Monday, August 29, 2011

"Looking Out for Number One"

Spirit & Truth # 239
“Looking Out for Number One”

By Rev. Greg Smith

In Matthew 16:21-24, Jesus tries to prepare His disciples for His impending suffering and crucifixion, but Peter refuses to accept Jesus’ predictions.  Verse 22 (NIV) says, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’”
The Greek words translated as “Never, Lord!” in the NIV are ileos soi, which literally means “Merciful you!”  Young’s Literal Translation renders it, “Be kind to thyself, sir!”  In essence, it could be said that Peter was looking out for Number One—himself.  He was looking out for his own emotional needs not to lose his master.  He disguised it as looking out for Jesus’ needs, imploring Jesus to treat Himself kindly and find some other way.
In verse 23 (NIV), Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”  Jesus means that Peter has made himself Number One in his own life, taking care of his own self-interests and actually becoming an adversary to God’s redemptive plan.  The name “Satan” actually means “adversary,” so in this case it truly could be said that Peter was a satan.  Peter’s words, “Be kind to thyself, sir” almost echo the false concern that Satan tried to show Jesus when he tempted the Lord in the wilderness.  I can imagine the Evil One saying, “Be kind to yourself, Jesus.  If you’re hungry, then just turn these stones to bread.”[i]
When we follow our own agendas rather God’s interests, we make ourselves Number One in our own lives.  The 1977 book, Looking Out for Number One[ii], by Robert J. Ringer, espouses the idea of putting yourself first.  Ringer says, “Looking Out For Number One is the conscious, rational effort to spend as much time as possible doing those things which bring you the greatest amount of pleasure and less time on those which cause pain (Pg. 10).”  He also writes, “When you boil it all down, I think that’s what everyone’s main objective in life is—to feel good (Pg. 12).”
Is that what life’s all about?  Feeling good?  Maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain?  At that moment, Peter seemed to think so.  He was so focused on feeling good that he forgot to glorify God.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.”  When your chief end is to feel good, you become a satan in your life and in the lives of others.  When your chief end is to glorify God, you truly assist the mission of Christ in the world.  Thank God that Jesus' mission wasn't all about feeling good--but in glorifying God, even to the point of self-sacrifice!
In verses 24-25 (NIV), Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”  The word Jesus uses for life is psuchen, from which we get the word psyche.  Jesus’ meaning is clear:  Whoever wants to reserve their thoughts, identity, and agenda for themselves will instead lose themselves.  Whoever gives their psyche up to God will gain all.  So, who’s Number One in your life?  Is it you—or is it Jesus?  I challenge you to look out for Number One—but be careful who that Number One really is.

[i] My version of Matthew 4:3
[ii] Ringer, Robert J.  Looking Out for Number One.  Ballantine Books: New York.  1977.

Monday, August 22, 2011

"Deliver us From the Evil One"

“Deliver Us From the Evil One”
Rev. Greg Smith
© 2011
"Cronus Devouring His Children" by Goya

How would you feel if a thief broke into your house and stole your most precious treasures?  You might experience feelings of vulnerability, helplessness, and violation.  But what can a thief take that’s of any real value, anyway?  Things can be replaced.  But what if someone broke into your house and kidnapped one of your children?  It’s hard to even imagine the anguish!  If you knew that a kidnapper was coming, you’d stay up all night with loaded shotgun, alert and sober, waiting to defend your loved ones.

Yet the thief’s methods are usually not so overt, and all too often we aren’t that good at keeping watch.  Satan isn’t a red-suited, horned, pitchfork-carrying monster.  If he looked that way, nobody would find the sin he offers so attractive!  In reality, 2 Corinthians 11:14b-15 says, “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.  It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.”  Satan is sneaky.  The thief is covert.  Dressing up as an angel of light, he convinces you that he has your best interest at heart.  He smiles broadly and gets you to trust him.  Then he steals what’s most precious to you.

John 10:10 says, ““The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  Jesus doesn’t want His people ravaged by Satan.  He has come for blessing.  But God’s people must beware.  Satan’s servants “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves (Matthew 7:15).”  They do not come in overtly, tempting you to do some bad thing.  They come in smiling, tempting you to trust that they have only good in store for you.  Then, once you trust them, they steal away your soul.  

