Friday, June 24, 2016

GETTING TO KNOW GOD PERSONALLY

                One of the most enriching and challenging things that we can do in our life is to really get to know other people. Each of us has a different capacity for this. Some of us find it relatively easy, others must work harder at it. Yet all of us have the desire to know others and be known by others. It is a part of what it means for us to be created in the image of God. Just as God lives in eternal, perfect community, so we were created to live in community.

                One of the things I have learned is that getting to know another person is a process and that it takes intentional effort.

                The process begins with observation. Most of us are people watchers. Have you ever sat in a crowded airport or at the mall and watched the people going by? That situation usually raises my curiosity. I wonder where they are going or where they are coming from. I wonder about what they do. I wonder about who they are. In reality we do this all the time with the people we regularly encounter. We observe them from a distance and we begin to unconsciously form an idea about who they are. Many of our interactions stay at that distance.

                The next step in the process is to actually encounter the person. We intentionally greet them. We ask their name and maybe gain some basic information about them. At this step we are clarifying our image of the person. But the information we gather tends to be superficial.

                If we feel connected to that person in some way, we may take the next step to move from knowing about the person to actually getting to know the person. In my experience, this takes on many forms. Of course, the obvious way we get to know someone is by talking with them. We begin to ask probing questions that get beneath the surface. In order for this to really develop, we need to be willing to open up to the other person ourselves. The more open we are with them, the more open they become with us. This often leads to the next level, shared experience.

                We really get to know someone when we enter into shared experiences. It is in shared experience that we get to see the person in action. Different kinds of experiences reveal different aspects of the person’s character. You might visit some point of interest with the person and discover that you share similar tastes. You might work on a project with that person and see how they handle a challenge or work under pressure. By sharing experiences, we have the chance to explore the full range of who the other person is inside. We discover where we are alike and where we are different.

                A number of people here at my church have shared some significant experiences with me outside of church. The people who traveled to Ukraine with me came to know me in a different way than people who only see me on Sunday. The men who have gone on the backpacking trips with me have seen me struggle and endure in ways that would never be evident here at church. Shared experience tends to strip away some of the fa├žade we all have and can expose the real us underneath. That is scary for some people, but it is the path to really getting to know another person.

                Ultimately, the greatest step to getting to know another person is being present with them over time. The longer we are intentionally connected with another person, the better we come to know them and they us. There are a couple of men that I have met with on a weekly basis for many years. The depth of our relationship has grown more by the amount of time we have invested in that relationship, than what we actually did.

                Just as we strive to really get to know other people in our lives, we have been invited to strive to get to know God.

                Many people live their whole lives viewing God from a distance. I recently began rereading J.I. Packer’s excellent book “Knowing God.” At the beginning of the book, he makes the point that there is a big difference between knowing about God and knowing God personally. Many people settle for knowing about God, without really knowing Him. So how can we move from knowledge about God to knowing God personally. The process is very similar to what we have been talking about regarding getting to know another person.

                The first step to getting to know God personally is to invite him into your life. All of us rub shoulder with people all of the time that we will never get to know. Why? Because we don’t invite them into our lives. The same is true with God. In the beginning of the book of Revelation, Jesus makes it clear that He is waiting for us to invite him in. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. Rev. 3:20 Jesus wants us to get to know him, but he will never impose or barge into our lives. He has already taken the initiative to reach out to us. It is up to us to respond. But that is only the first step. If we stop there, our relationship with God will remain on a superficial level.

                The second step to really getting to know God is to enter into dialog with Him. Just as talking with another person is the gateway to discovering who they are, so it is with God. So, how do we do that? We do it through reading God’s word and prayer. I know that sounds simplistic but it is not. Getting to know God through the Bible and prayer takes intentionality and effort. We can settle for just reading the words of the Bible and reciting standard prayers and we will never grow in our relationship. Instead we need to learn to study the Bible for ourselves and engage God is genuine prayer. Let’s take a closer look at both of these.

                Like the study of any subject, study of the Bible has multiple levels. We all begin with getting an overview of the Bible. We learn the main characters, the main stories and the main themes. This would be akin to when I took Intro to Biology in college. The idea is for us to get the big picture. But God did not give us the Bible to fill our heads with interesting facts. He gave it to us so that we could get to know Him.

                The second level is to go deeper in understanding the significance of the main themes and stories. Here is where we move past the what question to the why question. Why is this story significant? Why did God use that person? What is God trying to communicate to me about Himself? To do this we need to slow down and examine the Bible in smaller pieces for a longer period of time. There are many good tools that help us to go deeper, such as commentaries, Bible handbooks, Bible dictionaries, and the like. We should never be afraid to use the tools God has made available to us.

                The third level is to put ourselves into the picture. How do the things I am discovering apply to my life? In what way is God revealing Himself to me? What difference does this make in my life? All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Tim. 3:16-17. There are many excellent devotional guides that can help with this.

