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Good News vs. Good Advice

Merry Christmas everyone! If you’ve not seen the brief video we produced for Christmas Day, go to www.edgewoodcommunity.org and check it out first.

Afterwards, read this excerpt below from Michael Horton’s book, Christless Christianity, and the chapter, How We Turn Good News into Good Advice. Praise God for the Good News that a Savior is born!

Raising a six-year-old and nearly five-year-old triplets requires all the advice my wife and I can get. James Dobson’s books have been helpful, but we have also benefited tremendously from the wisdom of non-Christians, especially my barber and his wife, whose family has been a huge assistance in all sorts of ways. Just as people are not likely to get the best entertainment at church, they may not get the same quality of daily advice from their pastor that they might get from Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura. You just don’t need the Bible in order to know that your children need regular sleep patterns, the secret to a good marriage is “talk, talk, talk,” divorce is normally devastating for children, and if you don’t rule your credit cards they’ll rule you. Of course the Bible gives us a lot more wisdom than this, but there are plenty of non-Christian families who actually do a better job at doing the right thing than some Christian families.

It is no wonder that the average person today assumes that all religions basically say the same thing and that singling one out as the only truth is arrogant. After all, who doesn’t believe in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”? The moral law that we find in the Bible (especially the Ten Commandments) is quite similar to the codes of other religions and can be found in civilizations that predate the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. Some of its wisdom flows from that special covenantal relationship between God and Israel, but much of it (especially Proverbs) is simply a clear articulation of the way God wired everyone in creation.

If religion is basically ethics-getting people to do the right thing-then why get uptight over the different historical forms, doctrines, rituals, and practices that distinguish one version of morality from another? Let a thousand flowers bloom as long as people are being helped, right?

Reduce Christianity to good advice and it blends in perfectly with the culture of life coaching. It might seem relevant, but it is actually lost in the marketplace of moralistic therapies. When we pitch Christianity as the best method of personal improvement, complete with testimonies about how much better we are ever since we “surrendered all,” non-Christians can legitimately demand of us, “What right do you have to say that yours is the only source of happiness, meaning, exciting experiences, and moral betterment?” Jesus is clearly not the only effective way to a better life or to being a better me. One can lose weight, stop smoking, improve one’s marriage, and become a nicer person without Jesus.

What distinguishes Christianity at its heart is not its moral code but its story-a story of a Creator who, although rejected by those he created in his image, stooped to reconcile them to himself through his Son. This is not a story about the individual’s heavenward progress but the recital of historical events of God’s incarnation, atonement, resurrection, ascension, and return and the exploration of their rich significance. At its heart, this story is a gospel: the Good News that God has reconciled us to himself in Christ…

The real power and wisdom is not found in principles for our victorious living but in the announcement of God’s victory in Christ…J. Gresham Machen’s cry, directed at Protestant liberalism, can as easily be addressed to evangelicals today: “What I need first of all is not exhortation, but a gospel, not directions for saving myself but knowledge of how God has saved me. Have you any good news? That is the question that I ask of you. I know your exhortations will not help me. But if anything has been done to save me, will you not tell me the facts?”…

The greatest threat to Christ-centered witness even in churches that formally affirm sound teaching is what British evangelical David Gibson calls “the assumed gospel.” The idea is that the gospel is necessary for getting saved, but after we sign on, the rest of the Christian life is all the fine print: conditional forgiveness. It often comes in the form of, “Well, of course, but. . . .” After a month of Sundays with exhortation apart from Good News, one might ask, “But what about the part about God persevering in spite of human sin and overcoming it for us at the cross?” “Well, of course! But everybody here already believes that. Now we just need to get on with living it out.” We got in by grace but now we need to stay in (or at least become first-class, sold-out, victorious, fully surrendered Christians) by following various steps, lists, and practices. There was this brief and shining moment of grace, but now the rest of the Christian life is about our experience, feelings, commitment, and obedience. We always gravitate back toward ourselves: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.”

