Don’t Get Ahead of Yourself

I’ve been doing a lectio divina study of the works of John and this week I read his second letter. This is what jumped out for me:

Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God…” 2 John 9a

John is cautioning his readers (and us) about false teaching. I don’t know about you, but I’m easily attracted to something new — the latest style, a novel recipe, a unique way of looking at the world. There’s nothing wrong with curiosity, or with shaking up our usual routines now and then. However, when it comes to the faith, we must make sure we stick to the foundational truths.

In order to do this, we must first know the truth. That means studying the Bible, and also knowing something about theology. Yes, this can be difficult — I sometimes accuse my Pastor husband of giving me a headache when he tries to explain doctrinal concepts to me–but as someone once said, “if you don’t know where you stand, you’ll fall for anything.” We’ve recently been studying the trinity, and some of the ideas that sound right to my human understanding — for example, that the three members of the trinity each have a different function– is actually a heresy known as modalism. God is one, the trinity is a unity, and each member is involved in everything God does.

We can “run ahead” for other reasons as well. Sometimes a new idea is just what our itching ears want to hear — things like God wants to bless us by making us healthy and wealthy (the prosperity gospel–another heresy). Or we crave the new because it gives us a spiritual “high” at least for a while. We forget that our faith is tested and matured through trials. Maybe we bounce around from church to church seeking the most charismatic leader or preacher — when what we need to grow is to root ourselves in a Christian community and bloom where we are planted.

We need to remember that running ahead can lead to false teaching and false teaching leads to our word for the month: SIN. So don’t get ahead of yourself. Study the Word until you know the Word. Understand the theology behind what you believe. Test the spiritys. Be committed to your congregation and serve the community. Don’t get ahead of yourself.

For more lectio divina study see:

Deceiving Ourselves

Honor Everyone

James Chapter 2 — What Stands Out

His Commandments

I’ve come to the last chapter of 1 John in my lectio divina study, and here’s what stands out for me:

“…his commandments are not burdensome.” 1 John 5:3b

Many worldly people believe that to become a Christian, to submit to God’s will, would impact their life in a negative way. How boring to spend free time reading the Bible, praying, and going to worship services! How dull to be barred from behaviors that our society considers acceptable! Life would not be fun at all!

When our children were young, we tried to stress the truth that following God’s rules was not meant to be a punishment, but would make our lives easier. We might miss out on some momentary “fun” but the rewards were far more important. We would have better relationships, a support group in our church family, peace during difficult circumstances, and more. Better yet, at the end of our lives, we would not have too many regrets.

In the book of Matthew Christ tells us:

 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

That yoke is really simple, in fact it boils down to one word: love. Love God and love one another. The more you practice love, the easier it will be. And the rewards are great.

23For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our LORD.” Romans 6:23

For more about obedience see these posts:

A Long Obedience In the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson — Book Review

Walking in Obedience

Obedience?

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Perfect Love

As I continue my lectio divina study of 1 John, in chapter 4 what strikes me is this:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” 1 John 4:18

I have to admit that I am a fearful person. I’m always good at catastrophizing — thinking that the worst possible outcome to any situation is what I’ll have to face. Lately I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sin — not just my own individual sins, but the sins of our society, and the sins of our ancestors. The older I get, the more I realize how bad we all are. Prejudice, genocide, slavery, war… all these things have happened in the past and are still going on. I’ve realized that at some point, we’ll all be judged by God, and it won’t be pleasant. We won’t be able to excuse ourselves by saying we didn’t know, didn’t personally participate, couldn’t help ourselves. This is a fearful thing.

However, a pastor friend told me to remember that although we will be judged, we won’t be condemned. Why? God’s perfect love has already provided the propitiation for every sin I can imagine. He sent His Son to take our punishment. This passage is not telling me that I must love perfectly (I can’t) but that when I understand God’s perfect love, I can stop being afraid. He has already covered all our sins, past, present and future. He has redeemed us.

That doesn’t mean we have a free pass, the right to ignore all sin and sin some more. In gratitude and repentance, we should say:

“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love each other.” 1 John 4:11

Loving one another means speaking up when we see a wrong, trying to help, getting involved. “No one has ever seen God”1 John 4:12a — but they can see His love in us. Let people see God in your love. He loved you first.

