Stoic philosophy, it sounded interesting. I took Introduction to Philosophy in college, but I don’t remember learning about Stoic philosophy (maybe it was because class was at 8am). The Bible mentions the Stoics in Acts 17, but does not go into detail about who they were, other than Paul citing a Stoic poem.  I have a firm, fixed set of beliefs, but I also love to research and learn new things. I went on a quest to learn about Stoic philosophy- YouTube Videos, Ted Talks, my local library, and bookstores. I bought Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, followed by the works of Seneca and Epictetus, and finally The Obstacle Becomes The Way, and devoured them like a hungry wolf. Using the Bible as my measuring rod of truth, I compared Stoic philosophy to biblical teaching and found them very compatible. The Stoics focused on being content with our lot in life, not worrying about what is not in our control, living for today, working on our inner character, living with purpose, being thankful in the moment, that we have nothing to fear in death, managing our perceptions, tempering our expectations in life, and realizing that it is not our lives are not about what happens to us, but our response to the events, all of which are biblical concepts and sound life principles. Over time, I came out of my depression and gained a new perspective on life, but God was using all of this to prepare me for the next stages of my life.

A Tumble Down the Stairs

Three weeks before I went back to work, I received a text from my wife informing me that she fell down some stairs at an offsite workshop and was going to the hospital. I met her at the hospital in Bloomington, Indiana where she was in the emergency room. My wife was diagnosed with a mild concussion and later with post-concussion syndrome. Though she does not remember what happened, I took solace in the fact that my wife was not more seriously injured or killed and that she did not do any damage to her surgically repaired back. If I was working at the time, that would have complicated matters with taking her to doctor appointments and the like. I was thankful that I was home to take care of her until I went back to work. Those first weeks were the roughest, with severe migraines and attempts to get the medicine dosage right, but my wife eventually became able to do more things on her own and went back to work a few months later. My response to all of this would have been different a year or even months before as I would have worried incessantly about my wife’s health and our finances, which at the time of her concussion involved workman’s comp and unemployment, but God was faithful and sustained us throughout the ordeal.

More Symptoms Arise

I went back to work, albeit for less money and a more physically demanding job, but I applied Stoic principles and attempted to be thankful for being back to work. However, a few months into working again, I began to feel fatigued and I started to look pale. People told me I “looked tired.” I learned my lesson and did not mess around with my symptoms. On a scheduled day off I had blood work done, and followed-up the next week with the hematologist. I told the doctor about my fatigue coming back and she informed me that my ferritin levels have dropped. (Ferritin is how your blood stores iron). She recommended upping my dosage of iron pills and following up with my gastroenterologist because of concerns about my ulcerative colitis. I was able the very next day to see the gastroenterologist. After telling him about my symptoms and what the hematologist said, he asked if I had ever been tested for Celiac disease. I said that I have not been tested. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease which is caused by an allergy to gluten, a protein found in foods made with wheat, barley, and rye. The doctor said that my ulcerative colitis was too mild for me to be as anemic as I was. I had more blood work done and it indicated Celiac disease. I followed up with an endoscopy that confirmed the diagnosis of Celiac disease. I now have to be on a gluten-free diet the rest of my life. However, I do not see Celiac disease as another battle to fight, but the battle to fight. From everything I have researched and everything I have, Celiac disease is the common denominator with anemia, hypothyroidism, joint inflammation, and other autoimmune issues I have dealt with over the years. Though I am in the early stages of making this lifestyle change, I am hopeful and optimistic that things will begin to clear up. As of this writing, I am a few weeks into the gluten-free diet and I am feeling better.

 My Advice

The Bible discusses “the peace that transcends all understanding.” My faith, even in the midst of one terrifying and one life changing diagnosis, has eradicated any sense of fear. This year has been a year of discovery and growth for me. God has blessed me with wisdom that has allowed me to modify my perceptions and see life in a new light. There is a popular saying of “live each day like it’s your last,” which some may interpret to mean throw off all responsibility and party like a rock star, but that should not be the case.  God was gracious and gave me more life. If you are reading this, God has given you another day to live. Make the most of it. Live deliberately. Live for and with a greater purpose. Consider your actions and ways. Be the best person you can be, no matter who you are or what you do.  Don’t get caught up in chasing the temporary and fickle externals of money, fame, and possessions. Don’t get caught up in drama. Don’t get upset if people don’t like you or don’t respond to you the way you expect- you can’t control what they think. We can’t control the world around us, only how we respond to it. For example, I have control of how I take care of my body- diet, exercise, rest, medication, but I had no control over developing anemia or Celiac disease. I did everything for over seven years to keep my job- show up, be on time, do a great job, do what was asked and expected of me, changing shifts, etc., but I could not control the contract bid or the economy. I can control how many jobs I apply for, but I can’t control who says “yes.” I have come to believe that what has happened to me in these areas of life has turned out to be a blessing because it has led me to right here, right now.