We wander back toward self-confidence just as easily as into more obvious sins. It is no wonder that many Christians find themselves in the spiritual equivalent of midlife crisis, losing their first love, even wondering perhaps deep down whether it is all just a game. Tragically, my generation will likely fare no better than the previous one on the hypocrisy test. We too will fall far short of that mandate to love God and our neighbor. What we need, therefore, is a gospel that is sufficient to save even unfaithful Christians. We can never take the gospel for granted. It is always the surprising announcement that fills our sails with faith for an active life of good works…

 

 
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Posted by on December 25, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Daughter Went Off to College…and Mom Lost Her Faith

The sad story of Solomon’s fall is familiar to Bible readers. The writer of 1 Kings recaps…

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. 1 Kings 11:1-2 (ESV)

The King started so well, in such close communion with the Living God…and then…this. In fact, Solomon falls so far in Scripture that it’s almost hard to believe, but we aren’t left wondering why it happened. His wives turned his heart after other gods. But how did that happen? Yes, he loved these women, but why did loving them cause Solomon to love their gods? In other words, why does loving someone who doesn’t love God…or, for instance, who thinks wrongly about God (idolatry) cause the first lover to fall away? I was musing about this after reading the passage recently, and for whatever reason, my mind turned to kids who lose their faith at college, and their parents…who follow them.

I imagine this happens more than is reported – a child goes off to University and gets schooled in secularism, or maybe just modern day “Christianity” with its rejection of the church and Scripture and its embrace of cultural morals and mores…and Mom and/or Dad begin to rethink their own faith as a result. But what brings this about?

The Psychology of Solomon and Those Who Follow Him

I think it’s simple: when we love someone, we want to stay close to them by having things in common. Therefore, we want to root for the same teams, enjoy the same food, vote for the same President…and yes, worship the same God. This is undoubtedly what happened with Solomon – he loved these women, and not only the physical aspects of their relationship, I’m sure, but also the joy of their companionship (at least some of them, that is – there were too many to be close to them all).

And likewise, we parents love our kids greatly…sometimes, even too much. The child comes home denying the faith, or perhaps simply saying the church that the family has attended for all these years is outmoded and she wants no part of it. And Mom and Dad also start moving away. This is where child-rearing becomes idol-worship, where that relationship with the child brings such security that parent will push away Christ (and His bride, the church) to hold on to the child. Sadly, the only way to truly hold on to the child is to lovingly challenge her with truth.

But when such challenge does not take place, often a falling away on the part of the parent is the sign of what was really a spurious faith to begin with. Whatever the case, the lesson is clear – in this great big world of ours, be careful who you love…and in the case of family, be careful how you love.

For no relationship will ever be worth forsaking Christ…His Word…His gospel…or His church.

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26 (ESV)

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Living by What “Seems Right”

There have been certain sins throughout history which have been so wickedly horrific that I’m quite certain the vast majority of people today would not even consider committing them. For instance, can you imagine sacrificing your daughter to an idol by burning her alive? Of course not, and neither could the Israelites when they first entered the Promised Land. And yet, a few hundred years passed, and sure enough…

“When you present your gifts and offer up your children in fire, you defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. And shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, declares the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you.” Ezekiel 20:31 (ESV)

Such is the shaping power of culture. What was at one time absolutely impossible to imagine…became reality. Sacrificing a child suddenly “seemed the right thing” to do, simply because it was the cultural norm.

God’s Response

What’s fascinating to note in Ezekiel 20 is God’s response to this wickedness. He said they would not be able to “inquire” of Him. In other words, no relationship. And so it was that idolatry, introduced through exposure to a wicked culture, destroyed any meaningful relationship they had with the One True God.

