A Personal Devotional Journal

I invite you to journey with me. Sometimes we will look at short passages of Scripture and I will give my first thoughts and impressions. Other times, I will just share my thinking about spiritual issues. Always, you are welcome to comment and add your thoughts. Together, we could learn something.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Ezekiel 36:25, John10:10 "So, Now I Have A New Heart"

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. I will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  Ezekiel 36:25

“The thief has come only to rob, kill, and destroy, but I have come so that you can have life, and have it abundantly.”   John 10:10

John 10:10 explains that we have an enemy, but it creates a real dilemma for most of us. There’s no question that Satan does the job when it comes to robbing, killing and destroying –but what about the other part of that verse. Jesus said that He came so that we could have abundant life, the fullest lives possible, lives lived to maximum potential. Can you see the dilemma? Many of us believe in Jesus and have trusted Him for forgiveness and salvation. But this verse implies a lot more than just forgiveness –it says that we can have lives lived to the fullest. And, frankly, that’s not the experience most of us have.

If Jesus had said, “I came to make lives better,” I would feel like my experience bears out what Jesus says. If Jesus had said, “I came to forgive sin and make life more meaningful,” I would be saying “that’s exactly my experience.” I know that my sins are forgiven, and my life is more meaningful now than it ever was before –and there is no doubt that my life is better than it used to be. Yet, despite all of that, my life is nowhere near maximum potential. There is obviously something else still going on. And to understand what is really going on, we have to go back to the fact that we are constantly under spiritual attack. We have an enemy.

You might wonder why Satan hates us so much –why does he even care? What difference do we make to him? The answer is found way back in the book of Genesis. In Genesis 1:27 we’re told, “God created people in his own image; God patterned them after himself; male and female he created them.” Satan would love to destroy God’s glory –in fact, to destroy God -but that isn’t possible, so he has made it his mission to destroy those created in God’s image. What difference do we make to Satan? None. The only reason he cares about us is because God cares about us. Satan is seeking to hurt us in an attempt to hurt God.

So, whether we like it or not –and I don’t, but my not liking it doesn’t change the reality –whether we like it or not, and whether we even acknowledge it or not, there is an epic spiritual battle raging around us, and we are caught in the middle of it. In fact, we are the prize that is being fought for –this epic battle between the angels of God and fallen angels –the demons that follow Satan, is being fought over our hearts. The heart is central to everything. That’s because of why were created. We were created to love. I think that somewhere down inside we all understand this –love is the whole point. Without love, life is meaningless.

But, you see, loving requires a heart that is fully alive and free. And this is where we have problems. Our enemy knows how important our hearts are –and that’s why he is so intent on destroying them –that’s why he is intent on breaking our hearts –on twisting our hearts –on deadening our hearts. If he can disable and deaden our hearts, he has effectively foiled God’s plan for us –God’s plan that our hearts be fully alive and free to love God with all of our hearts –to worship with all of our hearts.

The promise of the Father to replace our wounded hearts of stone with hearts of flesh -the promise of Jesus to give us abundant life, means at least this: Jesus can take that heart that Satan has brutalized and broken and crushed, and heal it and restore it and give it back to us fully alive and free –free to love again. Free to accept God’s love.

Before I had a new heart, I could never quite grasp the extent of God’s love –my damaged heart was incapable of grasping it. My new heart, though, understands that God is very fond of me. My new heart knows that Jesus truly loves me.

Of course, as I begin to understand that Jesus loves me, I also begin to realize that He knows me. How can He love me in a personal way if He doesn’t know me in a personal way. Jesus knows me. That’s a thought that is comforting and frightening all at once, isn’t it? I’m sure we all have a few things in our past that we’d rather not parade out in public. I used to think that I’d be more comfortable with God if He didn’t know all about my failures and faults. It’s embarrassing to think that God knows everything about me –even my secrets. But then I realized that He loves me. That changes everything –doesn’t it? I mean, if God said that He loves me, but didn’t know the worst about me, I’d always have to hope that He didn’t find out. I’d always have to worry that if He really knew me that maybe He wouldn’t love me. But the fact that He loves me even knowing the worst about me means that I never have to worry about it. He already knows that I’m worse than any of you think I am –in fact, He knows that I’m worse than I think I am. And He loves me.