                Coupled with digging deeply into the Bible, we need to learn to pray genuinely. It is so easy for us to pray laundry list prayers, filled with requests of God. God has invited us to do this, but genuine prayer is so much more. Our prayers should include time to honor God and marvel at who He is. The Psalms are filled with examples of giving praise to God in very specific ways. We can ask God to reveal more of Himself to us. We also need to be willing to ask God to reveal to us what he desires from us. Prayer should be a dialog not a monolog. Often, as I am praying a persistent thought will come into my mind. I have learned to recognize that God is speaking and directing me to something that I need to talk with Him about. Prayer is an essential part of getting to know God personally.

                Paul challenges us to make prayer an integral part of our lives. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Ephes. 6:18

                Jesus assures us that prayer is not a waste of our time or a hollow activity. "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8

                But we are not done with our quest to get to know God personally. We need to move on to the next, and most important step; shared experience.

                As our knowledge of God grows, we need to take it out into the real world and put it to the test. We have all known people who talk big in the comfort of the coffee shop or living room, but can’t perform when put to the test. To really get to know God, we need to actively get involved in His world. The most common shared experience for most of us in corporate worship. It is relatively safe and we are comfortable there. But if we really want to grow deeper in our relationship with God, we need to step out in faith and move into some less safe situations. Here are just a few examples of how we can do that.
- Volunteer to teach or help in a Sunday School class.
- Engage in mentoring a young person.
- Volunteer in the community with some worthy endeavor.
- Ask God to give you a Timothy, who you can invest in over time.
- Go on a mission trip.
- Take the initiative to help a neighbor
- Get involved in a small group
- Take a personal interest in a specific missionary family.
- Host a visiting missionary in your home.
- Invite an international student to lunch or dinner.
- Be a friendship family for an international student
- Make the effort to get to know a college student who attends Bethel
- Make the effort to actually connect with the people who serve you on a regular basis.


                Our faith in God moves from theory to reality when we actively put it into practice in our everyday world. Getting to know God is a lifetime pursuit. It is worth all that we put into it and more.   Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. John 17:3 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

REAL WISDOM

                We live in a world that tries to be very rational. We believe that we have the ability to explain anything by the use of our reason. But when our reason is based on faulty assumptions, then it becomes irrational. Many people in our world are basing their lives on the assumption that there is no God, or in a faulty understanding of who God is.

                I was watching a British mystery show last night. The central figures in the story were part of the psychology department at a Cambridge University college. One was the professor and the other two were students. They were running experiments to discover why people hold onto the irrational idea of faith in God. The intent of the professor was to demolish people’s irrational idea that they are part of something bigger than themselves. Although this was a TV program, the sentiment portrayed is all too common in our Western world today.  Belief in God is irrational.

                This attack on faith is not new, although it may be dressed up in new clothes. Paul faced the same challenge. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he addressed this issue head on.

    For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."
    Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom,  but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.
    Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God--that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

                Paul makes it clear that God did not design humanity with the capacity to figure Him out on our own. Instead, He placed within us a longing to know Him, and then He revealed Himself to us. It is a totally irrational idea that a created being could figure out the creator. It is a totally irrational idea that our “wisdom” should be greater than God’s wisdom.

                Our faith is not irrational, as some want us to believe. It is a rational response to the evidence that has been given to us through creation, the revealed Word of God, and Jesus Christ. The truly irrational approach is to see the evidence and try to make sense of it without God. All that a godless approach can do is produce hopelessness, fear, cynicism, and fatalism.

    The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
    For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Romans 1:18-23

                Without God in the picture, we humans will devise all manner of gods to take His place. For some, these false gods take the form of idols. For others, these false gods take the form of philosophies that seek to explain the world without God. But the most common false god is human wisdom and reason. It is the arrogance of humanity that says, I am the master of my world and I bow to no one.


                God has given us a great capacity to think and to reason. Through this endowment, we have discovered many amazing things about the world in which we live, and about ourselves. But when we leave God out of the equation, all of our wisdom becomes foolishness, and leads us in the wrong direction. Real wisdom is accepting the fact that we are not the center of the universe. Real wisdom is realizing that without God this world doesn’t make sense at all. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

FROM FANTASY TO REALITY

                Almost from the beginning of time, people have created their own fantasy world to counter balance the real world. In ancient times this took the form of myths about “the gods”. The Greeks developed an elaborate fantasy world around the gods. If you have ever studied Greek mythology, the gods looked a lot like humans, except with superhuman powers. They lived with all of the passions and desires of humans, without the restraints. The Greeks were not alone. The Norse, Hindus, and Native Americans, just to name a few, had their set of gods, complete with elaborate stories of their exploits.

