Wednesday, March 21, 2012

lucky 13

Last week, we concluded out PROTOTYPE series on The Lord's Prayer. Jesus wraps up His model prayer with the petition: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" [Matthew 6:13]. Temptation is the enemy's evil agenda to undermine the spiritual work God wants to accomplish in the Christian's life. Coincidentally, this verse is one of four New Testament "lucky 13" verses that help us understand the danger of temptation:

MATTHEW 6:13--We pray "Lead us not into temptation," but, truth is, God never leads His people into temptation [see James 1:13]. This request [expressed in a curious figure of speech called a litotes; to affirm something by negating the opposite (i.e., "This is no small matter" means "This is a big matter")], highlights the importance of coming to God for spiritual protection. None of us can win the war against temptation by ourselves. We depend on God's spiritual resources to gain spiritual victory.

JAMES 1:13--This verse, and those following, remind us the anatomy of temptation. Each person is tempted the same way: Capitalizing on our internal, evil desires, the devil lures us with attractive bait. None of us has been tempted by something repulsive. The enemy presents us with an opportunity for immediate gain, instant gratification, on-the-spot glory. Once hooked, however, temptation spirals downward into sin, which ultimately leads to death. One writer states, "Sin will take you further than you want to go. It will keep you longer than you want to stay, and it will cost you more than you want to pay."

LUKE 4:13 --This passage concludes Jesus' temptation during His 40 days in the wilderness before the inauguration of His earthly ministry [Luke 4:1-13, also in Matthew 4:1-11]. Luke writes, "When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left [Jesus] until an opportune time." The phrase translated "opportune time" is a special Greek word. It more accurately translates "season." In other words, the devil came to Jesus [and would return to temp Jesus], not at fixed times on a clock, but at strategic seasons of his life. In the wilderness, the devil made use of the fact that Jesus was hungry, alone and about to launch a great work. Each one of us have specific seasons of our life where we are particularly susceptible to attack: just before a family vacation, when we are tired, when we have just "won" a great advancement at work or school. We must be on guard during these seasons of temptation [1 Peter 5:8].

1 CORINTHIANS 10:13--As we wrestle in the snare of temptation, we gain encouragement from this verse: "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it." Paul assures me that my temptation isn't special to me, but sympathetically endured by many others. I'm not alone. Moreover, when tempted, God will prove His faithfulness to me and Himself by providing a "way of escape" [NASB]. As I mentioned in my message, God's means of escape are found in prayer [Matthew 26:41], His Word [John 17:15, 17], His promises [2 Peter 1:3-4], biblical community [Ecclesiastes 4:9-12] and, Himself [Psalm 73:25].

I've lost track of the author, but have never forgotten the good proverb "You can't keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can sure keep them from building a nest in your hair!" Temptation is a sure nuisance of the spiritual life. But, remembering the "lucky 13," we can "Submit [ourselves] to God, resist the Devil, and he will flee!" [James 4:7]

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

ashes and abstinence

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the start of a 40-day Lenten period leading up to Easter Sunday. In my childhood religious tradition, we marked this season by getting a mark--an ash-imprinted cross drawn with the thumb on our forehead. This ceremony traces its history back to 6th century Roman Catholicism and gained universal acceptance 500 years later. In the Old Testament, ashes were a sign of humility and repentance. Thus, the Ash Wednesday custom signifies subjection to God's rule and sorrow for having broken God's law: "So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes." [Daniel 9:3]

With ash comes abstinence. Traditionally, Lenten observers have given up something during this time. Some abstain from television, others from caffeine, meat, chocolate, Facebook, their mobile phone or the sports section of their newspaper. This voluntary "fast" accomplishes three spiritual goals.

First, denying our appetite and passions is symbolic of the daily decision we must make to say "no" to the cravings of our flesh. Jesus said,“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" [Matthew 16:24]. The normal spiritual life is a humble discipline of denial.

Second, abstinence turns our heart to God. The conscious act of turning down whatever my heart or stomach yearns for brings to mind the reason why I'm abstaining in the first place. In other words, the moment I say "No," the question comes, "Why?" Instantly, the Lord and my life in Him come squarely into view. Conscious refusal leads to conscious reflection.

Third, refusing the common, expected "food" each day leads me to lean upon the Lord for my daily bread. The more that is stripped away, the more that I discover the sufficiency of God for everything I need. I also find that He is more satisfying than anything else in the world. I want to be able to unreservedly say, "Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you" [Psalm 73:25].

Noel Piper reflects, "Traditionally Lent is a season of sober, realistic reflection on our own lives and our need for a Savior. It is a time for turning away from anything that has kept us from God and for turning or returning to him. It is a time to pray that God renew our love for him and our dependence on him." This year, I invite you to join me in this spiritual exercise. Let's enter into ashes and abstinence as we journey to the cross and resurrection of Jesus who gave up all for us so that we might gain everything in Him.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

the 31 day experiment

Day three. A small distance in a larger journey I began last Sunday.

We began our study on The Lord’s Prayer [see Prototype] and learned that prayer isn’t automatic to the spiritual life. Jesus’ followers asked, “Lord, teach us to pray” [Luke 11:1]. Prayer is a learnable discipline. And it takes time to build discipline in the spiritual life.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul describes the spiritual life as a race and a fight. Both require effort and training. To his young disciple Timothy, Paul urged, “[T]rain yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for    both the present life and the life to come” [1 Timothy 4:7-8]. The Godward life requires deliberate work. But, this work yields a payout for those who discipline their mind, heart and body. Donald Whitney affirms, “The Gold of godliness isn’t found on the surface of Christianity. It has to be dug from the depths with the tools of the Disciplines” [Spiritual Discipline for the Christian Life]. Speaking of the disciplined life, I’ll never forget the teaching of the late Vernon Grounds, “Ruts of routine are God’s grooves of grace. They are the roads that God uses to direct us to Himself.”
There are a number of spiritual disciplines practiced by Christians throughout history: Bible Study, verse memory, fasting, verse memory, meditation, silence, solitude, worship and prayer. In The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ gives His disciples a template—a prototype prayer. One writer calls this “The prayer that teaches to pray.” The Lord’s Prayer isn’t intended to be prayed [though you can] as much as it’s intended to lead me into deeper praying. Each phrase unfolds something of the glorious nature of God and the depth of my human need. In fact, the very practice of prayer leads me into more prayerfulness.
When I was in college, I stumbled across a book titled The 31 Day Experiment. The author pitched that good habits are formed by 31 days of discipline. Do anything for a month and it becomes lifestyle. So, I choose to discipline myself in prayer. Not just spontaneous praying when I see a sunrise or think about my friend in need. But a focused, regular rhythm of prayer. I need more of this.
In November 2010, Tiffany talked me into running. I had resisted the exercise for 45 years. Then, on a whim, we went out for a casual, 3-mile jaunt. It took me three days to catch my breath. Over the next few months, my body adjusted to the habit and, very soon, breathing became easier and three miles became five and more. I recently ran 15 miles—a goal that seemed impossible to me a year ago. But, discipline makes distance possible.

I want to run further in knowing God, hearing God, experiencing God, being changed by God. This spiritual distance is possible through spiritual discipline. It’s day three. And, I’m running.