Saturday, June 26, 2010

Your Worst Times May Be Your Best Testimony to the Gospel

The best chance you have to show the Gospel to people may be when you least feel like you have anything to give. When you are in the midst of distress and suffering, there will usually be people who are aware of your situation who don't believe in Christ. It is one thing for them to hear you talk about the hope of the Gospel and the freedom of trusting in Christ when things seem to be going well for you. Any person might be content with his or her beliefs and way of life when all is well. But when your world seems to be falling apart and you are clearly under stress, the way you react shows much more truth about what you believe. If you praise God and affirm that he is faithful and wonderful even in the midst of your own suffering, you show that the Gospel really is a consolation to you and that knowing God really does bring comfort.

People will often expect you to be miserable when circumstances are difficult or painful. Most people won't even criticize or judge you for it - they know they would react the same way. It's usually accepted that we will be unhappy and discouraged when life is hard. But at the same time, if you do react that way, then people see you're no different from them and your comforts are no different. But when you react to suffering with hope and encouragement instead, and when you maintain your trust in God and your enjoyment of Him, people take notice. This is something they have a hard time explaining away. You can testify to a person for years that you believe in Christ and that He is the Way to life, but when that person sees that you really do take your own comfort from trusting in this - and that the hope you have in the Gospel is so strong that it brings you encouragement and peace even in painful suffering - you have just proven your sincerity in a way that can't easily be questioned or doubted.

On one occasion where Paul and Silas were thrown into prison, Acts 16:25 says: "About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them... ." No doubt! You would be paying attention too if you saw men in a first-century prison singing while sitting in the stocks. Paul and Silas were soon released from prison, but the point is that they were singing before they received relief. Praising God and seeking Him in the midst of suffering shows that you trust Him to deliver you from it. And that captures people's attention. As David said in Psalm 40 about God having delivered him from trouble: "Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord." (Psalm 40:3).

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sunday Salt: Spurgeon on How the Cross Takes Away Fear

I normally intend to draw from as diverse a group of people as possible for Sunday Salt meditations, but this quote from the "Prince of Preachers" was so encouraging that I wanted to share it even though we visited with Spurgeon only a couple of weeks ago.

"The most earnest Christian man must sometimes have his doubts as to whether all is right with him. The more sincere a man is, the more does he tremble lest he should deceive himself. You may have your personal anxieties; certainly I have mine. But when I turn my eyes to Jesus upon the cross and view the thorn crown and the sacred head and the eyes that were red with weeping and the hands nailed fast to the wood and the feet dripping with blood, and when I remember that this shameful death was endured for love of me, I am so quiet and so happy in my spirit that I cannot tell how peacefully my life-floods flow. God must forgive my grievous fault, for my Redeemer has so grievously answered for it. When I see Jesus die, I perceive that henceforth divine justice is on the sinner's side. How can the Lord God punish the same offense twice--first the Substitute and then the men for whom that Substitute has bled? Christ has bled as substitute for every man who believes in Him--therefore is every believer safe."
--"The Marvelous Magnet" from The Power of the Cross of Christ, ed. Lance Wubbels (Christian Living Classics, published by Emerald House; 1995), p. 20.

"But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified." Hebrews 10:12-14

"He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed." 1 Peter 2:24

"And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross." Colossians 2:13-14

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sunday Salt: Augustine's Gratitude for How God Kept Him From Sin

Augustine of Hippo was one of the greatest writers of the Early Church. Living from the fourth century to the first third of the fifth century, he was schooled in the classical philosophy and rhetoric of the Roman centers of learning, but also lived to see the fall of Rome. He didn't embrace Christ until age 32, first pursuing various philosophies and even having a mistress through whom he fathered a child. After converting, he ended up producing some of the most important works ever written in the Church. In the Confessions (free online editions and links), Augustine describes the process of his early life and his slow transition to Christianity, and examines the struggle with sin and the ways the human mind and body are tested and tempted.