1 Peter 5:8 says, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  The thief is a silent stalker.  He doesn’t attack in the light, but prefers to hide in the dark.  With tactics like that, how can you defend against him?

Verses 9-11 say, “Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.  And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.   To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.” 

First, stand firm in the faith.  Do not waver or compromise in your reliance on God.  Second, understand that other believers have been through similar battles.  Because they have been there, they can be a support to you.  Third, remember the power and grace of God, who fights your battles for you.  Fourth, trust that whatever you may lose—God can restore.  He will make you strong, firm, and steadfast if you trust in Him.  Then, rest in the final “amen” of these verses.  “Amen” means “so be it,” or “let it be,” or “Thy will be done.”  It is an acknowledgement that God is in control and we’re not.  It also happens to be one of the names of Jesus (Revelation 3:14).  Be alert and sober, but rest yourself in Jesus as well.  Let Him guard your heart as you pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (Luke 11:4).”

Monday, August 15, 2011

Stumps and Clumps

Spirit & Truth # 237
“Stumps and Clumps”

By Rev. Greg Smith

            Some time ago, we had a tree in the yard that was rotten to the core, so we had a tree service come and cut it down.  They did a good job at removing the tree, but they left a stump which was never ground down, cut up, pulled up, or otherwise removed.  It wasn’t long after that, that we discovered tender shoots springing up from that old stump.  They seemed small at first, but today, just a few months later, that old stump has become a spreading clump of shoots, springing out in every direction and making the yard look a mess.  

It occurs to me that our lives are that way.  When we realize the sin that makes us rotten to the core, we call in the Surgeon of our souls who cuts away everything that displeases God.  In Matthew 3:10 (NKJV) John the Baptist says, “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Jesus cuts the sin out of our lives, even though it may mean he has to cut us down to a stump.  If the ax is laid to the root, this means that our sin is totally eliminated, and will not return.  But all too often we let Him cut away our sin only to have it sprout shoots and grow back again.  Those sprouts of sin spread faster than you can imagine, and pretty soon what looked like a clean-cut stump ends up a clump of spreading sin that makes your whole life a mess.

What sin do you find growing in the center of your life?  Ask Jesus, and He will cut it out of your heart.  But be careful to keep the sin cut out, or it will come back worse than it was before.  Jesus says in Luke 11:24-26 (NKJV), “When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it swept and put in order.  Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the state of that man is worse than the first.”  

Don’t let your soul become hospitable to sin that’s already been cast out.  God, the Master Gardener, wants to remove the sin from your life today.  But it’s up to you to maintain the pruning work that He’s done.  Don’t let sin grow back.  Let Him grind your sin out completely, so that it’ll never return.  Don’t let your stump get a new clump.  When God cuts the sin off, it’s up to you to keep it off.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Anxious Thoughts

Spirit & Truth # 236
“Anxious Thoughts”

By Rev. Greg Smith

“The beginning of anxiety is the end of faith, and the beginning of true faith is the end of anxiety.”
--George Muller

            God wants you to have a beautiful prayer life, but often that’s easier said than done.  If you’re like me, it’s all too often that distracting and anxious thoughts pop up, destroying whatever peace you may have gained through prayer.  Psalm 139 is a beautiful prayer of trust in God, acknowledging that God knows us inside and out, is constantly thinking about us, and is always present with us.  Yet the psalmist admits that distracting and anxious thoughts interfere with his prayer life, too.

            In verses 11-12 (NIV), David says, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”  David admits that he is prone to thoughts of worry and darkness, but he reminds himself that God is in control.  Even darkness is not dark to God—because God is the light.  When anxious thoughts invade your prayer life, simply smile and remind yourself that your darkness is not God’s darkness, and that He is the light.

            The bulk of David’s psalm is calming, inspiring, and reassuring—much like our devotion time should be.  But then the tone of David’s psalm changes.  Suddenly, sandwiched between words of comfort, David writes, “If only you, God, would slay the wicked! Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty! They speak of you with evil intent; your adversaries misuse your name.  Do I not hate those who hate you, LORD, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?  I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies (vv. 19-21 NIV).”  

