The Presence of the Shepherd

Nothing calms a sheep down better than the sudden appearance of the shepherd. Whether it’s busy butting other sheep in a power struggle, agitated by hunger or thirst, frightened by some danger (real or imagined), or is cast down, lying upside down in a helpless state with no hope of righting itself … whatever is happening to make the sheep feel miserable, that feeling is dissolved the moment it senses the arrival of its trusted deliverer. Although nothing about its situation has changed, the sheep knows one thing: things CAN happen when the shepherd is near. No longer alone in its anguish, it can relax. The shepherd will take care of its needs and protect it from all harm.

There’s a good reason why people are compared to sheep in the Bible. (See Psalm 100, Isaiah 53, Jeremiah 50, Ezekiel 34, Matthew 9, John 10, 1 Peter 2, etc.) We are just as helpless, vulnerable, given to irrational fears, and capable of making our situation far worse by taking things into our own hands as they are.

When we’ve been following Jesus for a while, we recognize His voice. We can sense when He’s near. And we find comfort in Him being with us. Yet … how often do we struggle on and on, in blind desperation, not thinking to stop and call out for His help?

Because the Holy Spirit is resident in us, we are in God’s presence all the time. As the psalmist wrote, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7). As His children we are never separated from Him, not even for a moment. But when we get agitated it’s easy to forget that awesome truth. While a human shepherd can physically leave his sheep as he searches out new pastureland or tends to other chores, our Shepherd never leaves our side. “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” is His promise (Deut. 31:6; Hebrews 13:5).

Of course it’s one thing to acknowledge this in our head and another thing to experience it. When things start to spin out of control and we become angry, stressed out, or anxious we forget about our Shepherd. Because we feel all alone we begin to act out of our own strength, figuring it’s up to us to straighten things out. God is off tending to some other chore, we think, so we can’t wait on Him. Yet all our efforts end in more frustration and anxiety.

But when He appears, when His manifest presence is finally seen, peace returns. Our souls are calmed by knowing He’s near. Resolution to our sticky situation may not come immediately. We may face the same challenges and setbacks as before. The difference is not in the circumstances … the difference is in our state of mind.

THE SHEPHERD IS HERE! He knows what I need. He has what I need. I can turn this over to Him and trust Him to make it right.

There’s a popular Christian song written by Paul Baloche and Brenton Brown entitled “Hosanna (Praise is Rising)” that reminds us of the difference the Shepherd makes.

“Praise is rising, eyes are turning to You, we turn to You.

Hope is rising, hearts are yearning for You, we long for You.

‘Cause when we see You we find strength to face the day,

in your presence all our fears are washed away, washed away.”

As the sheep of His pasture, we have so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving season. Perhaps the most life-changing truth revealed in Scripture is the gift of His presence. When we recognize Him bringing deliverance to whatever perplexing situation we face, we find the strength and hope we need to move forward. Our fears flee as One greater enters the scene. He makes all the difference.

Let this reality bathe your heart in loving gratitude for our Savior and Shepherd. Give Him full control of whatever you’re struggling with and watch in amazement as He brings His order into your chaos. Thank Him for the “peace that passes all understanding” when He is near.

This peace is something the world cannot experience. Jesus told us, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). Only God’s children, among all the people on the earth, have been given this precious gift. So take a moment to thank Him for blessing you with it. And ask Him to help you access His peace more often. It’s as close as the mention of His name. We only need to recognize the reality of His abiding presence.

Have you thanked your Good Shepherd today? His comforting presence is something we can celebrate all year long!!

 

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The End Goal of our Faith

Have you ever wondered what the end goal is for our faith? We become Christians and enter into a living relationship with the true and living God. We embrace Jesus as our Savior and Lord. Then we begin to think through all the implications of what that means. As we read Scripture we look for how we can better serve Him, represent Him, and become like Him.

Along the way we adopt many goals based on the commands of Scripture, but they often get lost in the busyness of coping with life. The challenges that crop up in every stage we navigate through can distract us or divert us into tributaries that waste our time and hinder our progress.

