Good out of Bad

I am sure it has happened to you before. You are reading through a familiar passage and something hits you that you never pay much attention to before. It’s nothing really groundbreaking, just something you hadn’t given much consideration before.

I was reading through a familiar part of Daniel the other day, and I noticed that because of the faith of the Israelites, foreign kings proclaimed God as the one true God. It dawned on me that God was able to use the Israelites rebellion to make Himself known in Babylon. Though Daniel and his friend were taken captive as punishment for the nations disobedience, God could use that sad circumstance to further His Kingdom. God gave Daniel interpretation of dreams, and saved him from a den of lions; He also rescued Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the fiery furnace. All of these stories ended with God being praised by a non-Israelite ruler.

It should not come as a surprise that God works good out of bad situations. God is the master at using what we see as tragedy for His purpose and glory. We often think of God working everything for our good (Romans 8:28), but as we focus on our own lives, we sometimes forget that He is working His master plan for the whole world.

For Daniel and his friends, their circumstances looked bleak, but God was ready to act. I am sure the events of the lion’s den and the furnace had an affect on their lives – how could you ever doubt God after living through those experiences – but they may have had an even bigger impact on those who witnessed the events. For the captives, it was a confirmation of their faith, and for the locals, it was an awesome display of God’s power and love – one that they may not have known if not for Israel’s adversity.

In our fallen universe, bad things happen. Some of them are caused by our own choices and others are random acts that we, at least as individuals, can’t prevent. Sometimes, we can connect the dots and understand the tragedy, and other times, we are at a loss as we try to make any semblance of sense.

I am the type of person who tries to make sense out of everything, to understand why things happen and what good can come out of them. I believe that everything happens for a reason, or maybe I should rephrase that: I believe that everything that happens can be used by God for His purpose. It may not make sense at the time, or even ever; we don’t always see how God is working. God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). He may have a different path than we would have plotted, but in the end, He is working as only He knows how.

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Perfection!

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Jesus (Matt 5:48)

That may be the scariest verse in the whole Bible. Love your enemies – tough but willing to try. Forgive others – hard but doable. Be perfect – yeah, that train left the station a long time ago!

As the saying goes, “to err is human”, but some of us struggle with the idea of being less than perfect. My wife is a perfectionist and that comes in handy – she is the world’s best proof-reader, and I wouldn’t be publishing this blog without her keen eye. I also have some perfectionist in me, but at some point long ago, I developed the attitude that “good enough” would be acceptable. It still bugs me when I make a mistake, but I don’t lose sleep about everything being absolutely perfect.

In The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey presents two very different ways to approach Jesus’ instruction. One is as “absolute ideals” and the other as “absolute grace”. On the one hand, Yancey describes Leo Tolstoy’s attempt (and failure) to live up to God’s perfection. On the other, Yancey documents Fyodor Dostoevsky’s acceptance that he would never live up to it, and that he doesn’t have to because of God’s grace.

You will notice as you read Matthew 5 that Jesus is upping the standards by which people are to live. As a final exclamation point, He instructs us to be perfect. As Jesus is in the middle of His most famous teaching lecture, and in an attempt to find the middle ground between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I look at this verse in the context of a modern-day school teacher.

When a teacher hands out a test, they don’t instruct the students to answer some of the questions correctly; they want the students to try answer all of them correctly. In other words, the teacher would instruct their pupils to answer the questions perfectly. When the tests are handed back in, no teacher is surprised when there are wrong answers on most, if not all, of the tests. While they would tell the students to be perfect, they would also expect that they would make some mistakes – either through carelessness or because they did not learn the subject well enough.

When Jesus instructs us to be perfect, He does so in the same way. He knows we are going to fall short because He knows we are not perfect. The beauty is, with that knowledge, He doesn’t lower the bar. He keeps it unattainable!