What We Lose by Adopting Cultural Beliefs

Of course, the same thing happens in our culture, only with different issues. The people of God today constantly find themselves under pressure to modify their beliefs and practices toward what “seems right”. But what I have realized recently is that adopting these cultural beliefs and practices has an unintended consequence: the loss of a vital relationship with God. We can no longer inquire of Him. This makes sense considering Israel’s experience under Ezekiel, but also because in order to adopt many cultural beliefs, one must reject Scripture, which is, of course, God’s Word to us. How can I have a vital relationship with someone who does not speak to me?

The Stepford Wives…the Stepford God

The lesson here is clear: while we will all be shaped to some degree by culture, we must be sure to let God’s Word have the final say (Romans 12:2).  Along these lines, one of my favorite Tim Keller illustrations comes from his book, The Reason for God:

“If we let our unexamined beliefs undermine our confidence in the Bible, the cost may be greater than we think.

“If you don’t trust the Bible enough to let it challenge and correct your thinking, how could you ever have a personal relationship with God? In any truly personal relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you. For example, if a wife is not allowed to contradict her husband, they won’t have an intimate relationship. Remember the (two!) movies The Stepford Wives? The husbands of Stepford, Connecticut, decide to have their wives turned into robots who never cross the wills of their husbands. A Stepford wife was wonderfully compliant and beautiful, but no one would describe such a marriage as intimate or personal.

“Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? You won’t! You’ll have a Stepford God! A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction. Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination.”

– Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism

Therefore, only a real relationship with God can save us from being wrongly shaped by culture and what “seems right”. And not surprisingly, such a relationship with God only comes from a thorough commitment to Scripture as authoritative.

For as the history of the Israelites teaches us, if we abandon God’s Word, the fire is never far away.

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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The One Problem Behind All Your Worry

angst-802639__180[1]It was bedtime recently, and as we got ready for the sandman, I explained to Diane why I was worried about something. She wasn’t buying it, and yet I assured her I had reason for my worry. She just didn’t understand what I understood.

Now, I’m beginning to doubt my certainty.

Looking back, I think I was being foolish. Let me go one step further. I was being proud.

It was that insightful pastor Tim Keller who brought this out to me in a sermon on the fruit of the Spirit. Keller wrote…

Do you know how to deal with worry? Worry is arrogance. Worry is always, in the Bible, a refusal to assume a humble posture before God. In James 4 (my favorite place almost on this), verses 13 and 14, it says, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city … Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.”

That’s it. Anybody who worries thinks they know. Anybody who is filled with anxiety is arrogant, because you’re sure you know how things have to go. You’re sure you know what you need. You’re sure you know how history has to go. The peace that is always there … always there … is a peace based on humility, saying before God, “God, you know what I need. You know what has to happen. I don’t know. I don’t know! That’s the reason I don’t worry, because I don’t know. I’m not sure. I put myself in your hands. I’m a child. You’re my Father.”

Real peace that will never pass away (the peace that passes all understanding, the peace that’s perfect) is always connected to humility. If you’re a proud person and you have peace, it’s not real peace. It’s peace based on the fact things are going well for you. When you’re a proud person and things are going well for you, you’re actually misusing that peace because what you’re saying is, “The reason things are going well is I chose well. I’m saving. I have a good job. I got into a good school. I married a good person.”

In other words, your peace is a counterfeit peace. It is not a lasting peace. It will eventually fall apart…Real peace is always connected to humility.

Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

When I’m so certain that I have reason to worry, it’s because I am doing what James said not to do – I am looking into the future and imagining I know how everything is going to turn out…which means, in the case of worry, turning out badly. And imagining these lousy scenarios wakes me up at 3 a.m…full of anxiety. And really, it all happens because of arrogance and pride.

And then yesterday, with Keller’s insight speaking life to my soul, the Spirit brought to mind a beautiful, short Psalm I had memorized years before…

A Song of Ascents, of David. O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty; Nor do I involve myself in great matters, Or in things too difficult for me. Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; Like a weaned child rests against his mother, My soul is like a weaned child within me. O Israel, hope in the LORD From this time forth and forever. Psalm 131:1-3 (NASB)

So, I’m learning that one great key to overcoming worry is to repent of involving myself in “great matters”, to repent of looking into the future and pretending that I know.