Lately (after some forty years of following Him) I’ve been pondering where God wants me to end up. Is heaven the end goal? There I will be free from pain and trouble, safely living out eternity with my glorious Redeemer and Lord. Like all Christians, I really look forward to that! But in my heart I wonder … Is there an end goal for this side of eternity, a place I should be striving to reach by God’s grace?

When I was a young Christian I listened carefully to sermons and Bible teachers, hoping someone else might help me uncover the real point of my faith. After all, shortcuts save time, right? I read books by those who’d gone before me with keen anticipation, assuming they would know. But while I learned many valuable lessons from other Christians, I did not find this key element. Maybe it was there and I just wasn’t mature enough to recognize it. Or maybe the writers were focused on something else.

Now that I know my heavenly Father better, now that I am more intimate with Jesus and the Holy Spirit, I know there is an end goal for all Christians that isn’t based on being super spiritual, smart, or gifted. It’s available and accessible to every believer who’s humble enough to believe it. And like every other treasure we uncover, it’s hidden in plain sight in His word to us, the Bible.

I was reading in Deuteronomy the other day and there it was. In the context God is extending to the rebellious Israelites an offer they should have jumped at. It was to enter into a loving and merciful relationship with Him far beyond anything they could even imagine. They could become HIS people and enjoy the special blessings that come from that, but they had to choose it. It would not be automatic. They could either choose life or death, He explained, and if they chose to enter into life with Him, He would make sure they had everything they needed for the journey.

“What I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach … No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it” (v. 11, 14).

Choosing life would mean loving Him, listening to His voice, and holding fast to Him. And here’s the key verse I never noticed before (v. 20):

“For the Lord IS your life.”

He didn’t say they would find a good life in Him. The kind of life He was offering them was not separate from Himself. The Lord IS your … our … life! This revelation opened up other Scriptures, sending my mind in all sorts of directions. Jesus declaring himself to be “the way, the truth, and the life.” And “the resurrection and the life.” John writing in his gospel that in Jesus was life (1:4), and in his epistle that “he who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12). Proverbs 8:35 that says “Whoever finds me finds life and receives favor … but all who hate me love death.” The evidence from Scripture is clear. In God is life. Apart from Him we may have a human existence but are not truly alive. It’s His work in us but we have to cooperate with Him. We have to recognize where our source of life is and embrace, choose, to live there. Not just receive salvation and then go our own way, but abide in Him, that we might bear fruit. Jesus makes this clear in John 15.

Some questions immediately spring up.

Is He my life?

Is He what truly matters to me?

Can everything else I enjoy be released (not without pain, of course) in order to cling to Him?

Or are other things more essential for me to feel happy and fulfilled?

I believe the end goal for the Christian in this life is to be so at one with Him that what He thinks, wants, and feels about things trumps everything else. Are we so in love with Him that all other loves pale in comparison? Are we so identified with His purposes that we find our greatest fulfillment in seeing His will done on earth as it is in heaven?

In Colossians 3:1-4 Paul picks up the truth found in Deuteronomy 30:20.

“Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now HIDDEN WITH CHRIST in God.

When Christ who is your life

appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

Recognizing Jesus as our very life is where we find ultimate fulfillment as Christians. Until we love Him more than anything else we have not reached our end goal. Like Paul, we are still on the way.

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Philippians 3:12). He sees the goal, and he’s committed to getting there. But he also understands this is not an easy one-two-three process.

Yes, it is attainable. But as fallen creatures we wrestle with many challenges that divert us and hinder us from walking in a straight line towards our main goal. Knowing Jesus in such intimacy and loving Him with a pure and undivided heart is not an easy road. However, we cannot afford to waste time making excuses. Like the apostle Paul, we must press towards the mark of making Christ our very life, the reason we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

If He is my life, my worth is not dependent upon how productive or attractive or useful I am to the world. My value is so bound up in Him that it cannot be separated out from what He is doing and Who He is. We are living life out together … I have died to my sinful life before I knew Him and my life is now hidden with Christ in God.