Having a teacher (boss, mentor, wife…) who pushes you is one of the best gifts you can recieve. They don’t let you settle for “good enough” – they make you better. Jesus looks at each one of us and pushes us to be the best we can be. We never achieve perfection in this life. But like a good teacher, He doesn’t flunk us when we fall short. In fact, He picks us up and says, “Keep trying. You can do it!”, and most importantly “I’m with you to help.”

It is important to note that this doesn’t soften the call to perfection. Like I said, the bar is still set impossibly high, but it isn’t set high to discourage or even condemn. It is set so that in every situation, we know the call is to make the right choice, do the right thing and do it all in love.

Like Tolstoy, we should strive to live a life that is pleasing to God, and like Dostoevsky, we should rest assured that our righteousness is not in ourselves, but in the perfection of Jesus.

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Light to the World

It happens to me the most when I am out grocery shopping. Maybe because that is the most consistent place I see people I don’t know. From the guy playing his guitar at the front entrance to the mother trying to get in and out as quick as possible with a couple toddlers in tow, I can’t help but wonder.

A few years ago I went to help serve a meal through an organization that provides them to the homeless downtown. It was a youth service project, and I was along as one of the “responsible adults”. As we prayed just before the doors opened, the woman who heads up the ministry told us to “keep our eyes out for Jesus. Every meal we try to figure out if one of the guests is Jesus in disguise.”

As I look at the man with the quitar or the woman with the children, I can’t help but wonder are they Jesus is disguise? Would I treat them any differently if I thought they were?

Honestly, I try not to make eye contact with the musician standing next to the open case collecting spare change. I seldom have any change on me, save for the quarter that I used to free the shopping cart from the corral.

As I cross paths with people in the store, I try to be friendly and courteous, but I am on a mission to get out of there as quickly as I can. Sure, I smile at the kids, and give a you’re-braver-than-me look to the mother as she sheepishly pulls her tot from the cookie aisle.

So, I question, how many times have I walked right past Jesus and not even noticed?

The phrase “what would Jesus do” has faded from pop culture, but the question is still as valid as ever. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he often went out of His way to touch someone’s life. Sometimes, He sought his target out, think of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) who He called down from the tree and invited Himself over for lunch. Sometimes, He is interrupted, while on mission, by the slightest touch, like the woman who had been bleeding for years (Luke 8:40-55).

As I ponder the question, I realize that Jesus wasn’t concerned with the status of anyone He came into contact with. Of course, He wasn’t looking for Himself in others; He would help anyone who needed it, without a second thought about if there would be any benefit to Him.

Maybe the question I should be asking myself is “how can I be Jesus” to the people I pass on my weekly sojourn to the grocery store. Can I brighten someone’s day with a kind word or a helping hand? Should I go prepared with a pocket full of coins? Can I be more than just friendly and actually give 5 minutes to hear someone’s story?

Jesus calls us to be a light to the world (Matt 5:14-16), so whether I am looking for Jesus, trying to follow His example or being a model of Him to the world, I need to let my light shine everywhere.

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Faithful Journey

This past weekend was one of my favourite of the year. The first 2 rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament are incredibly fun to watch – probably because, if you enter a pool with friends or family, you have a routing interest in just about every game. Every year, I fill out my bracket and watch to see if the perennial powerhouses will move on or if a underdog will, for “one shining moment,” capture the imagination of many.

Watching March Madness games, you quickly realize 2 things. First is that the better team doesn’t always win. The second is that a 40 minute game can come down to one play. In that moment, it would seem that the outcomes of the game are determined by whether the final shot goes in or bounces out. But in truth, there are hundreds of other events that all contribute to which team wins. Split second decisions early in the game can have a huge impact on how it plays out and if that last shot means anything at all.

Each game is different. Some of them go pretty much according to plan, and others play out in a way that no one expected. In a way, our lives are a lot like that. Up until recently, I hadn’t really considered that my life could have played out much different than it has. Not that my decisions didn’t matter, but I believed that if I sought God’s will and was obedient to it, I would end up in a certain place no matter what. If asked, I would have told you I was on the path God had for me and that He would direct me where to go – the right doors would open and the wrong ones wouldn’t. Not that I didn’t have free will, but as long as I didn’t do anything obviously wrong, I would end up in the same place.