For more about loving one another see these posts:

Little Children, Love One Another

Love One Another

By Our Love

1 Peter Chapter 3–What Stands Out?

This must be a favorite chapter of mine, because a number of phrases stand out and I have written about them before. For example, “a gentle and quiet spirit” 1 Peter 3:4 (A Gentle and Quiet Spirit), “with gentleness and respect” 1 Peter 3:16 (With Gentleness and Respect) and “seek peace and pursue it” 1 Peter 3:11 (Pursue Peace). Peter is chock-full of good advice! This time, I’ll pick something different — “the hidden person of the heart.” In any number of places, Scripture tells us that God does not judge us because of the way we look, or even our behavior, but by the true motivation and intentions in our heart. When God chose David, He told Samuel:

” The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7

And Jesus rebuked the Pharisees saying,

““Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” Matthew 23:27

What does this tell me? First of all, God sees everything. I may fool those around me by a lot of good deeds or holy-seeming behavior, but I can’t fool Him. Secondly, that I need to cultivate that “hidden person” deep inside. Changing what I do is important, but changing how I think is critical. In fact, if I change the way I think, I probably won’t have to worry so much about what I do!

This isn’t easy. When my reunion group friend and I review our behavior, we often admit that we’re more likely to be guilty of doing good things with a poor attitude than doing bad things. What’s the answer? I find it in prayer– praying to love those people who annoy me; praying to accept my duty with a cheerful heart; praying to give others the benefit of the doubt … just praying continually. I can change my behavior, but only God can change my heart.

“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” Romans 12:2

For more about transformation see:

Rebirth and Transformation

This Is Your Brain on Faith

Learning to Count It All Joy

Honor Everyone

I’ve been doing a lectio divina reading of 1 Peter, and here’s what stood out to me in Chapter 2:

Honor everyone.” 1 Peter 2:17a

Did you get that? Honor everyone. Not just the people you like and with whom you agree; not just your family; not just your fellow church members (and it’s hard enough to do that sometimes) but everyone. That would include criminals, politicians whose values you abhor, people who are rude or mean or critical, that incompetent clerk — once again, everyone. No exclusions.

What does it mean to honor someone? Well, my Bible dictionary defines it this way:

“to esteem or regard highly; to respect”

In other words, I’m being told to show respect and appreciation to people who (at least in my opinion) don’t deserve it. I need to be polite, to refrain from speaking badly about others or even thinking bad things about them. I need to be helpful and understanding, even when I’m not getting what I want. I feel like telling Jesus, “this is a hard teaching.” If that’s the standard I should apply to my behavior, I’m sure I fall short every day– and yet, it clearly is. There’s no wiggle room.

This statement is part of a section on how we should all live as servants of God. And there is a good reason for us to behave this way:

For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” 1 Peter 2:15

When we treat others, even undeserving others, with respect, we’re showing the world that our faith makes us different. We’re actually honoring God. God loves “the world” (John 3:16) and He does not show partiality (Romans 2:11). As His children, and His representatives, we are also to love and honor all that He created.

It’s a good, short reminder that I need to give myself each morning. Honor everyone.

James Chapter 5–What Stands Out

Well, I’ve made it to the final chapter of James in my lectio divina study. Here’s what stands out to me:

You have lived on the earth in luxury and self-indulgence.” James 5:5a

When I compare my life, and the things I own, to others around me, I like to imagine my lifestyle is modest. However, the truth of the matter is:

*My husband and I own two cars

*We have a nice condo in a quiet neighborhood

*We buy pretty much whatever we want at the grocery store

*We have a tidy sum set away in our retirement accounts

*We go on vacations and other trips a couple of times a year

*We go out to eat several times a month

*We have a closet full of clothing

To most of the world, somebody like me, somebody with a pretty “average” life in the United States is living in the lap of luxury. Most people in the world live in poverty. 85% of the world live on less than $30 per day, two-thirds live on less than $10 per day, and every tenth person lives on less than $1.90 per day. In each of these statistics price differences between countries are taken into account to adjust for the purchasing power in each country. In addition, many of the consumer goods we enjoy (things like clothing, electronics and even chocolate) depend upon the work of people who are either enslaved or forced to work in horrible conditions.

I feel guilty and I should. However, I’m not sure what to do about it, or how to change things .I can only rely on the forgiveness of God and His mercy.

 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.””

 Those who heard this asked, ‘Who then can be saved?

 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Luke 18:25-17

For more on the book of James see:

Luther and the Book of James

James Chapter 3–What Stands Out?

James Chapter 1 — What Stands Out?

James Chapter 3–What Stands Out?