For most of us, this goal is still theoretical and lies somewhere in the future. But (like Paul) we should be moving towards it with ever-increasing determination, believing God will accomplish it as we cooperate with Him. We may lose everything else we once held dear in the process, but that doesn’t matter. As long as we have Him, we have life. We have everything we need “for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him” (2 Peter 1:3).

Jesus wants us to recognize how crucial He is in our walk of faith and to find our fulfillment, our rest, in Him. Recognizing Him as our life enables us to live humbly in His presence and enjoy His fellowship, giving us a glimpse of what we can look forward to in heaven. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Let’s live like we believe it!

 

Prayer: Blessing or Burden?

 

Prayer seems to be both a blessing and a burden for Christians. We love the idea of it – to have access to the living God at any moment — but we struggle with how poorly we execute our privilege. And in our private moments, when we’re alone or with somebody we trust, we ask lots of questions. Why doesn’t God answer prayer in a more consistent way? Doesn’t Scripture say we should pray expecting that we’ll receive what we ask for? Where is the fulfillment of that promise? Often we come to the sad conclusion that we must be praying with wrong motives or we don’t have enough faith for whatever we’re asking for. Self-recrimination can hamper our efforts and discourage us from what we know should be a regular part of the Christian life.

Maybe in all our speculations we are missing the most important question. More about that later. First, let’s look at what normally happens in prayer.

All of us tend to pray about what bothers us most. Whatever is making us worry or fret – whatever consumes our thoughts and fuels our desires – is usually what we lift up to God. That’s normal and natural. Listening to prayer requests shared among friends we notice a couple of common themes. The first is safety … the safety of our kids or other loved ones, or the safekeeping of material things we own. Lumped into this category are things like traveling mercies, good health, and quick recovery from surgeries and accidents. We ask God to protect us and those we love from all kinds of calamity, peril, and pain.

A second common request is for God to provide something for us. Often it goes beyond daily bread (necessities), focusing more on our wants. We ask for the “good” job that pays well and makes us feel fulfilled. We want to prosper and move past the state of having to depend on God for our daily needs. Like the farmer in Jesus’ parable, we want to be able to build bigger barns so we can store up provisions for years to come. In whatever area we feel vulnerable, whether in our jobs, our health, our relationships, or goals we have set, we see any setbacks or roadblocks as negative so we immediately ask God to intervene. And sometimes the requests border on the ridiculous.

Help me to pass that exam I halfheartedly studied for, Lord. Help me (or my loved one) not to suffer any pain – make it all go away! I know I made a bad decision, Lord, but would you work in a way that minimizes the fallout? Help me slide through this situation without suffering the usual consequences. Is it any wonder we grow discouraged when we’re praying like this? It’s not that God couldn’t do these things, but how likely is He to intervene to magically spare us from all pain, challenges, and adversity? Wouldn’t that cancel out much of the good work He wants to do in our lives to conform us to Christ?

Maybe we need to reflect on our prayer lives from another perspective. Not so much to figure out what we are doing wrong in our prayer techniques but to reflect on the state of our heart. Jesus said that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew 12:34). In speaking our prayers we reveal the concerns of our hearts. The most important question about our prayer life I believe is this: WHAT AM I FOCUSED ON?

If we are primarily self-centered (and I am so guilty of this!) we pray about what will make us comfortable and happy. We pray about what will benefit us and the people we love. We pray for success so we don’t suffer the humiliation of defeat. We pray for what will elevate us in the world’s eyes. We pray to protect our pride and feather our nest. Why? Because we believe our security is wrapped up in our status — who we are and what we own. Paul warned Timothy about this attitude in 1 Timothy 6. He tells him to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness, and “to fight the good fight of the faith” (vv. 11-12). But a lot of the time we pray for things that have no bearing on our spiritual lives, things that won’t impact God’s kingdom except in some really remote way.

When I read the New Testament I’m reminded of what my focus should be. In Acts 4 Peter and John were jailed because of their bold testimony regarding Jesus.  The Jewish rulers commanded them to stop speaking about Him, threatening to harm them if they persisted. Upon their release the apostles returned to their fellow Christians and told them what’d happened. “When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.”