Now, if God knows the worst about me and loves me anyway, that means that my sins are, indeed, forgiven. He knows me, and through the shed blood of Jesus, He has forgiven me. Because I have a new heart I am aware of God’s personal love for me –and that leads to a deep seated awareness of God’s forgiveness. When I prayed and asked Jesus to forgive my sins, and asked Him to restore my damaged heart, He already knew about my sins –He knew about sins that I’d forgotten I’d committed. He knew about sins that I didn’t understand were all that horrible –but he knew exactly how horrible they were. He knew everything there was to know about me, and He loved me, and forgave me. Until Jesus gave me a new, healed, restored heart, I wasn’t able to grasp the depth of God’s love and the completeness of His forgiveness.

But, now with a new heart, I can understand that God loves me, and I can grasp that my sins are truly forgiven –and that leads to one other thing I begin to be aware of. I begin to be aware of my freedom. We often talk about the freedom we have in Christ. We sing songs about freedom. We acknowledge our freedom with our lips –and maybe even with our minds –but until we have new hearts we are incapable of actually grasping what it means to be free in Christ. If we don’t really get it about the depth of God’s love and the completeness of His forgiveness, how could we possibly realize what His freedom means to us? But now think about this. If God really does know every possible thing about me –and if He knows not only the sins I’ve already committed, but even the ones I will commit in the future –and He says that He loves me, and that all of my sin is forgiven, that means I’m free. I'm free to respond to His love without worry, regret, guilt, shame or fear of failure. All of that has already been dealt with.

There is no greater bondage than going through all the religious motions in a desperate attempt to be forgiven and loved. But, you see, we don’t have to do that, do we? We don’t have to try and earn God’s love, because now we know for certain that God already loves us –and with our new hearts we are able to respond to God’s love. That’s relationship –receiving God’s love, and loving God in return. Relationship is better than religion. And that’s what allowing God to heal our hearts is all about. And, I think, that is what abundant life is all about.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ezekiel 36:25, Isaiah 61:1, John 10:10 "Matter of the Heart"

John 10:10. “The thief has come only to rob, kill, and destroy, but I have come so that you can have life, and have it abundantly.”  

Isaiah 61:1 "He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted."  

Ezekiel 36:25 “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you. I will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit in you and make you eager to obey my laws and teachings.”  

Life is brutal. More for some than for others, but all of us have faced difficulties and hardships and hurtful things. Because we have all been hurt, there is a sense in which we have all, to one degree or another, lost heart. To some extent, all of our hearts have been broken and damaged. Our enemy knows how important our hearts are –and that’s why he is so intent on destroying them –that’s why he is intent on breaking our hearts –on twisting our hearts –on deadening our hearts. If he can disable and deaden our hearts, he has effectively foiled God’s plan for us –God’s plan that our hearts be fully alive and free to love God with all of our hearts –to worship God with all of our hearts. If the enemy can break our hearts, he has broken us. 

I know that some of us have had some serious heart-ache in our lives. Some of us have been hurt by family, by people we thought were friends, by people we work with, by disappointment, by sickness or trauma. And some of us have been severely damaged by our own poor choices. Whoever and whatever has hurt us, the one thing that seems to be a common denominator is that we have all been hurt –we’ve been wounded. We have been hurt so deeply that we have walled off our hearts –just to keep them from hurting so badly. We’ve allowed our hearts to harden and become like stone, because stone hearts aren’t tender –stone hearts can’t be easily broken again. But the problem is, you see, that our hearts can only become hard and stony when they are already damaged and broken.

Since there isn't much we can do about that, we learn to cope. We adjust. We compensate. But often in the process something gets lost. Many of us now seem to drift through life, going through the motions, but never truly understanding how very much God loves us. And just as bad, incapable because of our damaged hearts, of truly loving God. The thief, Satan, our enemy, has done the job of stealing, killing and destroying when it comes to matters of the heart, hasn’t he. Boy, do we need some help. We don’t need hearts of stone –we need brand new hearts –restored hearts –healed hearts.

This is what the relationship with Jesus is all about –getting our hearts back. The thief robs and kills and destroys –but Jesus gives life. The enemy twists our hearts and deadens and breaks our hearts, but Jesus binds up the brokenhearted. We deaden our hearts to protect ourselves from pain, but Jesus restores our hearts. He came to take away the damaged, unresponsive, broken heart –the heart of stone, and replace it with a new heart –a heart capable of loving God. Jesus claims to give us back our hearts.

What if what Jesus promised is true? What if his claims to be able to restore and heal and forgive and give us clean, new, undamaged hearts is a reality? What would happen if we believed it? Our lives would never be the same –would they? If we really believed that Jesus was able and willing to give us new hearts –I don’t mean just to forgive our sin, as awesome as that is, but to actually give us new hearts -to replace our broken, damaged hearts of stone with hearts truly capable of accepting and returning love –even God’s love, we would follow Him anywhere –we would do anything, wouldn’t we? People, this is the last thing the enemy wants us to understand –Jesus can take that heart that Satan has brutalized and broken and crushed, and heal it and restore it and give it back to you fully alive and free –free to love again. Free to accept God’s love. Some of you have already gotten back your hearts know exactly what I mean. And some of you aren’t quite there yet. If you are not quite there yet, I’d like to ask you to affirm a short prayer with me –use this prayer to quietly call out to God. 

