Diligence vs Dependence

There is a spiritual tension between two concepts of what we must do to become all that God intended us to be – to live in a way that pleases Him.

On the one hand, we are incapable (Romans 5:6) of overcoming our own sin patterns and pleasing God by white-knuckling obedience, trying to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  The Law came to show us that we would be unable to keep it, to convince us that we needed very much to be rescued in our helplessness. The only way out of this pit we are in is to abide in Christ, who can make us what He wants us to be (John 15:5).  In Colossians 3:1-4, Paul says the same thing – that we must focus our mind’s eye on Jesus, where our true life is protected within the life of Christ.  This abiding will result in His living His life through us (Galatians 2:20).

cropped-img_0136.jpgThis is what the Sovereign Lord,
    the Holy One of Israel, says:
“Only in returning to me
    and resting in me will you be saved.
In quietness and confidence is your strength.
    But you would have none of it.”                                 Isaiah 30:15

On the other hand, there is much in scripture (such as in the rest of this chapter 3 of Colossians) that strongly exhorts us to exert much effort in obeying the stated teachings of Christ and principles of the Law.  On our own, this effort results only in failure and frustration.  But as we consciously depend on Him and draw from His power to do what we cannot do on our own, He makes our efforts fruitful.
Even if our Daddy is holding the seat of our bicycle, we must still pedal like crazy to move forward and stay erect

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New wine! Empowered by grace.


And He was also telling them a parable: “No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined.  But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.  And no one, after drinking old wine wishes for new; for he says, ‘The old is good enough.’”                 Luke 5:36-39

Jewish Scribes and Pharisees were offended by Jesus’ apparent disregard for their Law-on-steroids traditions of how to live in a way that would please God.  Jesus healed (“worked”) on their Sabbath,  did not observe all their fasts, and he ate meals with tax-gatherers and sinners.  He responded with this metaphor contrasting His new order for life lived in relation to God with their performance-based system.

In essence, He challenged them to see how they could never understand His new teachings if they clung fast to their time-tried traditions.  The new wine of grace would tear and burst their rulebooks.   Although the Law was good and would never pass away (Matthew 5:17, 24:35), mankind has never been capable of keeping it.  Jesus came into the world to fulfill the Law for us, through the perfect life He lived.  No longer was Law-keeping the means for man to make himself acceptable to God.  Jesus had made him acceptable, by paying the penalty for man’s sins and living the perfect life they could not live.  His righteousness has been credited to our account.

The Law is said to be our “tutor, to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.” (Galatians 3:24)  A child learning to ride a bicycle must go through the frustrating, frightening, and painful process of trial and error, accidents, and tears.  So it is with our attempts to “be good” by our own efforts, striving to fulfill the dictates of the Law.  We need our daddy as tutor, running beside us, his hand on the seat of our bike, holding us steady.  When His lost sheep hear His voice, come to Him, and trust Him, Jesus plants His Holy Spirit within them, giving them new capacity to obey God.  This is no longer in their own limited capacity, but now in the strength of the Holy Spirit within them.

Lord, I am intoxicated with Your new wine.  Thank You for working in me to desire to obey You in all things and for empowering me to be able to do that — not in my own efforts, but through the indwelling power of Your Holy Spirit.

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Awe-struck living

Three months after their dramatic rescue from Egyptian oppression by the angel of first-born death and through the Red Sea, the Jewish people arrived at Mount Horeb (Sinai).  Here, they saw a third terrifying manifestation of their God.  Although He had delivered them, He also intimidated them.  At Horeb, the great I AM spoke to them from a mountain clothed in fire and smoke.  They feared instant death, being in the breath-taking presence of the Creator of the Universe.  (Deuteronomy 5:5, 25)  Terrified, they asked Moses to go into His presence as their representative, then tell them what was said.