Because I don’t.

I don’t have any certain knowledge of the future. But I do know the One who does. And I know what He said…

Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10 (NASB)

 
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Posted by on September 6, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Live from El Salvador with Compassion

imageWe’ve been sponsoring a boy named Daniel in Mexico with Compassion for many years. We exchange letters (not nearly enough come from the Knowltons), but still Daniel’s life has always had an air of mystery to me.

But not so much after this week, not because we made it to Mexico, but because we are here in El Salvador seeing Compassion’s ministry up close and personal. Two months ago Compassion invited us on a trip here to see their ministry first hand, and we delightfully accepted.

We have been having a wonderful time, getting to know some terrific people all while seeing a ministry that is doing an incredible work “releasing children from poverty.” A number of Compassion staff are along for the tour, as well as 7 pastors, some of whom brought their sweeties (Yay, Diane!). Also along for the trip is the comedian Jeff Foxworthy and his wife and daughter. They have made a number of Compassion trips.

Compassion-sponsored child Naomi shows Diane one of her sponsor's letters...

Compassion child Naomi shows off her sponsor letter

To begin with…

Suffice it to say that Compassion…works. Quite well. Unwed mothers come to Christ (about 65% who enter the Child Survival Program come to know the Lord) and receive resources to holistically care for their children. Children come to Christ and often their families are also impacted by the gospel. (One group met a mother and father today who came to Christ when both showed up at the church/project to see their son baptized) Compassion isn’t perfect, but by the grace of God their strategy works well.

Why Compassion Works…

Delightful lunch with Compassion Child Gerson

Delightful lunch with Compassion Child Gerson

Of course I am simplifying, and obviously I’m no expert after two days of touring, but if pressed to name one great reason, I think it works because it is all based on the Gospel working through the LOCAL CHURCH. I knew the gospel was significant, but the overwhelming importance of the local church in Compassion’s ministry was new to me. And this fact alone made me love their ministry. As one staff member put it, “It has always been our intention to attend to the bride of Christ.” Jeff Foxworthy said, “The star of the whole thing is the church.” So what we visited over the last two days…were two different Compassion projects, or really, two different churches. Someone noted something I hadn’t realized, but it was definitely true: “It doesn’t say COMPASSION in giant letters when you go to the project.”

It’s a church, and therefore each touring day we have met the church staff, and the Compassion staff (which includes an accountant at every single project – they have won awards for their excellence in financial accountability, and approximately 80% of all donated monies go directly to helping the child). Staff member Mark Pellingra related a story of a visit he once made to a Compassion child’s home. He asked the parents about how they felt about Compassion’s impact on their child. They responded, “What is Compassion?” They knew about the sponsor…and the church, but not the organization behind it.

The Ultimate Aim

Compassion actually hopes to put themselves out of business, and it’s not just a pipe dream – it is beginning to happen in certain countries like Uganda and Ecuador. Compassion children grow up, become gainfully employed and serving in the local church from whence they came; and over time, with their understanding of sustainable ministry, they themselves take over sponsoring their neighbors, other local children. Sponsors therefore from the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. become unnecessary…to the glory of God!

Today’s fun 

You know you're...on a Compassion trip...

You know you’re…on a Compassion trip…

After four long hours on a bus today (two hours into the mountains and back – we passed time sharing personal testimonies), we came back to the very nice Real Intercontinental hotel, where, after a great meal, Mr. Foxworthy did stand-up for 17 of us, which he said made him more nervous than a crowd of 5,000. And yet he was hilarious, a real treat. Then we shared our impressions of our two days so far, what we have learned. More blessing. I’ll look forward to telling more stories when I return to Edgewood on the weekend after Labor Day.