                In our world today, many of these old gods are being revived as prototypical superheroes. Movies are being made and books are being written that revive these ancient superheroes for a new generation, with a modern twist, of course. In addition, through the power of computers and video games, many people are finding or creating their own alternative world, into which they can escape from reality.

                As followers of Christ, we must be on our guard against slipping into our own spiritual fantasy world about God and Christ. There are many today that have created their own image of Jesus to fit their ends. It is not uncommon to hear someone say, “My Jesus wouldn’t do that”, or “My Jesus is loving. He would never condemn anyone”. Whenever the sentence begins with the words “my Jesus” it should raise a red flag. “My Jesus” is a clue that we are entering into a fantasy world instead of reality.

                As followers of Christ, we do not have the right to define Jesus or God the way we want to. Instead we must conform our image to the truth as God has revealed it. Anything else is a distortion. Any attempt on our part to confine God in our well-defined boxes is futile. As the Psalmist states in Psalm 145:3-7, Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom. One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts. They will speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty, and I will meditate on your wonderful works. They will tell of the power of your awesome works, and I will proclaim your great deeds. They will celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness. We can never put God in a box. Instead, we need to stand in awe of His greatness and majesty.

                As followers of Christ, we need to seek to know God as He is, not as we want Him to be. Our very souls depend upon it. As Jesus said in John 17:3, Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. Our quest is to get to know God through His revealed word and through Jesus. If we are going to truly know God, we need to accept the whole package. We cannot pick and choose which aspects of God we will accept. We cannot reshape the character of God to fit our sensibilities.

                Our faith is not in myths created by people to escape the realities of our world. Our faith is in the Living God, who is Lord over our world. The writer of Hebrews clearly defines the essence of our faith in Hebrews 11:6, And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

                Let’s not settle for a fantasy world of our own making. Let’s strive to take hold of the reality of who God is in all of His power, glory and majesty.


    

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

LASTING SATISFACTION

                One of the things I like about baseball is that, no matter what the outcome, there is always another game tomorrow. Unlike football, where you have to wait for a whole week for the next game. The team that I follow happens to be playing quite well right now. They have won six games in a row and have taken over first place in their division. They won a game on the west coast late last night, which I discovered as I got up this morning. But there is a significant drawback in baseball. The thrill of victory is very temporary, because, even if you won the game last night, there is another game to play tonight.

                Whatever our field of endeavor, we all like to succeed. But in this life, all of our successes are only temporary. Each “victory” is followed by another challenge, which must be met. The satisfaction that we get from being successful is tempered by the need to do it again and again and again. Each new challenge holds the potential for failure, so we cannot bask in the glow of our success for very long. In fact, success itself can be a source of discouragement. Many who have strived toward some high goal, and have achieved it, are left with a hollow feeling. Is that all there is?

                We do not find lasting satisfaction in the things of this world, because we were not created for this world. This world is only a signpost to eternity. To use a baseball analogy, this life is only Spring Training for the regular season. Spring Training is a time filled with hope and anticipation, but nobody is satisfied with a successful Spring Training. They all see it only as a spring board to the Big Leagues. All the experiences that we have in this life are designed to increase our longing for God. If we look for ultimate meaning in the experiences of life, we will never discover true, lasting satisfaction.

                Solomon expressed this truth, in rather dark terms, in the book of Ecclesiastes. Throughout the book, he describes his attempts to discover true satisfaction from the things of this world. In the end, he concluded that all was vanity, a chasing after the wind. The reason for this is that people are looking for their satisfaction in the wrong place. In Ecclesiastes 3:11, Solomon zeros in on the source of lasting satisfaction. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. God has placed a longing into every person’s heart for Himself. A person can never find lasting satisfaction in life until he connects with God, through Jesus Christ.

                Jesus is the ultimate source of our satisfaction. In Christ, we know that, no matter how many failures or setbacks we face, we have already won the ultimate victory. Jesus minimizes the blow of our failures and enhances the joy of our successes. Paul transformed the way people viewed their lives when he wrote to those in the church we were slaves.  Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. Ephesians 6:5-8

                In our country today, no one is a slave, but sometimes being an employee can feel that way. Many people find their work environment discouraging. They feel underappreciated and taken for granted. They are looking for a sense of satisfaction from their job, and not finding it. But if we all took Paul’s words to heart, it could transform us and our work environment. We would stop looking to others for our sense of satisfaction and look to Christ.

                We will never find lasting satisfaction from the things of this world. At best, we can have a temporary taste that will quickly fade. But in Christ, we can find real satisfaction. We can know that our lives matter and that what we do counts for eternity. The rewards that we will receive from Christ can never be taken away from us. We are secure in Him, so we can face any challenge the world may throw at us with an internal strength and confidence that comes from the Lord.

                2 Corinthians 4:6-9,16-18
    For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
    But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

    Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.