Mt. SinaiGo yourself and listen to what the Lord our God says. Then come and tell us everything he tells you, and we will listen and obey.’”                     Deuteronomy 5:27 NLT

Their Great Shepherd acknowledges their initial response and seems to wistfully wish that this spirit might dictate the rest of their lives.

I have heard what the people said to you, and they are right.  Oh, that they would always have hearts like this, that they might fear me and obey all my commands! If they did, they and their descendants would prosper forever.”          Deuteronomy 5:28-29

1200 years later, this people who, like all people, found themselves unable to keep God’s commandments, were encouraged to come into the very presence of the Awesome One with whatever care might be upon their hearts.  They could now dare to enter the throne room, not because of their record of good behavior, but because they could now walk in the company of Jesus, who had taken upon Himself all the fearsome wrath of their just God.

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.”               Hebrews 4:16

We who have chosen to be followers of Jesus, our Substitute, now have a new reason to tremble before God.  No longer having to fear extinction in God’s presence, nonetheless, we tremble in awe and in an overwhelming desire to have the ability to obey Him who knows what is best for us.

Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”                                        ‭‭Hebrews‬ ‭12:28‬ ‭NASB‬‬

I will bless those who have humble and contrite hearts,
    who tremble at my word.”               Isa 66:2  NLT

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Peace is a rare and fragile comfort of heart in our lives today.  It is sought desperately by worried, busy, vulnerable people everywhere.  It is hard-won and easily lost.  Much is spent on drugs, alcohol, vacations, hobbies, and new relationships to temporarily calm our raw nerves and quiet our fears.

In the Bible God freely offers peace to all comers; it is abundantly available to any who wish to receive it.  If they are willing to receive it with empty, open hands, not on their terms, but as humble beggars, grateful to be given what they could not acquire on their own.

wood fishing sea mountains

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Jesus said, “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart.  And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.”                   John 14:27    NLT

Now may the God of peace
    who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus,
the great Shepherd of the sheep,
    and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—
may he equip you with all you need
    for doing his will.
May he produce in you,
    through the power of Jesus Christ,
every good thing that is pleasing to him.
    All glory to him forever and ever! Amen.                           Hebrews 13:20-21  NLT

You will keep in perfect peace
    all who trust in you,
    all whose thoughts are fixed on you!                                  Isaiah 26:3

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.                                                                                    Romans 15:13

We are to learn from the tiny mother swallow in Psalm 84 and take our problems, worries, and fears boldly into the throne room of the Commander of the vast armies of heaven, laying them on His altar.

cropped-img_0136.jpgMy soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord;
My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
The bird also has found a house,
And the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young,
Even Your altars, O Lord of hosts,
My King and my God.
How blessed are those who dwell in Your house!
They are ever praising You.                                          Psalm 84:2-4   NASB

We are exhorted to do this very thing —  to overcome our natural timidity and the sense of our unworthiness, to approach His throne with confidence, laying our cares in His loving, capable arms.

Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.           Hebrews 4:16

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The gift of understanding

Road to EmmausThe last chapter of Luke tells the story of Jesus opening the minds and hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus to understand the prophecies that were fulfilled in His murder and resurrection.  These sad, discouraged followers had their spirits lifted. They thought their hopes were dashed, that life as they knew it was ending.  Jesus helped them to see that God the Father had everything under complete control – that all this seeming disaster and loss was actually the majestic unrolling of God’s perfect will, His long-awaited, loving plan for both of them and for all creation.  Their hearts burned within them for joy and the excitement of discovery.

The same thing happened again shortly thereafter back in Jerusalem, when He appeared to the disciples there – Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures (24:45).  This is what we must pray for daily.

Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Thy law.” (Psalm 119:18).

Lord, give us also this excitement of discovery, as we see how all the seemingly random details of our lives fit into Your wise, benevolent plan for creation.

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Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Thy Law.”        Psalm 119:18 NASB

But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
”                                                 Psalm 1:2

Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything written in it. Only then will you prosper and succeed in all you do.”          Joshua 1:8  NLT

Biblical meditation is deep thinking on the truths and spiritual realities revealed in Scripture for the purposes of understanding, application, and prayer.*  Deep thinking with the purpose of allowing God to transform us into His image.