The El Salvador Compassion trip team

The El Salvador Compassion trip team

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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Our Broken World…and Our Longing for Another

The deep darkness of the world has come home to us in recent days. It’s a combination of things, really. The shooting of innocent young black men, the shooting of police, our nation’s finest, and then two political conventions with two candidates that, more than any election I can recall, define the idea of voting for the lesser of two evils. Truly this is a “Come, Lord Jesus” moment in our nation’s history. But there have been a lot of such moments, haven’t there?

So…I was moved to tears last week listening to Gary Sinese read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I hadn’t read the classic since high school (sophomore or junior year?), when I wrote a thesis on how the book shows that “man is basically good.” How I ever came up with that out of this book, I can’t tell you 35 years later. It sure wouldn’t be what I would say now.

But what touched me was one of the familiar scenes in the book when Lennie asks George to tell about the dream the two of them have. Do you remember? It’s a dream of a place of their own. It’s a dream of a place where they don’t “buck barley” for a task-master. But mostly, it is a dream of hutches, and rabbits and hope. And as I heard Sinese’s masterful reading, I realized that George and Lennie’s dream is really the dream of all mankind…a better place. A safe place. A place of belonging. A place, sadly, that is not of this world…

Lennie drummed on the table with his fingers. “George?”

“Huh?”

“George, how long’s it gonna be till we get that little place an’ live on the fatta the lan’— an’ rabbits?”

“I don’ know,” said George. “We gotta get a big stake together. I know a little place we can get cheap, but they ain’t givin’ it away.”

Old Candy turned slowly over. His eyes were wide open. He watched George carefully.

Lennie said, “Tell about that place, George.”

“I jus’ tol’ you, jus’ las’ night.”

“Go on— tell again, George.”

“Well, it’s ten acres,” said George. “Got a little win’mill. Got a little shack on it, an’ a chicken run. Got a kitchen, orchard, cherries, apples, peaches, ’cots, nuts, got a few berries. They’s a place for alfalfa and plenty water to flood it. They’s a pig pen——”

“An’ rabbits, George.”

“No place for rabbits now, but I could easy build a few hutches and you could feed alfalfa to the rabbits.”

“Damn right, I could,” said Lennie. “You…damn right I could.”

George’s hands stopped working with the cards. His voice was growing warmer. “An’ we could have a few pigs. I could build a smoke house like the one gran’pa had, an’ when we kill a pig we can smoke the bacon and the hams, and make sausage an’ all like that. An’ when the salmon run up river we could catch a hundred of ’em an’ salt ’em down or smoke ’em. We could have them for breakfast. They ain’t nothing so nice as smoked salmon. When the fruit come in we could can it— and tomatoes, they’re easy to can. Ever’ Sunday we’d kill a chicken or a rabbit. Maybe we’d have a cow or a goat, and the cream is so…damn thick you got to cut it with a knife and take it out with a spoon.”

Lennie watched him with wide eyes, and old Candy watched him too. Lennie said softly, “We could live offa the fatta the lan’.”

“Sure,” said George. “All kin’s a vegetables in the garden, and if we want a little whisky we can sell a few eggs or something, or some milk. We’d jus’ live there. We’d belong there. There wouldn’t be no more runnin’ round the country and gettin’ fed by a Jap cook. No, sir, we’d have our own place where we belonged and not sleep in no bunkhouse.”

“Tell about the house, George,” Lennie begged.

“Sure, we’d have a little house an’ a room to ourself. Little fat iron stove, an’ in the winter we’d keep a fire goin’ in it. It ain’t enough land so we’d have to work too hard. Maybe six, seven hours a day. We wouldn’t have to buck no barley eleven hours a day. An’ when we put in a crop, why, we’d be there to take the crop up. We’d know what come of our planting.”

“An’ rabbits,” Lennie said eagerly. “An’ I’d take care of ’em. Tell how I’d do that, George.”

“Sure, you’d go out in the alfalfa patch an’ you’d have a sack. You’d fill up the sack and bring it an’ put it in the rabbit cages.”

