Sunday, February 18, 2007

I Am Persuaded

When I first became a Christian by asking Jesus to forgive my sins, I was 13 years old. I hadn't even started high school yet. My commitment to Christ was heartfelt. But that was roughly 37 years ago. When I say "roughly", I don't use that word lightly. I've been through some rough times. Even now, I am going through some rough times, particularly in relation to my finances.

When examining the claims of Christianity over and over again throughout the years, I've sometimes had questions for which I was not able to immediately find satisfactory answers. But that has been equally true with regard to virtually all of the belief systems I've ever known about, including atheism and agnosticism. If there is a belief system which perfectly and completely answers every conceivable question, I haven't found that system yet.

From what I've seen, choosing which belief system to commit one's self to isn't necessarily a matter of finding the system which immediately answers all of one's questions, but rather, it's a matter of finding the system which makes the most sense overall. From a purely theoretical and intellectual point of view, I've never found any belief system which does a better job of explaining the realities I've observed in this world than Christianity. As for the fact that I still have unanswered questions, I think that that fact is attributable to my own imperfections, not to any inherent flaws in Christianity itself.

In any event, I think that the intellect plays a less prominent role in the decision making process than many people will admit, when it comes to matters pertaining to faith in God or the lack thereof. Intellectual persuasion is important, but those who rely solely on the intellect will never personally encounter the living God. In the final analysis, the only way to experience God is to surrender one's heart to God.

When things are going well, it's relatively easy to believe the Bible's claims to the effect that God loves us, and to the effect that God will take care of all our needs.

When one is going through trial after trial, it's a different story. During times of trial, one's negative emotions sometimes try to control one's life and to undermine one's faith. Some people succumb to those negative emotions. Others choose to fight back. Many who still struggle with their faith do a little of both. I'm probably in that last category, but I'm trying to move more and more into the category of those who choose to fight back.

I freely admit that there have been times when I've looked back and wondered if I made the right decision when I committed myself to Christ. After being confronted with evidence of abundant sin within the ranks of professing Christians, I have sometimes been tempted to question the credibility of the Christian message. I have sometimes been tempted to blame God for my problems, when things were going badly for me. I've been tempted to accuse God of failing to deliver on God's promises. During my worst moments, I've even yielded to that temptation.

But then I stop to consider the possibility that God might not have actually promised all of the things I would have liked for him to promise.

In fact, based on my reading of the scriptures, I can't help but notice that God promised some things which most people, including myself, would consider to be very undesirable. For example, Jesus promised that his followers would be persecuted, just as he was persecuted.

John 15:19-21 says, "If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me."

Jesus was very upfront with his disciples about the persecution they could expect to receive if they followed Him. That may very well explain why many of the earliest Christians willingly died as martyrs rather than betray their newfound beliefs. They could not claim that Jesus had promised them perpetually happy, painless lives on this earth. They knew better. In fact, the persecution they received may very well have served as confirmation that Jesus knew what he was talking about, and that they were on the right track.

Part of the problem I have sometimes had with the aforementioned verse is that it isn't always clear that one's problems do in fact constitute persecution related to one's faith. Often, it is difficult or even impossible to see any direct connection between one's Christian commitment and the unkind ways in which one has been treated by others. This is especially true when one is abused (or neglected) by people claiming to be good Christians.

However, I think perhaps that there are "surface reasons" why people act as they do, and then there are the real underlying reasons which they may not even be aware of themselves.

Ultimately, our real enemy is not any human being or group of human beings. Ephesians 6:12 says, "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places." In other words, Paul was talking about spiritual warfare.

How do demonic forces attack us? Sometimes they do so directly, in very obvious ways. Just as often, however, I think that their strategy is to persuade others to attack us. The people who are used by the Devil in order to attack us and undermine our faith are not always aware that they are being used for that purpose. If asked, it's doubtful that they would admit that they are motivated by any opposition to the Christian faith. In some cases, they might even claim that they are Christians themselves. And for all I know, they might be Christians.

I don't believe that Christians can be demon possessed, but I do believe that Christians can sometimes unintentionally act as instruments of Satan's will. If you don't believe me, consider that Jesus said, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" to Peter when Peter objected to the idea that Jesus would be crucified in Jerusalem.

What I find particularly interesting about that episode is that Jesus had just finished praising Peter, moments before, for Peter's insight regarding Jesus' identity. And of course, Peter was the "rock" upon whom Christ later built the church. So the fact that one is a believing Christian does not necessarily mean that one is immune to Satan's influence. There is only one who can claim such immunity, and that's Christ.

Actually, I'm not even sure that it would be accurate to say that Christ was always immune to Satan's influence. After all, the Devil tempted Jesus in the desert. If there had been no real possibility that Jesus might have succumbed to temptation, then the fact that Jesus did successfully resist temptation would have been meaningless. Victory is meaningless if there is no real struggle. So rather than saying that Christ was immune, it would be more accurate to say that Christ was vulnerable to the Devil at one time, but Jesus was victorious in spite of his vulnerability. As a result of Christ's victory, our own victory is likewise assured, provided that we ally ourselves with Christ.