What did they pray? Not for safety. Not for the rulers to back off and become their allies. Not for protection against persecution or physical harm. Not for a safe hiding place where they could take their families. Knowing the true nature of their situation – that they’d been called by Jesus to spread the Good News – they prayed for the ability to persevere in their witness and take down the forces of darkness.

Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (vv. 29-30). And they got an immediate answer! The place where they were meeting “was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (v. 31).

Throughout Paul’s letters we can see what he prayed for. The things he asks God to do in the churches aren’t the sorts of things we normally ask for in our prayer meetings. He wants to see His fellow believers filled with the Holy Spirit, walking in love, standing fast against their spiritual enemy, and living in unity. He asks for God to fill them with a Spirit of wisdom and revelation so they might better understand their calling in Christ. He wants them to be rooted and grounded in God’s love and to be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19). He wants them to be generous, as God is. His prayer for the Christians at Colosse is that they would live a life worthy of the Lord and please Him in every way, “bearing fruit in every good work” (1:10). When he asks for prayer for himself, he doesn’t ask the churches to pray for his safety or some special blessing. His desire is that he would have the power to “fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19).

Are these the kinds of prayers we lift to the Father, both for ourselves and for others? How kingdom minded are we? I’m sure the Lord is happy to receive any prayer we utter to Him. We are invited to cast all our cares upon Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). And sometimes the cares we have are mostly about being safe. He knows that and He wants us to come to Him anyway.

But if we want to see our prayer life mature and grow, we need to pay attention to the focus of our prayers and see how they reflect our hearts. Jesus told us how to prioritize our requests: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these [earthly] things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

If I want to see God move in response to my prayers, changing not only me but also my world, I need to pray out of my new life in Christ, not my old life in the flesh. I love how Colossians 3:1 sums the whole issue up. “Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

We are new creatures in Christ. We have died with Him and have been raised with Him. Our citizenship is now in heaven. We are no longer controlled and defined by the world. We have access to God’s throne and we should be praying as Paul did … for the power to live fully for Him. When we care more about God’s kingdom and glory than our own comfort and security, we begin to see the results we’ve always wanted in our prayers. Then the full blessing of the privilege of prayer will be ours.

What is your focus?

Discovering Love in Surprising Places

Have you heard of the Kindness Rock Project? The movement was started by a couple of women who wanted to do something simple to help spread joy. They took small rocks, the plain kind that nobody would look at twice, painted them with images and messages, and then hid them in different places outside, hoping that whoever found them would be encouraged. Kind of like an Easter egg hunt with rocks instead of eggs. Except in this case, those who stumbled upon them would not be looking for them, making their discovery even more delightful.

The idea has caught on around the world, and local groups have formed. There’s even one in Fort Mill, South Carolina I discovered. Members meet together at an appointed time, hand-painting rocks as creatively as they can. The results are unique, inspiring, and eye-catching.

Can you imagine stumbling upon one of these rocks? You would know right away it’d not been made by natural processes – someone had created it. You would wonder, who would take the trouble to prepare this for me to find? And why would they do it, not knowing who might discover it … or even if it would ever be discovered?

Such random acts of kindness are surprising in today’s world of self-absorption and “What’s in it for me?” attitudes. Sure, I know there’s joy and satisfaction involved in creating something beautiful. But when most artists create, they have some anticipation of being recognized for their effort. They sign their work proudly and look forward to the admiration and praise they’ll receive from grateful fans. There’s none of that at work with these rocks. The creator “hides” their work with the simple hope of blessing another, of creating a connection with another human being through love. Kind of sounds like God, doesn’t it?

When I look at God’s creative work in the world around me, I marvel that He went to such trouble to make sure there was enough variety, brilliant color, and complexity that I would never grow tired of exploring. There’s always something beautiful or surprising to discover. And His hidden treasures are designed to connect us to Him in love.