“They’d nibble an’ they’d nibble,” said Lennie, “the way they do. I seen ’em.”

“Ever’ six weeks or so,” George continued, “them does would throw a litter so we’d have plenty rabbits to eat an’ to sell. An’ we’d keep a few pigeons to go flyin’ around the win’mill like they done when I was a kid.” He looked raptly at the wall over Lennie’s head. “An’ it’d be our own, an’ nobody could can us. If we don’t like a guy we can say, ‘Get the hell out,’ and by God he’s got to do it. An’ if a fren’ come along, why we’d have an extra bunk, an’ we’d say, ‘Why don’t you spen’ the night?’ an’ by God he would. We’d have a setter dog and a couple stripe cats, but you gotta watch out them cats don’t get the little rabbits.”

Lennie breathed hard. “You jus’ let ’em try to get the rabbits. I’ll break their…damn necks. I’ll . . . I’ll smash ’em with a stick.” He subsided, grumbling to himself, threatening the future cats which might dare to disturb the future rabbits.

George sat entranced with his own picture.

When Candy spoke they both jumped as though they had been caught doing something reprehensible. Candy said, “You know where’s a place like that?”

George was on guard immediately. “S’pose I do,” he said.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men (pp. 55-56). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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When Facing an Enemy, Remember This…

When I worked at Enterprise Rent-A-Car almost 25 years ago, one day someone in the office took lunch orders for sub sandwiches and made a run for the whole gang. When I saw the bag full of subs, I grabbed mine and took a bite.

Except it wasn’t mine. It was the sub marked for our assistant manager, Mike. Mike was a cocky, good-looking guy who thought he was all that, busy climbing the Enterprise ladder. He was not much into grace.

So…when he found out I had taken a bite out of his sandwich, he was hot, and he looked at me like I was dumber than a toothpick. And ever after that, he treated me just that way. You know how when someone treats you like an idiot, you end up acting like one? Yeah, that was me. Mike made me nervous, and therefore fouling up got easier and easier around him.

Once I asked him a question about a particular procedure. He replied: “That’s a dumb question. Don’t ask dumb questions.”

Any questions?

Eventually I was transferred to another office, and we lost contact. Some time later I heard through the grapevine that he was demoted…or passed over for promotion, or something along those lines. Whatever it was, he and Enterprise parted ways.

Time passed, and one day at the office, I got a call for a rental…from Mike. I remember the sense that things weren’t going so well for him (surprise, surprise), and I think he needed some sort of a favor in the rental deal. It was within my purview to grant it, and I did. Then, realizing that he hadn’t been so kind to me in the past, he expressed surprise at my helpfulness. I don’t remember how I responded, but Mike knew I was a Christian.

Hopefully he connected the dots.

Maybe you have had an enemy like Mike at the office…or in the neighborhood…or in your own family. If so, you know they can definitely make life horrible. And if you’re going through life facing an enemy lately, I have a thought from Scripture that might just help you to respond like Christ.

It’s a line from the song Moses sang before he departed from the Children of Israel…

For their rock is not as our Rock; our enemies are by themselves. Deuteronomy 32:31 (ESV)

By themselves. Isn’t that stark? Your enemy may be after you, but he or she is…all alone. I think of that classic lyric by Eric Carmen, in his song, All by Myself:

Livin’ alone
I think of all the friends I’ve known
But when I dial the telephone
Nobody’s home

All by myself
Don’t wanna be, all by myself anymore
All by myself
Don’t wanna live, all by myself anymore

If you are a Christian facing an enemy, you do not face him alone; you have the Rock! And conversely, no matter how powerful he seems, he is still all by himself. And if it is a group of folks plotting your demise, they receive no supernatural help. All alone…in a cold, dark world. How sad and broken. How hopeless. How much they need Christ.

How much we all do.

…for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” Hebrews 13:5-6 (ESV)

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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