Expect difficulties in life. You will encounter situations and people’s actions that will devastate, unnerve, irritate, rattle, frustrate, and shake you to the core, but you and you alone determine the response. When knowing that you have a limited amount of time to live, ask yourself, “Is this situation or person really worth my time of stressing over?” “Is this situation within my control?” “How can I turn this adversity into an advantage?” Have faith in God, but work as if it is up to you. I have spent many years of my faith being passive, just waiting for something to show up or happen, only to end up being discouraged.  I have now realized that God has given us all we need to live a full life, we just have to use the tools. All of us don’t get the same amount or quality of tools, but we all have the ability to make the best of life and any situation. Take time to dwell on what can go wrong, because you won’t be devastated if something does, which is also a Stoic principle. Don’t grieve over who and what you don’t have, but rejoice over who and what you do have. Love your loved ones every chance you get. Always end conversations on a good note. Don’t allow bitterness, regret, shame, hate, or an unforgiving spirit to rule your life. Take control of your thoughts. Grow a virtuous character. Forget the past. Don’t fear the future. Be grateful for today because it’s all you have. True faith and positive thinking is not about believing everything will work out, but believing what happens will work out for the best. God bless you all.

 

Be the Change You Want to See

Humanity has a heart condition and is in dire need of a transplant. The prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and it is extremely sick; Who can understand it fully and know its secret motives?” (Jeremiah 17:9, The Amplified Bible).

We need to look no further than our everyday lives and history to see the depths of sin and depravity as we try to make sense of the seemingly senseless world around us. Genocide. Racism. Human trafficking. Child abuse. Drug addiction. Discrimination in all of its forms. The complete disregard for the sanctity of human life. The greed, corruption, and indifference that has infected every level of society like a virus.

As we daily hear and see these stories, our spirits and minds can become overwhelmed and we will simply “tune out,” going through the motions of everyday life like a living zombie. These problems, of course, are not unique to our twenty-first century world. However, we do have the ability to affect change where we have been placed in the world, just like a parent who correctly models the behavior they want their child to follow. In order to change our world, we must do the inside work of examining and changing ourselves.

We must demonstrate love to all

No matter the color of our skin, gender, nationality, societal status, or any other external and superficial marker we use to color our world, we are all loved by God. God has loves us with an everlasting love. It is God’s desire for all to come to the saving knowledge of His grace through the Lord Jesus Christ. All of us need a heart transplant. Our Christian walks should be a living demonstration of love. In fact, there is a song lyric that goes, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Jesus even taught His disciples about the importance of love.

“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another as I have loved you, that ye also love another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:34-35, KJV).

We must “point the finger” at ourselves

My parents taught me that “It’s not nice to point at other people.” Yet, Christians and people in general like to point at others and say, “His sin is worse than mine.” “She lives a wicked lifestyle.” “Well, at least I’m not like him.” It is our human nature to trivialize our sins while magnifying the sins of others. We may go through life with ungratefulness, or gossip, or anger, and say to ourselves, “I’ve never killed anybody.” We become the Pharisee in the parable of The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, who extolled his virtues to God and in the same breath put down the tax collector standing next to him. Meanwhile, the tax collector asked God to have mercy on him because he was a sinner. Jesus said the tax collector walked away blessed. Jesus applied this principle in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5, NIV).

We must mirror the change we want to see

Jesus said in Matthew 12:34 that “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” How we speak and act are mirror images of our inner character or “inner man” as The Bible states. If we want our outside world to change, we must live “outside in.” The Apostle Peter, speaking in the context of a wife being married to an unbelieving husband, states, “Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” (1 Peter 3:1-4, NIV). Before going further, let me state that Peter is not saying people cannot have fancy hairstyles, nice clothes, or jewelry. Peter is emphasizing the need to wear our Christian virtue and not attempting to win over people with superficial things. If you have spent any length of time in church, you know that Christians have tendency to use “churchy” terms that the world does not understand. We certainly can look the part, but if our belief has no real power in our lives, then we are simply actors playing a role. The world is looking for something authentic. The world wants to know that God is real. If there is no love behind sharing our faith, then we are basically giving people a list of “dos and don’ts” and pointing out every speck of sawdust on them, which would drives the lost further away from God. Deep theology may impress some people, but people primarily want to know that you love and care about them in the midst of their struggle. A spiritual mentor of mine once said, “Nobody cares about what you know until they know you care.”

When we wake up and as we go through our day, let us examine ourselves, as Paul says, to see if we are in the faith. Are our thoughts lining up with the Word? Have we showed love to someone? Have we cleansed our hearts and consciences? Are we judging ourselves before we go and try to fix the world? When the pressure is on, what is on the inside will come out. Make sure what is inside is what you want others to see. God bless you all.