How sad that some are blind to all of this. They have decided to ignore what common sense should tell them – that the laws and systems that govern the entire solar system are too perfect to have occurred naturally – and live in denial. What was designed for their pleasure is overlooked or taken for granted. I love what the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17).

When we stumble upon a “hand-painted rock” from God, whether it’s something in nature or some gift He’s given to another human being, it should fill us with gratitude and praise. We get to enjoy what He has created without any cost to ourselves (except maybe our pride). We are recipients of His overflowing love and grace. When we look at what He’s done (and continues to do) just to bless us, to bring a smile to our face and encourage us, we can’t help but echo the words of David in Psalm 145:

I will exalt you, my God the King; I will praise your name for ever and ever. Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom.
The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.
The Lord is faithful to all his promises and loving toward all he has made. The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.
The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them.
My mouth will speak in praise of the Lord. Let every creature praise his holy name for ever and ever.  (vv. 1, 3, 8-9, 13-16, 18-19, 21)

We who know Him should always have this sense of awesome wonder and delight. The exalted Lord has done the unthinkable. He’s lovingly provided good things in abundance for all He has made. Even within our own bodies we can see His incredible design. There’s no doubt we’re how fearfully and wonderfully made. But how often do we remember to thank Him?

He invites us to discover the many hidden treasures He’s planted all over the earth. Like the creators of the colorful rocks, He enjoys knowing they are sources of joy in an otherwise dark and painful world. He hopes we will approach His creation with the excitement of a child on an Easter egg hunt, ready to rejoice in every new treasure we find.

 

 

Easter Reflections

When we approach the Garden of Gethsemane we are struck by two things. First, something painful is happening in a beautiful, tranquil setting. Second, we have no clue what the pain is about.

In the Garden, where they had gone many times before to rest and pray, Jesus is agonizing this Passover night, and His disciples aren’t sure what’s happening. Like them, we wonder … Is it because of what He’s facing, the physical pain and suffering of being crucified? Is it the impending humiliation of being stretched out in front of the whole city in mocking defeat? Is He having second thoughts about being the sacrificial lamb, a sacrifice that would mean unspeakable horror not only for Him but also for all those who had followed Him?

Scripture tells us some things about that night, but we are left in relative ignorance about why Jesus was so deeply distressed and troubled. Before He began wrestling in prayer He gave three of His disciples – the inner circle He’d invested so much in – a simple request: “Stay here and keep watch” (Mark 14:34).

We know what happened. Instead of staying awake and watching with Him, they fell asleep. As the One they loved was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” they could not carry out His simple request. It’s easier for us to speculate on the reasons for their behavior, since we share in their frail humanity. They were scared, they were tired, they were overwhelmed with grief and anxiety about what the next day would bring. Although He warned them to pray “lest they enter into temptation” they found themselves unable to do so. Their spirit was willing, but their flesh was weak.

It’s far more difficult for us to understand what the Son of God was going through in the Garden and why He found the prospect of the cross so agonizing “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Many possible reasons have been offered by great Christian theologians and writers over the centuries. Some advanced include: The pure and spotless One was repelled by the prospect of taking on all sin for all time; it was an attack of Satan, who was trying to deter Jesus from fulfilling His role as Savior of the world; it was the anguish of being separated from His Father (prophesied in Psalm 22:1) that made Jesus shrink back from the cross.

We can’t fully comprehend what He was going through, but we can tearfully sing the words penned by hymn writer Isaac Watts:

Alas, and did my Saviour bleed, and did my Sovereign die? Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?

Was it for crimes that I have done He groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity! Grace unknown! And love beyond degree!

In his devotional My Utmost for His Highest Oswald Chambers observes: “We can never fathom the agony in Gethsemane, but at least we need not misunderstand it. It is the agony of God and Man in one, face to face with sin.” He contends it was not the death on the cross that Jesus feared in Gethsemane, but something far more consequential. As the Son of God He knew He could get through the cross himself. Satan could not touch Him in His divinity, and resurrection would follow His death. The sinless One could not be held by the grave; it had no claim on Him.