In my lectio divina reading of James, I’m up to chapter 3. Here’s what stands out to me:

“The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” James 3:6b

James already warned us that we should be slow to anger (James Chapter 1 — What Stands Out?) and now he is telling us what may happen if we don’t think before we speak. I’m particularly struck by the phrase “setting on fire the entire course of life.” A cruel word cannot be called back, and it can burn bridges for life. Family members have become estranged, friendships have ended, divorces have been set in motion, all because of unwise words spoken in anger.

Hateful words are destructive. They do not come from God. In many places the Bible tells us to encourage, not discourage. Relationships will be more pleasant, conflict will be avoided, and life will be happier, if we watch our words. It’s a no-brainer, but one we all seem to find hard to observe.

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Ephesians 4:29

“Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11

It shouldn’t be that hard. Listen to James and use your kind words! It will make your life better.

For more on the book of James see:

Luther and the Book of James

James Chapter 1 — What Stands Out?

James Chapter 2 — What Stands Out

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” James 2:20-22

The phrase that stood out for me in my lectio divina reading of the second chapter of James was: “his faith was made complete by what he did.” When we come to belief in Christ, it’s the beginning of a process — the process of sanctification. In many places in the New Testament, we are told that our faith will transform us. For example:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17

 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2

Our faith is not a simple philosophical assent — it’s meant to take over our way of thinking, and also our way of behaving. Here’s a comparison for you. A while back, I took a “Prevent Diabetes” class at the local Senior Center. One of the participants came to every class. She learned about counting calories, portion control and exercise. She believed what she was taught — but she never put what she learned into practice. At the end of the year, she had made no progress toward her goal of lowering her blood sugar count. Simply sitting in class week after week didn’t get her the results she wanted. She didn’t really get with the program.

God has a program too, and it’s very simple:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.(and) … ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Mark 12:30-31

The emotion of love is not complete until we follow it up with loving deeds. So, make sure your faith and actions work together. You’ll be pleased with the results, and so will your Father in heaven.

James Chapter 1 — What Stands Out?

After reading the first chapter of James through slowly several times, here’s what stood out for me:

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires.” James 1:19–20

I am particularly struck by the idea that we are to be “slow to anger” because this doesn’t seem to be the case these days. Everyone’s angry about something –we’re angry about politics– often the other side is not just wrong, they’re enemies; we’re angry about how others people should respond to virus — should we continue to wear masks, should the vaccine be required, and so on; we’re angry at people of other races and other Christian denominations. Social media makes it easy to respond in anger quickly, and yet be safely distanced from the repercussions. We can fire off nasty tweets and encourage others to join in, without facing a real person. The verse above warns against this.

God Himself is described in a number of places as being “slow to anger” and as His children, we should imitate Him, not the world. Here’s what else the Bible has to say about being slow to anger:

“Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” Proverbs 14:29

“Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”Proverbs 19:11

Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” Proverbs 16:32

“Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.” Psalm 37:8

It sounds like a no-brainer. Even if you don’t want to take the Bible as your guide, scientific studies show that anger can lead to heart disease and strokes, it lowers your immune system, impairs your cognitive skills and affects mental health.

So, before you get angry, stop and think. Anger is destructive in so many ways. Take it slow.

For more on the subject of anger see:

Do Unto Others, part 2

Are You Angry?

What Should I Do When I am Angry?

Luther and the Book of James

After a long bout of minor ailments, and then a round of travel, I’ve been trying to get back into my routine of spiritual disciplines, and I’m making some progress. One practice I’d abandoned for a while was taking time to read the Bible, not so much as study, but in a slow, meditative way. This is called lectio divina — letting the text speak to you personally, or as I like to put it, see “what jumps out.” I’ve decided to start doing this with the book of James.

In case you don’t know, this book was written, not by the apostle James, but by James, the brother of Christ. He became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, which was mostly comprised of Jewish believers.

Martin Luther didn’t have a high opinion of this text. He called it a “straw epistle” when compared to the writings of Paul. He didn’t think it correctly expressed the message of the gospel, in particular the teaching that we are saved by faith alone, without dependence on our own works. He went so far as to say:

““We should throw the epistle of James out of this school, for it doesn’t amount to much. It contains not a syllable about Christ. Not once does it mention Christ, except at the beginning. I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any. Since he heard that Christians place great weight on faith in Christ, he thought, ‘Wait a moment! I’ll oppose them and urge works alone.’ This he did.””

Although I’m a staunch Lutheran, I have to disagree. I’ve been told that James does not teach that we’re saved by our work, he teaches that good works are the “fruit” of our salvation. If we’ve been saved by God’s grace, we will naturally produce good works.

So, this month, join me in reading through the book of James and see what you think. How important are works to the Christian life? Maybe by August, we’ll have an answer!