I have come to the realization that is simply not true. As much as I believe God is guiding me, I know that the decisions I have made have had a great impact on where I am today. There are many times when I felt God directing my path, but other times that there was no clear right choice. Of course, I will never know what would have happened if I had made different choices along the way – or even which choices had the greatest impact on my life.

What I do know, with confidence, is that God has been with me ever step of the way. No matter what choices I made, He has remained faithful. I will be forever grateful that God has blessed me the the family, friends and opportunities that He has. I know that He would have watched over me if I had made different choices and while the friends and opportunities would have been different, God would still remain faithful.

I also know that God will continue to walk with me through life. I don’t know what will happen next – life, like college basketball, is unpredictable – but I can rest assured that my Heavenly Father will be there no matter which way the ball bounces.

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Tolerant Love

I think we have become a little confused. In this age where information is as easily accessible as it has ever been, and sharing opinions and beliefs with the masses is as easy as a placing a “#” in front of a word, it has become too easy, and too common, to get pushed and pulled in the wrong directions.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that sharing information is one of the most important activities that humans can do. We have the ability to solve a plethora of issues if we work together and build off each other’s ideas. But where we run into trouble is when we build off of the wrong idea – or in the wrong direction. When we take something that starts out as good and twist it until it is nothing like what it started out as.

Lately, the idea that causes me the most concern is tolerance. On the surface, tolerance is an ideal attitude. We should all be tolerant of others – not forcing others to bend to our whim or, worse, discrimination because of someone else’s beliefs. However, as I look at the world around me, I see that tolerance has become the poster word for accepting anything and everything. There are two reasons that his current view of tolerance causes problems.

The first is that people demand that your views be tolerated. This is, in fact, a very intolerant attitude. Instead of being on the defensive against the social norm, there are many who take to the offensive, trumpeting the idea that if you do not accept their way, then you are intolerant.

The second is by accepting someone else’s beliefs and being sympathetic to their views. Now, I know what you are saying, isn’t that not only the very definition of tolerance but the way we should treat each other? Why yes it is, under most circumstances. Where it is problematic is when the person’s belief we are tolerating is sinful.

Let me give you an example of where being tolerant is a bad idea. My two children both like to stay up past their bedtime. If I were to say that because they do not want to go to bed that they shouldn’t have a bedtime that would not be tolerant – it would be irresponsible. A 5-year-old needs to go to sleep before 11 pm if she is to be ready for school the next morning.

A passage from the Bible has recently taken on a new meaning for me as I have contemplated this issue. In John 8:1-11 Jesus is presented with a woman who has been caught in adultery. The Pharisees, in an attempt to trick Jesus, quote the Law which states that she should be stoned. If I were standing in Jesus’ sandals, there would have been two responses that I would have to choose between. One, is to uphold the Law and have the woman stoned. The other is to ignore the Law and allow her to go. Either of those responses would have played right into the Pharisee’s hand.

But Jesus saw a third response. Now, we don’t know what he was writing in the sand, but whatever it was, it was enough to have every person turn and walk away. When they had all left, he doesn’t pick up a stone (He, of course, was without sin) nor does he condone the act, He instructs her to leave her life of sin.

What amazes me about this story is that Jesus did not condemn her, nor did He accept that the women had made her choice and he would simply accept that is the way she has chosen to live.

Discrimination is wrong. Hate is wrong. But so is skirting the truth; so, you don’t offend and compromise God’s Truth to appease the current trends.

When we are faced with the hot issues of today, we need to stand uncompromising on the Truth. None of us get to  make up what the Truth is. We get it from God. He has given us His Word and the Holy Spirit. We need to hold fast to the Word of God and do it with love for the person. Love isn’t blindly accepting of anything and everything, it is often manifested in helping someone see the error of their ways.