“Jesus, I’m tired of living with a broken, damaged heart. I’ve been going through motions, keeping busy, trying to keep my heart from being hurt more than it already is, but I’d rather have a heart that is truly alive and free. So, I’m turning to You and purposefully giving You my whole being –my mind –my body –my soul –and my heart. Cleanse me and give me a new heart. Please give me a new heart. Amen.”

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

1 John 1:7-9 "I Fell In A Hole"

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  1 John 1:7-9

When we choose to trust (believe in our hearts vs. believing with our minds) that Jesus died for our sin and rose again from the dead, and trust that His blood has spiritually purified us and that as a result we are forgiven and made right with God, something begins to happen on the inside.  We become spiritually alive and spiritually sensitive.  We actually become more aware of our sinful condition. 

Unfortunately, having our sin forgiven, does not translate into immediate perfection -we still struggle with sin.  The difference is that before knowing Jesus we did not care much about sin or understand the harm of sin.  Sin has always caused us harm, but before knowing Jesus and being made spiritually aware, we had no understanding of the connection between our wrong thinking and wrong choices (sin) and the hurt we were experiencing -the sadness, lack of peace, lack of contentment, and lack of intimacy, etc..  Sin was killing us, but we didn't even know it.

Now that we are spiritually alive, we still sin and sin still harms us, but since we are aware of this, we can deal with it.  And as we walk with Jesus and grow in grace and knowledge and wisdom, we are gradually become more and more like Jesus.  The Bible assures us that we are actually being transformed into His likeness.  We are increasingly able to make better choices and sin less.  But always, until we are home with Jesus, sin is an issue.  So we need to understand what to do with our sin issues in the meantime.

There are two ways for us to deal with our ongoing sin and failures.  The first is spiritual and the second is pragmatic.  Spiritually, if we confess (admit rather than hide) our sins, He continues to forgive our sin and cleanse us from unrighteousness and the defiling, corrupting spiritual consequences of sin.  That is God's promise.  Second, we seek wisdom and increased understanding and work with God to make better choices.  We actually choose to make better choices.  There is an old story that illustrates this.

There are several versions of this little story -I don't know where it originated, certainly not with me -but I like this particular telling of it:

I was walking down the street, and I fell into a hole. It was dark, and uncomfortable –I didn’t like being in the hole, but I wasn’t sure what to do, so for a long time, I didn’t do anything –I just sat in the hole and felt sorry for myself. But eventually, I decided to try to get out of the hole. I couldn’t see any way out, so I began to yell. I began calling for help. And after a while, a man passing by heard my cries and reached a hand down into the hole and helped me out –and I was grateful –I didn’t like being in the hole.

The next day, I was walking down the same street, and I fell into a hole –the same hole –and I didn’t like it. I remembered the day before, and this time, I didn’t wait so long –I started yelling and calling for help. And after a while a man passing by heard me and reached a hand down into the hole and helped me out and then he pointed out something you could see from above that you couldn’t see from inside the hole. There were a few rocks and crevices in the side of hole, that if used, might provide handholds and footholds –and maybe a person could actually climb out of the hole–and I was grateful because I didn’t like being in the hole.

The next day, I was walking down the same street and, you guessed it, I fell in the hole. But then I remembered about the rocks and crevices that might be used as handholds and footholds –and I began feeling around in the dark, and found one –then another –then another. It was a slow painful process, but I eventually climbed out of the hole –and I was grateful because I didn’t like being in that hole.

The next day I was walking down the same street–and I remembered the hole, and I remembered how much I didn’t like being in the hole, so I very carefully began to kind of skirt the edge of the hole –maybe just peeking over the edge –and my foot slipped, and there I was in the same old hole. I didn’t like it. But now I knew where the handholds and footholds were, and it didn’t take me nearly as long to climb out of the hole. And I was grateful because I didn’t like being in that hole.

The next day –I remembered the hole –and I walked down a different street.