The following passage left a deep impression on me when I first read it, and taught me that we have much more to be grateful for from God than just forgiveness for the sins we did commit:
"What shall I render unto the Lord for the fact that while my memory recalls these things my soul no longer fears them? I will love thee, O Lord, and thank thee, and confess to thy name, because thou hast put away from me such wicked and evil deeds. To thy grace I attribute it and to thy mercy, that thou hast melted away my sin as if it were ice. To thy grace also I attribute whatsoever of evil I did not commit--for what might I not have done, loving sin as I did, just for the sake of sinning? Yea, all the sins that I confess now to have been forgiven me, both those which I committed willfully and those which, by thy providence, I did not commit. What man is there who, when reflecting upon his own infirmity, dares to ascribe his chastity and innocence to his own powers, so that he should love thee less--as if he were in less need of thy mercy in which thou forgivest the transgressions of those that return to thee? As for that man who, when called by thee, obeyed thy voice and shunned those things which he here reads of me as I recall and confess them of myself, let him not despise me--for I, who was sick, have been healed by the same Physician by whose aid it was that he did not fall sick, or rather was less sick than I. And for this let him love thee just as much--indeed, all the more--since he sees me restored from such a great weakness of sin by the selfsame Saviour by whom he sees himself preserved from such a weakness."
Confessions [free online text], translated by Albert C. Outler (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), Book II, Ch. VII, 15.

The realization that God has not only forgiven us for every selfish and hurtful thing we have done, but also that it is God's mercy that kept us from doing even more terrible things than we did, taught me to appreciate more deeply how closely God protects us and how much we depend on Him to overcome sin. Left on our own, we would not resist sin. A good example of God's mercy in restraining sin can be found in Genesis 20:3-7, where God tells Abimelech that He was the one who kept Abimelech from sinning and incurring guilt when Abimelech unwittingly took Abraham's wife for a bride.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Five Crucial Aspects of a Healthy Marriage

In preparation for a friend's bridal shower, my wife asked me the other day what my top three tips for a good marriage were. This is what our discussion produced, and after ten years of marriage I feel strongly that these have been some of the most important factors in the strength or our marriage. Sadly, you won't hear most of these in the average pre-marital counseling session. Let's change that by spreading good advice far and wide.

As a preface, it will be clear that these practices are all based on following Christ and believing in the Living God. That's because I know I couldn't have the marriage I have today without focusing on God and pursuing my relationship with Him. Much of the pain, struggling, and broken dreams we experience in life comes from trying to do things our way, on our own, without giving ourselves up to God and following His wisdom. (A good example of Matthew 7:24-27 in action.)

1. Make sure you both are in some sort of small group or Bible study that meets regularly, in which you each have people you can confide in and pray with. There should be at least one person of the same sex in your life and one in your spouse's life who you can each tell anything and everything to and who you don't hold anything back from. You each need someone you can confess your struggles and your sins to who will keep you accountable and who will pray for you.

2. Pray together with your spouse and read the Bible together. Talk about what you are reading together. If you just pray and read and grow in your knowledge of God separately, you are not building your marriage on a common relationship with God and a mutual dependence on God. It is amazing how many problems in marriage are reduced or solved by talking to God together and confessing your weaknesses and struggles together. You learn to trust Him together and to encourage each other in faith, and you learn to deal with disagreements and problems by talking about Scripture and by praying together instead of just hashing it out.

3. Resolve to forgive each other for anything and everything, just as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32). Be committed to loving each other no matter what, the same way God is committed to loving you. Marriage is not designed to make you happy or fulfill all your expectations. Marriage is designed to help you know Christ more and experience God more deeply, because knowing Him is where you will find happiness and fulfillment. Marriage will reveal to you your own pride, weaknesses, sins, and destructive attitudes more deeply than just about anything else. Resolve to accept that this is God's gift to you to help you overcome your own faults and the things that keep you from experiencing satisfaction in Him. Love each other as you are and encourage each other in growing and changing. When you do, you will experience more joy and satisfaction in your marriage and appreciate how it brings you closer to God.

4. Closely related to #3, never, ever doubt that people can change and that all things are possible with God. No matter how difficult your disagreements may be or how you may disappoint each other, don't give up. Remember what Paul said about the power of God: He raises the dead. We can depend on Him to rescue the living from any despair. God expressly says that He has the power to change a person's heart. Even if it seems like you reach a point where you can't work together on something or one of you won't budge, put your faith and hope in God and trust that He can change feelings, expectations, or attitudes for either of you. I have experienced it firsthand in a number of "hopeless" situations, and I have seen it in other marriages too. "[W]ith God all things are possible." This is not a promise that you'll get everything you want; it's bigger than that. Sometimes the work of God is to show you that what you want or think you need really isn't as important as you thought it was, and that your happiness will come without it.

5. Be open and honest with each other about what you hope for and what hurts you in your marriage. A friend of ours recently said that a lot of pain in marriage comes from expectations that are not communicated to each other, and which therefore go unfulfilled. Don't keep your feelings and your needs private. Talk to each other about how you feel and trust each other with your dreams and hopes. Don't hold back because you don't think anything will change. Remember #4.

What are your thoughts? Please share your advice too in the comments.