“Meditation is the act of reflecting on, pondering, musing over, or contemplating.  Meditation is not mind-wandering or indulging in “mental drifting;”  instead it has form and an object.  Bible verses and scriptural concepts are the focus of a Christian’s meditation.

When we meditate, we spend a few moments directing our thoughts to a single subject.  Meditation is thinking with a purpose.  Meditation is not a solemn, academic exercise.  It requires an attitude of curiosity and expectation, leading to exciting discoveries, refreshment of spirit, and transformation of character.  It brings reward and benefit.  When we meditate, we purposefully sort through information for clarification, application, categorization, and assimilation.” **

Meditation is inherent in scripture memorization.  The very process of memorizing a passage of God’s word involves slowly and thoughtfully repeating phrases over and over, mulling them over in the mind, and ruminating on them, as a cow chews its cud.  In this process, it is natural to ask ourselves questions, such as:

  • Why did God say it this way?
  • Why did He use that word rather than an alternative?
  • What are the implications for my life?  How am I to apply this truth?
  • How do I see examples of this truth being played out in life, in the world around me?  In both positive and negative examples?

O Lord, I am broken, clueless, and helpless.  Fix me.  Transform me into the image of Your Son.  Deeply, indelibly imprint in my mind and heart Your truth, and let it bear fruit in my character and in the ability to help others.

* Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, p. 48, NavPress, 1991.

**Bearing Fruit in God’s Family, p. 14, NavPress, 2011.

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Think deeply on that!

The Hebrew word Selah appears 71 times in the book of Psalms.  Its exact original meaning is uncertain.  Appearing in Psalms that have elsewhere words of musical direction, it is thought to be instruction for a meaningful pause, during which the singers give themselves and their listeners a moment to think deeply upon the meaning of what has just been expressed.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896freechristimages.org                     Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation, 1898

In ready willingness, young, engaged Mary, said to the angel Gabriel, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord.  Be it done unto me according to your word.”  Luke 1:38  Nine months later, upon hearing the shepherds quote the angels’ proclamation of the earthshaking mission of the baby she had just birthed, she “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”  Luke 2:19

As we listen for God to speak to us in Scripture, we also do well to pause and let his words soak into our hearts.  This gives us time to think about the repercussions of what He has said and how we should live differently in light of this truth.

Knowledge of God’s word is not to make us smarter; it is meant to change our character and the direction of our lives.  “And don’t for a minute let this Book . . . be out of mind.  Ponder and meditate on it day and night, making sure you practice everything written in it. Then you’ll get where you’re going; then you’ll succeed.”   Joshua 1:8  MSG

Puritan David Clarkson said that “Meditation squeezes the sweetness out of  [God’s promises stored up in our hearts].”     Works I:187-189

As the old hymn says, it take[s] time to be holy.

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”        Philippians 4:8  NASB

O heavenly Word, speak truth into my mind and heart.  I am not in a hurry.  Let’s talk and know one another deeply.  Soften my heart with the gentle rains of  Your Holy Spirit.  Let Him trickle deeply down into my being, and nourish me.  Make my heart fertile soil for Your truth to grow and bear fruit.

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Twisted justice

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”                       2 Corinthians 5:21

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.
”                    Isaiah 53:6

Charles Dickens tells the Tale of Two Cities in a heart-rending way.
Sydney Carton is a dissipated, cynical English alcoholic.  Charles Darnay is a French aristocrat during the French Revolution.  They both love the same woman.  Carton exercises “the last full measure of devotion”* to his beloved by saving Darnay’s life, at his own expense.  Disguised as his look-alike rival in love, he takes his place in prison, that Darnay might go free.  Carton dies on the guillotine in Darnay’s place.

This is what Jesus did for each sinner in the world, if they choose to accept it.  He offered Himself as our Substitute.