But Jesus didn’t want to just survive the cross himself. He wanted to “bring many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10). So it was vital He get through as the Son of Man as well, as the head or representative of all men who were separated from God by sin. Paul points this out in Romans 5:14-21. As by one man’s sin (Adam), all men were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience (Jesus), all can be made righteous by faith in Him. God “made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21, KJV).

We will never know all that was going on in Gethsemane that night this side of heaven. But we can rejoice in the fact that He DID triumph over all opposition to obtain eternal salvation FOR US. The reason it is so easy for us to be saved is because it cost our Savior so much. Easter is our time as Christians to remember and reflect on the blessing of the cross and Christ’s resurrection, to bow in humble adoration before the One whose mercy covered even the sin of sleeping in His hour of greatest need.

Because of Christ’s faithfulness we are in the family of God, forgiven of our sins and clothed with His righteousness. It truly is amazing pity and love beyond degree. That weak and cowardly men like the Twelve could become so transformed by His grace that they turned the world upside down is something that fills us with hope for our own lives. Like them, our only appropriate response to such love is the giving away of ourselves to Him.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe;

Here, Lord, I give myself away … Tis all that I can do!

LENDING TO THE LORD

Have you ever run across a Bible verse that sets you back, making you wonder what on earth the writer is saying? Some of these are the result of culture. Being from the West, we just don’t understand Eastern expressions and ways of thinking. Other times, it’s more a matter of connecting the dots. One such verse for me is the following.

“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and

he will reward them for what they have done.”

Proverbs 19:17

When I first read this I wondered what my kindness to the poor had to do with making a loan to the Lord. First of all, God obviously doesn’t need anything from anybody. What could we possible lend to Him … the Almighty, all sufficient, all powerful One?

Until recently I’d never noticed how many verses in the Bible mention the poor. Once I began to look, I discovered how much God identifies with them and sees our treatment of them as somehow reflective of how we see and honor Him. Way back in Deuteronomy, God gave instructions to Moses as to how to create a godly society under His leadership, telling him “There should be no poor among you” (15:4). That’s because God was going to richly bless them and there would be enough to meet the needs of every individual if they followed all the commands He was giving them.

Yet, only a few verses later, God seems to reverse course, stating (as Jesus quoted in Matthew 26:11) “There will always be poor people in the land” (v. 11). God knew the Israelites would not follow all His commands or love their neighbor as themselves, so He offered plan B. “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites … do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need” (vv. 7-8). In other words, be kind to the poor. Don’t think “that’s not my problem! If they’d been more careful or diligent or … they wouldn’t be in this mess.”

God’s concern and compassion for the poor and needy is carried throughout the Bible and comes to full fruition in the New Testament. The apostle John writes, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity of them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18).

It’s as if God has allowed need and poverty in the world to test His people. Do we love our possessions and wealth more than we love Him and other people, who are made in His image? Covetousness is the opposite of generosity. When we refuse to be openhanded and to give to those in need out of a deep sense of gratitude for all we’ve been blessed with, we betray our hard hearts and tight fists. We fail to show we’ve been transformed by the love and mercy of God towards us. We do not reflect His character. That’s why John Wesley minced no words when he addressed this issue, saying to fellow Christians:

“Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?”

In our western affluence many of us sadly prove Wesley’s observation. “The last part of a man to be converted is his wallet.”

As we see in our opening verse, Proverbs 19:17, God chooses to identify with the poor and needy in their distress. When we choose to be generous and kind to them, He promises to reward us. We don’t have to worry about coming up short ourselves. We can never out-give God; He will never be in our debt. We can loan to Him with complete confidence, knowing His rewards will far outweigh our investment.

In Matthew 25 Jesus illustrates for His disciples how complete His identification is with the needy. They are astonished to hear Him say: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (v. 40). By meeting the needs of the hungry, the thirsty and the unclothed, offering hospitality to strangers, visiting those in prison, and tending to the sick, we minister to our Lord, He says.