That actually kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? While we are still in this process, and our minds are not yet fully transformed, and we so easily fall –sometimes it’s best to simply avoid the streets that cause us to fall into the hole.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

James 4:7-8 "Resisting vs. Fleeing"

James 4:7-8 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.
I think this is really bottom line, basic, practical Christianity. Submit yourselves to God, resist the devil, and draw close to God. One of the problems that we all seem to face is that we want to draw close to God –we want the security and the peace of heart and soul and the blessings that go with walking in right relationship with God –we like the wonderful feeling of connectedness that we get when we are gathered as a Body worshiping together –we like feeling that God is near –we like drawing close to God, but somehow we don’t always want to submit to God. And we don’t even always want to resist the devil.

Now let’s make sure that we understand what we’re talking about when we are talking about the devil in this particular passage. The devil, Satan, is a very real being. A common misconception among Unbelievers or unchurched, or Biblically unknowledgeable people is that Satan is God’s equal but opposite –That God is good and Satan is evil and that they both have equal powers. That is not even close to being true. God in fact created Satan –and the Bible tells us that ultimately he will be destroyed by Christ. But in the mean time, the devil has much influence and power on this earth. He is powerful, but he is not all-powerful, he is not God. And here is what we need to understand as it relates to this passage of Scripture we are looking at. Since Satan is a real person, a created being, he is not, himself directly responsible for every temptation and every evil thing that happens. He cannot be in all places at once. So when this passage refers to the devil, it is not necessarily talking about Satan the person, but about all of the evil that has come from Satan –all satanic influence. And although we like drawing close to God, we don’t always want to resist all of the influences the devil has had in this world. In fact, we've gotten quite attached to some of them.

But what James is telling us here is that it’s a package deal. We cannot get the full benefit of being saved without drawing close to God –we can’t have the peace of heart and mind and soul, we can’t have the spiritual connectedness, we can’t have the joy of salvation without drawing close to God –and we can’t draw close to God without resisting the devil –resisting evil and the ungodly attitudes and thoughts and agendas of this ungodly culture –and we can’t resist the devil without submitting to God.

It is probably worthwhile to note here that this doesn't tell us to flee the devil, it tells us to submit to God, resist the devil and then he will flee. Too often I try to flee the devil and somehow end up resisting God. I don't necessarily mean for it to end up like that, but it sometimes does. I think that this is probably related to the submit to God thing. When I am attempting to flee the devil, it is me trying in my own strength, out of my my own wisdom and knowledge, out of my own will power instead of me submitting to God. And what I always find is how little wisdom, strength, and will power I have.

When I try to flee the devil, I usually find that wherever I flee, the devil’s right there waiting for me. Now, it’s possible that I am just particularly weak-willed. So maybe if you have more will power than me, you’ll have more success at being good in your own strength. Maybe you'll have better success at trying to avoid foolish, hurtful, sinful attitudes and thoughts and behaviors through sheer will power –but I doubt it. I don’t think that my experience is the exception; I believe it is the rule. So God, in His wisdom, doesn’t ask us to flee the devil in our own strength –out of sheer will power. Instead, He tells us to submit to Him, and that when we resist the devil –not flee the devil by consciously giving God the controls, by submitting to God, the devil will flee.

Here is a core truth to my existence –and yours as well: I am no match for the devil. The devil is bigger, badder, smarter, more powerful, more knowledgeable, and possibly even better looking than me. I am no match for the devil. But if I am submitted to God, I don’t have to be a match for the devil, because the devil is no match for God. 
By coming to our senses, and admitting our need for God –our need to give ourselves freely and completely to God, we discover the wonderful truth of this passage that when we draw close to God, he draws close to us. In fact, what we find is that for every baby step we make in His direction, He takes giant steps in ours.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Isaiah 42:1-3 "Bruised Reeds & Smoldering Wicks"

          I like to fish. Although I live in Florida right on the coast, surrounded by salt water, I’ve mostly done freshwater fishing. Most of my fishing has been in little streams and lakes, and mostly what I’ve fished for is bluegills. Bluegills like to hang out in quiet areas along the edges of the streams and lakes. They live in among the reeds. Since I have actually done quite a bit of bluegill fishing in my life, and since bluegills can usually be found among the reeds at the edge of the lake, I have spent a pretty good chunk of my life among the reeds. So when I was reading the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, a verse in chapter 42 jumped right off the page at me.

Isaiah 42:1-3 Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.

           The part about bruised reeds is, of course, the part that caught my attention, so I want to look at the verse and understand it. But first, in order to understand it, we need to look briefly at the other verses. These other verses are really representative of the rest of the chapter. They are talking about justice. They are talking about God’s law. God cares a lot about justice. God cares a lot about the law.  We often hear people talk about the Old Testament law versus New Testament grace. But that concept of Old Testament opposing New Testament reflects a serious misunderstanding.