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.”                                          Colossians 2:13-14

God did this by executing a shocking justice upon His sinless Son, who died in our place, so that our penalty would be paid in full (tetelestai) .  This made it possible for God to forgive, embrace, and welcome us into His kingdom, though undeserving.

He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”       1 Peter 2:24

Father, thank You for Your incomprehensible, sacrificial love for us helpless, clueless, hopeless sinners!  Thank you for taking our place on the cross, bearing our penalty Yourself, so that You could adopt us into Your own family.  Let my gratitude for being made alive from the dead strongly motivate me to live for You and Your kingdom.

* Lincoln, A., Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863.

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C.S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen:  not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” *

I pray to have God’s eyes as I view the world and pursue truth — and as I face the decisions before me.  This seems to be the wisdom and humility Elihu wished to see in Job, that says, “Teach me what I do not see; I will do it no more.”   Job 34:32

It is God’s light upon our path that shows us His truth and the path that is best for our well-being and for the flourishing of His kingdom.  This light can be found in His Word and in His Son.

sunlight beaming on green trees

Photo by WARREN BLAKE on Pexels.com

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
    a light on my path.
”                                            Psalm 119:105

The unfolding of your words gives light;
    it gives understanding to the simple.
”             Psalm 119:130

We hunger for this Light.  We are afraid of the dark and fear stubbing our toe, falling, and suffering loss.

This is why the Messiah came:

The people who walk in darkness will see a great Light.  Those who live in a dark land, the Light will shine on them.”                                     Isaiah 9:2

I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”                  Acts 26:18

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . .  The true Light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.                                                      John 1:4, 5, 9

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the Light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ ”   John 8:12

Lord of Light, illuminate my mind and heart, open my eyes to Your Truth.  Evaporate my fears and confusion, as I see life through Your eyes.  And help me to live a life of order and purpose, as I act confidently on the Truth You show me.


* “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses, New York: HarperCollins, 2001, 140.

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I wish I could be more like Jesus.  It comforts me that this is God’s unalterable plan for me, a process that is in progress now.  (Philippians 1:6, Romans 8:29)  Glory!  Bring it on!

A glaring example of the gap between what I am and what He intends to make me is my attitude toward “the multitude,” all those out there who irritate me and interrupt my agenda.  Or I am simply apathetic.  Which is a far cry from sympathetic.

When he saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.                                                  Matthew 9:36-38

From its Latin roots, our word compassion means “to feel or suffer together with.”  This requires putting ourselves mentally in the position of the other person, in order to feel their emotion — be it anger, fear, hunger, pain, or despair.  Jesus wasn’t irritated at the crowds around Him; He felt with them, seeing them as helpless and harassed, imagining their pain as His own.  Here, His response was to urge His disciples to beseech God for more workers to help meet their physical and spiritual needs.

When Jesus helped His disciples to get away from the demands of the crowd to rest, they found more demanding crowds waiting for them at their intended retreat (Mark 6:34).  But His response was compassion, which was acted out in patiently teaching them.  His response of compassion was worked out in different ways in various situations.  Faced with a crowd with nothing to eat, He fed them. (Mark 8:2)  Deeply moved and troubled by Lazarus’ grief-struck family and the mourning crowd (John 11:33,38), He wept and raised Lazarus back to life.

A repeated emphasis throughout Old and New Testaments is that the compassion we undeserving sinners receive from our gracious God obligates us to show the same kind of compassion to the undeserving people around us.  Not only should our compassion be given without consideration of how deserving the recipient is , but also our feelings should be expressed in actions.

O Father God, forgive me for my hard heart, critical spirit, and smugness.  Help me to see people as You see them — struggling, helpless, clueless, desperate.  Move me to do for them what You might do, were You still now here in the flesh.  Help me to meet their deepest need of the moment, confidently pointing them to You, the Fountain of Life, and perhaps meeting some physical or emotional need, as well.

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