God is pleased when His children show the same spirit of compassion and generosity He extends to all. He knows we’ll discover for ourselves “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Anything we “lend” to Him will be repaid in full, both materially and spiritually. The concept may seem obscure at first, but once we grasp this spiritual principle we can become His hands and feet in a world of need. How many of us in the West lend to the Lord? Not nearly enough to make a significant difference in our world. But it’s never too late to start! Don’t you think it’s time our pocketbooks were converted too?

Confessions of a People Pleaser

When you’re a people pleaser like me, truthfully replying to a question can be hard. What do you want me to say? runs through my mind before I even formulate my answer. Admitting this is embarrassing. As a follower of Jesus I know what Scripture says: “Speak the truth to each other” (Zechariah 8:16).

I don’t intend to be disobedient or dishonest. I just let my fear of offending, disappointing, or hurting the other person get in the way. And I can come up with lots of reasons why this tendency is actually a good thing. After all, we don’t want to be callous or insensitive to the feelings of others. What difference does it make on small issues if I say what the other person wants to hear? Isn’t that better than saying what might be perceived as negative or critical?

These rationalizations miss the point. God wants us to be kind and thoughtful, yes. But He also wants us to be truthful. We can reflect both attributes, as He does, by “Speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). In all cases, truth is more loving than deceit. We can deliver truth in an unloving manner or with unloving motives, but even then it is less destructive than the alternative – telling lies. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful” (Prov. 27:6, KJV).

Lies, half-truths, flattery, secrecy, and deceit belong to Satan’s kingdom, not God’s. To use any of his tactics, even with “good intentions,” identifies us with him rather than the holy One we love and serve.  God cannot lie (see Numbers 23:19, Hebrews 6:18). It is outside of His nature. If we desire to be conformed into His image we must learn to love truth, even when it hurts, is inconvenient, or doesn’t give us what we want. “If we claim to have fellowship with Him yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth” (1 John 1:6).

People pleasers can learn from Jeremiah. When God sent him out to be a prophet to Israel, He told him not to worry about how people received him or his message. “Say whatever I command you; do not be afraid of them, for I am with you” (Jeremiah 1:7-8). God knew that if Jeremiah let their reactions affect him, he couldn’t be God’s faithful messenger. He needed to fear God more than he feared men. For “Fear of man will prove to be a snare” (Proverbs 29:25). It will trip us up, bind us, and prevent us from freely living the life God intends for us.

In my life I’m seldom faced with such a momentous assignment as Jeremiah was given. The kinds of answers others seek from me are far more inconsequential – like whether their new haircut suits them, what I think of their new furnishings, or my choice of a good restaurant. But it’s still important to God that I speak truthfully. We’ve already touched on two reasons: to reflect His character and to avoid being tripped up by a fear of man. But there’s another reason as well. The building of trust.

When our oldest son was eight years old he asked his grandmother: “Are you true?” She didn’t know where his question came from and wasn’t sure how to respond. But after we reflected on it together we decided he was asking if he could trust her. He wanted to know if she was trustworthy, someone he could depend on to act in his best interest.

The rider on the white horse in Revelation 19:11 was called Faithful and True. The armies of heaven followed him into battle, knowing he could be trusted. In life we choose those we want to be in relationship with. The ones we can safely give our hearts to are those who will tell us the truth, even if it momentarily disappoints or hurts us. A sincere and honest heart that embraces truth is both rare and precious, both in God’s eyes and among people. We get so used to being dishonest that we don’t even see it as sin. I want to repent of my weakness in this area and learn from Him how to speak the truth in love. Always and in every circumstance. My fear (reverence) of Him instead of men will enable me to make right choices.

Being truthful with myself, with others, and with God is a sure foundation that will stand the test of time. Whom I fear and honor will determine how I respond to circumstances, crises, and any kind of question that comes my way. People pleasing may give short-term gratification but it cannot build trust or enable me to grow in the likeness of Christ.

Am I true? I want to be! And with God’s help I am determined to leave my people pleasing tendencies behind. Will you join me as we begin a new year? Every word of truth spoken in love is a spot of light that will make a difference in a dark world. As Paul wrote, God’s people are to be “blameless and pure … without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe” (Philippians 2:15).