          It’s not as if God changed His mind about what He likes and doesn’t like. It’s not as if God has decided that sin no longer matters. What has changed is the way in which we are reconciled to God. Because we are sinful people, we are unable to keep the law. The law, however, still reflects God’s desires; it’s just that we have always been unable to meet God’s desires. The law said that sin is treason against God and must be paid for by death. So, in the Old Testament, animals were sacrificed. People brought bulls and goats and sheep to the temple where they were slaughtered and burnt on altars as sacrifices for sin.  This system of sacrifice was a gory, bloody, smelly, disgusting thing, but it provided temporary reprieve from the consequences of sin.

          In the New Testament, Jesus, the Son of God, became the ultimate and final sacrifice as He gave His own life for our sins. As a result, justice has been fulfilled through Jesus. That’s what these verses in Isaiah are talking about. Jesus fulfilled eternal, true, godly justice in His death and resurrection. The demands of the law were met. Now, understanding that, I want to look a little more closely at this verse about bruised reeds and smoldering wicks.

          In the middle of these verses about God’s law and God’s justice is the simple verse about the Grace of Jesus. “A bruised reed He will not break, a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.”

          As I mentioned, I have spent quite a bit of time in and among the reeds while fishing. There are a couple of things I’ve observed about reeds. Healthy, unbroken reeds are strong and tough. If you snag a fishhook into one, you’re not going to yank it out, you have to go over and work it out by hand. Reeds are tough. And they are flexible. You can bend a reed a long way before it breaks. But something else I’ve noticed about reeds is that once they are damaged, they don’t heal. If you break a reed, it falls over in the water and within a couple of days it is mushy and rotten. It might be strong and flexible when undamaged, but when broken it is worthless. So, Isaiah gives us a little word picture here. He gives us an image of a broken damaged, worthless reed. Hold that image in your minds as we look at the other word picture here, the image of a smoldering wick.

          You probably know that in Bible times people burned little oil lamps for light. These lamps looked a little bit like Aladdin’s lamp. They had a shallow bowl that would be filled with oil, and a spout. The spout was where a wick made from flax would be placed. As long the lamp had oil, the flaxen wick would siphon the oil and burn the oil. But if the oil ran dry, the wick itself would begin to burn. When the wick began burning, it smoked and smoldered. Now, flax was very cheap to begin with, and this was a fairly common occurrence, so people generally kept a good supply of flax on hand to use as wicks. The normal thing when a wick began smoldering would be simply to remove the damaged, smoldering wick and throw it away and replace it with a new wick.

          So, the picture Isaiah paints for us here is of two damaged, useless items that would normally be cast aside, that would normally be thrown out. Because they are damaged, they have no particular value. This Scripture tells us that Jesus defies logic, Jesus defies common wisdom, Jesus refuses to cast aside damaged goods, and instead chooses to restore them.  This is both important to us today and Good News for us today because, obviously, this Scripture is not actually talking about reeds and wicks, it’s talking about people. In fact, it’s talking about us. We are the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. We are the damaged goods that Jesus refuses to cast aside.

          And I don’t mean that once upon time we were damaged, I mean that we are damaged. It’s not like once we were unworthy of grace, but now we have become worthy. Logically, we have nothing to offer God. Since our continuing addiction to sin is still a problem for us, logically, God has every right to cast us aside. I don’t know about you, but when I start thinking like that, it makes me very uncomfortable. I would like to think that God has shown me grace because He knew that I would turn out to be such a great guy. I like to think that if I’m not exactly deserving of grace, at least I’m more deserving than some people are. I like to think that the spiritual progress that I have made has somehow qualified me for grace. But the truth is that I’m not deserving, I never have been deserving, and I never will be deserving. And neither are you.

          How many of us if we are totally honest, think that if other people knew everything there is to know about us -if they knew all of our secrets, all of our worries, all of our fears, all of our sins -if other people knew all of that about us, they might not like us as much as they do right now?

          The truth is we hide so much and pretend to be better than we are, but we are all in the same boat. It’s really a blessing that we can’t read each other’s thoughts. I’m sure we couldn’t handle that. But there is Someone who knows us absolutely. There is Someone who knows every fear, every worry, every sin we have committed, and every secret we have tried to hide. There is Someone who knows our dilemma, that we need grace but are so undeserving. He has every right to cast us aside. But He has chosen not to. “A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.”

           Thank God that His grace, His forgiveness, His mercy is not reserved for those who deserve it. God’s love is given to bruised reeds. Forgiveness is given to smoldering wicks. Mercy is shown to those of no particular value. Grace is given to people like us.