When we read these verses, we wonder where they came from, because they’re so out of character for the rest of the psalm.  The answer is that these are David’s wandering, distracting, anxious thoughts.  Instead of the reassurance that he felt just a few verses ago, now David shifts to worrying about evildoers.  How our thoughts wander when we’re in prayer as well!  But we need to be careful about anxious thoughts.  Arthur Somers Roche warns that “anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all others thoughts are drained.”  If you let anxiety rule your thought life, you’ll find that there’s little room left for faith.

So, regaining his composure, David prays, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (vv. 23-24 NIV).”  When anxious thoughts interrupt your prayer time, simply smile at them like an old friend.  Regain your composure and ask God to search you and know your heart and your anxiety.  Ask Him to cleanse your heart of anything that gets in the way of your peaceful relationship with the Lord, and ask Him to lead you in His eternal way.

Heaven (Really) Is For Real

Spirit & Truth # 234
“Heaven (Really) Is For Real”

By Rev. Greg Smith

            I don’t do book reviews very often, but there’s one book that everyone’s been talking about lately, and I wanted to share my thoughts.  Rev. Todd Burpo’s new book, Heaven is For Real, written with Lynn Vincent, is the account of his four-year-old son Colton’s near death experience, and the things Colton says he saw in heaven.  Everywhere I turn, people have been asking me, “Have you read it?”  Or, having assumed that I have read it, they have asked me for a pastor’s perspective.  So I finally gave in.  I’m a slow reader, but even as such, the 154 pages went by quickly.  Burpo’s narrative flows smoothly and enjoyably, making the book a pleasurable read.

            The remarkable thing about Colton’s story is that it happened to such a small child.  When he began sharing with his parents the things he had seen in heaven, he related details that no child of his age would know just from reading the Bible or listening in Sunday school.  A few things he told even taught his pastor father a thing or two.  How could Colton know these things, unless he really had had a direct experience of heaven?

            I won’t ruin the book for you, but one example is that he met his great-grandfather in heaven, a man named Pop, whom Colton had never met in life.  When Colton shared this with his parents, they showed him pictures of Pop when he was an old man.  The boy said that Pop didn’t look like that.  But later, when Colton saw a group picture that included his great-grandfather in it at the age of 29, the boy said, “How did you get a picture of Pop?”[i]  Colton also told his parents, “I have two sisters.”  They asked what he meant, for his sister Cassie was the only sister he had ever known.  Colton replied, “I have two sisters.  You had a baby die in your tummy, didn’t you?”[ii]  The Burpos had never told Colton about their miscarriage, but Colton said he spent time with his dark-haired sister, and later cried because he missed her.

            While there were a few elements of Colton’s story that made me raise an eyebrow (Pop had wings—a detail of the afterlife that the Bible never mentions,[iii] and the angel Gabriel has a seat on the left side of God[iv]) these are not impossibilities.  Just because the Bible doesn’t mention them, that doesn’t make it false.  Though some things in the book aren’t specifically outlined in scripture, I could find nothing that contracted the Bible.  Colton’s perspective on the coming battle of Armageddon certainly was chilling, and his understanding of things like the Trinity and Satan, gleaned from this near-death experience, were far beyond what a normal child of his age should grasp.  

            The most important thing I found in the book was greater Colton’s account of the pearly gates or streets of gold.  It was his newfound concern, almost obsession, that people have Jesus in their heart.  Attending a funeral for a stranger, Colton nearly had a crying fit, asking, “Did that man have Jesus?”  Colton insisted, “He can’t get into heaven if he didn’t have Jesus in his heart!”[v]  To me, this is the gold nugget of Burpo’s book.  Yes, eventually he answers the question whether or not there are animals in heaven (read the book to find out).  But most important is the question whether or not you will be there.  And that depends on whether or not you have Jesus in your heart. 

[i] Burpo, Todd, and Vincent, Lynn.  Heaven is For Real.  Thomas Nelson Publishing: Nashville, TN.  2010. Pg. 122
[ii] ibid, pg. 94.
[iii] ibid, pg. 72
[iv] ibid, pg. 102
[v] ibid, pg. 59