Just as Christ's struggle made his victory meaningful, so also it is our struggle that will make our ultimate triumph meaningful. And maybe that is a partial answer to the question of why God sometimes allows us to suffer. It's been said that nothing worth having comes easily. I think that's a bit simplistic, but certainly, some of the best things in life are unavailable to those who are unwilling to fight and struggle to have those things. If ever anything was worth struggling for, it would be an eternity in Heaven with Jesus. That's a goal worthy of pursuit.

Not that we are saved by works. We aren't. Ultimately, salvation is a gift, freely given, not earned. But it will only be given to those who endure to the end.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us." (Hebrews 12:1)

Anyone can start running in a race. But only those who persevere will win the prize.

If we have received Christ as Lord and Savior, we are headed in the right direction, but none of us can honestly claim to have "arrived" yet. That's one reason why it's so important to practice spiritual discernment moment by moment, even when dealing with one's Christian brothers and sisters, regardless of whether or not they occupy positions of leadership within the Church.

(That includes the things I write in this blog. I do my best to listen to the voice of God, but I'm just an imperfect human being, struggling to understand my own faith. If I inadvertently say something which contradicts God's word, feel free to ignore or discard what I say.)

How do we know the voice of Satan when we hear it? One of the most obvious clues is that what is said to us tempts us to doubt the legitimacy of the Christian message or portions thereof.

For example, God's word declares that even though we are sinners, we are of great value to God. God loves us so much that he died to set us free. Therefore, anything which causes us to suffer a significant loss of self esteem is a lie from hell, designed either to cause us to abandon our faith in Christ, or (if that is not possible) to immobilize us so that we are incapable of helping to advance the kingdom of God.

That's not to say that we are free to ignore legitimate criticisms or to dismiss such criticisms as "lies from hell". That's irresponsible, and it may very well constitute rejection of the voice of God in some cases. But even when criticisms themselves are valid, they can be used by Satan in order to alienate us from God. We cannot allow them to do that.

Romans 8:1 says, "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus".

Legitimate guilt is one thing. Condemnation is something else altogether. The former motivates people to strive for improvement. The latter motivates people to give up on faith or on life. That's the difference. The Holy Spirit often convicts people of sin, but the objective of doing so is never to hurt people. The objective of doing so is to set their feet on the right path.

If there is a voice in your head telling you that you are worthless, you can be sure that that voice is not from God. If you hear such a voice, get ready to do battle with the enemy of your soul. How? By speaking the truth from the word of God! "I am valuable. Jesus says so. He valued me so much that he died for me. So shut your mouth, Satan. I'm not listening to your lies."

We may wish that we were not involved in spiritual warfare, but the fact is that we are, whether we like it or not. Satan seeks to destroy every one of us, believer and nonbeliever alike. He doesn't really care how he does it. He has no scruples whatsoever.

It's a bit frightening to know that we have all been targeted by demonic forces who seek to destroy us. But there is positive news as well. The positive news is that God has not left us defenseless. Ephesians 6:13-18 talks about putting on the whole armor of God: The "belt of truth", the "breastplate of righteousness", the "shield of faith", the "helmet of salvation", the "sword of the Spirit", the "gospel of peace", and prayer.

Regarding our battle with the evil spirits of the world, I John 4:4 says: "You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world." So it isn't just a matter of putting on external spiritual armor. Those who are filled with the Holy Spirit actually have the power within themselves to be overcomers!

Galations 2:19-21 repeats that same theme: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."

John 16:32-33 says: "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."

Not "I will overcome the world". "I have overcome the world."

God's promise is not that our lives here on earth will be free of pain and suffering. The promise is that in spite of our pain and suffering, we will prevail, if we use the resources God has given to us and if we rely upon the Lord, who has already triumphed over sin and death.

How will we prevail over evil? "Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ Says the LORD of hosts." (Zechariah 4:6)

2 Timothy 1:8-12 says the following: "Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, to which I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles. For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.

I admit it. I sometimes fear that the trials of life will overwhelm me. I fear sometimes that I will abandon my faith because I just can't deal with those problems any longer. But when I meditate on God's word, I realize that it isn't about me at all. It's about God. It's not about my strength, it's about God's strength. I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded.

If left to my own devices and my own puny strength, it's true, I wouldn't be able to handle the trials of life on this earth. I suspect that if you were really honest, you would have to admit the same thing.

Fortunately, God's message to me and to you is that he doesn't expect us to handle such things on our own! God knows we are weak. He's made provision for that.

Ironically, admission that we are weak is not a sign of weakness. It's a sign of strength: Strength of character. When we humbly admit that we are weak, that's when we open the door to the Holy Spirit in our lives. Through Christ, we can do all things. (Philipians 4:13 says, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.")

2 Corinthians 12: 8-10 says: "And He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me."

There's a new movie coming out, entitled "Amazing Grace".

God's grace is truly amazing! It empowers us to do things we could never do in our own strength. God's amazing grace is sufficient for you and for me.

As I write the above words, I have to tell you that I'm writing to myself as much as anyone else. I'm no giant of the faith. I wish I were, but I'm just not. But God's strength is made perfect in my weakness.

I need your prayers, if you're the praying kind. If you're not the praying kind, I just have one question to ask you:

Why not?

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