Jesus loved the woman in John 8 enough to show her great mercy and instruct her to turn away from her bad choices. We should all strive to walk that balance.

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One Prerequisite

Last week I wrote about how the Gospel message is simple. In fact, it can seem too good to be true. God has offered us eternal reward in exchange for earthly love. Think about it this way: if you were offered unlimited wealth in exchange for loving someone who needed nothing from you, you would probably ask “what’s the catch” before signing on the dotted line.

But that is exactly what God is offering us. He promises us eternal rest in His glory for basically nothing in return. Of course, our response to this gift should be reflected in our actions; we should live by His principles. But those standards are actually for our benefit. To live morally is often the most effective way to live well. Ideas like forgiveness and treating others kindly go a long way to benefiting us.

There is, however, one catch to accepting God’s gift – we have to admit that we need it. The only prerequisite to personal salvation is to confess that you are indeed a sinner. We must acknowledge that we need the saving grace of Jesus’ blood and accept that Jesus came and died that we may be redeemed.

This fact has intrigued me for a while. On the surface it seems so simply; almost as if God was aiming to make the process as straightforward as possible so that everyone could achieve it. But, as with many of God’s ways, what first appears to be routine does, in fact, serve a greater purpose.

For the person who is struggling to accept this gift because they don’t think they are worthy of it, I have great news. You aren’t! None of us are, and that’s the point. Because not only are all of us unworthy, none of us are too unworthy. God’s gift knows no limits and His forgiveness covers everything.

If you have already received this amazing gift, your response should not be to act as if you had anything to do with it. Christians who act “holier than thou” are forgetting the fact that to gain the privilege of being called a child of God you must first declare that you are not any better than anyone else, and can only be made holy by God.

Because God offers salvation as a gift, not as something that could be bought, earned or solved, it not only means everyone has access to it, but that no one can boast about it. You don’t have to be rich or smart (two traits that can often get in the way of even seeking God in the first place); the only prerequisite is that admit you need the gift that is freely given to all who do.

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Keep it Simple

I often browse over headlines, sometimes clicking on news articles that catch my attention. I start with with sports and move my way into news. Today as I was scrolling through, a headline caught my eye. It wasn’t one of the main articles; it wasn’t accompanied by a photo. It was a simple line that I almost missed: “Billy Graham dies at 99”.

I will assume that if you are reading this, you know who Billy Graham is… if not, stop reading this and go read something he wrote! Actually, even if you do know who he is, go read him (but maybe wait until after you finish here).

Graham’s international ministry reached millions, and is estimated to have lead to 3 million people putting their faith in Jesus. He wrote over 30 books, prayed with 13 Presidents and preached the Gospel around the world. Though there are numerous reasons that Graham was as successful and well regarded as he was, I think one of the top reasons was that he kept it simple.

The Word of God is both amazingly simple and incredibly complex. It can be fully understood in minutes by children and studied for decades with no conclusion by Phds. But the core message is for everyone and can be understood by all. We don’t need to delve into the minute details and the historical significance of every verse to understand it. Simply put, God loves us and he wants us to love Him.

Everything else flows out of that simple truth. God, since before you were even born, has loved you more than you can even imagine, and, though sin has separated you from God, all you need to do is simply admit that you need His forgiveness and love Him. You don’t have to earn that love. You don’t have to accomplish anything to gain it. There is no gold medal, silver trophy, bronze statue or a list of check marks you need to obtain. It isn’t about what you do; it is about what Christ does in you.

You are never too bad to be beyond His saving grace or too good not to need it. You can never do anything so heinous as to disqualify yourself or so great that it isn’t necessary. He does not compare you to anyone else; your path is unique to you, and all He wants is to walk along it with you.

If you are reading this and you do not know Jesus as your personal saviour, I have one question for you: what is holding you back?

If you do know Jesus, then I encourage you to share God’s message. We all can’t be Billy Graham, but we can all share the simple truth.

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